Thursday, October 25, 2018

Last chance on a stairway

We've been living in New Zealand over a year now. A year and about four months, in fact, and at long last we're starting to feel settled. I've got my New Zealand residency (whew!). We sold our house in Colorado and survived the stressful NZ auction process to buy one in Lake Hawea. My husband has a job at a cool new NZ company focused on practical uses of geospatial remote sensing data. Our nine year old has made new friends and discovered a passion for trampolining.

Enjoying the new Casa Schafer
The view from my computer desk. I'm looking forward to finally making progress again on new novel The Dreaming Sea and also my Shattered Sigil novellas/stories now that all the real estate drama is over. 
We're not quite done replanting our lives yet, even after all this time. Our household goods, which were in storage for so long in Colorado, are currently on a container ship taking a slow tour of the southern Pacific. It'll be another month or more before our boxes arrive at our door and I am finally reunited with my beloved book collection. (Oh happy day!) Plus we're still figuring out how to handle our suddenly far more complicated tax situation. Taxes, I've learned, are the bane of ex-pat living. So long as we remain U.S. citizens, we have to file tax returns in both the US and NZ, and the tax treaty between the two countries doesn't prevent all forms of double taxation. Remote work such as I am doing throws in a whole host of additional complications.

But I don't mind one bit that I still pay U.S. taxes, because it means I still get to vote in U.S. elections. We may live far away, but I could never, will never turn my back on what's happening in the country of my birth. I've watched in dismay and sadness and sometimes fury as those in power make one terrible choice after another. Forcibly separating children from parents seeking asylum, despite the lasting psychological damage caused to those children, without any system in place to allow reunification. Repealing environmental regulations on air and water quality, because who cares if cancer rates skyrocket so long as companies make bigger profits?

Oh, the list goes on and on. Fawning over dictators while insulting and antagonizing our staunchest allies. Ballooning the deficit while wages remain stagnant. Gutting health care options while people are dying because they can't afford vital medicines like insulin. Ignoring the desperate pleas of climate scientists trying to warn the world of oncoming disaster. And all of this, ALL of it, simply out of greed. The love of money, as the Bible says, is the root of all evil. As was pointed out in a cogent Atlantic article, Trump's many scandals all come down to one: corruption.

Maybe you think all politicians are corrupt. If you are okay with corruption and constant lying, if you're willing to turn a blind eye to the disastrous consequences of current policies in the name of "owning the libs"...well. I don't know how to explain to you that you should care about other people. But if you're apathetic because you can't imagine that things could ever change, so why even bother trying...please listen.

Living in New Zealand, I've experienced a taste of the kind of happier future that America could have. One where nobody has to worry about affording life-saving drugs, or fear that serious illness will bankrupt their family. Seriously, it's amazing to see what a difference that makes. Nobody's afraid to start their own business or work part time or switch jobs; people seem so much less stressed and happier in their work because of it. Nor is there the constant fear of litigation, because nobody has to worry about being sued to pay massive medical bills in the case of an accident. (Even tourists are covered here for accidental injuries, thanks to NZ's ACC scheme.)

It's not just the universal health care that makes life in NZ feel brighter. Here, politicians from opposing parties work together to combat climate change. Leaders emphasize compassion and integrity in government, rather than depending on cruelty and crudity. In 2017, NZ police fired their guns just 10 times while responding to 3.5 million incidents throughout the country.

America could have this kind of future. We don't have to succumb to fear and hatred and greed. But if you want that brighter future, you have to get off your ass and vote. We have to stop the current slide into ruin before it's possible to take a better path. 

The midterm elections are in a scant few days. Maybe it's not America's absolute last chance--as Alex Steffen said on Twitter in a thread about climate change, "At no point on this trajectory will it be too late to work to make things better." But the longer people wait, the harder the climb back toward the light will become, and the smaller the chances of success.

The recent NYT article "How to Make America America again" sums up my feelings:

"One day I hope the truth will be enough again. One day I hope great journalism will be enough again. But today only a lever of power — the House or the Senate — will make it so. Facts, science and truth — without power — are just leaves floating through the air in the age of Trump, scattering aimlessly without impact.

So, this year: No third party, no Green Party, no throwing up our hands and saying, “They’re all bad.” All of that’s for another day. For today, in these midterm elections, vote for a Democrat, canvass for a Democrat, raise money for a Democrat, drive someone else to a voting station to vote for a Democrat. It’s the only hope to make America America again."

Let me be clear: I am not and have never been a registered Democrat. I have plenty of issues with the party. But like the author of the NYT article, I believe that right now they are America's best and possibly only hope. So, please. If you're a U.S. citizen who feels anything like I do, vote. I already have. All I can do now is hope that Nov 6th will bring a glimpse of light.

Storm clearing to let in the day's last light

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Not dead, just buried

On the one hand, I can't believe we're almost halfway through the year already. On the other hand, it feels like the last 6 months have had a decade's worth of happenings crammed into them, and not just in terms of dismaying politics. If you're wondering why I've not only been silent here, but also pretty quiet on my more regular haunts of twitter and r/Fantasy, it's because I've had a lot going on. In the past 6 months, I've:

1) Applied for New Zealand residency (which required a mountain of further paperwork)

2) Organized repairs and other preparations for selling our house in Boulder. Everything to do with selling a house is stressful at the best of times, but my husband and I have found the stress increases exponentially when you have to deal with contractors, real estate agents, etc, while not living in the same country. I currently hate everything to do with houses.

3) Returned to Colorado in April to resign from my job in the space industry. Except at the last minute I was offered the chance to work remotely on a cool new project at the company, so I ended up NOT resigning. Heh, of course this change of plan came after I'd already sent my "Farewell, dear colleagues..." email out to all my coworkers. Cue a lot of telling people, "Um, about that? Never mind..." (My coworkers didn't blink an eye. The joke at our company is that it's the Hotel California. Nobody ever really leaves. Go ahead and try. You'll be back, we all know it.) Anyway, so I still have my job, which I'm quite happy about! But starting a new project does mean more time working and less time doing everything else.

4) Said a wistful farewell to my beloved literary agent of 8 years, Becca Stumpf, who is leaving agenting to take up freelance editing. It's not farewell for long, I'm sure, because if I ever need an editor, I will hire her in a heartbeat. (Becca is amazing, and I don't say that lightly. She's one of the best and most professional people I've worked with in publishing.)

5) Continued working on draft 2 of my new fantasy book The Dreaming Sea. It's going slowly, thanks to all the other demands on my time, but it's going, at least. Once our house in Boulder is sold, I'm hoping to also squeeze in some more work on the Shattered Sigil novella, The White Serpent. Oh, for more hours in the day!

6) And occasionally I've been trying to get outside. What's the point of living in a stunningly beautiful country if you don't take time to enjoy that beauty?

The famous Wanaka tree. It's an old fencepost, apparently, that wasn't quite dead yet when the lake inundated it. Since then it's blossomed into one of NZ's most photographed trees. Cue labored metaphors about life...
View from the Rob Roy Glacier Track, one of my favorite local hikes
Coast south of Dunedin, about 3 hours away from Wanaka (but worth the drive)
I expect the infrequent posting will continue for the near future. But I'm still alive and checking emails and twitter and r/Fantasy threads, even if I haven't much time to contribute. Can't wait for the day I can say I've got a new book or novella all polished and ready! Until then, it's nose to grindstone.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Riversurfing on the Kawarau

Part of the fun of living in New Zealand is the chance to enjoy some totally new adventures. Way back when we first visited Queenstown in 2006, I remember seeing some flyers for "riverboarding"--aka, riding on a boogie board through whitewater rapids--and thinking, "Wow, that looks crazy and yet extremely fun." (This is the theme for most activities in Queenstown.) Alas, we didn't have time on that trip to try it.

Now we do! Or at least, I seized the chance this week when my Australian sister-in-law and her family came over to Queenstown wanting to try some fun new activities. We signed up with Serious Fun Riverboarding for an afternoon "river surfing" excursion. I'd worried my son might be too young to come riverboarding with us, but nope. Serious Fun takes kids as young as 8, since they assign each kid a private guide who stays right with them and helps control their course through the rapids. (Adults are on their own! Under the watchful eye of the lead and tail guides, anyway.)

Going on a guided trip like this isn't cheap--it's more of a splurge activity, at least for us--but for the price, you get a full set of gear (wetsuit, booties, fins, helmet, bodyboard, lifejacket), and basic instruction on how to use the board and "read" the river, after which you get guided down twice through the "Roaring Meg" section of the Kawarau River. Each time, you go through 3 major rapids: Maneater, Roller Coaster, and Dead Cow (named for the unfortunate animal some early whitewater enthusiasts found stuck against a rock mid-rapid). These are Class 3 rapids; not so pucker-inducing as the Class 5 monster rapids we once rafted in the Grand Canyon, but containing more than enough standing waves and churning water to make a raft-less ride quite exciting.

Getting a lesson from the guides before we enter the water. It's more strenuous than it first seems to exit the eddy in the foreground. You have to kick hard with your board pointed upstream, or else you get swept right back into the shore.

Entering the water. Bring on the rapids! (I wore goggles to protect my contacts. Otherwise I'd have lost them in about 5 seconds flat once we hit the first rapid.)
The first time through the rapids is both thrilling and disorienting. Waves slap you in the face, you're frantically kicking to try and follow the guide, hoping you don't get swept out into an eddy or tumbled into a hole, as you bounce up and down and all around. I confess I totally fell off my board during our second rapid. (The board is attached by a leash to your wrist. It's not a big deal to pull yourself back on, but you certainly get an interesting ride until you do.)

One of the Kawarau rapids we traveled
My husband, navigating like a pro
My son having a great time, thanks to the skills of his guide
Entering the rapid: woo hoo!
Ack, get on the board!
We all made it in one piece.
We stopped along the way to do a little cliff jump--the hardest part of the trip was climbing up the rock in our swim fins! Once through the rapids, we hopped back into the company van and headed right back to our start point to try them all again. The second trip down the river felt a lot more comfortable (but still exciting!). With a better idea of what to expect, you don't spend all your time frantically kicking and bracing. The guides showed us cool extras like standing waves to try and surf (harder than it looks), and underwater currents you can duck down and catch for an even wilder ride. So much fun!

Second time through: oh hell yeah!
A wild ride through Roller Coaster
This time I didn't fall off my board!
More, please!
Definitely a great adventure, and hey, I'm sure it'll come in handy for a book scene someday. Maybe I'd better try it again sometime, just to be sure I can properly convey all the sensations of tumbling through a rapid. Write what you know, right?

Friday, January 12, 2018

2017 in Retrospect: Writing and Books

After yesterday's big announcement, I thought it was time to take a break from huge angsty life decisions and instead share some more mundane highlights of my 2017.

Writing-wise, I'm gonna be honest: this was not my most productive year. Moving overseas is a ton of work, both before and after the move happens. I will spare you from a giant list of logistical and bureaucratic tasks accomplished. Suffice it to say that even now, I'm still working on a thousand things related to making our move permanent, and I feel like the end of the task list will never arrive.

As always, it's really a matter of priorities. A lot of time I could have spent writing, I was skiing and hiking and biking and exploring various cool New Zealand places with my husband and son. I have zero regrets about that. Life is for living.

Yet I did write! Just at the speed of an aged sloth. Still, I've got some accomplishments to celebrate:

1) I finished a rough half-outline, half-horribly-messy-draft of a new fantasy novel, tentatively titled The Dreaming Sea. Right now I'm working on turning the mess of words and ideas into an actual readable draft. I just sent the first chapter to my former critique group. Onward ho...

2) I finished a Shattered Sigil novella, The Outrider's Challenge, that tells the story of Dev's first (and near-disastrous) convoy trip. This was one of the stories I owed to a kickstarter backer who got my "Ultimate Fan" reward. The backer says he intends to share the novella with everyone via his blog sometime in the next few months. I'm really excited for that! I had a lot of fun writing the story, and I think those of you who loved the Shattered Sigil books will thoroughly enjoy the read.

3) I finished a draft of another Shattered Sigil novella, The White Serpent, that tells the story of Cara's attempt to climb the highest peak in the Whitefires. But after getting feedback on the first two parts from my critique group, I had an idea for how to make the story a whole lot better--but it requires rewriting most of the novella. I decided I wanted to finish my brand new book before diving into the novella rewrite. (Publishing is slooooooow. Once I finish a decent draft of The Dreaming Sea, while my agent tries selling it I'll have tons of time to work on the Cara novella and the two other Shattered Sigil short stories I had planned out.)

4) My Lizaveta short story "A Game of Mages" was published in Adrian Collins's Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology, and got some very nice mentions in reviews. Hooray!

As for reading, I had a really weird year. Usually I have no trouble finding tons of new books to love. This year, many of my reads never got beyond the "meh" level, and some of my most anticipated books I found disappointing. I've never quite had this kind of reading slump before. It was extra frustrating because reading has always been my great comfort in times of stress, and boy was 2017 a time of stress. My difficulty in finding good reads did ensure I treasured all the more the few books that fully captured my heart, standing out like brilliant mountain peaks above a sea of gloomy cloud. I already talked in an earlier post about Curt Craddock's wonderful An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, which I was so delighted to see hit the shelves at last. Here's the rest of the books I loved this year:

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

Terrific novella about a cranky, snarky cyborg/AI who's sneakily subverted its corporate programming yet just wants to be left alone so it can watch entertainment videos. If only its new crew would stop treating it like an actual perosn! Wells nails the narrator's voice, infuses the story with lovely dry humor, and pulls off some beautiful affecting moments. I can't wait for the second installment of the Murderbot Diaries.

All the Crooked Saints, by Maggie Stiefvater

This is magical realism set in 1960s desert southeastern Colorado, in a tiny community founded by a Mexican family with the power to work miracles. The prose was so powerful and lyrical and beautiful it made me despair of my own authorial abilities. (Some books you read and think, "Maybe one day I'll write a story as good as this!" Some books you read and think, "Holy shit, I could never in a million years write like that.") I see from reviews not everybody feels like I do about the book; some people couldn't get into it. Maybe it worked so well for me because I love the high desert. All I can say is that while I've liked some of Stiefvater's previous work, particularly the Scorpio Races, this book is the first of hers I've loved.

Guns of the Dawn, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This one starts off feeling like a Jane Austen novel, but then transitions into a grimly realistic battlefield war story somewhat reminiscent of the better Vietnam novels I've read (albeit in a Napoleonic-era secondary world setting, and with a female protagonist). I loved the practical determination of the protagonist, and thought her emotional journey was handled quite well. If all Tchaikovsky's many novels are this good, I need to read them.

Weave a Circle Round, by Kari Maaren

I bought this YA fantasy after seeing a review recommending it particularly to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, and oh gosh yes yes YES! This book was quirky and warm-hearted and wildly imaginative and wonderful in all the best Jonesian ways. Complex time travel shenanigans, Norse legends, prickly family dynamics, dryly humorous juxtaposition of the mundane with the magical, oooh, this is just the sort of YA novel I love best to read.

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

This novella had intrigued me ever since I heard its premise. A school for children who've been kicked out of the magical worlds they once found? As someone who always found the idea of outgrowing Neverland monstrously unfair, I wanted to see how McGuire would tackle this. Yet the hefty ebook price for a novella made me hesitate, albeit guiltily. I know how much time and heart authors put into their stories. Yet as a fast reader, I do have to watch my book budget, lest I put us out on the streets. Happily, the novella eventually went on sale. I snatched it up, and loved the dark fairy-tale feel of the story so much that I immediately bought the sequel, hell with the price. So yes, publishers, nice low sale prices on a first book do work to increase your profits.

The Eternal Kingdom, Ben Peek

A worthy finish to Peek's dark and excellently unique epic fantasy trilogy. This is literary-style fantasy, with a focus on theme as much as character or plot, but still with plenty of awe-inspiring magic and bloody battles to go with the questions of power and religion. It's the sort of read that leaves you chewing over thoughts and implications for quite some time afterward. One of Peek's great strengths is the realism he brings to the complex tapestry of his world's cultures and political relations. But what I loved best about the trilogy was the sheer glorious variety of characters, all of whom feel like real people struggling to navigate a world as messy and difficult as our own.

Winter of Ice and Iron, Rachel Neumeier

Ever since I read and adored Neumeier's House of Shadows, I've been buying everything she puts out. Yet while I have enjoyed her other novels, they didn't quite reach similar heights for me...until this one. The weird part is that I can't quite put my finger on why the story so captivated me. Winter of Ice and Iron contains story elements that I usually don't like (for instance, a romance where a woman's calm "goodness" is lauded as the key to controlling a man's savage impulses).  Yet I enjoyed the character conflict and intriguing magic so much that I didn't care one bit about tropes or flaws. Fair warning: this book is darker than Neumeier's other work. She's never graphic, but the story does include sexual abuse and torture. It's not grimdark at all, though; the main characters are honorable people working for the good of their respective peoples.

Red Sister, by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister surely hits the sweet spot for a whole lot of fantasy readers. I've seen it described as Arya Stark (a badass yet likable/sympathetic character) gets to go to magic school and make interesting friends and grow up into even more of a stone-cold badass. All of this told with Lawrence's gift for sharply poetic turns of phrase, with some hints of intriguing worldbuilding added in to spice things up. Anyway, if you're allergic to school stories and training sequences, steer clear and try one of Lawrence's other series instead. But if you're like me and enjoy some classic fantasy tropes with a bit of a modern twist, jump on in.

Destiny's Conflict, by Janny Wurts

I haven't actually read this one yet, although I bought the book the instant it released in late 2017. It's the conclusion to the fourth arc of Janny's beautifully rich and complex Wars of Light and Shadow series (only one more book to go to complete her 12-book magnum opus!). These are dense, layered, ornate books that beg to be read when I have a proper swath of time to savor them. I use them as rewards for completing writing milestones; this one, I'll read (along with a re-read of its predecessor) once I reach the halfway point of my current draft. I highlight it here anyway in my 2017 post because the series is such a monumental achievement, it's a shame so few fantasy fans have heard about it.

I make no further promises for 2018. I don't have any lofty lists of goals for writing or reading. I plan to take the year as it comes, achieving whatever I can, enjoying as much as I can.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Leaving America

When we first arrived in New Zealand, our intent was to stay for 9 months. A sabbatical spent enjoying new mountains, new adventures, in a country that neither me nor my Australian husband had ever lived in before.

That 9 months is almost up, and we've made a big decision: we are not going home. Or rather, New Zealand will become our new home. 

It hasn't been an easy choice. Staying here means giving up my job in the space industry, a job that I love and that pays better than any work I'm likely to find here. It means we'll be far from friends and from my family. It means we have to sell our car and our home and figure out what in the heck to do with all our stuff in storage back in Colorado. It means saying farewell to all the wilderness areas we loved so much while we lived in Boulder, from Rocky Mountain National Park to the rugged San Juans to the glorious desert canyons of southwest Utah.

But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, and I don't just mean because New Zealand's mountains and lakes and beaches are amazing. 

It's because I haven't yet talked to a single New Zealander who worries over medical bills or has had to declare medical bankruptcy. Because here innocent people don't have to fear getting shot by over-aggressive police. Because schools teach children the importance of caring for the earth and fighting climate change. Because even when NZ's political parties disagree sharply on issues, they still seem to agree on the importance of intelligence, reason, and respect. Because country over party is still the expected norm, not the other way around. 

You know the classic boiling frog analogy? I honestly did not realize just how crazy life in America has become until we moved here. Don't get me wrong, New Zealand is not a problem-free paradise. They're struggling with drug addiction and racism and pollution and inequality just like so many other countries. 

The difference lies in how New Zealand handles the struggle. Facts still matter here. So does integrity. I had not realized how deeply I missed that until I came here and saw truth and principles still in action. 

I grew up hearing the good old catchphrase of "America: love it or leave it." I still love America. I weep to think of my country falling ever further into greed and hypocrisy and corruption and lies. I honor everyone at home that is fighting for honesty and fairness and justice, the ideals that form the true American dream. I will do all I can to help that fight. 

But I want my son to grow up in a country where his medical issues will not mean that he struggles to get healthcare. Where he can have a childhood not steeped in a cultural miasma of tension and fear. (I remember the lockdown drills at his school where kids practice hiding from shooters. The letter we got from the school district discussing their policy on deportation. The little friend of my son's who said he hoped Trump would start a nuclear war, because then the school would get vaporized and nobody would have to do classwork ever again. Haha, kids are so funny, right? And yet, and yet. A thousand little things add together into an ever-rising water temperature, slowly boiling us until we accept all kinds of craziness as a regular part of life.)

So, like my own ancestors that came to America searching for a better life for their children, I, too, am emigrating with my family.

I know we are tremendously lucky to have emigration as an option. The "love it or leave it" crowd often ignores just how difficult gaining residency in a foreign country can be. It's a little easier if you're young. Many countries, New Zealand among them, offer "working holiday" visas for the under-30 crowd that allow you to live and work and seek an employer willing to sponsor you for a longer-term visa. The older you are, the more difficult it is to get approval in "skilled migration" categories. Plus you have to be able to pass the health exams. (That said, those with chronic conditions like diabetes often assume it's impossible to pass when it may be very possible. If your condition is well-managed, you have a chance.) 

In our case, I lucked into the easiest path by marrying an Australian, lo these many years ago. Aussies are allowed to live and work in New Zealand without visas, and after a certain period of time living in the country, apply for permanent residency. My husband is able to sponsor me for a partnership-based work visa and then for residency, although this is not cheap (the residency application fee is almost $2K). It also requires a mountain of documentation to prove that our relationship is real. Pictures, joint bank accounts, utility bills, cards, letters, text messages, proof of shared residence, etc. Doesn't matter how long you've been married (15 years, in our case). You still have to prove your relationship remains valid and stable. We went through this process once already, back when I was sponsoring my husband for US permanent residency, so we're familiar with the drill. (There's a certain symmetry in each of us taking our turn under the microscope of immigration. Except I'll say that so far INZ is far, FAR easier and more friendly to deal with than US immigration ever was, even 15 years ago in happier times.)

Just yesterday I read Kameron Hurley's powerful, moving post on her own decision to emigrate. The hope she talks about, the sheer relief of having hope, is what I've also experienced. Ripping out our roots and replanting them is a huge change. I've done plenty of agonizing over the decision. But when I recently opened the letter from NZ immigration that contained my brand-new 2-year work that moment, it felt like the best decision I've ever made.