San Francisco Writers Conference Delivers Inspiration

It can be tough to remain inspired to put word to page when you live at the end of the road, off-the-grid, with only six dogs and an illiterate Mexican caretaker to keep you company. Two years ago, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and was inspired beyond expectation. For the past two years, I’ve vowed to return for another injection.

Each time, however, as I gazed longingly at that year’s offerings, it became obvious I couldn’t afford it. After a couple of months during which my brain was fogged with fantasies of unexpected windfall, I recalled meeting someone at the 2010 conference who worked as a volunteer.  I didn’t know what was involved, but figured it was worth exploring the possibilities.  I quickly ascertained that I was eligible and filled out the application form. And that was it. I was in like Flynn.

And I was not disappointed. Organizers of the conference this year once again succeeded in putting on an event that managed to inspire, educate and excite me. The three days were jam-packed with keynote speeches and break-away sessions covering everything from refining your craft to the specifics of how to find an agent, an editor, to getting published, the ins and outs of self-publishing, self-editing, and much more. Additional workshops open to the public were offered by the San Francisco Writers University all day Monday. Outside of active conference hours and volunteer duties there were opportunities to mix it up with some of the country’s (if not the world’s) best writers, agents, editors and publishers.

For those who were ready, there was the opportunity to pitch projects to agents representing big name authors like Sara Gruen, Garth Stein, David Guterson and Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil. Despite not actively seeking them out, at social gatherings a few agents I stumbled across asked me what I was working on, giving me a chance to try out the pitch I’d hurriedly penned hours earlier in the back of my notebook on them. Their feedback, on both the pitch and the project itself, were invaluable.

I booked a session to have professional headshots made by Mark Bennington of Bennington Headshots. I approached Mark’s booth feeling timid and unsure of myself, but Mark quickly put me at ease. Furthermore, the quality of his work on display convinced me that I was in good hands. His enthusiasm and positivity during the actual shooting helped me relax and feel confident, all of which translated to the results, which I believe speak for themselves.

There were ample opportunities to make contacts and for one-on-one interaction with agents and publishers. Each night a no-host dinner was held at one of the excellent local restaurants within walking distance of the venue to which presenters and attendees were invited. On Saturday night an open mic session that was part poetry slam, part literary reading was held at the conference venue. Poets were accompanied by musicians on drums, guitar and saxophone giving the event a Beat/ Gingsbergesque aura. Published authors and neophytes alike were welcome to present. The quality of the offerings was, to understate it, awe-inspiring. By that I mean that every time someone got up and presented my mouth literally hung agape in amazement at the beauty of the work presented.

Inspired? [using my best John Wayne voice] You bet your sweet caboose I am. I’m already planning to volunteer again next year. Will you join me?

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Driving East Cape Roads: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

This post was originally published on the East Cape Blog of the Baja.com website.

Rain rutted road

The unpaved roads in Baja are nothing like those you are used to if you live in the States, southern Canada or most parts of Europe. They are narrow, pot-hole and washboard-riddled tracks of earth that snake through the desert, up and over rocky mountains and down through washed out seasonal riverbeds. They are poorly and infrequently maintained.

Maintenance consists of running a grader over the rough surface to break up the washboard and fill the holes, but the effects are short-lived, lasting only a few days depending on levels of traffic. With each pass of the grader, the road is cut a little deeper into the desert’s fragile surface and the dirt piles a little higher along the sides. No one applies gravel or removes large, sharp rocks that are uncovered by the grader.

Occasionally the local ranchers will fill in a particularly large sink hole that appears in the middle of the road or a washout that makes it impossible to proceed, but these are rare events indeed. The roads are so narrow in places and often bordered by severe drops on either side that you have to yield to oncoming traffic.

Most of us who choose to live here on the East Cape, however, recognize that a blessing accompanies the cursed road conditions – they keep the maddening crowds at bay.

Most of the folks on the East Cape have a solitary disposition or at least aren’t interested in the type of nightlife Los Cabos is famous for. Stargazing and fires on the beach are more our style. The roads do however wreak havoc on our vehicles and make us keep trips to town to a bare minimum.

Boca de las Vinoramas, where I live, is located at the end of the road. It sits at the crossroads of the Coast Road and the Palo Escopeta Road, which traverses the desert from San Bernabe near the San Jose International Airport out to the coast. From Vinorama, it’s a little over 20 miles North, East, and South to the pavement. But that is no ordinary 20 miles—it’s a dusty, bone-jarring, filling-loosening, neck-wrenching stretch of road, no matter what direction you go.

So we go to great lengths to reduce the number of trips we make to town. We bought a second fridge to have greater storage capacity. I store all our produce in special “green” bags that preserve them longer. I eat broccoli for several nights in a row so it gets eaten before it goes bad. And we keep a large supply of gasoline in jerry cans in the garage.

The East Cape requires adaptation. It challenges one’s resourcefulness and ability to tolerate what has to be one of the bumpiest roads on the planet. I need a chiropractic adjustment after I make the trip to town, but what’s the point of getting one while I’m there if I’m just going to get all shook up on the ride home?

Nevertheless, when I get home, shake the dust off and walk out onto the patio as the sun sets behind our house, I am greeted by the spectacular view of the sky and Sea of Cortez turning various shades of pink, coral, turquoise and indigo, and I am reminded why I choose to live here.

View of a Baja sunset from the patio

How about you? Have you got a good Baja back roads driving story? I’d love to hear about it! Post them in the comments section below.

Costa’s on the Coast

The following article was originally posted in the East Cape section of the Baja.com website. I hope you’ll visit me there and give the website moderators some feedback.

The male Costa's in all his glory. Note that his perch is 1/4" doweling.

There are at least ten Costa’s Hummingbirds feeding at the two feeders hanging from the ramada on the patio.  I’m not sure exactly how many there are because they move so fast they’re hard to count. They flit back and forth across my plane of vision, tiny forces enveloped in feathers, wings beating at upwards of 90 beats per second, too fast for the human eye to perceive their individual movement. Instead I see a blur of wings that suggests where they were and will be, but like an atom, it’s just an approximation, impossible to see the wing in real time.

They chatter and scold one another, fight and dive bomb like World War II flying aces, going up, up, up and then banking and falling back towards Earth in a tiny mass of blurred feathers. Their size belies their identity and sometimes I imagine I’m seeing a large beetle or tarantula wasp and then am shocked by the fact that I could mistake a bird for an insect.

The female Costa's

Their metallic chit-chit call warms off interlopers looking for the same sweet sustenance, but their softer gentler whirring call suggests something more soothing. The bird books don’t distinguish between the two calls, but when they make the whirring song from atop a perch I cannot imagine it’s anything but an attempt to attract a lover.

The sun catches briefly the iridescent green of their feathers, the brilliant tyrian purple and indigo of the male’s gorget, but it is the briefest of glimpses because he’s off again, charging after a competitor, or a female in an attempt to impress her with his speed. The gorget resembles long sideburns giving the males the appearance of tiny winged Elvis impersonators.

The nest measured less than two inches across.

The nest was lined with downy feathers

A pair will build a tiny nest together, less than a couple of inches in diameter and wrapped around the netting of the palapa. A few short days later two tiny white eggs appear.  The wait to see if they will hatch is short, only 15 to 18 days. The hatchlings appear one day suddenly, hideous black leathery things with just a dusting of straggly downy feathers. They are smaller than a quarter with surprisingly short, yellow-edged beaks. Their eyes are closed bulges on bobbing heads supported by weak necks. They look frail and unbelievably helpless.

Mother and father share the responsibility of delivering sweet nectar to the nest and day by day the chicks expand and grow, their beaks begin to elongate. Sooner than I would have thought possible based on their appearance only a couple of weeks earlier, pin feathers appear, fill in and fledging is imminent.

It was hard to imagine those beaks belonged to a hummer!

One day the nest sits empty. I feel an empty space open in my gut and I realize I’d felt some kinship to these little creatures. I miss them and wonder if they fledged or met some other less glorious fate – as a late night snack for a Coachwhip Snake perhaps?

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More information on Costa’s Hummingbird

Extreme Teachings

Working on my form.

The sound of the wind blowing through the palms outside my window tells me it’s another great day out there to play at my newest sport. We’re smack dab in the middle of Winder (my name for the season that falls between November and March here on the East Cape) and after approximately 20 sessions spread out over two seasons, I no longer feel like I must add the caveat “I’m just learning” when I say I kitesurf.

Kitesurfing is definitely an extreme sport. As anyone who’s tried it will tell you, it’s got a very steep learning curve and if you don’t think it deserves to be called “extreme” perhaps you need to read my post Welcome to my Kitemare.

I’ve always shied away from equipment intensive sports because of the associated expense, repairs and technical knowledge required. However, a couple of years ago when I started to spend a lot of time on the North Shore of Maui  – note: there are more windy days on Maui than any other place on Earth with the exception of Antarctica – I decided it was time to reevaluate that stance. I started out with one kite, one board, a harness to connect me to the bar and the necessary safety gear. Having only one kite meant I could only go out when wind speeds were within a specific range before I could head out. This reduced the number of days I could kite, slowing down my progress. Realistically, you need several different kites of differing sizes to cover the range of potential wind speeds you may encounter. Then there is the bar used to steer the kite – there are different sizes and styles depending on the kite you’re flying.  Safety gear includes a helmet, a leash and an impact vest.

I was debating recently whether I needed to keep wearing a helmet because my board had yet to hit me in the head despite some pretty impressive wipe outs, when it did just that. It hit me hard enough that it took a chunk out of my helmet. From there it ricocheted into my right thumb leaving an inch long gash that weeks later is still healing. That relieved me of any doubt regarding the need for a helmet.

Early on I also questioned how badly I needed to wear an impact vest. These are the vests that guys like Laird Hamilton wear when they surf the big waves at Pe’ahi and Mavericks.  Contrary to popular belief, they offer minimal floatation, but act like a flack jacket, protecting the wearer from bruising and breaks that would otherwise result from the force of impact during a high speed crash. I laughed to myself when my kiting instructor recommended I buy one, figuring there was no way I actually needed that kind of protection. “Does he think I’m crazy? I’m not going to go that fast,” went through my mind. Turns out I have gone that fast. More than once.

The first time it happened I was still hanging out at the lower end of the learning curve. I was out with my nine meter kite on a day when I should have taken out the 7.5 meter. This was also before I figured out that conditions tend to be fairly gusty in front of my house (I now head further North where winds are steady).  So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what ended up happening:

overpowered + gusty = epic wipe out

One moment I was up and running, the next I was lying in the water, dazed and in pain. I felt like I’d been run over.  Like a rag doll that had just been shook by a large dog. I began a mental body scan to assess the damage. My ribs were screaming at me, my left hip bone felt like there was a knife sticking into it, my ears were ringing, my eyes stung from hitting the water so fast I didn’t have time to close them before impact, and my ankles felt like the tendons holding them together had undergone a serious stress test.  My heart was racing and my lungs? Well, they were having trouble re-inflating.  I managed to choke down a few painful gasps of air and lay there trying to figure out what had gone wrong while the kite pulled me steadily and quickly downwind. That’s when I noticed my impact vest – it was lying in the water above my head, attached to me only by my shoulders.  With horror I realized that the force of the impact of my wipeout had exploded the heavy duty zipper and ripped the vest from my body. “That explains why my ribs hurt,” I reasoned, imagining what it might feel like to try to swim the half mile to shore with multiple fractured ribs. It was in that moment of clarity that I realized, “I guess I need this vest after all.” Ever since then when I zip the vest on, my mind flashes to that tiny but significant eureka moment.

I will say that while the learning curve may be steep and the equipment expensive and a pain in the ass to repair, the pleasure payoff is supreme when you are flying across the ocean powered only by the wind. This is the first sport that’s ever made me laugh out loud from the shear joy of it. Last time I was out I caught some air, for on purpose this time, which induced a big laugh of amazement when I landed it successfully and kept gliding. Of course I wiped out seconds later as my mind became distracted with reviewing my success.  Like a Buddhist master  with his bamboo switch, extreme sports have a direct way of letting you know each and every time your attention wavers and you stop being present in the Here and Now.