Camping Our Way Down the Columbia River Gorge

This week, my girlfriend Lisa was on spring break from grad school, so on Sunday we packed up tent, food, and cameras and drove out the Columbia River Gorge to spend a couple days exploring, hiking, and pretty much just seeing what there was to see. Leaving Seattle, we didn’t have any particular agenda, except that we wanted to drive through the Yakima River Canyon on the way down, and we wanted to visit the Goldendale Observatory on the first night.

When we reached the canyon, we found a little place called the Umtanum Recreation Area, where we pulled over for lunch. From the parking lot, there was a bridge over the Yakima River which led to a hiking trail, so after lunch we hiked across the bridge, over some railroad tracks, and into the canyon. There wasn’t much sign of Spring yet, sadly, except for a few flowers, a bumblebee, and some trees that were just beginning to bud.

As we made our way back along the trail, we wondered if the railroad tracks were active, given that they were so easy to access– a few minutes, a freight train rumbled down the line where I’d be standing a few minutes prior. It was an impressive sight, and trains would be a recurring part of our journey: the Columbia River Gorge is an incredibly active freight corridor, with BSNF trains rumbling past several times an hour. On our second night, camped at Beacon Rock State Park, the train tracks were maybe fifty feet away up a cliffside, and the rumbles and whistles of freight trains were a constant companion through the night.

We had planned on staying at Brooks Memorial State Park on the first night, based on some recommendations in Lisa’s guidebook, but upon arrival there we found that the whole park was still closed for winter. It was a bit of a letdown, given that it was 55 degrees and sunny (and also it wasn’t even actually winter any more). But it would be another recurring theme of our journeys– parks and scenic areas closed, mostly due to budget cuts that meant the parks could only afford to stay open during peak season.

So we pushed on, and found a campsite several miles down the road at Maryhill State Park. It was a nice place– our campsite was right on the Columbia River, and we spent a fair amount of time getting pictures of the river and the gorge. There was a truck stop right across the river, which spoiled the scenery a bit– although it did make for some nice night pictures. And in the morning, we were both grateful it was there, as we availed ourselves of the opportunity for a hot breakfast after spending a restless night on the hard, cold, almost gravelly ground of our tentsite.

On the second day, we made our way down the gorge, stopping for a little hike along the Deschutes River, then lunching at a roadside overlook near The Dalles, Washington after our first two choices (both nearby parks) were, once again, closed for the season. In the afternoon, we drove out of the gorge toward Mt. Adams, exploring the area a bit and getting some great views of the mountain.

At one point, in trying to get to the Big Lava Beds from Trout Lake, we found ourselves on a snowy forest road, and eventually had to turn back, leaving the lava beds for another time. We headed back down to the gorge and camped for the night at Beacon Rock State Park– this plan was almost thwarted when the main camping area there was also Closed For Winter, but luckily there was a year-round campsite right on the river that we were able to set up camp in.

We had originally planned on climbing Beacon Rock in the morning, but after two clear and sunny days, we woke up to the sound of rain on the tent. So rather than take a mile-long trail up a slick rock into a windy, misty, sky, we headed down the road a bit to the Bonneville Dam. We got a personal tour from the guide, saw the fish ladder (including the underwater viewing area, which was pretty awesome, although it was only sparsely populated by fish– we’re already making plans to go back during the peak season).

The rest of the day was mostly occupied by getting home, although we did stop briefly at the Mt. St. Helens Visitors Center to see what there was to see (answer: not much, given the weather). There was a neat little mile-long loop over boardwalks through the nearby wetlands, which we did before heading home.

It was a fun trip, although after two nights of hard ground (Lisa didn’t have a sleeping pad, and I’d forgotten mine) interspersed by nearby nighttime trains, we were both ready for a decent night’s sleep. I’m looking forward to going back in the summer, when hopefully more places are open, and we get to see the gorge in full summer foliage.

But we did get some pretty awesome Winter and Spring photos, if I do say so myself. Click Mt. Adams to check out the full set of pics on Flickr.

Insert Default Title Here… Or Better Yet, Don’t

I’d like to share with you a comic strip I saw on Facebook today. It’s worth a chuckle, and I suspect more than a few gamers will relate to it:

We all know analyzing humor supposedly ruins it, right? If that bothers you, I’d suggest you go read something else, because I’m about to spend a thousand words doing just that. More accurately, I’m going to analyze larger issues that the comic unintentionally brings up. If that bothers you– if you’d rather have your quick chuckle and move on, because Internet– you’re welcome to do so. But I hope you’re willing to stick around, because even the most innocuous comic, or story, or TV commercial, can be the springboard for some more interesting thoughts.

Still with me? Good.

On the Facebook thread, someone commented that the comic portrayed tired stereotypes– men with poor impulse control, women mothering their husbands– and expressed a desire that artists do more to quash that particular gender stereotype.

Hmm, my brain went, it’s just a comic, but y’know, she’s not wrong. Even if it sometimes reflects real life, it’s still a stereotype on display. Still, it’s just a comic. Worth a chuckle, a moment’s reflection, and time to move on, right?

I was prepared to let it go at that, get on with my day, when I noticed a reply from the person who posted the comic: “That’s odd, [name redacted]. I didn’t ‘see’ the gender aspect when I read this. Perhaps you’re reading too much into a joke.”

Oh, snap, my brain went. Oh, now it’s on. Because it’s one thing to disagree with someone, and it’s another to dismiss their argument out of hand.

You’re reading too much into it.

It’s just a joke. Lighten up.

Why are people such crybabies? Get a sense of humor.

Any of these responses (all of which were in the thread, at various points) will get my hackles up faster than a shitty call in a Seahawks playoff game. Every single one is just a way of saying, I don’t want to have this discussion, and I don’t want you to have it either. Go away. Occasionally (as in this case) there’s the bonus, not-subtle implication that the person who brought it up is really the sexist one, for pointing it out. Which is, of course, bullshit.

I’ve blogged about this before, but just because you personally didn’t find something offensive, doesn’t mean that other people are wrong for doing so. In this particular case, the commenter hadn’t even taken offense, just pointed out an old stereotype! The reactions I read were far more disturbing than the initial comic. Which is usually how these debates go, and how an innocuous comment ends up turning the Internet upside down.

It’s just a joke offers the suggestion that humor is not worthy of such discussion– that funny things should get a free pass, because hey, it’s just a joke, right? But that’s insulting in its own way– it belittles the incredible power that humor and satire have in this world. It’s just a joke, right? Tell that to Jonathan Swift. Tell that to critics (and fans) of George Carlin, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. It’s just a joke!

Bullshit. Jokes are powerful things, even when they’re not trying to be. As someone who’s written his fair share of humor stories, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But what about this particular comic? It’s just a cheap Facebook laugh, right? Well, yes.. but maybe not, if you view it in the larger context of our culture.

You see, the artist’s intent was just to tell a lighthearted joke, so most other aspects of the comic got set to “default.” The default assumption in our society is that males are more obsessed with games (and more “childish”) than women are, so that’s what got portrayed.

We’re focusing on the “women in gaming” default, because that’s what the comic is about– but it’s the not the only way the comic portrays the standard cultural default. The woman herself is pretty and blonde, the Star Wars obsessed kid is a boy, and the family’s skin color is white. Basically, everything about this comic that isn’t directly relevant to the punchline is just society’s default assumption.

Switching everything to “default,” when it’s not relevant to what you’re trying to do (or the punchline you’re trying to tell), isn’t necessarily a problem. But a lot of people are sensitive to this particular default right now because it’s one that many people are trying to change. Even if it wasn’t the person’s intent, it’s a default that still subtly encourages the dismissal of women gamers, because it’s not “the norm.” Does the comic by itself do that? No. Is this comic strip one tiny, infinitesimal part of a larger culture that does? Yes.

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with any of those defaults when viewed on their own– they became the defaults partly because they’re very common in our society, but they also became the defaults because the vast, vast, vast majority of people producing media and pulling the strings of the industry were white men with certain norms and expectations. What was their default became our default. Even in media that isn’t intentionally sexist, those defaults pervade.

Another example where this dynamic is even more obvious is TV and print advertising. It’s the default to have women cleaning the house and taking care of the kids, while men drive trucks, play games and drink beer. When an ad breaks the default, it usually makes the news– for example, the recent Cheerios ad that portrayed an interracial couple, or the Coca-Cola ad that sung America the Beautiful in languages besides English. Those things don’t, on the face of it, seem all that controversial (especially the interracial couple… this is 2014!). Yet it was newsworthy, because it wasn’t the norm.

For an example of a comic strip that avoids defaults well, I’d point to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which portrays a wide variety of relationships and people, even when “the default” would be good enough to get the punchline across.

As a writer, I’m not saying you have to studiously avoid the default– I’m saying make your choices deliberately. Don’t create your characters in default mode just because you’re lazy. You’re taught to avoid cliches in your sentences, so why use cliches in your characters and their motivations?

And for those of you who think that this is a lot to pull from a single comic– well, yes it is. But it seems to me a discussion worth having, or at least, a discussion worth not shutting down.

Also, for the record, the comic itself is from direman.com (Yay for attribution– but that’s a whole other blog post.) It’s a long-running comic with a variety of characters, and seems to do a pretty good job of representing women in gaming overall, and does a fair amount of satirizing stereotypes. So perhaps it’s unfair to take this comic out of context– but that is how it was posted on Facebook (not by the artists, I should add). And I think it’s worse to try to shut down a worthy discussion by belittling people who bring it up, or dismissing their larger concerns with it’s just a joke.

Let’s be clear. It’s not just a joke. It’s never just a joke, even if that’s how it was intended. Context –cultural and personal– is everything. And just because someone does see a slight that you’re privileged enough to be able to ignore– please, try to put yourself in their shoes, if only for a moment. Maybe a day will come when we don’t have to talk about defaults, and when stereotypes aren’t so overused as to be worth noting– but until that day comes, don’t be surprised if you see these discussions crop up in places where you might not expect them to. When that happens, remember Wheaton’s Law.

And if you’re a content creator– be it a writer, artist, video producer, or otherwise– remember, don’t be lazy and pick the default, just because you can.

Creative Vibes by Lake Quinault

Yesterday, I got home from four days at the Rainforest Resort Village on Lake Quinault, on the southwest side of the Olympic Mountains. I was there with 36 other writers, surrounded by lots of awesome creative vibes as well as some awesome scenery– the event was the Rainforest Writers Village, and the goal was to retreat to somewhere isolated with other like-minded folks to get some writing done.

For me, it definitely worked. Over the course of those four days, I wrote 22,346 words for a new novel– it’s a steampunk alt-history story, and I’m really pleased with how it went. Being in the Rainforest, able to focus on the writing for long periods of time without worrying about going to the gym or filing taxes or sorting bills or checking the Internet, was a blast– and because I had a plan, with a freshly-outlined novel ready to start, I feel like I was both more productive and more successful than the last time I went to Rainforest Writers, back in 2012. It was the most fun I’d had writing a novel since my first NaNoWriMo, back in 2009– I loved the characters, I loved the scenes, and I felt like I was playfully romping through the prose, like a puppy playing in a field, chasing zeppelins and dragons and intrigue during an alternate version of the Second Opium War.

Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about this project. But that wasn’t the only good thing about Rainforest– I got to hang out with some good friends, several of whom I hadn’t seen since my last Rainforest two years ago. I also felt less socially awkward than I did back in 2012, and had more fun hanging out with new folks and meeting people. Part of the reason is that I feel more a part of the writing community than I did two years ago– and probably part of it is also the antidepressants I’m taking, and the general progress I’ve made with my depression.

But in addition to being more comfortable socially, I was also more comfortable alone– I was more than willing to go back to my room in the Inn, which had a fantastic sitting room facing the lake. There I could sit on the couch, put my feet up on the coffee table and write alone with my laptop, sometimes for an entire afternoon. I probably did two-thirds of my writing in my room, and a third in the public writing area in the Lounge, which was a nice occasional change of pace.

In addition to writing a third of a novel, I also got a lot of great photos of both the people and the scenery– after breaking my own personal record for writing fiction in one day on Thursday (about 7200 words), on Friday I went for a 4-mile hike on what turned out to be our one sunny day, taking pictures of mushrooms and waterfalls, then watching a fantastic sunset over the lake. We were also lucky enough to get some clear nights, with some of the best views of the night sky that I’ve seen in years.

The best part, though, was the people– the group meals, the conversations, the Saturday night party, sharing photos, and bouncing ideas off each other. I’m planning to head back to the Rainforest next year.

Here’s a slideshow of pics from the weekend!

Driving to Pasco: A Surprisingly Good Way to Spend a Weekend (thanks to RadCon)

Last Friday I drove over Snoqualmie Pass, where I-90 threads its way through the Cascade Mountains, in slushy rain, dodging traffic and semi-trucks and snowplows. The purpose behind this taking of my life (and my friend Keffy’s) into my hands was in the interest of getting to RadCon, a weekend-long science fiction convention in Pasco. Pasco is one-third of the Tri-Cities area of Washington, about three hours east of Seattle.

This was my first RadCon– I’d eyed it with curiosity over the past couple of years, but scheduling and general laziness meant I wasn’t able to go until this year. And I’m pleased to say it was worth the danger.

RadCon turned out to be a large costuming and gaming convention, that happened to feature a writing track. I didn’t attend any writing panels– all the topics were too basic, frankly, to interest me. Instead, I spend my days attending a few costuming and art panels. At one panel that was supposed to be about lighting a set on a budget (which I hoped might lead to some ideas for studio lighting), none of the panelists showed up, as they were busy making a movie at RadCon. But nevertheless, us audience members bravely soldiered on anyway, discussing our mutual experience (one of the audience members was a stage magician; another was a blacksmith interested in lighting for tutorial videos). It turned out to be one of my favorite panels.

At the writing events I did go to– which mostly ended up being after-hours parties in the small press room and similar things– it felt small, comfortable and intimate. I joined in a discussion with Howard Tayler, the artist Guest of Honor, and several other pros, and all in all had a good time both seeing friends and meeting new ones. A lot of the usual Seattle writing crowd wasn’t there, although a few were– but despite that, RadCon honestly felt like the friendliest con I’ve ever been to. Frequently I found myself in interesting conversations with total strangers, on topics ranging from photography, to the con experience, to life as a geek, to BDSM.

Part of the reason for that may have been how the room parties were arranged– in most cons, you can only drink inside the room parties, which are almost universally loud, cramped, and dark. RadCon, however, was able to close off an entire third-floor section to people 21 and over, which meant that people could mingle in a large, wide balcony/hallway area and could actually talk to each other without forgoing their drinks. It probably also helped that this was pretty much the only area to party– the bar was dead, and there was nowhere else to go– which meant that everyone found that their way there. Pros and fans mingled, writers and gamers and costumers mingled, cheap Jell-O shots were abundant and all in all I had a pretty awesome time.

RadCon also trended a lot younger than most science fiction cons– there were a lot of teenagers and college students there in costume, hanging out with friends. Since RadCon is pretty much the entire convention scene in the Tri-Cities area of Washington, a lot of local folks (especially younger folks) seemed to gravitate to it. RadCon seemed to be the cool place to hang out this weekend, which was kind of nice to see. I am all for having enthusiastic younger people becoming more involved in the fan scene, even if they’re primarily anime or gaming fans for right now as opposed to readers– although I suspect many of them are avid readers as well.

That’s not to say I couldn’t things to complain about. The food options are rather limited, for one. (I’m just glad the fan suite was selling pizza for $2/slice, because that’s pretty much what I lived off of… that and granola bars.) Taking pictures at the Masquerade was kind of terrible, because the lighting setup was apparently designed by someone with a deep visceral hatred of photography. Oh, and I woke up with a hangover on Sunday… although, admittedly, that last one was entirely my fault.

Luckily I shook it off in time to drive back over Snoqualmie Pass while it was still light. Despite a few dire warnings, the conditions were actually better on Sunday than they’d been on Friday.

Next year I will definitely be braving the pass to head to RadCon again.

In the meantime, here’s the slideshow of pictures from the con. I spent most of the weekend doing photography, and all in all, I’m quite happy with the results. There were lots of great costumes (thanks cosplayers!), and the weapons demo and fire show made for some very pretty pictures as well.

On the 1-Year Anniversary of Mom’s Death

I’ll be at RadCon, a sci-fi convention about three hours east of Seattle, at the time this post goes up. Just a sign of how life goes on, I suppose.

But I’ve scheduled this post a couple days in advance, because I feel like February 16th is an important memory to mark. And I suspect on Sunday, my mind will be more dwelling on Mom than on a science fiction convention. Even one that I happen to be attending.

One year ago, on February 16, 2013, at 8:00 pm, Mom passed away from very aggressive, metastatic breast cancer. In fact, we had only stopped the chemotherapy less than a month earlier– and afterward, the cancer took only a few short weeks to end her life.

For me, it not only meant losing my Mom, but it was a very personal reminder not to put things off, to try exciting things and take risks now. Which is partly why I’m at RadCon, practicing photography and networking with writers and other creative professionals, in the hopes not just of making new friends and having a good time, but being successful and maybe even making a living doing things I love.

I’ve posted the video below before. It’s a short memorial video I made with a few pictures of Mom’s scrapbooks; a little side project that kept me distracted while my brother and I finished sorting through her affairs and her belongings.

Next week I’ll be back to photos and con reports, I promise.

Six Weeks of Freelance: The Good, The Bad, and the Lazy

It’s been six weeks since I started working full-time on my own projects. (It’s been almost three months since I quit my job, but it’s only been since the New Year that my travelling has been over and I’ve really buckled down to work.) I’ve already had some successes and failures; places where I’ve done better than I’ve hoped, and places where I need to try harder.

Photography’s been a big highlight so far. As I noted in my last post, I have a page up at www.journeysincolor.net. Since then, I’ve created a Facebook page, and a few weeks ago, I attended Portland Comic Con in a semi-official photographer capacity for Go To Games. And that opportunity only came about because I had gone to RustyCon the previous week, and happened to strike up a conversation with Ashke, a cosplay model who was working the Go To Games booth there.

To think, I almost stayed home from RustyCon because I was tired. For me, that was an illustration of how important it is to always take advantage of every opportunity. RustyCon was an opportunity that created another opportunity. And okay, I hadn’t planned on going to Portland on four days’ notice, but when the chance presented itself I jumped at it. I’m looking forward to see how the contacts and friends I’ve made there will affect the rest of my year.

As for writing– ostensibly the reason I quit my job in the first place– I’ve done quite a bit, although it’s a lot harder to see the end of the tunnel. Whereas with photography, you can occasionally luck your way into cool opportunities and contacts, with the writing, there’s no substitute for sitting by yourself and actually doing a crapload of work first. At least, none that I’ve found.

The novel that I’m writing has proved itself a tricky bastard. I’ve been trying to outline it, because it’s mostly a mystery/thriller type novel, the kind which are often very structured. But by nature I’m a pantser; I prefer writing without an outline, by the seat of my pants. But I’ve already tried that once with the novel and hit a dead end, so I’m debating whether to keep trying or shelve it for a while and work on something else.

In truth, I’ve already shelved it, at least for now. I’ve started sketching out the details of a second novel that’s been in my head for a while, with an eye toward starting writing on it at the end of the month during a five-day writing retreat that I’ll be attending. And I’ve started working on a memoir/retrospective of Mom. I’ve written over 10,000 words of that.

It’s been a little difficult to stay focused, because I’ve moved away from short stories (which are a lot of work, but still offer the promise of near-term gratification) to long-form works, which require much more work before you can even start trying to succeed with them. So far I’ve been trying to stick to writing at least two hours a day every day, which I’ve been mostly successful at, with a few exceptions– like when I got back from Portland Comic Con and was in all-out photography and marketing mode for the rest of the week.

One area where I’ve really fallen down has been the hypnotherapy side of things– I’ve only taken a few tentative steps toward getting the website up and running, although I hope to have that ready by the end of the month. I suppose that’s partly because even though it’s the project that’s most likely to generate income in the short term, it’s also the one I’m most nervous about.

But on the good side, I do have two business LLCs set up now– one called Andrew Williams Hypnosis, LLC and the other called Andrew Williams Creative, LLC. It makes it easier to actually do business and make money, although it also reinforces the fact that I actually do need to make money this year, at least if I don’t want to go back to I.T.

So it’s been a year of ups and downs, both business-wise and personally. I’m pleased to have this opportunity, but I feel like I need to work harder to take full advantage of it. And sometimes I feel like the lack of imposed structure (like an outside job) makes it easier for my depression to flare up. But there’s nothing to do but keep up the meds, try to maintain a steady routine at the gym, and work through it.

Six weeks means the year is more than one-tenth over. Christ, where does the time go? Back to work…

“Journeys in Color” Now Up and Running!

I’m pleased to announce that I now have a dedicated photography website. You can see it here, at journeysincolor.net.

My photographic interests are fairly widespread: I originally got into photography to take pictures of backpacking trips, and add a visual element to travel articles and blog posts. Along the way, my interest veered in more of a geeky/creative direction– I like taking pictures of cosplay, and bodypaint, and all sorts of art and costumes. At any convention or event that I go to, I will usually have my camera slung over my shoulder, looking for interesting people or moments to photograph.

In a sense, I feel like it complements my writing. Whereas writing is language-based, and usually requires a great deal of patience before finally arriving at a final product, photography is visual, and usually requires very little time at all. With photography, I can see the results immediately, and whereas it might take me several evenings of work to polish off a short story (and far longer for a novel), in the same several evenings I can process, crop and edit a few hundred pictures, any one of which might potentially stand on its own as a piece of creative work.

So please head on over and check out journeysincolor.net. In addition to having some of my favorite photos, arranged by topics and subjects, I’m also selling prints, so if you have a blank wall that needs a photographic print or collage, maybe you’ll find something that suits your taste. There are also full-size digital downloads for a token fee, if you see one that would work well as a computer background, or would like to print a picture or two for your own personal use.

I also have a blog up at the new site, where I’ll likely be posting photo sets from various travels and conventions. In particularly, I’m doing a yearlong projects called Journeys Around Seattle, in which I’m planning to explore at least one new Seattle-area neighborhood, event, or festival every week, and post a corresponding photoset. I’ve already done two, one to Eastlake and one to Cougar Mountain. You can see all the blog entries so far here.

I’ll still be posting trip reports here, as well as the occasional photoset, but by and large journeysincolor.net is where I’ll be focusing on photography, whereas Off the Written Path is where I’ll be focusing on writing (and life, and whatever current events demand a reflective and/or angry blog post). I’d be interested in hearing your feedback on the new page, so feel free to leave a comment either here, or in the guestbook over there, with any thoughts, suggestions, or constructive criticism.

And if you like it, feel free to share it around. In addition to selling prints, I’m hoping to branch into doing some additional event photography this year, and I’m hoping that journeysincolor.net will be a first step toward marketing and establishing the business side of things a little more.