Fishing, Boxing, & the Eagles Comes to SF

This blog comes a bit later than it should. Here we are well into October, and I’m putting in pics from fishing in August. What can I say, time seemed to accelerate on the boat, then back east for a quick trip (where I got to witness used Carhartts on sale for $60 at a boutique in SoHo!) then back up to Sitka for September lights out coho fishing with guru Eric Jordan. But I’ll start back with in early August with his son Karl. We wrapped up dingle-barring for ling cod, after being hauled in by the Coast Guard bastards with their sidearms, seasickness, and general smarminess. It felt nothing so much as being boarded by an undercover pirate ship. Young boys and their toys, having fun with authority. But enough about that. (This is the second time I think in this blog series the Coast Guard hasn’t come off so good. There are some good Coasties, I know it. Somewhere.) I got to spend a little time on the Adak, which has transformed into a blooming beauty under Jackie’s care. Meanwhile summertime continued apace in Sitka, neighbors drying out the salted bear skins, that sort of thing. Rach and I did some fileting and vacuum-sealing of sockeye for the winter, and began to brush up on our mushrooms for the fall. After being on the boat for most of the summer it was good to catch up with the Sitka crew, eating marshmallows and shrimp by the firepit. And, of course, go shopping at Big Sea, which must be the most beautiful grocery store location in the world. I Also forgot to mention dingle-barring with Karl I scored an octopus from a ling cod stomach. “But I don’t know how to cook this!” were Rachel’s words when I dangled it in front of her. We ended up preparing it in a slow-cooked Sicilian stew, then served it up with smiles that the Greeks must have worn when they cooked kids in stews and served them to unknowing parents. I think that’s the next “in” food – Octopus pre-brined in a ling cod stomach. NYC and Bourdain would be all over it!

As I said I had the trip back east, which included amusement park rides and long lazy walks down the Ocean City boardwalk, and many sweet little kids we got to play with in the sand. Staying in Tribeca with my buddy Will (read his book “A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall” – it’s amazing), doing my best to keep up in the boxing ring. And from there it was a plane back into Sitka, and at six AM the following morning out on the “I Gotta” with Jordan Pere, Mr. Eric Jordan, slaying some huge coho. I mean the suckers just kept on coming. The weather blew up off the Cape and we made a beeline for Salisbury Sound, but not before it started rocking pretty good, green water coming over the stern. But I’ll go out with Eric any day – he’s about as salty and as fishy as you get. Fish after fish, dressing as fast as they came in. The work made me realize a few things, first off how much easier slushing was instead of iceing, and also how damn lucky I was to get this fellowship at Stanford, and lastly how lucky I was to be on a boat with a sharp captain. It never ceases to amaze me, the strength the body expends rebelling in the first couple days fishing, saying this is wrong, I’m not doing this, the whole thing sucks, the crappy food and body-breaking work and seasickness  – and then finally the spirit of this whiny soft part gets broken and then you’re just coasting. Time disappears. It’s kind of nice. Or maybe it’s just going numb. But when the sun’s out and the fish are biting and BB King or Bob Marley croon away on the deck speakers and you know you’re making $ doing this, it’s pretty rockin’.

So we wrapped up fishing, and I came on back down to Cali to catch up with all the usual suspects down here, those catty Stegs. Ended up lucking into tickets to go see the Philadelphia Eagles in San Francisco, painful game that it was. But got to see the boys warming up on the field, and that made it worth it.

Now it’s back to the writing. I published another piece in the New York Times, I’ll include a link here.

In the meantime I proposed to Rach, and I must have picked the right day, because she agreed to be my wife. I’m over the moon-excited. In the next few days I get notes back from HMH, hopefully the last revision of the book. It’s excruciating, this wait, the amount of time required for the revision. But I trust my editor.

And do believe, with all my heart, that things are going the way they should. All of it.

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Report From the Waters: Coast Guard Stops, Alaska King Fishing, Novel deadline

I’ve got a wee window in between fishing trips here in Alaska so figured it might be nice to give a report, if only to myself, on the state of my disunion.

So Dog and I left Oakland in the first week of June with the goal of making it to Alaska to fish, and finishing the final draft of the novel by August 15th. Deal is the book has to be in by then to keep the Fall 2015 release. I swear if someone had explained to me how nutty this how process was going to be…

So sublet the spot in Oakland, drove through the night up to Portland. What wonderful rest stops Oregon has! Cal worked well as a pillow. In Oregon stayed with an old friend from college, in a lavender-scented neighborhood with homemade ice cream and Thai restaurants that served authentic water buffalo. Then up to Bellingham, where I lucked into a housesitting gig on Lummi Bay. Right on the water, Cal was very happy with the beach walks and long sunsets.  I had good time to dive into the rewrite and consider the main character’s interiority – this doesn’t come naturally – and also rewrite some sex scenes, which were too male-centric, surprise surprise. Fueled by triple espressos from my buddy Kyle’s Spartan Espresso coffee stand – yum. Then down to Seattle for another housesitting gig in Capitol Hill. Walks in Volunteer Park with Mr. Colorado, and the sun didn’t stop shining. Strangely enough, this made it easier to write. Maybe it was the knowledge that soon enough I’d not have any time. So there was a certain amount of urgency. The idyll ended and then it was to the airport with Dog, where he behaved so well. From my seat on the plane I could see him being loaded up, all shivering. And I felt very, very bad. He really doesn’t like flying. But I trust he knew it was for a greater good. And it was. Within hours he was tromping in the muskegs, happy as a clam. The tug was all rented so Rick and Darcie let me stay in their wee cabin, so sweet – some day I hope to build something similar for a writing studio. We had a couple days to acclimate, and visit the tug, which Jackie has transformed into an absolute wonder with her garden. Folks stop to take pictures of the stern. During the days getting the boat ready for the opener. Chaos in town – this was the largest king opener since the Pacific Salmon Treaty in 1985, so permit holders were in from all over, eager to get in on the action. We anchored up June 30th by Biorka, woke with the sun around 3 and the race for fish was on. Work from 3 AM until it got dark around 11 PM tidy the boat up until midnight dinner then back up at 3. There were 171,300 king salmon up for grabs, and Karl, my skipper, is about as fishy as they come. So we did pretty good. Part of my job was iceing fish in the hold, so I got to spend a fair amount of time with the kings, watched how they dimmed as the life drained out of them. What an honor to work with these fish, to be able to make a living this way. As usual Karl did everything twice as well and fast as I was able to do it, but I guess that comes with your 31st season of trolling. I did what I could to keep up, trying to run the gear smoothly, ignore the frozen fingers after working an hour in the fish hold. The body rebelled for a couple days but then it gave up and went along with it and then things were fine even if I couldn’t close my hands in the morning. Catching these rainbow-sheened torpedoes made it all okay. And the big ones were a thrill, how they lumbered out of the water, thrashing hard enough to torque your wrist around.

In the evenings we anchored up in a sweet cove off Kruzoff that might just be heaven on earth.
Also sometimes behind St. Lazaria off the volcano, where Jacques Cousteau once dove, as rumor has it. Sometime soon I hope to come back to these places when I’m not working, to hunt, or just set crab pots or a skate, and just hang. This land does not cease to unpleat itself, as if there are places that only come into view if you look, and stay long enough. A couple days into the fishery it blew up a bit, and that got yucky, huge rollers eclipsing neighboring boats. I was glad I didn’t bring Cal, who gets seasick and just lies down in the fo’c'sle, seeming to turn an extra shade of white. (In this one pic to the right you can see just the mast of another troller.) We did constant battle with sea lions, setting off seal bombs that go off like depth charges, and other preventive measures that put the seals in “training,” as folks like to say. We were also pursued by a shark at one point, who made short work of one of our salmon. And through it all I was trying to write, at least in my head. But that didn’t really happen until we sold our fish, and turned around to go back out for ling cod. We had a long run to the secret fishing grounds, so I got to take the wheel and get some editing done, which was nice, although my own book started to put me to sleep, which isn’t really the point on wheel-watch, and also not encouraging when it comes to holding the attention of others. So I had another sweet-and-salty and more coffee and then the book got interesting again.

We finally arrived at the offshore grounds, way offshore, and were killing it with ling cod, one after the other, when the Coast Guard decided to show up. They said they weren’t going to board, then circled us for half an hour in their drug enforcement cutter called the Nashon. Finally they did board, armed with semi-automatics, looking like orange stormtroopers. One was from Texas, apologetic, and seasick to the gills. He was a weapons specialist who had requested deployment to Bahrain so he could get war experience. Instead he ended up in Alaska, “policeing,” which didn’t really set well with his Texas philosophy, as he explained. It might have been a good cop bad cop routine because the other guy was scouring the boat for something wrong. And he finally found it – a chipped tooth on a survival suit. Which meant that our trip was cut short. The cutter accompanied us on the 9-hour ride home, not allowing us to anchor or sleep. It was weird, surreal, this multi-million dollar cutter on our ass for the trip home, making sure we got back to the “pier.”

But get back to the pier we did. Unloaded the ling for some good money. And this afternoon back out we go – the body is considering another rebellion, I can feel it, but that will be quelled. California softens one. Hopefully no more Coast Guard BS. And hopefully some more good writing time as we run.

At least I’ll have something mildly amusing to write about for the next novel. What?

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It’s a game of waiting, I guess. And being anxious. Anxious over someone telling you that the past year of your life has been wasted rewriting a book. Why does no one tell you how excruciating this whole game of publishing is? My nightmare is that the editor will want to revert back to the original, the one she actually bought for publication. She’ll be like, hey, I appreciate the hard work, but this actually is a piece of s—t, and we should really pick up where we started.

Notes should be arriving by next week.

To pass the time here in California I’m hanging with the dog, as you can see from most of these pics, and raising snails in Oakland. Apparently you need to spend two weeks feeding them greens and cornmeal before eating them. This cleans out their systems. Or, more accurately, until they become sponges for butter and garlic. France, I’ve heard, is experiencing a shortage of the wee fellas. Not the case here in Oakland — which, by the way, is the new Brooklyn, for anyone who hasn’t read The New York Times in the past week. It was damn easy to sublet my place. I should have asked for more money.

But back to snails. They’re fascinating creatures – I’ve drawn numbers on their shells with a black Sharpee, to keep track of their movements. Two is particularly rambunctious – a stocky snail, with an ochre vermiculite pattern on his shell. And impressive set of four antennae on his head. I woke up one morning to find that Two had climbed through my open window, and ascended the plastic blind, leaving a wake of goo that apparently contains more information than a data chip. Reams of information contained in that slick track.

Meanwhile I’ve been hanging out with my SF buddy Jenny Pritchett – she’s arranged some fun birthday event, can’t wait to see what it might be. My cousin came through town, along with her boyfriend. We ate tacos and drank beers and talked about the world ending any day now. 

The other day I spoke with my fishing skipper Karl Jordan to lock down our fishing dates – gearing up for another summer of kicking ass on the F/V Saturday. King salmon season opens July 1st. The summer, I suppose, will be one of work, but good work. Squirreling up somewhere in June to work on edits, then fishing for the month of July, along with working on the tugboat. Funny how much one looks forward to it, and then once you start hammering on those 18-hour days in the big waters, puking over your wrists as you pull in fish, you can’t wait to get home. Life’s not wasted out there, I can say that much.

Otherwise, life moves forward. Cal enjoys San Francisco, although I found a ticket on my truck windshield the other day from Animal Control threatening to confiscate and “humanely destroy” my dog if he wasn’t removed from the truck within two hours. Keep in mind I had been gone, to get coffee, for perhaps twenty minutes, it was about 50 degrees with a marine layer blowing in, and Cal had water. A special, special place, this San Francisco. But he did enjoy Dolores Park, as you can see from above.

The Stegners, of course, are extraordinary – as is Richard Powers, who runs our workshop. Lately we’ve been struggling with the question of whether one has a moral responsibility as a writer. More on that soon. In the meantime, I’m just anxious. And thought I’d write about it. Always seems to help, for reasons I have yet to understand.

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Winter, Spring, Alaska, Oakland (kinda rhymes…)

Well, it’s been a wee bit. My apologies for that. I’m just now emerging from the cave of rewriting the book. What a strange place to be for six months. Now the manuscript is with the editor. What a strange, harrowing process. For those of you who read earlier versions of “The Alaskan Laundry,” there is no more Santo, no more Cuban-come-to-Alaska. The novel began with eight main characters. It sold with two. Now it’s just Tara. A war of attrition, to be sure. She’s starting to scare me. It’s like, settle down girl, I created you. She doesn’t care. She does what she wants.

I spent most of December in Sitka. Jackie Fernandez continues to hold down the Adak, with all her WonderWoman abilities, circsawing up palettes, keeping the wine key where it belongs, seasoning her cast-iron pots to perfection. She is truly an inspiration. We had a magical Christmas – cutting down a tree from the woods, enjoying snow on the docks, having folks chez Adak for warmth and eggnog. I went out with Rick Petersen, and got four bucks off the beach, now in my freezer. Well, about half of one is in my freezer, because that was all I could bring back to Oakland. Rest is chez Rick. Although I did manage to package up liver and tongue and heart, which went into the Oakland Burns Supper haggis. Why no blacktail stomach, you ask? Well, that seems to be something that should only be in Sitka. Burns Supper here at Lake Merritt was a wondrous thing, going on to the small hours, with Stegners & friends coming up with brilliant poetry (surprise surprise) and speeches. While they might not drink as much Scotch as Alaskans – read my buddy Xander – we had a grand night, full of cheer and guitar and deer entrails.

Then it was the months of writing in Oakland, again and again going over the manuscript. I’ve been given a fall 2015 publication date – exciting, because it’s a good time for sales – but so far away! It’s a slow game, that’s what I’m coming to realize. Patience has never been a great virtue of mine.

I worry about the boat, my baby. And I think Cal misses Alaska. We get up to the Marin Headlands – a magical, tick-infested land – when we can, but it’s not the same. That said, Cal still gets to play his favorite game, chasing the ravens, as you can see here. And we take trips. Here we are in Portland, on the way to the FisherPoets conference in Astoria, Oregon. To this day I can’t tell if Cal likes skiff rides or not. This one I think he liked. It was on the “Epilogue,” skiff of my good buddy and fellow writer Chris Bernard, author of the acclaimed “Chasing Alaska,” which you should check out if you haven’t already. Chris built this boat with his own two hands. We spent a fine day on the Willamette River, drinking sugary bourbon and dodging deadheads. I didn’t have my Tuffs, and was a little ticked off  and self-conscious, but CB didn’t give me a hard time.

Most of spring break at Stanford was spent up in Alaska. I did a reading in Anchorage – trust me, there are people there, despite what it looks like… Afterward headed in the snow down to the Kenai Peninsula where where I had the great fortune to get to bunk up with Alaska writer Tom Kizzia – if you haven’t read “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” that’s another kickass book you should put on your nightstand. We cross-country skied out to Tom’s cabin, where he raised his kids, and I got to see a cabin where John Haines once stayed – pitter-patter went my heart. Also hit the famed Salty Dawg, where Tom rang the bell for all six of us in there, including a dude filming for the Discovery Channel whose job it was to capture sunsets for the Kiltridge Family show, or however you spell it. He gave us an earful about how many houses get edited out of the tape. A little bit disturbing. Definitely not “reality” TV. He showed me a pic of a sunset on his IPhone and I tried to get him to send it to me so I could pretend I took it and post it on FB but he wasn’t game.

Got brisket at the general store in town which tripled as the post office and DVD rental place – ah I miss Alaska. Then back to Anchorage, to roast a pig’s head and walk along the bluffs, two things that somehow went hand-in-hand. Have you ever made headcheese? Oh, now that I think on it, the pig’s head was roasted and the bluffs were hiked before the trip to Homer with Missy and Sam – who hosted me so generously. I remember now because I brought headcheese to Tom’s as a housewarming gift, and no one liked it. In fact, he sent the headcheese BACK with me to Anchorage. Ah well. I thought it was good.

In any case, I did end up in Ted Stevens airport, half-drunk at midnight after drinks at the Long Branch saloon with novelist Don Rearden, waiting for a red-eye to Reno, staring for WAY too long at the pretty ceiling. And then back to Oakland, and sweet my sweet doggie. Tomorrow workshop begins once more. I’ve been working on a piece contemplating whether Alaska is experiencing a literary renaissance, and also on a short story about I don’t want to say because I think it’s going pretty well and don’t want to jinx it. And – hopefully – more blog posts, now that the manuscript is in the able hands of Jenna. I’m thankful for that, and – as evidenced, I hope, above – for so, so much more. Thank you all for reading – look forward to being in touch personally down the line, now that the heavy work on the book is done.

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Espresso Beans, Deadlines, and Curbed Books

I just got back from walking the dog. We went down Wayne Place, along Lake Merritt, then through the park where they don’t allow dogs – Oakland police, unlike San Francisco police, have better things to do – and back again. My first time out of this chair in a long, long time. When I get antsy or nappy I’ve got my natural bag of speed. Last week it was coffee beans. Four days before the manuscript is due to the editor, I’ve switched to espresso beans.

I’m always curious to hear whether people write to music. I do, and change the genre depending on the character I’m writing about, or how much of a goose I need to get the work done. The past few days I’ve been listening to Drake on full volume. My ears throb. The dog mopes about the apartment, giving me plaintive looks. These short walks are BS. He misses his Sundays in the Redwoods.

On the way to the lake I came across a paperback, left on a couch in a pile of clothes, by an empty KFC box. Leaving a book to warp in the rain and sunshine has always seemed to me tantamount to burning it. Was it really so bad? Couldn’t you at least have put it in storage? It was called “Population: 485. Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.” Non-fiction stories written by a small-town EMT. As I type I’m tempted to get up and see if it’s still there. Probably. But once I take the blanket off my feet and get up this opens the door on all manner of puttering.

The book struck me, because it’s about a small town, which I’m writing about. And it’s about an emergency, which I’m writing about. And of course there are stories – yesterday a buddy I commercial fished with in Sitka warned against using people’s stories for purposes of entertainment. I know this is something writers much more experienced than myself have struggled with. Who has rights to what stories? Are there universal ethics when it comes to such things? Of course. So what are they?

Along with particular stories central to Sitka, I’m also grappling with whether to rename the town. One reader suggested this, reasoning that such a move would privilege the story of Tara Marconi, my main character, instead of Sitka. It would allow more leeway for the imagination, and remove the staple of reality from the work. But it would also mean renaming Baranof Island. And the Pioneer Bar – Frontier Bar? The volcano, and the mountains surrounding town. Where does it end?

I have no experience with any of this. I do, however, know that Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union drove me batty. He spent two days in Sitka, had a New York Times article written (with photos of him walking the docks in his UGGs), then wrote a novel centered on a vague Rooseveltian concept of creating a Jewish homeland in Southeast Alaska. All well and good, except he called his town Sitka, even though his story wasn’t set in anything truly resembling the real place.

His imaginative powers are superlative, and he’s a brilliant writer; why not just come up with a different name for town? Because there were people living in Sitka in that period he was writing about. Living true, complicated lives, which he paved over with his imagination. Lives that would have been saved if he had just renamed the town.

Okay. Maybe that’s pushing it.

On the other hand, there’s David Guterson’s majestic Snow Falling on Cedars. He renamed Bainbridge Island “San Piedro Island,” and placed it farther north. This was a slick move, and it works. Of course, Guterson lives on Bainbridge Island, so there’s no huge secret there.

Anyways, small towns, books, stories – I wish I could tie it all together in some neat blog-bow. But the truth of the matter is I’m a little manic because of all these espresso beans. And there’s a desperate undertone to Drake’s beats. Also, there’s that haunting vision of the book kicked to the curb. I’ll just go ahead and say it: I don’t want that to be mine – whether because I’ve offended people I know and respect in Sitka, or because my plot’s not entertaining enough to a 30-something in Oakland. To toe this line takes work.

Turn up the music. Last couple espresso beans. Back to it.

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