The Long and the Short of it
In my career, I have rescued wild dolphins, trained seals and sea lions, scuba-dived in the gloom under 15 feet of ice, done stand-up comedy, directed plays (which I still do), spent winters in Antarctica, and cheated death more than once. I speak a little French, un poco Spanish, a bit of German, and a few words of Japanese and Navajo. I’ve been a biologist, professional dancer, laboratory manager, college professor, professional diver, field research assistant, and photographer. I love to surf, water ski, snorkel, and scuba dive, but if there’s no water around I’ll take to my mountain bike.
And I write.
I’ve covered many subjects in my published work, including travel, science, natural history, human interest, scuba diving, the environment, writing, teaching, science fiction, and fantasy. I have published three books on Antarctica, a manual on scientific diving in Antarctica, and numerous articles and essays. My memoir, Antarctica: A Year at the Bottom of the World, is still considered by many to be the best contemporary account of life in Antarctica. Discover magazine named my collaborative work with another photographer, Under Antarctic Ice, one of the 20 best science books of 2004.
My science fiction trilogy for middle grade is now complete. Book 1, The Talisman of Elam, was published in 2010. Book 2, The Hand of Osiris, was released in September 2013, and Book 3, The Treasure of Hathor, was released in December 2015. I am now working on a middle grade fantasy and a biography of a scientist.
Originally from San Diego, I now live in New England with my wife, son, and a small dust mop that thinks it’s a dog.
DECISIONS WE MAKE
The first time I almost died, I was in New Zealand. I was supposed to fly from Auckland to the South Island to hike in Nelson Lakes National Park for a few days with my good friend Gary. But the night before the flight, I had these terrible dreams. Well, not dreams, really, and not nightmares in the normal sense of the word. Nothing happened in them. They were just endless visions of darkness and death, an endless swirl of blackness.
I awoke feeling terrible, as though Death himself had brushed his bony fingers across my face. I knew that if I boarded the plane, I would die. That plane was going to crash.
What to do? Could I convince Gary we needed to cancel our flight? What kind of reason could I give? Another of his friends was coming along, and my fear was that if I bailed he and Gary would go anyway. And they would die.
We got to the airport, but I was still feeling terrible. Swirls of darkness still clouded my brain. Death was coming for me, I was stone cold certain. I went off to sit by myself. I became oblivious to everything around me, my mind focused on the darkness, as though I were in a meditative state. And in that state, I decided I would get on the airplane, but I was NOT going to die! It was not my time. It wasn’t a hope or a guess. It was a decision.
And then suddenly, I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from me. The darkness vanished. At that moment, I knew the danger was past. And a moment later, a spokesperson for the airline came over the intercom and announced that there would be a slight delay in our flight. They had discovered a mechanical problem with our plane and they were switching us to another plane.
What happened? Was it coincidence, or did I change the course of events by an act of will? Can our thoughts affect reality? Or are our lives governed by immutable destiny? Do we end up where we end up no matter what we do? Or are our decisions and the decisions of others like rudders in the currents of time, sending us this way and that? Could our lives be completely different if we just made a slightly different decision somewhere along the way?
I was in New Zealand — and I knew Gary — because I had just spent a year in Antarctica. And I had been to Antarctica because of a long string of decisions, some of which stretched back to before I was even born.
DECISIONS MADE BY OTHERS
My mom had a dreadful childhood. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and she was forced to live with her alcoholic mother. She had to fend for herself from an early age, scrounging her own meals when there was food in the house — and often there wasn’t. Her mother would stay out all night partying, or sometimes bring the party back to the house. My mom had to navigate drunks and avoid a string of her mother’s lecherous boyfriends. So when Jim Mastro (yes, I have the same name as my dad) offered to marry her to give her a way out, she took it, even though she was only seventeen. I was born a year later, in San Diego.
Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last. When I was three, they separated. My mom got a small apartment and went to work to support the two of us, leaving me with her mother — the only childcare she could afford. (I wonder how many close calls I had during those years?) After a year of this, she met a young Coast Guard recruit named Ron Herpolsheimer. He treated her well and ultimately proposed marriage. She was hesitant, but her grandmother encouraged her to take the offer. Ron offered the stability and security that my mom had always yearned for but never had. So she said yes.
Thus began my peripatetic life.
NO MOSS GROWS ON THIS STONE
The Coast Guard re-assigned Ron every two or three years, so we moved constantly: San Diego; Long Beach, CA; Corpus Christi, Texas; Port Angeles, WA; Pensacola, FL; San Francisco; Hawaii.
Hawaii! By this time in my life, I was used to moving. I not only didn’t mind it, I actually looked forward to new places and new people. But Hawaii! I could have stayed there forever. I loved it. I loved the climate. I fell in love with the ocean. I learned to surf, snorkel, and scuba dive. I collected shells, made the best friends ever, and never wanted to leave. Hawaii changed the direction of my life. The last year we were there, we lived a stone’s throw from the beach, so every day after school, I was in the water. I still live to surf. Because of the love for the ocean and the fascination with sea life that Hawaii instilled in me, I went on to become a marine biologist. It was in Hawaii that I read The Mind of the Dolphin, by John C. Lilly, which cemented my desire to study marine mammals.
But after three years, we had to move again. Ron had long ago decided he was going to spend his last few years with the Coast Guard in San Diego, and since I was not yet old enough to stay on my own, I had to go, too. Bummer.
In San Diego, I finished high school and went on to study biology at San Diego State University. Frankly, though, I wasn’t into it the first couple of years. All those general education courses were boring, but they were prerequisites to the biology courses I wanted, so I was stuck with them. I worked as a busboy and dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant, then went on to an illustrious career at a burger joint. I left that job — and school for a semester — to work as a driver for an auto parts company.
That was the wake-up call. I remember one time the company was having a celebration for a guy who was retiring. He had worked there for 45 years selling auto parts, and they were giving him a gold watch and a big send-off to do…what? Sit and watch TV for the rest of his life? 45 years of selling auto parts! I saw that in my future, and it scared me. I don’t denigrate people who want to work the same, mundane job for their entire life, but I knew then it wasn’t for me.
I needed a way out, and I found it at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. I had heard that Scripps had research vessels and that sometimes they took volunteers on cruises. So I started making phone calls until I located a professor who had a big research cruise scheduled for the following summer. It was an oceanographic expedition down the west coast of North and South America. I wanted it, and badly. I pestered the professor constantly until, finally, he said I could go.
That May, with finals under my belt, I was on the R/V Alexander Agassiz and headed out to sea. The cruise — the Krill Expedition — encompassed more than I can relay here. It was a life-changing experience for a naïve young man who had never been out of the country, and its effects reverberate down the years. Being at sea for weeks at a time. Port call in Acapulco! The Galapagos (twice)! Lima, Peru and Macchu Picchu! Valparaiso, Chile! I may tell the whole story someday, but for now the salient point is that my decision to pursue that trip dramatically changed my future.
For one thing, when I came back, I was driven. My days of being a lackadaisical and mediocre student were over. I ploughed back into college with a fervor I had never had, and my grade point average went through the roof.
For another thing, I had opened a door into Scripps.
I had made it my business to watch for marine mammals during the long days at sea, and I took photos and movies of them when I saw them.
When I returned, I joined the American Cetacean Society, and one evening I gave a presentation to the Society in an auditorium on the Scripps campus. A man in the audience named Jack was impressed with my presentation and invited me to come visit the lab where he worked with seals and sea lions. Score!
Jack worked for Dr. Gerald L. Kooyman, a prominent researcher on the physiology of diving. I was enthralled when Jack introduced us (and now Jerry Kooyman is one of my best friends). I asked for permission to do a behavioral study on three harbor seals for a class project and was thrilled when it was granted. I was even more thrilled when Jerry asked me to do a metabolic study on a seal, which would also serve to give me a special study credit toward my degree.
People had told Jerry that harbor seals were untrainable. Jerry wanted to test that thesis, and I didn’t know any better, so I jumped in with both feet. What did I know about training? Nothing! But I did a lot of research, read articles, spoke to other trainers, and I came up with a plan. And it worked. I trained Athos (the harbor seal and my best pinniped buddy) and the study was successful.
I spent four years working at Scripps while I was an undergraduate (and for a short time after graduating). I cleaned tanks, helped with experiments, worked with a variety of marine mammals, and became an accomplished trainer. They were great years. It’s another long story, but the upshot is this: Jerry Kooyman did much of his research in Antarctica, and that’s how I learned about the place that would change my life yet again.
DEATH TRIES A FEW MORE TIMES
I’ll jump ahead here for just a moment, because Antarctica is where I easily could have died three more times. Number two was on a late winter trip to a place called Windless Bight. (I told that story in my book Antarctica: A Year at the Bottom of the World, so I won’t repeat it here now. However, I’ll add stories from the book to the Adventures section from time to time.) Numbers three and four took place during my second winter.
There were two biologists sharing the lab with me that winter, and part of their work involved scuba diving under the ice. One day we concocted a plan to let me make a dive. Though I was a certified diver, I wasn’t approved to dive in Antarctica, so this was completely illegal. But hey, it was winter. Who would know? Besides, I had already made one illegal dive a year earlier. For this one, I would borrow the woman’s dry suit and the man would be my buddy. We planned the dive for the next day.
That night I had those horrible, dark dreams of death again, and I awoke feeling physically ill. I knew what those dreams meant, so I postponed the dive. A week later, we planned the dive again, and again, the night before, the dreams came. This time I canceled. My intuition was telling me something, and I listened. There would be no dive for me that winter.
The following year, a biology student died wearing that dry suit. I think the neck seal was too tight. I’m certain the same thing would have happened to me.
I went on to become the scientific diving coordinator for the U.S. Antarctic Program and completed 250 scuba dives under the ice. I never had those dreams again.
After graduating from college with a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology, I continued working at Scripps for a couple of years. I loved it too much to leave, working with animals right next to the beach, surfing whenever the urge struck. What could be better? Besides, I had seen too many of my friends struggle through grad school and then struggle even harder to find a job, and then struggle again to get the grant money necessary to do their work. As much as I loved science, I wasn’t sure that was the right path for me to take. I had taken many writing classes at the university, and I was toying with the idea of being a writer. It seemed to me that struggling for grant money and struggling for publication were pretty much the same thing, only for the latter I was my own boss.
But being a successful writer takes discipline, and I was coming up short on that end. I had a few small publications in local newspapers, but nowhere near enough to support me. So when the Scripps job ended, I became a professional dancer.
“What?” you say.
In college I had taken quite a few ballroom dance classes, and I got pretty good at it. I also met a woman who was naturally a great dancer. We became partners, and the association went from doing it for fun to doing it for money AND fun. We taught classes, won contests, performed in shows and on TV commercials, and pretty much blazed our way around San Diego. That is, until love got in the way. Yikes. That’s another story, too, but I’m not sure it’s one I want to tell…
During this time, I also experimented with stand-up comedy at the Comedy Store in La Jolla. They had an open mic night on Sundays. I became a regular, and I regularly bombed. But I parlayed my access into a budding photography career, doing stage photography and portfolio shots for the actors and comedians, and even some models. Monday night was Improv Night, and I joined in with the 10-15 regulars who showed up to hone their improve skills. One of them was Whoopi Goldberg (real name: Caryn Johnson), long before she got famous. It didn’t take me long to realize that, of all of us, she would make it big, because she was GOOD.
Fun times can’t last forever, though, especially when the money runs out. My photography business wasn’t paying enough (probably because I was a lousy businessman and charged way too little) and dancing wasn’t paying enough (especially with the rather fiery relationship I had with my partner), so it was time to get a real job. A biology job. I started working for the National Marine Fisheries Service as a tuna-porpoise observer. In my last stand-up performance before going to sea (my last stand-up performance ever, in fact), I knocked ‘em dead. They were rolling in the aisles. Oh, did that feel good.
I’ve written of my experiences onboard the tuna boats before. Keep checking the Adventures section for the article. All I will say here is that it was a tremendously…er… interesting experience to be at sea again, only this time not with scientists but with fisherman who, if they didn’t hate you, for the most part barely tolerated you. My job was to log their fishing activities, record the number of porpoises killed, take biological samples, and record all instances of marine mammals spotted at sea. (I saw a Cuvier’s beaked whale once, right next to the boat! Very rare animal, rarely seen. Very exciting!)
In my time off between fishing trips, I worked on being a writer — or so I thought. I still didn’t really understand what it took to be a writer for a living. However, I did have my first major article published in a national magazine (Omni), and this filled my head up with such hubris that I quit the observer job. I was on the road to writerly fame and fortune!
Here I am tempted to warn budding writers what a mistake it is to do this. It was sheer lunacy to think that I could suddenly support myself as a freelance writer after publishing one article in a national magazine. We are all told to “keep your day job” and that’s good advice. But if I had followed that advice, I might never have gone to Antarctica.
See what I mean about the decisions we make?
When the money ran out again and I needed a job, my contacts in Jerry’s lab at Scripps let me know there was an opening for an assistant lab manager at McMurdo Station. The only thing was, it was a year-long contract. I would have to spend a full year in Antarctica without a break. I’d have to leave my girlfriend — for a year! (She wasn’t particularly thrilled, either.) I’d be lying if I said I was anxious to go. In fact, I tried desperately to get a job as a seal trainer at the San Diego Zoo, just so I could stay. No luck. So I went. It may have been the best thing I ever did.
I ended up spending over six years in Antarctica itself, and several more years working for the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP). In fact, I still work for the USAP as a part-time technical writer. I miss being in Antarctica. I miss the diving. I miss the stillness of being on the sea ice on a calm, early spring day.
I miss the blue, cathedral-like ice caves, and the stark beauty of the Dry Valleys. I’d love to go back. People who have never been there can not understand that.
Even my wife thinks it’s crazy — and that’s where we met! It’s like going to another planet. It’s living on the edge; the edge of the Earth, the edge of survival, the cutting edge of science. It’s where you can explore places no one else has ever seen, walk where no human has ever gone before. Plus, it has the best diving in the world, with 800 foot visibility part of the year. How can anyone not get excited about that?
Well, yeah, it’s cold. There is that. And there are some serious storms. But the people! What a cast of characters! I made some of the best friends of my life there, friends I will have forever because the friendships were forged in the crucible of Antarctica.
You can read about some of my experiences in Antarctica: A Year at the Bottom of the World, and you can read about what it’s like under the ice in Under Antarctic Ice, the book I wrote in collaboration with photographer Norbert Wu. (Of course, there are more stories that aren’t in the books. Keep an eye on the Adventures section, as I will add them there from time to time. Antarctica features 126 of my photographs, too, and some of them are posted in the Gallery section of this site.)
Besides being the ultimate life-changing experience, Antarctica represented the final step — and the final distraction — in my quest to become a writer. But first…
MASTRO BECOMES HERPOLSHEIMER BECOMES MASTRO
Remember Ron Herpolsheimer? When he married my mom, he adopted me, giving me his name. (What a gift! What a guy!) So for the next 20 years of my life, I believed my name was Jim Herpolsheimer and that my ancestry was German. This despite the fact that I looked NOTHING like Ron and very little like the half-brother and sister that came after me, and despite the fact that my personality and temperament were completely opposite from all of them. I was Italian, for Pete’s sake! Emotional! Expressive! Prone to speaking with my hands! Ron was German. Reserved, unemotional, unexpressive. In other words, the total opposite of me.
It’s amazing what kids will believe if they are told it often enough by someone they trust — like their parents. I remember having my doubts when I was seven, but they were quashed. Ron was my father, I was told. Period. And I came to accept it fully and completely.
When the divorce came, things changed.
I was in the last full year of college when things fell apart. I won’t go into the sordid details. Suffice to say that the long-term stability my mom sought turned out once again to be a mirage.
I was visiting my maternal grandfather one evening when, out of the blue, and in a fit of senility, he said (and I’ll surely never forget these words): “So, have you met your real father?”
In one brief second, the cosmology that formed the basis of my worldview, the very foundation of who I thought I was as a person, was erased. I felt as though the floor had given way beneath my feet and I was falling falling falling into blackness. I got dizzy. (This was the sensation Jason Hunter had in The Talisman of Elam when he learned that his parents had been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by androids. I imagined he would have had the same feeling I did at hearing such shocking news.)
“Wh…what?” I stammered. “What did you say?”
The look of absolute shock on my face must have unnerved the old man. “Nothing! Nevermind!”
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
“Ask your mother!” And he wouldn’t say another word.
So of course I asked her. I learned the truth that had been hidden from me for so long. But after the shock wore off, I had the most profound sense of relief. Ron had some good qualities (he was a crack pilot, for one thing, and he never lost his cool under pressure), but he was emotionally distant as a father.
But now what? Who WAS my father? Where was my father? Did I even want to know? What if he was a jerk? My mom said he would meet me if I wanted, but for years I put it off. Was I scared? Yes. I also had this wonderful feeling of freedom. If I didn’t know what my real father was like, then I was not bound by any preconceived notions. I could be whatever and whoever I wanted. I was not shackled by inheritance or ancestry! Right?
How foolish that sounds now. We can never escape our family history, our genealogy, our genetic and cultural heritage. They are integral to who we are. This came home to me in many ways, but the first was at my grandmother’s deathbed. She was dying of cancer after a lifetime of smoking. I was due to head to Antarctica in a few days. I would never see her again.
She pulled an old picture out of a book and handed it to me. It showed a man on a motorcycle with a young boy sitting behind him. The boy was about eighteen months old. It was me. The man was my father. In the photo, he was the same age as I was at that moment, looking at the photo. And he looked so much like me! That’s when I knew I had to meet him.
That also marks the moment when I decided to start using Mastro as my pen name.
IT’S ALL IN A NAME
Herpolsheimer! What a name! How can I convey what it is like growing up with a name like that? I got so tired of spelling it for people, but what choice did I have? They always asked, and those who couldn’t ask butchered the name in innumerable ways. I once received a letter addressed to a Mr. Herpol Shimer. Who would be dumb enough to think someone’s first name was Herpol??
The most popular nickname in grade school was Purpleshiner, but there were many others, most of them not particularly flattering. In any case, you can understand why I began using Mastro as my pen name, and why I eventually (and eagerly) made it my legal name, the one I was born with.
And you know how I had to do that? I couldn’t just reverse the adoption. No sir, not in California, with its goofy laws and regulations. In order to get my name back, I had to have my real dad adopt me. How stupid is that? But I had finally met him and found out he was one of the coolest guys ever, so that worked out fine.
(Here’s the other funny thing about that: my dad and I are exactly alike. All those mannerism and gestures I had growing up that were so unlike Ron’s? They were my dad’s! We tell the same jokes, laugh the same, and carry our luggage the same way. My mom says we even dance the swing the same. Remember how I said you can’t escape your genealogy? That is now abundantly clear to me. Thus ends the “nature versus nurture” debate, as far as I’m concerned. It’s in the genes, dude.)
BACK IN THE WORLD
Leaving Antarctica after my first year was heart-wrenching. It had become my home. And I was leaving just as many of my summer friends were coming back! It was a sad day when I boarded the C-141 Starlifter transport for the five-hour flight, but as soon as I arrived in Christchurch, New Zealand I forgot all about McMurdo Station.
I hadn’t seen any living things other than people, seals, penguins, and skuas for over a year. I hadn’t had anything except bland and boring galley food. My first thought was to get a pizza. Not some bored and burnt-out Navy cook’s bizarre interpretation of a pizza. A real pizza! I knew there was a pizza parlor somewhere in Christchurch, but I wasn’t sure where. So I asked this woman on a street corner and she graciously agreed to guide me to it. We rounded a corner, and I spotted a cat on the sidewalk. “A cat!” I exclaimed, pointing. I hadn’t seen one for so long! The cat took one look at me and bolted. (Was it the frenzied look in my eyes?) I ran after it, but it disappeared into an alley.
The woman who had been so friendly and solicitous now regarded me with alarm. She must have wondered what kind of crazy fool sees a run-of-the-mill alley cat and acts like he’s seen a unicorn! But that’s how it was for me for the first few days. You don’t realize how many things you take for granted until you are deprived of them. I was utterly fascinated by the first housefly I saw, to the great consternation of the people around me.
The next day day — a beautiful, sunny, glorious, WARM day — I went to the Christchurch Botanical Gardens, took off my shirt, and lay on the grass, soaking up the sun on my pasty white, winter-over skin. I was surrounded by actual, living plants! I heard birds singing in the bushes and children playing and splashing in the nearby pool. Children playing! Such a beautiful sound. The moment was pure bliss.
Several weeks of travel followed. First, diving around Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef. Then hiking in an Australian rain forest (where an echidna nearly walked on my feet), surfing at Surfer’s Paradise (which isn’t, really), then again at Noosa Heads (which is). My first day of surfing at Surfer’s, I had rented a surfboard and was standing on a street corner waiting to cross to the beach when a car full of bronzed Aussie surfers drove by, pointed at me, and burst out laughing. I guess I could see why. The board I had rented was blue, my swim trunks were red, and my skin was still pasty white. Red, white, and blue. Like I was trying to make a patriotic statement or something. What a geek.
After a very lonely Christmas in Sydney, I flew to New Caledonia. Before leaving for Antarctica, I told people of my plans to go there, and they would ask, “Where’s that?” And I would respond, “That’s why I want to go there!”
I always tend to avoid the beaten path, to go where others typically do not. And in this case, I was right on the mark. I was probably the only American in New Caledonia at the time. I was surrounded by fresh mangos, hot croissants, and lovely beaches. It was paradise to this weary Antarctican. I spent two weeks on the Isle of Pines, with my tent pitched right next to the sand on a pristine bay, ate hot French bread and fresh-off-the-tree papayas for breakfast, snorkeled in the afternoon, and ate freshly caught scallops for dinner.
After that, I returned to New Zealand (which now seemed positively cold, compared to New Caledonia), where I met up with Gary and my first brush with the Grim Reaper.
TRY, TRY AGAIN
After returning to the States, I decided this was it. Now I was going to be a writer! So I found a room for rent and sat down to write…what? Rule number two, budding writers: You have to have something to write! You can’t just say you’re going to be a writer. You need a plan. I did manage one or two small pieces, published locally, but once again, the money began to run out. (See a pattern here? I should have, but I guess I was a slow learner. Either that or hopelessly unrealistic. If I had invested all that money I earned in Antarctica instead of spending it on fish tacos, I’d be a millionaire today.)
So I took a job with the San Diego Wild Animal Park as a keeper. It sounds exotic and fun, doesn’t it? And surely, it was very cool to get up close to the animals and have tourists “ooh” and “aah” at you when you petted a rhino or held a baby tiger. Ever stand right next to a giraffe? It’s like a tree that moves. They are BIG! And intimidating, to say the least.
But the truth is, being a keeper was mostly doling out food pellets and shoveling poop. Lots and lots of poop. Do you have any idea how much doo-doo a rhino produces? I’ll give you a hint: you need a front-end loader to scoop it. So even though it was a good job (though the pay was lousy) and the people were great, I just couldn’t see myself shoveling rhino poo for the rest of my professional career. It didn’t help that I had to get up at 4 AM every morning, and I have never been a morning person.
On top of that, I was hearing the siren call of Antarctica.
My friend Rob Robbins had offered me the job of Assistant Manager of the Berg Field Center as soon as I got back to the states, but at the time I wasn’t ready to commit to another year quite so soon. Another friend and former roommate, Dan Costa, has asked me if I wanted to go with him to Bird Island in the South Atlantic to help with a fur seal research project, but I turned him down, too. Now, with chilling thoughts of retiring with a gold watch after 45 years on the doo-doo patrol, I called Dan back. The job was still open. I took it. Then I called John Wood, my old boss from the McMurdo Biolab, and told him “Sign me up for next year!”
My last day at the Wild Animal Park, my fellow keepers showered me with ice cubes.
ALMOST SHREDDED BY A FUR SEAL AND BLINDED BY A PENGUIN
I don’t know if it was another narrow escape from death or not, but it would have been ugly, nonetheless. I was hiking on Bird Island when I was set upon by a frenetic, bug-eyed fur seal. I have recounted the story before (in Antarctica, of course) so I won’t repeat it here. I only mention it to note that it could have been a final appointment with the Reaper, if the seal had succeeded in ripping open an artery.
I had another close call on Bird Island. I was helping my friend Randy, who was studying the foraging energetics of penguins. He had set up a Scott Tent as a sort of temporary laboratory at the edge of a small macaroni penguin colony. While he sat inside preparing, my job was to bring in a penguin.
Scott tents have narrow, tube-like openings — the better to keep out the cold and wind, but not so handy for entering when your hands are full of penguin. I had the fellow’s feet in one hand and his beak in the other. As I squeezed through into the tent, I had to free one hand to pull myself forward. I chose to release the wrong hand.
In a flash, the penguin spun around and jabbed at my eye with its thick, powerful beak. I saw stars and blackness. I released the penguin, who was now free to roam the “lab” and create havoc, and I held my hand to my eye. I was sure I had lost it. I cannot describe the horrible sinking feeling of knowing one half of my vision was forever gone. I looked at Randy, who was now holding the penguin, and said, “I think I lost an eye.”
Randy just looked at me calmly. Nothing EVER rattled Randy.
I pulled my hand away, slowly, and opened the eye — and I could see! The penguin had hit the bridge of my brow, cutting a gash, but the beak had only ricocheted into the eye. It was undamaged. Can I adequately describe the feeling of elation I felt when I realized I had NOT lost half my vision? Probably not.
So, yes, Bird Island was a dangerous place, but it was also a place of magic, where I could get up close to elephant seals, fur seals, penguins, albatrosses, and a whole host of other birds.
And you see, here was the problem. Though I loved writing and dearly wanted to be a writer, I also loved biology and the whole idea of traveling to far-flung places to work with wild animals. That’s what I meant when I said Antarctica was a distraction.
Even so, I kept writing, and I kept publishing. One nice thing about going to exotic places and working with wild animals, it gives you something to write about. After returning from Bird Island, I wrote an article that was published in International Wildlife. It was my first feature article, and it included many of my photos.
That was another distraction: photography. I loved it as much as I loved writing, and for a long time I went back and forth over which to pursue as my main artistic and vocational focus. Going to Antarctica helped, as there is no end to the spectacular photos one can take there, and it’s not exactly an easy place to get to. So I could get photos that few others could. Many were published, either individually, in articles by other writers, or in articles I had written.
Articles were my main focus during these years. I loved writing fiction, and my ultimate goal was to be a fiction writer, but I had so much non-fiction material, and a ready market for it, that I spent my writing time on that. And, to be honest, non-fiction (essays, articles, reports) has always been easy for me. Fiction, on the other hand, has been more of a challenge. In fact, until I wrote The Talisman of Elam, I had published only two short works of fiction, and both of them were stories I wrote while wintering over at McMurdo Station — one story for each winter. (I still think that’s interesting. Perhaps the creative mind opens up more easily when relatively free of distraction, and there’s sure not much to distract you when you’re stuck at the bottom of the world in the dark middle of winter.)
I know what you’re thinking. If non-fiction is so easy and fiction so hard, why not just write non-fiction? I’ll tell you why. Because I want to write fiction! Besides, I like a challenge. If it’s easy, great. If it’s hard, that’s even better. Hard is more fun. What did Tom Hanks say in the movie A League of Their Own? He was talking about baseball, but the principle applies. He said, “If it was easy, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it good.”
And I’m happy to report that the more I do it, the easier it gets. The first novel (The Talisman of Elam) was tough, the second one (The Hand of Osiris) much less so.
BACK TO SCHOOL…AND ANTARCTICA
I decided if I wasn’t getting enough fiction published, maybe what I needed was more training. After returning from my second Antarctic winter, I entered graduate school at San Diego State University to earn a Master’s degree in English, with an emphasis on writing fiction. I also landed two part-time technical writing jobs to help pay for it. One of them was at a company called Gen-Probe, which led to the short story “Lizard Tales.” (You can read it in the “Stories” section of this web site.) The second job led to the publication of my first book. I worked for a woman who ran seminars to train business writers. She had also written a few business writing books. When she landed a contract to write How to Write Complaint Letters That Work, she told me she didn’t have time to write it and asked me if I would. We’d be co-authors and split the advance.
It took me about two nanoseconds to say, “Sure!” Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), at the same time, I got a call. Antarctica wanted me back. I said yes to that, too. So I put school on hold (and at the same time initiated the process of switching to the University of New Hampshire) and headed to Paramus, New Jersey, the headquarters of the company that held the Antarctic contract.
For one interminable month, I spent my days in a vast, dark, windowless warehouse filled with cubicles from beginning to end. Every cubicle had a single gray head. From some cubicles, wisps of cigarette smoke curled upward. The smoky atmosphere was hushed. It was like the Great Hall of the Dead. It was cubicle hell. Imagine working there every day for 45 years! Selling auto parts would be paradise by comparison.
Every evening, I worked on the book. It was my lifeline to sanity. When I left Paramus to return to San Diego, the book was done, and I had re-affirmed my commitment to never, ever work a regular, 8-5 job, especially not in a cubicle.
And I never have.
What followed were a couple of years of working in Antarctica, a return to school at UNH to earn a Master’s degree, then back to Antarctica for several years of managing the scientific diving program. A more fun and exciting job I had never had, which may explain why I did very little writing during that time. I did write several teleplays for a TV show that were never bought. They were fun to write, and I thought they were pretty good, but if you think getting published is hard, trying breaking through the barriers in Hollywood.
I also published a couple of technical articles on regulators, and I was the primary author of the Antarctic Scientific Diving Manual, which is still the standard for the USAP and for diving in Antarctic waters in general. I’ve talked about diving in many other venues (see the Adventures section and A Year at The Bottom of the World), so I won’t go into it here. Suffice to say, that job was the ultimate distraction from writing.
I was married by now. Lisa and I had met right after my second Antarctic winter, when she came down with a phytoplankton study group. She was a college student at the time (see the story “Rescue Mission” in Antarctica for a little history there). We hit it off famously and have been inseparable ever since.
While I managed the scientific diving program, Lisa took over as assistant manager of the laboratory. (Side note: managing the diving program also meant managing the McMurdo recompression chamber, where we would treat victims of dive accidents (not many) and victims of carbon monoxide poisoning (also not many). So in addition to being a NAUI Divemaster, a certified scuba tank inspector, a DAN Emergency Oxygen trainer, a regulator technician, and a high-pressure gas systems technician, I was also a Certified Hyperbaric Technologist. I loved every minute of it.)
At any rate, Lisa and I would work together in Antarctica for six months of the year, then travel through the South Pacific for several weeks (Australia, New Zealand, Bali, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Hawaii), then put in a couple of months in the Denver office to prepare for the next austral season. It was a pretty good deal!
Funny story about getting married. We did it in Sumner, New Zealand, on a cliff overlooking the ocean, three days after leaving McMurdo. No one had ever been married at that spot, so a reporter and photographer from the local Christchurch newspaper (The Press) were there to document it. The next day, we were on the front page, right at the top. (Note: The “beware” part of the title has nothing to do with our marriage! It refers to the fact that our video man, Kirk Kiyota, almost stepped off the cliff as he was backing up to get the shot.)
We rented a van with several of our Antarctic friends and headed south toward Dunedin for the first part of our honeymoon. When we stopped at a gas station, the clerk recognized us and asked us all to sign the newspaper for him. We were suddenly minor celebrities! A few days later, when one of our friends accidentally set our hotel on fire, we were celebrities again, though that second time wasn’t nearly as much fun.
DEATH TRIES YET AGAIN
The sixth time I almost died was because I was pushing the limits a little too hard. Lisa and I were vacationing in Hawaii after another season on the Ice. We headed to Kealakekua Bay, where I had heard one could snorkel with wild Hawaiian spinner dolphins. We finned out into the bay, to where the water was about 60 feet deep, and sure enough, the dolphins were there. They were sleeping as dolphins sleep, finning in slow, wide circles and coming up for air every few minutes, with half the brain awake and the other half napping.
I dove down and finned alongside them, taking pictures with my underwater camera. Sometimes I’d stay down when they surfaced so I could take a shot of them silhouetted against the sky.
After about an hour of this, Lisa was getting cold, so we headed back to shore. Along the way, we came upon a jack stalking a fish ball beneath us. Lisa went on ahead, but I wanted to try and get a photo of the fish silhouetted against the sky, like I had of the dolphins. I dove down, trying to get below them. Forty feet. Fifty feet. Fifty five. But the stupid fish refused to let me get underneath them. If I went deep, they went deeper.
I tried just hanging out, letting them get used to me and maybe lose their fear. I can hold my breath for a goodly amount of time (my record is four minutes), so I waited. I felt the urge to breathe, but I continued waiting. I snapped some photos of the fish ball. I waited some more. I swam down again, trying to get beneath them. I really needed to breathe now, but still I waited. Finally, with my lungs screaming at me for air, I took one more photo and shot toward the surface.
When you free dive, the partial pressure of oxygen in your lungs increases with depth (i.e., with external pressure). The upshot is that when you are at depth, you can feel like you have more oxygen than you actually do. You have to be careful, because when you head back to the surface and the pressure decreases, so does the partial pressure of oxygen. If you used up too much at depth and the partial pressure in your lungs (and blood) drops below a critical amount on the way up, you can lose consciousness. It’s called shallow water blackout, and it has killed a number of people.
I had stayed too long down there, waiting for those dumb fish. I realized that as I drew closer to the surface. My visual field began to narrow. I started to feel light headed, and flashes of light appeared in my peripheral vision. When I broke the surface, I was only a couple of seconds away from unconsciousness — and drowning.
Like I said, pushing the limits. And the photos I got were nothing great.
Hint: Don’t just assume you can do what you plan to do. Do a little research first! I had pursued a Master’s degree (among other reasons) so I could get a job teaching at a community college when I finally decided to end my Antarctic career. Well, that turned out to be much more difficult than I had anticipated.
In San Diego, there’s a name for aspiring teachers, struggling to land a permanent job at a community college. They’re called freeway flyers. They compete for jobs as adjunct professors (which is nothing more than a fancy name for a temporary, part-time, low-pay, expendable teacher), hoping to do their time bouncing from one campus and one class to the next until they can score a full-time position. It takes years, and sometimes it never happens. I decided that wasn’t going to work for me.
So I took a permanent part-time position at National University (an accredited, non-profit university) teaching biology and writing. I had taught while earning my degree at San Diego State and the University of New Hampshire, so it was familiar territory. And I could bring to it a multi-disciplinary breadth of experience from being both a scientist and a published writer.
A word about teaching. I love to teach, and I think I’m pretty good at it (judging from my evaluations). It’s very rewarding — you just can’t beat seeing that look in a student’s eyes when he or she finally gets it — but the pay generally stinks, and it takes a ton more time to do than you’re paid for (if you are going to do it well, and do it right, as most teachers do). And the pay for adjunct or part-time teachers is even worse. I just can’t afford to do it any more. It’s a sad statement about our culture that we so undervalue the very people who are critical to our children’s success and to the success of our country. How did such a backwards state of affairs ever come to be?
Okay, I’m off the soapbox. With a little time on my hands, I decided to write a book about my time in Antarctica. And here’s the funny thing: when I was working there, I could never write about it. I tried a couple of times, but it just wouldn’t work. After I left the program, the words flowed out of me.
And here’s another funny thing. Through all those years and those two long, dark winters that I was in Antarctica, I never dreamed about it. Never. Not once. After I left, it was ALL I dreamed about. Night after night for a year, I dreamed about Antarctica.
Out of this cauldron of words and dreams came my memoir, Antarctica: A Year at the Bottom of the World. Two books with Norbert Wu followed, a children’s book (Antarctic Ice) and our natural history of McMurdo Sound, Under Antarctic Ice: The Photographs of Norbert Wu. Discover Magazine named that book one of the 20 best science books of the year.
THE WRITING LIFE
By now we had moved to New Hampshire and had a son. Why move from sunny San Diego, with its great and nearly constant surf, to cold New Hampshire, with its long snowy winters and waves hardly big enough for a mouse to ride? Why do such a thing? My wife is from nearby Massachusetts and her family is here. Does that answer your question?
You know by now that my latest project is a science fiction trilogy for kids called Children of Hathor. The first volume, The Talisman of Elam, is done, as is the second volume, The Hand of Osiris. I have already started on the third and final volume, The Treasure of Hathor.
How did all this come about? I was actually working on an Antarctic thriller when the Harry Potter craze took off. Publishers were snapping up knock-offs as fast as the hacks could crank them out. I remember reading in Time Magazine about some guy who sold his manuscript for over a million dollars, but the main character was completely unsympathetic and the writing was atrocious. It really was. Time printed some excerpts. The prose was awful, and grammatically incorrect, to boot.
I thought to myself, “I can do better than that!” So I set aside the thriller and planned on writing a fantasy for kids. But when I went to the bookstore to see what was out there, all I could see was fantasy. Wizards and witches and dragons and magic and dwarves and elves. Row after row of them. This is ridiculous, I thought. Didn’t anyone have an imagination? “This trend will burn itself out by the time my book is finished,” I told myself. (It hasn’t yet, but it will. I see signs of it happening.) Anyway, I wasn’t going to jump on that bandwagon.
I never follow the crowd. Never have, never will. If everyone else is going east, I go west. It’s just my nature. (I suppose if they’re all running from a horde of voracious lions, my contrary proclivities could get me in trouble, but that’s the chance I take.) So I decided to write a science fiction story instead. That one story grew into a trilogy.
And so here we are.
And so far (knock on wood) the Reaper has kept his distance.
Lisa is a project manager for a large business (a far cry from measuring metabolism in phytoplankton!), and my son is growing up fast. He’s in middle school, consistently earns highest honors, is a great writer, and insists I mention that he is awesome (which he is, of course).
I write in the morning (and sometimes late at night), take care of the house, surf when I can (which often requires flying to San Diego), stack wood, shovel snow, and write some more. I play the drums in a neighborhood band, and I direct comedic plays at a community theater.
(I actually started directing in Antarctica. In fact, I formed the first ever Antarctic theatrical troupe, producing real, royalty-paying plays. But, like so many other things in this long-winded bio, that’s another story.)
And I write some more.
I love writing novels more than anything else I’ve ever done. (Well, that diving job in Antarctica was pretty high up on the awesome scale, but I could leave it when the time came to do so.) I could never stop writing.
One time in San Diego I tried to deny that need. I had a month free of teaching responsibilities, and I planned on spending it working on my Antarctic novel. But then a good friend called and asked me if I would help her company in its bid to assume the Antarctic support contract. I was terribly torn. I really, really wanted to work on my novel, and that month was going to be the only time I’d have for a while, but her company was offering me some serious coin. I couldn’t turn it down. Unfortunately, the stress of denying my need to write caused me to get the shingles.
That sounds so benign, doesn’t it? Shingles. Why, it sounds like a fun, jingly little thing. Certainly nothing serious. Not with a name like that!
The disease should be called what it really is: Pain Like You’ve Never Felt It Before. Or how about, Red Hot Poker Jammed Through Your Rib Cage Every Ten Minutes For Two Weeks? That would be much more accurate than “shingles.”
I guess that’s one way of knowing you’re actually meant to be a writer, when your body punishes you for not doing it! Believe me, I won’t make that mistake again!