Author: Dachary Carey

My vacation rafting misadventure

Personal Travel

My vacation rafting misadventure

Or that time I accidentally body-surfed a Class V rapid on the Penobscot River in Maine.

Trigger warning: discussion of near-drowning, death.

The day so far…

My husband and I were spending the week with four friends at a rented lake house in Lincoln, Maine. The friends and I had done a rafting trip the prior year on the Androscoggin River in New Hampshire with ELC Outdoors, and had really enjoyed it – in all it’s mild Class I-II glory. It was mostly a float/paddle down the river, with a few mild rapid sections to get us wet and get the heart rate up. I had been bummed that the hubby missed that trip, and looked forward to getting him into rafting on this outing.

For this outing, we arrived at NEOC’s HQ bright and early for our all-day rafting trip, and everyone in our group – indeed, everyone on the entire trip, about two busloads of people – opted to rent wet suits. Except me. I tend to run hot, and if you’ve ever been overweight, you know how fraught outdoor apparel shopping can be – apparently fat people never go outside or do anything – so I didn’t want to deal with potentially not finding something that would fit, or being wrapped up like a sausage in an overly-tight wet suit. Ugh. No thanks.

After everyone was geared up, we had to stand around while a rafting guide gave us a safety briefing that felt like it went on far too long, and included too many attempts at humor that did not jive with my own sense of humor.

The things I remember from that safety briefing are: if you end up in the water, try to get your feet/toes up, because it’s better to encounter underwater rocks with a padded butt vs. fragile limbs; and if you end up in the water, one of the guides will shout out “Rope!” and you need to look for a rope being thrown to you, and try to grab it.

(What I forgot, which one of my friends helpfully pointed out later, was that you are supposed to try to point your feet downstream, so they’re the first thing to encounter rocks vs. your fragile helmeted head. Minor but important detail.)

The morning was a relatively tame float down the “lower Penobscot.” (An area below Abol Bridge Campground and Store, maybe? I’m not sure exactly where it was, but we passed Abol’s on the way to our morning landing, and then again when we were going to the afternoon landing.)

There were a couple of rapids up to a Class IV, but you could more-or-less opt out of the Class IV which was mainly a drop down a “12-foot waterfall” at the beginning of the day, and then a little bit at the end of the trip. It was a good way to get our feet wet, build up some confidence, practice paddling at our guide’s command, and hear a lot of dad jokes. In short, it whetted our appetite for a slightly more adventurous afternoon.

We had a riverside lunch, in which I literally stood around getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, and then another short excursion toward our take-out. At the take-out, we had to decide if we wanted to do the afternoon portion of the trip, with more intense rapids, and our group decided we were in! Into the bus, and off we go.

Ripogenus Gorge

Our afternoon landing took us to Ripogenus Gorge, to a hydroelectric dam. Right away, it was obvious that this was a different beast. We passed several warning signs: “Warning: the Upper Gorge is hazardous, proceed at your own risk” – and signs warning about danger when the siren sounds. The group was much smaller; only four rafts; and the terrain we had to portage the raft across was much rockier to get down to the river.

The first big rapid we had to navigate in the afternoon was the colorfully-named Exterminator, a Class-IV “hole.” When we hit the hole, the amount of water that flooded over the front of the raft – because of course I wanted to be in the front of the raft – was enormous, almost sucking me out of the raft right then. I felt myself being pulled from my perch on the side of the raft, and tried to dig my feet harder into the footholds; one pocket in the floor, and the other foot wedged between the edge of the raft and the raft floor, willing my core muscles to engage and keep me on that raft. Fortunately, it was a brief moment, and I managed to stay in.

Afterward, our guide Caleb remarked to me: “I saw you almost come out of the raft!” I laughed and replied: “I know! I felt myself being sucked out and hung on; I told myself: ‘you are not coming out of this raft!'” But it had been an unnerving experience, and I asked how that compared to other rapids we’d encounter in the Upper Gorge. “Is that about as bad as it gets, in terms of potentially being swept out, or are there more treacherous rapids to come?”

He thought for a moment, and then replied: “That’s about as bad as it gets. The Exterminator is the one that keeps me up at night.”

Alright. If that’s as bad as it gets, I can handle this. Onward! Down the river through Staircase (IV), Fist of God, Big Heater, Little Heater, Troublemaker Hole (III+) – plenty of paddling and work to get my heart pounding – and plenty of water to completely drench me over and over – but nothing like almost getting pulled out of the raft at Exterminator.

Then, we approached the Cribworks. Our guide told us this was a longer, more technical section; this is a place where we’d need to use finesse to steer the best line through the rapids, vs. simply pulling hard to get out of a hole or avoid some rocks. I either didn’t know, or had forgotten, that this was a Class V rapid – the only one on the trip? I blithely had it in my head that nothing was worse than Exterminator where I’d almost come out, and the stretch of river ahead of us didn’t look too bad – so I figured we’d just follow the guide’s instructions and do some tricky navigating, but it would be fun.

Spoiler alert: this is where it stopped being fun.

Body-surfing the Cribworks Class V rapid

The sun had finally come out from behind the clouds. The Upper Gorge so far had had a few challenging moments, but mostly it was beautiful and a lot of fun. I had forgotten all about my mosquito bites, and my not wearing a wet suit was kind of awesome, because the water was cool and refreshing in the warm sun. I was ready for this more technical section, so when the instructor said “All ahead 2!” – we paddled!

Because this was one of the biggest rapids of the trip, there was a photographer nearby waiting to capture photos of this section… so I’ll let a few photos describe what happened next.

That’s me in the front-left – the one not wearing a wetsuit!
And the raft goes into a massive wall of water…
Note a missing blue helmet in the front left of the raft?
Aaand there’s my arm and helmet in the water behind the raft…
Bodysurfing the rapid.

What it felt like

One minute, I was paddling – the next minute, this massive wall of whitewater came rushing over the front of the raft, and pullllled me right out. I felt myself going, but there was nothing I could do about it. My hands seemed too far from a rope to grab it as I went by, and couldn’t really see what was around me as the cool water tugged me overboard. I hung onto my paddle as I plunged into the water, and started kicking.

Initially, I was pushing through a mass of aerated water where it felt like I wasn’t making much progress. I kicked harder and felt my head pop above water. I took a breath. I knew I was in the water, but it was in my eyes and everywhere – I couldn’t really see what was around me, and it felt like I got pulled under again right away. I kicked some more, trying to get to air again and get oriented, but I felt like I had no control as the river swept me along.

I kicked for the surface. I hit a deeper stretch, where it felt like I kicked for a long time and the river wasn’t letting me up for air. The water was pulling me down – I felt my swim shorts being dragged down and grabbed for them, as I realized I was in some serious suction – so I kicked harder, and tried to use my paddle to help push me up toward the surface.

After four or five strong kicks, I broke the river’s surface again, and took a gulp of air into my lungs before being pulled back under.

By this point, I was completely disoriented. I got pulled underwater over and over again. Even when my head popped up, I wasn’t able to see anything through the splashing whitewater, so I kept my eyes closed, hung onto my paddle and kicked.

The water made a tremendous roar as it tumbled me down the rapids. When I went under, it gurgled and bubbled angrily as I progressed through the rapids. When my head popped up, all I could hear was the loud splashing of water thundering over the rocks.

The river shifted me to the right, and my left leg and knee crashed into a rock. I remembered I was supposed to try to get my feet up, and it felt like I succeeded for a moment, but the water kept sucking me under and I instinctively shifted to kick for the surface again. My left wrist whacked against a rock. I might have tried to hold my paddle in front of me to fend off of rocks – but the river kept tumbling me along, and I’m pretty sure I went down most of the rapids backward, leading with my fragile helmeted head.

I have no idea how long I was actually in the rapid, but it felt like about 40 to 60 seconds. In reality, it was probably half that? No idea. But when I started crashing into rocks, and felt myself getting tossed around like a piece of flotsam in the river current, gasping for air when I popped to the surface but feeling that it was happening less and less often… I started to realize that maybe I was not going to be alright. In my mental map of this experience, this was around 15-20 seconds into my swim down the rapids.

An article I’d read once flashed into my head; a woman had come out of a raft and had been battered by the rocks, breaking bones and almost drowning as she was tossed down the river, waiting to be rescued. She’d had to be airlifted out of a gorge and suffered long-lasting injuries, and was bitter about the experience. She reported thinking about how stupid it was that she had voluntarily and blithely put herself in that situation and now she was about to die.

I thought it sucked that I might get broken on the rocks, and I wasn’t a big fan of this not being able to breathe when I wanted to breathe thing… but on the whole, drowning didn’t seem so bad. I stopped struggling so much and let the river take me, hoping I’d pop up for air again but resigning myself to the fact that this might be IT. Like, seriously. I might be done.

I thought about my husband and dogs. I hoped that none of my friends had come out of the raft, and were now going through the same thing I was. I worried for my friend who’d been more timid about the higher-intensity rapids, and how much it must suck for him to see me get pulled out of the raft and now be fighting his way down the rapids in the raft. I worried he’d freeze up instead of paddling, or that he’d get pulled out, too – I felt like it would have been way more traumatic for him than it was for me.

As I felt the world around me get darker – it seemed like a while since my head had cleared the surface – I took mental inventory of my life, quickly scanning through things I might have left unresolved. I had no big personal projects in the works, or that would require my husband to deal with if I was gone – so that was good. I didn’t feel like there was something I’d “missed out” on doing, so that was good.

I felt a brief twinge of regret that I hadn’t yet finished the new documentation site I was working on for a client, and thought about whether my husband would think to let them know what had happened, and that I felt bad I hadn’t gotten it done – they’re good people, and I didn’t want to leave them hanging. Not bad for my only regret.

Mostly, I was glad I wasn’t leaving something big and unresolved for my husband to deal with.

Up. Take a breath. Back underwater, the thunder of passing through the rapids surrounding me, the water tumbling me wherever it will.

As I continued to get tossed about in the rapids, my mental process narrowed to a few key thoughts on endless loop.

“Try to keep feet up. Just keep hanging in. Just keep going. Breathe when you can. Conserve energy when you can’t. Don’t struggle unless you feel like you’re not moving forward. Eventually the rapids will end. Hopefully, you’ll still be conscious and able to help the rescuers get you out of the water.”

The rescue

After what felt like a very long time, but my mental timeline tells me was around 40 seconds, my head popped up again and I heard a voice shout: “Rope!” I opened my eyes for the first time in a while, and saw a strand of rope unfurling above me, flying through the air. I reached up and grabbed for it, letting go of the paddle I’d been hanging onto for so long. Blessedly, my hands caught the rope, and I held it up into the air, trying to show whomever threw it that I had it.

I closed my eyes again as I was pulled back underwater, but this time it was the force of the rope being pulled toward my rescuer that pulled me under, not the river tumbling me to and fro. I hung on.

I heard a voice telling me to let go of the rope. I really didn’t want to let go of that rope; I felt like it was the only thing keeping the river from sweeping me away again. The voice said I needed to open my eyes and let go of the rope, and I obeyed. I grabbed for the rope on the side of the raft, remembering another element from the safety briefing at the beginning of the day, and hung on.

My rescuer told me that he needed my help to get me out of the water, and asked me to jump and kick. I had no idea what I was doing at this point; I was in shock, and everything from this point is a fuzzy patchwork of moments.

He told me to jump and kick. I feel like it didn’t work the first time, and thought to myself that this was why I hadn’t gotten out of the raft in our earlier float for some swimming – getting back on was never going to work, because I’m so heavy. But somehow, he got me over the side of that boat and flopped on top of his legs in the bottom of it, panting for air. My chest hurt.

“I can’t breathe, I need to get up,” I remember saying to him. But he wouldn’t let me move right away, telling me: “Take your time, lovie. You’re safe. Just lie there and catch your breath. Don’t move yet. Just take your time.” So I did.

Eventually, I became aware that I could still hear the rapids around me, and my legs were still dangling off the side of the raft, and I was probably crushing his legs. I still couldn’t breathe right, and my chest hurt. I wanted up. He helped me struggle farther into the boat, and the other members of the raft moved to make way for me to sit in the middle. It wasn’t my boat; it was one of the other rafts that had been with us. The people around me gave me small, encouraging smiles. One woman said: “You were so brave!”

I sat there gasping for air, and looked around for my boat. I saw them downstream, with one of the other rafts, pulled up along the side, and it looked like everyone else was there. I couldn’t tell how well they saw me; I hoped they could see me sit up and could tell that I was ok.

With a start, I realized there was a small section of rapids still below us that we’d have to traverse before I could think about getting out of the raft. I didn’t want to move to the side of the raft and paddle. I just wanted to sit in the middle and hang on to the ropes and not get swept away again. The guide had moored the raft on a rock to try to pull me out of the water, and now we had to get off the rock and finish going down the rapids.

“Well, shit,” I thought to myself.

I wanted nothing more than to get off the river at that point.

The guide asked how I was doing. I said: “I’m alive. I’m breathing.” The people on the raft gave me small smiles, and I could tell the whole thing unnerved them. My voice was thick and hard to understand, even to myself, and I felt my words slurring.

“Well, shit,” I thought to myself again, wondering if I’d hit my head and if I had a concussion.

I don’t remember the exact series of exchanges that followed, but I communicated that I would like to get off the river when possible. The guide said we’d have to go a little farther down before we could make landing, so I sat in the middle of the boat and hung on grimly as we traversed a small rapid.

Our guide signaled, and the rafts ahead of us moved off. Show over, it was back to the business of rafting. “All ahead left” and “right back” as we worked our way off the rock, and then took a line hither and thither. The guide went back to his patois, interposed with the occasional dad joke, and the people in the raft kept giving me encouraging smiles or asking how I was doing.

Meanwhile, as I adjusted to life back above water, I worried about how slurred and thick my speech was… and realized how thirsty I felt, all of a sudden. It seemed ridiculous, given the volume of water that had just been sloshing me around – and how much of it I’d probably swallowed – but I needed a drink.

When we got to a smoother section, I turned my head and asked the guide if he had any water. He pulled out a bottle, and I drank some, swallowing carefully. My chest hurt, and I felt nauseous; I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t just throw it all up, along with a metric ton of river water.

I decided it was better not to chance it, and stopped there, carefully putting the lid back on the bottle and fumbling with the carabiner to re-clip it where he’d had it secured before. He saw me having trouble, and told me to just set it down in the back compartment of the raft and let it float there; he’d probably have some himself in a minute. I knew he was humoring me, but didn’t care; the medically-trained part of me was busy noting that my hands were shaky with shock, or adrenaline wearing off, and worried about the potential concussion.

We approached my former raft, and I tried to smile for my friends. They mostly looked very concerned, but happy to see me sitting up. Our rafting guide pulled alongside my rescue raft, and asked if I’d like to climb on across back to my raft – and I apologetically said: “I’d rather not, if that’s ok. I’d like to just sit right here until I can get off the river, if I could.” Both guides nodded, and I looked back to my friends. “Sorry, guys – I love you, but I really don’t want to fumble my way across and potentially end up back in the river again.” They made understanding noises, and paddled away again, and we continued down the river.

We passed a riverside camp, which I looked at longingly and wondered how difficult it would be to get a ride out of there if I asked them to drop me off there. But I kept my mouth shut, and focused on keeping it together just a little longer. Just until I could get off the river.

It felt like a while, but probably wasn’t that long before we reached a point where they could drop me off. My former raft and my rescue raft both pulled over to the side of the river, and I could see my husband climbing out of the raft containing my friends as I pondered disembarking myself. The river was very calm where we were, and not deep, but I really didn’t want to get back into the water, and was concerned I’d be so shaky I’d fall as I tried to get out of the raft again.

The guide helped me out of the raft, and my husband was there to offer me a hand, so I sternly told myself not to be a baby about having to step back into the water so I could wade in to shore. The guide who’d rescued me waded in to shore with us, and handed us off to one of the other people from NEOC who was standing there waiting as we disembarked.

I turned again to my friends, and apologized for bailing. And apologized to the guide for coming out of the raft just as we headed into the rapid. Everyone was a good sport about it, but I really just wanted to be off the river now to deal with whatever physical ailments I’d suffered in my adventure.

After the rescue

The guys from NEOC were very solicitous as I carefully walked away from the river. The gent who was waiting for us explained that I’d have to wait for about 10 minutes while he took his truck to get the bus driver, who would bring the bus here to pick me up. I nodded assent and sank down onto a nearby flat stone; I was feeling weak and just wanted to sit down before I fell down. Now that I was off the river, it was time to take stock of my physical condition.

He drove off in the truck, and my husband held my hand very tightly as we talked about what had happened.

I explained that I was worried about a possible concussion, and that my speech was thick and slurry when I got pulled out of the river; we’re both trained emergency medical responders, so I wanted to make sure I brain dumped my physical condition to him in case I deteriorated and he needed important details to pass on to medical providers. Even then, probably 10 or more minutes after I’d been pulled out of the river, my speech was still a bit thick and slurry; I made a concentrated effort to enunciate clearly so he could understand me. I also felt a headache forming, and while I didn’t remember hitting my head on any rocks, I worried that I might have.

I looked down at my left knee; there were abrasions on the side of my left calf, and my left knee hurt and was starting to swell, but nothing was broken. I had some bruises and abrasions on the inside of my right calf, too, and on my inner thigh above my right knee, but I didn’t remember hitting that leg on anything. I noticed that my Apple Watch screen was cracked, and as I lifted it up to check the time, it started glitching and then died. Apparently I’d hit the back of my left wrist on something, too, but didn’t remember that, either.

Most concerning to me was chest pain; pressure and the occasional stabbing pain if I moved a certain way. I was concerned that I might have aspirated some water, but I wasn’t coughing. I also felt nauseous, but I couldn’t tell whether that might be from shock, or adrenaline wearing off, or potentially hitting my head, or swallowing half the river, or aspirating water. I mostly sat still, and waited to see whether I was going to throw up or not, and felt grateful that I was sitting on a rock beside the river with my husband instead of… not.

When the bus driver arrived, he was also very solicitous; they offered me warm sweaters and blankets, which I rejected because I wasn’t cold, and a granola bar, which I accepted because I had in my head that helped with the post-adrenaline crash.

We explained to him that we were trained medical responders, and were concerned about a potential head injury, and asked if he had a flashlight so my husband could check for pupillary response. He offered his cell phone flashlight, so my husband took a look – not an easy task because I’ve got very dark irises, and in the semi-dim light of a forested campground, both my husband and the bus driver had a difficult time making out my pupils. My husband eventually concluded that the pupils seemed smaller than he liked, and seemed sluggish in responding to the light – a worrying sign. I told him that he should check me every few minutes to see how things were progressing, and then climbed into the bus.

It’s a weird feeling to be a trained medical responder and recognize that things are likely affecting your body, but knowing you have to rely on other people to deal with them. I was grateful that I was “with it” enough to help my husband remember what to look out for, but was worried about how he’d deal if I deteriorated, and how long it might take to get me to medical care.

I still felt nauseous and didn’t really want to eat, but I forced myself to consume a quarter of the granola bar. I asked the bus driver if he had any water, and he was surprised to find there wasn’t any on the bus. I was still thirsty, and wanted to drink, but also didn’t want to throw up, so I drank enough of the morning coffee still left in my travel mug to wash down the dry granola, but stopped there to see if it would stay down.

Time passed. I made sure to chitchat casually so my husband could monitor my neurological condition. I was beginning to feel exhausted, and the headache was getting worse, and I was also starting to feel the other aches and pains from getting banged against rocks. My chest felt tight and painful, and there was a lingering feeling of “can’t breathe” that got worse after we crammed everyone else into the bus, and I had to huddle into a side of the seat to fit everyone while we traversed the rutted roads back to NEOC’s base.

When we got back and everyone was putting equipment away, one of the women from my raft came to check on me. She and her friend had wound up on the raft with my group of six, and she’d watched things unfold firsthand. She told me that she’d been rafting with this group every year for the past four years, and that her guides knew she was a bit more adventurous so they’d let her and some of the other folks in her raft swim down some rapids before. (It wasn’t clear to me at the time if it was the same rapid I’d accidentally bodysurfed, or if it was another rapid on the river – and I didn’t think to ask.) She said that she had felt concerned for me, but also a little envious.

Envious! Imagine my surprise, readers. I was feeling lucky to be alive, and also concerned about a potential head injury, and bummed about skipping out on the remainder of the rafting trip while my friends went on down the river without me, but completely unable to conceive of joining them. And she had been envious of my unexpected plunge!

She also asked me if anyone had talked with me about secondary drowning. Say what now? I told her no, so she told me about how people who aspirate water can develop infections, pneumonia, and potentially die – relatively quickly – after near-drowning experiences. She seemed a little surprised that no-one from NEOC had talked with me about it, but I thanked her for the info, let her know that my husband and I were trained EMRs (turns out she’s a trained EMS who hasn’t done her ride alongs yet), and assured her we’d keep a lookout for symptoms.

And then, as I walked down the hill and my chest pain became much more pronounced with my effort, I wondered if this was what secondary drowning felt like. Also, my head hurt.

Somehow, I managed to fumble my way through a shower, which in retrospect probably wasn’t super wise. I probably should have just sat down and stayed near people who could keep an eye on me… but it did feel good to wash the river off and put on some dry clothes. And as I took a shower, I was able to get a closer look at the contusions and bruises that were starting to form… and discover a few more.

Clean and dry, I looked around for my husband but saw no sign of him. I wondered if he’d gone back up to the car, so I braved my way up the hill, in spite of my misgivings – the chest pain got much worse with the effort. In retrospect, I really wasn’t thinking clearly. He wasn’t at the car, either, so I had to go back down the hill again to try to find him.

My sinuses felt painfully full of river water. Sound around me was muffled, and I could still hear water in my ears. When I spoke, my voice had lost the slurry thickness from when I’d been pulled from the water, but it sounded like I was stuffy with a heavy cold or allergy reaction.

My chest hurt, my head hurt, I was exhausted, and I just wanted to lie down – but worried that I shouldn’t, because I might have a head injury. Lending more credence to the idea that I’d hit my head, I’d discovered when I showered that my forehead above my left eye was tender to the touch; roughly where the helmet strap had been sitting.

Back down at NEOC’s base, I flopped on a couch and waited for my husband to find me. He did, shortly later, and I asked him to get me a bottle of water. I drank it carefully while watching the slide show of photos from the day; and first saw what it looked like to other people while I was in the water in those pictures I posted above.

One of my friends asked me if I’d seen that I was rushing toward big rocks, and had avoided them on purpose; I hadn’t. The river kept pulling me under and I was very disoriented, and couldn’t really see much when I did pop up. He told me that it seemed like I was mouthing something and seemed in distress at one point when my head was above water; I told him as far as I knew, I hadn’t been trying to communicate anything, but had just been trying to breathe.

Someone told me that the guide said I’d gone down the “safer” route that the rafts take, instead of the route that the river naturally wanted to use – the one that would dash me against more rocks – and asked if I’d gone that way on purpose. Nope! I had basically no control over where I was going or what I was doing; I went where the river wanted to take me, and breathed when the river let me breathe. I felt fortunate the river took me down the “safer” path.

Someone else told me that they’d thrown the rope for me three or four times before I finally grabbed it, but when I popped up and heard “Rope!” and saw it flying over me, it was the first time I was aware that someone was throwing a rope. I hadn’t heard anything over the noise of the rapids, and hadn’t been able to see anything because I’d been down in the whitewater or constantly being pulled under.

Lingering medical concerns

When we left NEOC, I was still worried about a head injury; my pupillary response was still sluggish, and my pupils were constricted more than they should have been based on the level of light. My headache was getting worse, and I just wanted to sleep it off, but was afraid I shouldn’t.

To add to that, my chest still felt tight and I still worried that I’d aspirated some water, so I was worried about secondary drowning. I told my husband what the lady from our raft had told me, and he agreed that it sounded like a concern.

We had planned to have dinner with our friends post-rafting, but when we arrived at the restaurant, it was just too noisy for my now-throbbing head. I wanted to be somewhere quiet and semi-dark and keep an eye on my symptoms. Fortunately, we didn’t all fit in one car, and hubby and I had driven separately, so we were able to drive back toward the rented lakehouse in Lincoln – conveniently just four miles from a hospital we passed as we drove to the house.

We hit a Rite Aid that was still open, and grabbed a pulse oximeter to measure my blood oxygen saturation level. A little Googling while we drove told me that keeping my eye on my oxygen levels was a good way to measure whether we should be concerned about secondary drowning. It also reminded me of something I’d forgotten – that I should not take Ibuprofen for a headache if I have a potential head injury – because it could cause a brain bleed, so I had him grab some acetaminophin for me.

Fortified with medical supplies, we got a bite to eat at the only place in town that was still open at 8:30pm on a Sunday that wasn’t McDonalds; a blessedly quiet and not-too-bright place with decent poutine and very disappointing nachos. Fortunately, my nausea had abated – I hadn’t thrown up after all – and I was able to keep some food down.

The pulse ox showed my oxygen levels a little low, but not so low we should worry. My speech was more-or-less back to normal, and the ~6-7 hours since I potentially whacked my head meant I was probably past needing emergency medical care and just needed rest, so it was safe enough to sleep.

After returning to the lake house and debriefing with friends, I was off to bed and slept the sleep of the dead. Except when I rolled onto my left side; my left calf and knee were very tender to the touch, and I cried out involuntarily when I rolled onto that side.

In the week that followed, I took it very easy; I had headaches off-and-on in the days that followed (and even now, 10 days later, am still having periodic headaches). I’m tired and want to nap almost daily, when normally I’m not a nap person. Signs point to a definite head injury. Sadly, this isn’t my first rodeo; I’ve been concussed before, so I know what to look for – and I also know head injuries are worse if you’ve previously had one. Bah.

My left knee was visibly swollen for a few days, and even now it’s achy and doesn’t want to support my full weight. I still can barely get up and down from the floor, and sleeping on my left side is still uncomfortable on my left calf where it’s still tender. I want to get back to a regular exercise regimen, but am worried about potentially prolonging a knee injury. I probably should get that checked out at this point…

The mental effects

Did I almost die? Probably not. The rapids had to end eventually. But if I’d hit my head hard enough to knock me unconscious, I could have drowned. I definitely worried that I might drown once I realized I was at the river’s mercy. And I certainly could have gotten a lot more banged up on the rocks.

However, I could have died… and that kind of experience leaves a mark. I know it worried and upset my husband and friends, and I definitely have some sorting out to do about my feelings around the whole thing. Part of that is writing this down, and beginning to untangle the knots.

Do I want to go rafting again? Yes. We had another trip planned for Labor Day Weekend in which we were planning to go rafting with the same friends, and I was onboard for another rafting adventure… but maybe not a Class IV – V level of adventure. Alas, we’re not able to go now, but I’ll look for the next chance to do it.

I did not go into the lake during the remainder of our week in the lake house. I think I’m not quite ready to be in water where I can’t see the bottom just yet, even though I can swim, I have a good PFD for kayaking, and the lakes where I tend to spend time don’t have strong currents.

I took a bath in our deep bathtub when we got home, and had a moment of anxiety submerging myself in that before I was able to relax. So yes, my rational mind is willing, but my animal instinct knows some stuff went down and my body is still triggering a flight reaction. I’m going to have to work on that.

In terms of the potential head injury, I am finding it a bit more difficult to focus than before, and am tired a lot. Writing this post took more time than I expected it would, and I struggled for words more often than I typically would, so I’m definitely noting some cognitive effects. Concussions suck for everyone, but it feels worse as a knowledge worker who has to use her brain intensely in the course of her job. I know from my last concussion that these things should fade, in time… but I need to work now and have to figure out an effective way to do that.

Emotionally… an experience like that raises the same old questions about what you’re doing with life, and whether you’re doing the work you should be doing, whether you’re surrounded by the people and experiences you want in your life – all that stuff. I grapple with this stuff semi-regularly anyway, but a reminder of mortality makes answering these questions seem more urgent. So back to the gristmill for me.

I guess I’ll leave you with the parting words I had for my rescuer when he asked how I was doing: “I’m alive. I’m breathing.” And that’s a pretty good place to be, all told.

Investing in good equipment

Business Coding Lifestyle Personal Writing

Investing in good equipment

A younger, more innocent me bought a 13″ mid-2014 MacBook Pro on closeout in early 2015. My main tasks for my computer at that time were writing documents in word processors (Pages) and using CMSs to create and publish content. I thought I might do some light video editing of travel videos for Corporate Runaways, but didn’t have much need or desire for a powerhouse machine. I had an external monitor for additional screen real estate, and mostly used the laptop screen for reference material.

Fast forward to 2019. In the past few years, I’ve started doing docs-as-code in conjunction with a few open source projects. From the open source project side, this has involved setting up local development environments on my machine, and running apps locally so I can document them. From the documentation side, this has involved using static site generators to create doc sites from files (markdown, mostly). My work needs have definitely gotten more intensive.

Then, this spring, I dove into Swift. When I decided to learn to code so I could write an app I want to use, I took a gradual approach. I worked through some Swift Playgrounds stuff on my iPad, and then read a book or two about coding and Swift. I brainstormed the data structure for my app, and made UML diagrams. Eventually, I took a couple of online classes on Xcode and Swift.

Between my technical writing work and my app development, my 13″ laptop + external monitor had begun to feel cramped. What had once felt sufficient for doing marketing writing in a single window, with maybe a reference window alongside, had now become a nightmare of overlapping windows and constant swapping. I wanted more screen real estate so I could have multiple windows open for reference and working simultaneously, and I wanted those windows to be bigger.

But mostly, I wanted Xcode to not just laugh at me when I attempted to compile things, or – even worse – not have Xcode sputter when I attempt to Auto Run a Playground so I can see how things are working as I code.

One of the classes I took involved working in Playground files on my machine as I followed the instructor’s videos. I had to keep pausing the instruction video to wait for my local Playground to respond to my inputs, while the instructor did the exact same thing in the video and then happily chugged along with his much more powerful machine.

It was clear. Xcode was a memory/processor hog, and I had too little of both. I’d been bumping up against those limits for a while now with my other work, but the app development pushed me over the edge. So it was time… time to upgrade my equipment.

(Don’t get me wrong – that little 13″ mid-2014 MBP did well to get me into mid-2019 without a hitch, and is still chugging along happily with less intensive tasks; it’s my “couch computer” now.)

I looked around at the options. I could get a newer, more powerful MacBook Pro. But I’d still have limited screen real estate, and that was chafing more and more. Also, I essentially never use my laptop as a laptop these days; I work exclusively at my desk, with my Kinesis Advantage2 keyboard and my external monitor setup. Could it be time to go back to a desktop, when I still remembered fondly the liberating joy of going from a PC tower to my first laptop back in the mid-2000s? It seemed like such a step back, it was hard to fathom.

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense to get a desktop again. I never use the laptop as a laptop. I could get better CPU/more RAM significantly cheaper with a desktop. And then I could have another big monitor, giving me the screen real estate I’ve been craving.

I decided to go back to a desktop. I clearly didn’t need a powerhouse like the newly-announced Mac Pro, so I wasn’t going that route. I looked at the Mac mini; a capable little machine. I looked at the iMac, with its beautiful monitor. I looked at the iMac Pro – nope, that’s more than I need.

Waffle. Research external monitors. Waffle. Spec out both machines to a level that would support my current needs, plus some future-proofing. Cringe at the price tag. Waffle some more. Deal with some stupid imposter BS because my husband is the experienced web dev, and how could I justify spending that much on a setup for my less-intensive work + dabbling in Swift development; an entirely self-driven project that may never make me a penny?

Eventually, I drove the hour to the nearest Apple store to see an iMac in person. And then I sat myself down and gave myself a pep talk about giving myself permission to invest in my skill development. Maybe I’ll get more heavily into coding as a tech writer. Maybe I’ll love developing in Swift so much that I’ll pivot to Mac app development. Or maybe I’ll write this app, but then decide that coding isn’t something I want to pursue beyond that. I won’t know unless I give myself the room to develop those skills and see what happens, but it is 100% OK to invest in my career potential.

So I pulled the trigger, and got a beautiful 27″ iMac. And it isn’t the entry-level iMac, either; it’s closer to the top tier, to give myself room for growth.

And you know what? It is frigging delightful. It’s so fast. And the screen is so beautiful. It’s a little painful to use it right next to my old external monitor, which isn’t even 4k; the resolution drop and seeing visible pixels is a little jarring looking back and forth. I expect I’ll upgrade that, too, soon. But my tech writing work has been much more hassle-free with the extra screen real estate, and staring at text on a retina-resolution screen is delightfully enjoyable.

So here’s a reminder, if you need one, too: investing in good equipment is an important part of taking your professional life seriously. This is mission critical for remote workers who don’t have office-supplied equipment. I see a lot of remote workers sitting on their couch and typing on a laptop keyboard; that’s a good way to ruin your hands, your back, your posture, and reduce your efficiency and output. (Trust me, that’s how I started out with my remote work back in 2007.)

Yes, I am extremely privileged to be able to spend the money on an Apple device; I know you pay a big premium for their products. And I know that not everyone has the financial freedom to invest in big, splashy monitors and professional-quality office equipment; especially for folks who are the sole breadwinners, or supporting family members. But it is worthwhile to put money aside and invest in the equipment you need for your career, in whatever form you’re able and whatever that equipment looks like for you.

I am very much enjoying my new setup.

Choosing the best writing tool

Business Writing

Choosing the best writing tool

In my recent technical writing job search and interviewing process, I’ve encountered a lot of discussion around tooling. I always ask about the toolchain for a position I’m considering, and I’m happy to talk tools all day long. But the truth is, I’m tool agnostic. My questions about toolchain aren’t about deciding if you use a tool I like; they’re about discovering the maturity of your process.

That’s because there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all writing tool.

I had an interviewer ask me recently: “When you sit down at the computer to write, what app do you open?” He seemed a little surprised when I responded: “That depends entirely on what I’m writing.” Here’s why:

Different writing tools are designed for different tasks. There are also a lot of ancillary tools related to writing tasks that a writer might need to use in the course of the job.

Word processors

When the general public thinks about writing on a computer, they typically picture a word processor, such as Microsoft Office or Apple’s Pages. I’m also seeing more and more enterprises using Google Docs for basic word-processing tasks, as part of G Suite adoption within the orgs.

Currently, I don’t use word processors very often. I’d typically fire this type of app up when working on a simple article or marketing piece. The majority of the time these days, I’m only using a word processor when editing something a client has sent me. It’s fine for simple revision work, or working with simple content, but if you’re hiring a technical writer and you want complex deliverables in Microsoft Word, I might run the other direction.

(Not because I don’t know how to use the more advanced functionality of these tools, like Table of Contents, etc. – but because this isn’t the best tool for long-form or sophisticated content needs, and if it’s the tool you rely on, that tells me a lot about your organization’s documentation processes. But that’s a whole ‘nother blog post…)

Long-form writing

One of my favorite writing apps ever is Scrivener. I’ve spent a fair amount of my time over the years drafting long-form content; think novels and business books.

I think it is the single best writing tool for long-form content out there; it has amazing support for organizing and re-ordering content, revision workflow, storing relevant research and notes within the app, and more advanced features to help you tackle even the most complex long-form writing project.

And the compiling options… so many compiling options.

If you’re a single person working on long-form writing projects, Scrivener is the way to go.

Unfortunately, it’s really not great for collaboration. And if you’re doing a project that requires complex page layouts, that’s not where Scrivener shines. I suspect most business users have never even heard of it; it’s really more of a lone novelist’s tool. But I heart it so much.

Text editors

When the technical writing gets more technical, I turn to simple text editors. Recently, I worked on some API documentation using GitHub-flavored Markdown, which I committed to a private repo on GitHub, so I used Atom for this project. It’s simple, displays Markdown and code nicely and makes it easy to spot potential problems. Atom does a good job of ‘helping’ with auto-complete and spotting properly-formed (and improperly-formed) syntax.

When I’m working on simple code, JSON, XML, Markdown, CSS or HTML, I use Atom. It’s my preferred tool when doing the more technical type of technical writing. (Until I get to more substantial code manipulation, and then I use an IDE, but that’s more developer-y and is probably an outlier for a pure writer or tech writer.)

I have friends who prefer VS Code, and my husband is a staunch Vim user… there are a lot of opinions about text editors, especially among developers. I’ll leave you all to your holy wars.

I also have a few other text editing apps I use on occasion; iA Writer and MacDown. Because you can never have too many text editors; one for every occasion!

CMS

Sometimes, I write directly in a content management system, or CMS. When I’m blogging here, for example, I just write the content directly in WordPress. When I was working for a client who had a help authoring-flavored CMS, I authored that content directly in the CMS. Same for clients I’ve had using Drupal.

I prefer authoring directly in a CMS if I’m creating rich content, with links and images, that will ultimately end up in a CMS; saves overhead vs. drafting it in a word processor, and then fighting with formatting when bringing it into the CMS from another app. (Unless I’m working in Markdown, and the CMS supports Markdown. Then I might just draft the content in my text editor.)

You’ll note I don’t have a separate section for wikis. I don’t make a distinction between a wiki and other types of CMSs; from a technical writer’s standpoint, a wiki is just another type of CMS. Granted, a wiki is supposed to encourage collaboration, so you may have more contributors, and effectively managing content there may require more process. But that’s another digression…

HATs

Some clients need a sophisticated authoring solution like a help-authoring tool, or HAT. HATs are great if you need to single-source content, create conditional content, or want to output in specific/multiple formats. MadCap Flare, Adobe RoboHelp, Author-It, and Oxygen XML Author are all HATs.

HATs are great for a single technical writer, or a team of technical writers, working to produce help documentation. Things get more complicated if you want a tool that enables easy collaboration outside of the technical writing team, such as collaboration with SMEs. More sophisticated (and expensive) authoring tools support collaboration well, too, but may add cost in terms of adding seats for SMEs, or complexity, in terms of requiring SMEs to work with docs in a specific way.

One company I’ve talked with during my interviewing process uses Flare for their authoring, which is a tool I quite like, but they manage open source projects, and they’re struggling with finding the right process to get open source documentation into Flare. The workflow they’re using is to have the technical writers manually pull in content from PRs into Flare in order to update open source docs, but this type of workaround a trade-off and something to consider when selecting tooling.

API documentation

The API documentation project I recently completed was quite simple, so I just used Atom to manually draft the docs. I’ve added a REST Client package to my Atom install, which is very basic, but gets the job done. I did install and poke Insomnia, which is a more robust REST client with a focus on documentation, but I didn’t need those capabilities for the small project I just wrapped.

On the other end of the API documentation spectrum, you have something like Swagger, which is an API development tool that also has some documentation elements, such as being able to automatically generate components of API docs, or ensuring API docs stay up-to-date as the API changes. I see it in a lot of job postings, and it’s a valuable tool for developing and documenting complex APIs.

Charts and presentations

By far the most common charting and diagramming tool I see in job descriptions is Microsoft Visio, which makes me a little sad. Microsoft products get the job done, but… well, I’ll refrain from further comment until I’m in a longer-term gig where I know I won’t have to use them. But my preferred charting tool is OmniGraffle, and it’s the one I will continue to use for my personal projects for the foreseeable future.

And then you have presentations, which, sadly, have been the bane of offices everywhere from the very first PowerPoint presentation… and will continue to be so, because sometimes a presentation (or slide deck) really is the best tool for the job. As a long-time Mac user, I prefer Apple’s Keynote, but can use either. And let’s not forget Google Slides, which is the G Suite answer to presentations.

Graphic editing, screen-capturing and video editing tools

Good documentation isn’t just words. People are attracted to interesting and engaging pictures, and sometimes a picture can illustrate a point far more efficiently and effectively than words. And video can be a great way to demonstrate a complex flow, or can serve as an alternative to documents for people who are more visual learners.

As a documentarian, sometimes it becomes my job to create or edit those pictures and graphics, capture screenshares to illustrate flow, and even create and edit video. I own and routinely use a ton of tools related to this aspect of the job, and have used many more over the years, but here’s a sampling:

There are also some great stock image sites where you can get affordable images to use in documentation; I routinely use those in my personal project sites.

Project management and issue trackers

Writing often entails some form of project management. There are a variety of reasons to use project management tools and issue trackers, from keeping track of incoming requests, to providing transparency to management about what’s in-progress, to being able to show conversations about a specific deliverable.

Most recently, I’ve used Basecamp, Pivotal Tracker, Jira, GitHub Issues/Projects and Trello for project management and issue tracking. I’m partial to Jira, but they each have their quirks, and I’m basically just a worker bee using whatever the organization uses. But I do strongly believe having one of these tools in place helps organizations of all sizes stay organized and on-top of outstanding tasks, and using this type of tool is something I look for when interviewing.

I also rely heavily on project management and issue tracking tools to provide transparency in an organization around workload and productivity. Working remotely requires an extra level of trust, and having a shared project management tool where other members of an organization can see the current workload broken down – and watch tickets progress through the columns – can help promote that trust. But there’s a whole lot more I could unpack around this… I really need to write more about working remotely.

Collaboration tools

Let’s not forget collaboration tools, whether you’re talking messaging tool (Slack) or shared workspace tools (Confluence, Notion). Collaboration is key to getting anything done as a technical writer. Maybe you’re collaborating with SMEs, or your department, or cross-departmentally among the org. Maybe you’re collaborating with freelance or contract workers.

There are a lot of contexts where collaboration tools are useful, and breaking things down to a particular level of granularity can be helpful; i.e. a shared workspace for each project, or a collaboration tool where you can lock-down access when you’re working with external providers.

I’ve used Slack in every technical writing gig I’ve had since 2016, but I’ve rarely been a part of an org that uses workspace collaboration tools. More advanced collaboration tools can speak to a maturity of process, but they can also indicate unnecessary overhead in a large organization. I always try to find out more about how these are being used when I encounter them in a workplace, because their mere presence isn’t enough to accurately telegraph a company’s process maturity.

Source control, static site generators and command-line tools

On the more technical end of things, you have tech writers set up more like developers, with source control and local development environments for compiling static site generators and viewing the output of Markdown or other text files. I generally have the command line open for using git and serving static sites as I draft them, and the occasional foray into documenting a CLI or poking a piece of software.

Some technical writers never get into this level of technical complexity; I spent years at gigs where I never had to touch a command line and there was no source control; while other technical writers I know deal with this and more complex tooling and workflow on a daily basis.

In my experience, the more tightly coupled a technical writer is with a software development team, the more likely they are to be working in this type of environment. Tech writers that are more embedded in Product, Customer Services or other parts of the org are more likely to be using software that abstracts away some of the technical complexity. But that’s obviously not true in every case; there are a wide range of ways technical writers work within an org, so it’s tough to make generalizations about tooling and workflow.

The “best” writing tool changes in context

The one generalization it’s safe to make about technical writing tooling is that the “best” tool varies based on the org, the desired output, SMEs and a broad range of factors. What’s “best” in one org may not work at all in another org. As a writer, the tools I use today may not be the ones I’ll use tomorrow; today I’m working on Markdown files in Atom and running git on the command line, but tomorrow I might be drafting a blog post in a CMS, or working on API documentation.

As a generalist, I enjoy using a wide range of writing tools; that way I can just pick up the best tool for the job when I sit down to start my task.

Real talk: freelance/contract writing

Business Writing

Real talk: freelance/contract writing

Someone in the Write the Docs Slack was asking about things to consider as she pondered transitioning to a freelance/contract technical writing career, and I have Thoughts to share:

Benefits and administrative overhead

Freelance/contract typically means 1099, which means no benefits – no insurance, no matching 401(k), no PTO, and you do your own tax withholding and paying. These things have a real dollar value, so it’s worthwhile to consider what your rate needs to be to make up for the cost of losing those benefits.

Additionally, taking care of these tasks require a lot of administrative overhead that eats into your working time, especially when you’re just starting out and figuring stuff out. So if you want to work a 40-hour week, you may end up working 45-50 hours for a while as you spin up on new knowledge and processes.

Marketing

You have to be good at selling yourself and your services. This can feel unnatural at first for some people, and if you’re someone who doesn’t like doing that, you may not enjoy the process. You will likely spend a lot of time when starting out figuring out how you want to position yourself, tweaking website/resume copy to appeal to the clients you want, how to screen for clients that are likely to respond to your particular style/skills, etc.

When I first started freelancing, I spent anywhere from 10-20 hours weekly looking for/applying for projects, on top of any hours I was actually working. YMMV, obviously.

Work availability

In terms of working on things you’re passionate about… when you’re doing freelance/contract work, you may not always get that luxury. It’s very feast-or-famine. You may have a lot of work availability at once, or you may have months where you don’t have any projects going on. When you haven’t had anything in the pipeline for a while, you may be more likely to go after projects that don’t excite you just to have some income.

Making your own schedule

Re: making your own schedule: freelance offers some flexibility, but especially if you’re doing contract work, the client may expect you to work a regular 9-5 just like you were a corporate worker. In a lot of contract gigs, you’re expected to behave/function like a company employee, report on-site during regular hours, etc. – so it’s kind of like being an employee without the benefits, and typically on a temporary timeframe. If you’re doing a project-based gig vs. a contract, you may have a little more flexibility in making your own schedule, but there are also fewer of those.

Pitfalls of the freelance/contract world

There are serious pitfalls possible in the freelance/contract world. There are clients who slow-pay, or never pay at all. (The latter has only happened once to me, but I have had clients drag out billing for months; I’ve fired a few clients for this reason.) I’ve landed gigs, only to have them get canceled at the last minute, and then I have nothing to replace them. Exactly twice, I’ve gotten into a gig, only to find out that the client’s expectations were completely unreasonable and the gig wasn’t going to work out. Bail early in those situations, and I’ve learned to better screen my clients to make sure we’re aligned before starting a project.

Screening clients

First and foremost, I look for a client who either has a strong idea of what they want, or is open to letting me lead the process as the expert; someone who doesn’t know what they want but wants too much control can be an issue. I look for how reasonable their expectations are. Is their project far too vast to accomplish in their stated timeframe? Are they in love with a specific toolchain that isn’t well-suited to their project? Are they flexible in their approach? I start with general questions and then follow up with specifics based on their answers to get a feel for how it would be to work with them, and whether I think what I can deliver will align with their expectations.

In terms of slow-pay and no-pay clients, I look for level of professionalism. Are they an established company, a startup, or someone with a side project? Do they ask for a W-9? Do they have other vendors? How wide is their online scope? If it’s a pretty big company that regularly works with vendors, they probably already have a fixed contract they use and they’ll ask for a W-9 (in the US anyway), and you can probably rely on them to pay – although it may be slow. The issues I’ve had have been with smaller companies, companies that re-org or individuals with side gigs, so I’m a bit more wary about those.

Contract pitfalls

As a freelance/contractor, you typically will not own rights to the work you produce. If it’s public, you may be able to point a future employer at it, but if it’s proprietary, you will not be able to show your work to future employers. This can become a major bummer when you’re hunting your next project/gig – I’ve done some awesome work I can’t show people because the IP belongs to the client. I even wrote a blog post about it a few months ago.

Beware of contracts that generically state that work you do/writing you produce while working for X becomes the property of X. I’ve seen really generic clauses that could apply to work you do outside of the client’s contract while you’re also contracting for the client. The most recent contract I signed had language specific to the work I produce for the client belongs to the client, and work I produce outside of client work is 100% mine, and I’ll be ripping off that language for every future contract.

(Also, when contracting, typically the employer provides the contract; you may get to suggest changes, but usually it’s a pretty fixed thing. If you’re doing stuff on a project basis, or more casual work you pick up from word-of-mouth or off something like a Craigslist, you may have to provide a contract.)

Finally, there’s legal liability. There’s one client I worked with that had language in the contract that said any legal liability for the content I created was my responsibility. i.e. if someone got injured following my directions, I was legally liable, not the company publishing/providing the content. Don’t sign those contracts. You do not want to assume legal liability for some jackass out there who injures himself using a hammer – or a more complex, dangerous power tool.

Where to hunt for freelance/contract work

This has changed for me over the years. Back in the day, I did a lot of work on Elance, which then became oDesk… I don’t know what it is now. I’m also very public about being a writer/tech writer, and have had work come to me from my personal network.

Over time, I got a stable pool of clients, and those clients would recommend me when people they know needed a writer, so I stopped going out looking for work because so much was coming to me. That was probably 2-3 years after I started freelancing.

More recently, I spent two years in a full-time gig, and then took some time off, so I only recently (this year) spun up the work hunt engine again. This time, I’ve found my engagements via Slack. I’ve applied for a lot of things on job hunting sites – LinkedIn, Indeed, Dice, ZipRecruiter, WeWorkRemotely, and have had mixed results with those. I got a couple of offers but they couldn’t meet my rate requirement, but I also got a lot of screening interviews where I never heard back from a hiring manager.

It helps to have strong samples, and be able to speak authoritatively to process; I’m currently working on an open source project in my free time, so I can show examples of my API work when my current engagements finish.

Finally, YMMV but there’s a freelance developer on a Slack where I’m a member, and he routinely posts queries he gets from his Craigslist ads (developer offering services) when he doesn’t have the bandwidth to do them himself, so there may be some traction there; I’m not sure.

Learning to code

Coding Personal

Learning to code

There are a couple of apps I’ve been wanting to write, so the time has come to learn to code! Unsurprisingly, this makes hubby happy, as now I can more readily empathize with the geeky coding plights of a senior web dev.

It’s actually been pretty interesting, so far.

I first taught myself to code in Basic when I was 12 or 13 on a Commodore 128 computer; programs were on floppy disks then, the 5 1/4″ kind. I had a handful of programs that came with the computer, which my family bought used for $400; a lot of money in the early ’90s. (They’d spend $999 on my next computer in the mid-’90s, a Packard Bell Pentium 75mHz machine, running Windows 3.11. I was a lucky little kid.)

Of the programs that came with the Commodore, I adored the text-based adventure games the most. They were a cross between interactive fiction, and what I imagined D&D must be like (having not yet played it, at that point) – and the one I played the most was based on The Hobbit. I loved it so much that I decided I should write my own, so I’d have different adventures to play.

So I dug into the code, figured out how the game was written, copied-and-pasted bits of it, and started writing my own games. Of course, then came debugging, because a 12-year-old copying-and-pasting code is far from bulletproof. So I had to figure out how the code actually worked, so I could fix the bits that broke.

But that was a long time ago, and my first love remained writing, so I never really pursued coding as computers and languages evolved. (Although I did have a side gig in computers when I founded a computer repair business, for a while, which mostly involved replacing dead hardware, doing upgrades for people, or wiping someone’s drive that had gotten all crudded-up with malware and reinstalling Windows.)

Fast forward to today, when there are a couple of apps that have been percolating in the back of my mind for a while. I’ve been waiting for someone to write one of them for a couple of years, but everything that comes along isn’t quite what I want… so now I’m annoyed and fed-up enough that I’m ready to write it myself.

App number one is fairly trivial, and something that I really just want to use myself; I don’t care if another person ever buys it. But that app should serve as training wheels for the more important app I want to write; one that will hopefully be useful to an entire industry.

Right now, I’m working my way through Swift Playgrounds to get some of the basic fundamentals under my belt. I’m also reading a couple of books. Maybe this time I’ll make it through Chris Pine’s Learn to Program, a great beginner book hubby gifted to me ages ago. From there, I’ve got a couple of other courses lined up.

Happily, I’m already familiar with the logic behind programming; some of my work as a technical writer has been to explain that logic to non-programmers, so they can use a very technical app whose interface was developed by engineers, not UI/UX folks. And I remember some of the basics from my old days mucking about in Basic; conditionals and loops are conditionals and loops, 25 years ago or today.

Wish me luck as I dive into this side project! I’m still looking for a paying technical writing gig to cover the bills, but this is a fun way to expand my skills while I hunt for the right fit. And maybe I can bring in a little side income from the apps I’ll write.

If nothing else, I always enjoy stretching my brain and learning new skills, and it’s fun to come full-circle from my early days in computing and dip my toes into coding again.

The downside of works-for-hire, NDAs and dead links

Business

The downside of works-for-hire, NDAs and dead links

I’m applying for jobs again, which brings me once again to the Hell that is “provide links to your work.”

There are three reasons that’s not a simple request, and I dread this question:

  1. I’ve written literally thousands of pieces of content as works-for-hire. This means that I do not retain rights to those works. In many cases, they are posted under someone else’s name. They may contain proprietary information. My best pieces have been written as works-for-hire, which means I cannot share those pieces with potential employers/clients. It’s a bummer.
  2. NDAs. In the corporate world, NDAs are common. I’ve spent years of my life writing for clients with literally nothing to show for my effort, because those works have been protected by NDAs. When I apply with corporate clients, or clients who want to see my business or technical writing content, I simply can’t show samples because that content is restricted under NDAs.
  3. Contrary to popular belief, the web is not forever. From 2007 to 2016 or so, I maintained a freelance writing website with portfolio links to articles I had written. It was awesome, because I could simply link clients to relevant content when interviewing. But businesses went out of business; people changed web hosts and URLs, and much of that portfolio turned into broken links. So I took it down, because curating and maintaining a working list became a major time sink.

So now, when I fill out forms asking for links to my prior work, I basically end up saying ad infinitum “I can’t provide working links, but I can send you some PDFs.” Or “I can’t provide samples because of NDAs and works-for-hire, but trust me, I’ve written a ton in that industry and it was really good stuff.”

If you’re thinking about hiring me, but you need to see a specific type of sample, chances are good that I’ve got a PDF somewhere I can share. Please let me know what you want to see, and I’ll find a relevant sample and send it over.

And if you absolutely have to see corporate samples that I’ve written under an NDA… I can redact something heavily and send it to you to give you an idea of my organization and structuring capabilities, but don’t expect to learn any insider info. I take the legal status of my works seriously.

Looking for a new (meaningful) writing gig

Business Personal

Looking for a new (meaningful) writing gig

At the beginning of August, I said farewell to the company where I’ve been contracting for the past two years. I worked with a great team, but I’d gotten burned out and it was time to take a break and then look at what I want to do next.

My plan had been to focus on publishing and doing my own writing full-time whenever I left that contract gig, but… I haven’t built up the publishing to the point where it can pay all the bills yet, and frankly, it feels a little frivolous to me at this moment in time.

Given everything going on in the world… I want to do something a bit more meaningful. I want to use my writing skill-set to do something with more impact.

I stumbled across the high-impact job board at 80,000 hours; they say:

They’re all high-impact opportunities at top organisations that are working on some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The types of problems that these organizations work on are definitely interesting, and direly need to be addressed. Things like; positively shaping the development of artificial intelligence; biorisk reduction; promoting effective altruism; improving institutional decision-making; all these things are big-picture, high-impact problems where I’d find the work a lot more meaningful than making another rich company richer. Or maybe something with some social impact, like working on gender equality, or LGBT rights, or something along those lines.

I’m currently looking around to see what’s out there. But if you’re reading this, and you happen to know an organization working on a meaningful problem that could use a writer, I’d love for you to reach out. Drop me a message via my contact form.

Wish me luck!

A sincere plea

Personal

A sincere plea

Tl;dr: latest school shooting hits too close to home; this sh*t has got to stop.

I owned a house 10 minutes from there. If the ex-husband and I had kids, they would have gone to that school. I have family who have lived in that area a long time, and family that still live there. I know it’s a cliche that no-one expects bad things will happen to them, but this hits way too close to home.

I have been very conspicuously silent on all these types of things, except to say my hearts go out to all those affected.

Time to break my silence. You strike near my heart, I can’t not say something.

All the people who politicize these shootings? You’re horrible people. Period.

School shootings, and mass shootings in general, are NOT a “good excuse” to resurrect those same old gun control arguments you’ve been fighting for years. People are entrenched in their beliefs around the issue, and there is no dialogue happening – just trying to shout down the other side.

Here’s the thing: THIS. CANNOT. CONTINUE.

I have nieces and nephews in school, and who are going into school soon. I have friends with kids. This issue affects people that I care about, and we as a society need to STEP UP.

This needs to stop being a shouting match about gun control. We need to take real steps toward ending the violence that has become a daily issue for our kids to face. It is ridiculous and sickening that our young children have to think about whether they might die today. That they have to drill and learn skills on how to be silent and hide in school when someone goes on a shooting spree. We need to stop accepting this. It is not acceptable.

We need to stop looking for a scapegoat or an easy solution that blames everyone else.

“It’s guns in every household.”
“It’s violent video games.”
“It’s bad parenting.”
“It’s bullying.”

Let me just get this out of the way…

I was bullied every day in elementary and middle school, and I HATED the boy who bullied me.

I’ve played violent video games as long as “modern” video games were a thing, starting with Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein in the 90s (all first-person shooters).

There was at least one gun in my household growing up, if not more.

My mom, bless her heart, was a drug addict; I saw things that no child should ever have to see, and was raised (most of the time) by my grandparents.

Never once in my life, never in my deepest, darkest psyche, did I have even a hint of a suggestion that I should take the handgun in my household and shoot the boy who bullied me, or any of the other people in my life who made it unhappy.

Gun violence and school shootings are WAY more complicated than finding one or even a few rallying points to shout about ineffectively while we watch our children die.

We need to get to whatever underlying sickness has infected our society, and we need to treat it. We need to stop shouting and FIGURE THIS OUT.

We need to get our best psychologists and sociologists on the case and have them figure out how it ever got to this point.

We need to pay teachers more, and make sure they have the time and emotional capacity to really *listen* to our kids, and help them learn the empathy and social skills that let us live together in a functional society.

We need to make sure parents have the time and emotional capacity to spend time with their kids, and provide good examples, and help them learn the empathy and social skills that let us live together in a functional society.

(This probably means parents working fewer hours, because the parents I know tend to be overworked and exhausted; we need to figure out a way to collectively help our fellow humans, because individually, we only have so much capacity.)

We need to make it easier for parents to access special needs resources and mental health services for their children, to give them the help they need when challenges come up. We can’t all be experts in everything, and parents should have access to these experts when they need them.

We need to find a way to reduce the roles that television and technology play in our lives, because this stuff is damaging and diminishing the personal connections that teach us how to interact with and value other human beings.

We need to level the playing field, so kids and their families are starting from a more even footing, with the same access to educational resources, healthy food, and a world in which anyone really can do anything. Right now, racial, economical, gender-based and other differences and tensions make things very unequal.

There are SO MANY FACTORS that are contributing to this gun violence crisis, and I don’t pretend to be an expert or to have all the answers. I DO want us to start having a real dialogue, and start making real changes, instead of just repeating the same old “take away all the guns” “over my cold, dead body” arguments we’ve been having for years.

We HAVE to address this. Now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not five years from now; it is time to sit down and FIGURE THIS OUT.

We are already diminished as a species, because we’re making our small children worry about whether they’re going to die today at school; this is already doing lasting damage to an entire generation of children. But we’ll be doomed as a species if we can’t figure out how to keep our young people safe.

And personally, I’m literally worried sick about the children I care about in my life; and I can’t imagine how parents find the fortitude to send their children off to school every day with this hanging over us.

We need to make it stop.

Unnecessarily gendered language

Language Personal

Unnecessarily gendered language

I was chatting with someone the other day, and caught myself using “guys” – as in, “you guys” – when talking with a woman about her relationship with her wife. I’ve been sensitive to using that word for years now, and I stopped myself, explained that it was one of those unfortunate verbal habits I’ve been trying to break, and re-framed the inquiry with “you ladies.”

This is one of MANY examples of a time I’ve gotten frustrated lately with how unnecessarily gendered our language is.

Why does gender matter when you’re using a common phrase?

I know plenty of people who don’t understand why it bothers me so much that I use “guys” by default to refer to more than one person; particularly in a mixed-gender group. Those people argue that “guys” is understood to mean “people” and isn’t intended to be offensive to women.

I have two fundamental problems with that.

First, and most personal to me, as I age, I’m becoming more and more of a feminist. I’m noticing more and more ways in which our society is unequal toward women, and it’s bothering me more every day, with every new observation of how unfair things are. I know this isn’t new to other people, but it’s new to me, and it’s fueling an increasing sense of injustice in me, so even these “inoffensive” assumptions in our language are becoming offensive to me.

I am not a guy. I am a woman. If you want to use a gender-specific term to refer to a mixed-gender group, why shouldn’t everyone be “ladies” instead? Of course I know that would never be accepted (although I loved the nod to this in Tandy’s attempt to be “woke” in Last Man On Earth), and I’m not seriously asserting it’s a better solution, but it’s an equally viable option. It’s equivalent. So ask yourself why that would never be accepted, and you’ll understand a bit of why I find it unjust.

Second, out of sensitivity to others, just don’t apply unnecessary gender labels when you don’t have to. Period.

Why does this matter?

When you’re addressing an individual or a group, you may have no idea how those people identify themselves. Applying an unnecessarily gendered label may be very uncomfortable for them, even if you don’t mean it in a literal sense.

Take my “guys” example above.

I know a trans person who has sometimes had a hard time “passing” as a woman. People would sometimes identify her as male when we were out in public – using words like “sir” etc. when speaking to her. That made her feel miserable. Trans people are already far more aware of gender identity than cisgendered folks; calling unnecessary attention to gender identity in every day scenarios where it simply doesn’t matter is almost cruel.

If someone had addressed a group she was in as “guys” – that could set up a whole chain of negative thoughts. “Did I not pass again? Ugh, this sucks…” etc. Even if the person addressing the group didn’t mean it literally, it’s like probing an open wound. (I happen to know that this individual isn’t bothered by “guys” in a literal sense, but there are enough other unnecessarily gendered interactions that I’m always sensitive to it when I hear myself use the term.)

So, in this example, wouldn’t ladies be just as bad – but in the other direction? Doesn’t “ladies” unnecessarily gender a group of people, who may be equally sensitive to gender identity in an inverse way? Or even just somewhere on a spectrum; neither trans nor cis but something in between.

Sir, ma’am, ladies, gentlemen, guys, dudes, boys, girls; we are all people. Sometimes it’s useful to refer to gender identity, like when you’re discussing health concerns with a doctor – but I don’t see why it should matter in any other context. Certainly not in the millions of every day interactions in which we unnecessarily gender a person, or even an inanimate object. (Why are cars, boats, and the sea “her?” None of the reasons I’ve heard are flattering…)

This is something I’ll continue to work on in my own language and interactions with people. And I hope it’s something other people will begin to think about more as they go through the world and have these little interactions.

To business card, or not to business card

Business

To business card, or not to business card

Silly thing, I know… but I don’t have business cards anymore. I’ve had so many business cards over the years, in various incarnations, that when I made the decision to stop promoting my freelance career, I abandoned my old cards and made an intentional decision not to get new ones printed. I didn’t want cards for Bright Little Light Press yet, since I’m basically a one-woman house and imposter syndrome and all that stuff. I figured I’d probably get some printed eventually when we get bigger and I want to start accepting submissions, potentially hiring, etc. And I didn’t feel that personal cards were particularly relevant, as I wasn’t promoting my freelance career anymore.

But… also, there’s an element of wanting to be a bit more discretionary with my contact info. I’ve been more than happy to sit down with people over the years who wanted to pick my brain and learn from me… but I’ve also spent a LOT of hours in one-way exchanges where I give, and don’t get anything back from the other people. Since I started the publishing thing, I wanted to be more mindful of my time, and I also wanted to avoid the “all the writers who want to get published trying to reach out” element that can quickly become a major time-sink.

And, here’s the thing… as a woman, and someone who grew up in the Midwest where we’re super nice… I’m really bad at saying no. I don’t know how to say no to a contact request without being awkward. So, if I didn’t have business cards, I could just say “Sorry, I don’t have business cards, give me yours and I’ll reach out to you.”

Well, that’s dumb.

I’m currently smack in the middle of a great conference – Publishing University 2018, put together by IBPA. And yeah, there have been people I’ve chatted with that I don’t necessarily want to connect with… but there have also been some great people with whom I’d be happy to stay in touch. I went to a “Women in Publishing” breakfast meetup this morning, and it was a group of wonderful, professional peers with whom I’d be happy to have an ongoing relationship. And they all had cards but me. Which they passed around the table, while I apologized and promised to email them.

One of the things we chatted about was the boundary issue. It was wonderful/sad to hear that I’m not the only person who’s had this problem, but it was also really informative how different people have handled it. And I realized it’s time for me to practice saying ‘no’ – so I can also say ‘yes’ when I want to.

Next time I go to a conference, I’ll bring cards. In fact, scratch that – when I get home, I’ll go to Moo and get cards made so I always have them and don’t have to think about it next time I want to make a connection. And if I don’t want to make the connection, I’ll politely decline, or perhaps direct them to an alternative resource that can answer their questions.