Alaska, OHMMWCB Part 2: Tracy Arm

With a title that long, sometimes you just need an acronym.

Welcome back!  For those who missed it, here’s a link to Part 1 – Mendenhall Glacier. Today we’re headed down Tracy Arm toward a glacier we’ll never reach, but that’s okay–as any number of poets will attest, it’s the journey that counts.  Tracy Arm is a fjord near Juneau, a body of water we sailed where once there was only glacial ice.  There’s no way to decide whether Mendenhall Glacier or Tracy Arm was more amazing.  There were too many icebergs for the captain to maneuver the ship around the last corner to Sawyer Glacier, and I have zero complaints because my mind was already thoroughly blown by the journey there.

You see, the cruise ship we were on was a rather large cruise ship.  I don’t have a lot to go on comparison-wise, having only been on the one, but man that boat was HUGE.  Tracy Arm is…  well, rather narrow.  We were constantly threading a needle made of majestic, towering rock faces.  I lament the inability of mere mortal cameras to capture that feeling properly.  I felt dwarfed, insignificant, overawed.  Beyond a certain point, I edged into sensory overload; the terrain was just too relentlessly magnificent to really parse.  The human brain can only handle so much awesome.

Let’s see, shall we?


I know the names of neither mountain nor hanging glacier, here; this was “just” part of the scenery on the way to Tracy Arm from Juneau.  It just gets better from here.  Better, and different!


Once into Tracy Arm we encountered endless icebergs, many of which floated right beneath our balcony.  The waves you see there are wake, and the sound of water hitting iceberg was awesome, almost thundrous.  I am exceedingly curious as to what created all those ridged divets in the ice.  They’re so patterned, regular.





Here’s your first view of the walls of Tracy Arm.  Blue sky; towering, massive slabs of granite; glacial water.  It was all that gorgeous.  The granite walls made me feel so very small.  That looks distant; I cropped out a balcony railing that edged the frame.

Look at the lines in that great hunk of rock!  It’s so carved.  Those are some tenacious trees, too.  Along the left side, you can make out a waterfall ribboning down to the water.

Hey!  Is this a hanging valley?  It looks like what I’ve always imagined one to look like, but I crave confirmation.  Those monolithic domes of granite just kept getting larger and closer as we ventured further into Tracy Arm.

I need more words for “huge” and “majestic” and “rock,” because I’m running dry here.  This is around the time when my brain just stopped trying to cope with all the awe-inspiring nature towering above us.  Granite only impresses more when it’s so weathered; it conveys the passage of eons so perfectly.  Compared to that beautifully-carved rock wall, I was a tiny blip, beneath notice.  So thrilling!

This wasn’t the only dramatic, deep cut in the walls of the fjord, but it’s the one I got a good picture of.  I really wonder what sliced through the granite.  Is that cut made by flowing water, the valley for a glacial stream?  Another, not pictured here, was incredibly narrow and maintained the same width all the way up.  It was as if someone used a knife of ridiculous proportions on the granite, just like slicing a loaf of bread.

Here’s some action for us!  Doesn’t that look like a scar left by a massive rockslide?  It’s all rough and unweathered, with debris flowing down the rock face, and the edges are so clearly defined.  I bet there was one hell of a wave when all that granite hit the water.

What are these?!  How did those lines happen?  Is that all granite, or are those thin layers of some other rock zigzagging through?

I see at least three distinct shades in there: the pale, brownish rock; the dark thin lines; and the not-quite-so-dark stuff along the lefthand side that the lines also crisscross through.  This is why I want to be a geologist.  I look at something like that and I desperately long to know how it all got that way.

To me, the endless questions of “Why?” and “How?” lie at the heart of all science.  Geology in particular compels me because it shapes and underscores and propels everything on the Earth.  It’s not difficult to imagine how the idea of the classical elements came about: wind, rock, water and fire sculpting the land, both dramatically and invisibly, over immense periods of time.

The ship’s announced destination that day was Sawyer Glacier, but the journey there impressed so much more.  Our next trip winds inland up the Yukon Highway, through rocky terrain and over a seismic bridge.  See ya there!

Alaska, or How My Mind Was Completely Blown

Hi!  My handle on this-here blogthing is Steamforged.  I am here by grace of wonderful happenstance, and I could not be more honored.  Dana and I encountered each other in line for Neil Gaiman’s Seattle visit (which occurrence she wrote about in such glowing terms as to make me blush), and we hit it off so famously that about ten minutes into the conversation she asked if I’d guest blog about my Alaska trip for you awesome folks.  She’s seriously a special person, but you already knew that since you’re here too.  Thank you in advance for welcoming me here, and I hope you enjoy my posts!

A quick disclaimer: I am not a geologist, though I dearly hope to be one someday.  I’ve recently started self-teaching as I can by reading books and blogs and really anything I can get my grubby mitts on, but I’m no expert.  I might get things wrong, and if I do please PLEASE correct me!  That way I can keep on learning.  With that said, on to Alaska!


There’s this story I used to tell people by way of explaining why I wanted to visit Alaska, and I’ll share it with you folks too.  I used to work tech support for Canon, their cameras more specifically.  I talked to a lot of people, and many of those people traveled heavily; amongst all the troubleshooting I’d often hear about their vacations.  The one constant, the opinion I heard from everyone echoed as if from a vacationers’ hivemind, was that Alaska was the most beautiful place they’d ever seen.  It’s really quite the recommendation.


Finally made the trip myself and I am here to tell you that Alaska is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.





Right near Juneau.  And I thought I woke up to great views, living east of Seattle…  These folks totally have me beat.

I took hundreds of pictures, saw countless naked and wild natural wonders, and got my mind completely blown away by it all.  It’s not possible to convey everything adequately, and besides which, a lot of it isn’t really relevant to our topic here–wait, what?  There’s a topic beyond “Alaska is so super-rad,” you ask?  Sure!  I’m narrowing things down to GEOLOGICALLY RELEVANT beauty.  Otherwise I’d never shut up.  Trust me, this is for everyone’s benefit.

My visit was via cruise ship up the Alaskan Inner Passage.  There are three locations I’ll be writing about: Mendenhall Glacier, Tracy Arm, and the Klondike Highway between Skagway and the Yukon.  Three locations, three posts, simple enough!  They’ll be image-heavy, which is good, since I’m no John Muir (I just started reading his Travels in Alaska, oh wow) and can’t hope to successfully demonstrate Alaska without some photographs to help me out.  It’s just that, well…  mind-blowing.

Glacier time!

Mendenhall Glacier: my first river-of-ice, down-to-the-water, massive for-really-real glacier.  I know, Mt Rainier not only counts, but counts heavily.  Still, there’s something special about seeing an ancient flow of blue-white ice calving icebergs into the water.  It has all the bells and whistles, too.  The nearby rock faces bear parallel gouges from long years of glacial scouring; erratics litter the terrain, ranging from the size of a Volkswagon Beetle to the size of a Hot Wheels Volkswagon Beetle.  It was a beautiful day.  In fact, it was a little too beautiful.  I’m embarrassed to say that I managed to overheat myself running around near a glacier.  S’what I get for not drinking enough water!



Mendenhall Glacier in all its glory.  According to the excellent Visitor’s Center, the place I stood when taking that picture was beneath the glacier’s ice within this last century.  It’s receded quite a bit.





Even if Mendenhall Glacier wasn’t looming over my shoulder, I’d know this was glacier country.  Look at those grooves!  If memory serves, the Visitor’s Center was built directly atop the rock in this picture.  Also, I am a bad wannabe geologist, having not provided anything for scale.  This will be rectified in coming photos.



There’s so much going on in this picture!  In the foreground we have a beach made of erratics, casually dropped unsorted as Mendenhall made its slow retreat.  Then there’s Mendenhall Lake with its summer flotilla of icebergs, and further back there are the sloping hills at the foot of the mountains that cradle the glacier itself.  It really was a beautiful day.  Cloud provided for scale.





Then there are the human-sorted rocks.  I came across rock stacks wherever there were sufficient rocks to support such endeavors.  Maybe people just like to leave their mark, something to say I WAS HERE.  And check out these rocks!  You can see the striations, perfectly linear and parallel.  SO glacial.  Mountain provided for scale.




Now we’re getting close.  Those lucky folks had the money for the fancier shore excursions; I relied upon my trusty zoom lens.  That remarkable glacier blue shines through.  I love the jagged crevasses and spikes in the face of the glacier.  There’s so much texture there.  Boat provided for scale.


And finally, Mendenhall is ready for its close up.  The color is simply brilliant, down in the cracks.  I feel like there is so much going on there, in the ripples and crevasses and other ice formations, and I don’t understand any of it.  I want to, though!  Some of the smoother surfaces almost have the look of wind-sculpted sandstone formations.  …the glacier IS the scale, darnit!


The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor’s Center was really quite nice, with dioramas and a viewing deck and rangers on site to answer all kinds of questions.  I cannot recommend them highly enough.  That’s actually where I bought my copy of Travels in Alaska, which is written in such poetic language that I suspect I’ll be quoting it for years.  It doesn’t hurt that, after I commented on the formation of the nearby mountains, one of the rangers asked if I was a geologist.  TOTALLY made my year.

That’s it for my introduction and Mendenhall Glacier!  Next time: Tracy Arm, a journey into awe, my sense of self (rendered tiny) provided for scale.

When Lives Are On The Line: Part II

It took me over a year to get hired at the 9-1-1 center where I work. Now, before that my scope of employment was 95% shopping mall jobs, so its kind of like going from playing Calvin-ball at the park with some friends and then trying out for the Yankee’s.

Now, to be fair, it shouldn’t normally take as long as it did for me. I actually failed the first test when I initially applied. I had to wait until the next hiring session about three months later to try again, and made it through clean. Even if you ace every test, though, it’s no small feat.

For obvious reasons I can’t tell you about the tests themselves, but here’s an example of a schedule for getting through this application program:

Submit Application (Alright, off to a good start here)
Receive a “Pre-Screen” packet, fill out and return on time (This step routinely cuts as many as 25% of applicants)
Test 1 (which is itself a 3-part test)
Test 2 (a segmented test on a wide scope of topics, including a test that you don’t even know is happening)
Interview (Including a few test questions and “what would you do if..” scenarios)
Receive background packet, fill out, return on time (Some people are still regularly surprised that they can’t work in dispatch when they have, you know, an extensive criminal background and/or are wanted out of state. The question “Does having a felony disqualify me?” has been asked more than once)
Background interview
Background interview (where they talk to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and that little kid three houses down from you when you were six)
Psychological Examination (another multi-part test)
Psychological Interview (by now you’re an interview pro)
Get the jo-oh, wait, don’t forge the urine test.
Get the job!

Oh, and that last part is assuming that you do, in fact, make the cut. You can get all the way to the end, but if its not a good fit, its not happening.

During my hiring session (the one I actually passed), there were between 600-800 applicants. When I was hired, there were 3 of us left. That’s less than .5% success rate. I consider myself lucky, too, because since then we’ve had 4 more hiring groups make it through the process, and 3 of those were solo. As in only one out of hundreds of applicants made it. I consider myself lucky to have had some teammates to go through training with.

At an open house for the upcoming hiring session I was told that approximately 3% of the population can work this job as a career. Now I’m not saying all that to try to climb a pedestal; for one thing, my balance is terrible and I’d just knock it over. I say it because even over a year into it, I’m still not sure if I’m cut out for this. Everything I’ve seen has only deepened my respect for my co-workers. There are some days when I’m on my game, and I’m getting my work done, and we’re savin’ lives and catchin’ bad guys like it’s a Bruce Willis film. Even then, at the best of times it can all go sideways, and in those moments my senior coworkers really shine in a way that makes me want to sit down and start taking notes. That gives me an idea I’ll elaborate on more in a future post, for now I’m still discussing the process.

So, you’ve applied, you passed all the tests and interviews (and tests within the interviews) and you landed yourself the job. Great! When you start changing the world?

First there is calltaker training. The calltaker academy, purely the classroom-based stuff, takes about six to eight weeks. This is full 40 hour weeks, learning everything from local municipal code, policies, fire regulations, police procedures, policies, computer operations, and did I mention policies?

After you’ve crammed all that information into your head, with books and notes and flash cards, you get to apply it. Enter the Coaching Stage, and this takes another six to eight weeks, possibly longer. Now you’re answering lives calls, but with a coach guiding you through every step. The first day you are literally repeating what they say word for word, and you develop your skills and begin to problem solve and adapt on your own. If, after you’ve gone through two or three different coaches, you meet the minimum guidelines (the minimum being what every fully trained calltaker on the floor is expected to be able to do without error every day), then you’re cut loose! Now you’re free to stop making mistakes under the watchful eye of your coach and start making mistakes under the watchful eye of every supervisor within a 10 mile radius. And before a mistake meant getting marked down on your scores for that day, but now it could mean getting marked down on your employment status. Having fun yet, because it’s not over yet.

Nope. A year later I’m still in the training process. Realistically, the learning never ends. You can work here 25 years and still learn something new each day. However, on a technical level, you have 3 years to be 100% fully trained. Aside from the calltaker training, you go back into The Coaching Stage at each of 3 different dispatch positions (2 different police positions and 1 fire dispatch), each one taking from four to weight weeks to complete.

Somewhere in there, you also take a 2-week academy at the Department of Public Safety Standards & Training to get your state certification. After our in-house calltaker academy, DPSST felt like a vacation, albeit one that included marching for colors every morning.

It’s been an intense journey, and one that won’t be over until I hang up my headset. If just getting here was this challenging, and this much fun, I can’t wait to see what will happen down the road.

For intermittent pieces of writing, check out The Elusive Muse

When Lives Are On The Line: Part I

[Guest blogger Kaden]

Call 9-1-1

Easy to remember and ingrained since childhood, call these three simple numbers and you can reach police,

fire, or medical assistance. And that’s about the extent of the average person’s knowledge of 9-1-1.

This series is meant to give you some insight inside my world, but mostly its just an excuse for me to talk a lot. Dana seems concerned about her stockpile of ready blog posts, and I have a ton of very, very important things to do. So it seemed only natural to stop doing those and get sidetracked.

[Speaking of sidetracked, a disclaimer: I am speaking merely as an individual, the views and opinions expressed below belong solely to me and not any public department or agency. I do not represent any government body. When consulting your local police or fire department, keep in mind that individual results may vary.]

In 1968, Robert Fitzgerald introduced North America to the 9-1-1 emergency telephone system. In the 43 years since then, the number 9-1-1 has become a nationally known resource for putting the ordinary citizen in touch with emergency services. In the 43 years since then, 9-1-1 has expanded and grown, and at the same time has retained an almost superhero-esque anonymity. And while I like to think of myself as a caped crusader rescuing innocent lives in the struggle against the dangers of everyday life, it’s not nearly that glorious. For one thing, we don’t get capes.

Man, I wish we got capes.

Before I dive too deep, let me give an overview of how 9-1-1 works, at least in my neck of the woods. Keep in mind that individual laws and regulations, as well as funding, means that emergency services may work very differently around the country and even in the same region. I work in Oregon and even some of our neighboring counties have fewer or greater services than we provide. Still, it follows a basic plan.

When you call 9-1-1 from any phone in the United States, either cell phone, landline, Voice-over IP (VoIP) phones, or payphone, your call is routed to the nearest PSAP, or Primary Service Answering Point. From there, your call may be handled by the PSAP’s agency, or may be transferred to a Secondary answering point. For example, my PSAP intakes 9-1-1 calls for most of the county, but we only dispatch for the fire department and 1 metro city police department. If you call 9-1-1 here and you are in a nearby city, you are then transferred to the appropriate police agency’s emergency line, and will be handled there. So we are a filter of sorts.

From there, your information is taken and emergency responders are dispatched to the location. Police for criminal matters, or the fire department for medical problems or, well, fires.

In smaller cities, the person who answers the phone may be the same person who is dispatching. That is, they operate the radio and the phones at the same time. I’ve even heard horror stories about call centers with such low staffing that if you have to use the bathroom, you have to take a portable radio with you.

In larger cities, you will usually be handled by a “calltaker”, whose sole responsibility is to answer phone lines (usually both emergency and non-emergency, such as asking questions for the police, directions to the nearest bar, or how long its going to take for the President to fix X, Y, and especially Z. Curse you Z). From there, your information will be given to a dispatcher who will send the little cars and big trucks with the flashing lights. In my agency, police and fire are even handled by separate dispatchers.

This doesn’t have much impact on most people, but if you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to call 9-1-1, it might help to keep in mind the general structure. The person who picks up the phone may not be the agency you are looking for. Just because you call 9-1-1 doesn’t mean you will get your local police or fire department, if the PSAP answers for multiple agencies or a large jurisdiction. Because they may have to transfer you to the right people, they may not have control over actually sending the responders. This is doubly true when there is a calltaker-dispatcher set-up. So keep in mind that while you’re shouting “where is my police officer?”, the person you are talking to may not have any control of their response.

Let me make myself clear, though. I am not telling you how to act or what to say while calling the police or fire department. It is not your job, as a citizen, to be familiar with “How To Call 9-1-1″. It is our job as dispatchers and calltakers to be able to extract the information that we need to get you help. I am not educating you as “9-1-1 Callers” because hopefully you will never have to use it. And if you do, you’ll probably be more concerned with the task at hand than telephonic etiquette. I’m merely letting you look behind the Wizard’s screen a bit and see what happens on the other side.

Further clarification of how 9-1-1 works. When you call 9-1-1, we do not (at least not our PSAP) have magical CIA satellites monitoring your every move. We do not necessarily know your exact pinpoint location just because you are calling from a cell phone. There are a few reasons this doesn’t work.

When calling from a land line, your physical address is only as good as the phone records. Which, to be fair, are usually quite good, but not imperfect. If you call from a house phone, our system is recognizing the address that the phone number is registered to, which is some cases is not always accurate. This is especially true when dealing with “routing” lines and large business network lines. If your business phones pass through a network router, the address of the business line may not be the same as where you are calling from.

VoIP phones also run a similar system of address registration. When you sign up for the service, you enter an address for the account, and when that system dials 9-1-1, that’s what we see. You may not be anywhere nearby, but that’s the registered address. The shadier uses of this includes using a deliberate fake address to mislead emergency responders, but that is a different topic.

Now, cell phones. Ah, cell phones. In this day and age of phones smarter than my desktop computer, people assume we know everything about them when they call. When you call from a cell phone, the call is bounced off a cell tower and then placed here. When we pick it up, we can hope for two things. “Phase 1″, which is the location of the cell phone tower. Yep, the nearest cell tower, which could have an effective area of square miles. If we’re lucky, depending on the reception where you are and the kind of phone you’re using, we can get “Phase 2″, which gives us GPS coordinates of the approximate location of your cell phone. Sometimes these are pinpoint, and sometimes with an effective range of several thousand meters. So yes, we will ask you for the location of the incident, even though you are calling from your cell phone, and even though your phone can tell you its exact location three states away while in an underground solid lead bunker.

Plus, technology is all wonky and sometimes gets fickle and doesn’t do what its supposed to.

Well, I think that about does it for an introduction. Tune in (or tune out) the next installment, where I’ll explain why it took over a year to get hired here.

For some of my creative musings, stop by The Elusive Muse.

Entering the Dojo

[Guest blogger Kaden]

This was supposed to be a comment on Dana’s latest Dojo post below, but it was too long so I decided to make it a post of its own. Because, you know, why cut my word count short? That doesn’t make any sense.

Without further ado…

Dana, I was going to speak to you at length about this (and I still would like to) but I thought I’d throw my two pennies into the pile

Per Nicole’s comment, I think that writers might deal with the full depth of the philosophy more than the average person, or at least on a larger scale than most. We can decide the fates of individual lives, whole civilizations, and the fact that it doesn’t exist doesn’t change that we have to make it happen in that world. We have to actively choose to write it like that.

However, as real as writing is, and I’m all about the voices in our head Nicole, I also work closely with police officers and dispatchers who have to make these kinds of life choices regularly. If the choice to kill off billions of fictional people is this hard for us, but knowing that perhaps our story will make a difference and thus, that may be our justification, where does that leave those who make those choices every day?
In my home town, officers faced off against a young man who was charging, downhill, holding a knife, and shouting “shoot me”. What do you do? They are faced not just with the ‘criminal underworld’, but with people who are mentally or chemically unstable, possibly not in control of their own actions. How do they justify theirs?

What about politics? How do you justify your orders in a time of war? In a documentary about WWII, it is estimated that about 75% of the fighter pilots never saw the end of their campaign of 25 missions. Yet when the brass digs in their heels, when they look at the scene at hand and declare, “Hold this line, at all costs”, and countless lives are lost in the name of country soil, they declare success at the end of the day. The mission was “Successful”.

Wait, what?

Take the scenario: You are tasked with the choice of killing a man, or not. If you do not, a man in a suit presses a button and 10 people die. You know none of the individuals involved. Now, because I’m a writer too, I understand the arguments (and the loopholes – we’re not trying to think outside the box in this case. Sabotaging the button is not an option). That said, two of my characters would like to explain their sides.

Amara: It is morally wrong to kill a another human being, end of story. The ends never justify the means. If the suit pushes the button, he is making that choice to do so, and the blood is on his hands. I won’t justify my actions like that.

Meg: At the end of the day, it’s no comfort to the victims who’s hands are stained. The husbands, wives, children and friends of the 10 people you killed will not forgive you for not choosing, because you don’t think its your fault. Proving a murderer’s guilt or innocence has no impact on the fact that someone was killed. Ignoring inequality among the individuals, if each of these 11 lives are to be held equally, I would kill one to save 10. Because when the day is over, it doesn’t matter who feels guilty, or if my conscience is heavy. The point is that when the sun rises tomorrow, 10 people will get to wake up to see it that wouldn’t have otherwise.

Who’s right? I don’t know. How do you weigh one life against another? These are the very questions we seek to answer.

To touch on an earlier topic, of reducing these lives to nameless numbers, that’s what we have to do every day of our lives just to get by. When you see a man on the street, cold and hungry and alone and hope only to rustle up a warm meal, we have to emotionally detach ourselves. Or justify it to ourselves. “I won’t give money to them because they’ll just buy booze” “They’re abusing the system” whatever you want to say. But we survive by putting ourself on another level from them. Dana, if you walked down that same street tomorrow, and you saw one of those special people you were thinking about up there? Your mom, your intrepid companion, maybe me. Could you still say those same things? Could you still go about your day? We’re not only socially but genetically wired to want to help our kin.

These are the questions we, as writers, readers, as politicians, as teachers, as students, as fathers and mothers, these are the questions we must ask.

Even if we can’t answer them.

Look! Nature!

Hey blogosphere. Jacob here.

Dana’s post about butterflies inspired me to share some nature meself. I recently attended the launch party of Bird Fellow, and I must recommend it to anyone who has an interest in birds. The website is described as “birding services, social networking, and habitat conservation”, and presents as a way to identify birds and share your experiences with people around the world. The most impressive part, perhaps, isn’t even the photos, which are amazing by themselves.


OWLS!

Ahem. Right. Moving along.

The website is co-founded by David Irons, a man known widely in the birding community as a foremost expert in North American bird species, and considered simply the best birder in the state of Oregon if not the Pacific Northwest by many who share the past time.

But enough about the factoids, let’s look at some more birds.


Guys, this thing here ^ is called a Loon. Ha. Crazy loo-oh god why are its eyes red?! I think it just peered into my soul. And, finding nothing of interest, resumes preening.

This bird is apparently an “Old World Sparrow”. It looks rather Old World-y, doesn’t it? Like it would be perfectly at home with a monocle talking about the good ol’ days.

Anyway, it’s pretty cool, and a great resource to meet people in the birding community or to identify what kind of bird you saw in your backyard.

(All photos taken directly from the birdfellow site, (c) www.birdfellow.com and the appropriate photographers)

Casting my line, seeing if I get any bites

Sorry about the title, I’m horrible handling fishing references, but both my father and grandfather are avid weekend fishermen and I feel an obligation to occasionally submit a nod to the sport of sitting in a boat in the rain and looking at the bright side of it all.

Ahem. Right then. Hello blogosphere, it’s Jacob with another out of the blue guest post.

I have an interest in a blog subject I was going to write about, but I wanted to test the waters and see if the readers had any interest. Taking a cue from the Academia series I wrote a few years ago, I wanted to blog a bit about my occupation, both from a technical and emotional perspective. I am a 9-1-1 calltaker and dispatcher, and over the last 16 months have gone through quite an experience. So I ask you: does anyone have any questions, thoughts, or interest in reading about my experiences? As always I offer only my humblest insights, with the fair warning that I claim to know little and I know far less than I claim.

If so, drop a comment, I’ll start sometime in the next day or three, with probably weekly submissions for as long as there is still interest in whatever I can find to say. If not, perhaps I’ll find a more interesting topic of discussion, or I’ll just sit quietly in the corner and let Dana get on with her own damn blog, thankyewverymuch.

Wellsprings of Inspiration III: Guest Appearance from the Past!

[Foreword]

When I was a wee lad of 16, I met our awesome host Dana Hunter in, of all places, one of those online writer forums that was all the rage before short-spoken birds and facial literature. I felt like I was in a shifty bar; a dingy, shady place where the real world threw back a few drinks and threw the bottles off-camera, because real men didn’t care about littering. It was almost like Luke entering Mos Eisley, with all the naivety I could fit into my farm boy shoes. And it was there I met Dana Hunter.

Dana Hunter, you are my Kenobi.

Ahem, er, sorry, my nerd was showing there for a bit.

So Dana found me, and we quickly high-tailed it out of the forum like the Falcon with a squad of stormtroopers on our tail (Last one, I promise). We went on to have long talks about our creative endeavors, but while I just talked about it, Dana actually had the guts to do something with it. Hence why she has a blog with thousands of posts and I have, well, not much.

The reason I bring all this up is that once upon a time, I was Dana’s co-blogger. I wrote a whopping three, maybe four, articles for En Tequila Es Verdad. Then I fell off the face of the Earth for a while. Well, I’m back, and I thought I’d introduce myself a bit as I step back into old shoes and walk along a path long forgotten.

I’ll try to throw something out here every now and then. At the end is a link to my own little corner of the blogosphere, that I’m currently using to work on my personal project.

A sidenote: My previous entries were under “Kaden”, a penname that once belonged to my main character who has since been renamed. The Elusive Muse (my corner) and all related posts will simply be under Jacob. And yes, I thought Kaden was cooler too.

So, without further ado, let’s go to writing…

Wellsprings of Inspiration

How Video Games Tell Stories

Books, movies, television shows, video games, board games, paintings, pictures, music, that quilt your grandmother knit for you that’s still in the closet, almost everything that surrounds us is about telling a story. And, really, you can find inspiration in anything. I’ve seen into the lives of my characters while watching a softball game. While listening to music. Overhearing two people in conversation. You can find meaning in everything, and story is about meaning. However, I’m focusing on a particular area.

Aw yeah. Video games.

My gaming career began around 1992-1993, a young spratling of about 3 or 4 years. It was Sonic The Hedgehog, and while it didn’t inspire me to do much other than run around in circles really fast, it was the start of what would be a brilliant gaming career.

The first real inspiration came from playing Chrono Cross, a masterpiece released in the late 90′s. The story was a bit convoluted, but I was at a young enough age I wasn’t paying that much attention anyway. It had 45 separate playable characters and multiple endings. You literally could not encounter and unlock every character by playing just once. You had to play it multiple times to fully experience it. Sadly, the copy I owned was flawed, with a scratch on the disc that prevented me from getting past a scene that you cannot bypass. So I never actually completed the game…though it remains one of my life goals to do so. However, it wasn’t the characters that made the most impact. Even though, at one point in the game, one of your party gets injured, and you have to make the choice to brave a dangerous swamp to find her a cure or, you know, don’t and go pursue the storyline on your own. This sense of having to make a choice in the story will come up later, so remember it.

Actually it was the music that inspired me the most. Chrono Cross has a wonderful score, and in particular the main theme, “Scars of Time”. This is, simply put, my favorite piece of music. From pretty much anything. Ever. And I like music scores. I love the Dragonheart theme, and if I can appreciate The Phantom Menace for anything it’s one of my favorite Star Wars piece. But Scars of Time…when I hear that, I hear soul. I see epic battles illustrated in flashes of light, I feel how it must feel to soar above the clouds.

But I digress. Somewhere along the line I was introduced to Metal Gear Solid, which reigns supreme as High King of Convoluted Plotlines. I can’t begin to explain the plot, but let me explain this: the main character, codename Solid Snake, is a genetic clone of a legendary super soldier, who throughout the course of the games repeatedly foils the plots set in motion by his other “genetic siblings”, often involving the use of various bipedal nuclear-equipped mech known as “Metal Gear”, for which the series is named. Nevermind that at one point you are lead to believe that the dismembered hand from his brother (Liquid Snake) has taken over the body of your ongoing nemesis, Revolver Ocelot, which is only possible because Ocelot’s father is a spiritual medium. Oh, and Ocelot’s mother is the mentor of the original Solid Snake of whom the main character is a clone of.

Oh, and there are cyber ninjas. Shit is crazy.

Incomprehensible story aside, the games actually have several plot lines that have continued to inspire me. In particular, the apparent antagonist in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is one of my favorite game characters to date. It would take too much space to get into the story, and it would be a disservice; you have to play it to understand. However, let me explain one moment. You are facing off against The Boss, the aptly named opponent you are struggling to face throughout the game. A former mentor turned traitor against her country, you are sent to kill the only woman Snake really loves. At the end of the final battle, she reveals all to you. Her sacrifice, and why she has done these things, and why you must end it here and now. She knows she is going to die. She knows you are going to kill her. It’s all part of the mission, one far grander than you ever realized, and you have your part to play. Here’s the kicker.

You have to pull the trigger.

In most games, climactic story-changing moments in the game are told through “cutscenes”, moments where you no longer have any control over what happens. Here, you have to consciously take the action. After playing up to this point, I literally stared at the controller for at least three minutes, refusing to continue. Eventually I did, because I had to, but it made the echo of gunfire that much more real.

Let’s take a step into another game, shall we? This franchise has quickly overtaken all others as my favorite game series of all time. For me, it is the epitome of what story-driven games should be. The series is called Mass Effect. A wonderful piece of science fiction, story-telling driven gameplay. You play the main character, “Commander Shephard”, a soldier of your own design. You choose if you are male or female, one of various backstory options, and a few different gameplay choices. Throughout the game you encounter humans, aliens, robots. Soldier, citizens, and creatures with intelligence beyond mortal comprehension. Yet the game is steered largely by choices you make. Some seemingly inconsequential – you can bribe a shopowner to get a discount. Give a fanboy an autograph, or tell him to go jump out a window. Let a criminal live to see justice, or take justice into your own hands. You were making these choices, and each had meaning. Near the end of the game, I was facing off against the main adversary, Saren. He was corrupt, taken hostage by the insidious mechanisms of a being who could influence your thoughts. For most of the game Saren is hellbent on carrying out the wishes of the one commanding him. However, based on the choices I made, the things I said, I was able to get through to him. Leading up to one of the final boss fights, I showed him that he still has a chance to make a difference and to fight back. Saren took his gun, put it against his head, and fired. It bypassed the entire fight. Unable to fight the influence, Saren decided to try to make his final stand, by removing himself from its control. A final sacrifice.

I almost dropped my controller.

You may be asking, Why are you boring us with this? We weren’t looking for a corporate sponsor. Hear me out, though. The reason these games are a source of inspiration to me is that video games, truly good games, succeed when they create experiences. That’s how they inspire me. Experiences. Moments in a story. Video games have a unique advantage over other mediums. Unlike movies, a game can take between four to over 30 or more hours of gameplay to complete. You are not restricted to 112 minutes to meet the characters, connect with them emotionally, and understand their choices. Books, of course, can go even farther and more in-depth, but video games also have the appeal of being a visual medium. While there is something to be said for painting characters in your mind with a good book, but in a game they can present scenes and ideas that are simply more difficult to convey in writing. And, above all, in video games you have a choice that you simply don’t with books or ‘teevee’ shows.

These choices are the defining moments when you realize a game steps over the threshold. When you have an emotional, personal reaction. In the sequel, Mass Effect 2, you are tasked with spearheading a suicide mission into enemy territory. You have to choose a squad leader to lead the second group while you lead the first. My choice was not made according to stats, or gameplay mechanics. Garrus was one of the characters from the first game, and the choices I made kept him by my side throughout the mission. I chose Garrus to lead them because I know Garrus, the way a Browncoat knows Malcolm Reynolds, the way a Tolkien fan knows the hobbits. It’s a choice based on experience.

It also helps that games like this are often accompanied with amazing musical scores and in Mass Effect’s case, stunning voice acting and camera work. Yeah, camera work. The way they “filmed” the scenes in mass effect give it a truly cinematic feel, as good as any movie.

As I start my own writing project, heading into the Great Unknown of writing fiction, I remember these games, these moments. That is what I want my readers to remember. I want them to remember the experiences. When, just for this one moment in time, they are doing more than just reading.

If I ever manage to accomplish this even once, I will call myself an Author.