Friday, March 28, 2014

LIVE from…Whale Wars!

WELLINGTON WHARF & THE SOUTHERN OCEAN—For months at a time, they live in cramped quarters on a ship that sails to one of the coldest, most hostile, and most unforgiving seas on the planet. There in the Southern Ocean, battling winds, thirty-foot waves, frigid weather, collisions with much bigger ships, and confrontations with governments, their singleminded focus is to save the lives of whales. They even take an oath to offer up their own lives if it means the chance to save the life of a single whale. They eat only vegan food, and are called, among other choice insults, terrorists.
Sea Shepherd Bob Barker (Photo: Aaron Carlino)

They are also brave.

This week I sat down with the captain and crew of the Sea Shepherd Bob Barker, which has just returned from ninety-five days at sea to dock in Wellington, New Zealand. I wanted to understand what it is about them, and what it is about whales, that make these people so doggedly passionate—so doggedly passionate that they are actually willing to die for their dream.

Andrea Gordon and her boyfriend Sam Sielen are New Yorkers. Andrea is from Flatbush, and she used to be a public defender; Sam worked in the Manhattan DA's office. Both are crew members on the Sea Shepherd Bob Barker. Andrea is Manager, and Sam is Director of Photography. Andrea first became aware of the movement when she saw what she described as "gut-wrenching" photos of baby harp seals being skinned for their fur. At first, she didn't think she could do anything about it. Then she read an article about Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd. Andrea was impressed with his and the organization's philosophy to put the animals first, the "clients" she joked, admitting that her law training forced her to think about injustices, about righting wrongs. So Andrea took a year's absence from her job to volunteer for Sea Shepherd. This commitment must've spoken to the ship's top brass. When the famous Captain Peter Hammarstedt made a personal telephone call to Andrea to come work for him, he asked her if she could be in Africa on one of their ships—in just a week's time. She hung up the phone to think about it, and then called Peter right back. Andrea said yes, and five campaigns later and a lot of subsequent time in Antarctic waters, and she's still working for him.

Baby harp seal (Courtesy: Sea Shepherd)

Ultimately, her boyfriend Sam left his job too, and joined the campaign.

The ship's bosun is a man named Phil Peterson. He's fifty-six years old, divorced, the father of two adult children. Phil has a weathered, permanent tan and tucks his long hair beneath a ball cap; he looks like a man who's spent a lot of time near the sea. And he has, passing some of that time whale-watching, as is customary in his hometown back in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Talking with Phil Peterson (Photo: Aaron Carlino)
One evening, Phil was watching "Whale Wars" on TV, the reality show that has made the crew of the Sea Shepherd famous. For Phil, this was about to be a defining moment. As he watched a whale being chased and then "blasted" to death, Phil said he began screaming at the television. "I was horrified," he told me, his voice cracking. "I couldn't believe commercial whaling [the term for harpooning whales to death for their meat, or for science] was still going on. Especially in a sanctuary!" The defining moment came when Phil asked himself what on earth he was doing with his life. "What am I doing in the world? I'm just a consumer, a mortgage payer." Suddenly, it didn't seem to make any sense to him that he was working to pay for a house that he no longer needed. "That was the moment I decided to do something," Phil said. "At some point, you have to do it or not. There are no half measures." Phil sold his house and then he sold everything else, and he too joined the crew of the Sea Shepherd.

Captain Peter Hammarstedt (Photo: Aaron Carlino)

Peter Hammarstedt captains the ship. He's young, twenty-nine, Swedish, and slight of build. Peter appears very calm, and doesn't necessarily look like someone with the muscle to tackle opponents who loathe him, shout at him, and, occasionally, wish he were dead. And those opponents are many: governments who make seemingly empty promises to protect the whales in a sanctuary, whaling ships that have come for the kill, and unusually angry people all over the world who decry the Sea Shepherd's tactics as terrorism.

"I was fourteen years old," Peter said. "I saw a picture of a whale being pulled up the slipway of the Nisshin Maru, the Japanese whaling ship, in the Antarctic. The picture shocked me. I was under the impression that whaling was something of the past. To know that it was still going on...I decided that I wanted to do something about it."

Dead Minke whales on Nisshin Maru (Courtesy: Sea Shepherd)

For Peter Hammarstedt, and he said so himself, "Passivity is the same as complacency."

When Peter was seventeen, he joined Greenpeace. When he was eighteen, Iceland resumed whaling. Iceland had been absent from the whaling industry for more than a decade, but they were back. Peter was angry about that, and by this point, he'd also grown disillusioned with Greenpeace, whose efforts he felt were focused more on publicity than on action.

Peter had heard about the Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation organization. The organization was smaller than Greenpeace, but they had a reputation for taking action. "I wanted to physically get between the harpoons and the whales," Peter said. The Sea Shepherd was advertising a campaign to travel to Iceland. Peter applied, and was accepted. He was still just eighteen.

Some years later, Peter Hammarstedt was put in charge. And not just of the boat as captain; he was put in charge of physically blocking the whaling vessels from refueling. During last year's Operation Zero Tolerance campaign into the Southern Ocean, Peter commanded a small boat, which aimed to put an early end to the whalers' hunting season by cutting off their fuel supply. It was dangerous work, and he was rammed several times in rough seas by much bigger vessels.

"Nisshin Maru," Peter cried out by walkie-talkie from his 800-ton boat to the captain and crew of the 8000-ton Japanese whaling vessel the Nisshin Maru, "I will not move! I will not move! You'll have to sink me…I am not going to move for you!"(Watch the dramatic video of this confrontation here.)

In fact, this particular mission was so dangerous that he spoke to his crew of thirty-four prior to embarking on it. He offered them a chance to jump ship, as it were, to bow out of the campaign before it got underway. Not one of the crew members took him up on it. It was Peter's most triumphant moment of his now decade-long career, knowing his crew was as dedicated as he was. And it was his most defining moment, he added, to learn that he and his crew had saved nearly nine hundred whales. Unable to refuel, the whaling ships were forced to cut their hunting season short, and they went home with just 10% of their original quota to kill more than a thousand whales.

But for Peter, every single whale death has a memorable impact. In 2008, he watched as a female whale was harpooned twice, then shot seven times by rifle. "It took twenty-two minutes and forty-four seconds for her to die," Peter said, looking away. "The risks I take pale in comparison to what these whales risk if we do not intervene. My biggest fear is not doing enough."

I asked Peter if he cried as he watched that whale die. It took him a long time to answer. "No," he said. "I don't cry during the campaigns. I cry after."

Peter has just completed his ninth consecutive campaign since 2002. He tells me that, over the years, he and his crews have saved nearly six thousand whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary. He is proud of this fact, and it flickers across his face in a rare show of emotion. But, he and the other crew members admit, there are sacrifices. Peter, for one, has missed ten years of holidays with his family. Bosun Phil Peterson misses his children back home in America. And some of the other crew members simply miss being on land.

Humpback (Courtesy: Sea Shepherd)

"We take a lot of risks," Manager Andrea Gordon says. "We know what we're doing is a matter of life or death for the whales. It means taking a stand to save this species from extinction." I asked her how she squares risking her life for a cause that will never be able to verbally thank her.

"Tails splashing is thank you enough," Andrea said.

For Phil Peterson, his dream began with taking action. "It takes one individual to start a movement," he said. Now, his dream is to see governments stick by their commitments. "If you're gonna designate an area to be a sanctuary, enforce it," he said. "You make a commitment; you stand by that commitment."

If you're interested in learning more about the Sea Shepherd's mission, visit their website at 

"LIVE from Mongoliais the true story of what can happen when you pursue a lifelong dream. Published in October by Beaufort Books, it's available on Amazon (hardcopy and Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and in int'l bookstores. Join us here for this weekly series that tells the stories of people all around the world who are following unusual dreams. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

LIVE from…Kilbirnie, Wellington!

KILBIRNIE, WELLINGTON—When she was just eight years old, Juliet Jacka knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She wanted to be a writer. "Reading was magical," she explained to the crowd gathered earlier this week to celebrate the launch of her new book. As a kid, every time Juliet tucked into one of Margaret Mahy's novels, she was inspired to pursue her dream to one day publish a book of her own.
Author Juliet Jacka at her book launch

But somewhere along the way, adult sensibilities kicked in. As Juliet put it, she "got distracted by all the wrong things." She went to university, she traveled, she got married and had a family. Deep down, although Juliet still harbored that old dream to be a writer, she had three things on her mind that felt, at the time, like insurmountable obstacles: For one, she said, "Writing stories is hard, let alone a whole book." Second, she wasn't sure her imagination was up to the task of creating what she needed to create. And finally, she knew the publishing industry had fallen on hard times. "Nobody gets published," Juliet reminded herself over the years. How would she ever make it, Juliet wondered.

Still though, a voice in her mind kept telling her to go ahead and just do it: "Whenever I sat down and read a book…I'd feel the whisper and pull of all those beautiful words. And this insistent tap on my shoulder. This voice saying I want to do that. I want to be that."

One day, shortly after the birth of her first daughter, Juliet spoke by phone to her aunt Fleur Beale, one of New Zealand's most famous authors of children's literature.

"I'm bored," Juliet admitted to her aunt.

"Then it's time to start writing," Fleur told Juliet.

So that's just what Juliet did. She began writing. And she didn't exactly stop, either. Juliet's first daughter was born in April of 2010. By September, she'd begun writing. By October (yes, the same October), she'd entered her first children's novel into the annual Tom Fitzgibbon Award. The novel was called "The Keeper of Spirit Hill" and it was shortlisted for the 2011 award. In December of 2011, her second daughter was born, and once again, Juliet started writing. By that October, she'd submitted her new novel to the same contest. That novel is called "Night of the Perigee Moon" and it was the winning title for the 2013 Tom Fitzgibbon Award. And if that wasn't enough, her first novel was shortlisted once again too!

"Dreams really do come true!" 
Juliet took advantage of 'stolen moments' to follow her dream to write and publish. She wrote in cars, on park benches, and in bed at night. Like Tilly, the main character in "Night of the Perigee Moon," Juliet said she had to figure out "that you have to push past the distractions and when you do, you can transform yourself into anything you want to be."

On Wednesday night, after four years of working toward her dream, Juliet Jacka launched "Night of the Perigee Moon" at The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington, New Zealand. She was flanked by an "army of supporters" as she put it—her literati family, her incredibly talented illustrator, Scholastic who published her, representatives from Tom Fitzgibbon, and those of us who'd gathered, by this point in her speech, to hang on every word she spoke about following dreams.

"If you’re like me," Juliet said in closing, "and you’ve been feeling an itch or a tap on your shoulder to do or try something, but you’ve been ignoring it—try a Tilly on for size, and push past the distractions. Turn around and give that itch or nudge a good shove back. It’s amazing where it can lead."

"Night of the Perigee Moon," Juliet Jacka's first published book, was launched last night at The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington. It's available for purchase at The Children's BookshopFishpond, and Wheelers. For international delivery of the book, shop at Mighty Ape.

"LIVE from Mongolia" is the true story of what can happen when you pursue a lifelong dream. It's available on Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and in international bookstores. Join us here at "LIVE from Mongolia" for our weekly series about people around the world who are following their wildest dreams. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

LIVE with…Elizabeth Gilbert & Rayya Elias!

Authors, new books, and dreams being followed!
WELLINGTON — Last night I met Elizabeth Gilbert, for the second time. The first time didn't go so well. That was about three years ago on the Upper West Side of New York. Back then, I embarrassed myself in front of a crowd of several thousand who'd gathered to hear Elizabeth speak about Eat, Pray, Love. Although I'd wrangled a general admission ticket to the sold-out event, I'd wanted to sit right up front, in the VIP section. So, I bet one of the security guards at the event that I could guess the number he'd written on a piece of paper. The number was between 1 and 100, and I had three chances to get it right. My odds were terrible, but on the second guess, unbelievably, I nailed it (98, in case you're looking for a lucky pair of digits). To the front-row VIP section I scampered.

After Elizabeth finished speaking that night, my errant hand shot up to ask a question, and my equally errant mouth opened. At the time, I was working on the manuscript which would eventually become the book that is LIVE from Mongolia. It's a story about what happens when you pursue a lifelong dream. At the time, I'd been losing a little bit of faith in that dream, and I was looking to Someone Who Has Made It Big to fix all that. I wanted Elizabeth Gilbert to tell me what to do next, to hold my hand, maybe do a little of it for me. So, I asked the question I'd been forming in my head, which went along the rough-shod lines of, "How do I get published?" The crowd laughed at me, and I fled the scene in tears.

Anyway, deep down, I already knew what I had to do next. I had to keep going with my dream to birth my book. Eventually, I would.

Fast forward to last night in Wellington, New Zealand, where I have just moved from New York. Elizabeth is here with her friend Rayya Elias as part of New Zealand Festival's Writers Week. Elizabeth is promoting her latest book, The Signature of All Things and Rayya is promoting her first book, Harley Loco. In my backpack, I had a copy of my own book.

Rayya spoke first. She talked about Elizabeth, and she talked about addiction, sobriety, grit, and what it takes to actually enjoy pursuing a dream. She talked about the Lower East Side, about hairdressing and music, and about not giving up. She spoke with such passion that if you looked around the room, you could see the collective hairs stand on the collective necks of every single person in there. It was that sort of night. And then Elizabeth spoke.

Elizabeth has a theory about creativity, which I'll have to paraphrase. (Alas, I'd banished pen and paper from my evening in order to simply soak it all up and enjoy myself.) Her theory is that ideas, creative ideas, are out there in the "ether" looking for a home, looking for a mother. "Are you my mother?" a film project asks of filmmakers in every nook and cranny on Earth. "Are you my mother?" a book idea asks until it finds its author. And so on. When an idea taps you on the shoulder, it's not just saying hello and introducing itself. It's informing you that you better pack your bags for a long journey ahead. This fresh, new idea will give you time to gestate it, but it won't give you forever. If you wait too long, it'll move on to the next filmmaker, author, painter. This idea, this little creative fetus; it just wants to be born. You are the mother, or maybe you are not.

Elizabeth finished speaking, and the room heaved. Everybody needed to take a deep breath. Finally, someone's hand shot up to ask a question, and I'm relieved to say that the hand wasn't mine.

After Elizabeth took questions, she and Rayya signed books. There's something exquisitely nostalgic about holding an actual physical book in your hand. For one, it smells good. It smells like those summer afternoons when you were a kid and you didn't have anything better to do in the whole world other than your chores to empty the trash and weed the garden — and read a novel.

I bought Elizabeth's latest book. My friend Lissa Carlino, an aspiring novelist who'd accompanied me last night, bought Rayya's book. While Elizabeth signed for me, I pulled out the copy of my own book and explained why I was giving it to her. Giving birth to my creative baby took a long time, and somehow Elizabeth Gilbert had gotten tangled up, all those years ago, in the midwifery of it all.

"You did it," Elizabeth said to me, author to author, idea-mother to idea-mother. It was a pretty special moment.

On the way out, a woman named Amanda stopped me. "Were you just now talking about LIVE from Mongolia?" she asked. She'd seen me holding the book, she explained, and wondered if I was talking to Elizabeth Gilbert about it. Yes, I told her. "Why?" she asked. "I wrote it!" I said. "I'm reading it!" she exclaimed.

And with that, a night that didn't seem like it could get any better got even better.

'LIVE from Mongolia' is the true story of what can happen when you follow a lifelong dream. "This book is inspiring, and teaches all of us to put passion first, and happiness will follow," says 60 Minutes' Ira Rosen. 'LIVE from Mongolia' is available on Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores internationally. Join us here for our weekly blog series about people all over the world following unusual dreams. 

Sunday, March 09, 2014

LIVE from…The Ocean!

CUBA, FLORIDA, & IN BETWEEN — At 64, she swam more than 100 miles from Cuba to Florida. Yes, she's Diana Nyad, and yes, her story has been all over the news. But it was just today that a reader emailed me a link to an incredible TEDTalk that Diana Nyad gave in December, and I'd like to share it with all of you. 

For those of you unfamiliar with this story, Diana Nyad has done the impossible. For more than half a century, the greatest swimmers in the world have been trying to swim from Cuba to Florida. Men, women, all young. Certainly not near retirement age. But Diana, at 64, has become the first person to achieve this incredible feat. 

Starting out in Cuba, Diana swam in the pitch black of the night with sharks and deadly jellyfish, singing John Lennon's Imagine, over and over and over again. She swam about 110 miles in the open sea with its unpredictable currents and tides. She swam with a team nearby for survival, but entirely alone in her pursuit and her will to finish. It was her fourth attempt at achieving this unusual dream, this dream to swim from one country to another, and her doctors, a neurological team, and even her own teammates told her this time, this fourth time, her dream would be impossible to achieve. Diana was, after all, 64. 
Diana Nyad, from The Huffington Post

But here's what Diana has to say about all that, in her TEDTalk: "Find a way. You have a dream and you have obstacles in front of you as we all do… None of us ever gets through this life without turmoil and heartache… You find your way!" Later, she adds, "You can chase your dreams at any age! Sixty-four?! Find a way!" 

On the last day of Diana's swim, the swim that would rocket her to fame and Oprah's couch and CNN, she saw lights off in the distance. She'd been swimming all night, and when she saw those lights in the distance, she was relieved that the sun was rising, that she'd made it through another day. That's when Diana realized it wasn't just daylight that was breaking; it was the shore of Key West off in the distance. She'd made it. (Well, almost. She had to swim another fifteen hours to get to the shore!)

If you're feeling flimsy today and relying on excuses, I urge you to spend your procrastination time (because we both know that's what you're doing reading this blog!) watching Diana Nyad give her TED Talk. And then write me about the dream you're following! I'd love to hear from you.

'LIVE from Mongolia' is the true story of what can happen when you pursue a lifelong dream. It's available on Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores internationally. Join us here for this weekly blog series about dream followers from all over the world. Who knows, you may be up next!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

LIVE from…A Camper Van!

Australian Colin making his way around NZ
The Road — Fall arrived abruptly here in New Zealand, and summer departed like the less interested half of a one-night stand. It's early March, but in northern hemisphere terms, it's the beginning of September. I should've been expecting fall's approach, but alas, I was not, not this quickly. And so it was last week, while walking down the steep and winding hill that leads from our house to the bays below at Oriental Parade, that I ruminated on all this. No, not just the changing of seasons, which always puts me in a pensive mood, but on the nature of journeying, and the expectations we cart along with us.

As I rounded the bend west toward the city center, drinking in what turns out to have been the last of summer's sunshine, something caught my eye. Painted on the top of a camper van, an "RV" we call 'em in America, was a sign that said, 'Livin' the Dream.'

I poked around the camper van long enough for someone to appear out of it. That's when I met Colin.

Colin is about sixty and from Australia and he's traveling with his adult son, who didn't seem particularly interested in talking to me. But Colin, who was wearing a New York t-shirt, was on a journey. Together with his son, they were traveling around New Zealand in their rented van. They would be on the road, well, as long as it took.

I peeked inside and it looked just like a vehicle would look with two men traveling together for an extended period of time: cluttered, with a side of underpants.

"Are you living the dream?" I asked Colin as we stood outside his van, beneath the sign that suggested that's just what he was doing.

"Livin' the dream?" he repeated back to me in a healthy twang. "I'm livin' the dream every day."

I thanked Colin for more than he knew I was thanking him for, and went on my now-merrier way. As I approached downtown Wellington, something else caught my eye. On a pier that doubles as the city's public diving board, a dozen or so young boys were perched. One by one, they took turns jumping into the water, soaking up the last of the summer sun.

'LIVE from Mongolia!', the true story of what can happen when you pursue a lifelong dream, is available on Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), on Barnes & Noble, and in bookstores internationally. Patricia Sexton also writes this weekly blog series about dream-followers around the world. If you're a dreamer, write us here! We'd love to include you in an upcoming feature!