Author/Firefighter/Pilot, San Francisco
Aren't podcasts great? A voice, and a set of ideas were all I needed to get inspired and carry out bunch of research about the speaker - Caroline Paul. She was discussing her latest book Gutsy Girl, and it rang so true to me, that I was inspired to contact her and learn more. After months of trying to nail down common time, we met in a pub around Haight-Ashbury intersection in San Francisco, took some photos, unnerved hippies with our photo clicking and left knowing that we both participate in some crazy sports and share many other commonalities. It was a success in my books. It was hard to pin point the title for this post, because Caroline is more than an author, she is an adventurer, and not just adventurer, but think-outside-the-box adventurer. If you ever meet her, ask her to tell you a story involving San Francisco bay, 4th of July and a kayak. Without further ado.
2. Where is your hometown?
3. What is your profession/career/title/self- label/designation?
4. What was the journey like to get where you are (career wise)? When was the mental shift to start the journey? (path through navigating all sorts of "male dominated" sports/careers and how you viewed it at the time and how you see it all having perspective, years later. Was it worth it, did it feel like it was "so out of the ordinary?" etc.)
There were mental shifts each time I entered a new career, which I have done twice. When I became a firefighter, I was not expecting any seismic changes in my perspective. I had lived a life of pretty grand adventure and joining the San Francisco Fire department seemed an extension of that. I thought Sirens! Adrenaline! Big Fires! Of course, the job was so much more than that, and tested me in emotional ways I had not expected. The courage and integrity needed when doing CPR on a baby or giving oxygen to an elderly man who really just wanted some human contact, or treating the same heroin addict for an overdose for the third time that shift, or pulling dead kids from a crashed car – these far exceeded what it took to run into a fire, for me.
It also took me by surprise how difficult it was to assimilate into a culture that was fundamentally male. I had many male friends, and I’d also been a pilot, a whitewater raft guide, and a paraglider and in these milieus I was more often than not one of the few females.
But all that was a game compared to the firehouse, where the pressure was really on all the time to prove that I was strong and brave enough to be there. And in some ways it was a fruitless battle, because the sentiment against women ran so deep. It wasn’t unfounded – the job of firefighter is physically difficult – you carry a hundred pounds of equipment on you if you include the coats and boots and axes and airpacks, and THEN you have to work. And remember that Title 9, the law that guaranteed girls equal access to sports, had been only been ratified in 1972. So my generation was the first with a background in physical activity and so the first to embrace a culture of strength, teamwork, and courage. So women didn’t have a deep bench when it came to strong, adventurous women. As a result, I didn’t blame the men for their doubts, but the fact was that there were some of us that were very qualified and came to be trusted parts of a team. Being under such pressure for 14 years was no picnic though – you felt any mistake would reflect on all your fellow female firefighters. There was a flip side; I am very grateful for really understanding on a visceral level what it is to be excluded, what it is to be in the minority and what it is to face deep prejudice. Before that I was a pretty dumb white girl, blind to her own privilege, and all that she had not earned.
I do want to say there were many very honorable men who were decent to me whether or not they actually thought I should be there. There were also men who were fine with women on the job, though they did seem to be in the minority. And ultimately I just loved the job – I searched for bodies in the bay on the SCUBA rescue team, I faced huge, raging fires, I birthed babies. Who can say that?
5. Biggest accomplishment since making the (physical/mental) move?
After retiring I became a writer and I would say that
publishing four books with big New York publishers has been a big accomplishment.
6. What was biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?
I published two books without much difficulty. And then I wrote two novels, and two proposals and nothing would sell. Five years of my life! I was devastated and almost gave up writing. But then I wrote Lost Cat, A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, which did ultimately see the light of day. So I dug myself out of that dark hole, through persistence, a little skill, and a lot of luck.
There was a small, dark place in my heart that wanted to send Lost Cat reviews and sales numbers to the editors and agents who had rejected that and all my other manuscripts. But the truth is that the writing of each one, rejected or not, made me better at my craft, so nothing was really a waste, nor perhaps should the rejected manuscripts have been loosed on the world.
7. Advice for other women?
8. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?
1000 feet in the air, over Tomales Bay in my ultralight.
Seeing seals or leopard sharks is a plus.
9. What are some of your favourite sports that may serve as a good spring board to get girls into action and fearless activities?
If one had to start slow and get them comfortable with risk? Stand up paddle boarding is very easy to do but it feels badass, because it’s on water and it can be a little difficult at first. There are also some things to keep an eye on – tides, and winds for example – so it’s a step up from walking down a trail.
10. What is it like staring fear (and I mean major fear, like dying) into face? During your sports, etc.? What was your self-monologue?
I know that fear is telling me something, but it’s often not telling me to step down. In many situations the feeling of fear is a reflex or a reaction that has come too late. I was once blown out of a hallway during a fire and as I picked myself up after the explosion I was freaking terrified. But then your brain catches up and you realize, hey, it’s over, you’re fine. The truth is that now the situation had just gotten a whole lot safer – the explosion had happened and now conditions were tenable. Fear wasn’t relevant anymore. It was time to go back into the hallway, and put out the fire.
11. What fears are you still hoping to overcome?
My fear of not being perfect. The problem with growing up female in the US is that there is a deep sense you have to do everything correctly and if you don’t you’re bad, but in fact I’ve seen that the most grace comes from simply recognizing you’ve done something wrong, saying sorry, and pledging to do it better next time. I want to be that person. I’ve tried to adopt the mindset that I’m going to be perfect at imperfection, and that has been helping.
12. Anything you'd do differently (if you had another go at life)?
Wingsuiting. However I would have to be reincarnated with a tad more common sense and be a little less accident-prone.
13. What inspires you?
Women who do rad things. I just saw a documentary about some female BASE jumpers. It’s frustrating that people don’t realize how many women are out there performing brave acts and adventuring at a very high level. For a long time I thought no women did things like wingsuiting bc I hadn’t read about any but I did a little digging and there are a core group. How many, I don’t know, but definitely more than none. And we should know this!
14. What are you hopeful about?
That the younger generation will shift everything we are doing and save the world from us. Climate change will be stopped and we will kick fossil fuels and we will somehow reverse our swift overpopulation of this planet. Our wild places will be saved, animals and insects will not suffer or go extinct. Oh, hold it, did you say “hopeful”? I thought you said Pie in the Sky dream. Honestly I am not really a hopeful person. I am hopeful about puppies. But otherwise, not much.
15. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)
I gift H.A. Rey’s The Stars. It’s a book on constellations. I think that looking at the sky gives us a sense of our place in the universe, which is, note to humans, TINY. We need to feel infintesimal if we are to survive, is my opinion. Am I on this rant again? Okay, I’ll get off it and add that when you look at the sky and recognize constellations, it’s quite comforting, bc there it is, the same sky almost where ever you go.
16. Who is/are inspiring “WOW Woman” (or Women) in your life (and why)?
My twin sister. She is a dogged animal rights activist and all around kickass woman. My partner Wendy MacNaughton is an illustrator and she is the most creative person I know. She hates the word creative, but I don’t know how else to say it. Whatever the word is when someone takes an idea and makes it better/funnier/more poignant. That word. Better yet, she comes up with something that feels totally new, and you think Oh, Right, and your perspective is suddenly changed. Once you look through her work you’ll know what I’m talking about.
17. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?
Carolinepaul.com & @carowriter