I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks Part Five: Money

One side effect of losing a lot of weight: It can be a little expensive. I've lost eight inches from my waist size, closing in on ten. I started out wearing a 42" waistband, but by the time I hit a 38" waist, trying to keep my old pants on was somewhat comic. I bought several new pairs with a 38" waist, but they were soon pretty baggy, and 36" inch waists fit much better. Now, I'm in 34" and they're already loose. My 38" waistbands have already gone to charity, practically new, and my 36ers will likely be there before long.

I've also invested in relatively expensive hiking boots, running shoes, and general purpose sneakers. Not that I'm losing weight in my feet, but once I routinely began hiking long distances, I found out the importance of really good shoes. Six months ago, I would have been skeptical that a hundred dollar pair of running shoes offered any real advantage over a pair from Walmart, but now that I've started jogging, I can tell you that the right shoes do make a difference. So do knee braces and, of all things, compression shorts and shirts.

Other costs: One of those little arm band thingies to hold my phone. A used treadmill. I'm also looking at buying a new bike.

But, some costs it turned out I didn't have to spend money on: A gym membership. Walking, jogging, and hiking are all great calorie burners, and they're all free. Once you get committed, bad weather doesn't deter you that much. Cheryl and I have gone hiking during a snowstorm. We went walking during the rain a few weeks ago. Last week, we were caught in a cloudburst while biking. It was refreshing. We aren't Baum witches. We don't melt.

We save a ton of money by eating out less. And, when we do eat out, water is pretty much all we drink. A lot of restaurants are charging $2.50 for sodas these days, so our bills are usually $5 less than they used to be. Also, we often just order one entree and split it these days. Restaurant proportions are ridiculously oversized in most cases.

For daily eating, Aldi is our best friend. I drink a lot of selzter water. I can get a case at aldi for about $7. Food Lion wants 99 cents a bottle. Also, we eat a crazy amount of fiber bars. My routine breakfast is a V8 and an oatmeal bar. The bars can be five bucks a most grocery stores, but at Aldi they're less than two.

Aside from the fiber bars, we eat mostly food we cook ourselves. This involves frequent trips to the farmer's market. We've bought a freezer (oh yeah, another expense) so we can buy meat from Sam's Club and freeze it rather than buying smaller portions at Food Lion. We usually build our meals around a lean protean.

The biggest investment turns out not to be money, but time. We have to travel a bit more to get our groceries, since we don't just live on frozen pizzas from Food Lion any more. And, it takes a lot of planning to have all the meats and veggies ready to go for each night's dinner, and then more time and attention to preparing them than eating prepackaged dinners. And this time is hard to squeeze in, given that we're also walking an hour most evenings.

We watch less TV than we used to. I've managed to find time for writing books, but have less time to blog than I once did. Also, and this is a little embarrassing, I no longer have much fodder for the old political rants I used to post, because I no longer have a lot of time to devote to following the news of the day. I'm not as focused on externalities as I once was, but also not as distracted.

Today, Cheryl and I are going to visit a couple of farmer's markets, then bike 24 miles on the tobacco trail. There won't be time for sitting around on the computer reading the news.

Honestly, I don't miss it.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks Part 4: Bodies in Motion Remain in Motion

Exercise. This is the part of weight loss that has most tripped me up in the past. Because, bluntly, exercise bores me. I've got other stuff to do. I work a full time job, write novels in the evenings, and would like to spend my weekends enjoying the company of friends and family instead of being trapped in some gym. I'm already running out of hours in the day before I run out of stuff I gotta do. When I do have a few minutes each day to unwind, I'd rather read a book or mess around on the internet for a little while. Where the hell am I supposed to find time to exercise?

It wasn't always this way, of course. When I was a kid, my love of reading went meshed nicely with keeping myself active. Since I was a bookish kid, it was only natural I knew the location of the nearby libraries. The closest one was a couple of miles from my house, but, fortunately, I had a bike. So, during summers, it was almost a daily thing for me to make the trek from my house to the library. I often joke that, if I'd kept up that link between reading and exercising, I'd be as skinny as an adult as I was as a kid.

Well, I'm happy to report that I've been able to harness the geeky parts of my brain into a willing ally in my quest to burn calories.

First, as a geek, I love gadgets. It's almost sad how much pleasure I take out of finding new stuff to do with my smartphone. I mentioned in my last post that I record everything I eat in an app called MyFitnessPal. When I walk, jog, hike, or bike, I use an app called Endomondo that uses GPS to track my movements and record  my distance, speed, and calories burned. Once I started using Endomondo, the gaming geek part of my brain kicked in and I started wanting to improve my stats. If I averaged walking a mile in 20 minutes, could I get that time down to 18? When I hit that goal, could I get my time under 16? To beat that time, I had to start jogging. I'm down to just over 13 minutes, which is a snail's pace compared to most jogger's speeds, but a pretty amazing accomplishment for me. I'm already working to get that down to 12, then down to 10. In addition to speed, I also push for distance. I used to be happy walking five miles a week. Now, if I don't get in ten, I feel like a slacker. And, I know if I'm slacking off, because Endomondo helpfully shows me records of all my activity, and I can see quickly if my numbers are going the wrong way.

Of course, getting out and walking for two or three hours at a stretch still presents the old obstacle of boredom. Like many modern citizens, I've trained my brain to have a short attention span by clicking links every twenty seconds. It's almost torture to spend an hour without checking the internet. But, is that hyper need for constant stimulation actually good for my brain? Or has it transformed me into a more shallow person, unable to think as deeply as I once did? Fortunately, exercise has helped me reconnect with the amazing power of boredom. As a writer, I need time to daydream. For a long time, I've daydreamed in short chunks, like when I'm driving, or when I'm in the shower. The very worst time of all for daydreaming is when I'm sitting at a computer... and, thanks to having the internet on my phone, I can always be at a computer. But, I can't hike and look at my phone at the same time. Getting out in the woods for an hour or so gives my mind time to wander. Yesterday I took a 50 minute walk in Duke Forest and spent most of the time figuring out the complete life history of a major supporting character in my next novel. Even though my exercise time keeps me away from Microsoft Word, when I do sit down to type, I find that I've got more developed material in my imagination buffer.

Still, I confess I do frequently distract myself when I'm walking. On about half my walks, I listen to audio books. I use the Librivox app (another thing I can do with my smart phone!), which has a library of thousands of public domain classics. I download the print version to my kindle, read at night, then pickup where I left off in the audio version the next time I go walking. So far this year, I've read/listened to Pride and Prejudice, Tarzan of the Apes, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Time Machine, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, Walden, Beyond Good and Evil, and am now working on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This encourages me to take long walks, so I can get in more chapters. And, I find it creates really pleasant links between the places I walk and the books I've read. There's a bridge on the American Tobacco Trail that, every time I walk over it, I think about the scene in Dracula where vampire Lucy is confronted by van Helsing. There's a steep hill on one of the Eno River trails where I always remember the animal men chanting, "Are we not men?" Every time I walk around Occanneechee Mountain, I recall Heathcliff's passionate declarations of his undying love.

I used to think I couldn't find time to exercise. Now, my exercise time is my geeky brain time, away from the shallow distraction television and facebook, back to the deeper brain activity of literature.

At least, when I walk alone. Because, there's one other aspect of my current exercise regime that's vital to my current success. Cheryl has become just as avid about exercise as I have. Getting out on long hikes and bike rides is something we do together. We connect more walking up mountain trails even if we're fifty feet apart than we do sitting on a couch two feet from each other watching television. Exercise improves my brain and my most important relationship. The fact I also lose a lot of weight is just a pleasant side effect.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks Part 3: Eating Smart

I used to eat like an idiot. I have only myself to blame, because, looking back, my mother did a very good job of feeding us healthy food. Part of this was because we were dirt poor. We just didn't have the money to eat out at fast food restaurants or pizza joints. We also couldn't splurge on junk food like potato chips or snack cakes. We did what we could to stretch meat. In recent years, I've gone to steak houses and ordered 20 ounce steaks to eat by myself. In my youth, a single 1 pound steak would get divided up between my parents and all the children... which, it turns out, is a lot closer to a healthy serving size. We ate a lot of beans and vegetables grown from both our own small garden and my great-grandfather's farm. We would can tomatoes, green beans, and freeze corn and blackberries to eat on year round. We drank sodas very rarely. It was a special occasion to get your own 12oz bottle of RC.

Then I went to college and the cafeteria was all you could eat. And, man, did I eat! I wolfed down food like I'd never seen it before. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner I drank Coke. Around the same time, my father got a better job, and junk food started appearing at my parent's house. Little Debbie snack cakes. Cases of soda stacked on the porch. More bags of potato chips than you could quickly count. My father went from a rail thin man into a rather portly gentleman in the span of a few years. I was spared the effects of my overeating by my youthful metabolism and the fact that for most of college I didn't have a car and had to walk everywhere. (And, later, when I did have a car, I had no money for gas, so I was still walking.)

Eventually though, my financial prospects improved enough that I could drive everywhere. And, my frequent destinations were fast food joints. I knew the location of every pizza buffet within fifty miles. "All-you-can-eat" was my favorite restaurant catchphrase. Which is how, between my sophomore year of college and my 47th birthday, I doubled my weight.

Intellectually, I knew one shouldn't drink 2 liters of sugary soft drinks each day. Intellectually, I knew the proper serving size for pizza wasn't "buffet til you bulge." I suspected all these things might be bad for me. But, they were bad for me in small increments. It's not like I ever got on a scale and found myself 50 pounds heavier than when I last checked. Instead, it was 1 or 2 or 5 pounds, over months, accumulating over years and decades. My head might have known that my diet needed improving, but my stomach didn't see what the problem was. What was the point of being thin if I had to give up eating what by body craved?

I'm happy to report that, once I finally decided to change my diet, my body stopped craving the things that were bad for me. I no longer drink any soda and don't miss it at all. A few weeks ago, before setting out on a long hike, I decided I'd pay a return visit to a Pizza Hut buffet. It was like eating heavily salted cardboard that had soaked in bacon grease. Thank heavens they also have a salad bar.

I no longer eat at any fast food restaurants except for Subway, and I'm careful about what I eat there, avoiding cheese and mayonnaise and sticking to the lean meats like turkey and ham.

When my wife and I go out to eat at real restaurants, we research the menu beforehand. Most chain restaurants will have nutritional information available, so we know which dishes are calorie bombs and which dishes we can stuff ourselves with guilt free. And it's not always the dishes you suspect. We went to one bar known for their burgers and thought we'd just order the veggie burger, but by looking up the calories beforehand, we found the veggie burger had more calories than the beef one!

However, despite the veggie burger being laden with calories, the number one rule of eating smart would have to be, "Eat your vegetables." Eat the starchy stuff like potatoes and rice sparingly, but go to town on leafy greens like spinach and kale. Cauliflower is a stunningly versatile and delicious food once you learn what to do with it. One wonderful thing about vegetables is that you have so many choices these days. Every week, it seems like we're trying a food we've never eaten before; kohlrabi, endive, sunchokes, jimica, parsnips, rutabagas, and rainbow chard have all been added to our menu. Before we started our diet, we ate sweet potatoes twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, we go through a bag every other week, sometimes using them as savory foods (they're great paired with flakes of chili), sometimes as sweet (sprinkled with cinnamon and a touch of brown sugar). We eat lentils and chickpeas and bulgar wheat, quinoa and farro and flax seed.

We don't avoid meat, but we do eat much smaller portions. 3-6 ounces of steak are more than enough if you are eating a good helping of vegetables with it.

I don't believe in "don'ts." I think if you go into a diet swearing you'll absolutely, never ever eat certain foods you'll probably fail. That said, eating a reasonable amount of some foods means eating a small amount. You shouldn't load up with a big bowl of ice cream. The "correct" serving size is about half a cup. Pasta's laden with calories, so I only eat it once or twice a month. I still eat candy... but I record every single ounce, and treat it as a treat rather than a staple food.

Ah, yes, recording every single ounce. It's old diet advice, but it's what worked for us. Cheryl and I downloaded the "My Fitness Pal" ap to our phones and started tracking everything we ate. It's a great tool for educating yourself as to just where your big sources of less healthy calories are coming from, and also a great way of training yourself to think before you eat, so you can avoid snacking out of boredom or habit. And, as a geek, it's really turned into a game for me to see if I can stay under my calorie goals. It turns my daily diet into a puzzle that I get to solve. It's kind of like real life Tetris. Through the day, foods keep falling my way. There are donuts in the break room. Candy bars at the project managers station. It's some one's birthday, have some cake! I get to decide what foods and how much of them are going to fit into my calorie slots.

I know it's possible to go too far down the path of obsessing over food. Eating is one of your fundamental biological functions. You shouldn't approach it with dread or shame. Still, being mindful of what you put into your body make sense. In my case, I have good results to show for it, at least when combined with my improved exercise habits. Which will be the topic of my next essay.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Weight Loss for Geeks: Part Two: It's Just Math!

First, let me say that I know a fair share of skinny geniuses and I've met plenty of fat people who are dumber than stumps. But, one thing I notice going to a half dozen science fiction conventions each year is that there are also a very high percentage of really smart geeks who are obese. If Big Bang Theory reflected the reality of my personal experience, among it's core group of geniuses (Sheldon, Leonard, Amy, Raj, Penny, and Wolowitz), at least three of them would be weigh over three hundred pounds. Of course, this is pretty much true of all television. While some shows do have one or two token fat characters, 95% of people on television are skinny, despite the fact that two thirds of Americans are overweight, and over a third are obese. Even though there's more to see of fat people, for some reason Hollywood pretends we're invisible. As someone with at least a little understanding of statistics, this nags at me.

While I do know a few literary-minded geeks whose eyes glaze over when you start talking about math, most geeks I know tend to be really good with numbers. Some are even downright obsessive about them. In a previous approach, I mentioned treating my own body statistics like they were the statistics of a character in a role-playing game. I once saw a gamer friend of mine sitting with a sheet of paper in front of him. As I got near, I saw the whole page was covered in equations. I asked what the heck he was working on, and he started talking about a computer game he was playing where he'd just found a new pair of gloves that enhanced his speed stat, but lowered his strength stat. He was working out whether, over time, being able to attack 2% more often would offset the decrease in damage he was inflicting. He'd concluded that it wouldn't, but then he also had to take into effect that the increased speed improved his dodging ability. He was avoiding some slight percentage of damage in each fight, so he finally worked out the numbers showing that the gloves allowed him to spend more time attacking with fewer pauses to heal himself and that gave him something like .025% more killing power over the course of a gaming session.

He's not an aberration. Old-school AD&D players will remember that the early Dungeon Master's Guide opened with a section on bell-curves and mathematical probabilities. There were charts showing the bonuses and penalties of different kinds of weapons against different kinds of armor, and every gamer I knew was obsessed with getting every single modifier he could manage into an attack. (Remember, as an elf, I get +1 with a long bow!) We once videotaped one of our D&D games, because, you know, we thought that shit was interesting as hell. When I watched it a few years later, I couldn't help but notice that we spent half our time arguing over math. A character would want to jump from a window of a tavern, grab a tree branch, and land in the saddle of his horse, and we'd spend twenty minutes debating the odds of that until we agreed on what number he'd need to roll on what combination of dice.

Yet, all the time we were debating this math, I was sitting there drinking straight out of a two liter bottle of Coke while going through multiple slices of pizza and half a bag of potato chips. For all the math I was worried about in my imaginary world, I was stunningly oblivious to the math of my real life.

Weight loss and weight gain really aren't complicated. If you take in more calories than you burn, you gain weight. Burn more than you take in, and you lose weight. I credit my success in weight loss to finally paying attention to these numbers. Using a smart phone app called MyFitnessPal, I began to record every single calorie I ate. Whenever I exercised, I recorded the number of calories burned. Of course, you burn calories even if you spend all day in bed reading; this is your basal metabolic rate. There are a dozen websites you can look up to calculate you BMR. Once you know it, the rule is pretty simple: Eat fewer calories than your BMR and you'll lose weight over time. At present, my BMR is around 2100 calories. It's certainly not impossible to stay under 2100 calories a day. But, in my old diet, it was really easy to go over that number. I used to go through at least two liters of soda a day. That's over 800 calories. I used to frequently eat pizza for lunch. Calories vary by the size of a slice of course, but most pizza slices are going to be in the range of 300 calories. It wasn't unusual for me to eat four slices, so, there's another 1200 calories. I'd be peckish after work, so I'd swing through a drive through and grab a burger and fries. There goes another 1000 calories.

Of course, even once you start keeping track of your calorie intake, you'll probably find that low calories alone aren't going to make the pounds fall off. And, there are times when you're still going to want a few slices of pizza, or some birthday cake, or some Halloween candy. Fortunately, your BMR is just your base number. You can burn more calories just by adding in a little exercise. I have plenty of days when I still eat over 3000 calories; but, I also have days when I hike five miles to buy these extras calories.

It's not healthy to get too obsessive over these numbers. You don't want to wind up with an eating disorder, of stop enjoying eating because you're so afraid of sugars and fats that you're paranoid about putting butter on your sweet potato. But, it's definitely healthy to be aware of these numbers. Once you start tracking your numbers, you'll quickly start to see where your excess calories were coming from. Cheryl and I have gotten really good at estimating how many calories are on any given plate of food we encounter. We've learned to correctly judge proportion sizes by putting almost every piece of meat we cook onto a kitchen scale. Even though I can now mentally keep track of my calories, I still use My Fitness Pal to record my numbers, but at this point that's turned into another stat. The program keeps telling me when I hit milestones of how many days I've logged in, and I don't want to mess things up by skipping a day. It will be the same thrill I used to get moving up a level playing Diablo 2. Watching a character creep from 32nd level to 33rd level released a little surge of adrenaline, and I felt the same way when MyFitnessPal told me I'd logged on for 200 days in a row. I imagine having it tell me I've hit 365 days will be nearly orgasmic.

Lord, I'm a geek.