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.


Friday, December 01, 2017

Music: a Ramble

Wide awake at 3 in the morning. Not a unheard of state for me, but usually if I'm having a sleepless night its because I'm stressed out about work. Tonight, I'm not thinking about work. I'm thinking about music. The Florence and the Machine song "Shake It Out" keeps playing in my head.

It's a song I was indifferent to for a long time. Florence and the Machine has a lot of songs that appear on my playlists. I love "Dog Days are Over" of course, and "Third Eye." How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful would make my list of best albums of the decade. But "Shake It Out" never wowed me, despite it being one of their hits. Then, this week I heard it while I was driving to work and it felt like I heard it for the first time. I have Sirius XM, so I checked the song name and realized it wasn't a new single, it was a song I'd heard a dozen times before but somehow never noticed. Now, I can't get it out of my head. "I am done with my graceless heart, tonight I'm going to cut it out and then restart." What a great line.

This isn't the first time a song has snuck up on me. The Counting Crows second album, Recovering the Satellites, was a huge disappointment when I first listened to it. August and Everything After had been one of my favorite albums, so my expectations were high. But, despite a summer giving it my best shot at liking the album, I eventually stopped listening to Recovering the Satellites and shrugged it off as a sophomore slump. Then, years later I was sitting in a Pizza Hut with a jukebox and somebody played "Have You Seen Me Lately" and the song just exploded in my head. It seemed like the perfect mix of music and lyrics, and when I put the CD back into my car (remember CDs?) it sounded like a brand new album that was much, much deeper and more engaging than August and Everything After. Lines that had seemed pointlessly cryptic--"I wanna be scattered from here in this catapult" -- now sounded profound and meaningful.

Lyrics drive a great deal of my taste in music. I love the Mountain Goats, Frank Turner, and Typhoon all for their ability to throw verbal twists. The Decemberists are great story tellers, as are, of course, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. I like older country as well, where the songs are so often built around verbal hooks or elaborate metaphors. Older country often has a lot of humor, and I don't see how anyone who likes Roger Miller wouldn't also like They Might Be Giants, though I suspect I may be one of a few dozen people in the world who might include them both on a playlist.

Because I love good music, I find I'm frequently tortured in public spaces by aggressively bad music. I know that time is the great editor, and 95% of the music from any given year is going to be forgettable if not outright crap. There was no golden age when every song was perfect. But so much popular music seems constructed from the same beats following the exact same lyric template. And it sells! Of course, the same is true of literature. Writers who can follow a strict formula for mystery, horror, fantasy, etc., have built in audiences. Those who follow a more eclectic path wind up like Rasputina, a band that sounded like almost nothing that came before it and, of course, a band that you were never going to hear blaring out over the speakers of a mall food court.

I drive Cheryl crazy quoting song lyrics. She'll ask me a perfectly straightforward question and I'll answer with some non sequitur that just happens to be the lyric running through my head at the moment.

"Where do you want to go out to eat?" she'll ask.

"We're all alone in this together," I'll answer.

I can't help it. My head is full of songs. They just leak out.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Five years later--A Fitness Update

Five years ago, I announced on this blog that I intended to change my lifestyle. You can read my public declaration here. At the time, I weighed 283 pounds. I had a very sedentary lifestyle. I was on my feet at work a lot, but the second I got home I was in a chair. Every now and then Cheryl and I would go biking or hiking, but it was rarely more than a few weekends each month. Back then, a five mile ride was a lot of biking and hiking two miles was an event

Interestingly, rereading my post, I had a goal of getting my weight down under 240. Losing 40 pounds seemed like an almost impossible goal, but I felt determined to go for it. Six months later, I'd lost sixty pounds. But, could I keep it off? And would the changes I'd made to my lifestyle for better eating and more exercise stick?

As to whether I could keep it off, not so much. Once I hit the low 220s, I lost the focus needed to slowly starve myself trim. I also encountered a paradox of exercise. Losing my excess weight had made exercise more enjoyable for me, but the more I exercised, the hungrier I was. I got back into the 230s pretty quickly, then the 240s, then settled into a very long, slow gain where I probably averaged gaining 1 pound a month, until I reached a new high of 273 last year.

I hadn't let most of my weight gain panic me, and convinced myself that a lot of my new weight was muscle, which, to a degree, it probably was. When I started my weight loss kick, I wore pants with a 42" waistband. Four years later, I was wearing pants with a 38" waistband. Even at my thinnest after my initial 60 pound loss, I'd only gotten down to a 36" waistband. Gaining back two inches didn't seem earth shattering.

But, still, 273 was a wake up call. In February, I went back onto MyFitnessPal, recording all my calories. I also switched mostly to low carb for my diet. Finally, I bought a scale that synched to my smartphone to track my weight daily. The nice thing about this is that the program automatically averages out my weight and graphs it each month. In August, my average daily weight was 243.8--Close to 40 pounds below my starting weight 5 years ago, and very close to my goal weight I imagined back in my original blog post. Since June, I've gone back to pants with 36" waistbands, and even these feel loose.

Do I regard my weight curve over the last five years as a positive or a negative? It would have been healthier, obviously, not to have that slow climb back into the 270s. If my weight were my only fitness metric, I might be a little worried. Luckily, it's not.

Five years ago, I'd only just started using a CPAP. Five years later, I'm still enjoying the benefits of sleeping full nights. I'm still mostly asthma free and my thyroid levels  have been steady with medication for years. My chronic health obstacles all turned out to be something that science actually knew how to fix.

The area where I made the biggest change, a sustained change with no backsliding, is in exercise. Late in 2012, I put an app on my phone called Endomondo that would use GPS to track the miles I spent walking, biking, hiking, and kayaking. This wasn't a step counter. It would only log miles if I turned it on and dedicated time to actual outdoor activity. My background activity of walking at work, around the house, or out shopping would be ignored. I had to actually be exercising for it to count.

In 2013, I logged 1017 miles. This felt like a very big deal. But, my love of round numbers made me want to average 100 miles a month. So, in 2014, I logged 1235. I beat that in 2015 with 1276, hit 1371 in 2016, and for 2017, with four months left, I've already logged 1281 miles. This total includes a July where Cheryl and I each managed to log 300 miles. By the end of September, we'll have beaten last year's total, and getting to 1500 miles this year looks like a minimum goal.

The title of my post five years ago was Lifestyle Changes Ahead. Five years later, I think I can say with some confidence that the change was successful and shows every sign of being permanent. When I saw my mother a few weeks ago, she commented about all of the adventures Cheryl and I undertake and asked if we ever just stayed home on the weekends and did nothing. The answer was no. It's practically unthinkable that we'd waste a Saturday by not using it as a platform for a big bike ride, kayak trip, or hike. These things aren't things we have to work into our schedules. They've become the default assumption of what we'll be doing with our spare time, and everything else now gets worked in around the miles we're going to travel. It's not that life doesn't throw obstacles in our path. I've had several big job changes during these last five years that have disrupted my schedule more than once. And, of course, Cheryl underwent a long, difficult treatment for cancer. But by then, our lifestyles had been so changed that she didn't have to go out and force herself to exercise while being treated. The exercise was going to happen no matter how she felt physically, because it made her feel good mentally.

I think that's the biggest insight I can give about our lifestyle change. It's a simple concept, but difficult to really understand until you've experience it yourself. The exercise has changed our bodies. We're stronger, tougher, and more resilient than we were five years ago. But, it's also changed our minds in the same direction. Exercise used to be something we'd dread. Now, it's something we crave, and we don't feel right until we satisfy that craving. At the end of a fifty mile bike ride, we're exhausted. We stink. We ache, and our limbs protest when we try to move them. And it's wonderful. Sore, tired, still soaked in sweat, we feel utterly alive. That's the biggest key to changing our lifestyle. We learned a new and better way to enjoy life.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Ten Million Monuments

It's with great hesitation that I say anything at all about the current controversy surrounding Civil War monuments. Saying that you'd prefer to see them remain standing puts you on the same side as white supremacists, and any time you wind up on the same side of an issue as people as loathsome as this, it's time for a gut check.

I've lived in the south my whole life but I've never once picked up a rebel flag. I look down with some embarrassment upon those who bedeck themselves, their houses, and their cars with the stars and bars. It's always struck me as unpatriotic to be so sentimental about the side that tried their best to disunite the United States. All the arguments that the battle was for a noble cause fought by honorable men provoke eye-rolling on my part. Let us move the battle lines forward in time, and suppose that the Civil War was on the verge of being fought today. The Union side is our government much as it is today, warmongering, wasteful, inefficient, corrupt, and deaf to the needs of the average citizen, not to mention abusive of privacy, with laws that ensure that poor criminals live their lives in prison and rich criminals live their lives in the halls of power. The Confederate side, on the other hand, is promising ethical government and the protection of individual liberties or whatever your fantasy of the perfect government would be. Maybe they're providing free health care, maybe they have free college, and they're doing all this with zero income tax. Political utopia, except, well, the Confederate side does allow that people whose ancestors came from Africa can be bought and sold as commodities and used for free labor. Oh, and you can beat the people you own with whips for any reason, or hang them without bothering with trials or judges. You can rape them if you wish, and sell the children that are produced by this action.

The Union, on the other hand, despite it's many, many flaws, does not allow men to own other men no matter what their skin color.

Which side would you fight on?

I have some sympathy for those who want to take down Confederate monuments. Many were erected in response to civil rights laws, a way of saying that, among the politicians of the time with the power and purse to put up these statues, they were still Confederates at heart and still believed in the Southern cause, even if that cause allowed for blacks to be property instead of people. The monuments were a thinly disguised middle finger flipped at the rest of America. Today, they are embarrassing to look at. Trump called them beautiful. I used to live in Richmond, and, yes, there is a certain aesthetic pleasantness to the monuments along the road. If you only drive past without knowing who you are looking at and what they did in life, you can appreciate them as decoration. But suppose you stop and read the plaques? Too often, you'll find only veneration. You'll read the accomplishments of someone who was a general and hear how he fought with honor and bravery, but there's no mention of him owning thirty slaves or having five bastard children by them. You won't read that he once whipped a slave for two full hours because of an escape attempt.

Pulling down the statues seems to me to let those who wish to venerate the Confederates off the hook. As painful as it is for a black person to drive down a street and see a Civil War general venerated, it should be even more painful for a white person to see the same monument. They should stay up not to glorify the Confederacy, but to remind us of the depths of evil we can sink to as a nation. It should spur us to work harder today to ensure equality and justice for all.

There's still a danger to leaving these statues standing. The very fact you've had a statue erected to you carries value. It makes you seem important. Meanwhile, the tens of millions of slaves who lived and died in the shadows of these men have no monuments, or at least too few monuments.

Instead of tearing down the monuments to Civil War soldiers, or of slaveholders like Jefferson or Washington, leave them standing. Jefferson and Washington were both great men who did great things, and it's fair to honor them for the good they did. It's also just as important to remember that even great men are capable of terrible deeds. So, surrounding the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial, erect statues of every slave we have a record of them owning, life sized, rendered in as much detail as possible, even though most of the faces will, of course, be representative rather than accurate, since I doubt many portraits of these slaves exist. On Monument Avenue in Richmond, line the whole block, both sides of the streets, with long, long rows of these slave statues, men, women, children and babies. Make it impossible to take a photo of a Civil War "hero" without capturing in the background a dozen slaves. The slave statues should go up everywhere a Confederate statue exists, in the hundreds. But we shouldn't stop there. The fact that so many of our founding fathers were slave holders shows how important the slave economy was to the entire United States when it was founded. There shouldn't be a single state capital anywhere without their share of the slave monuments.

Build these statues by the millions, even tens of millions. The alt-right marchers in Charlottesville say they want to defend history? That they want to preserve the memory of their ancestors? That's a noble cause. Let's embrace it and show even the history we'd rather not remember, so that we never, ever, forget.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Happy Accidents

I believe it was Bob Ross who said that in art there are no mistakes, only happy accidents. Cheryl and I have taken several thousand photos on our adventures. On something like our Merchants Millpond excursion, we might take 200 pictures in hopes of getting a dozen worth posting online, or one worth actually printing and framing.

Among these photos are plenty that were taken purely by accident. We reach into our bike bag or waterproof box to grab the camera and accidently snap a shot. Or, they are intentional shot, but spoiled by subject being out of focus, or water on the lens, or a finger winding up in the frame. But, out of the hundreds of accidental shots taken, a few wind up being visually interesting, turning into abstract art or surreal images. Today's post shares some of these happy accidents.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Greenway update: White Oak Creek Greenway

Last year, I published a handy beginners Guide to Triangle Greenways. I focused mainly on trails in Durham and Raleigh and skipped over trails in Cary despite the fact that Cary actually has at least a dozen greenways. The problem is, most of them are pretty short and not connected to one another. There are maps everywhere showing how these greenways will eventually connect, but currently there are far too many gaps which makes it hard to string together a long ride. Plus, a lot of Cary greenways are really hilly. We explored the Morris Branch Greenway last weekend and it has a certain roller coaster quality to it. Don't get me wrong, we like a few good hills on a ride to make for a better workout. But the Morris Branch Greenway frequently has steep hills leading to intersections where you have to make a right turn. So, if you're coming down, you have to ride the brakes, and if you're going up, there's no way to build momentum. Finally, there's a hill on Yates Store Road that is just soul crushing. Well, maybe it's not that bad, and I suspect that we can conquer it eventually, but the first time we attempted it we both made it halfway up before giving up and pushing our bikes to the top.

So, we didn't have high hopes for another Cary greenway we finally tried out the same weekend, the White Oak Creek Greenway. It turned out to be fabulous, one of the nicest greenways we've biked, though, admittedly, the best scenery is all in the first quarter mile that crosses marshland.

Whoever designed the boardwalk across the marshes was some sort of boardwalk savant, because it's perfect. Rather than just a straight bridge across the gap, there are several gentle turns that makes the whole ride visually appealing. Even better, the boardwalk is wider at the bends, so you have more than enough room to make a turn at speed, and if you stop to take photos you don't feel like you're blocking the path.

The rest of the ride is also pretty nice, not too flat but no soul-crushing hills. An out and back ride is just under 8 miles. This is a little short for what we normally want to ride, but perfect for beginners. This greenway is part of the East Coast Greenway, and will eventually connect with the American Tobacco Trail and trails leading to the Reedy Creek Trail in Raleigh. I look forward to being able to start riding in downtown Durham and have a continuous greenway route available all the way to Clayton on the far side of Raleigh. When we do finally make that ride, you can bet the White Oak Greenway will still make it into the pictures we take along the way.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

5,000 miles!

Cheryl and I started tracking the distance we walked, hiked, biked, and kayaked back in December of 2012 using a program called Endomondo. This tracks our location via GPS whenever we exercise. It's not a step counter, so it doesn't capture incidental walking, like the steps we make while we're at work or out shopping. It only tracks when we turn it on while deliberately going outside and exercising. (You can also manually input distance walked on a treadmill or stationary bike, but, except for once or twice when we first started using the program, we never do that.)

This morning, I checked our stats. Cheryl has now logged 5022 miles. I've logged 5296. If we'd been traveling in a straight line west, we'd have paddled past Hawaii by now. Heading east, I'd have already walked passed Moscow.

Look, if we can do this, almost anyone can. Cheryl and I aren't exactly elite athletes. Cheryl especially has faced some extreme challenges that knock most people off their feet, spending most of last year being treated for cancer with chemotherapy and radiation. To top it off, Cheryl has osteoarthritis in her left, meaning she has to wear a knee brace to walk or hike.

We also don't have magical access to some vast pool of free time. I work two jobs, a full time job during the day, and my career as a writer in the evenings. I run a book club and am a board member with the Orange County Friends of the Library. Cheryl has a full time job and is an active member of her church. We have time to watch TV, an hour or two most nights. But in the evenings before sitting down to watch TV, we get in a walk or a ride. On Saturdays, rain or shine, we make sure we set aside at least a couple of hours for a hike or a bike ride or kayaking.

It all adds up. The more you do, the more you want to do. Once you get used to biking ten miles, you'll want to start biking fifteen. When you see how much of the hidden world is revealed with a two mile hike, you'll start wondering what you might see with a five mile hike.

Once you get outside and off road, you'll realize that most of the world is out of sight of your car windows. There are mountaintops you'll only reach on foot. There are beautiful rivers winding through flooded forests you'll only witness via kayak. Biking has taken us along old rail trails where we see relics of a lost past as we travel through tunnels and fly across gorges on iron bridges. Even if you could reach a lot of these places by car, you'd miss the full experience sitting in an air conditioned box. On our ride yesterday, we kept close watch of the sky, because the wind smelled of oncoming rain. Climbing a hill, we breathed air perfumed with wisteria long before we actually saw the vines draping from trees along the trail. The day was hot and humid, the air thick, which made it all the more glorious when we passed through an old railway tunnel and felt the cool air flowing from it. And you don't really understand just how great water tastes until you've biked ten miles under a hot sun.

We draw inspiration from the people we see on these trails with us. Yesterday on the greenway, we passed a young man in a wheel chair. On the American Tobacco trail, we've seen old women with walkers over a mile from the nearest trailhead. We get passed by people on bikes who have to be at least ten years older than us. We've even once seen a blind biker (he was accompanied by what I can only describe as a seeing eye rider peddling in front of him).

This is your planet. That's your body you're inside. Use them! You'll be surprised by what you'll discover.