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.


Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Fitness Update--Six Years In

I think it's safe to say that the changes have stuck. Six years ago, I did a blogpost called "Lifestyle Changes Ahead."  I talked about being overweight and out of shape and resolved to change things. Each year, I've been reporting how things are going. This year: So far, so good. 

This year started with a curveball: Cheryl had to have knee replacement surgery. It's tempting to blame her bad knee on all the stress we've put on it once we started exercising, but, the reality is that the years of inactivity beforehand are the more likely culprit. Her pain really started after an 11 mile hike with a torn meniscus, and only got worse year after year, until her knee was nothing but bone on bone. She had the knee replaced in January, and, as can be expected, didn't get a lot of miles of walking, biking, etc. during January or February. My own mileage logged during those months were also pretty low. Part of it was not wanting to leave Cheryl sitting at home alone while I went out and tried to get in a long bike ride, but weather was also a factor, since this year brought some really miserable weather during those months. 

In March and April, we started getting back outside again, with Cheryl putting her new knee through its paces. We did a lot of short 10-15 mile rides in the spring while her leg got stronger. By June, we were chasing 20-30 mile rides. Last weekend, we did a metric century, 62 miles, followed the next day with a 6 mile kayak trip, and yesterday by a 10 mile walk. I think it's safe to say that the new knee works! 

So far, I've logged 1400 miles for the year, mostly biking, but with kayaking, walking, and hiking as well. Last year, I reached 1600, so I'm on track to beat that number. My goal is 1800 miles for the year, but if weather is good in November and December I might push for 2000. 

My weight for most of the year has been pretty stable. I've been averaging a little over 245 for most of the year, and not much I do seems to move that number much in either direction. 

I think there's three big reasons we've stuck to our fitness goals, despite the fact that, like most people, we'd resolved before to eat better and exercise more without following through. 

1. Being outdoors has become our default.  

Cheryl and I just like spending time together outdoors. It's really replaced watching television or hanging out with friends as our presumptive activity for when we're not working. Our weeks aren't planned around figuring out which day we'll exercise. Instead, we plan in the opposite direction. We assume our evenings and weekends will be spent on a bike, kayak, or hiking trail, and schedule the days that won't happen, either because of a conflict with another event or just because, occasionally, we need to schedule at least one day of rest. Looking at my tracking for August, we did something outside 23 days out of 31. 

2. We chose the best possible time to take up biking.

I mean, honestly, there's no bad time to take up exercise. But we started biking just as local cities were really investing in greenways. Since we've started, the American Tobacco Trail has been completed, as well as the Neuse River Trail. It feels like every time we turn around, we find a new greenway under construction somewhere within walking distance. Just yesterday, we walked on a new greenway segment in Winston Salem. The last decade saw a lot of cities invest in greenways and I hope the trend continues. Want us to spend money on hotels and restaurants in your town? Build greenways. We will come. 

3: We started our fitness activity just as smart phones and social media really took off.

It's weird how linked our smart phones and our fitness activities are. We track all our physical miles with a program called Endomondo. The stats give a tangible sense of progress and add an element of video gaming. If I do hit 2000 miles this year, it will be like leveling up! But the fact that smart phones mean that we always have a good camera with us and Facebook gives us a giant album to show off those pictures gives us an extra incentive to get outside. Yeah, some people are probably wondering just how many pictures of turtles and herons we can possibly post. But we sometimes get amazing shots, like the picture I took of an osprey eating a fish on a tree branch, just as he spread his wings to balance himself. And, the pictures are really just the tip of an iceberg of memories. Sunday, a heron launched from a branch directly above us. We didn't see him until he launched, mere feet over our heads. We didn't get a picture, but we did get a wonderful memory. 

Moving into year seven, we've got big plans. With Cheryl's knee improving with each week, we look forward to getting in more hiking. We've now got bikes that handle well on trails, so while we aren't likely to go out jumping over gullies and splashing through creeks, we've already been logging miles on paths we once could only visit on foot. We've got our eyes on long greenways in Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina, and have a list of other greenways all throughout the US that we're hoping to do at the first possible opportunity. 

Finally, despite all the miles we do, I don't think anyone would look at Cheryl and myself and instantly assume we're athletes. Age, body shape, and serious illness haven't stopped us from making a change for the better. We spend our days hot and sweaty, swatting away bugs, wondering where the hell we're going to find our next water fountain or bathroom. We've both gotten sunburned this year, I've been stung by hornets, Cheryl has take a bad fall, and we've both gotten muddy and scratched up in difficult terrain. And all this is so much more interesting than sitting on a couch watching television. Seriously, you should try it. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

I waited far too long to quit my day job...

For a little over twenty years, I worked two jobs. Job one, of course, was writing. Even though twenty years ago I was unpublished, I was working hard to perfect my craft and spending a great deal of time writing, rewriting, critiquing, and submitting stories, usually for no money at all. Which is actually not all that different from my writing career now, if you change "no money at all" to "barely any money at all."

My second job was with what used to be called Kinko's, then FedEx Kinko's, then FedEx Office. It was a job I started for the sole purpose of being able to make all the copies I needed as a fledgling author. Authors starting out today may be surprised that once upon a time there was no such thing as email, and you actually had to send out printed copies of all your stories. I was sending out thirty or forty submissions a year back then. Free copies were a more attractive draw than you might imagine. And, Kinko's was only two blocks from my house. For the first three years of my job, I could walk to work. You'd be surprised at how much stress vanishes from your life when you don't have a morning commute.

Kinko's was a pretty cool place to work back then. Nearly everyone who worked there was in a band, or an artist, or a fellow author. There were a lot of creative people who talked about books and movies and music, and it felt sort of like being in college again. The pay was terrible, but in a lot of ways it didn't feel like work.

Later, FedEx bought the company, and it started feeling like work. All the hippies and artists got purged as the atmosphere became more corporate. Being able to genuinely form relationships with customers went out the window, replaced with rote scripts you were expected to recite to anyone who came through the door. Seriously, the number of training sessions I had teaching me how to talk to customers was astonishing. I can't count the times when a member of management would come up to me after I'd closed a deal with a customer and scold me for not using the "selling words" or whatever the latest code was for the scripts we were supposed to follow. The notion that I could ask a customer what she needed, she could tell me, and together we could match up our products and services to what she wanted without following an elaborate script seemed impossible for higher management to understand. Every day felt like I was living inside the movie Office Space.

Meanwhile, my writing career was taking off. One novel came out, then a few years of short stories appearing what felt like every month, then a long string of fantasy novels. Amazon came along and forever changed the self publishing landscape, changing self published fiction from essentially a money losing exercise in vanity into a viable career path.  I've sold far more copies of my self published work than I did my traditionally printed stuff, and got to keep far more money from each work sold.

And still I held onto the safety net of a day job I absolutely hated. The thing about big, faceless corporations is that they actually have decent benefits. Health insurance was a big one, and my 401k was another very attractive reason to keep plugging as long as I could.

A few months back, I finally turned in my notice. Part of it was weariness with working a job that made so little use of my talents. Part of it was being absolute sick of being expected to gouge every last dime out of customers. And part of it was the customers themselves. I say this as a person who has no doubt been a pain in the ass a thousand different times in customer service situations, but it wore me out trying to tell people how to do incredibly simple things like emailing a photo to us so it could be printed. Almost everyone who came into the store to do anything digital needed help doing the simplest tasks, like signing onto our Wi-Fi. But this was to be expected: If a person was digitally literate, they wouldn't be in a physical store placing a digital order. They'd order what they need online and have it shipped to their house for half the price of what we charged. Why anyone comes into an actual brick and mortar location any more to print photos is a mystery.

But in the end, the main reason I ditched the day job wasn't the frustration with it, but the feeling that I was missing opportunities to take my writing career to the next level. The people I know who are crushing it in self publishing just put out more books than I do. Many of them also did more appearances at conventions, and most had a larger social media presence than I did. I used to say that ten hours a week was all I needed to put out two novels a year. But ten hours a week isn't enough to put out four novels, attend 20+ cons, and do all the marketing that's needed to really stay competitive.

I just hate that I didn't quit my day job a few years earlier. My income from writing fluctuates from month to month, from really quite happy to holy cow this is horrible. But this isn't really about money. It's about doing what I love. No one will ever read the books I left unwritten during those years of working my second job. I'm going to do all I can to make sure that as many books escape my skull over the next few years as is humanly possible.

Monday, January 01, 2018

2017: A Year of Recovery and Adventure

Cheryl spent most of 2016 being treated for breast cancer. The worst of the chemo was behind her as we entered 2017 and we were eager to find out how fully she would recover her strength and stamina. Pretty fully, it turned out! We each logged over 1635 miles on Endomondo last year, the most distance we've yet tracked. February helped us set the pace, as we decided that month to walk every single day at least one mile. We travelled to Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina in pursuit of new greenways, as well as finding new routes in North Carolina like the Railroad Grade Road near West Jefferson and a segment of the East Coast Greenway near Fayetteville.

For July, we had so much momentum built up that we decided to try to log 300 miles in a single month, easily besting any month we'd logged before her cancer. We've ended 2017 having gone further than we ever dreamed when we entered the year.

Next year brings a new challenge. Cheryl will have knee surgery in January, so her recovery from that will likely mean we're pursuing less aggressive goals for the first part of the year. Still, we look forward to getting back onto the roads, greenways, trails and rivers as soon as possible. We're still hungry to see sunsets, still longing to paddle through pristine waters, and eager to encounter more wildlife. Last year we saw more deer than we could count, herons, egrets, turtles, huge dragonflies, sharks, gators, and baby raccoons. What will 2018 bring? We can't wait to find out!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Greg Hungerford: A Remembrance

I met Greg Hungerford in college as a friend of a friend of a friend. We talked occasionally, but weren’t particularly close. Then fall break rolled around and the campus cleared out. I didn’t have a car and my parents couldn’t afford the gas to drive across the state to pick me up. I was facing a long weekend hanging around my dorm alone.

On the afternoon that the break began the cafeteria was closing at 5:00. I went in to grab my last free meal and spotted Greg sitting alone. I joined him and found out he also was going to be stuck on campus during the break.

After dinner, we wound up playing rummy. It was customary to play to 500. As luck would have it we wound up tied. Instead of playing one more hand to see who could break the tie, we decided to play to 1000. We talked a lot as we played. I discovered he’d also been raised as a fundamentalist, but was now an atheist. I’d been an atheist for years, but Greg was the first fellow atheist I’d ever met. In addition to being godless, we also bonded over the fact that we were both flat broke at a school where so many of the students came from wealthy families. We found it ironic that so much wealth was thrown around at a Christian college by people whose faith regarded money as the root of all evil.

We neared 1000 points in our game. We decided to keep playing until the break was over and see how many points could be scored in a four day rummy game.

Greg finished the long weekend with 12000 points, handily beating me with only 11,000. He filled an entire notebook with our scorekeeping. From that game forward, we were close friends.

When I graduated college, Greg remained in school because he was a few credits away from finishing his degree. He kept changing majors, and kept dropping classes that bored him. His four year degree stretched into five years, then six. From the day I met Greg, he was a left-wing radical, proudly declaring himself a communist. He hated every aspect of capitalism, especially the whole having a job part, and was notorious for never holding on to any job more than a week, assuming he even showed up for a job at all. For a while, I rented a house with him and another guy I knew from college, but Greg’s lackluster approach to paying his bills created tension that eventually sent us in different directions. In those pre-internet days, it was difficult to keep track of people. From time to time I’d hear rumors that Greg had gone back to school, or that he’d moved to Atlanta, or had landed a role in a play somewhere.

I got married and moved to Richmond. My parents lived near Asheboro. I went home to see them for Thanksgiving. I’d once dropped Greg off at his mother’s house in Walnut Cove, about 50 miles away, and thought I could find my way back to it. On the chance he’d come home for Thanksgiving, I drove up to pay his mother a visit. If nothing else, maybe I’d at least get his current address or phone number. When I knocked on the door, it was Greg who answered.

We spent hours catching up. He didn’t think he was ever going back to school. He’d gotten involved with a woman he met doing a play and wound up moving to Athens. She’d smoked and now he smoked, a big shock, since in college we both hated smokers. The girlfriend hadn’t stuck around, but the cigarettes had. I told him I was worried about my own marriage, and pretty unhappy with my job. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t quit. I had rent and a car payment and several thousand dollars in credit card debt. He’d had his last car repossessed and no bank in its right mind would issue him a credit card. He didn’t even have a checking account. He assured me it made his life simpler to handle everything with cash. I kind of envied him.

Before I left, he told he had something to show me. He ran up to his room and came back a minute later with a notebook. It was the book he’d filled up with our rummy scores. We said the next time we got together we’d have to play another game.

I left with his mother’s phone number. I didn’t see him again until I got divorced. He’d just broken up with another girlfriend and moved back in with his mother. I was about to turn thirty, and felt like my life was falling apart. I hated my job, felt trapped by my debts, and worried I was destined to grow old alone. A had some time off around the New Year, so we drove out to Atlantic beach. We played a lot of rummy. We also wound up taking a five mile walk on the beach where we both did a pretty thorough inventory of all the ways we’d screwed up our lives. As we reached the end of the island, it started to rain. It felt like a metaphor for the funk we were in. Greg wondered why I wasn’t doing art any more, since I’d drawn all the time in college. I told him that work sapped all my energy. I’d decided to focus on writing since it was a better vehicle for expressing my life’s philosophy, and that I’d finally finished my first novel.

He asked me what my life’s philosophy was. I thought about all the stuff I’d put into the novel.
“Things go wrong,” I said. “Then they get worse. And eventually, something kills you.” Saying it out loud opened my eyes to some of the mental sabotage I was committing against myself. I was working under the premise that failure was inevitable, which gave me an excuse never to accomplish anything important.

I asked Greg about his philosophy. His main goal in life was not to let jerks win. It was why he quit every job he held the second some supervisor gave him grief. I was never able to adopt his attitude of doing what I wanted and ignoring the consequences, but I did respect his approach to life.

I’ve talked about Greg’s joblessness, but I don’t want to give the impression he was lazy. He was actually extremely hardworking, and constantly strived to educate himself. Once he had a daughter, he did start holding onto jobs for longer than he once had, and started to see money as a necessary evil. He drove up to the casino in Cherokee once a month and eventually hit a $25,000 dollar jackpot. He bought a computer with his winnings, got a better car, and stashed away a princely sum of 10,000 dollars. Then the mother of his child stole the money and ran off, abandoning him and their daughter.
Rather than cursing his fate, Greg buckled down, determined to be a great father. The computer he bought turned out to be a lemon, which meant he learned how to repair it, and eventually made a good living repairing computers and scavenging parts off of old computers people threw away and selling the parts on eBay. He was the most organized man I ever knew. If you needed some random screw that attached some tiny piece on a computer no one had made in ten years, he would have that screw bagged and labeled in a filing cabinet. He bought a house and quit smoking. He finally had life figured out.

And all during this time, he helped me figure out my life as well. We lived 90 minutes apart, but every week we’d meet at a restaurant midway between our houses. We’d sit for hours arguing about politics and talking through our latest challenges. I got married again, then got divorced again. I started living with a woman who developed cancer and passed away. Through it all I kept writing, and Greg kept reading what I wrote. When I had my first book published we drove to New York together for the launch party. After the party, we got back to where we’d parked the car and found it had been towed. We had a memorable adventure with a cab driver who spoke no English and a sullen, bitter woman who worked at the New York City impoundment lot who seemed very inconvenienced that I wanted to pay the fine and get my car back.

I have ten thousand crazy Greg stories I don’t have time to tell. We once faked a murder to scam a guy out of fifty bucks. Another time, we watched as someone stole a car parked at a gas pump and then had to flee the car when it ran out of gas barely 100 yards away. We once went into a mall in Asheville to call a friend we hadn’t seen in years, and as we reached the payphone we saw the guy we planned to call walking toward the phone. Another time I drove down to Athens to spend a week with Greg. He was living in a mobile home he rented for twenty bucks a week. The rent was cheap because the whole back side of the mobile home had been torn off by a tornado and was now only a sheet of plastic. On that same trip, we pulled up to a stoplight and saw a paperback book in the intersection. Greg jumped out of the car and grabbed the book. It turned out to be a copy of On the Road\, found on the road. And through the years, we played an insane amount of rummy.

Then, in 2009, our shared adventures came to an end. Greg had been having issues with an irregular heartbeat, and his doctor decided to fit him with a pacemaker. During the operation, he developed a blood clot and passed away.

His loss still haunts me. At the time, I couldn’t imagine life without Greg. But it turns out I’ve never lived my life without Greg. He’s still my best friend. There’s not a day in my life I don’t have conversations with him in my head. Every political story of the last 8 years, I can tell you with a high degree of confidence what his opinion would have been. The fact he never got to vote for Bernie Sanders is heartbreaking.

That isn’t to say I don’t miss him. He wasn’t there when I married Cheryl. He saw my first couple of books make it into print, but never saw the bookshelves in my living room filled with over a dozen titles. We attended a party for his daughter’s high school graduation, and the sting of him not being there was hard to take.

But I’m grateful to have known him. I’m grateful to have learned a lot about life from him while he was living. I’m also grateful for the things he taught me in death. I no longer take my time for granted. I used to take years to write a book. Now, I usually finish at least two a year, with the awareness of mortality pushing me forward. I’m also more careful with my health, eating better and exercising enthusiastically, enjoying life outdoors as I hike and bike and kayak with Cheryl. I think about all the advice he’d give me, and try, when I can, to follow it. Life can be a heavy burden. I’m glad he was there to help me carry it.

I’m still an atheist. I don’t daydream much about heaven. But perhaps I’m wrong. If there is an afterlife, it’s nice to think that Greg is waiting there. I bet he’s shuffling a deck of cards.

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.