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, September 30, 2016

Grateful for My Darkness: a #HoldOnToTheLight post

I was damned at the age of thirteen. I belonged to a fundamentalist church. I’d been to Sunday School and two church sermons twice a week my whole life. I spent chunks of my summer in Vacation Bible School and church camps, and was part of scout groups based in my church. I believed in God. I believed that the Bible was the literal word of God, and everything in it was true. I believed I was a sinner, and that God knew my every thought, my every urge, but that was okay. I believed, as well, in the redemptive power of the blood of Jesus, and took comfort in the notion he’d died for my sins, that all was forgiven.

Then, one Sunday School, it was explained that there was one unforgivable sin: blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. While contemplating this revelation, I imagined what one might say that would constitute such a sin. And then I’d done it: I’d thought of a blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. And God knew my every thought. Thinking a sin was the equivalent of doing it.

I was eternally damned. I was damned, in a church where nearly every sermon brought up the torments of hell, the fiery pits, the unquenchable thirsts, the boils and pestilence and wounds that would never heal.

For people who grew up in a different faith or with faith held at a different intensity, it’s perhaps unfathomable that I would have felt condemned to hell for a thought. I will ask you to trust me when I say that this single moment nearly destroyed me. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t pay attention at school. I lived, day in, day out, with the certainty that I was going to spend eternity in Hell. I couldn’t talk about this with anyone. I felt like a monster, the worst of all possible sinners, worse than a murderer or a thief in the Lord’s eyes.  Unforgiven. Unforgivable. Sometimes, I’d wake from sleep certain that Satan was in the room. Not metaphorically. I was convinced that if I opened my eyes the devil would be there, waiting to take me.

I became withdrawn. Even though I still went to church, I was unable to connect or socialize. My life was over before it ever truly started.

Fortunately, in my religious household and social circles, no one ever tempted me with booze or drugs. I can see pretty easily that I could have become an addict if these outlets had been close at hand. But I was lucky. The only drug available to ease my suffering was reading. I retreated from the real world into the world of books. I read a lot of comic books, which lead me to read a lot of science fiction novels, which got me started on reading books about actual science. The world explained by science had no need of a creator God, no need of a cosmic judge. Morality and ethics could be explained by evolutionary roots rather than requiring commandments carved into stone. By sixteen, I’d escaped damnation by shifting into atheism. Of course, it was a secret atheism. I couldn’t tell my family. I definitely couldn’t tell people at church. I couldn’t tell people at school, because my secret might spread.

I was still a monster in my own eyes. I didn’t know a single other person who was an atheist. I’d never seen an atheist portrayed on television. But at least I had a label to cling to. I knew what kind of monster I was. There was something sinister and subversive in my secret rejection of the Lord Almighty. It made me feel… weirdly empowered.

I captured a bit of this feeling in my novel Witchbreaker. Sorrow, my protagonist, is a witch at war with the Church of the Book. She’s tried to boost her magical prowess by stealing the power of the primal dragon Rott. Unfortunately for her, using the dragon’s power comes with a terrible price. She’s slowly turning into a dragon. In this scene, she awakens to discover that her legs are gone, replaced by a serpent’s tail:

Her legs were gone. From her hips down, she now possessed an enormous black serpent’s tail. She stared at her scales for only a moment before she had to turn her face away and stare at the walls of the pit. 
“You’re already in a grave,” she said out loud. “Why waste the effort of crawling out?”
She choked back tears. Never before had she contemplated suicide. She held nothing but contempt for those who threw their lives away. But did she even have a life as a human now? She was more snake than woman. If the changes continued, and she lost her arms… she shuddered at the thought.
Should the day come when she lost her arms, she’d curse herself for not ending her life when she had had the chance. She cast about the broken ground with her hands until she found a shard of glass from the dragon’s coffin.
She placed the sharp edge against her wrist. She studied the blue veins beneath her pale skin and set her jaw.
After a moment, she threw the glass away. She wasn’t afraid of death. But she couldn’t bear the thought of her long war against the church coming to an end due to a moment of weakness. If her life had lost so much value that she found death an acceptable option, wasn’t this a liberation? She had nothing left to lose. She could throw herself into her quest to destroy the church without fearing for her own survival. Perhaps she’d been too concerned for herself, too cautious. Now, this timidity no longer stood in her way.
“I’m a monster,” she whispered. She found that the words didn’t hurt. She said, in half a shout, “I’m a monster!”
The thought calmed her. She’d been a freak and an outcast since the day she’d shaved her head and driven in her first nail. Brand had perhaps been right after all. Her father was a moral monster. It had been only a matter of time before his blood pulsing through her veins drove her to the same inhuman extremes. Let the world see what she had become. If she was to be a monster, better it be in body than in soul.
“I hereby promise myself that I shall never surrender,” she said. “Let my enemies gaze upon me and know fear!” She raised her fists in defiance. She was certain she was more ready than ever to take the fight to her enemies, if not for the non-trivial problem that she had no idea how to climb out of this hole.
Sorrow’s transition from horror to defiance takes only a few paragraphs (in fairness, this scene unfolds roughly ten years after the initial trauma that set Sorrow on her path, so in the book itself this scene has a more context and backstory). My own journey took years.

I’ll confess: I became a real jerk for several decades. It wasn’t enough that I didn’t believe in God. I wanted no one to believe in God. Once I left my parents house and moved to college, I was quick to jump into arguments with anyone who dared to tell me about how important God was in their life. I was combative, but only because I was certain I was in possession of a grand truth that the world was blind to.

My bitterness festered in my gut like slivers of broken glass. I walked around angry every single day. This anger used to boil to the surface quite easily. I can’t count the number of times I lost my temper in public. The triggers seldom had anything to do with religion. It was just difficult for me to contain my outrage. Which meant a lot of people probably thought I was crazy. Which also wound up as a scene in Witchbreaker, again involving Sorrow, when she’s talking with Gale Romer, the captain of the ship she’s on, and Gale surprises Sorrow by telling her how much she admires her:

Sorrow smiled even more broadly. “I didn’t know you felt this way. I just… I never meet anyone who approves of my goals. I’m used to people telling me I should let go of my anger. I’m used to people looking at me as if I’m crazy!”
Gale shrugged. “Perhaps we’re both crazy. I sometime think that what the world accepts as sanity is merely the capacity to grow numb to outrage. I find sanity to be a depressingly common commodity. Your anger exists for a reason, Sorrow. I admire that you still have the capacity to feel it. I admire that you’re willing to risk everything in order to try to put the world right.”

I’m still angry. Every single day. Half the time I’m angry at the world. Half the time I’m angry with myself. How could I have been so gullible when I was thirteen? But why blame myself? What sort of evil minds decided that children should have the threat of damnation dangled over them in order to get them to behave? And how can the majority of people live in a world where we’ve unraveled so many of the secrets of space and time still believe in myths dating from the Stone Age? Of course, I also have to wonder why any of this matters. Why can’t I be happy believing what I believe without feeling stressed about what others believe? On the other hand, why haven’t I done more? Why hasn’t every book I’ve written had the absence of God as the main theme, front and center? And why, when I have approached the topic in writing, have I been so ineffective that I’ve not changed even a single person’s mind? I should chill out. I should fight harder. I need to let go of the anger before it destroys me. I need to hold tight to my anger, and let it spur me to fight harder than ever before.

Back and forth, to and fro, the anger washes out toward the world, then rolls back onto myself. Endlessly. It wears me down. Which is why, in Cinder, Sorrow has fully become a dragon and is swimming down into the deepest depths of the Sea of Wine, never to return to the world of light:

She swallowed hard, staring into the unfathomable depths below. Once before, she’d stared into this void. As before, she found that something stared back, something beyond thought, a force beyond emotion, a primal thing, the primal truth, in fact. Before her lay nothing at all, the ultimate fate of all men, of all animals, all plants, the final sum of stones and stars, the complete value of all love, all hate, all fear, all hope. Everything was nothing. The void devoured all.

I’ve been there. I go there often. I’ll be there again. Staring into the void, paralyzed by the futility of my every thought and action.

And what makes me turn away from the void? The words come from another book, and another character, Bitterwood.

People will tell you that hate eats you from the inside. They tell you to let go of old pains, not to carry a grudge. Don’t listen to them. Hate’s all a person needs to get out of bed in the morning. Hold onto it. Hate is the hammer that lets you knock down the walls of this world. 
Don’t get me wrong. It’s been forty years since I found myself damned. I’ve… adapted. After a series of divorces and completely doomed romances, I finally married a woman who is mentally healthy and who keeps me mentally healthy. We exercise. Like, a lot. Thousands and thousands of miles of biking, hiking, walking and kayaking. We get outside and fill ourselves with sunshine and fresh air and usually that’s enough. I’m a materialist. I don’t believe I have a soul. I don’t even truly believe I have a mind. What I think of as my consciousness is an illusion created by purely physical processes in my brain. Since my brain is part of my body, keeping my body healthy keeps me on keel mentally.

But there’s always the darkness, lurking over my shoulder. More than exercise, more than love, I have one sharp edged tool I use to stab at the darkness. I’m an artist. I’m an author. I grab my darkness with both hands and wrestle it onto the page. My books have a lot of wondrous, magnificent, and silly things filling their pages. Dragons, of course, and monkeys and caped men and bulletproof women and spaceships and time machines and magic rings. Fluff and shiny things. But always, at the heart of each book, there’s someone struggling with their demons. There’s some broken adult still trying to piece back together a world shattered by a trauma that unfolded in their childhood. Some succeed. Some fail. But their struggle is what gives my books some measure of life and meaning and truth. And because my characters scream, and fight, and rage for me, I manage most days to pass for a reasonably well-adjusted human being.

I don’t know what your tragedy is. I have no insight as to your darkest secret. But while the name of this series is “Hold on to the Light,” I want to tell you not to be afraid of your darkness. You’re angry? Bitter? Afraid? Sad? Excellent. You feel something. Feelings are fuel. Your own suffering may one day lead you to be more compassionate and kind. Your outrage might make you stand up against something or someone that really must be opposed. Your fear might paralyze you… or it might goad you into action, be it fight or flight. Either is action, and action is life.

I sometimes wonder about what kind of person I might have become if I hadn’t experienced such a fall at an early age. I know I lost valuable years of education because of my distraction. I know I lost friends, and alienated a lot of people. I carry a burden of loneliness that my fictional creations can never quite share. In exchange for all my pain, I got to step outside the cage of my own life. The moral and intellectual walls that contained my young mind crumbled. It opened up worlds I might never have seen. It gave me a million words, and counting. My novels are just shouts at the world, frozen and sharp on pristine white paper, the letters dark as the void. I hold onto my light. But I’m grateful for my darkness.

#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to http://www.HoldOnToTheLight.com and join us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/WeHoldOnToTheLight

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fitness update: Four years off the couch!

Last August, I wrote a post about passing the milestone of 3000 miles of activity logged on Endomondo. Then, in September, I did a post about how, despite all the exercise, my weight had gotten all the way back up to 274 pounds. I figured it's time to update with fresh information.

This morning, my weight was 256. That's a much better weight than 274, but nowhere near where I was hoping to be by now. Last year when I resolved to get my calories under control again, I really hoped to lose at least 10% of my body weight, getting my weight below 250, to around 247. Alas, it was not to be. Last fall, with my most aggressive dieting, I think I got as low as 252. Then, as discussed last year, Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer and while on chemo her food tolerances changed and she couldn't keep down leafy greens or too much protein. Starchy foods were what she could eat, so I wound up eating them with her. This got my weight back up into the high 260s.

Fortunately, we've returned to better diet habits since then. But I wouldn't say I'm currently on a "diet." I'm basically eating what I want to eat and maintaining a weight in the mid 250s. We've gone back to eating a lot of veggies with our dinners. Cauliflower is now on our plates more often than pasta. This might not strike some people as mouthwatering, but that's because they don't know how to cook cauliflower.

Of course, weight isn't the only important measure of fitness. When I logged into Endomondo just now to look at my stats, I see that I've now logged 4616 miles. I suspect I'll definitely be over the 5000 mile mark by my birthday in March, even with winter months on the way.

While Cheryl was sick, we had to cut back on really long bike rides in excess of 50 miles. In fact, we haven't had a single 50 mile ride all year. What we do have are many more rides in the 10-20 mile range. Even when Cheryl was at her sickest, she would still get out every week and log miles, even if it was just a short walk, or a six or seven mile bike ride. She's now recovered enough that we've started getting in 30 mile rides on Saturdays. This is a pretty good place for us to be. Thirty miles is long enough that it feels like effort, but not so long that your body aches for days afterward.

It's been a little over four years since Cheryl and I decided to stop being couch potatoes and get outdoors. At this point, I think it's safe to say it's  not just a fad. For the first year or two, I kept wondering how close we were to backsliding. In any given month, there are always going to be days where you stay inside because of bad weather, or choose not to exercise during good weather because you've got other stuff to do. I thought it would be pretty easy to slip from a goal of 100 miles a month of exercise to 80 miles, or twenty miles a week. And from there, 10 miles a week would still be a lot more exercise than we used to get, right? Heck, five miles a week is more than enough to stay healthy, isn't it?

Actually, from most things I've read, five miles of walking a week would keep you pretty healthy, and it's far more exercise than most Americans get. However, I don't think there's much danger of us slipping back into our couch potato lifestyle. Exercise is no longer something we make ourselves do. It's become central to our lives. When we make vacation plans, we no longer dream of lounging on a beach. We're researching months ahead of time to figure out where we're going to walk, hike, and kayak. For weekends, there's  never any debate about what we're going to do. We're going to go outside and log some miles. The only question is where, and whether we'll be bringing bikes, kayaks, or hiking boots.

This summer, a lot of our activities wound up being described with the phrase "death march." It was just nasty hot all summer, and things that would be easy in cool weather, like a two mile hike, become soul-crushing slogs. But here's the weird thing about soul-crushing slogs: They're actually pretty good for the soul. When you survive them, you wind up feeling like you're a little stronger and tougher than you were before. Every physical pain you endure while you're trekking through the outdoors turns into a sort of mental fuel that sustains you in all other areas of your life. For me, I no longer get anywhere near as stressed out about work as I used to. I'm not saying I have no stress, but I get to measure it against the stress of hiking through swampland in 90 degree heat while horseflies do their best to devour me. Nothing at work is as hard as that.

In Cheryl's case, there were a thousand hardships associated with cancer. There's mental stress made worse by the fact that the treatments that are saving your life are making you feel much, much worse than the cancer by itself ever did. Chemo and radiation left her exhausted. But, she had perspective on exhaustion, since she'd biked 100 miles in a single day. Exhaustion can be endured. When you're sick, it's easy to feel helpless. A great antidote to that is to go out and find that you can, in fact, still bike for ten miles. It gives you proof that illness hasn't taken everything from you, that you will, in fact pull through.

Exercise isn't going to make us immortal. But, it's improved our life on nearly every conceivable metric. We healthier and happier. If we could make this change, I really think anyone can.

Friday, September 02, 2016

A Beginner's Guide to Biking Triangle Greenways

Anyone who follows me on Facebook has probably noticed that my most frequent updates are bike rides automatically posted by Endomondo. Since I started using the app to track bike rides in early 2013, I’ve logged close to 3000 miles of rides. The vast majority of these rides take place on Triangle greenways. A lot of people tell Cheryl and me that they’re inspired by all the riding we do and want to get their bikes out and start riding as well. For anyone serious about that, no matter where you live, here’s are a few brief tips on taking up cycling for fitness and fun. And, if you live in or near the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill triangle, I’m throwing in a firsthand review of the area greenways.

First, if you don’t have bikes and want to take up biking, the good news is you don’t need to spend a fortune. Both Cheryl and I ride bikes we bought at Target. The caveat to this is that bikes you buy in a big box store probably haven’t been put together with a lot of attention to detail. There are a zillion fine adjustments that need to be made on a bike. Brakes and gears need tweaking, seat height and angles need to be properly positioned, and your spokes need to be correctly tightened to get your wheels into a true circle. Fortunately, bike shops will do these tune ups for you for a reasonable fee. Since we ride our bikes so much, we usually have them tuned up each spring.

Good gears make for a good ride.

If you already own bikes, especially if they’ve been sitting around, definitely get them tuned up at a bike shop. It will make your ride safer and far less frustrating than the ride you’ll experience if your gears aren’t working and your seat’s the wrong height.

Second, Cheryl and I now usually go on rides of at least 15 miles, and often much further. However, when we first started riding, five and six mile rides were the norm, and they were exhausting! The hundred mile ride we did last year was completely unimaginable. At the beginning, I think the important thing isn’t distance, but the time you spend biking. Get out and ride for forty-five minute or an hour a couple of times a week. Take breaks whenever you need them. Maybe you’ll only get in three miles. But eventually, you’ll start getting in five and six mile rides, and one day ten mile rides. You can’t go out and start with a 50 mile ride. Even if you’re a runner with the muscles and lungs to pull it off, you need to log a lot of smaller rides just to get your butt conditioned.

Next, clothing: Cheryl and I started riding in just street clothes, which is fine for rides under 10 miles. The seams in the crotch of jeans will start to feel like a steel bar on a long ride, and a cotton t-shirt will turn into a heavy, sweat-soaked vest, so you’ll need to switch to exercise clothing if you plan to do longer rides. Bike shorts look goofy, but kind of become necessary at 25 miles or longer rides. I own a pair of bike shoes. These have stiff soles, which distribute the weight on the underside of my feet so my arches don’t get sore from pressing down on the pedals for hours at a time. Still, for rides under 20 miles, I just use tennis shoes.

One final word before I start reviewing greenways: Since nearly all of our rides are out and back along the same route, the hidden pleasure of any bike ride is that half your ride is always downhill. Admittedly, this means half your ride is always uphill. But you kind of learn to enjoy climbing a lot of long, slow grades during the first half of your ride, since you know that the second half is going to reward you with an equally long downhill.

Triangle Greenways

There are two really big Greenways in the area. You have the American Tobacco Trail which runs from Central Durham down into Apex, a distance of nearly 23 miles, and in Raleigh the Neuse River Trail follows the river from the dam at Falls Lake downstream for 33 miles. The Neuse Trail also has some significant Greenways that branch off of it. All have their advantages and disadvantages.

American Tobacco Trail

This trail has three distinct segments. First, from downtown Durham to South Point Mall, about seven miles. It’s all paved, mostly flat, with a few steep hills as it maneuvers around business and neighborhoods. The nice thing about this segment is that you are passing actual businesses. For some reason, even though Cheryl and I never stop at Wendy’s or Harris Teeter or Mellow Mushroom, the presence of businesses just off the trail makes the ride feel practical. Exercise isn’t the only reason you might use this trail. It can take you to destinations you would normally drive to. The downside of this segment: Stop lights and stop signs. You cross some really busy roads. It’s hard to maintain momentum when you’re stopping for traffic every five minutes. This section does have a few connecting greenways, but the only one we’ve ridden is the Riddle Road extension, which is a pretty easy ride, but doesn’t go anywhere interesting and offers little in the way of scenery.

The next segment is from South Point Mall to the New Hope Church Trail Head. This is by far the most frequent ride we do. This segment is all paved, mostly flat, mostly straight. The biggest advantage for this seven mile segment is that there are multiple bathrooms and water fountains along the path. We normally park in the shopping center with Homeplace and HH Gregg to set off on our journey, and frequently eat at one of the restaurants in that shopping center after a ride. If you start from the mall area and head to New Hope, the first seven miles has more uphills than downhills. The ride back is always faster than the ride out! This area has two downsides. First, it’s crowded. You’re constantly having to maneuver around runners, walkers, other bikers, and families out for a stroll. Second, the scenery is… meh. It’s not ugly, it’s just a long, straight ride without much to look at other than trees and housing developments.

The last segment is from New Hope down to the bottom. This segment isn’t paved. There are bathrooms, but they’re pit toilets, and no water fountains. The trail varies in quality. It’s fine gravel, and when it’s tightly packed it’s a good surface. But you hit ruts and washouts, and, worst of all, soft patches that look no different from the hard surface you’ve been on. If you hit a soft patch while you’ve got some momentum it’s definitely a hazard, though so far we’ve never had a fall on this section. The big advantage of this segment is that it does offer some satisfying scenery. Unfortunately, in recent months, we’ve noticed a lot of trees being cleared out to prep the way for housing developments. Hopefully it won’t spoil this segment too much.

The trail near White Oak

Other Durham Greenways: There are some short, one and two mile greenways north of I-85 that we don’t usually bother with. We did, however, just recently ride the Third Fork Creek Greenway that runs between 751 and MLK Blvd for about three and a half miles and found it to be a pretty decent ride, though a bit buggy. You could also see that this trail floods out pretty frequently. Still, for a ride through what’s a fairly dense part of town, it did have some interesting scenery.

Hillsborough, Chapel Hill, and Cary Greenways

All of these towns have decent greenways, but almost all of them are short. I think Cary has a master plan that will one day link up all their greenways, but for now the greenways we’ve tried out there haven’t given us the right combination of distance and trail quality that would bring us back for multiple rides.

Neuse River Trail

The full trail is best thought of as two trails of about the same size. Anderson Point Park sits pretty much at the midpoint of the trail. It has bathrooms and water fountains and makes a great launch point for your bike adventure. As a bonus, it’s also a trailhead for the Crabtree Creek Trail, and very close to trailheads for the Walnut Creek and Mingo Creek trails.

The northern half of the trail from the park to the dam is noticeably flatter than the lower half. This section has several long bridges that cross the Neuse, offering nice views. There’s also an old stone dam just a few miles north of the park that’s very photogenic, and boardwalks over swampy areas that house herons, muskrats, and countless turtles. At the top of the trail, there’s a bathroom and water fountains, and just across the road is a bike shop that sells drinks and snacks. We ride this section of the trail pretty often. It also has several short greenways that connect off of it that let you add on a few more miles if you want. The nicest of these is the Mingo Creek Trail. It’s about 4 miles long, and the middle part of it has a lot of boardwalks through wetlands.

Seriously, herons everywhere on this part of the trail.
The southern half of the trail has several long, steep hills. This isn’t a reason to avoid it, though, because these hills lead to some of the best scenery on the trail. A big chunk of the ride goes past landfill… yeah, I know, that sounds like the opposite of good scenery. But this is landfill that’s been filled in, so you see long, open fields, and in the spring large sections are planted with sunflowers.

The challenge of the southern section of the trail is the complete lack of bathrooms and water fountains. If you launch from Anderson Point Park, you’ll have a 34 mile round trip without these conveniences. If you’re a couch potato just starting out on riding, the hills really can wear you down. There are sections where you’ll have over a mile of uphill peddling. But, especially in the spring, the views reward you for your efforts.

It's all downhill from here. Except the parts that are still uphill.
The southern part has two significant connecting trails, the Crabtree Creek Trail and the Walnut Creek Trail. The Walnut Creek trail is a pretty nice ride out to the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre. Lots of boardwalks over wetlands, some interesting curves and bridges, one of two steep hills, but no long, unending grades. Past the Amphitheatre the trail has a really steep uphill to a park, and past this park there’s a long segment of the trail that on a neighborhood street. When it becomes a greenway again, it’s on an older section that’s has a lot of segments that are narrow, crooked, and steep, though if you’re willing to brave this, it will eventually lead you to the Raleigh Farmer’s Market.

The Crabtree Creek Trail holds together as a greenway for about 11 miles until you reach Lassiter Mill Park, which has a scenic, historic dam. Past this, the trail kind of disappears into a hilly neighborhood. Once you navigate that, the greenway continues for several more miles out past the Crabtree Creek Mall, but the scenery through that segment doesn’t really reward you for the effort of reaching it. (Though, as I mentioned about the northern segment of the American Tobacco Trail, this section of the greenway does at least offer you a choice of useful destinations.) The Crabtree Creek Trail also has the steepest hill of any greenway we’ve encountered in Raleigh. Aside from this, it’s relatively flat, and the first time we rode it was spotted multiple herons along the creek.

Lassiter Mill Park.
In all, the Triangle offers easily a hundred miles of high quality greenways, all with their own personalities. If you’re interested in biking, and live in this area, you seriously have no excuse not to be out there enjoying the miles.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

So Now Does Voting Libertarian Make Sense?

I have never in my life voted for a winning candidate in a presidential election. For that matter, I’ve also managed never to vote for a congressman, senator, or governor who went on to win. Yet, with very few exceptions, I’ve voted in every election I’ve been eligible for since my early twenties. How have I managed to consistently vote for people who never went on to power? Simple. I’ve always voted libertarian whenever I have the choice.

Libertarians come in a lot of different stripes. Some, to be blunt, are flat out crazy, anti-social conspiracy theorists who I’d be frightened to encounter alone on the street. This, I should note, is also true of certain segments of Democrats and Republicans. If I was handcuffed to a chair and forced to listen while a North Carolina Republican legislator explained how vital it was to pass a law protecting public restrooms from people of the wrong gender, I might well chew my arm off to escape. On the flip side, I’ve encountered the loony opposition as well, far left wingers who view any straight white male as too privileged and bigoted ever to be truly worthy of further participation in public life.

But, to focus on my own bedfellow lunatics, I’ve met libertarians who oppose public funded roads, sewer systems, and parks, and who view me as suspect for appreciating such things. I’m also not sure I’m prepared to get on the libertarian train of legalizing every drug imaginable, allowing people to carry machine guns and hand grenades, and allowing industries to produce and sell any dangerous substance they wish, constrained only by the fear of lawsuits.

With so much deviation from libertarian dogma, what keeps me in the fold? One simple rule: Never grant your friends a governmental power you wouldn’t want controlled by your worst enemy. Suppose you are of a socialist bent and believe that the rich should be taxed to the last penny in order that income be distributed fairly. To do this, you create government tax collection agencies with broad powers and the legal teeth needed to take a bite out of undesirable CEOs. The problem is, one day those CEOs will vote their friends into power. The powerful agencies you rooted for may now be refocused to protect the wealth of those CEOs, perhaps by making the tax bureaucracy so complicated and draconian that smaller competitors get squashed by avalanches of tax forms. Or, let’s say you’re of a more authoritarian conservative bent, and want to grant the president broad powers in times of emergency to arrest and detain anyone who’s a danger to the country, holding them without trial, keeping them as long as necessary because, you know, safety first. Now that you’ve established that the president has such power, and that the president alone gets to define such emergency situations, how are you going to feel when someone of an authoritarian liberal bent comes to power who declares that gun crime is a national emergency, and people discovered possessing guns can be held without trial?

Think these extremes can’t happen? Welcome to 2016! Look, I’m not saying that either Clinton or Trump are evil or crazy. But, as far as Trump goes, one can’t help but feel that life under his administration would be a little like life under Dungeon Master in AD&D. What’s the policy of the day? Let’s roll a dice and find out! Natural twenty! Today we give everyone free health care, except for Muslims, who we’ll deport. Why did we just send the army into Syria? Alas, we rolled a one on the military action saving throw.

As for Hillary, I’m not worried she’ll govern by rolling dice. I also don't think she'd do anything so daring as to try to seize guns. My bigger concern is that she and her husband left the White House, in her words, “flat broke,” and are today millionaires many times over. It would be highly illegal for the president to be given multiple checks for $100,000 by the financial service industry in order to make sure he’d sign legislation favorable to them. However, if he does happen to sign legislation favorable to them then leave office, it’s perfectly okay to be paid the same fees many, many times over for making speeches. And if your wife also wants to say a few nice words, here’s some more large piles of money to show our gratitude. What’s that? She might run for president herself one day? No problem. We won’t write any checks while she’s actually in office. At least, not to her. To her charitable foundation, certainly, of course. But not to her. That would look unethical.

So, voting for Clinton looks to me to be a vote in favor of politicians who view public service as a surefire path to wealth. It seems like a thumbs up for corruption. On the campaign trail, she might have a few tough words to say about Wall Street, but it’s all part of the dance. If and when legislation regulating Wall Street comes out of her administration, it will be two pages of politically popular reforms, and 9000 pages of complicated loopholes written by lobbyists that basically say it’s all right to loot taxpayers for all they’re worth.

On the other hand, voting for Trump is, in the politest phrasing possible, just deranged. You do know he gets to hold the launch codes for our nuclear arsenal, right? I could almost justify voting for him as a vote for limited government because I suspect he’ll make so many enemies that absolutely nothing can get done in congress. But I also know that there are nations around the world also commanded by other narcissistic strongmen with bad hair like North Korea that, on day one of a Trump administration, will decide to see just how crazy Trump is. I honestly don’t want to find out.

And here’s the even scarier part: Clinton and Trump are only the harbingers of worse to come. Whichever one wins will be the template for someone even more hideous. If Clinton wins, it will prove that politicians can be flagrantly bought and sold and the public just won’t care. If Trump wins, it will mean that every internet troll typing mean things in comment sections today will realize that they, too, can be president.

My lifelong embrace of the libertarian party looks pretty wise all of a sudden, doesn’t it? Assuming Gary Johnson is our nominee, he’ll be the sanest, least corrupt option. A win by him would also be a chance to break out of the present trap of forever choosing between evils.

Alas for Mr. Johnson, he’s doomed. After all, I’m voting for him.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

What We Can Learn from Bigfoot

Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by cryptozoology, the science (or pseudoscience) of studying unknown animals. As a child, I really wanted to believe in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Chupacabra, and their many brethren. Alas, as the years rolled by and I actually started looking at the evidence for such creatures, I found myself becoming a skeptic.

I have sympathy for people who do believe in such creatures, however. First, there’s an issue of basic fairness. Cryptozoology has seen a few mythical beings actually come to light, most recently with giant squids finally being captured on film and proving the existence of the kraken. Other creatures were based on misinterpretations of actual evidence. Fossil elephant skulls were taken as proof of the existence of the Cyclops, for instance. Unfortunately for cryptozoologists, the deck is stacked. Whenever an unknown creature is finally proven to exist, it no longer belongs in the realm of cryptozoology. It’s merely zoology. Over time, all the mysterious creatures that actually do exist get claimed by science, and cryptozoologists are left with an increasingly dubious bestiary.

But I think cryptozoology has one interesting spin off that does fit into the realm of science. There’s something we can learn about how our brain works by looking at what’s perhaps the most universal and persistent superstar of cryptozoology, Bigfoot. While Bigfoot as a specific creature resides in the Pacific Northwest, there are numerous large hominids reported around the world in a variety of terrains. Swamps produce skunk apes, mountains produce yetis, and the previously mentioned Cyclops resided on a Mediterranean island. The Bible reports on the existence of giants. The notion that there’s big, wild man living somewhere in the nearby wilderness is something that a lot of people throughout the ages have been willing to believe in.

The easy answer to why so many people throughout history believe in these large hominids is that people are stupid. Some people let their imaginations run wild in barren lands and start jumping at their own shadows. They tell their stories to people who are insufficiently skeptical, and eventually a significant percentage of the population believes in beasts that simply do not exist. For a long time, I was satisfied with this easy answer.

Then I found out that dogs recognize other dogs and changed my mind.

You may be wondering what dogs have to do with Bigfoot. You may also be wondering why I would find it even vaguely interesting that dogs recognize other dogs. But, if you think about it, dogs have such variable body shapes that it’s difficult to define on a purely surface level exactly what a dog looks like. A pug looks nothing like a Doberman and a Chihuahua bears only the slightest resemblance to a Saint Bernard. Yet, when the pug sees a Saint Bernard, it somehow knows it’s a fellow dog. This makes sense if the dogs meet and can smell each other. However, the study I read about eliminated this by only showing the dogs pictures. The study dogs were shown two pictures at a time, one of a dog, one of a non-dog mammal. If they picked the picture of the dog, they got a treat. They got nothing if they picked a cat, horse, or goat. The dogs weren’t fooled by the non-dogs. Something in their brains seems to be hardwired to hone in on the defining features of a dog, whether it be a dachshund or a Great Dane.

The human mind likely possesses similar built in templates. Humans evolved in a world with numerous rival hominid species competing for the same habitat. Lions and tigers and bears were threats, but none were as dangerous to our survival as other large hominids. If one was in the neighborhood, spying at us from behind a tree or a rock, we had to be able to spot it fast or we might not live to pass on our genes. Our hominid spotting senses didn’t need to be too finely tuned to weed out false positives. If we mistook a shadowy tree trunk for a giant, hairy man and ran away, we’d live to tell our tribesmen about our close call. If we mistook a giant, hairy man for a tree trunk, we might not get to tell anyone.

It evolutionary years, it’s practically yesterday that we were sharing the planet with other large, tool-using hominids. We probably still have the built in templates for seeing these dangerous beasts out of the corner of our eye. Of course, all we get now are false hits. But I suspect that a fair number of Bigfoot sightings are honestly reported by sober people who actually saw something suspicious because our brains are on the lookout for something suspicious. The hunt for Bigfoot will probably never actually produce a Bigfoot, but I think it does provide us an interesting window into the lives of our early ancestors.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The End of Atheism?

A study put out by Duke University a few weeks ago caught my attention, with the revelation that only 45% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 say they have no doubt that God exists. 55% aren't sure that there is a God. The exact wording of this statement doesn't mean that a majority of young Americans are atheists, however. As near as I can tell from most surveys, only about 3% of Americans identify themselves as atheists.

It would seem that, as an atheist myself, I would be cheered by the news that a majority of young people are uncertain if God exists. However, I confess that I think that the decline in belief in God has very little to do with the actual rejection of the idea of God, and much more to do with ignorance, apathy, economics, and spectacular marketing failure on the part of American Christianity.

First, economics. When I was a child, pretty much everyone I knew went to church on Sundays. All stores were closed, and most restaurants. Starting in the 80s, though, Americans began to really assert their rights to shop on any day of the week they wanted, including Sundays. This meant that a lot of potential church goers got pulled out of the pews and put to work. One can blame the evil corporations for making people work on Sundays, but the reality is that businesses wouldn't be open on Sundays if they didn't have plenty of people shopping. I don't have any actual statistics, but it seems to me that if I go into most stores on weekends, Sundays feel a lot busier than Saturdays. Sunday lunch at restaurants is easily as busy, if not busier, than Friday nights, from what I can see.

I will also say, from personal observation, that the sort of workers who wind up working a Sunday morning shift tend to be younger employees, people in their twenties who don't yet have enough value to their employers to demand better shifts. People this age are also people who tend to have young children. So, the young children aren't in church because their parents are working. Which leads to the ignorance I mentioned: many of the non-religious young people I know aren't rejecting religion as much as they are just completely unaware of it. If you aren't indoctrinated into your parents faith at an early age, you are unlikely to spontaneously decide on your own that church is something you really need to get into your life.

Because, really, who has the time? It's the apathy I mentioned. Church used to be a huge resource for entertaining young people. You'd hang out with your friends at Sunday School, you'd go to Bible School in the summer, you'd play on the church softball league, and go to church picnics. Today, these activities are competing with the internet, video games, and a wave of streaming media that fill up our idle hours. Who needs a church for socializing if you've got a smartphone and social media? Why wait for Sunday when you can socialize 24/7? It's not that young people are completely unaware that there are churches out there. I'm sure they drive by them every day. They just don't care.

Lastly, the marketing failure: I don't know who's bright idea it was in the 1980s to weave together Christianity and right-wing politics, but in retrospect you have to think that the religious right didn't do their religion or their party any favors. Christianity did a pretty good job for a long time marketing itself as a fountain of peace and charity. Then, somehow, they threw their support behind politicians with militaristic tendencies and the avowed goals of cutting holes in the safety net of the poor. What would Jesus do? Bomb His enemies and slash food stamp budgets, apparently. I don't even necessarily think that these are bad ideas! There are people and places that probably do need the occasional bombing, and one can also argue that poorly designed welfare systems wind up exacerbating poverty rather than alleviating it. Still, how these came to be marketed as Christian values is mystifying. (I will acknowledge, by the way, that the so-called Christian right probably never represented a clear majority of Christians. Left wing Christians, however, never mastered talk radio and televangelism.)

In any case, once religion got tied to politics, it wound up tied to the ebb and flow of political popularity. Anyone with even a casual knowledge of American history understands that there is no permanently popular political party. Whoever is on top today will be on the bottom in a few years.

For avowed atheists, alas, the decline in religious belief probably also marks a decline in our ranks. Atheism is, despite the protests of its more fervent proponents, more reaction that action. I used to go to atheist meet-ups fairly frequently. As a rule, the sort of atheist who came to these meet ups had been raised in a religious household. A populare topic of conversation was on the struggles we'd had telling our families and loved ones that we no longer shared their beliefs. I seldom met people raised as atheists. To not believe in something, you have to know what it is you're not believing in. I'm not even sure that the growing lack of belief even falls into the category of agnosticism. Most agnostics are aware of the arguments on either side, they simply don't feel that either side has an irrefutable position, and are happy to actively reject that they need to take a position.

The ranks of unbelievers now don't seem to be made up of atheists and agnostics. They instead are filled mostly with the unaware. They aren't rejecting God, or refusing to take a position. They aren't even aware there was ever a need to have a position. A century ago, most people probably had opinions on telegrams and the way the railroads were being run. Today, these topics have all but vanished as a topic of conversation (unless you live in the tiny sliver of America actually served by railroads). Fading relevance is probably the biggest challenge facing religion today, and may mark the beginning of the end of mankind's belief in God. But who would have guessed that it might also lead to the end of atheism?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Silver Age Nostalgia

Last night, I reread Kingdom Come, a graphic novel by Alex Ross and Mark Waid. It's generally regarded as one of the best comics ever published, but I hadn't read it in years, and my memory of it was dim. Rereading, I remembered why I'd forgotten it. The storyline is a cluttered mess, with a lot of the characters hitting false notes. Superman has retired because, as best as I can tell, he got his feelings hurt when his poll numbers dropped and another superhero became more popular than him. (Seriously. There's a whole panel showing the pie chart of the poll results.) Batman is a bitter jerk. Wonder Woman is just looking for an excuse to kill someone, and finally does so. The art is cluttered, with too many characters jammed into every page, and the story never stops to explain who these background characters are. If you haven't read every comic book published by DC or the companies they've absorbed like Charleton, you don't have a chance of making heads or tails of what's really going on.

The funny thing is, I'm actually a reader who had a pretty good shot of recognizing all the obscure background characters. I've been reading comics since I was ten, with a heavy emphasis on DC. If I couldn't connect with the story, I'm not sure who the target reader was.

It left me nostalgic for the Silver Age comics I first read as a kid. My dad used to like going to flea markets. I'd go with him. Back then, comics weren't so much collector's items as accumulated items. You'd find them in cardboard boxes, often mixed with other magazines. Typically, a used comic book cost 10 cents. They wouldn't be in mint condition. They often didn't even have covers.

One reason I drifted toward reading DC comics over Marvel was that, by the mid sixties, Marvel changed their storytelling so that almost all plotlines stretched over three or four issues. There might be a villain of the month to get clobbered, but usually the last page of any issue was a cliffhanger that required you to get the next book. This was a great strategy for hooking readers buying new comic books. For someone picking up random back issues at flea markets, the odds of putting together a complete story was slim.

The real find if you were digging through a flea market box was to stumble across a 100 Page Super Spectacular. This was a format DC played with in the late 60s and early 70s, where they would slap together a bunch of already published material from their archives and sell the whole bundle for premium prices. (50 cents! Who had that kind of money?)

Usually, these collections were publishing stories at least 10 years old, and often they'd reach back to the Golden Age for material. They were a good way for a budding geek to get caught up on DC history. Today, you'd have to shell out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars for an original comic featuring the Jay Garrick Flash, or the first appearance of Captain Cold, or the first appearance of Kid Flash's classic yellow and red costume. I definitely got my comic book education on the cheap.

Rereading the Silver Age Flash stories, I find they hold up okay. His superspeed stunts are usually built around some actual science. There's pretty much zilch in the way of character development, which was par for the course at DC during this era. Marvel characters had recognizable personalities--the Human Torch was cocky, Spiderman was publicly jokey and privately brooding, the Hulk, you know, got angry. DC's second string characters like Flash, Atom, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow were pretty interchangeable, perky, wholesome, with an affinity for puns being the entirety of their sense of humor. Was this better than Kingdom Come, with its more "realistic" personalities? Not really. Whenever I reread Silver Age DC comics, my nostalgia usually crashes hard on this one aspect of the story telling. The characters didn't even reach the level of being one dimensional. They were a name and a costume and that's about it.

Superman, interestingly, did sometimes escape from this utterly flat character development. Unfortunately, when you reread Silver Age Superman, the character who emerges isn't the smiling champion of truth and justice. Instead, Superman is kind of a sociopath who enjoys mentally tormenting his inferiors. His primary motive in pretty much every adventure is to single out one of his closest "friends" for the utter destruction of their psyche. If Lois plainly catches Clark changing into Superman in the broom closet, rather than just fessing up, or even just using his super-hypnosis to make her forget, he has to make her question every aspect of her reality by convincing her that she's surrounded by robot doubles and shape-changing aliens. Maybe deadly fumes from crash landing rockets that have made her hallucinate seeing him in a cape. Lois or Lana or Jimmy always end the story frowning, wondering how their senses can be so fallible, while Superman smiles behind their back, pleased with how he's brought them down a notch.

Of course, Lois and Jimmy get off easy compared to some of Superman's targets. In the headline story of the issue above, a lone Superboy robot has gained sentience and is now living in Smallville where he saves people invisibly at superspeed. Basically, nothing bad happens in Smallville under his watch, until Superman discovers the robot. His robots used to be obedient to him, but, as mentioned, this one has developed it's own personality and refuses to obey Superman anymore. So, Superman disguises himself as Smallville's sheriff. Then, when the sheriff tries to arrest the robot Superboy, the robot Superboy protests that he's done nothing wrong and slaps away the handcuffs. This causes the sheriff to have a heart attack, and fall dead at the robot's feet. (Since Superman can cause his heart to stop at will without harming himself.) Mortified that his actions have caused the death of a human, the Superboy robot flies into the sun and destroys himself. This issue ends with Superman grinning smugly, pleased that he has tricked a perfectly benign being into committing suicide.

So... maybe the petty, emotionally fragile Superman depicted in Kingdom Come wasn't so far from the mark after all.