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, February 23, 2007

Things Few People Know About Me #5: The True Origin of Nobody

I wish I could claim that the ten-day gap between my fourth secret and my final one was some attempt to build suspense. In truth, I've spent most of the last ten days immersed in the galleys of Bitterwood, hunting for typos and fine-tuning the prose. If my count is correct, this is the sixth time I've read this novel cover to cover in a year. It's disturbing to think that I'm still discovering mistakes and infelicities after so many passes. Of course, Nobody Gets to Girl made it to print with what I consider a pretty glaring problem in the second chapter. I call my hero by the wrong name on page 17! The protagonist is named Richard Rogers, and 90% of the time I call him Richard, but on page 17 I slipped up and called him Roger. The book was in print before someone pointed it out to me.

This isn't my fifth secret, by the way. But, I've been struggling to figure out a fifth secret that met the following criteria: 1. It should be something I haven't wanted people to know about me. I think this exercise is only of use if I'm pushing the limits of what I'm comfortable revealing about myself. 2. It should be PG 13. My family reads this blog sometimes after all. 3. I shouldn't take anyone else down with me.

The last criteria is a real stumper. Because, so much of the stuff I don't talk about is stuff that happened between me and someone else. I've been divorced twice. There are dark and juicy mines of secrets in both those past relationships. I could conceal the identities of my fellow students from college twenty years ago with fake names, but fake names wouldn't really work in concealing the identity of my ex spouses, since there are only two possible candidates.

Still, I think I'm going to break the third criteria and reveal something that very few people know about the creation Nobody Gets the Girl. I owe this novel to the collapse of my second marriage. In the fall of 2000, I'd been married to Anjela for about five years. Our marriage had been through many rough patches prior to that fall, but, still, around October things were taking an especially dark turn. I won't go into the details of what was going wrong with the marriage since I would like to respect Anjela's privacy at least a little in all this. But, during this time, I was having a lot of trouble sleeping. I actually went to a doctor about my insomnia. And, when I did sleep, I would sometimes have the most vivid dreams. Some writers really mine their dreams for inspiration. I seldom remember enough of mine to find them useful, and the few I do remember seem too incoherent to shape into fiction.

One common thread of my remembered dreams, however, is that they are usually set in the same house. This house is no place I've ever lived, but I know it well... it's my dream house. It's a big, Victorian mansion, full of secret passages and hidden rooms. It sits alone in a field, with no neighbors in sight. The layout of the house is nothing I could ever sketch out in my waking moments, but, in my dreams, its a very tangible place, and I move around in it with a certain familiarity.

But, one night in October of 2000, I had a very vivid dream about a woman wrecking my dream house. The woman wasn't Anjela, or anyone I could immediately identify. But she was moving through the house, reaching out with fingernails like swords and ripping the walls. The strangest detail of the dream was that she was traveling along a heavy iron rail, wearing elaborate wheeled boots that had long iron spikes shooting out from the ankles. I remember in the dream chasing this woman, watching her tear the house to pieces, until suddenly the whole front half of the house collapsed, leaving what was left of the place looking like an enormous dollhouse.

In retrospect, it's easy to interpret the dream as my fears about my own house falling apart, at least metaphorically. At the time, though, when I woke up, I took the time to jot down some notes about the dream. Due to my having sought medical help for my insomnia, I was keeping a sleep log of when I woke up at night. The following day, I held on to that strong and strange image of the woman with swords for fingers and spikes on her heels. I began to think about who she might be and what her story was.

Also, it was around this time that, grasping at straws, I decided that the reason Anjela no longer seemed to be in love with me was that I had stopped writing. When we met, I'd been at a very productive and creative stage in my life. I'd finished my second novel, a very bad book called Dragons. And, I'd started my third novel, a much more promising book called Bitterwood. The first year we were together, I was writing all the time, churning out chapters and stories at a rate that I look back on with a certain degree of envy. Of course, back then, I could crank out story after story because I didn't really have a sense of what was a good story and what was a bad story. I would just take any cliched idea, pop in some cardboard characters, drive them toward a twist ending, and call it a story. As I grew as a writer, I found my output slowing. It took time and thought to write a good story, not just an afternoon's whim. I went from writing a couple of stories a month to writing a couple of stories a year. So, in October 2000, I felt like the reason Anjela had lost interest in me was that I wasn't the person I'd told her I was when we met. I'd told her I was a writer, but I'd evolved into someone who was only tinkering with the craft. I worried I was a poser, and she'd found me out.

So, I decided that I'd win her back by writing another novel. And I wouldn't screw around with this and drag it out for years like I had with my previous novel efforts. It was November. I'd finish my book by the end of December. I told people at the time that I was doing it in honor of the new millennium. If I started a book in November and finished it at midnight of New Years 2001, I could claim I'd written the first novel of the new millennium. But, the real drive behind my writing was my desperation to prove to Anjela that I was still the same creative writer that she'd fallen for a few years before.

I had plenty of ideas for novels when I sat down on November 15 to start writing my next novel, stories I'd thought about for years, and put a lot of planning into. But, when the actual typing started, I decided I'd tell the story of the girl who'd destroyed my dream house. The woman became the character Rail Blade. My protagonist was a wannabe stand-up comic who never was quite brave enough to quit his day job and chase his true dreams.

There was some good news/bad news with my plan to make Anjela love me again. The bad news, duh, was that it didn't work. She moved out sometime in December without having read a word of the book. To this day I'm not sure if she ever read it. The good news is, before that novel, writing had always been a very intellectual pursuit for me. Suddenly, I was writing in a state of high emotional stress and it all comes out in the pages of the book. I felt like my life was being taken from me by forces I had no control over... which was, of course, the same problem that Richard Rogers must confront as his entire life gets erased by a time machine accident. All of my existential angst found a voice in Richard.

There are other hidden parallels, things that no one probably ever suspects are drawn from real life. Right before Anjela left, we had a cat named Easter put to sleep. Easter had long had serious health problems. We were there with her as the vet slipped a needle into her veins and put her down. A night or two later, I wrote the scene where Dr. Know kills Rail Blade with a syringe of the same poison. Dr. Know is crying in the aftermath, claiming he killed her because he loved her and didn't want to see her in pain anymore. I know that Dr. Know is sincere, even if Richard doesn't believe his motivations in the book.

As fate would have it, a few days later I arrived home and found Anjela packing up her truck. The doors of the house were wide open so that people could cart off her furniture. I walked into the freezing house as an icy rain was starting to fall and found that the furnace was only blowing cold air. She drove off with me sitting in the rain removing the cover from the exterior furnace trying to figure out what was wrong. I didn't solve the mystery of the broken furnace. I eventually gave up and went inside broken home and wrote the next scene in my book... the scene that had given birth to the whole novel to start with, the scene in which a woman with spikes on her ankles rides a rail through a house and destroys it.

On that cold December night, it sucked really bad that my cat was dead, my furnace was broken, and my wife had left. Still, I wrote that scene that night, and the next scene the next night, and kept going until my book was finished. The whole time, my brain felt full of lightning, like the story was an electric current and I was merely its conductor. It was a deeply satisfying creative experience, worth the price I paid for it.

And, once it was on paper, I slept like a baby.

That's it, the fifth thing almost no one knew about me. Thanks again to Eric James Stone for tagging me. Now, it's time for me to turn this over to five people. So, Nancy Fulda, Oliver Dale, Vylar Kaftan, Rick Novy, and Gail Z. Martin... tag! You're it!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Things Few People Know About Me #4: My Most Regreted Words

I worked late tonight. It was almost dark when I left, pitch black a half hour later when I arrived at the graveyard. I placed some tulips on Laura's grave. It was a little tricky to find in the dark. If it weren't for the little trinkets placed at the marker by her friend Anke I would have had to resort to attempting to read the little placards by the light of my cell phone.

I didn't stay long. It was dark and cold, and I had the galleys to Bitterwood in my car waiting to be proofread. I've told my publisher I'd get my notes to him by next Monday. I keep hearing this ticking clock in my skull now. I went to a restaurant and ate some hot wings while I proofed another two chapters. All of it had a very familiar feel.

Because the last time I spoke to Laura when she was awake, I had a copy of Bitterwood in my hands. This was back in May; Solaris had told me in March they wanted the book but it needed to be expanded. I waited a few months while the details of the deal were hammered out, but at the end of April I printed a copy of the book and started a read through making intensive notes, trying to figure out where I was going to put 40,000 new words into my tightly plotted novel. Of course, right around this time was when Laura started getting really, really sick. Every other day there was some new crisis. So, I hadn't made much progress when we made out last trip to the emergency room. I took along the copy of the manuscript. My hospital experience was that there would be long hours of waiting while they had Laura off for x-rays and exams. We went to the ER at night. They checked Laura into a room after midnight. They were having trouble getting her oxygen levels to a safe zone. Then, they put her on an oxygen mask and she started improving. I went home that night and slept, then went back the next morning early and spent the day sitting in her hospital room. It was a nice room, one one of the upper floors of the hospital, with a terrific view. The room was also private, unlike the last room she'd had which she'd shared with a person with a very concerned, and very large, and very loud family. We joked that the room was better than some of the hotels we'd stayed at.

I spent a lot of that day reading Bitterwood. Laura's friends and family came by in a steady stream. I'd sit in the corner and read while people talked. My focus that day was really more on the book than on her.

Around 6:30 that night her friend Cheryl came buy and planned to stay the evening. Laura seemed to be doing pretty well. She hadn't eaten anything all day, but her oxygen levels were just barely below normal; it seemed like the oxygen mask was going to make a difference. I wanted to leave. I had spent all but maybe 7 of the previous 24 hours in the hospital. I told Laura I was going to go eat, take a shower, get some rest. They had actually offered Laura the opportunity to be discharged that night, since her vital signs were okay. It seemed like the immediate crisis had passed. She decided she'd feel better if she stayed one more night in the hospital, just to be sure the oxygen mask was doing the trick. I told her I'd come back in the morning to bring her home. She be on oxygen from then on... it would be an adjustment, but it wasn't the end of the world.

I left... and went to my Writer's Group, which always met Wednesday's at 7:00. I didn't tell Laura I was going to the group; I told her I was going to eat, then go home. It seemed okay to tell her I was leaving because I was hungry and tired. It seemed shameful to tell her I was leaving because I wanted to go hang out with other writers and talk about writing for a few hours rather than sit around in that hospital room for another evening. It wasn't a straight-up lie, only a lie of ommission, but it currently stands as the thing I most regret saying, or not saying.

It's not that Laura valued me for my honesty. I think, really, I was often useful to her when I was there to lie to her. Doctors would come in with bad news and once the doctor left the room I'd be able to spin it into good news. The doctors would tell her that a tumor had grown by 2 millimeters, for instance. I'd show her how tiny that was; if her tumors only crept along at millimeters per month, she had a long time left, I assured her. There was a long line of medical report over the years that kept telling her, in more clinical terms, "You're screwed!" I was there to read the same reports and look Laura straight in the eye and say, "You know, they are paid to be pessimists. This really isn't bad news at all. You're going to beat this thing." And sometimes, I meant it. Sometimes, I believed it myself. But, a lot of the time, I knew she was losing the battle, and I still chose to tell her she was winning. I don't regret those lies at all.

But, I wish I'd stayed that night. Or, I wish I'd just said, "I want to go to my writer's group, then I'm going to eat, then go home. " But instead I acted on my own hidden agenda, ashamed that I had something I wanted to do that evening more than I wanted to spend time with her.

I know, intellectually, that no matter what I did or said that night, Laura still would not be here to share this Valentine's Day with me. But, on a deeper level, I really wonder if I could have changed things, if I'd stuck around and held her hand through that night, and told her everything would be okay, if maybe she would have pulled through, probably not this long, but maybe a few more days, a week or two more, a month. I'm told that she got very frightened that night, that as her vital signs started to decline she was scared, asking if there was hope. I wished I'd been there to tell her yes--even if there wasn't. I wish my last lie to her had been one I could be proud of.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Things Few People Know About Me #3: I'm Damned

There's an article that just went up at World Net Daily that is so cringingly blasphemous even I feel bad about it. Read it here, if you dare. The short summary of the article is that a science student named Samuel Hunt has "proven" the literal truth of the creation account in Genesis and that, quote, "the construction of everything in the universe begins with a) the Holy Spirit (magnetic field); b) Light (an electric field); and c) that Light can be created by a sonic influence or sound." The article then goes on to talk about sonoluminescence, which is a real scientific phenomena, in which soundwaves moving through water can create light, and since Genesis starts with spoken words, water, and light, viola, the absolute truth of the Bible has just been created under laboratory conditions!

All of requires so many mind numbing leaps of logic I don't even know where to begin with arguing about it. Yes, if you shout at water loud enough under the right conditions, you can get a little light. I'm not sure, however, that there's been any corresponding demonstration that you can shout at the water and get a planet out of it, or shout at clay and have it come to life as a variety of creatures. Wake me up when they get that into a test tube.

The sad thing is how badly certain people of faith want the scientific stamp of approval. It's almost a confession on their part that science equals respectable and believable. Rather than admitting there's a tension between science and the Bible, they turn to science as proving the Bible true. As a former fundamentalist, this just seems sad. If you want to base your world view on the Bible, just do it. Dedicate yourself to the proposition that every word within its pages is 100 percent true and tune out or reject any evidence to the contrary. It's really not that hard, there are plenty of people who manage to do this. If you have to go outside the Bible to find evidence of God, you've already let in that little sliver of doubt that's going to doom you come Judgment Day.

What does this have to do with something that few people know about me? After all, I've publicly stated my atheism many times, and publicy talked about my fundamentalist upbringing. There is, however, a pivitol moment in that upbringing I don't talk about much. When I was was 12, in Sunday School, the teacher introduced us to the concept of the unpardonable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. It come from Matthew 7:31.
"Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men." This turns out to be a highly debated Biblical passage, since Jesus isn't always the best person at defining his terms. But, my Sunday school teacher wasn't into debating meaning, he just told us that if we called the Holy Ghost a mocking name, we were damned. Game over.

So, of course, my twelve year old mind instantly thinks something like, "So, if I call the Holy Ghost a pig, I'll be damned." Then, I froze, mortified. I'd just thought about calling the Holy Ghost a bad name. And, in Sunday School, they were real big on the idea that just thinking about a sin was the exact same thing as doing it. So, for instance, if you wanted to murder someone, really played out the scenario in your mind, it was exactly the same, sin-wise, as actually killing somebody. By thinking of an insult, it was exactly the same as saying it.

I was 12 years old, and I was damned.

This isn't a problem I find that most people can really sympathize with. There really aren't that many people in the world who take the Bible as literally as I did when I was 12. But, I honestly saw no way out back then. I couldn't even go and talk to people about it. I assumed my family would disown me. I assumed the church would kick me out and tell me never to return. I really had no choice but to suffer in silence for a couple of years until I went atheist. Suffer is really the right word here. Obsess is also accurate. There wasn't a moment of my waking life where this wasn't on my mind for those years. Really, even up until college, I would wake up in the middle of the night and be afraid to open my eyes because I knew, just knew, that one day I would open my eyes and the devil would be there, ready to take me down to Hell and just skip the whole Judgment Day thing. The whole point of life, as I understood it from my church, was to be born damned and learn the truth about the world and accept salvation then remain vigalant until you died, so you could go to heaven. If you short circuited that process, well, there really wasn't a whole lot of reason for you to go on living. I was never suicidal, but, in a lot of ways, there was no point to suicide. I'd already killed myself spiritually with a stray thought at the age of 12.

I'd planned to include my damned status in my list of five things, making it my fifth item, since it's really the single most important secret I've ever kept. I thought it would be the climax to to the list. But, the article led me to bump it up a notch. Because, the 12 year old fundamentalist that still dwells inside me cringes, just absolutely curls up into a little fetal ball, to read a statement in which someone tries to say that the Holy Spirit is a magnetic field. I mean, what? That's in the Bible where, exactly? Redefining the Holy Spirit to fit into your flakey little quasi-scientific mumbo-jumbo seems much more blasphemous to me than anything I imagined.

Anyway, that's it. That's my darkest secret. Maybe five people in my life have ever known this about me.

Hopefully my last two secrets will be easier to explain....

The second item on both lists....

It occurs to me I can combine the number two slot on my list of ten good reasons to move to Hillsborough with my number two slot on the five things few people know about me.

Reason to Move to Hillsborough #2: The Wooden Nickel Things Few People Know About Me #2: I take pleasure in pain, at least in food.

The Wooden Nickel is a pub located on Churton Street, right in the heart of Hillsborough. It's intended to be more bar than restaurant by it's owners I think, but they have a wizard in the kitchen that makes the food the main draw for me. And, the food out of the kitchen... when you first walk in you are likely to notice all the peanut shells on the floor. They give you buckets of unshelled peanuts and you just throw the husks wherever they may fall. I'm not sure what's different about these peanuts from your typical Planters, but whatever brand they use they are really, really good. Maybe they are just always fresh. They must go through a hundred pounds a night.

Good items on the menu: An oyster po' boy, tater tots, and an "egg burger" which is a hamburger with a sunnyside-up egg on it, an unusual condiment that turns out to work really well on a burger. But, when you go in, look at the chalkboard behind the bar before you bother with the menu. They rotate through a lot of specials that are only available on random nights, a really broad range of stuff from cheese sandwiches with tomato soup to steaks. But the rotating item to watch out for is the fried banana peppers. Oh my god, these are good. They are cut into rings and batter fried and they taste something like a fried pickle but with a kick to them. They are my favorite side dish of any restaurant anywhere and are so good and so obvious I can't believe they aren't available at every fast food joint in America. But, the Wooden Nickel is the only place I've ever seen them... this alone is worth a dozen trips to Hillsborough until you arrive on a night when they have them.

But the star of the Wooden Nickel is the buffalo wings. I go with the wings known as "nickel hot." These are pretty darn hot, but they heat comes from chipoltle instead of the more typical cayenne based wing sauces, which gives them a smoky flavor to go with the heat. They are still hot enough to cause you to sweat and open up your sinuses, but not so hot that you can't appreciate the other flavors you discover in the sauce, the smoke and the salt, and even the chicken is still present, and they use good chicken wings, big, fat, meaty things that make six of them an actual meal.

Which leads to the second thing few people know about me: I'm a food masochist. I'm drawn to a lot of foods that just flat out hurt me. When I go into restaurants, I usually find out what the hottest thing is on the menu and order that. I'm almost always disappointed. Over the years, I've perverted my sense of taste to the point that only the most extreme foods satisfy me. The level of heat where most people call it quits is barely enough to catch my interest. I make a chili that I normally heat with a couple of different heat sources, usually starting out with habanero as my base heat, cayenne as my "high note" heat, and fresh jalapenos and onions soaked in lime juice as my last second topping "kicker" heat. This chili is, to many people I know, inedible. It is the equivalent of eating kerosene and lit matches. You don't so much break out into a sweat while you're eating it as a steam. And, the funny thing is, I'm usually thinking, "this is okay, but I wonder what it would be like if I doubled the habaneros?"

I do have limits. I occasionally find hot wings where they are so hot they have no flavor at all, they are simply pure heat, and these tend not to be my favorite. For instance, the Wooden Nickle has a level of hot beyond "Nickle Hot" that is so hot that it blots out all the subtle flavors that make their hot wings so special. I can eat their hottest wings, but it's not a pleasurable as the next step down.

I also frequently will make compromises with my chili depending on my audience. For family gatherings, I usually avoid the habaneros.

Now, it could be argued that my love of hot food isn't really something "few" people know about me. Probably, hundreds of people know it about me. But, what "few" people know about me, a legitimate secret, is my chili recipe. I've never even written it down before. So, here it is, the key to my award winning pain stew:

James Maxey's So Good It Hurts Chili

Two to three pounds of stew beef*
Three habaneros**
One big red onion
One big can of stewed tomatoes
One big can of dark red kidney beans
One pound of ground beef
One regular sized can of stewed tomatoes
Cayenne powder***
One big white onion
Three or four fresh jalapenos
A couple of limes.

Start by searing your stew beef in a tiny bit of oil, then throwing it and the habaneros in a big pot with enough water to cover the meat by an inch or two. You don't need to do anything fancy to prep the habaneros, just toss them in. Also at a few teaspoons of salt. Bring everything to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Scum the surface a few times during the first two or three hours of cooking. Once it seems like all the scum is gone from the beef, chop your big red onion into quarters and toss it in, add some black pepper, then put the lid on the pot and walk away. The key now is that you will let the beef, habanero, and onion cook for 24 hours. This is going to spread the flavor of the habaneros completely through the beef. The reason you don't need to do anything fancy to the peppers is that, after a day of cooking, they just fall apart. You might find the stems, but usually even these vanish. The meat after 24 hours is mostly mush. If you did a good job of searing the meat, a few of those seared bits usually still hold together. Drain your kidney beans and pour them into the mix, and also pour in the large can of stewed tomatoes. Stir everything up. At this point, what you have looks a whole lot like chili, and tastes pretty good. Habeneros are among the hottest of hot peppers, but by cooking them with the beef for a full day, the heat is really spread out. You can get the beef into your mouth without a violent assault on your tongue by the habeneros. Instead, the heat sort of spreads slowly with each chew.

Yet, this isn't where the chili ends. Now you are going to break out a big cast iron skillet and start frying your ground beef. Season it with salt and pepper and put in a tablespoon or so of cayenne powder. Also, chop up about half of your big white onion and throw it in. In normally cook this until all the meat looks done and the onion is translucent. If the ground beef was really fatty, I'll drain it, but I like a little fat to still be in the pan for the next step. At the spice level I like, the fat is noticeably red, colored by the cayenne. Now, I turn the heat up high and pour in my regular sized can of stewed tomatoes. I know you aren't supposed to cook tomatoes in cast iron, but if you've got a good level of fat down the tomatoes won't hurt your skillet. Cook everything on high, boiling off most of the water in the tomato juice, until the tomato juice and beef fat combine into a thick red sauce. After a few minutes, the mix should look like hotdog chili. It tastes a good like hot dog chili as well, with a noticeable cayenne heat and a good meaty taste. If you've burned the beef a little I find that this gives the whole mix a little complexity.

If I'm making hot dogs, I use this as my final product. But, for my big chili, I now mix together this cayenne flavored, ground beef chili with the habanero flavored stew beef chili. I cook everything together on a low heat for a few minutes. I do a lot of last second tweaking with salt, pepper, and cayenne. If the mixture looks too thick, I might add a second small can of stewed tomatoes, drained. I also sometimes add more beans. If it looks too thin, I just cook it on a medium heat until it thickens up. I'm usually making this chili for some big event, so frequently at this point the event is still a day away and I will place the whole mixture into the fridge for the night. This lets the flavors meld together. Then I just heat it up slowly the next day for an hour or so on a low heat. The mix is really easy to burn, so patience is the key to reheating.

The final touch is a salsa made from fresh jalepenos and the last of the white onion. I typically seed the jalepenos--the white pithy part of the jalepeno is where the real heat is, and at this point I don't want to make my salsa the dominant flavor. There's still plenty of heat in the seeded jalepenos, especially if you chop them into very tiny cubes. Give the white onion the same tiny cube treatment. Mix them together in a dish and begin chopping limes and squeezing the juice over the mix. You want enough juice that the whole thing is close to the moisture level of restaurant salsa.

Spoon this fresh mixture onto a bowl of the chili. Now, when you take a bite of the chili, you should have three heat experiences. First, the mild but sharp hit of the jalepeno relish is going to hit your nose and tongue and really wake up your senses. Then, your tongue is going to get a nice spanking from the cayenne. Finally, as you chew, the habenero is going to start coming out of the beef fibers and give the whole experience a very satisfying lasting burn that should spread through your whole body.

Keep telling yourself that whatever doesn't kill you will make you stronger.....

* The actual cut of the beef isn't that important, since after you cook it 24 hours it all turns into strings. I usually buy based on price. A good chuck roast is my most frequent cut, but the last time I made this I actually used two pound of beef heart which cost, like, fifty cents a pound, and was really pleased with the results. I'm guessing this would work well with beef tongue, but I know the food wimps in my life would chicken out if I told them they were eating tongue.

**The number of habaneros is up to you. These are insanely hot peppers, but you are diluting the flavor through a couple of pounds of beef. So, the more peppers, the more heat. If I'm making this at the beach and know that kids will be tasting it, I only use one. If I'm doing it for work and know it's all adults, including some fellow heat lovers, I'll go with three or four. I've also sustituted a half dozen jalapenos when I couldn't find goodlooking habaneros.

***The cayanne powder can be swapped or mixed with various other dried chili powders. I've also gotten very satisfying result with a can of chipoltles at this step. Be warned, though, that if you go the chipoltle route you will wind up with a level of heat that only the most rugged chili eaters will be able to appreciate.

Finally, I have one last optional ingredient: Cactus. The big green pickled strips you see in jars in the Mexican food section. Napolitos I think they are called? These are basically cactus pickles. They have absolutely no heat, but, since they are big long green strips, they provide an interesting visual element to the chili. A lot of people mistake them for some sort of big green pepper. If anything, they actually help fight the heat, since they have a vinegary taste.

Okay, one last finally: I know that some people are opposed to beans in chili. I actually wasn't a fan myself, but I think that the whole chili turns thicker and even meatier with their addition.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Five things few people know about me, #1

I've been "tagged" by Eric James Stone on his blog (www.ericjamesstone.com) and now have to write five things that few people know about me. I normally don't do stuff like this--it strikes me as sort of a chain letter--but I'll play along. These aren't going to be five short, funny things about me, though. These are genuine secrets, or near secrets, things I normally have to trust a person pretty well before revealing. So, it will probably take more than one blog entry. I know, I know, I just started a list of 10 Reasons to move to Hillsborough, and now I'm starting a list of 5 Things Few People Know About Me. I promise that both lists will come to fruition soon.

My first secret involves the most premeditated act of cruelty I've ever committed. I've probably done crueler things than this, but usually they've been casual cruelties, even accidental cruelties, or cruelties that simply spring up from the circumstances of the moment. But, there was one instance where I just decided I was going to really cause somebody a little psychic pain and wound up getting results better than I even dreamed of. So here goes:

Five Thing Few People Know About Me #1: That Guy We Killed

There was this guy in college I'll call Bravo who a lot of people hated. Bravo had been in the army and had this mini-Rambo thing going on. It wasn't so much a macho act as it was an exaggerated sense of his own competence in everything. He honestly believed he was the best at anything he set down to do. If you played chess with him, he would warn you up front he was an unbeatable chess player. If you played cards, he'd tell you he never lost at cards. He was, in fact, fairly mediocre at just about everything... his bravado was unwarranted and really got on people's nerves (although it probably would have gotten on our nerves even worse if it had been warranted).

On the second to last day of the semester, right before Christmas break, there were only a few people left on campus, those of us unlucky enough to have exams scheduled for the last day. We few stragglers were playing cards. We started talking about Bravo and everyone agreed he was really annoying. We thought it would be cool to get him into a poker game and take all of his money, especially since he liked to talk about how much money his dad had. One flaw to this plan was that we didn't have any money of our own to gamble. The second was, we really didn't know that much about cheating at cards. So, I proposed a second plan to take his money... a plan that involved murder.

One of the people in on the plan was a guy I'll call Cowboy. Cowboy also had a mini-Rambo thing going on. He carried a Rambo knife (you may remember these... they were a foot long and had a hollow hilt filled with survival items like matches and fishing line), dressed in fatigues, and always had a fake handgrenade clipped to his belt. (All things that would get you kicked off a campus these days, I'm sure.)

Cowboy went to Bravo on that second to last day of the semester and confessed a terrible secret: He was in bad trouble with a drug dealer. He owed the guy $500, and the dealer told him if he left town for Christmas without paying, he'd track down Cowboy at home and do something bad to him or his family. Could Bravo loan him the dough? And, would Bravo come with him to the deal that night, to serve as his bodyguard? After all, Bravo had combat training, and was the only one Cowboy could trust with this important mission. Bravo, of course, stepped up to the job.

That night, just before midnight, Cowboy and I meet Bravo at the checkpoint. Bravo is in full combat mode. He's wearing fatigues and has camo-make-up smeared all over his face. He's carrying nun-chucks. And, he says, he might need them... because his Dad would only loan him $50. Cowboy says that, between Bravo's $50 and what I've chipped in, he hopes he has enough to buy some time from the dealer.

We drive out into the country, up mountain back roads until we come to this darkened church. We sit in the parking lot and wait. Soon, a big black car pulls up in the lot above us and flashes its light.

Cowboy tells us to sit tight. Don't make a move unless he yells for us. He goes back to the car and starts talking through the open passenger-side window. We have our windows down, but can barely hear what they're saying. Then, the dealer starts shouting. Apparently, he's not happy with the partial payment. Suddenly, a hand pops out the window, holding a pistol to Cowboy's gut.

Before Bravo can react, Cowboy springs into action, knocking the gun aside and grabbing his rambo knife. He plunges the knife into the open window and a scream cuts through the night air. Then, he jumps back and pulls the fake grenade from his belt and throws it into the car. The driver of the car bolts out and dives to the ground as Cowboy runs back to our car. He jumps behind the wheel and tosses a bloody knife into Bravo's lap.

"I stabbed him in the heart!" he yelps. "I killed him!"

By now, the driver of the car has realized that the grenade is a dud. Cowboy peels off down the back country road as the driver gets back into the black car and goes into pursuit. For a lot of the chase, we seem like we lost him. Then, he catches up. Cowboy drives even crazier down the mountain road, gaining distance, until, nearing a gas station closed for the night, he flips off his headlights and skids to a halt behind the dumpster. Twenty seconds later, the black car flies past.

We head back to campus. I repeatedly tell Bravo, "We can't tell anyone. Cowboy killed that guy. We have to keep this a secret. If anyone finds out, he'll go to prison." Bravo swears he'll never tell.

We drop Bravo back off at his dorm and go back to Cowboy's room, where we meet the "dealers." The whole thing, duh, was a set up. We had choreographed the car chase to the last curve... though, it turns out that the dealer driver almost blew it at the start by spinning his car 180 and nearly putting it into a ditch, which would have been tragic, since it was my dad's car. But, he recovered, and the chase ended as scripted. The combat scene had been close to flawless. It was very convincing when my friend Greg (name not changed, I have his longstanding permission to tell this story) pulled the 99 cent toy pistol. It was Hollywood flawless when Cowboy stuck a fake knife into the car and grabbed the real knife sitting in the cup of stage blood in Greg's lap. We took Bravo's fifty bucks and went and had dinner at an all night diner. We had money left over to divy up. Fifty bucks could actually by something in 1983. All in all, we were feeling pretty good.

We got back to the dorms still laughing, and in the middle of the night, the phone rang. It was Bravo. He was crying. He'd gotten back to his dorm... and he'd lost his keys. His RA had to let him into his room. Bravo was freaked out because he had blood all over his clothes.

I felt really, really lousy at that moment. We'd had a lot of fun, but Bravo was a wreck. The right thing to do would have been to tell him the truth.

I told him to try to get some sleep and reminded him not to tell anyone.

The story doesn't end there. The whole scam actually lasted several weeks past the Christmas break. We discovered, on returning from break, that Bravo had told his girlfriend and at least one other person about the murder. We dragged on the whole murder story for a long time, feeding them little clues here and there about the vast drug ring on campus, as well as the undercover cops, and honestly, it's still really hard for me to believe they bought it, yet they did. Bravo continued to look haunted, his friend seemed excited about being privy to this amazing adventure going on around him, and only the girlfriend showed the occasional sign of suspicion.

The final humiliation came when the scam was revealed. It was a Friday afternoon and Bravo had gone home to see his folks. We were sitting in the lounge, getting ready to feed his girlfriend a little more elaboration on the drug ring and undercover cops, when I confessed. I just came out and explained the whole scenario. I was sick of the lies. And, it turned out, I was also just plain sick. There was a flu outbreak. An hour later, I realized I had a fever. I wound up spending the weekend in the campus health center, along with a crowd of other vomiting sickos. By Monday, I was feeling a little stronger.

Then, Bravo burst in. His girlfriend had called him with the truth. "Maxey!" he yelled. "I know what you've done! I went to the cops and they're on their way right now to arrest you for contortion!"

The whole sick ward grew quiet.

I sighed. "First of all," I explained, "contortion would be me sticking my foot behind my head. The word you want is extortion. And, I'm not guilty of extortion, I'm guilty of fraud!"

Bravo just sagged. His one opportunity to put a little fear into me, and he'd blown his lines. He left in defeat. The cops, as I expected, never arrived.

Twenty-five years out, I can tell this story, and it's a funny story with a funny puchline. And, twenty-five years out, I can still find myself standing at that dorm hall phone, listening to Bravo absolutely freaking out about the blood on his clothes, knowing I was responsible for that freak out, and knowing that I possessed the one piece of information that would have calmed him down, or at least changed his fear and panic into anger. It's even possible if we'd all gone over and yelled "gotcha" that night, he would have been laughing about it the next morning.

The sense of warm satisfaction I had when I hung up that phone still gives me the occasional sleepless night.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Solaris Books Now Available

I've caught my first real cold in ages. I used to get colds all the time, but my last few years with Laura I somehow managed to avoid them. Since she had a weakened immune system most of the time due to chemo, I was just much more careful during the winter time, washing my hands constantly. And, if encountered people who were sniffling or said they felt sick, I got away from them as quickly as possible. My vigilance paid off. Alas, I've slowly been letting my guard down, and last week I had a sore throat that just stuck around. Monday night, the sore throat went away and I started sneezing. I went to work yesterday but left after a few hours. I've spent about 18 of the last 24 hours asleep.

In the time I have been awake, I've been lying in bed reading the new releases from Solaris. Solaris is a "new" publishing house from Britian. I put "new" in quotes because Solaris is actually a new imprint of a larger publishing empire, Games Workshop. It's being run by people who actually know a thing or two about publishing books and getting them into bookstores. And, sure enough, when I went to Barnes and Noble last Saturday, they had several face out copies of each of the first two releases from Solaris. The first is a novel called the Summoner by Gail Z. Martin. I read the 40 pages or so this morning. Quite promising, fast paced, set in a fantasy world I didn't feel I had to work too hard to understand. I read some of the reader reviews on Amazon and a few people were rating it poorly for being built on cliches. But the cliches they mentioned (a prince being robbed of his rightful throne, or magic having a dark side and a light side, for example) strike me not so much as cliches as archetypes of fantasy. If every story that has a prince or a princess as a protagonist gets labeled unoriginal, then pretty much the whole fantasy genre has to take that hit. Admittedly, I'm just 40 pages into a book that's over 600 pages long, but so far the slightly familiar feel of some of the characters (the tom-boyish sister, the happy-go-lucky bard, the stern and skeptical soldier) just helps me to orient myself in a book with a plethora of characters and subplots. Quickly knowing who the characters are and what their agendas are likely to be makes the book more readable.

My one complaint so far is that, amid a long list of purely made up names, Martin's named the villian Jared. Jared seems like a pretty sinister dude and I think he'll live up to his villianous potential, but I still can't help but see him as the guy from the Subway commercial.

If you want to read a sample before you go out and buy a copy, go to www.solarisbooks.com. They've got the first chapter there as a pdf for you to read.

The second book I picked up is the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction. This is an anthology that so far has gotten nothing but good reviews. I've only read two stories so far, both solid little SF tales. Unlike the anthologies Phobos attempted to launch with full of new writers, this anthology is full of new stories by well established pros. Brian Aldis, Stephen Baxter, Paul Di Filippo, Mike Resnick, David Gerrold, and Ian Watson to name a few.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Ten good reasons to move to Hillsborough

This will be the first in a series of cool things about my new hometown, Hillsborough, NC. After Laura died, I started searching for a new place to live. I wanted to stay within a half hour commute of RTP, which meant my choices ranged from downtown Raleigh, all of Chapel Hill, all of Durham, Cary, Apex, and, on the far fringe of that half hour drive, the small town of Hillsborough.

If you had asked me when the search started where I'd wind up, I'd have probably told you Durham. Durham was close to where I work, has some of my favorite restaurants in the area, and some other shopping destinations I like to frequent. And, the selection of housing in Durham in my price range was almost overwhelming. If you do an MLS search for houses under 80 thousand in the Triangle, you can get fifty or more hits out of Durham, and you might be lucky to see even five hits from Raleigh, and maybe one or two in Chapel Hill, almost always from the same awful condo communities. Durham has a reputation as a city with a lot of crime, but I figured that, with dozens of places to choose from, I'd eventually find one that wasn't too bad. I mean, the murder rate is high in Durham, yes, but it was also high in Richmond where I used to live, and I never had any real trouble in Richmond except for a once having my car broken into. (They stole the box in the backseat that held the dice I played D&D with... it was at that moment I converted to believing in the death penalty.) Alas, once I actually started looking at houses in Durham, my optimism soon faded. I kept going to houses that were obvious crime scenes. I looked at a house in a neighborhood in Durham called Bragtown that was a lovely brick house with hardwood floors and a fenced in back yard. Alas, every window on the ground level had been smashed in and was boarded over. Also, the kitchen door had obviously been kicked off its hinges a time or two. And this was a house I actually considered buying. It seemed much, much nicer than another house I looked at in Hillsborough where the door had been kicked in and nobody had bothered to replace it. The house was sitting open to the elements, and inside the place had been stripped of everything including light fixtures and the kitchen sink. Honestly, how much money can you make selling a second hand kitchen sink?

Eventually, I had to give up on Durham. Besides, by that point, I'd started falling in love with Hillsborough. I didn't know much about Hillsborough at this time last year. I'd come here infrequently to go to the Walmart which was newer and nicer than the one in Durham. But, it also would usually have a couple of houses in my price range, and they were usually nicer than what I was seeing in Durham. This isn't to say they were without flaws. Hillsborough is an old town, dating back to colonial times, and there are houses on the market here that were built long before such modern niceties as electricity or plumbing. I looked at one place over a century old heated only by fireplaces... I actually was giving it serious consideration, but the fact that you could stand in the middle room and look up and see sky through the holes in the roof discouraged me. Also, there was the four foot long snake we saw crawling into the house....

Eventually, I discovered my current abode, which was ugly, but solidly built (really solid--it's a cinderblock house), and, to my delight, was only a half mile from...


When I moved to Chapel Hill, I was disappointed by the restaurants. I found most of the good places overpriced and crowded. But when I started househunting in Hillsborough, I started sampling the restaurants and felt like I'd stumbled into some marvelous alternate dimension where all the restaurants had character, great food, and good prices. My top 10 reasons to move to Hillsborough will contain a lot of restaurants on the list, but the restaurant deserving the top spot is, hands down, the Village Diner.

The Village Diner is on King St, which is runs right into the heart of the historic district. Go to the end of King Street that intersects with Churton, and you are at the very heart of Hillsborough. But, if you travel down King Street one mile, you leave behind the huge colonial and victorian houses and enter an area where all the houses are small and have tin roofs. Here you will find the Village Diner. It would be easy to ignore when you drive past it. It's in an unassuming brick building I'm guessing dates from the sixties. There's nothing particularly funky or eyecatching about it, except for the word "buffet" on the sign. I'm a sucker for buffets, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

When I walked in, I didn't have high hopes. The tables and booths look like they've probably been there since the place was built. They are clean, but slightly battered. The buffet bar itself isn't very big, and is curiously short, with a brown sneeze guard that makes it tough for a person of my height to see the food without hunching over. Everyone I've taken there to eat has commented on how hard it is to see the food.

My first good vibe about the place came when the waitress came to my table. When I told her I wanted tea, she didn't ask if I meant sweet tea. It was simply a given. Then, when she left the pitcher at the table, I knew I was in the company of people who truly understood my tastes.

And then, the food: the small buffet proved size doesn't matter. At a larger buffet, I might get ten choices of entrees, but only two or three are going to appeal to me. Here, the normally have four entrees, and I usually eat some of all four. They always have chopped pork barbeque and fried chicken. Both are terrific, especially the barbeque. The first time I ate there they also had beef ribs and saurkraut and sausage. You can't go wrong with saurkraut in my opinion, and the beef ribs were something I would willingly go into a restaurant and pay fifteen bucks for a plate of them. The meat was cooked till it was falling off the bones and the sause was perfect, spicy and savory without being the least bit sugary. And, it was all I could eat! For $6.99!

The side dishes are sort of a home cooking greatest hits, with mashed potatoes, green beans, lima beans, squash, corn on the cob, and various other items that rotate through. All are good, but the real stars are the main dishes. If you show up on a night with the beef ribs, you've definitely hit the star of the show. But, there are other dishes to look for that are terrific: Fried fish, chicken pot pie, brunswick stew, and country fried steak in gravy all stand out. There really is nothing among the main dishes they will have on any given night that has disappointed me, with one caveat: get there early. Because, after six, when some of the dishes run out, they just run out. I've been there plenty of times and seen the tray that once held beef ribs now holding nothing but sauce and a few meatless bones and felt the bittersweet twinge of opportunity lost.

And, as long as we are on the subject of disappointments, let me tell you the one item on the bar that is so consistently awful that it's worth sampling for the comedy value: the rolls. With all this homestyle, killer southern cooking, you'd think this would be the sort of place you'd find killer buiscuits. Instead, they always have rolls on the bar that have obviously been dumped out of a bag sometime around lunch, and by dinner time these rolls have turned into dryed out, crumbly lumps that taste like dried out, crumbly lumps. They aren't even useful for sopping up gravy. Yet, somehow, even these bad breads lend to the charm of the place; unlike some higher priced restaurants, you didn't come here to fill up on the bread. The Village Diner is one of a kind and it's only here, in Hillsborough, folks. Check it out.