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


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Debt Milestone and the Breakdown of Memory

First, a little good news. Back when the housing bubble burst and banks tightened up on credit card lending in the fall of 2008, I was one of many people who started worrying about public debt. I don't just mean our federal debt, which I've been worried about for a long time, I mean the debt that we, the public owe to various banks in the forms of loans, credit cards, mortgages, etc. We live in an era where many people live beyond their means. I used to drive around and see all these new housing developments filled with half million dollar homes and brand new cars and wondered, who can afford to live like this? It turned out, of course, that a lot of people couldn't afford to live like this. Now that credit has tightened up, I know of some high dollar developments built at the peak of the housing bubbles that now are ghost towns. There was an article I read recently that said that over 100,000 mortgages for Bank of America were over a year deliquent; there would be even more abandoned houses if the banks had the resources and the will to foreclose on all their bad debts. And, at least mortgages are secured by actual property. The banks are in even bigger trouble with credit cards, which are secured by zilch.

That last paragraph just doesn't seem like it should start, "First, a little good news," does it? I meant for it to be a much shorter introduction to the news that I just got my American Express bill yesterday, and the balance was zero. Nothing. Nada. Back in 2008, my worry about debt wasn't just a worry about the behavior of others: It was a time when my eyes popped open to my own stupidity as a consumer. In August 2008, I had four credit cards, with a combined debt total just shy of 20,000. ($19,434 to be exact.) I justified this debt because all the interest rates were fairly low. Since I have good credit, I was a frequent recipient of offers for new cards with deals like 3.99% rates on balance transfers for the life of the loan. So, my debt was spread between cards with 2.99, 3.99, a small balance on a card at 7.99, and a card with a variable rate that hasn't been above 5% since I got it. Since it wasn't costing me a tremendous amount of interest to manage the debt, it was easy to pretend it wasn't a problem. Secondly, my debt compared to the equity in my house and the value of my 401k was pretty small. As long as my 401k was growing at a healthy clip, and as long as my equity in my house could wipe out all my credit card debt when I sold it, I wasn't worried. But, of course, when the housing bubble burst, I could no longer count on my house maintaining value and my 401k was losing money with each statement. It was time for me to stop being complacent about my debt. My strategy was to look at the minimum payments on all four cards and double that total... but pay that extra on the highest rate card. So, I effectively maintained the debt on three of the cards, while knocking down the highest rate card in big chunks. When that was paid off, I moved to the next card, maintaining the same overall payment level, so the second card fell even faster than the first card. I was also helped out, I confess, by some large lump sum payments from my book income. Now, two and a half years later, I've paid off three cards and am left with the variable rate mastercard, which I still owe way too much on ($8,500). But, I can now attack it with the sum I once paid over four cards. The math doesn't quite work out for me to be out of debt by the end of 2010 like I'd hoped, but 2011 looks doable. All in all, it's a nice milestone for me to be back to one credit card bill. I'd throw a party to celebrate, except that I'd have to go into debt to buy the booze and food, since I've spent all my freakin' money for the last two years on getting rid of debt.

Now, a little bad news: I sat down this morning intending to link to a previous "Jawbone of an Ass" post where I discussed my personal credit card debt and my resolve to eliminate it. I googled "James Maxey credit card debt." The article I wanted wasn't on the first page, so I tightened the search by adding "Jawbone" to it, which pretty much guarantees hits from my blog. And, I still couldn't find it! There were just too many pages of hits to filter through. But, no matter. I could write the article without the link. Except, as I was writing the first paragraph, I thought about linking to the article I read about the number of mortages in default by over a year, and, after a half dozen tries, I gave up. There were just too many articles being turned up by the words "delinquent" or "default" and "mortgage."

This was really disturbing to me, because my own, personal, biological memory has been tanking over the last few years. I'm sure it's just normal aging, the kind of stuff other people over forty have to deal with, but it really sucks. At work, I used to be a person who could remember some obscure job from five years before when a customer would want to reorder it and I'd remember details like what printer we'd used, what paper stock had been chosen, etc. Now, I can't remember jobs from the previous month. Part of this was a change in workload. Like many workplaces, fewer and fewer employees are used to keep track of the work, and the time I spend on any given job has shrunk. But, another part just seems to be that the little shelves in my brain where I store and organize information have just gotten filled up and cluttered, and any new information I jam in seems to dislodge old information. My brain seems to have exceeded it's storage capacity.

While I was aware of the growing weakness of my memory, I took some comfort in the fact that my memories were now mechanically augmented. If there's a song that I have a tiny fragment of lyric stuck in my head, I can google that lyric fragment and the next thing I know I have the whole song. Or, if there's some article I read that I want to recover some detail from, I just google, and there it is. And, since I've been blogging for years, I frequently google my own blog to discover the dates of certain events in my life. But with my two google failures this morning, I'm starting to wonder: What if our ability to store information is outpacing our ability to organize and recover it? The number of articles, blog posts, photos, etc. put online on any given day keeps growing exponentially. The sorting tools don't seem to be improving at the same rate. What does this portend for the future? Will our electronic collective memory suffer the same clutter and decay that our biological minds endure? Will we be unable to find the information we want not because it's forgotten, but simply because it's lost among too many similar things? It's easy to find needles in haystacks. But often I'm looking for a single straw, and we keep piling on straw.

My debt, I knew how to fix. My memory... I have no idea.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Blood and Devotion Giveaway!

Blood and Devotion is the latest anthology from Fantasist Enterprises, edited by William Horner and Illustrated by Nicole Cardiff. The theme of the anthology is summed up on the FE website: "Brave warriors and devotees to the gods follow the paths their faiths have put before them, and when religious fervor meets skill of arms and magic, kings will fall, armies will collide, and men and women will perish for their beliefs."

The stories within are:

Foreword by David B. Coe
“The Daughters of Desire” by Jay Lake
“Hammer Song” by K. L. Van der Veer
“The Treachery of Stone” by William Jones
“In the Light of Dying Fires” by Gerard Houarner
“The Perils of Twilight” by Peter Andrew Smith
“The Gifts of Avalae” by Ian McHugh
“Eye of the Destroyer” by Aliette de Bodard
“Greatshadow” by James Maxey
“Magic’s Choice” by R. W. Day

The title "Greatshadow" may be familiar to readers of my other blog, the Prophet and the Dragon, as the name of my current novel project. The short story in this anthology is the inspiration for the novel, containing the same basic plot: The church has launched an expedition of its finest warriors to wipe out Greatshadow, the world's most feared dragon. A band of local mercenaries has been hired to help guide the heroes to the dragon's lair, but the mercenaries plot to kill the heroes once the dragon is slain and keep the treasure for themselves.

I recently acquired some extra copies of the anthology to reward wise-readers of the Greatshadow novel, and still have a couple left over. So, let there be a drawing! I've got two copies to give away. But, you've got to do a little work if you want a copy: I'd like to see jokes about dragons. How many dragons does it take to screw in a light bulb? Why did the dragon cross the road? A wizard, a knight and a dragon walk into a bar.... you get the idea. Either post your jokes in the comment thread on the identical announcement over at The Prophet & the Dragon or email them to me at nobodynovelwriter@yahoo.com. I'll draw two winners from the entries on April 16. Good luck!

Random Political Thoughts

A few comments on political developments this week:

1. New Nuke Policy. Obama announced this week that we will not use nukes against any non-nuclear nation, even in self-defense. Right wing talkers immediately denounced this as projecting weakness. But, honestly, can you imagine any scenario where we would ever use nukes if they hadn't been used against us first? The truth is, no actual state is ever going to be able to launch a meaningful war against the US. Even at the peak of Soviet power, they could have attacked us, but they could never have invaded us. Terrorists may strike us, but nukes aren't the proper tool for retaliation. And, given the scope of our air power, even without nukes we have the ability to turn any city we want to strike into a plane of black, smoldering glass in under a week. I just don't see how this new position weakens us in any way.

2. Offshore Drilling: Meh. I'm dubious the policy change to allow offshore drilling along certain areas of our seaboard will lead to any actual oil wells, unless the amount of oil that's out there is greatly underestimated at the moment. The number of regulatory hoops that would be jumped through to tap wells that would be drained in under a decade will probably dissuade development. This seems like a strategic move to silence the "Drill, Baby, drill," crowd. It won't work. They'll still complain.

3. Lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Obamacare: Specifically, the lawsuits challenge the individual mandate to purchase insurance. Personally, this one area of the law does strike me as constitutionally dubious. The idea that the government can compel you to purchase a product from a private company seems to me to be a real abuse of the interstate commerce clause. The analogy to being forced to buy car insurance doesn't hold water, because you can avoid buying car insurance just by not buying a car. Here, you could only avoid the mandate via suicide. This seems harsh. But, on the other hand, if this one provision is struck down, we will be screwed, because the rest of the law will likely remain in effect, and health care premiums will sky-rocket due to the new mandates on the companies. And, because our government is no good at saying, "Oops!" and repealing bad laws, they will use the sky rocketing costs that this law generated as a reason to go ahead and take over the whole system. I'm terrible at predicting the future, but here's my feeble attempt at playing Nostradamus: The individual mandate will be struck down by the courts a few years from now. By 2016, health care premiums triple or quadruple, and the quality of care dives due to hospitals scrambling to implement new regulations this bill imposes. By 2020, people are so disgusted with the whole system that they elect a libertarian to repeal it all and let the free market reign. NO! Just kidding. By 2020, the system is so bad the people in mass support a full public takeover to create a system like that in Canada or the UK. And, it will be a better system than what it replaces, but only because the government went out of its way to cripple the old system.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Ilene Hall Maxey 1918-2010

That's me in the hat. I was two years old. The other child is my cousin Tony, age 1, and my grandmother, Ilene Hall Maxey, who would have been 48 at the time. She passed away on Tuesday last week at the age of 92.

She lived alone in her own home; she was far too independent ever to move in with one of her children. And, in my memories, it's difficult to untangle memories of my grandmother from memories of her house. She lived out in the country in a stone house built by her husband and children. Going there when I was a child was alway an adventure. There were fields of corn my great-grandfather used to plant that I remember running through, an old barn I used to climb around in, and seemingly endless woods I used to explore with my cousins.

More significantly, though, her house was a library. My grandfather, Sidney Maxey, had subscribed to National Geographic non-stop since the 1940s and there were stacks of the magazines everywhere you looked. He also was an accumulator of paperback books, which he kept on shelves out on his porch where they would turn yellow, their covers falling off, but oh, oh, oh, how I loved the smell of those old books, and how I would dig through them, searching for pulpy science fiction. Grandfather apparently had a taste for fringe science, so I also remember books about the bermuda triangle and Atlantis and ancient astronauts. I first read Charles Forte's "Wild Talents" among his collection. To this day, my reading preferences are shaped by those never ending stacks of decaying pulp.

One specific memory of my grandmother that still touches me comes not from my childhood, but from when I was in my late twenties. I'd just gotten divorced, and felt like the biggest failure in the world. My family was getting together for some sort of reunion, and I dreaded having to walk in and tell every one the news of my divorce. But, when I told my grandmother the news, she just shrugged it off, with, "Well, you're not the first Maxey ever to get divorced." She really didn't seem phased by the news at all, nor did her opinion of my seem to be lowered. It's easy to see now that the bonds of family are much tougher than the setbacks of a life that unfold day to day or year by year. You just shrug off the bad stuff, move on, remain family.

One final note: As I was standing by her grave, reflecting on the fact that she was 92, I was trying to take comfort that, hey, if I lived as long as her, I'd have another fifty years. But, of course, I instantly recognized that my math was off, and recalculated. I'm 46 now. That means... I'm exactly half the age she was when she passed away. So, why is it I still feel like a child so much of the time? Why do I feel pretty much the way I did when I was twenty; I'm in the body of an adult, but when it comes to handling adult matters, I still feel every day like I'm just making it up as I go along?

Did the woman in the photograph above, age 48, feel like she was winging it? Does this feeling last, perhaps, all the way to 92?