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.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

JamesMaxey.net launches!

So, it turns out this world wide web thing might not be a fad after all. Despite having two blogs and a Facebook page, I've never taken the time to actually set up a website devoted to my writing. I'm happy to announce that changes today. With the help of my friend Jesse Bernier, I'm launching a site that will consolidate both my blog feeds, provide a handy billboard for upcoming events, and give a more organized way of finding out information on all my books. Right now, there are links to buy the books, both physically and electronically, from various retailers. Soon, we'll have ecommerce set up so you can purchase books directly from me, including signed copies of the print books.

There's also still plenty of formatting and tweaking to be done. Right now we're trying to figure out why my blogs feed in with red text. So far, GoDaddy's tech support hasn't been very helpful on this. Still, small snags like that are no reason not to go live.

We've also got a nifty quote generator set up with rotating quotes from some of my books and stories, though I really need to add to the collection, since I've only got about ten set up so far. If anyone out there has a favorite line from one of my books, let me know and I'll add it to the rotation.

Oh! It would probably help to mention the name of the website: JAMESMAXEY.NET.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Because we're insane... 100 miles in 3 days. Plus, thoughts on body/mind duality.

Cheryl and I are constantly thinking about what our next physical challenge should be. A fifty mile bike ride? Been there, done that. Hiking to all 5 peaks in Hanging Rock on the same day? Checked off the list. Run in 5ks? Done it, have the t-shirts. Ocean kayaking all around Murrells Inlet? Not nearly as tough as we thought it might be.

Now, because we're insane, in about an hour we'll be leaving the house with the goal of biking 100 miles in three days. The weather this weekend is pretty much perfect for the challenge. Hot, but not yet dangerously hot, with clear skies forecast every day. The goal is to break it down as a 40 mile ride today and tomorrow, with a 20 mile ride on Monday. None of the individual distances worry us, but how we'll handle it without long recovery periods afterwards is where the difficulty lies. Honestly, I think there's a genuine possibility this could be beyond our grasp. Today's 40, no problem at all. And I'm sure we'll be able to get on the bike's tomorrow. It's how far we make it tomorrow before our bodies start insisting that we have better things to do that I'm most worried about.

When we started all this exercise, the goal was primarily to lose weight. Then the focus gradually shifted to overall fitness. Our waistlines didn't matter as much as the fact that we were healthy enough to do things that had once seemed out of our reach.

Now, there's yet another benefit to the exercise I've discovered. Many people think of humans as a sort of trinity. There's a body, a mind, and a spirit, existing in harmony but somehow independent of one another. As an atheist, I throw out the spirit part of the equation, and tend to think of humans in a dualistic way. We're part body, part mind. For the most part, I put these into two separate mental boxes. I bike and avoid soft drinks to improve my body. I read books and write to improve my mind.

But, on a deeper level, the duality is an illusion. There is only body. Mind might appear to be a separate entity, but in reality its only a function of the body. The evidence is pretty simple. If mind weren't a function of body, you wouldn't be able to get drunk. Anesthesia wouldn't be able to switch off your mind for surgery. Mind is only a persistent illusion, an important illusion, a necessary one even. But since I believe it is only an outgrowth of your physical form, it logically follows that, if you want to improve your mind, it helps to improve your body.

I used to think I didn't have time to exercise. What I really meant when I said this was that I was giving priority to mental activities, like writing books or (more frequently) hanging out on the internet talking about stuff. Exercise seemed boring, purely physical, a low priority to the brainier stuff I enjoyed. What I've since discovered is that making my body healthier has made my mind healthier. I'm less prone to depression, less haunted by doubts. I'm able to handle stress better. And, my imagination is more active than ever. Getting outside on a bike for three or four hours gets me away from computers and TV and even off my cell phone. I might pause to take pictures and post to instagram, but when I'm peddling, I'm peddling, and thinking.

Can exercise solve every problem you have in life? Definitely not. But if you ever feel stuck in a rut, unable to grow intellectually, give it a shot. Improved physical health definitely leads to improved mental health. And, if you happen to believe you have a spirit, I suspect it gets a boost as well.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig when I was in college. At the time, it had a big impact of my thinking. I think that, even today, I'm able to see solutions to problems that others get hung up on because of attitudes I found in this book. In a key scene, a friend's handle bars are slipping and the author offers to shim them tight with a sliver of old beer can. The friend is appalled; he's driving an expensive motorcycle, and the author is proposing to "fix" it with a piece of discarded trash. The key lesson of the scene is not to get hung up on the labels attached to things, but to look beyond to see the underlying forms and functions. His friend saw a piece of trash, but the discarded beer can was actually a sheet of thin aluminum, oxidized to resist further corrosion, of exactly the right thickness, and soft enough to be cut to the right shape with a pocket knife. It was the perfect solution, once you could see the thing for what it was, not merely as what it was called.

I've had plenty of chances to put this way of looking at things to the test. Once, my radiator hose burst right where it joined with the radiator. I had no tools but a screwdriver, and this was in the days before cell phones, and I was fifty miles from the nearest person I knew.

Fortunately, there was a broken beer bottle on the side of the road. And, one inch down, the radiator hose was still intact. It was only where it clamped on that it had ruptured. So, I used the broken bottle to cut off the last inch of busted hose, used the screwdriver to clamp it back on, filled up the radiator with water I was lucky enough to have on hand and drove back home.

At work, I'm well known as a troubleshooter, willing to try new things, to see outside the "correct" channels of doing stuff in order to see the path that will actually get the job done. I don't know that the book gets full credit for this. I had a tinkering nature even from childhood. But, Zen and the Art did resonate with me, made me feel that my way of looking at the world was worth nurturing.

The last few weeks, I've been rereading the book. Alas, from my perspective as a 50 year old, the philosophy no longer looks quite as clever as it did when I was 20. In the book, the narrator argues that quality is the primary generator of reality, existing both outside the object and the observer. He states that quality can't be defined, but everyone knows what it is, at least if they have eyes to see it. He laments that too often we get fooled into thinking that style is quality. Cars are built with attractive curves and fancy features, but are mechanically lemons, for instance. He goes on to argue that quality can't be defined because it's all encompassing. It's almost like God. Any attempt to describe it must by definition fail, since the concept is just to big and omnipresent to ever be contained in mere words.

To quote Orwell, some ideas are so stupid only an intellectual can believe them.

Pirsig's failure to define quality is based mainly on his unwillingness to accept that quality is completely subjective. Also, while insisting quality can't be defined, he continually attempts to define it as one big concept that covers everything.

He completely overlooks the following possibilities.

First, there is no universal standard of quality that applies equally to writing, motorcycles, and architecture. The things that make a book good have pretty much nothing to do with what makes a good hamburger. Instead of a universal ideal, we have a zillion ideals based on the things being judged.

Second, Pirsig rejects the notion that quality is purely subjective. As evidence, he has his class judge writing samples. As a group, they tend to agree on which writing samples are best. He takes this as evidence that there's a universal standard they're keyed into, even if they can't define it.

He overlooks that he's in a class of people very close in age, ethnicity, and educational background. He's teaching  a college class, after all. By the time this class has got to him, they've had years to be taught what's good writing and what's bad writing. The class is also connected by the culture of their era. Pirsig is a child of the 50s, and uses quite a bit of "beat" vocabulary, like calling some people "square." While he doesn't state it, he probably admires the writing of Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Indeed, he's writing a novel about being On the Road, full of observations about the people and towns he sees. It's difficult for me not to think that he didn't regard Jack Kerouac's writing as being high in quality. But, if so, I think he's mistaking quality for fashion. Kerouac's writing had its moment, but if the same novel first appeared today, would it have any kind of cultural impact at all? The good writing of 1950 isn't quite like the good writing of 1850, and the writing of 2150 will be judged by factors we can't even guess at. Quality changes with cultural context.

Think of food. I ate lunch at a Thai restaurant today. The primary condiment of Thai cuisine is a fermented fish sauce. To most American tongues, the stuff is foul. Who the hell wants to eat the run off juice of fermented fish? Or think about kim chi in Korean cooking. It's spoiled cabbage spiced to the point that many people find it inedible. Yet, in their own cultures, in the right context, these foods are of the highest quality.

Does that mean that quality is completely subjective? Not necessarily. From an evolutionary perspective, we probably all have built in receptors to find certain things attractive. Most of us like fatty, sweet foods because they are high in calories. In today's world of abundance, this leads to obesity, but in our ancestors world of scarcity these taste receptors helped us survive. Similarly, while our distant ancestors weren't expressing themselves as much in writing as we do today, I'm guessing there was a sexual selection bias that made people who could express themselves clearly and confidently attractive to the opposite sex. A gift for eloquence was a clue that the mate had good intelligence and could pass on good genes. That's why us writers get all the action.

My point is that there can be underlying biological urges driving us toward finding certain objects, actions, and appearances pleasing. These get overlaid with culture; if your Dad liked country music, you have a better chance of liking country music. If he listened to opera, you have better odds of liking opera. What's considered quality varies from socio-economic class and geography. At the risk of stereotyping my own state, many men from my neck of the woods and from my economic strata probably find NASCAR racing to be an art form. Give them tickets to a Broadway musical, however, and they'd feel a deep, deep dread at the thought that they might actually have to go.

Back to Zen: Strip away this core concept of universal quality, and it would seem like the book should fall apart. It doesn't. It's still an excellent narrative about a long road trip, and a touching story about a father trying to save his son from mental illness.

That's one of the weird things about quality literature. It doesn't have to make a damn bit of sense to still be good.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Old Boots: A Health and Weight Update

Notice the toes of the boots in the picture above. I bought these hiking boots in the fall of 2012 when I started my campaign to lose weight and improve my fitness. Less than two years later, I've walked the toes out of them. I'm certain that part of the problem comes from not spending enough on a better brand of boots. I bought these mainly because they weren't garish and they cost under $50. They kept my feet dry in snow and creeks and I've hiked several hundred miles in them without a single blister, so they weren't that bad. I feel like I got my money out of them.

Last year, I posted a lot of updates about my weight. It was right at a year ago I finally got my weight down to 224 from a starting weight of 284. I was confident I could keep it off.

Now, I'm starting to wonder. I've gained back close to half of what I lost. My weight is now hovering around 250. It's been disconcerting to see the numbers on the scale get higher month by month.

However, my body composition at my current 250 is way, way different than it was the last time I was at this weight, coming down from a higher number. I've been doing strength training for months and a significant chunk of my rising weight is almost certainly muscle. Today, I was doing 220# reps on the fly machine. When I started going to the gym last fall, I could only do 120#, maybe 150# if I really strained.

Alas, I still can't do a @&$#! unassisted chin up. That was a big goal for me when I started this, and I thought that I could reach it in six months. Oh well, maybe in another six.

More evidence that my weight gain isn't mostly fat coming back is that most of my pants from last year still fit. I do have a pair of 34" waist jeans that were the tightest jeans I got into at my lowest weight that I can't wear comfortably any more, but all the 36" waistbands still fit, and some are even loose. When I started my weight loss plan, I had a 42" waistline.

I'm wondering what it would take for me to get my weight moving in a different direction while at the same time continuing my strength training. Now that I'm 50, the number of years I have left to increase my strength are probably limited, so I feel like I should keep pushing myself to add muscle mass while I can. I'm hoping the effort will pay off when I'm 70, or even 80. On the other hand, I really, really want to get rid of the last band of fat around my gut. I feel like I could do it with a more calorie restrictive diet, but that type of diet is counterproductive for adding muscle.

Oh well. I guess it's something to think about the next time I go hiking. In new boots, of course. The old ones are just sad. So why do I feel happy when I look at them?