A fitness regimen that’s working

After years of getting into shape during the summer, only to gain weight and lose fitness over the winter, I think I’ve finally put together an exercise program that’s working year-round.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Three times a week we go to the Fitness Center and lift weights, then go to the Savoy Rec Center and do an hour of taiji.
  • The other four days of the week, I try to spend at least an hour walking.

We’ve been very good about the lifting and the taiji—we’ve scarcely missed a session for many months now. I’m a bit less consistent about the walking, but I’m hardly ever entirely sedentary, even for one day.

I often get the bulk of the walking just by running errands in the neighborhood—I can get 10 or 20 minutes of walking just by going by foot to the bank or the grocery store. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to get myself out to walk around Kaufman Lake.

On the grounds of the mansion at Allerton Park.

Even better is when we can get out someplace like Allerton and hike over some more interesting terrain.

At a minimum . . . . Well, it takes seven minutes to walk around the block here in the apartment complex. I can hardly ever get myself to do the eight or nine laps that would amount to a full hour, but I can almost always get out for at least one lap—and once I’m out, I can usually convince myself to do a second.

What’s great about this is that it’s working. For the first time in my adult life, I weigh less in January than I did in October. My usual metrics for aerobic conditioning (running time and distance) don’t really apply, but the ease with which I can do ordinary stuff like carry groceries up stairs suggests that I’m in adequately good condition.

I’m looking forward to summer, when I can get back to bicycling and running, but I’m not waiting for summer to work on my fitness. This is a huge improvement.

Beginning a new work year

My dad and his wife gave me this light-therapy device for staving off SAD.

I took advantage of the fact that my brother was off work for the holidays by playing a whole lot of StarCraft.

My plan had actually been to continue that through today, but I got email from an editor expressing an interest in a story I’d finished a few days ago.

I’d done my “final” rewrite of this story back in December. But one of my Christmas presents was the book Save the Cat, and reading it had crystallized a couple of aspects of story structure that hadn’t quite been clear before. So, I’d cracked the story open to do a bit of restructuring.

Once the email arrived, I had to wrap that up right away. Fortunately, there wasn’t much left to be done. I did the restructuring pass in a couple of hours, made two editing passes to smooth off a few bits of awkward language, and sent the story off.

So, a day early, the work year is begun.

Writing in 2011

I sold one new story in 2011: “Watch Bees” to Asimov’s Science Fiction. It appeared in the August 2011 issue.

“Watch Bees” also gave me my first reprint sale, first foreign sale, and first sale in translation: it should appear in the Russian sf magazine ESLI early in this new year.

A story I sold in 2010 was published in 2011: “Like a Hawk in its Gyre” appeared in the February 2011 issue of Redstone Science Fiction. (They also published an interview with me in the same issue.)

As far as writing new fiction goes, I had mixed results. I finished several first drafts and got them critiqued by the Incognitos, but late in the year I had an unproductive spell, and only one of those critiqued drafts has been transformed into a submission draft that I’m satisfied with. (I have a query out to an editor who had expressed an interest in that story. If he doesn’t want it, I’ll send it off to the regular magazine markets.)

The new year should be more productive, with several stories a short step from being submission-ready, and several new projects waiting to be begun.

I wrote “Four Steps to Managing Personal Debt” for American Public Media Marketplace‘s Makin’ Money blog.

I also wrote 29 articles for Wise Bread. I’ve bolded a few where I thought I managed to say just what I was trying to say:

A grumble on conditional holiday wishes

I’ve hesitated to write this post, because I don’t want to sound like a right-wing nutjob ranting about the war on Christmas, and because I recognize that I’m speaking with the privilege of someone who belongs, more or less, to the dominant culture.

Even so, here it is: I find it weird and off-putting for someone to go through gyrations to avoid wishing people a holiday that they may not celebrate. Most particularly, I dislike making good wishes conditional.

As I say, I understand the privilege of being able to accept a Happy Chanukah, Eid Mubarak, or Happy Cow Pongal without there being any implication as to my own position within either that or the dominant culture, and I understand that the converse would not be the case. And I’m totally not with the war-on-Christmas folks: I’m perfectly sanguine with generic holiday greetings like “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.”

It’s the conditional holiday wishes that bug me. Give me a sincere “Happy Diwali” and I’ve got no problem. But it would strike me as odd—even a little disturbing—if someone wished me a “Happy festival of lights, if you celebrate one at this time of year!”

A month ago, the anchor on BBC News America was signing off on Thanksgiving day and went through some such circumlocutions to wish everyone who celebrated it a Happy Thanksgiving. Is that is really necessary? What could possibly be the harm in wishing someone from Europe or Asia or South America (or Canada, for whom it would be a month late) a “Happy Thanksgiving” even if they don’t celebrate it?

Now, I certainly don’t want to suggest that members of the non-dominant culture should be obliged to keep track of the dominant culture’s holidays and cough up the appropriate greetings: Quite the reverse.

I’m glad to be given holiday best wishes for whatever holidays you celebrate, and, as I say, I’m perfectly happy with generic holiday best wishes. If you happen to know that it’s some local holiday, and feel moved to do so, you can wish me a good one of those holidays too, but don’t feel obliged on my account. (And if you want to snub one of my holidays, for whatever reason, that’s fine too. I probably won’t even notice. That’s what the privilege of belonging to the dominant culture is.)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Less social media, more blogging

I’m glad I have a Facebook account, so I can see what my friends are doing (or obsessing about). I enjoy reading my Twitter feed, for the occasional brilliantly pithy comment. I’m pleased with Google+, because it solves two big problems with Twitter (by letting me group the people I’m following into categories and by eliminating the arbitrary 140-character limit).

And yet . . .

Sunset out the window of the study

I’m glad I have a Facebook account, so I can see what my friends are doing (or obsessing about). I enjoy reading my Twitter feed, for the occasional brilliantly pithy comment. I’m pleased with Google+, because it solves two big problems with Twitter (by letting me group the people I’m following into categories and by eliminating the arbitrary 140-character limit).

And yet, whenever I post anything substantive in any of those venues, I end up regretting that I didn’t post it here, and just link to it there.

There are several reasons, but they’re all related: the material is harder for me to find, harder for me to link to, harder for me to relate to all the other stuff I’ve written (and am going to write). When I post it somewhere else, the material is less useful.

So, I’m going to re-center my social writing here. I’ll still use Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to comment on what other people write, and I’m sure I’ll occasionally use them to post brief items that I think will be of interest to my readers in those places in particular (and to re-share interesting bits in the place where I find them). But my substantive social writing will be here.

Kind words for “Watch Bees”

Paul Cornell had some very kind words for “Watch Bees” in his Favourite Fiction of 2011 post:

Again, what becomes of America in the near future, where genetic engineering is available for farmers, but social order not so much.  It’s not about the deadly bees that guard property from anyone whose biology they don’t recognise, or the desperate ways to get around that, it’s about how the world got here.

I can only be delighted to find myself mentioned among such company as Neal Stephenson, Carol Emshwiller, Kij Johnson, John Kessel. . . .

“Watch Bees” was in the August, 2011 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

Poster art—Exoplanet Travel Posters

I always like poster art. In particular, I like the way poster artists manage to make such effective use of a limited color pallet. Several of these are excellent examples:

Exoplanet Travel Posters

[Update 2016-02-14: That link seems busted, but a search still finds the exoplanet posters: http://www.chungkong.nl/?s=exoplanet]

With just a few shades of the same color, the Chungkong paints a whole alien world.

—via Jay Lake.

Best of 2011 mention for “Like a Hawk in its Gyre”

In her “picks for the best of 2011′s short fiction,” Lois Tilton had kind mentions for two stories that appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, including one of mine:

Two good ones were “Like a Hawk in Its Gyre” by Philip Brewer and “Evoë! Evoë!” by Robert Pritchard.

She had previously reviewed the story, and the story itself is still available to read for free online at Redstone: Like a Hawk in its Gyre.

A general solution to the sequencing problem

You know the sequencing problem. You want to bake cookies, but you don’t have any eggs, so first you have to go to the store, but you don’t have any cash, so first you have to the ATM, but you don’t have enough money in that account, so first you have to transfer money from another account.

So, there’s the solution to this sequencing problem: Transfer the money, go to the ATM and get cash, go to the store and buy eggs, bring them home and bake cookies.

I mention the sequencing problem for two reasons.

First, I’ve learned of late that, when I’m stressed, I begin to have difficulty solving the sequencing problem. After Jackie broke her wrist, for example, there was a bunch of extra work I had to do. That would have kept me busy enough, but it was made worse by an abrupt decline in my ability to solve the sequencing problem.

I’d be hungry, so I’d need to fix dinner, but we wouldn’t have any ingredients, so I’d need to go to the store first, but also the kitchen was a mess so I had to do dishes first. And then I’d be paralyzed:  two things that needed to be done “first,” with no way to parallelize them, and no clear way to decide how to sequence them.

Now, anyone with any sense would realize that it doesn’t matter whether you do the dishes first or the shopping first. (Or even decide to just go out to eat, and do the shopping and dishes when you’re not so hungry.) But, as I say, when I’m over-stressed I seem to develop deficiencies in my ability to solve the sequencing problem.

The second reason I mention it, though, is that this disability in solving the sequencing problem manifests itself in a perverse desire to go beyond solving a specific sequencing problem. I find myself wanted to produce a general solution to the sequencing problem.

This is insane. There is no general solution to the sequencing problem. It’s not just computationally infeasible: it’s a meaningless concept. A general solution to the sequencing problem would amount to an ordered list of everything I’ll ever need to do. There is no such thing.

I need to keep this in mind. All that’s possible are specific solutions to the sequencing problem. Fortunately, this is all we need.

When I’m unproductive

Statue of the Three Graces at Allerton Park
This statue at Allerton Park is called the Three Graces, but I like to think of it as the Three Muses.

I was pretty productive these past two weeks. I finished a major rewrite pass on a short story that the Incognitos had critiqued a while back, and passed the story on to a couple of first readers. I wrote several posts for Wise Bread. I did some preliminary investigation on a tech writing assignment.

I thought that was great, not only because it’s nice to get things done, but because it makes me feel like it’s okay to spend time on various less (or non-) remunerative projects, such as art, poetry, and Esperanto.

I’ve just come to realize, that this is a harmful way to think.

I’ve always had these recurring bouts of unproductivity. The previous several weeks were an instance of it: I sat at my computer and tried to work, but I didn’t get much done.

Back when I worked a regular job, these bouts were always terribly stressful. How do you tell your boss, “Sorry, I just don’t seem to be able to get anything done”?

I had several coping skills. Because of the kind of work I did, my managers never really could know how difficult a task was, so I could just say, “It’s turned out to be tougher than I thought.” Also, even when I couldn’t make any headway on my major tasks, I was almost always able to do something. I got in the habit of seeking out smaller, one-day tasks that I could do. That let me be productive (so I felt better) and gave me an excuse to be late with my main task (so I was less stressed).

Now that I’m not trying to work at a regular job, the stress level is much reduced. There’s no boss whose understanding of my productivity needs to be managed. There’s no job to be lost if that management goes poorly. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have these periods of unproductivity.

As I was saying, since this latest surge of productivity, I’ve felt free to spend some time on less remunerative projects, like doing some writing in Esperanto. And that brought me to a realization: It’s dumb to think that I shouldn’t work on stuff that I’m interested in, just because it’s not the most important work I could be doing.

I think part of the reason I’ve been doing it is that I thought it might motivate me to get my important work done. I know some people bribe themselves by withholding permission to play with side projects until they’ve done an appropriate amount of work on the main projects. But it has never been an effective technique for me. Maybe it helps a little when I’m just feeling lazy. But being unproductive is different from being lazy, and it doesn’t work at all for that.

More important, I think I’ve finally figured out that this behavior is actively harmful. These other things I do—drawing, poetry, Esperanto—probably help me be productive. They’re not a waste of time that I could be spending on important projects. Rather, they’re a pathway back into productivity. Being productive—even being productive on something that doesn’t earn any money or advance my career—is still being productive. And experiencing productivity after a period of unproductivity is positive. It leads to more productivity.

In the past, getting started being productive again has always been the hard part. Maybe this will help. Maybe, if I can be productive on some frivolous task (without agonizing too much over the fact that it is frivolous), I’ll be able to bootstrap that experience of productivity into productivity in other areas.

In the meantime, I’m being productive again in a wide range of areas. Go me.