A new year and a new stack of books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound! What here is calling to you? Share in the comments!
A new year and a new stack of books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound! What here is calling to you? Share in the comments!
If you think you know the horror genre — or at least, you know the greats of the genre — then Jess Nevins has news for you: You’ve probably only scratched the bloody, screaming surface of a genre that goes back literally millennia. He’s here now to tell you what he uncovered while writing his latest book, Horror Fiction in the 20th Century.
Horror fiction—that is, fiction intended to frighten—is a peculiar beast. It’s as old as human popular culture—the Epic of Gilgamesh has horror elements, and the Epic is over 4,000 years old—but it’s held in low esteem by mainstream critics and readers. Horror fiction appears in every genre of literature, but attempts to create a precise definition of the horror genre have been surprisingly contentious affairs. The horror genre is universal, but what horror readers have traditionally seen is a fraction of what is out there.
It’s that latter point that struck me when I started writing Horror Fiction in the 20th Century and stuck with me throughout the book. I’ve been a horror reader all my life, but it wasn’t until I read Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s anthology, What Did Miss Darrington See? (1989), that I realized how much I’d been missing. Most of the stories in Miss Darrington are horror, written by women in the first half of the twentieth century. I was fascinated by the stories and went to the standard horror fiction reference books to learn more about the authors.
Those books were silent on these women or mentioned them only in passing. More rigorous attempts at research revealed two things: first, that there were a lot of women horror writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, far more than I’d ever heard of; second, that these women were—through critical ignorance, happenstance, or deliberate action—written out of histories of the horror genre, despite the quality of the women’s work and their significance to the genre.
Discovering this vast array of ignored writers was like a spelunker squeezing through a tight crack in a cave wall and discovering a mammoth cave system, missing from all maps, stretching out for miles in every direction. My Big Idea was to explore the far reaches of the cave system and cover it all in detail—to write a history of the modern horror genre that included everyone important, not just the authors and works that appear in the standard histories.
Sometimes I have the outlines of a book firmly in my mind from the beginning, and can write the book within those outlines. Horror Fiction in the 20th Century wasn’t like that. Every cave I entered had further tunnels to crawl through. There were female authors of horror fiction to be considered, but also women who were known as mainstream writers but who occasionally dabbled in horror, with excellent results. African-American literature had its share of works of horror, as did Latinx literature, and Native American literature, and Australian Aboriginal literature, and LGBT literature, and all of those needed to be included. A number of the Gothic Romances of the 1960s and 1970s were written to frighten. I could not ignore horror fiction in comic books and roleplaying game fiction and Young Adult fiction. And there were many horror writers who produced sustained excellent work, but through no fault of their own are now completely forgotten. They, too, deserved a place in my book.
Most of all, there were the horror writers from outside the Anglophone world. Of whom there were many. So many, and so few translated into English. I realized that if I was going to write a history of the horror genre in the twentieth century, I would have to include horror writers from around the world, and not just those from the United States and the United Kingdom. A lot of intense research and difficult translations followed, but in the end I was able to include the major non-Anglophone horror writers and works in my book.
Reading all these new-to-me authors and works shaped my thinking about the horror genre itself and my reactions to the standard reference works on and histories of horror fiction. Too many of them, it seemed to me, relied on received wisdom and traditional judgments to guide who would be included in the encyclopedias and histories and who would be excluded. Viewed from a twenty-first century perspective, the results were problematic: too many mediocre white male horror writers; too much space devoted to English-language horror; too much repetition of received wisdom; too much rejection of new understandings of gender, sexuality, and race; too much regurgitation of tired and discredited ideologies and biases.
I didn’t set out to write a revisionist history of horror fiction, but in some respects that’s how Horror Fiction in the 20th Century turned out. I do pay due homage to the generally-accepted greats in the genre, from Algernon Blackwood to Thomas Ligotti. But what I also do is devote significant attention to overlooked, underserved, and ignored authors, and point out where traditional critical narratives about horror fiction are misguided or incorrect. For example, I argue that H.P. Lovecraft was a popularizer more than an innovator, and the inheritor of a tradition rather than a writer without precedent. This is a revisionist argument—but one that is based on facts, inasmuch as this kind of argument can be based on facts.
The Big Idea for Horror Fiction in the 20th Century was to write a truly global history of horror, and what I hope readers take away from my book is an appreciation for the wonderful variety of the horror literature of the world. The American and English horror authors we know so well—the Ambrose Bierces and Richard Mathesons and Robert Aickmans and Caitlin Kiernans—are very good. But so are Silvina Ocampo and Jehanne Jean-Charles and Dino Buzzati and Ge Fui and Mieko Kanai. The horror genre isn’t Anglophone, isn’t something only men read and write, and isn’t limited to hoary tropes, motifs, and plot dynamics. The horror genre is global, nimble—and glorious.
Laura Resnick has posted that her father Mike Resnick has died, which means that it’s a very sad day for his friends and fans in the science fiction community. Give the length of his remarkable career, and the honors that were given to him (including five Hugo Awards as well as a Nebula and a Locus Award, and being the Guest of Honor at Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon), this is indeed a considerable percentage of that large and fractious community.
The picture above, of me stroking Mike’s leg, is from that Worldcon; I was the toastmaster of the Worldcon and the opening ceremonies of that convention were in the form of a talk show, for which I was the host. Mike came out for his interview segment and told a story about being on the same stage for an earlier Worldcon:
Mike (pointing up): I remember those lights from 1991. I was toastmaster of the masquerade, and I had notes and I couldn’t read them. I had a guy in the front row who was going to give me hand signals on whether to go faster or slower based on what was happening backstage, and I couldn’t see him with those lights. And I was standing with my back to a curtain, and somebody reached out from under the curtain and began stroking my leg. I decided that meant either he was in love with me, or I should go faster. And then he went like that (makes a hand sign that looks like clutching a leg), and I assumed that meant go slower. We did that for an hour and a half. (Points up again) And they haven’t changed those bulbs!
Me (getting up from behind the desk, going over to Mike, stroking his leg): Go on.
You can see that particular moment (and the rest of his interview) in this video of the opening ceremony, taken by Lisa Hayes; our conversation starts at the 20:20 mark in the video.
Mike was a very fine writer and a gregarious person, but what I think you will see most in the tributes that will be coming out about in the next few days is the fact he was a teacher and mentor to a great number of writers in the science fiction community, sharing advice about writing and the writing life over decades. There are working writers today who unironically think of themselves as “Mike’s children,” which is a testament to his influence. And of course Mike’s actual daughter Laura is a very fine writer as well. This is an excellent legacy to have, and Mike should be proud of it.
My own relationship with Mike had its ups and downs, the most notable down involving a blow-up about the SFWA magazine while I was president, where a column he wrote with Barry Malzberg incited controversy. I took responsibility for its publication as the publisher; I had been asleep at the wheel and let something get through that I’m sure if I had noted to Mike (or more accurately noted it to the editor at the time, who would then note it to Mike), he as a consummate professional would have found another way to make his point. I did appreciate that aspect of his, and I think he appreciated that I appreciated it. In these later years we saw each other at occasional conventions and chatted along agreeably on Facebook about life and business. Stay in a community long enough and there’s always water under the bridge.
Laura noted that Mike passed due to lymphoma that had come on unusually aggressively, and his doctors decided last month there was not much else to be done and recommended hospice. He passed quietly in his sleep. The family has a GoFundMe up to help Carol Resnick, Mike’s widow, manage the medical costs they’ve accrued over the course of his treatment. If you were a fan or friend of Mike’s over the years, I hope you’ll consider contributing.
My condolences to Carol, and to Laura, and to all those who were friends to Mike or considered him a teacher and mentor. A very grand presence is gone. And while the lights Mike was pointing to on that Chicago stage might still be there, they’ll never have the honor of illuminating him again. Their loss, and ours.
“More and better naps” is, I think, a campaign platform we can all get behind.
In other news it’s been a little surprising to me how busy my first week of business in 2020 has been. I’m writing, which is to be expected, but I’m doing a bunch of other things too, including setting up events and appearances in the rest of 2020 and beyond. It’s going to be a busy year, it turns out, which I guess means that a busy week to start it off is perhaps not all that surprising.
One side effect of being busy is that I’ve not been as engaged with news as I might otherwise be, which, again, I don’t see as entirely horrible. I’m working on an informal rule that I’m not looking at world/national/political news before the close of business, so I can focus on doing my actual work and also to keep my blood pressure relatively low. So far it seems to be working. It appears a lot of other people are more than happy fill in the gap I’m leaving during business hours.
One thing I did see today that I think on balance could be a good idea: Twitter planning to give users more control over who can directly respond to their tweets. I’m already seeing some hand-wringing about the idea that this will just allows echo-chambers to become more echo-y and for bad actors to make “statements” that people won’t be able to challenge, but, you know, eh. You can still snapshot something egregious and comment about it on your own feed, where you can keep comments open, if you like; also, if you’re that far into an echo chamber, you’re not there by accident, and someone commenting on a tweet isn’t going to pry you out.
On the flip side, it will make it harder for bots and trolls to do their thing, at least for a bit. As someone whose private Facebook account is already locked down so that only people I select can see and comment on it (and who can close comments here anytime he likes), I’m not seeing a huge amount of downside there. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works in reality.
In the meantime: Look, Sugar! Napping!
A life of adventure for some often involved pretending to be someone other than you were… but was it possible in some cases that what was being pretended was closer to who that person always was meant to be? It’s a thought that Niki Smith has considered for The Deep and Dark Blue.
So early next morning she softly arose,
and dressed herself up in her dead brother’s clothes,
She cut her hair close, and she stained her face brown,
And went for a soldier to fair London town.
— English Folk Ballad, Sweet Polly Oliver
As a kid, tales of girls chopping off their hair to have adventures as knights or soldiers were my first glimpse of the wider, queer world that was waiting for me.
Finding these stories was exhilarating. Legends of women who dressed as men to fight in battle go back to the Trojan War! Mulan disguised herself to take her father’s place. Shakespeare uses the trope in five separate plays, sometimes for hijinks, other times for adventure, always for drama. The stage was all-male profession: male actors playing women characters who disguise themselves as men, toying with and winning the hearts of other men… every layer was messier, more exciting. It was queer.
I was a preteen when Mulan was released and my copies of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna quartet were already dog-eared from rereading. The trope has only grown since then: Terry Pratchett, Scott Westerfeld, Bloody Jack, Voltron. Countless girls disguising themselves as boys to live the lives they always wanted, as knights and pirates and soldiers! My to-read list is constantly growing; I can’t resist a revisit to one of my favorite childhood tropes.
But in all the fun of blurring gender roles in those stories I devoured as a kid, in the legends and myths and fantastical adventures—those girls were always girls, deep down. A new life, an adopted name, shorn hair, yes, but living as a boy was always just a temporary facade. And despite the “gender bending”, the layers of queer undertones, the flirting (and often falling in love!) with boys while in disguise—each story ended with a firm return to life as a straight, cis girl. Even as a kid, I knew I wanted more.
And I wanted more in so many ways. The heroine of these stories was always that—a girl. Pretending to be a boy was the only way to have an adventure. No matter how exciting the fantasy world, no matter if there were dragons or swords or magic spells, a woman’s life was always tedious and full of boring needlework. It was something to escape.
Society calls old, unmarried women “spinsters”—why? Because they earned enough through their work spinning thread to support themselves independently. In a time when marriage was expected, their skills meant they were free to make that choice for themselves and maintain a life of self-sufficiency. When I sat down to write The Deep & Dark Blue, I knew I wanted to flip the trope of the girl who hates to do embroidery on its head. I developed a system of magic with its roots deep in “women’s work”, in fiber arts, textiles, spindles and weaving, all powered by a magical indigo dye. And watching over it, an enclave of women, the Communion of Blue, carefully passing down its secrets to a new generation of girls.
All of that led to The Deep and Dark Blue, my queer fantasy middle grade graphic novel. Two siblings on the run after a coup, seeking refuge with a mysterious order of women… but for one twin, changing her name isn’t a disguise. It’s the chance for a young trans girl to live as herself for the first time, surrounded by the magic she’s dreamed of for years.
And what a high-level nap game it is!
Also, hello, folks. Today I wrote a chapter and replied to notes on a treatment and now I’m about to go run a bit because I bought new running shoes and I have to justify spending more on them than I think I have for any other pair of shoes I ever had. 2020 is keeping me busy so far. Fortunately I have cats to hold down the napping angle of things.
You can’t tell me I don’t know how to live.
How’s your Saturday?
And as you can see, Sugar is thrilled.
As for me, Krissy and Athena are off on a spa weekend, so I am left to my own devices. It’s going to be a wild weekend, and by “wild” I mean I am likely to sleep through most of it. The cats are good role models here.
What things of mine are available for award consideration this year? Well, if nominating for awards is your thing, here’s what I have available for the 2020 awards season.
A Very Scalzi Christmas (November 2019; Subterranean Press; Yanni Kuznia, editor)
Best Short Story
“A Model Dog” (January 2019; The Verge)
“The Origin of the Flow” (November 2019; published at Whatever/Scalzi.com)
“Christmas in July” (November 2019; from A Very Scalzi Christmas, published by Subterranean Press)
“Jangle the Elf Grants Wishes” (November 2019; from A Very Scalzi Christmas, published by Subterranean Press)
“Resolutions for the New Year” (November 2019; from A Very Scalzi Christmas, published by Subterranean Press)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (where applicable)
“Three Robots” (March 2019; from the Netflix series Love Death and Robots; Philip Gelat, screenwriter, John Scalzi, story)
“Alternate Histories” (March 2019; from the Netflix series Love Death and Robots; Philip Gelat, screenwriter, John Scalzi, story)
“When the Yogurt Took Over” (March 2019; from the Netflix series Love Death and Robots; Janis Robertson, screenwriter, John Scalzi, story)
“A Model Dog” (animated version) (January 2019; The Verge; Laura Hudson and William Joel, screenwriters, John Scalzi, story)
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (where applicable)
A Very Scalzi Christmas audiobook (November 2019; published by Audible; Narrated by Khristine Hvam, Dina Pearlman, Kevin T. Collins, Josh Hurley, Neil Hellegers, L. J. Ganser, Erin Mallon)
Also, one may consider the first season of Love Death and Robots for consideration for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.
The audiobook of Christmas is also eligible for the Audie Awards (for audiobooks), but I’m not sure how those are administered in terms of nominations, so I’m not going to worry about it too much.
As always, when you are considering my work (or anyone else’s!), please nominate it for awards only if you believe it is award-caliber. If you think something else deserves the slot over my work, then please slot it over mine. I’ll be fine, trust me. But if you do think it’s award-worthy, I’ll be delighted if you nominate it. Thank you.
Fun fact: Today is not only the first day of the ’20s, it is also the 15th anniversary of the release of Old Man’s War, my first published novel and still the one I’m best known for. Five years ago I wrote a ten year retrospective on the novel, the details of which still stand, so if you haven’t read that, I encourage you to check it out. Five years later, I can say the book is still selling just as well as it ever has, in even more languages, and in even more places on this silly globe. This makes me happy.
I’m constantly delighted and amazed at its persistence, and how well it continues to speak to readers after all this time. It was the book that made my career, and I’ll be eternally grateful to it, and to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the editor who asked to buy it and who remains my editor to this day, and to Tor, who published this book and every subsequent novel of mine, up to and including The Last Emperox, which comes out this April. It’s been a ride.
Also, and again, as I said five years ago today: if you’ve ever read Old Man’s War: Thank you, too. You helped change my life.
(And now to answer the questions that will inevitably be asked: Yes, the book is still in development at Netflix, as a movie, not a series; Yes, everything is coming along nicely there; No, I can’t tell you anything else at the moment; Yes, when I can tell you I will; Yes, there will be at least one more novel in the Old Man’s War series; No, I don’t know when or what it will be about or which characters will be in it. Patience!)
For the last few years, the subhead for Whatever has remained the same: “This Site Mocks Fascists.” I thought it was a good subhead, since it both set the tone for the site, and also, made people aware of the sort of person the proprietor of the site was. But now it’s 2020, an election year, and I think it’s time to retire that subhead and put up something else — something more aspirational, and dare I say, more important.
2020 is an election year in the United States, and in several states where the GOP holds a political majority in the state houses, there is a decided push to shove people off the voting rolls and to make voting generally more difficult, particularly for people who are not white and (heavy correlation, here) not likely to vote Republican. We could dive deep into why that is, but the short version is that here in 2020, the GOP is the party that caters to racist white people, and one of the ways the party catering to racist white people has decided to win elections in 2020 is to make it difficult for anyone who doesn’t vote with racist white people to cast their ballot.
This isn’t right and it isn’t fair, and frankly, it’s unamerican. In my more perfect union, every adult US citizen would be automatically registered to vote on their 18th birthday, and could not removed from the voting rolls until their death. But we don’t live in that more perfect union, we live in this imperfect one. So, it’s important for every adult US citizen — especially those currently targeted by the GOP — to register to vote, the sooner the better. It’s also important for every adult US citizen — especially those currently targeted by the GOP — to check their registrations to make sure they’re still valid, and (in my opinion) to check regularly; I just checked mine, and will do it again every month between now and election day. And of course once these folks are registered, and have checked to make sure their registration is still valid, it also important that they actually vote — both in primary elections and caucuses if they are able (which start next month) and in the national election in November.
Thus, the new Whatever subhead for 2020: “Time to Register to Vote.” Accompanying that subhead, a widget in the site sidebar, which shows up on every page of the site, encouraging adult US citizens to register and to check their registration, with links for both of those activities. Both the sidebar and the widget are up through Election Day, which is November 3, 2020. Beyond that I’ll be making it my personal mission to encourage every adult US citizen to register to vote, check their registration and then vote when they can. It’s good for them and good for the country.
(Along this line, I’ve also updated my Twitter bio with the links to register and to check one’s registration.)
Speaking of which: Hey, are you an adult US citizen? If you are, are you registered to vote? And if you are, have you checked your registration to make sure it’s still valid? Get on it, folks. I’ll be bugging you about it all year long.
A small sampling of photos (and photo manipulations) I took this year but otherwise did not post on Whatever. If you like these, there is a slightly larger collection here. Enjoy.
I think most people are aware that I’ll spend much of 2020 writing things — it’s kind of my gig, so it’s no surprise that in my work life that’s most of what I’ll be doing. But outside of writing, what are my hopes and plans for the next year? In no particular order:
1. Structure my time better. This is a perennial, and one I’ve already talked about a bit the last post. I’ve already got some strategies ready for that; the key as always will be implementation.
2. Spend less time on social media. It’s my default “I’m not doing anything, so let’s do this” activity. I have no plans to remove myself from social media entirely, but being smarter about when I log on and when I log off would not be a bad thing. I strongly suspect no one would really notice if, for example, instead of spending four hours a day glassily staring into Twitter, I spent two.
3. Read more books. I read a lot for blurbing and other work-related purposes these days, less so for actual enjoyment, so I’m going to try to do better on that front, perhaps with one or two of the extra hours I gain from not staring into Twitter.
4. Play more music. This I already have a head start on since I am already playing the drum set I just got. However, I also have other instruments. Maybe this is the year I actually improve my guitar playing. It could happen!
5. See friends. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of seeing friends over the last couple of years, so this is just making a commitment to continue doing that.
6. Keep exercising. As it happens, if I keep playing drums, I can do this and point 4 at the same time.
And… that’s kind of it. Not massive goals (well, the first one could be), but ones that are achievable and I think will make my life better. Which is what you want out of a new year.
It was an interesting year, and on paper, a good and useful one. I wrote or at least assembled two books in 2019, one of which was published (A Very Scalzi Christmas, which is doing well (thank you!), although naturally I expect the sales to dip soon) and the other of which, The Last Emperox, will come out in April. Also, in March, Love Death & Robots debuted, with three episodes based on my work, including “Three Robots,” which became one of the most popular segments of the show. LD&R has been renewed for another season, so that’s nice. Head On, one of my two novels released in 2018, was nominated for an Audie Award in 2019, which was also nice (it lost to Douglas Adams, which, you know, fair). Three of my standalone novels were repackaged and re-released, which was a nice show of confidence on the part of Tor. I traveled to London, Budapest, Dublin and Australia and lots of places in the US, to make appearances and participate in events. And various film/TV projects kept chugging along. So, yes, not a bad year at all.
But in a number of ways it was also not a great year for me, professionally. The trash fires of the year once again pulled my focus — or more accurately, as we must be honest about these things, I allowed my focus to be pulled once again by the trash fires of the year, and as a result I fell behind on more than one project, some of which I must now carry over to 2020. It wasn’t writer’s block, it was writer’s crawl, and it made me not especially happy, and it made me feel like I was not being as productive as I could have been.
I do realize that from the outside saying that I wrote two books in 2019 and then complaining I was not as productive as I could have been is inviting a performance from the world’s smallest violin. But from the inside, I see a line up of projects that I must do, would like to do, or dream of having time for. Almost all of them are now just a little bit further away than I want them to be, because I didn’t use my time as well as I could have this year. I’m 50 now, which is not old, but does mean I’m aware that my time is no longer functionally infinite. The more years I have like 2019, the less time I have to do all the things I want to do, and commensurately, the less stuff everyone else will see from me.
Last year around this time, I made the decision that I wanted to get in better shape and lose some weight, and started taking steps toward that goal, even though the process of doing so was annoying and not a whole lot of fun for me. It worked, and I’m 30 pounds lighter and generally happier with the state of my physical being than I was this time last year. For 2020, my life project is going to have to be working on that focus, so that my professional time is more productively organized and spent. This is something I’ve talked about a lot previously and have already instituted some steps toward (software to block social media while I’m supposed to be working being the best example of this), but there’s more to be done here, and I’ll be doing it.
(Please note that this is not your cue to offer suggestions — I already have plans on this score, and also, bluntly, your suggestions will not be helpful because you only see the public face of my professional life, not the private one where the work actually gets done. I appreciate the thought, but, again: Don’t. Thanks.)
The flip side of this is that 2020 is packed with stuff for me to do and write; whatever else I might say about 2020 on a professional level when it’s all done, it’s unlikely that I’ll say I was bored. And hopefully you won’t be bored with what comes from that work I do in 2020. But regardless, the one thing I want professionally for 2020 is what I didn’t manage in 2019 — going into the year after it with the decks cleared. It’s a reasonable wish. I’m working on making it happen.
Many of them taken around Christmas, because apparently that’s when I take pictures of my wife (I mean, aside from all the other times). In mostly chronological order, starting with Christmas 2010.
Yes, she can take a good photo. Also, I love her a whole lot. But you all knew that. The fact is I take so many pictures of her because I just like looking at her, and I feel giddy every time I do. It’s a nice feeling. I don’t see it changing anytime soon.
This is it: The final stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound in 2019. As the year ends, is there anything here that you would be happy to take into 2020? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Photos of my daughter in the last decade, in roughly chronological order, starting and ending with birthday photos from 2010 and 2019, respectively.
It’s been a privilege to be here as she’s grown up. I wouldn’t have missed a moment of it for all the treasures of the world. I can’t wait to see where her next decade takes her.
It’s been a fairly momentous decade for Whatever — it had some of its highest trafficked years in 2012 and 2013, and while direct daily visitorship to the site has declined as people migrated to Facebook and Twitter as those two sites took over the Internet, Whatever still manages to make a splash when I link to it from one of those two sites. I’m personally curious what will happen when those sites inevitably decline; while I’m not exactly waiting for the “blogosphere” to come back in any meaningful way, I hold out the hope that personal sites might nevertheless get a general second wind as people begin to entertain the idea that there’s more to the online experience than just what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey think they should see.
Over the course of the last decade, several pieces I wrote gained traction on the Internet at large and/or were some of the best things I’ve written in that timeframe, and/or represented the moment in which they were written in a particularly memorable way. Below, you’ll find links to these pieces. I’ve limited the list to twenty because I don’t want to tax anyone’s patience, and also because I think that’s enough to get a taste of how this decade was here on the site. Enjoy the retrospective as the 10s come to a close. Barring catastrophe, I’ll be writing here through the 20s as well. I’m looking forward to seeing how the recap of that decade might vary from this one. Come back in ten years and see.
For all of you who have stuck with this site over the last decade: Thank you for reading, and commenting, and linking in. Let’s keep at it.
A year ago today, weighing nearly 200 pounds and feeling physically run down, and also feeling somewhat depressed about those facts, I hauled my carcass up on the treadmill we have in our basement and started walking on it. I did about 20 minutes worth of walking that day — not a lot, just enough to elevate my heart rate — and was grumpy about it the entire time. At the same time I also instituted the habit of counting my calories, with the goal of eating fewer calories in a day than I was burning. My goal was to eventually be at 170 pounds, more or less.
A year later, I’m still exercising, still watching my calories, and on most days I’m somewhere between 165 and 170 pounds (currently I’m just over 170, due to holiday eating, which I’m fine with, because holidays). What is my thinking about a year of exercise and calorie counting? Well:
1. People told me that the first few weeks of exercising would be the hardest, and after that point all the endorphins would kick in (or whatever) and then I would really start to enjoy that. Well, that was a lie — at no point in my year of exercising has it been much other than an annoying thing that I’ve had to do in order to achieve a particular goal, and then maintain at a particular level. Or more accurately, it’s probably not a lie; some people probably really do get an endorphin rush (or whatever) from exercise, I’m just not one of them. Which is fine, I’m not doing the exercise for itself, I’m doing it for the benefit I accrue from it. But it would have been nice to get a little buzz from it rather than just crankily hauling myself down to the treadmill (or outside when the weather got nicer) on a regular basis.
2. It turns out that in actual practice, I don’t exercise to lose weight, I exercise so that I can eat more calories and still lose weight. With regard to calorie counting, I initially set my calorie goals to lose about a pound a week, which meant I was supposed to eat about 500 fewer calories than I burned on a daily basis. When I didn’t exercise that meant eating a number of calories that made me feel generally unhappy — just few enough that I felt hungry and annoyed. But if I exercised for a half hour or forty-five minutes, aside from any other cardiovascular or metabolic benefit, it also meant I could have another 250 to 350 calories a day and still hit my calorie goal, which meant I could eat enough that I didn’t feel hungry and unhappy. Once I understood that the point of exercising was to be a calorie bank — points I could redeem for pizza — it made regular exercising more bearable.
3. It also meant that honestly speaking the real key to losing weight was the calorie counting, not the exercising. Which makes sense, because physics. It’s not to say that the exercise wasn’t important, because it was: as mentioned above, it was a calorie bank, but also and more importantly, it offered other physical benefits, which in turn offered a number of psychological benefits. I feel better, and feel better about myself, because I exercise, even if I find the act of exercising itself sort of annoying. But at the end of the day, me being who I am and the laws of nature being what they are, logging food and making sure I kept to a general caloric intake was what lost the weight. Exercise was important but complementary to that activity. Commensurately, even though right now I’m not actively trying to lose any more weight, I’m still logging what I eat because as it turns out it’s really easy for me to jam a lot of calories into my body if I’m not paying attention.
4. Also key for me was understanding that the exercise and calorie counting was going to be a permanent thing now, and not just something I was going to do until I hit a goal. I’m 50 now and my body isn’t my friend on this score any more — basically my body now wants to go Full Santa, and will unless I keep on it. This is what it is, and there’s little point in complaining about it; age has its benefits but effortless health isn’t one of them. I’ve done exercise and calorie counting before and stopped when I hit a goal (or just didn’t want to do it anymore), and experienced the see-saw thing. So when I started again a year ago, I started with the idea that this was now the new normal. Again, that helped a lot.
5. I felt better when I started exercising, and I feel better now than I did a year ago, both physically and mentally. But it’s important to note that exercising and bringing my body closer to something that corresponded to my own internal self-image of myself did not, in fact, solve all my problems. 2019 was in some ways a difficult year for me (I’ll probably speak of that in another post), and the extra energy and feeling of well-being that I got from exercise didn’t change that. I have a sense that 2019 might have been even more difficult without me working on myself physically but of course there’s no way to prove that. I should say that I wasn’t expecting exercise to be some sort of panacea, either for the world’s woes or my own; I’m well aware that no matter where you go, there you are. But I guess I was expecting the knock-off benefits in other areas of my life to be more substantial. As it turns out: Nope, or at least, not in 2019.
6. Exercising and counting calories worked for me and if you are someone who is looking to shed a bit of weight and work on your body, it’s something I can generally recommend to you as well. I do think it’s important to be aware that you’re signing on for a process as well as a goal, however — and that this process will take a while and will be work no matter who you are, and when the goal is hit, you’ll still have a process you keep with. It took me eight months to drop 30 pounds, and the additional four months has been maintenance of that. One year in, what I’ve really done is establish a new baseline for anything else I do from here on out, whether it is to keep things more or less the same, or decide on a new goal, with a different process. For me, the awareness that this is as much process as goal has made a difference in how I feel about it on a day-to-day basis, and how I engage with it in a larger frame. It’s made it easier to stick with. For me, that’s a real thing.
Hope it’s been lovely. Mine was.