Dec 29 2011

Book Plans

So, Samhain—the big e-publisher—passed on my book. I’m not hurt; they mostly focus on romance titles, so it was kind of a stretch. And in turn, I decided after a lot of thought to decline the offer from Lyrical. They seem like a perfectly nice little shop but they simply don’t offer enough to justify giving up, not only forty percent of royalties, but also the chance to retain all rights and complete control over my work. For example audio rights, something most authors have basically ignored for a long time, are becoming much more important in the digital age—and retaining those rights can be huge for an author.

So I’ve contracted with one of my favorite artists to create a cover image for me, and I’m hoping to release The Millennial Sword as an e-book in the spring. Meanwhile, my New Year’s resolution is to resume progress on my new manuscript. From what I’ve been reading about authors building their careers through e-publishing, it’s important to have a “backlist” of titles—readers who like one book are likely to check out others by the same writer. Authors who are making a living through e-publishing rarely do it with one breakout bestseller, but rather by building up a number of titles that each sell steadily. After all, in the digital world, books don’t go “out of print” and they don’t have to jostle for space on a shelf with other, newer titles, so they can keep on earning a small but steady income pretty much forever.

On the subject of e-publishing, I thought this blog post from an agent was pretty interesting:

I’ve been an agent for almost a quarter of a century. I’ve had a lot of authors say they would do anything to make a good living as a writer, and then ask me what they should do. In the past, that answer had way too much to do with luck and timing, but today, a genre writer who puts in 40 hours a week can make a good living as a writer within two years of starting out through epub. The times they are a changing.

I believe we are entering a whole new world of publishing that resembles the pulp fiction heyday of the past. Readers want dependable books that they can devour, and authors who can deliver them consistently. This will be a renaissance of story telling. It’s quite exciting.

I think it’s exciting too.

Dec 28 2011

About Fat

The New York Times has a good summary of the current state of research into weight loss, and why so few people (five percent is probably a generous estimate) who attempt to lose a significant amount of weight will succeed in doing so over the long term.

When I turned 30, my metabolism changed and I began putting on weight very rapidly. I gained about thirty pounds in a year. Alarmed, I tried every sort of diet—low fat, low carb, calorie-counting, periods of fasting—and managed lose five or ten pounds at a time only to see them inexorably creep back. My pregnancies exacerbated the problem. At 35, I’m about a hundred pounds overweight. I’m not sedentary—I walk three miles in the course of my daily routine, taking Robin to school and picking him up—and I cook healthy meals for our family based on the week’s batch of fresh vegetables from our CSA box. I don’t drink soda, I don’t eat junk food. Everyone but me in our household has no trouble keeping to a “normal” weight. By every measure other than weight (blood pressure, cholesterol, etc) I’m quite healthy. But the fat has been a torment.

There is this myth in our culture that weight loss is easy, that it just takes a bit of self-discipline. That’s demonstrably not true.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, says that while the 10,000 people tracked in the registry are a useful resource, they also represent a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to lose weight. “All it means is that there are rare individuals who do manage to keep it off,” Brownell says. “You find these people are incredibly vigilant about maintaining their weight. Years later they are paying attention to every calorie, spending an hour a day on exercise. They never don’t think about their weight.”

Janice Bridge, a registry member who has successfully maintained a 135-pound weight loss for about five years, is a perfect example. “It’s one of the hardest things there is,” she says. “It’s something that has to be focused on every minute. I’m not always thinking about food, but I am always aware of food.”

My friend Jessie pointed out something, years ago, that I thought was incredibly smart. She said you can tell just by looking at a newsstand that weight loss isn’t something most people have control over. If there were a known, reliable, hard-but-doable method for losing weight—if it really came down to “eat less and exercise more” in a way as simple and moderate as that formulation makes it sound—then there wouldn’t be the constant proliferation of magic powders, recipes, diets, and other snake oil peddled to the fat.

I mean, compare it to giving up cigarettes. Everybody understands that quitting smoking is hard, but doable. It takes self-discipline, it takes a program, and there are medicines that can help. There’s this idea in our culture that losing a large amount of weight takes roughly the same amount of effort. But do you see people on the cover of magazines: I Gave Up Cigarettes in Six Months—and You Can Too! Or This Woman Gave Up Two Packs a Day! How She Did It Page 58? Do you see it every time you pass a magazine rack, cover after cover, month after month, year after year—always peddling a slightly different “secret”?

No. You do not, because those people, the people who successfully kick a nicotine addiction, are not news. They are common. And there are no “secrets” to ditching cigarettes because there actually are known, reliable, hard-but-doable methods that work.

By contrast, the people who make the covers of magazines, standing in their old fat pants and proudly holding out the waistband two feet from their tummies: they are newsworthy because they are rare. Someone like Jared the Subway Guy can get a lucrative corporate sponsorship deal for his weight loss precisely because it’s not something anybody could do. If it were, everyone would know a Jared, he wouldn’t be exceptional, and the company would have no reason to spend a lot of money making him famous. The media can perpetually sell weight-loss “secrets” because there is no known, tested, reliable, repeatable weight-loss method that actually works for the majority (or even a large minority) of people who try it.

It’s not that weight loss is impossible. People do it. All of these fad diets, they’ve worked for some people. Not many, but some. “Eat less and exercise more” works too, if by that you mean eating much, much less, and spending hours working out, every day, forever.

“I think many people who are anxious to lose weight don’t fully understand what the consequences are going to be, nor does the medical community fully explain this to people,” Rudolph Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University in New York, says. “We don’t want to make them feel hopeless, but we do want to make them understand that they are trying to buck a biological system that is going to try to make it hard for them.”

Leibel and his colleague Michael Rosenbaum have pioneered much of what we know about the body’s response to weight loss. For 25 years, they have meticulously tracked about 130 individuals for six months or longer at a stretch. The subjects reside at their research clinic where every aspect of their bodies is measured. Body fat is determined by bone-scan machines. A special hood monitors oxygen consumption and carbon-dioxide output to precisely measure metabolism. Calories burned during digestion are tracked. Exercise tests measure maximum heart rate, while blood tests measure hormones and brain chemicals. Muscle biopsies are taken to analyze their metabolic efficiency. (Early in the research, even stool samples were collected and tested to make sure no calories went unaccounted for.) For their trouble, participants are paid $5,000 to $8,000.

Eventually, the Columbia subjects are placed on liquid diets of 800 calories a day until they lose 10 percent of their body weight. Once they reach the goal, they are subjected to another round of intensive testing as they try to maintain the new weight. The data generated by these experiments suggest that once a person loses about 10 percent of body weight, he or she is metabolically different than a similar-size person who is naturally the same weight. The research shows that the changes that occur after weight loss translate to a huge caloric disadvantage of about 250 to 400 calories.

There are also changes that occur in the brain, to actually heighten the effect of food cravings and to simultaneously weaken the control systems that allow us to resist such cravings.

Another way that the body seems to fight weight loss is by altering the way the brain responds to food. Rosenbaum and his colleague Joy Hirsch, a neuroscientist also at Columbia, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to track the brain patterns of people before and after weight loss while they looked at objects like grapes, Gummi Bears, chocolate, broccoli, cellphones and yo-yos. After weight loss, when the dieter looked at food, the scans showed a bigger response in the parts of the brain associated with reward and a lower response in the areas associated with control. This suggests that the body, in order to get back to its pre-diet weight, induces cravings by making the person feel more excited about food and giving him or her less willpower to resist a high-calorie treat.

In other words, once you’ve lost the weight, you will never be able to eat as much as a person who is “naturally the same weight,” and you will never stop being hungry. Under those conditions, yes, most people can’t sustain significant weight loss even if they do manage to take the weight off in the first place. I keep saying “significant” because these biological systems don’t seem to kick in for someone who just needs to lose the ten pounds they put on over the holidays, which is one reason why people who’ve successfully dieted to lose five or ten pounds don’t understand why the truly fat can’t slim down.

I have not given up on losing weight. I agonize every day, over every thing that I put in my mouth. Basically, I struggle to keep my weight stable and I look forward to the day when there will be real medicine to counteract the biological, neurochemical mechanisms that inhibit substantial weight loss. I also desperately wish that our culture would accept that fact that fat people are not simply lazy and weak-willed. It’s not like quitting smoking, it’s not something that just requires a significant but temporary amount of self-discipline. Nor is it, as the “eat less and exercise more” formulation suggests, something that just requires moderate and reasonable lifestyle changes. It’s something that requires complete dedication, forever, and there’s a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors that makes it more difficult for some than for others. And it’s time our society moved beyond the magazine-cover snake-oil stage and started looking at fat in a realistic way.

Dec 26 2011

Christmas Dinosaurs


Actually Robin’s is Godzilla. That’s kind of a dinosaur, right?

Dec 23 2011

Bonus poem!

“I Fall in Love,” by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, translated from the Irish by Paul Muldoon

I fall in love, in the fall of every year,
with the smattering of rain on my windshield
and the pale and wan light toppling over the sheer
edge of my field
of vision, with leaves strewn in my way,
with the bracket-fungus screwed to a rotten log:
I fall in love with bog and cold clay
and what they hold in store for me and you, my dear.

I fall in love with all that’s going off:
with blackened spuds
rotting in their beds, with
Brussels sprouts nipped in the bud
by a blast of frost, rat-eaten artichokes, and,
like so many unpicked locks,
the tares and cockles buried in shifting sand;
it’s as if I fall in love a little with death itself.

For it’s neither the fall nor the coming to in spring—
neither shrug of the shoulders nor sudden foray
down that boring ‘little road of the King’—
but something else that makes me wary:
how I throw off the snowy sheet and icy quilt
made of feathers from some flock
of Otherworldly birds, how readily I am beguiled
by a sunny smile, how he offers me a wing.

Dec 23 2011

Happy Solstice!

I don’t have full-blown SAD but I definitely feel the waning light. Last night, after we celebrated the Solstice (I made a butternut squash tart, we put the candles on the tree, and opened the first of our presents), I climbed into bed at 7:30 and slept for twelve hours straight. I’m also mainlining chocolate. Even in California, winter is something you feel.

In honor of the season here is one of my favorite poems, by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (first in the original Irish and then translated by Paul Muldoon). It’s actually only the first bit of the poem, “Feis,” which is quite raunchy and depends for its symbolism on an understanding of the architecture of Newgrange: the Irish prehistoric monument constructed in such a way that only once a year, at dawn on the winter solstice, does the sunlight fully reach the inner chamber.

Nuair a éiríonn tú ar maidin
is steallann ionam
seinneann ceolta sí na cruinne
istigh im chloigeann.
Taistealaíonn an ga gréine
caol is lom
síos an pasáiste dorcha
is tríd an bpoll

sa bhfardoras
is rianann solas ribe
ar an urlár cré
sa seomra iata
is íochtaraí go léir.
Atann ansan is téann i méid
is i méid go dtí go líontar
le solas órga an t-aireagal go léir.

beidh na hoícheanta níos giorra.
Raghaidh achar gach lae if bhfaid is i bhfaid.

When you rise in the morning
and pour into me
an unearthly music
rings in my ears.
A ray of sunshine comes
slender and spare
down the dark passageway
and through the gap

in the lintel
to trace a light-scroll
on the mud floor
in the nethermost
sealed chamber.
Then it swells
and swells until a golden glow
fills the entire oratory.

From now on
the nights will be getting shorter
and the days longer and longer.

Dec 14 2011

Conversations with Babies

Davy has a scattering of useful words now: “Up!” “Bye,” “Mama,” “Da,” and the ever-useful “uh-oh,” but what he mostly says, over and over, is “Hi.” Dozens and dozens of times a day: “Hi! Hi!” And often this is followed by a kiss, always delivered with a dramatic, vocalized “mmmm-wah!”

It’s the first thing we hear in the morning: “Hi! Mmmm-wah!” Sometimes if he wakes up in the night he’ll give me a sleepy “hi,” and a kiss, before rolling over to go back to sleep.

It got me to thinking: basically, the first thing we wanted to tell him when he was born, the most important thing we’ve been repeating over and over every day since, was “Hello! We love you!” Not always in words, but most of what we say to him is aimed in some way at reinforcing that essential message. “You exist! We love you!”

It just slays me that he’s gotten the point so clearly, and is returning it in his simple baby way. “Hi! Mwah!” Hello and I love you. What else is there, really, to say?

Dec 1 2011

The Big Booger Bubble

Today at school, I was in the art room with a bunch of the older girls, one of whom—Charlotte, irrepressible scamp that she is—was making the whole table laugh hysterically by telling them about the big booger bubble she had blown out of her nose.

“The big booger bubble!” I said. “That sounds like it ought to be a story.”

“YES!” Charlotte commanded. “Make it. Right now. Make the story.”

So I did.


A Story for Charlotte

One time there was a girl who had SUCH a stuffed up nose…

…such a stuffy, snuffly, horky, honky, stopped-up snorker of a grotty snotty sniffer…

That when she took a deep breath in, and blew a deep breath out—


She sneezed!

And from out her left nostril came a big booger bubble!

She blew! Whew! and she blew! Phew! And that big booger bubble blew up too. It blew up just like a balloon, and SOON, the big booger bubble was the biggest thing for miles.

It was bigger than her nose. It was bigger than her face. It was big enough that astronauts could see it down from space.

The girl puffed and snuffed, sniffed and whiffed, and in no time at all she was flying through the air. She was pulled up in the clouds by the big booger bubble.

The wind blew her south, it blew her north, it blew her east-northwest by south-southeast until it blew her straight into a flock of geese flying down for the winter.



Those beaky geese popped the big booger bubble!

There was a LOT of SNOT and it fell down like rain. Snot in the fields, snot in the plains. Later in the spring snot-weeds grew in all the farms, bearing gloopy gloppy nose-fruit that sold poorly in the markets.

But as for the girl, she windskated down on the wings of the geese and landed soft and safe in her own backyard where she went off, searching for a hankie.