Friday, December 20, 2013

Me and the Master Cleanse


In a slight departure, today I'll recount my experience going without food for over a week. Fasting is an ancient religious practice, and while I did incorporate it into The Last Ancient, this blog entry is really about the post-holiday-gluttony anxiety we all feel upon ratcheting down the top button of our blue jeans on January 2nd.

A few years back I woke up so bloated from a Thanksgiving orgy of turkey and chorizo stuffing I considered something crazy: fasting. We’ve all been there, mentally. But in the name of science and a good grade for grad school, I decided to go there, physically – all the way to starvation town. Hence, The Master Cleanse, otherwise knows as The Lemonade Diet, a daunting feat of self-starvation dreamed up by a quack named Stanley Burroughs in 1940 and which remains popular with celebrities still.
Yup, I did it: Ten days of no solid food. Just liter after liter of a wretched concoction of water, maple syrup, lemon, and cayenne pepper. I’ll post my grad school article about it after the holidays, but I thought you all might be interested in my experience with what is arguably one of the dumbest things a person could do to one’s self in the name of health, mental wellbeing, and body image.

The first day was fine. Like a camel, I’d stored enough calories over Thanksgiving to not be hungry for over a day. Still, choking down the formulae was laborious. It’s imperative to drink your portion of “lemonade” on a regular schedule, even if it tastes like Komodo dragon urine. When feeling frisky, I’d heat it up and pretend it was tea. Unfortunately, I never got the expected boost typical of my go-to hot beverage, black-as-tar coffee. By the end of the day, the coffee began calling my name from every steaming mug of Starbucks clutched in every student’s hand riding the Mass T. The coffee proved to be my greatest challenge.

Hunger set in by the end of the second day. All I thought of was food. Everything I smelled and saw that could be eaten I wanted to buy or steal or fight for. Even though I was downing roughly 1,800 calories a day in maple syrup (shudderwincegulp), the hunger grew by the third day into an actual emotion, a pure and primal drive that someone who’s always 15 pounds overweight like myself rarely feels. Worse, however, was the caffeine withdrawals. Not headaches, I rarely get those. Just a general sense of impending world-ending doom, a darkness staining my soul and a thorn in my mind. Yes, my name is Eliot and I am a coffee addict. It’s pathetic, but oddly acceptable by society.
The fourth day my tongue turned white. I stared at it in the mirror for a long time, wondering if this was how tongues were supposed to look or whether I’d just spiraled into full-blown malnutrition. I had woken up feeling as though someone had funneled kitty litter into my mouth and then given laxatives to a constipated calico. Some heavy toothbrush scrubbing removed most of the grit. Turns out, according to a doctor friend of mine, the accumulation of bacteria on our tongues is normally scoured off by the act of eating. No eating, no cleaning of the tongue. Go figure.
By day five, my senses grew heightened, particularly my sense of smell. For instance, I was gagging at the scent of something rotten in our kitchen that my wife literally couldn’t detect. I sniffed the air around the refrigerator and cupboards like a hound. It was killing me, the stench of something dead and rotten. I pinpointed it with my nose, followed the line of offensive reek like a Looney Tunes animal, and discovered an onion that had turned soft and black in a kitchen crevasse. So awful was that smell, I would have puked had anything solid remained in my digestive system (I’d stopped going number two by this time, if you’re interested). Moreover, the scent of coffee was killing me. Every cell screamed for the black nectar of Starbucks.

While my senses were heightened, my mental faculties were dimming. I couldn’t balance two thoughts at once. As I was still working at the Harvard Health Letters, I kind of made that work for me by focusing extra hard on whatever task was at hand, while swigging from a 2-liter bottle filled with a ration of dirty rain-water colored “lemonade.” I found myself staring into people’s eyes with heavy concentration when anyone spoke to me. I had to, otherwise I’d miss the conversation, and I didn’t want to screw something up bad enough that I’d have to explain to these people of science and high professionalism that I was experimenting with starvation on myself. Not sure if anyone was freaked out by how intense I was. No one mentioned anything.
Well, one person did. My professor knew what I was doing and by day six she looked at me in class and said, “Eliot, I have been watching you throughout this crazy project and there is some kind of a demon growing inside of you.” Uh-oh. They’re on to me, I thought. My professor is highly attuned to the pitfalls of eating disorders and the grave threat of malnutrition they entail. She wasn’t happy about my choice, and kept reminding me that no one in Boston University’s Master’s of Science Journalism Program had ever died for an assignment. She demanded I keep that streak alive.

Okay, actually, my wife might have noticed something was up, too. I was short-tempered. I mean, Rob Ford-after-being-cut-off-at-an-Irish-bar-and-buffet-table short-tempered. I knew as the anger built that it wasn’t a rational argument I was inciting (unlike Mayor Ford), so I’d try to bite it back (also unlike Mayor Ford), but sometimes the spleen would shoot out anyway (exactly like Mayor Ford).

I was waiting for the lemonade cleansing spiritual Nirvana around which Stanley Burroughs built a whole empire. Many internet testimonials report a spiritual uplifting from the act of fasting, a self-induced high. I remained at the edge of miserable throughout my experience, my only Nirvana experience coming from Kurt Cobain in my iPod to drown out the sound of my growling tummy.
Well, it wasn’t Nirvana exactly, but around day seven I noticed a mental change. Walking through a supermarket, I found everything in it absolutely beautiful. It was like seeing red apples and green broccoli and gold pineapples through the eyes of a child. I realized that I was looking at food that I would not consume, that I was free from the constant judging of whether or not to eat everything I saw. The hunger within me sublimated into a profound appreciation for the shape and color and texture of food—for its natural beauty. I see now why cultural anthropologists say that the evolutionary function of our faculty for beauty relates to food selection (as well as healthy mates and suitable shelter). But I wasn’t thinking it over too clearly at the time. I was just experiencing the rush of being in control of this most basic of drives.

That appreciation extended to my sense of smell. I would stand and sniff the air long enough to probably look like a weirdo whenever I’d pass a restaurant, processing the individual ingredients floating onto my olfactory system. It was amazing how good certain foods smelled, such as Indian and Thai restaurants full of their spices and vegetables, and how brutal other foods reeked, such as the chemical fast food slop and even the charred meat from the BBQ joint below where we lived in Brookline Village (this is coming from a devout carnivore, by the way). A new connection between mind and stomach was being established. My sense of smell was helping me appreciate food that I knew would be most suitable for me.

My stomach, by this time, was without any pain for the first time in years. I’m sensitive to a multitude of grains, even in trace amounts, so not eating pressed the re-set button on my stomach as all the wheat and whatnot was processed out.

By the end of the cleanse, fifteen pounds lighter,  I realized I could keep on going but didn’t see  the point. Some hard-cores swear by the 20-day challenge, but no thanks. So for my first meal post-cleanse? Thai food. It was sensational. Each spoonful of Tom Kha Gai was like a drug. Not only was my stomach excited to get real food, my brain was igniting with the coconut milk and spices. The mild curry put me into a cloud of serenity. It felt like coming home.

This is in no way a promotion of The Master Cleanse. It’s really a stupid thing to do. Which makes me… well, I’ll let you decide. Aside from the re-established mind-tummy connection fasting provided, and the joy of that triumphant meal (and the reprieve from chronic allergenic pain, which I’ve since maintained through smarter eating choices), I would recommend this diet to no one. For a hundred reasons it’s not a good idea. If you really wanted to do a hard-core juice diet, I could understand blending healthy smoothies and drinking things with proper quantities of protein and electrolytes. But after the inevitable moral hangover of holiday gluttony, I urge you to not take drastic measure other than the most sensible thing: eat less, exercise more.
Stay tuned for more on this topic after the holidays! And feel free to share your most extreme dieting attempts.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Author Interview

Hi everyone,

Celia Breslin, an excellent Urban Fantasy author in the same publishing house as myself, interviewed me for her blog. You can find the (fairly long) interview here: http://wp.me/p2fl3L-to

I answer 10 questions about myself and about my writing and reading tastes. I mentioned something about my career as a journalist and how it's affected my writing that might be useful to other writers. It involves the link between the perfect lead in journalism and the importance of a good intro to your novel, be it the first sentence, first paragraph, or first page. It's all about having a handle of your story, of having a clear vision, and being able to communicate that vision in concise, alluring fashion.

Keep up the reading, guys. I've heard some nice words of encouragement so far from a few of you, and have gotten a few 5-star reviews already. I do so look forward to getting your all's reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and at my publisher's website, burstbooks.ca. Those reviews are gold. They attract readers from all corners of the inter web. I will let you know when the paperback edition is ready. And I am anticipating a couple book signings in the Seattle area in February.

Read on!


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Nantucket I&M Article!

Hello dear readers! The incomparable Lindsey Pykosz wrote a wonderful article about me and "The Last Ancient" for today's edition (Dec. 12, 2013) of The Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror. Lindsey's an excellent writer, and I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to her for her effort and skill in putting this together. And of course many thanks to Editor & Publisher, Marianne Stanton who, along with Editor Josh Balling and the rest of the crew there at the Inky helped make me the writer I am today. Reporting for the Inquirer and Mirror was one of the greatest experiences of my life; I wish I could write for them  again.

Check out the article below!



By Lindsay Pykosz
I&M Staff Writer
         This island has a way of getting under people’s skin and inspiring different people in different ways. For some, that pull is still felt from thousands of miles away, even after they have moved from the island.
         When Eliot Baker left Nantucket and his job as a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror in 2010 to return to Finland with his family, where his wife is from, that love he felt since he first visited in 2003 only grew stronger. So much so that it became the setting for his first published book, “The Last Ancient,” a suspenseful historical mystery and love story all rolled into one that takes place on-island between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was released digitally on Dec. 2, with the print version coming later.
         “An off-island reporter with a dark past is thrust into the story-and the fight-of his life as he follows a breadcrumb trail of ancient coins left at animal mutilation and murder sites around the island,” Baker wrote in an e-mail. “The path leads to a diabolical conspiracy and a mythological creature hunting on the island. A creature he becomes obsessed with in ways beyond his understanding. A creature he is told he must kill to save himself and all he holds dear.”
         The island setting is what Baker, from the West Coast, described as “unique” for the story, with the hero, Simon Stephenson, fighting against forces that are threatening to pull him away from Nantucket, his home.
         But the connection is also personal for Baker's family. His son, Erik, 4, was born on the island and his daughter, Saga, 5, learned how to walk here and still remembers the island's beaches.
         “I was in-between classes at the local English school, looking out the teacher’s lounge windows into the first snows of Finland’s loooooong, dark winter, when I suddenly had this memory of one of my first assignments for The Inquirer and Mirror, tagging along with a hunter at sunrise on the second day of the season and hanging out at the deer weigh-in station and learning about tick diseases.
“I thought of all my days running and biking through the windswept conservation land trails, bumming around the beaches, meeting amazing people; and into that island reverie popped the mental image of a young man discovering a wounded mythological creature in conservation land. I opened up my laptop and wrote, ‘Gunshots crow across Nantucket.’ It was like fireworks went off. This whole magical world with this beautiful/sinister narrative opened up in my mind.”
Baker found himself in his family cottage in remote Finland, submerged in peace and quiet and surrounded by an atmosphere that allowed him to mold and shape his craft. His first two drafts were completed between Oct. 2011 and July 2012 and pitched it at the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association Conference in Seattle, Wash. While he said he got a lot of interest, one woman, J. Ellen Smith of Champagne Books, was particularly excited. After two more drafts, he sent it to her and the rest was history.
Baker has always loved to write and had distant dreams of becoming a novelist. From the time he was seven, he told himself that he would one day be an author. That inspiration may have come from his mother, Sharon Baker, who published three sci-fi novels with Avon Books before she died of cancer in 1991.
“I wrote a lumbering beast (180,000 words!) of a novel when I was 22, fresh out of college,” he wrote. “It somehow got some representation but never went anywhere. I shelved my novelist aspirations and went back to school to be a doctor, attending the Health Careers Program at Harvard Extension School, and working in two different labs as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School.”
Later, Baker decided to return to writing and got his Master’s in Science Journalism from Boston University. He worked at Harvard Health Letters before starting at the I&M in 2008. He credits his experiences here with how to be a good novelist.
“In addition to learning how to trim the fat and nail the heart of a story with a good lead, I learned how to research a story and how critical it is to get your facts straight,” he said. “The same holds for fiction.”
While he has done some freelance work for an English language paper in Finland, he said he has directed his writing towards fiction. He also runs an editing/translating/writing business at eliotbaker.net, teaches communications, leadership and project management at Satakunta University of Applied Sciences, teaches at the local grammar and high school’s English language track programs.
While “The Last Ancient” was intended to be written as a stand alone, Baker said he would love to turn it into a series. He added that he has a historical fiction prequel already mapped out, but much more research at the Nantucket Historical Association will be required to finish it-perhaps to be started during a trip to the island next summer.
“I have the first draft of my next novel nearly finished, and a half-dozen other projects plotted out, most of which have a fantastical approach to them, although not all,” he said.

Eliot Baker’s “The Last Ancient” is currently only available online, and can be purchased at www.burstbooks.ca

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Avoiding Writer's Lobotomy

Publish or be lobotomized!


Throughout the roughly 3,571 hours spent writing and re-writing a novel, a number of unsettling questions are given to boil in the dark corners of your mind. After all, you’re devoting weekends and nights and social time and family time to this lonely, unpaid endeavor, sitting in a room by yourself typing about imaginary people in a made-up world. When people talk to themselves in bus stations, we call them, “crazy.” When people write down the voices they hear in isolated cabins, they’re called “writers.” You can’t help but recognize the thin line. And so you wonder…
But still you persist, investing your time and talent because you have to write this story, you were born to write this story. And yet those infernal questions keep worming into your brain. You question your talent. Your vision. Your skill. Your sanity. But it all comes down to The Big Question: “Am I really a writer?”

            Years ago I read Elliott Baker’s, “A Fine Madness,” a post-modern novel that garnered acclaim in the 1960s. It even spawned a movie in which Sean Connery played the title role of Samson Shillitoe, a pleasantly deranged poet strutting his way through life and love with one arm punching the real world while the other grasps desperately at what he believes is his greatest poem, which keeps tantalizing him like a ghost and then disappearing before he can write it down. The book had been on a shelf at my childhood home for years, and I finally read it in my late teens because it seemed cool to read a book with my name on it, even if the name was mis-spelled.
            I bring up A Fine Madness because its central tension captures a writer’s fundamental insecurity so succinctly. Samson Shillitoe collides with a psychologist, who is interested in the division between creative genius and madness. The book was written at a time when frontal lobotomy was still a prescribed treatment for violent and anti-social behavior, such as Samson’s. After Samson agrees to hospitalization (so he can write without distraction), the psychologist reads Samson’s poetry, is confounded by it, and sets up a panel of experts to determine if Samson Shillitoe is a real poet, a genius as he believes, or just a madman. At stake is Shillitoe’s brain. If the panel deems him a poet, then he’s free. If he’s not a poet, then a date with the lobotomy table awaits.

            The judgment of Samson Shillitoe resembles a first-time novelist’s sense of impending violence or vindication while awaiting agents' and editors' judgement of their book. Upon submitting your little bundle of creative joy for acceptance, you know that statistics overwhelmingly indicate that you’ll be rejected many, many times before something works out, even if you’re really good. But stats be damned. Each rejection letter comes like a dip in a trans-atlantic airplane ride; you lose your stomach, wonder for a split second whether it’s engine failure, see it’s not, and then continue watching a bad movie and eating steamed white meat with flimsy plastic utensils. After a few more dips, and then a few more airplane rides, you just ride out the bottomless stomach feeling and keep on cruising. Rejection is as much a part of writing as turbulence and dips are a part of flying.

Dealing with rejection is a vital skill in life, especially in the arts, where your work is intertwined with your identity. Learning to separate yourself from your work is necessary, and the mark of a mature writer and person. But to get to that point, you need to know you aren’t crazy to handle the interim rejections. Somehow, whether from a panel of experts or a trusted friend or a powerful inner voice, you need to truly believe that you are, indeed, a writer. Even if it becomes apparent that this particular book won’t be published, you’ll understand that a designation of psychosis and lobotomy won’t be the consequence of your perceived failure. Because it isn’t a failure. It’s a learning process. Writing is a craft that unites your talent with your education and experience, all of which is honed by thousands of hours of practice in mastering your art.
Furthermore, a rejection letter isn’t a designation of “crazy” by a panel of experts. It is merely what the form letter tells you: that your story isn’t for that particular agent or editor at that particular time. If you wrote an erotic vampire novel in 2002, you might be famous right now. But if you wrote that same erotic vampire novel in 1962 you were probably lobotomized, and if penned in 2012, you are probably looking at self-publishing on Amazon. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You ain’t crazy. (Not necessarily). Your talent isn’t necessarily the problem. You were just the victim of bad timing.

I was fortunate to have some excellent teachers who gave lots of positive feedback on my writing throughout my student life from wee boy to big grad student. I got more positive feedback and even a few awards as a journalist. None of that mattered much when I attempted writing a novel. Switching fields as a writer is not like music, it’s not like playing drums in jazz band and then for a punk rock band, where you’re still basically just drumming. Writing in different arenas requires a complete re-tuning of your brain, and a total re-learning of your craft. I’ll get into that in a later post. But it makes affirmation that much more important when you go from being secure in your ability as a writer in one field, to being a total rookie in another. So I was fortunate to get the good feedback I needed from sources I admire.
First, a short story of mine got Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest fiction awards in 2011. OK, so now I know I can write fiction. Next, a friend read my novel in an early draft and said it was one of the best books he’d read. Cool. Readers might just like this. Then, amongst my rejection form letters from the panel of experts, a couple really nice rejections emerge. One particularly, from a big New York agent, was especially nice, saying that he believes in my talent, almost took my book on despite not taking on new clients, and that he looks forward to reading my next (shorter! More simple!) story. Right there, bam, I knew I was a real author. And that same week, I got my contract offer from Champagne Books.

So put away your lobotomy kit. I ain’t no genius, but I ain’t no crazy person, either.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

First TWO CHAPTERS on Amazon!

Friends and Readers,

I just wanted to thank those of you who have already downloaded The Last Ancient from my publisher's site, burstbooks.ca, or from Amazon. If you're still deciding whether to download, Amazon has the first two chapters available in its peek inside feature. Check it out!

I've already received one 5-star rave review; and I'd love to receive more, be they 5-star or otherwise (preferably not otherwise)! Once you turn that last page, don't forget to review The Last Ancient on Amazon or Goodreads. It's the best way to spread good mojo on a debut author.

Also, keep checking in with goodreads.com to see when The Last Ancient is available on Barnes and Noble and iBooks. Should be any moment now.

Happy reading this Christmas season to all!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Healing Power of Metal

This year, I am thankful for the healing power of hard rock/heavy metal--and the soothing bowl of headless chicken soup-for-the-dark-soul it provides.

I spent my 2013 American Thanksgiving last week in Helsinki with a Finnish friend watching Danish Elvis/Metallica impresarios, Volbeat, put on a hell of a show. Michael Poulsen, the singer, nailed every note as the band thrashed beneath fireballs and weaved around stage pyrotechnics. After the show, my buddy and I went to the sports bar by the Helsinki train station, elbowed past former Finnish ski-jumping champion and cultural icon, Matti Nyk√§nen, who himself had once attempted rock stardom (in between attempts at male stripping and acting). Over beers and ciders, my buddy and I talked about rock. About how it found us as kids, nurtured us into young adults, and sustains us as fathers to this day.  


My friend was born in the mid-60s. He grew up in an era when Finland’s airwaves carried rock and roll for a total of one hour once per week on Sundays on the government radio station. Think about that. Finland, international heavy metal/hard rock powerhouse, was virtually starved of the stuff as recently as the mid-1980s. And yet guys like my friend heard one hour of Van Halen on a cold Sunday in 1980, and were immediately hooked and forever changed. Aside from a family connection who owned a record store, he doesn’t remember how he found all the rock he mainlined into his brain like a sound junky. But by 1990 he’d developed a legitimately encyclopedic knowledge of rock. His knowledge has expanded today into his becoming a walking GoogleRock search engine. Like some kind of Sisu desert plant’s roots that stretch past rocks to find water in sandy, scorched soil, my friend—and thousands like him—reached into the country’s dry, dark alcoves of music to soak up the rock their souls demanded.

There’s something awesome about that. Today music is so ubiquitous, so easy to access, that it’s lost its thrill of discovery. We used to huddle around our radios or stay glued to MTV waiting, praying, begging for THE SONG to come on, whereupon we’d call our friends and yell, “Dude, Metallica One’s on!!! Oh my god, now it’s Smells Like Teen Spirit!” You learn real passion when music involves a journey. It’s like courting that mysterious lady, the one with red lipstick and tattoos and a PhD in something badass. You can’t just snap your fingers and have her in your sauna; that’s far too cheap to engender a lasting passion. No, young music lover, you have to chase her, pursue her, woo her, know her secrets, win her heart and then she will be yours and you will be hers, one plus one equals one.


My friend and I have gotten through dark times with the aid of rock. I remember one night when I was fourteen, being unable to sleep, I turned on a new radio station in Seattle called 107.7 The End. First a song called Rhinocerous by Smashing Pumpkins floated into my room. My heart beat hard. Something had been broken down inside me, and something else awoken. Next came The Song, the one that changed it all for me. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Something raw and powerful and full of rage, something bleeding the exact feeling in its chords and lyrics and punishing drumbeats that I carried in my chest, it being a few weeks after my mother had died of cancer. Staring into the shadows of my room, lit with that oily blue glow of a lava lamp and an illumastorm electrical ball, I heard Nirvana and Kurt Cobain yowl, “With the lights on/It’s less dangerous. Here we are now, Entertainers!” I had no idea what the words meant, and yet that song carried more meaning for me than anything I’d ever read. Up until that moment I’d merely listened to music, simply enjoyed classic rock, and (shameful to admit) I’d tried to develop passion for the rap and hip hop all my cool friends were into, hoping to be cool myself (which never quite happened). Until that Night of The Songs I’d never really understood what all the fuss was about with music. But after that night, I spent hours alone in my room at a time listening to CDs and tapes spitting out grunge fury into the trippy, quasi-dark of my room.

My friend goes to three live shows a month around Helsinki. Every moment in transit to and from his banking job is spent listening to rock--new and old, hard and harder—as he uncovers rare and exotic rock and metal from Australia to Scotland. His passion for rock deepened into a lifeline a few years ago, when his daughter lost her battle with brain cancer. Aside from his son and his wife, rock kept him afloat during that time. He’d been through dark times before, times made bearable with a little Van Halen, but nothing like a sick child, no one has been through anything worse than that, there is nothing worse, and yet somehow he managed. I admire him and his passion for rock. His passion is real; it’s pure.

Finland is a dark place. The winter rolls over you here like a freezing wave. It’s up to you to kick your way to the surface and find something to hold on to until you can catch your breath and the sun comes out. For me, I’ve found I can hold onto rock. I just started singing in a heavy metal band with some friends. It’s awesome. One of the best things I’ve ever done. I don’t know why I used to play so much acoustic folk/indie stuff. It’s all fine, but it doesn’t scare the darkness away. Metal does. Metal takes the darkness and weaves it into your DNA until it no longer can make you ill; metal is like some kind of vaccine or inoculation against the darkness. It should be prescribed by physicians with black scrubs and covered by Obamacare. If you are struggling, I suggest grabbing your nearest listening device, putting on something hard, fast, and relentless, turning it up to 11, and proceed to scream at the abyss until Something Good happens.  And it will. That’s the power of metal.