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Picture of Piers doing archery

AwGhost 2000

I have some continuing stories this time. For anyone who is new to this column, it is a bi-monthly ramble ranging from 5,000 to 12,000 words, covering anything that interests me or might conceivably interest my readers. I'm surprised how many are interested; I get a fair amount of feedback, and the daily hits on this site are averaging about 8,000, and about ten emails, excluding spam. The spam surprises me too; theoretically marketers are so sophisticated that they can spot a fly on your kitchen ceiling, but in practice they are generally stupid. I get offers to clear up my bad credit record or consolidate my assorted debts or get loans. For the record: I did not waste my money when I made it, and am quite well off financially, having paid off all debts (mainly real estate mortgages) about fifteen years ago and have never been in debt since. I have never made payments on a car, furniture, TV set, or anything else, having always paid cash. So if the spammers had made even the slightest check on me, they would not have bothered. Of course the solicitations for donations is constant; my policy there is to contribute generously to those few causes I know and understand, approximately tithing my income, and to ignore the others; there are too many rip-offs out there. No, I don't belong to any religion; I just find the concept of tithing useful. But I wander, as usual; I have trouble sticking to the subject even when there is no subject. This will not be news to most of my readers.

Follow-up #1: The Cookie Story. Yes, I fell for it, because I knew the correspondent and thought she wouldn. t deceive me. Maybe I am too trusting of my readers; I view them as superior individuals. Nieman Marcus did not charge a woman $250 for a $2.50 chocolate chip recipe. It is a long-time urban legend, with whole Internet sites devoted to its exposure. In fact it is even in a book I bought in 1999, Too Good To Be True, the Colossal Book of Urban Legends. So I could have checked it out myself, if I had thought to. It is a fun book, and I see from it that I am not the only one to get caught. I see there another story about cookies I heard on Paul Harvey News long ago, about a woman at a shopping center who was incensed because a man keep eating cookies from her bag of them. Rather than make an ugly scene, she departed--only to discover her own cookies in her purse. And here's one about a different kind of cookie: A long time ago, when commercial airplane flights were new, an airline allowed businessmen's wives to ride free, just to show that there was no danger. It was very popular, and many women did fly with their men. The company kept a record of the names, and six months later wrote to all of the wives asking how they had enjoyed their air trips. And ninety per cent of the letters came back with the question "What airplane trip?" Sigh; I had meant to read that book, but got caught up in affairs of the moment--let me rephrase that, in other business--and did not. Now I think I had better do so. Meanwhile, thanks to the ten or so column readers who clued me in on the error. I hate making mistakes, and hate looking as stupid as I am, but do appreciate the corrections when I do blunder. Yes, I notified my correspondent that her name was being used, and heard from her brother. I guess it was a joke.

Which reminds me of another blunder. My novels are generally published first in hardcover, then a year or so later in paperback. Sometimes the publisher inquires whether there are any corrections to be made between editions. This was the case for Xone of Contention, now in hardcover, due in paper this SapTimber or OctOgre. I received the query, checked my hardcover copy, saw no corrections, and reported there were none. Then, months later, I discovered that the folded paper I had taken as a temporary bookmark was not; it was an email from Timothy Willoughby calling out nineteen typographical errors. I had proofread the galleys, but as I like to say, errors grow on the pages after the proofreading. I had evidently missed a bunch. What about the copyeditor? Yes, they pay copyeditors to catch such things, but the ones on my books seem to read them with blindfolds, because they miss more than I do. I had thanked Mr. Willoughby and said I would see to the corrections--and then totally missed them when the time came. I desperately queried the editor by email: was it too late? He did not respond. That is editor-speak for "Tough luck, loser." So the errors will be published in the paperback edition, and this is my embarrassed apology to Mr. Willoughby and the readers. Darn it to heaven! I hope you folk enjoy the novel anyway. Which in turn reminds me of the sick joke: "Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" If you don't get it, ask a historian.

Follow-up #2: Last column, I mentioned best-selling fantasy novelist Stephen Donaldson's campaign to stop prisoner rapes, whose address I did not have. Several readers put me on to that (how would I ever survive without helpful readers? I love you all!), and it was as it turned out a brutal education. Those who are squeamish about frank sexual discussion are advised to skip this and the following two paragraphs; it gets bare-knuckled (or bare-assed) in spots. Here is what I learned: Stop Prisoner Rape is at www.spr.org and is still in operation. Stephen Donaldson was its president from 1988-96, and active on behalf of the cause, as a rape counselor, article writer, spokesman, and legal activist. But that's only a fraction of the story, and the rest of it astonished me. Here is what I remember personally, perhaps imperfect in detail but in essence correct: I met Donaldson in 1987 and he was a clean-cut young man whose career affected mine. That is, when editor Lester del Rey made unreasonable revision demands--such as for him to include in a novel material justifying cover art the editor wanted to have, instead of having the art reflect the actual novel--he balked, and was ready to leave DEL REY BOOKS. But the publisher, faced with the loss of a writer selling a quarter million hardcover books per title, interceded, and set up a private editor just for him. Lester, in a funk, refused to run the fantasy symbol on his books thereafter. Then came my turn: faced with similarly unconscionable editing, I balked and asked for a different editor. "No way!" Lester said, and in the interim he had taken steps to see that he could not again be bypassed that way. I am not a good person to cross, and Lester had crossed the line, so I got my new editor the hard way: by leaving DEL REY BOOKS, and that is how Xanth went to a new publisher. Never since has my fantasy been censored or abused, other than by critics. Which is not to say I liked leaving DEL REY; I would have preferred to stay, and the publisher wanted me to stay, but neither of us could get around the editor. It was a real irony. Lester had been good as an editor, but refused to recognize when he was going wrong, and went far to destroying the best-selling fantasy empire he had built, as several top writers departed for similar reason. But I think it started with Stephen Donaldson: he was right, and I applaud him for fighting and winning his case. But it made my subsequent case a loser. Meanwhile, there was a strong element in Donaldson. s fantasy that made me wonder: its guilt theme. In the first novel, Lord Foul's Bane, the hero found himself in a lovely fantasy land, and a pretty girl was explaining to him their nice romantic customs, when he abruptly raped her and fled. How's that for a startling change? Naturally the fantasy land folk were angry, but as fate would have it, the man was necessary to their salvation, so they had to tolerate him. That was not the only example; it seemed that whenever there was something especially nice or beautiful, something ugly came to destroy it. I wondered why Donaldson insisted on writing such material, and why the readers made it a bestseller; it was not a route I cared to go. That aspect did not ameliorate with time; I understand it got worse, with really vicious elements. What was going on? Well, now I think I know.

Stephen Donaldson was gay. He was born Robert A Martin, Jr., and adopted the name Stephen Donaldson as a pseudonym for his involvement in the gay liberation movement. He was the founder of the world's first gay student organization at college, and was the first sailor to publicly fight discharge from the US Navy for "homosexual behavior." In 1973 he participated in a peaceful Quaker (that's the Religious Society of Friends--I was raised as a Quaker, though I elected not to join) protest against the bombing of Cambodia. He was arrested--and over a two day period was gang-raped by prisoners approximately 60 times. He had to have rectal surgery. Thereafter he was active in the issue of prisoner rape, until his death in 1996, of complications of AIDS contracted during that gang rape. He was 49. So he had reason to write about rape and violation, in and out of his fantasy; he knew well whereof he wrote. In fact I think he even tried to understand the position of the rapist, making him the hero in his novels. So what is the current state of the issue? SPR says that 60,000 unwanted sexual acts occur in prisons every day. Elsewhere I have read that more men are raped than women, and it may be so: raped by heterosexual males in prison. Stephen Donaldson tried to do something about this. The fact that he was gay is irrelevant; the rapists don't ask about a man's sexual preference any more than they do with women.

So what about women? Another reader put me on to some distaff sites. One is www.zip.xom.au/ , with numerous links to organizations, including some on male rape. This is a good place to start for general advice, especially if you have suffered such abuse. Another is WHISPER RAPE at http://nwina.com/whisper-rape/ . This has commentary and advice on every aspect, and if you want a single source for much good information, this is it. It covers victims, partners, perpetrators, society, myths--everything. It says there are about 57,000 forcible rapes of women every month (compare the 60,000 a day in prisons--but definitions may differ). But I have a couple of caveats: it cites as a myth that rape is primarily a sexual crime. It says it is almost always an issue of power, control, and anger. "If it were one of a sexual nature then how could we explain the rapes that occur to children or the elderly." I call this dangerous naiveté. Rapes, like thefts, are crimes of opportunity; if an old woman is caught alone and helpless, she can get raped, and unprotected children are prime candidates. I have heard from them, and from men whose sexual interest is specifically in children. The divisions of sexual interest go way beyond straight adult hetero and homo, and since there is not legitimate deviant sex in our culture, it finds expression in rape. Apparently some women--even some rape counselors--have difficulty understanding the breadth and force of the male sexual impulse, so think it must be an expression of some other interest, such as power. They have it backwards; for men, power is generally the means to the end of sex, not the other way around. Which is not to say that sex can't be a tool of power, as systematic rapes of women during war show. But sex is usually its own objective, as I see it. Sexually attractive women do get raped more often than the old or the young, as they are the preferred targets, but in their absence, any body will do for some men. Even men become sexual objects in prison, as has been seen. (And of course attractive female prisoners become the playthings of male guards; it's an ongoing scandal.) Animals can also become objects; I understand that's why some colleges don't permit students to have pets. I have also heard that female sheep--ewes--can be popular on farms, because their internal genital anatomy closely resembles that of human females. So those men are trying to assert their power over the sheep? To embarrass them? Humiliate them? Because men are angry at ewes for being female? Do they beat the sheep until they promise not to tell? Why am I doubtful? Another argument is that 34% of men who rape show some type of sexual dysfunction. I don. t see that as evidence that rape is not sexually motivated. Most men would rather have a luscious and eager young woman; rape is more catch as catch can, and the woman (or whatever) may not be attractive and certainly not eager. That's more likely to be a turn-off, even for a rapist. The fact that he is desperate or twisted enough to rape does not have to mean that he does not have some lingering restraints of conscience or esthetics that simultaneously unman him. And there is one other thing that may relate: at the root of some religious training is the notion that sex is sinful. Isn't Adam and Eve really about sexual awakening? So some men can't really perform sexually with "good" women who are ideally pristine beings without sexual parts; they have to do it with "bad" women who have vulvas, and try to make the rape victim "bad" so she qualifies. I think that explains a lot of the degradation that really does occur. I suspect that professional prostitutes, bad by such definition, could tell some illustrative stories. Another "myth" I am wary of is that "Rape is a non-violent crime." I think usually it is violent, but it can be non-violent, such as when the date-rape drug is used. The object is sex, and if a man can get it without the woman even knowing, that's normally fine with him. So I would eliminate the violent part of the definition, and simply say that rape is rape, however performed. Otherwise use of the drug would by definition make it not rape: it wasn't physically violent. It is rape if the woman doesn't want it. Of course this leads to fuzzy definitions: what about a disparity of sexual interest in marriage? He wants sex twice a day, she wants it once a week. He will divorce her if he doesn't get it, so she acquiesces. Is that rape? The distinction between compromise and coercion may be difficult. So when push comes to shove, there are no easy answers. I am emphatically against rape, but I feel that it is a crime that needs to be properly understood in order to be stopped, and that some of the myth-exposers have myths of their own that are dangerously counterproductive. I don't claim to be an expert here, just a writer who has heard from hundreds of abused readers, and a few of their abusers, and who has made a genuine effort to understand. I did not get into this study by choice; my readers brought me in, asking for help, and I am still searching for realistic answers for them. This paragraph hardly begins to address the subject; I could--and will not--tell horror stories galore. Some of those little girls have truly big-girl problems. I do recommend these sites for generally excellent commentary, ninety per cent of which I agree with, by no coincidence. If you have a problem of this nature, go there; it will help, though you are never going to be completely whole again.

Follow-up #3: A reader had trouble finding role playing games (RPGs) or Multi User Dungeons (MUDs) for Xanth, so I asked my readers. Okay, I've got addresses now. I have not checked them all directly, and I understand these things come and go, so some may no longer be operating, but here they are. Michael Foley reports Xanth MUSH at http://xanth.mushhaven.net. There's a listing of MUDs at www.mudconnect.com. "Gap in Thyme" is at telnet://fluff.dhs.org:1977. Tom Whiting at xanth@demon.mudservices.net is setting up a MUD with Xanth characters; potential players might contact him. Shawn Mundane sent a list of nine RPGs for Xanth; most are at Yahoo.com, with a straightforward introductory pages listing number of members, which ranges from 73 down to 6, and recent messages. The ninth is not currently available, so I'm skipping it. Here they are:
One in progress is at www.codedistortion.com/xanth/ ; they have pretty much finished coding the game, and have begun to concentrate on areas for it. It is still in a private beta phase, but readers can contact them to look around or help. "Ramahir" advised me of WorldofXanthRPG at www.egroups.com/group/WorldofXanthRPG, which says it will be a mailing list expressly for a roleplay based on Xanth, and says to remember, they abide by the Adult Conspiracy. And there is a Warriors Guild with over 20 active members; I'm not sure whether this is quite the same, but trust that readers understand better than I do. It is at http://members.home.net/seabhac-fionn/wg/members.html. And another kind of Xanth game: Taylor Herrick had a Page dedicated to the Companions of Xanth computer game. Those who play the game and get balked along the way can check here for a complete walk-through of it, that should help. And here's one that's not a game at all, but I don't know where else to put it: the magazine CENTAURS GATHERUM has been published off and on since 1985 and features all manner of centaur art and literature. It's amazing how many varieties of centaur there are; the Xanth centaurs are comparatively tame. So if you are a centaur fan, check its site at http://cg.ponyhome.com and subscribe. And yet another that's not exactly a game, and is not Xanth, but can be played as a game, depending: Stephanie Peters in Germany has made her own Animation Tarot deck, the one that goes with my novel Tarot, with nice representations of all 100 cards. If this interests you, contact her at StephanieP@gmx.de. She does speak English, 80% of which she says she learned from my books. I can't help liking that girl.

Follow-up #4: personal health. Remember, I turned 65, got on Medicare, and now am getting into 66 and getting a general physical examination. They have procedures that didn't exist in my heyday. I am trying to run down the cause of my decades-long mild fatigue, and now trying thyroid pills. They have brought my thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) up to normal, but my fatigue remains. My readers, several of whom are on similar medication, tell me the effect is cumulative, and it may take time to feel the whole of it. We'll see. But before I get further into me, let me cover something peripheral: in the interim between my signing on with the lady doctor and the main works, she made the news. She was out golfing--that's what doctors do--and got struck by lightning. So there were four people sprawled on the ground. Another doctor saw them and rushed to help, but there was only one of him and two men were in cardiac arrest. Then he saw the lady doctor sitting up dazedly and recognized her. "Snap out of it," he said. "We need you." So she helped him resuscitate one of the men. Then help arrived, and three men were sent to the hospital at Gainesville, while she was taken by ambulance to the one in Inverness, being the least damaged. They kept her overnight and let her go; she was all right. You probably didn't think of golf as a dangerous sport. But this is near the thunderstorm capital of the country, and now that our drought is over we're getting storms. We had ten inches of rain each of the last two months, and bits of Lake Tsoda Popka are beginning to show again. But Cumulus Fracto Nimbus resents folk having a good time outside, and strikes when he can. This was a reminder. So the doctor was all right, and I didn't get out of the prostate exam. Or the fecal occult test. No, that's not a constipated ghost; they check stool samples for blood that may not show to the naked eye; that's why its called occult, or hidden. Blood means mischief. Getting those samples was something else. (Those who are squeamish about scatology please skip on to the next paragraph, or the one following; we're about to get into it here.) Consider the normal process: feces drop into the water of the toilet bowl, sometimes with a marvelous bottom-soaking splash. How was I to get a smear from one of those? I was sure the test required nice clean sanitary samples, not dirty contaminated ones. So I defecated into a plastic bag. As fate would have it, I had a huge cumbersome movement the consistency of hot fudge. I took the samples and dumped the bag into the toilet, but of course the matter was all folded over now, and it tried to block the flush. O joy! A couple of flushes and some scraping got it on its way. Only two more days to go! They did not get easier, but I did get my sanitary smears and took them in to the designated lab. Where they told me they didn't take that kind of sample, and sent me to another lab. This one said they didn't take that kind either, and sent me back to the doctor's office. Nobody was about to take my shit! Maybe they thought I was a literary critic. The doctor's office said the first lab should have taken it. So I left the samples at the office, and they would see about getting the lab to take them. It was something about the cardboard used in the sample kit; different labs have different systems. So I hope the crap found its home, in due course.

But the medics weren't through with my anus. I had to have a colonoscopy. That's colon, as in rectum, and scope, as in looking. It seems that fogies my age are prone to complications of the digestive tract, and many of them get taken out by cancer of the colon. So the best thing to do is take a look to see if there's anything in there. You've heard about the book no one wants to read, Memoirs of a Near-Sighted Proctologist? This is worse. They run a tube with a lens and a light bulb six feet deep. Naturally they don't want any fecal company in there, so there's a preparatory diet: a day and a half of clear liquids only, plus laxatives such as milk of magnesia and something new to me: phospho-soda. That turned my innards to dirty water, and hoo, did it ever want to come out. Several times in the course of the night. Lucky I didn't launch toward the moon on a wet jet. But the doctor did have his clean colon to inspect. The procedure itself was nothing; they hooked me to an IV for a sedative, and the gastroenterologist had at my posterior. They checked my heartbeat, blood pressure, blood oxygen level, and whatnot, and had a TV monitor there to show the scene. I caught a glimpse of my rear and the doctor's gloved hand on the screen; the pickup was working. Much of the interior was just so much red wall, but every so often there was a cave-like passage ahead. I think they pump air in to distend the colon, so that it can be properly viewed. Slight discomfort at one point, no pain; I doubted I needed the sedative. But later I pondered: the procedure had taken perhaps twenty minutes, but had seemed like five minutes, and the doctor had snipped a polyp I never felt. I suspect I was conscious of less than I thought I was. I inquired, and the doctor said the sedative is designed to leave the patient conscious, but to make him forget. That explains it: I saw it all, but forgot. So my report for others who contemplate this procedure is take the sedative, and you'll hardly feel a thing. Of course once I got home and started eating again, the food turned straight to gas and I had an awful bloat. It took several days for my system to get back to normal. But nothing bad was found; I'm healthy there. That's the point of it all. Meanwhile the doctor is also a writer; I read his article on harmonious living in the local newspaper.

Follow-up #5: Garbage gardening. Remember, our kitchen sink garbage grinder quit working, so now we compost the garbage out back, and things are growing. Four patches of what looked like potatoes to me, but my wife said she hadn't been fixing potatoes, so maybe they were peppers. Well, they did turn out to be potatoes, and we have now harvested between 50 and 60 medium to small ones. One tomato plant came up, and it started a dozen fruits. One never developed, two were eaten out by bugs, but we harvested one, and have eight more ripening. So that's another success. Then there was the little cabbagy plant, so slight compared to the robust potatoes. But it kept slowly growing, and finally it became the biggest plant in the garden, spreading out robustly. We concluded it must be a rutabaga, which is a variety of yellow turnip. At last it faded, so I dug it up--and there wasn't enough root there to bother with. All that growth for nothing! Maybe it's too hot in Florida for this type of vegetable. I transplanted our pot of chive there, but it doesn't seem to be flourishing either. We do now have one little radish growing; we'll see how that does.

Follow-up #6: Archery. Last time I had gotten The Block target, which stops arrows by friction rather than force. It works, though the arrows are not two-finger easy to pull out. I drew a one foot square on one side, and a circle of equivalent area on the other side, and I alternate them; those are my center sections. I count +1 for each arrow in the center, and -1 for each arrow that misses the target entirely. Any score above 0 is positive. I shoot from 150 feet right handed with the compound bow, and 100 feet left handed with the composite recurve bow, and the two are about even at those ranges. The thing is that the compound bow has the wheels on it, that allow me to draw and hold with about twenty pounds pull, but still fire the arrow an 60 pounds. That makes aiming much easier: the force is always the same, and I. m not struggling to hold it while aiming. Now you might thing I'd be improving, and maybe I am, but my scares still range mostly from 0 to 8. One day I broke my record by making +13, but other days I. ll struggle to make 0. Once I missed two of the first three arrows, then got nine centers in a row, for +7, but it wasn't a record because the left hand did not do well that day. I seem to do better with the square center than the round one, but suspect that is chance. Sometimes an arrow does get by my baffle targets and lost in the forest; I hate that. Sometimes an arrow squeezes between the main target and a baffle target and gets away, so now I stuff plastic foam there, but am not sure how well it works. Since the rains returned, so have the mosquitoes, and they swarm as I try to aim; one landed on my left ear as I fired and I missed wide left. So I tried repellent on my socks; they avoided the socks but clustered everywhere else. So I tried spraying the spot where I stand with RAID House & Garden bug killer, and what do you know: not a mosquito buzzed me. I don't use that stuff much, preferring to catch indoor bugs in a jar and let them go outside (and we leave spiders alone; they have bug-catching webs in a number of corners), but those mosquitoes would not listen to reason. Despite such complications I still like archery very well. I got into it for exercise, and continue it for exercise, and have stronger arms because of it. I like to think that it also exercises my sight, balance, coordination, and judgment, and maybe helps keep my brain from fossilizing, because of the discipline required to put an arrow in a one-square-foot region from 150 feet away. That target looks like a postage stamp from that distance. And in the day between my writing of this column, and my editing it (my update of the Internet Publishing survey intervened), I had another archery session, and my left side made nine centers with no misses, for a new record overall score of 14. Hardly Olympic caliber, but great for me.

Now let's get into the new material. Daughter #2 Cheryl took us to the stage production of Riverdance. We. ve seen the video of that and a sequel, but there's something different when it's live. It was impressive, and not just because of all those fine female legs. The dances were interspersed by songs and skits. One was fun and funny: three formally garbed white men got into a competitive contest with three informal black men. The one trio would dance while the other yawned; then the other would dance just as well. At one point the white leader did a truly impressive tap dance that brought audience applause. Then the black leader did his dance, just as impressive, to more applause. The one group was as good as the other. But the fun part of it was when the blacks did a parody of the whites, their arms ridiculously stiff. Then the whites parodied the blacks, their arms waving wildly around. Beautiful! Wordless humor in dancing: great stuff. Okay; before we saw the show we stopped at the cafeteria for lunch. It had precious little for three vegetarians; we had to skip much of it and settle for salad, bread, cake, and beverage, at too high a price. As we sat there I looked around; I always like to know what. s going on. The tables were below the level of the main passage, so the passing people were a bit above us. No, I didn't look up under any skirts! What do you think I am? Right: the level was not high enough for that. But I did see men, women, and children going whenever, and a notion came to me. Folk often ask where I get my ideas, and I answer that they can come from anywhere. This is an example. I am now writing the second ChroMagic novel, Key to Chroma, the setting with the colored magic volcanoes, and one of the features of that culture is that most traveling is by foot, and folk can. t do magic outside their own Chroma, so are vulnerable to brigands and such. So it's better to travel in company, preferably a caravan, but at least with a fellow traveler. There is no money; barter is all. So if a woman needs to travel alone, she will typically seek as a companion a strong man who can protect her, and do it "no fault"--that is, she will be to him as a wife or mistress, but that is a temporary relationship that ends the moment she gets where she is going, with no further ties or obligations. He will be a husband to her, similarly, sharing food, protecting her, doing whatever a husband would to guarantee her safety and comfort along the way. This is an accepted convention, and their real spouses or families take no note of it; she travels safely, is all. Men like to travel no fault with pretty women, and actually some women like to travel no fault with handsome men. Readers who object to this element should stay away from this novel, or maybe elect not to travel. Okay, that's the travel set-up here; the notion I had when seeing folk passing along the hall was that no fault could be a much larger concept. Suppose a child had to travel alone? It would not be safe, especially for a girl; brigands might take her to be a slave. So she needs a no fault father. A family relationship, not a sexual one. And as I watched the show, the idea kept percolating through my cranium, and when I got home I made 800 words notes on it. Thereafter I wrote a 14,000 word inset story about an old man and a nine year old girl traveling no fault as grandfather and granddaughter. It's already my favorite of the novel. He's a retired drummer, and she's a learning dancer, because her mother is a dancer. They never met before the trip, and do not seem to be ideal companions, because she's spirited and he's frail. But his know-how gets them through, and her magic healing ability helps him too. They get along great; she never knew her real grandfather, and he never had a granddaughter; both miss the relationship, and fill it well for each other. Meanwhile, they practice drumming and dancing; the two do go together. Then when they arrive, they don't want to part, because they have fallen love with the relationship. There is a pressing need for a drummer and a dancer, in an important tournament of troupes. They get into it, and manage to do very well, despite having to compete against his expert-drummer son and her beautiful-dancer mother. It's more complicated than that, and there is magic, but that's the essence, and I just love it. So there is the genesis of a story idea; those who have trouble generating ideas may profit from the example. Meanwhile, at a later date we went with our daughter to the movie X-Men, and it was fun though we were not familiar with the comic series from which it derives. Teens suddenly develop great special powers and have trouble adapting. Meanwhile the world is becoming aware of this, and wants to identify and perhaps quarantine them, while an evil mutant organization wants to fight back more aggressively. No, I didn't get another great notion for a story from that, maybe because we didn't have lunch and watch folk walking by. Ah, well.

I had the frustration of taking more than two hours to download a program that then didn't work--I hope there's a suitable place in hell for programmers who don't actually try their wares--and I had to baby-sit it throughout. So I caught up on magazine reading, and looked randomly in a book on my shelf, another of those good ones I really do mean to read some day. It was Eye to Eye--How People Interact , that I've had for a decade, and it said that extroverted men prefer big breasts on women, while introverted men prefer small breasts. Now that's interesting. I prefer medium size, and that seems to match, as I see myself as neither extro nor intro, but balanced, and I think my wife is about right in that respect. Neither Dolly Parton nor Ally McBeal thrill me in terms of body parts, though I think the one is a good singer and the other has delightfully twisted social interactions.

We have grasshoppers. Years ago they came, those big American Grasshoppers, and the standard advice was to stomp them to oblivion lest they eat up your yard. I didn. t want to do that, so instead I caught them in jars and transported them to Ogre Corner and let them go. That. s close to the field in the north where cows ranged, and with the cows were cattle egrets, a wild species from Africa that is nice to have around, because those birds eat bugs. If the grasshoppers wanted to survive, all the had to do was stay on our property. But I suspect they had libertarian notions, and refused to be restricted. Anyway, I counted about 150 grasshoppers one year, and about 100 another, and a paltry 50 another, and then they petered into almost nothing. But now, several years later, they are back with a vengeance, so I resumed catching and hauling, and they've been shattering records: 240 in the month of Jewel-Lye alone. I conjecture that the drought dried up so much lake that it left plenty of hatching area for them, and now they're here. I hope they diminish.

Last time I commented on the riddle of Dark Matter, conjecturing that it is actually the energy in vacuum. One reader thought that was plausible; none have argued against it. Well, give it time, and we'll see whether I. m right. I promised to comment this time on another pet mystery of mine: the riddle of consciousness. I have spent over a decade searching for the explanation of its nature, and read a number of books, and not been impressed. I was sure that the secret of consciousness must lie in feedback. One woman who lectured on brain fiction said in her book that feedback could not be it, because it would have to be either all on or all off, like a circuit. I see that as nonsense; circuits can be partial, low power or high power, or variable--and in any event, why would that exclude consciousness? We wake in the morning conscious; we sleep at night, more or less unconscious. So our circuits can click on or off, and we are conscious. So I wasn. t getting viable answers from experts. Until I read The Creative Loop by Erich Harth, subtitled "How the Brain Makes a Mind." And he by damn proposes feedback circuits. I am quick to appreciate genius in those who agree with me. He calls it the creative loop, as the title suggests. Much of the problem of consciousness has been that we can't locate it; somewhere in the head there seems to be a homunculus, a little man watching the gages and inputs and making sense of them. But where is that little man, and in any event, how does his consciousness work? Harth shows how the brain has some rather complicated processing of something as seemingly straightforward as vision: a picture does not go straight from the eye to the brain, but through a phalanx of intermediary stations that direct signals every which way, including back toward the eye. So parts of the picture get fed back to foul up the original picture. What is the point of this confusion? And he has the answer: This is consciousness . The feedback loop. We see ourselves seeing, and make judgments about it, and constantly change the process, somewhat in the manner of lucid dreaming, making it to a degree subjective. There are similar feedbacks in all our senses, and in all of them lies the secret of consciousness. Ever notice how when you look at something, you seem to be there? And when you close your eyes and listen, you seem to be there in the sound? That's because you are using the loops in the visual circuits--or the loops in the auditory circuit. And so on throughout the body. You can't fix a permanent place of consciousness because it's not in the same region when you look or when you hear or when you touch; it's moving. And always it is reading itself: self consciousness.

Why are we conscious? That's easy: because we can survive better with less brain if we are aware. Animals tend to be more programmed; ants do what they do based mostly on set instructions that hardly change. They are ROM programmed. Humans have much more RAM, and can program themselves to a considerable extent. So they don't need a dozen ROM programs filling up their hard disks; they can consciously choose what makes sense. I once experimented with cards, playing the game of War as solitaire: my opponent was the deck, shuffled and random, while I could choose which cards to put out, before seeing their opposition. I won, because I know when my opponent had more high cards remaining, so I played low, and vice versa. Consciousness beat random play. Similarly it beats preprogrammed instructions. If you are out in the jungle, it helps to assess where the saber-tooth tiger is likely to be, and arrange to be elsewhere; consciousness has survival advantage. Even the limited consciousness of primitive creatures is a significant advantage; that's why animals tend to take advantage of plants. (Though plants do have their qualities, some quite sophisticated.) So it helps us survive, and natural selection encourages it. The tougher question is how are we conscious? I believe that if we can but fathom the mechanism, then it would be possible to make conscious machines--computers or robots. I see no necessary requirement for a conscious mind to be fashioned of living flesh; wires and circuit boards will do, if put together correctly. I do see feedback circuitry as the answer, and believe that when more scientists orient on this approach, success will come. I also believe that emotion is integral to consciousness, particularly pleasure and pain, and interactive memory. How would emotion be instilled in a machine? I think that's another feedback circuit, one that not only looks at incoming data, but decides how to feel about it. I believe that the dreams of living creatures are part of the processing of memories for feeling. Thus machines may have to dream. So it will be no simple thing, but I think it can and will be done. Of course then will also come the formidable ethical question: is it murder to turn off a conscious, self-aware machine? As a science fiction writer I have pondered this for decades, and am not easy with an easy answer. I always did like Isaac Asimov's robot stories; they were obviously aware.

Meanwhile the routine minutia of a writer's existence continues. I am annoyed by autograph hunters who take my time, then sell the autographs on eBay; they are costing me more in the value of my time than they can make from the sales, apart from the dubious ethics of it. But like swindlers of any kind, they hardly care about that. Most autographs, I truly hope, are sought by those who really value them, and those are the ones I want to oblige. I have interacted with some readers via chat room interviews (the last was Writers. Village University), and on occasion receive visits from some, but mostly its snails and emails, some quite meaningful. Many ask for advice on writing or marketing, and I try to give it, and of course my ongoing Internet Publishing survey is intended as a service to those hopeful writers. One thing to add here: when you query a publisher of any type, put a time limit on it. Otherwise you can get hung up indefinitely by publishers that don't answer. Thusly: "If I do not hear from you within a month, I will assume you are not interested." Then when the month passes without response, market elsewhere. If a publisher is interested, but its editor is backlogged and must take longer, it can damn well tell you that. If a publisher gets mad because of such a reasonable limit, then it's probably not one you would be happy with anyway. Sometimes one can get published unknowingly; my dirty novel Pornucopia was pirated and on sale at some of the big Internet booksellers. Neither the original publisher nor I got any money from those sales. We're going after the pirate, who will settle quickly if he is smart. Meanwhile I do want to return that novel to print, but remain hung up on how to prevent it from being sold to teens, whose angry mothers will then blacklist me. And there is Xlibris; as a board member I am privy to its secrets. You have no idea how ambitious this company is; I'm halfway croggled. (That's old-time fan-speak for amazed.) My general advice to skeptics is, don't bet against it. One person claims Xlibris is a scam that doesn't really sell books; my information is that the average title there sells 60 to 100, and it is rising. But keep this in perspective: conventional publishers measure their title sales in thousands for hardcover, and tens of thousands for paperback. The money remains in Parnassus. Another says he was told that if your book is 180,000 words long, you are required to choose the premium ($1,200) service. Well, it is a business, and that's a big book. But I wonder whether you could break it into two volumes for the free "core" service? One complained about the Xlibris Web Site, which he found very badly designed and terribly confusing. Yes--I complained myself about the impossibility of getting from the "bookselling" section to the "writers" section, and was informed that they want it that way, to keep them separate. As if book buyers don't know that there are writers involved in the process of publishing. I am trying to decide whether I am annoyed enough to bring it up at a board meeting; as an investor I don't like seeing potential clients alienated. I also had a query from a reader who had read The Magical Monarch of Mo as a child and loved it, but couldn't find it in library or store. Had I heard of it? Yes, I read it way back when and also liked it, and thought it was by L Frank Baum, the author of the Oz series, but I couldn. t find it listed anywhere either. So does anyone know a viable source for this book? And a reader put me on to a bad review of Yon Ill Wind listed at Amazon.com. Gee, thanks! Actually I think Amazon.com's system of reader reviews is good; these are real readers reacting, for good or ill, instead of the rarefied snobs evident elsewhere. This particular review says "I was disgusted with how poor the writing itself was. Maybe this is because I'm an English major..." Well, I'm a writing major and a former English teacher, so I was curious exactly what this "bad writing" was. Maybe he thought I used bad grammar? It turns out, he says, to be far too much "telling" and too-convenient plot points. He says that's something you DON'T do. Okay, I did wonder what planet he was coming from, as my fiction is known for showing rather than telling, and for putting the reader right into the action. Xanth is of course largely parody and fun; my serious writing is of a different nature. It sounds more like the critic's own indigestion than what's in the book. What I found especially interesting was the review of the review: how many found this review helpful? The answer was "0 of 1." That is, the only person to comment on the review found it to be unhelpful. The reader reviews before and after this one both gave the novel five stars --the top rating, and the average of all reviewers was four and a half stars. So this reviewer was not describing the experience of the average reader, and that, by my definition, is a bad review. He needs to look to his own quality of writing. Here's another critic: a family man who objected to The Gutbucket Quest: "This book should be in a brown cover and in the adult section only. It has so much sex and foul language that it should be rated X." He says he can't read any more of my books if this is where I'm going, and is saddened thereby. I responded "About the only books of mine where sex is suppressed or hidden is Xanth. Others are adult, and you do run the risk of encountering adult material. I hope you find satisfactory reading elsewhere." To which he replied to HiPiers: "I promise that locally I will be very vocal in getting his books black listed at the public library." Okay, so he encountered an adult novel and didn't like it, but I wondered whether this could be the whole story. Why not just do what I suggested, and stick to Xanth, and to other writer's efforts? Why try to blacklist all my works? What does he do with all the other adult books in that library? It's a wonder he can even set foot in it, for the evil emanating from the shelves. If that is really his objection. Well, Gutbucket is a collaborative story of a white blues player who finds himself in a parallel world where magic works, and falls in love with a lovely woman there. It's a sensitive story that others have praised, and hardly extreme with respect to vocabulary or sex. But I think now I see the key: the woman is black. White is loving black. Need I say more? Speaking of strong reactions: I printed out an article suggesting that the Bible advocates human sacrifice, a legacy Christianity needs to get rid of. The address is www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/2000/1/001front.html . I agree, but of course I'm agnostic; my own ox is not being gored here. As the saying goes: it is easy to be philosophical about the other person's problems.

And the personal bits: our house is in the middle of the forest, and the wildlife is not much in awe of it. I have commented before how frogs have taken over our swimming pool. Well, in this period we got a hawk in there too. A young male, we think, who got into the pool enclosure and couldn. t find his way out. I opened the doors and tried to shoo him across to them, but he kept flying into the mesh and banging his head. So finally I cut open a section of the mesh and flung it back so he could fly out through the wall, as it were. I shooed him toward it--and he flew out the open door instead. Sigh. We also have wasps. Other summers we've had cute miniature wasps, with wingspans about the breadth of a fingernail. This summer big regular wasps started a nest right on the upper door sill of my study exit; every time the door opens, that nest gets jogged. They live with it. For a time there were four of them, but then there were five, and six, and now eight; new ones are evidently hatching. Most are out foraging during the day, but one always remains home to guard the nest. At night they cluster on it; that's when I count them, though they don't like to be looked at. As long as they leave me alone, I'll leave them alone. The outside of our house is not pretty, with the spiders and wasps and their assorted webs and nests, but we're living in their territory and follow the Golden Rule. Meanwhile, inside, we have a problem with the kitchen light: it's fluorescent, and doesn't like to turn on, so now we leave it on all the time. That's easier than having it off for months at a time. I get up before dawn, and don't like to stumble in the dark. But Fracto likes to mess it up, by striking lightning nearby so that the power blinks, and the light goes out. We can get it back on if we try immediately, before it has cooled, but sometimes that's not enough. So it has been somewhat nip and tuck, but at the moment it is on. But getting these storms is better than the prior situation with the drought, when we were in fear of a forest fire that could wipe us out. Which reminds me: that devastating fire that was supposed to be a controlled burn but got out of hand and swept into Los Alamos, doing much damage--it turns out it was not the controlled burn that did it, but a backfire set unnecessarily to contain it. If they had left the original blaze alone, it would have burned out harmlessly. I learned this from Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), an excellent environmental organization. And a note from RESIST, "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority" (I subscribe to all kinds of subversive newsletters--the kind that really believe in the US constitution and the rights of ordinary folk)--fresh water may be the most pressing problem facing mankind today. In Bolivia they privatized it and started charging exorbitant prices to the common folk, and damn near fomented a revolution. But the USA is rushing pell-mell for a similar crisis soon. Local floods and droughts come and go, but there is a real crunch coming. All over the world, corporations are moving to acquire power over the diminishing fresh water supply, and they will make the rest of us pay. Wait and see. Daughter #1 Penny, who now lives three thousand miles away, sent me a Father's Day card that said: DAD--I'm an adult now! So for Father's Day, I've decided to tell you all the things I kept from you over the years... (1) When I was 6, I XXXX on the XXXX. (2) I also XXXX with the XXXX! (3) In first grade, I XXXX the XXXX. (4) Remember that broken XXXX? Yep--me. (5) I'm also the one who XXXX the XXXX that time! But at the last moment I came to my senses! (The X's are in lieu of words that have literally been cut out of the card, so that there are holes in it.) You can imagine my chagrin at learning all this at this late date. I thought she was the perfect child. And here is a newspaper item that made me react: it seems that there is a new medical problem with babies: they have flat heads. Since it was discovered that putting them to sleep on their tummies facilitates crib death, mothers have been dutifully putting them on their backs, resulting in flat backs of their heads. O, horror! So why doesn't this bother me? Because I was laid to rest on my back in England, and the back of my head is flat. Soon I should have much company. I hope most of it becomes addicted to my novels. We flatheads must stick together. Which reminds me of the joke question in my day: "Do you prefer blondes or blackheads?" Such questions can be fun; also in my day Philadelphia had two baseball teams, the Phillies and the Athletics. So the question was "Are you a Phillies fan or an Athletic supporter?"

I am, through Jewel-Lye, 177,000 words through the first draft of Key to Chroma and it is moving well enough; I managed to write 61,000 words in that month. I might just barely complete the first draft by the end of AwGhost, if it continues to move well. Then it will have to rest; I have a Xanth novel with a contract deadline. In AwGhost I also hope to convert to the Linux operating system, also moving from MS Word to Corel's Word Perfect, because that has a Linux version. I hoped to get local service for it, but the most local store won't handle Linux. I'll check other stores, and if they also wash out, I will have to mail-order a Linux system, so that when it doesn. t work I'll have a real problem. Damn! That will probably slow me, at first, but I hope it is a positive experience. Readers have been supportive. So probably I'll have a lot to say about that, next time. And who knows what else. As you can see from this present commentary, I don't limit myself to funny fantasy. Readers reacted to just about every item in the last column, except, to my surprise, the one about Adora at the voyeur site; I expected someone to berate me for even mentioning it. Ah, well.

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