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AwGhost 2001
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How Precious Was That While has now been published in hardcover, and I have sent out copies to contributors whose addresses I have. But there are a number I still need. So I repeat my solicitation: if you contributed a poem, let me know which one (so I can verify your identity; many are presented with pen names for concealment) and your current address, and I'll send you an autographed copy. At this writing I have had one very pleased acknowledgment of a copy, and I hope the reactions of other contributors are similar, though none of them have to actually read the book. The poems are only one aspect of the volume, of course; I rather expect to have some unkind reactions from some non-contributors, as it seems to be an article of faith among my critics that I'm not capable of writing a book like this. If there is a book that spells out more bluntly the hidden realities of writing, publishing, and author/reader interactions in the science fantasy genre than this one, let me know so I can read it. I do name a fair number of names, and not always kindly.

Piers Anthony, Dan Scanlan, and Rick Wilber
Piers Anthony, Dan Scanlan of Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville,
and Rick Wilber author and USF faculty, Tampa, from the July 14, 2001 panel.

I made one public appearance in this period: a panel on "Imagining Tomorrow," part of the YESTERDAY'S TOMORROWS exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, in Inverness on Jewel-Lye 14, 2001. The local newspapers did a fine job of publicizing the event, but let's face it: this is backwoods country, and the auditorium had an audience of about 60, hardly a blowout. The other panelists were Dan Scanlan of THE FLORIDA TIMES-UNION newspaper in Jacksonville, and Rick Wilber of the University of South Florida, a published author in his own right. I think we jibed nicely, having different viewpoints that complemented each other; the others spoke well and were well informed, and the audience got involved. Now I'll give just my part of it, for the benefit of Anthony completists, writing from the same stained note card I used at the program. Here is what I said, approximately:
This morning I was making notes, when a mosquito buzzed my ear. I slapped my head, and got it--but it had also gotten me, and blood spattered. A drop fell on my note card; I tried to wipe it away, but it just smeared. Rather than do it over, I'm using it, and you will just have to accept my assurance that I did NOT sweat blood while preparing for this program.

When I was thirteen, I was waiting in my mother's office for her to finish so we could go home. I had nothing to do, so I picked up a magazine that was lying around and began reading. That changed my life. It was the March 1947 issue of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, and it ushered me into a genre that I was never to leave. The first story was "The Equalizer," by Jack Williamson, which told the story of a space ship returning to Earth years or decades later, because of time dilation. The Moon Base was deserted, and they wondered what had happened, so they were very cautious about approaching Earth itself. There was no one there to greet them, and it turned out that the planet had reverted to what seemed like a primitive culture. A way had been discovered to tap unlimited energy from space, using no more than a bit of twisted wire, so no one had to work any more, and folk were devoted to hobbies. Finally the ship's crew joined them, and the captain was proud to make a cuckoo clock that worked. So this was really a prediction of a future when high technology would be passé, and a gentler culture would come to be. Has it come to pass? No, and I think not likely.

Another story was "Child's Play" by William Tenn, wherein a man received a build-a-man kit that could be used to make people. The instructions invited the users to twin themselves or their girlfriends and have a lot of fun. So he tried it cautiously, following the instructions to make a clone of himself. Then an inspector came from the future: there had been a mistake, this part of space/time was not approved for this kit, and he had to take it back. "But I've already used it," the man protested, showing the twin. The inspector said he would have to disassemble the copy to recover the materials. He proceeded to do that--taking apart the original man by mistake. The twin watched and did not protest. This story was a prediction of human cloning, and I think we are now in that process, so I'd call this a successful prediction.

Another story was "Little Lost Robot" by Isaac Asimov, wherein a humanoid robot of a new design had some self-will. The authorities decided to destroy it, as a self willed machine can be dangerous, so it hid in a rather effective way: among physically identical robots of the old style. They knew it was there, because there was one extra, but not which one it was. They finally used its own extra wiring against it, causing it to reveal itself by using an ability the other robots lacked. I regard this as a prediction of machine consciousness. Has that come to pass? Not yet, but I think it's getting close, so I'd call this half a point. Current movies like Bicentennial Man and AI address it: when we make a conscious, feeling machine, what do we owe it?

So I think this one issue of the magazine had some hits and some misses, as does the genre. Of course this was some time back; few of the men in this audience existed in 1947, and none of the women; I can tell by looking at them. [Small appreciative murmur by some older women, I think.] But I think it's a fair sampling. Of course there are some well known examples. When a story describing an atomic bomb was scheduled to appear in an early 1940's issue of ASTOUNDING SF, the FBI visited the editor, John W. Campbell, because they thought there had been a leak about the Manhattan Project; the story was uncannily accurate. There hadn't been a leak, and the editor convinced them that pulling the story would confirm that something was going on; it was better to let it run, so everyone would know it was fiction. There were numerous stories of the hazards of radiation, things like healthy babies having two heads, which I think exaggerated the case. And space travel, of course, though much of it was faster-than-light, which I think is not going to happen. On the other hand, science fiction missed the Internet.

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer myself. Have I made any good predictions? Well, it will take time to check them out. In Macroscope I predicted that Planet Neptune's moon Triton would have a moon of its own, a moon of a moon. [Here Rick Wilber lifted his copy of Macroscope.] If when there is a close up of that region there turns out to be such a moon, that will be one for me. More immediately, an economic prediction: America's budget surplus doesn't exist; it will turn out to be illusion. And in Shame of Man I describe the true nature of dreams: they are not predictions of the future or psychological windows to the soul, but part of the process of cataloguing memories. I once worked as a file clerk, and I discovered that cross referencing and filing so that any given document can be found again when needed is not a simple business. All day the human brain is taking in information; it won't arrange itself, it has to be sorted and filed. So the brain uses its down-time at night, when new material is not coming in, to view each impression, decide how the person feels about it, for feeling is the essence of life, and file it appropriately. Science has not yet caught on to this, but is getting closer; when a scientist figures it out and wins the Nobel Prize for it, then I'll point out that I had it first, in print. Then they'll have to throw it all away, because I'm just a fantasy writer. [Bit of laughter.]
End of talk, and the program continued with the other talks and interactive discussion. Before and after the program I talked with members of the audience and autographed copies of my books. I showed off my copy of How Precious Was That While. In short, it was a typical public event. I don't do many of these because I don't like to travel and don't like to take the time. It's not shyness; I conquered stage fright decades ago, and enjoy relating to an audience. If I could matter-transmit directly from my house to a public stage, without the intervention of jammer traffic, missed connections, canceled flights, restaurants that return a blank stare at the word "vegetarian," and the other joys of travel, I'd do more of it. Maybe virtual reality will soon make it possible to sit in my study and appear to be before a convention audience, interacting seemingly completely. So there's another prediction for the future, perhaps.

We saw a couple of movies, and I watched some videos. Our movie-freak daughter was busy at her job, so lost some days off, and if she doesn't drag us out, we tend to stay home, as my wife is no keener on going out than I am. We're pretty dull folk. But we did see Pearl Harbor and liked it. Yes, it's not history to me; I was seven years old when it happened. I saw a reference in print to the "silly" romance; I thought it was a standard romance with a nice twist, helping to make a historical event interesting. Then we saw AI, and liked it too, though for my taste it could have been improved by better integration of the disparate elements. I could tell Spielberg how to do that, but I doubt he'd listen. The first part was an almost dull boy and mother story, then suddenly shifting to almost inchoate hell, then shifting to a vain quest for acceptance. Within that was the nagging impression that the beloved mother was not worthy of the dedicated child, and that some of the machines were better people than some of the living humans. One scene in particular got to me: there was a nanny robot who tried to comfort the boy, as was her nature. When she was taken out to be publicly and brutally melted down, she saw the boy and smiled reassuringly at him. I trust I am not the only one to be affected by that, as the movie maker intended, but there is more. I actually had a nanny in England, who was my mother figure; my abrupt and permanent separation from her was the first significant trauma of my life, and I'm not over it yet. I suspect that her excellent care in my early years provided me the basis to survive the ugly intervening time before college, marriage, family, and success in writing restored joy to my life.

Perhaps the outstanding video was Twelve Angry Men, the story of the deliberation of a typically ignorant and sometimes bigoted jury in a murder trial. As fate would have it, soon thereafter we saw a virtual rip-off of that in an episode of Touched By an Angel. Regardless, it's amazing how effective a story without romance, sex, adventure, or significant threat can be. But mostly I watch the sexy ones that don't interest my wife. I saw The Sensuous Nurse, starring Ursula Andress, and she was about the only thing worth watching; bad acting ruined it, for my taste. Erotique was much better: four stories by female directors, of women in sexual situations, well done, good acting and some eye-opening concepts. One story was about a woman who worked at a phone-sex outfit, who wanted to make one of those fanciful notions come true. Another was about two lesbians who decided to bring a man into their sexplay, to get more of an edge. He turned out to be something of a lout, so as he entered one woman, the other rammed a dildo up his posterior. Served him right. Feminists who retain an interest in sex should like these stories. Quality soft porn. Cherry 2000, about a future where men can have lovely lady robots who serve their need for constant adoration and sex, but the protagonist's femme gets shorted out, so he goes on a wild quest to get another robot of the same model, but gets sidetracked by a (oh the shame of it) live woman. My kind of junk. Candy--I read the book when it came out, decades ago, so was curious about the movie. This has excellent acting by big names, and a pretty luscious innocent heroine. It's a savage parody of everything. Actually I could have used a bit less parody and more luscious girl; I get these things for incidental diversion while doing chores like writing this column. Erotic Survivor is also a parody, of the Survivor TV show; the trouble is, the tasks are just like the TV in their stupidity, and there is a whole lot of hot lesbian sex that isn't really relevant. If you like buxom bare bodies--and I do--this has them galore, but my taste runs more to heterosexual interactions. Private Lessons, in contrast, is a well acted and steamingly sexy story of a woman's interest in her chauffeur; I'll watch that one again. I also got the first season's episodes of Sex and the City; we don't have cable (I have already remarked on being literally in the back woods) so hadn't seen this. I find I rather like it: well acted, pretty women, surprising situations, and a good deal of sex. In one scene, man and woman were amidst sex when he got a phone call from the woman he really had a thing for: she was interested. So he hung up and explained to his partner. She asked "You're breaking up with me--while you're still inside me?" Lovely! This series seems to tackle everything from conventional to far out, including aspects seldom mentioned. For example, after satisfying sex, they were lying in bed when she let some gas slip audibly. Mortified, she hid under the sheets, and he remarked that it would smell even worse there. It went on to address the issue of how women are supposed to have no natural functions, being utterly pristine; to let a fart in a man's presence is unforgivable. That's ludicrous, of course, yet as a man I don't like to hear a woman fart. We are all captive of our cultural conditioning. Another sequence tackles the tacit restrictive sexual attitude of the Catholic religion: sex may be necessary, but it's dirty. I believe I'll buy the second season's offerings. But perhaps the best one was Color of Night with Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist who takes over a murdered associate's encounter group. It's a nice adventure mystery impurgated with 15 extra minutes of phenomenal sex. Something for everyone.

Some of you may have noticed that HiPiers.com was down for a few days. We were getting 10,000 hits a day, then it dropped precipitously, then bounced back up again. So what happened? No, I didn't die and leave the world a better place. It seems that our server Mindspring had some sort of conflict with the outfit that verifies identities, so they did not admit that the site existed, though it did, and no one except spammers could get through. We lost about a week, being one of several thousand sites to be affected. This is like war: it's the innocent civilians who mostly get hurt.

A reader wrote to correct me: in Xanth a basilisk is a lizard. He said it's really a snake. He was mistaken; basilisks have legs, and snakes don't. Regardless, in Xanth a creature is as I define it, whatever its nature elsewhere. If I say Chlorine is a woman rather than a chemical, or a night mare is a horse bearing bad dreams, or panties freak out men, that's the way it is, in Xanth.

From time to time I mention dentistry. That's because I have more of it than just about anyone I know, despite taking better care of my teeth than most. I wish I could be done with it, but it continues. After a series of fillings, crowns, root canals, reconstruction, apicoectomies, and extractions, as each tooth evokes the maximum possible discomfort and expense on its way out--I'm not kidding when I say you could put a kid through college for the money that has gone into my mouth, and I'd rather spend it that way--I have lost the last four teeth on my lower right side. That leaves the upper four with nothing to chew against, making them useless. Well, I got talked into having three implants. These are as I understand it metallic structures resembling teeth, set directly into the bone. It's a bit like driving pylons down into the muck to support a bridge. Then they'll have to be surfaced by my regular dentist: pylons with crowns. But this should enable me to chew again on that side. It's not cheap; the operation costs about $4,000, and then the regular dental charges for the crowns will be on top of that. But they should last the rest of my life. I'll be truly annoyed if I die before getting sufficient service from them. I'm scheduled for that surgery early in AwGhost, about the time this column sees light. I may have a fuller report next time.

You may have heard about these Nigerian scams. Essentially, they are emails saying that an official of the former Nigerian government has access to about twenty million dollars, and has to sneak it out of the country, and will give you ten per cent if you let him use your bank account to transfer the money out. Don't fall for it; it's a swindle. Now they are proliferating; we have started saving them up, and have a pile of about ten different ones now, awaiting notification of the Post Orifice authorities.

I understand that a number of newspapers cut back on book reviews--and the readers hardly missed them. Interesting. Maybe if reviews were always accurate and fair, and covered books readers might be interested in, it would be a different story.

Last time I commented how at one point I got locked into no-caps text. Well, when the column ran, those sections instead came out as ALL CAPS. Perversity of the inanimate. You mean no one noticed?

Meanwhile, my struggle with Linux et al continues. I finally found out how to make the StarOffice Writer hold my defaults: they have to be done in the Root user; then they hold for my Piers user. No help from the manual there. I found out how to have it make the print print black despite showing color print onscreen, and how to have it not print the color background on the screen. So now each of my files has a different background, and some have different colors of print. That makes it much more compatible; I didn't like working in a black and white realm, having a more colorful personality; I don't even like the black/white thinking of conservatives. But the printing remained slow. I signed up for the StarOffice online interaction, listing my occupation as "retired" because there was no entry for writing or the arts--a significant omission, I think--they have not heard of writers?--and posted my question--and it sat there for weeks with no answer. Well, could I load StarOffice in the Windows half of my system and try printing from there? But I could not get into Windows; that menu no longer appeared. My wife rummaged in the Caldera manual and discovered a program called Webmin that might help. But the manual's instructions for summoning Webmin didn't work. I finally figured it out and marked a correction in the manual; evidently the manual folk hadn't actually tried their own instructions. Well, it did enable me to reset the hour so that it would stick, and we set the Windows window for "Forever" but that didn't do it. Until I tried typing "Windows" on that Forever screen--then at last I got there. I loaded StarOffice, and transferred a sample file--and Lo! It printed at speed. But a computer never yields a feature without taking something away: Windows operated at about one tenth speed, so that it took ten seconds or more for each menu to show, and up to five minutes for StarOffice to load. The result was that it took me over half an hour to print out my files that way--a couple minutes for the printing, the rest of the time waiting for programs and menus to load. Every so often StarOffice would simply lock up in the windows side, too. So that was not a perfect answer. Meanwhile, as I worked in the Linux StarOffice, I kept finding features I liked. Such as the discontinuous select feature. It's called ADD, and with it you can select some text, then move to another part of your document and select another part, and another, and so on, without losing any. Then you can change, copy, or delete them all in one swell foop. I like that. I found that Writer has a Revision mode, called Changes, and it's better than MS Word's, because it gives you a menu with all changes listed, and you can select any you want for copying, deletion, acceptance, or rejection, singly or in concert. Since when I revise I normally have scores of spot revisions to copy, this is better than using Word's Spike feature, which assumes you want to destroy your source document in order to copy from it. I'd like to see into the head of the idiot at Macrohard who programmed that one; it must be solid vacuum. And I made spot macros to override Writer's dangerous features, such as putting the paragraph-switch function on the move-curser-to next-or-last-paragraph keys. Why they don't let you travel paragraph by paragraph I don't know; it's a real nuisance. And I learned more about Linux file handling, so that now I can do it with surety rather than nervousness. I also like the Linux "Desktops"; I have six, labeled Email, Smile, Frown, Desk, Files, and Writer, each with a different wallpaper background. So I just move to the applicable desktop when I have something to do, such as checking for email or backing up my files. So overall I have come to like the StarOffice Writer and Linux in general, and am comfortable with them; I have no desire to return to MS Word, though I still have it for correspondence. Still, that printing problem. So my wife and I tried to redefine the printer listing--and it pied the Linux printing entirely, printing out endless blank sheets regardless of the input. Tried to put it back the way it was, but once pied, it refuses to ameliorate. It may require a complete re-installation to clear the problem. Which means at the end of each day I must allow about 45 minutes to back up my files, change to Windows, copy those files from the backup disk, load StarOffice, and print them out before StarOffice locks up. It works, but it's not fun. So I gave up and called the computer store, which went through all that when it originally got me the system. We'll deliver the system and printer there just before traveling for a week to see our baby granddaughter, trusting that will be enough time to get things working again.

Summary: I like the StarOffice Writer, and Linux is okay, but they still aren't ready for the average user. Nerds who think that a computer system isn't supposed to work out of the box are never going to persuade those of us who have lives apart from computers to keep up with, and jobs to do. If I get my printing back, I'll be satisfied, but it has been a flirtation with hell getting to the green pastures. My current novel, Tortoise Reform, has been proceeding slowly because of all this distraction. Of course that's the point: by the time I complete a novel on it, I really know a system. It took only one chapter to turn me off WordPerfect, but now I believe I am on track with Writer.

We live in the lightning capital of the USA, but that abated with the long drought. Instead we had to fear fire. Now the wet weather is back, and that helps, but we have become the state sinkhole capital. The drought lowered the water table, and water and limestone leached out, leaving subterranean cavities. Then the water returned, making the ground above spongy. In due course it gives way and a new sinkhole forms, swallowing whatever is over it, like a tree or house. More fun. Our tree farm has had a number of slow sink holes, but we think our house is built on more stable sand. Maybe.

I generally print out only the first two pages of the weekly HiPiers stats--how many hits we have per day, and where from. But one day I forgot to limit it, and so got all 38 pages. But checking those we learned some things, such as that about half our hits are repeats within HiPiers, as a person travels around within the site. So we actually get about 5,000 visitors a day. Okay. I presume they are mostly different visitors each day, so that suggests about 150,000 a month. That seems like a pretty good attendance. I'd like to have that many book sales a month. Per title.

Are older writers getting discriminated against? I'm 66, going on 67, so this concerns me; novels are accumulating unpublished despite queries from readers. An article in the AARP BULLETIN (I think of it as "Burp Bulletin") suggests that this is the case. There is a class action lawsuit in progress. But you know, writers can and do use pseudonyms, so can pretend to be younger than they are, and this is enabling some to sell despite such discrimination. At any rate, age is inevitable, if death does not come young, so the younger writers who are getting the older writers' business will get shafted in their turn. I think the quality of the writing should be the main criterion, and the interest of the readers, not the age of the writer. Who cares what the age is, if the writing pleases you? So we'll see. I don't think it's age in my case, so much as publisher legend that all readers want from me is Xanth. Publishers as a class are stupid; as with a mob, they are duller than any of the people that make them up. I plan to give each new novel a couple years or so trying the traditional market, then see about Internet publication, so that readers can judge whether my work remains worthy.

I heard from the absolutely Weird Bookshelf, an independent online bookstore, which tells me it can get copies of my new books for readers. We'll put it on our links page. It lists the 100 best Fantasy novels. No need to ask whether any of mine are there; mine are never on such lists, regardless of their merit. But readers might be interested in what is there, to appreciate my general point about the taste of critics and awards voters. # 1 fantasy novel is listed as Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, part of the Gormenghast trilogy. I believe my wife and I tried to read this decades ago and found it too mind-numbly dull to get into, but I don't remember for sure. Maybe some contemporary reader can try it and let me know. #2 is The Book of Ptath by A E Van Vogt. I'm not familiar with that one, but he could do interesting writing when he chose, such as Slan. Um, I see now that these are arranged chronologically, the oldest first, so maybe these aren't the top ones. But my point about the relation of such lists to popular fantasy remains; mine are readable and entertaining, and have thoughts that go beyond the routine, as my readers appreciate, so seem to be excluded from "best" lists. Do I seem like a bad sport? I surely am; I don't believe in whatever obscure exclusive agendas the critics have. I believe that any list of "best" genre novels should include what readers will most appreciate. Few lists seem to.

An outraged reader sent me a link to www.bonsaikitten.com/. The question is whether this is a hoax; if not, outrage is justified. It describes growing kittens in shaped glass bricks to make them develop into cubic form. Check it for yourself. If it's intended as humor, I am not amused. Killing animals is not the only way to abuse them.

The Authors Guild sent press releases announcing the writers' victory in salvaging electronic rights for the authors, who have been getting ripped off by publishers without payment. What the Guild does not say as that it seems to have sat mostly on its hands while Jonathan Tasini of the National Writer's Union filed the suit, taking the considerable financial brunt of the legal expenses. I contributed to that effort, so was posted along the way; taking a legal case to the Supreme Court is not cheap. Later the Guild filed an amicus brief supporting the suit, and now that it has been won, the Guild is getting into legal action itself. That's fine; I just wish it had taken action when the Writer's Union was fighting in the bloody trenches, instead of waiting until it was relatively safe. My stance remains that if you join just one writer's organization, make it the NWU. It has the guts the others seem to lack.

I don't know haw many newspapers carry the Sunday Mark Trail comic, but it is worth reading. When our local ST PETERSBURG TIMES needs more Sunday ad space, that's the comic it deletes, evidently caring no more about quality than any other publisher does. I saved out one for personal reason: it's about cork and cork trees. When I was in Spain, traveling to Portugal in 1940 on the way to America at age 5, we stopped near the border to admire and touch a cork tree there. I never forgot. I also remember a conservative's hilarious description of modern bathing suits: two Band-Aids and a cork.

Another Tampa Florida news item: a man had been assaulted and robbed, but the police had not been much help, so he emailed a city council member, who replied that he should call the police chief. Well, he tried, but the chief didn't take direct calls, so couldn't be reached. So that man write back to the city council: "Test drive your info before you give it out." I relate to that; so many products, especially relating to computers, obviously were never actually tried by the folk who produce them. And after another brief exchange he got back a barrage: "With an attitude like yours, you DESERVED to be assaulted and robbed!" followed by 23 exclamation points. Ah, how truly it has been said: power tends to corrupt. But of course city hall always did need cleaning up, at any city anywhere.

I continue with my exercise program, and am pretty spry for a guy at the two thirds of a century mark. But I still make stupid mistakes. I was doing my archery, firing with the compound bow at 150 feet, and had hit the center twice and missed no the target times with my first six arrows. Then the seventh arrow dropped to the ground as the bow dry-fired, making a sound like a gunshot. It had fired my peepsight instead of the arrow! It's hard enough to hit the target with that sight; without it I would be begging for lost arrows galore. So I took the bow in to the shop, and learned that I had not kept a key bar tight, the one that holds the back loop of the string clear of the arrow. It had been chafing against the string, and surely causing mischief. I'll watch that in future. They fixed it, but then I had to zero in the bow again, because the sights were off. I had to undo one of the repairs to get the range right, unfortunately, but finally did get oriented, and now can hit the target again. You'd think a bow would be too simple for me to foul up; you'd think wrong.

Actually I get a fair amount of exercise just keeping our drive clear. One night my wife drove out with our dog Obsidian to put the biweekly garbage in the can where the garbage truck can get it, but was balked: five dead pine trees, victims of the drought, had blown down across the drive. So I went out with them to clear the trees, in the dark of night with the car headlights illuminating the region. Two were small stuff, readily tossed aside; two required heavy lifting, and one was so shrouded in vines that it made a wall across the drive. I clipped away the vines, sawed away a sapling that was bent in a U shape by the fallen tree, and found a trunk way beyond my means to move. I had to fetch the ax and five foot crowbar, and chop through it and pry the two sections around to either side of the road. Overall the job was an hour, but the drive was clear. Just part of the fun of running a tree farm in a drought. At least we didn't get a big sink hole.

Meanwhile, what am I reading? Mostly magazines. Article in NEW SCIENTIST: play time may be as important for children in school as study time. Not for exercise, not for skills, but for intelligence. It seems that's where they expand their brains, which then serve them for the rest of their lives. Not physical play so much as social play. That may be why the typical nerd has so much trouble relating to others; he never played, so never expanded the social aspects of his brain. So this trend in education toward all study and no play is unhealthy. I find this a fascinating hypothesis, and I suspect it is correct. Consider computers: it is the games rather than the spreadsheets or word processors that demand the most of them. Surely for people too.

Another article in NEW SCIENTIST--it's my favorite magazine--explores the possible connection between the immune system and depression. Too active an immune system may cause inflammation that affects the brain, leading to unkind complications including depression. Since depression seems to be one of the burgeoning maladies of our time, perhaps the basis for alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive gambling, suicide and who knows what else--this is my conjecture rather than the article's--this could be a truly significant insight. I'd love to have the answer for depression, not for me so much as for some of my readers. And for aspiring writers everywhere.

MOTHERING magazine has an article on Fluoride: it seems that systematic supplementation is more likely to damage children's teeth than to prevent cavities, but the dental professionals are reluctant to admit making a mistake.

CO-OP AMERICA QUARTERLY tackles sweatshops, making the case that they are not a necessary stage in the development of a country, that they don't make life better for poor people, that corporations don't have to exploit workers to meet consumer demands for low prices, and that corporations can too track where their goods come from. Sustained consumer pressure can make a difference, and progress is being made.

RESIST addresses a seldom-advertised problem: discrimination within groups protesting discrimination. For example, there are over 50 national organizations for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folk, but only two persons of color at the helm of an organization that is not race/ethnic specific. Which is a careful way of saying that racism exists in gay organizations. They are trying to present homosexuality as white, clean, and middle class, when actually it cuts across all classes, colors, and genders. Why should the great unwashed public stop discriminating against gays, when they discriminate themselves?

DISCOVER has an article on neutrinos. They have tiny mass and don't interact will with ordinary things; in fact they streak almost at the speed of light in a straight line through atoms, nuclei, people, mountains, planets, and stars, heading for the edge of the universe without stopping to smell the flowers. The ultimate snobs. So why should we care? Because they outweigh all the stars and galaxies in the universe, and may make up one fifth of Dark Matter. I'm a Dark Matter fan; I really want to know its nature. I'd love to have a ball of it to toss from hand to hand. So if the neutrino is part of it, I'm interested. So just what is a neutrino? Well, back in 1930 they measured the before and after energy of a neutron as it decayed into a proton and an electron, and they didn't match. The proton and electron did not stack up quite as much as the original neutron. Something was missing. So they decided there must be another particle, undetected, and called it the neutrino, a little neutron fragment. Sort of like breaking a boulder into a rock and a hard place, and realizing that a flying grain of sand was lost. But did it really exist, or was it a figment of bad measurement? Big debate, but now, decades later, the consensus is that it does exist, and they are starting to trap neutrinos and analyze them. They are weird, changeable creatures, elusive in nature as well as substance. But if they make up as much stuff as all of the visible universe, it is probably best to learn something about them. Which reminds me of a question I have: if they are now studying the faint background radiation afterglow of the formation of the universe, why hasn't that light long since departed? It shouldn't just hang around waiting for us to examine it.

And a newspaper article in the food section describes a fungus called Quorn (pronounced "corn") that is being used as a meat substitute in Europe. It is low-fat and tastes exactly like whatever you want it to, sort of like the shmoo in the old L'il Abner comic. As a vegetarian who avoids meat for its unkind origin, not its taste, I like this notion, but it's not approved for America. But soon it may be, and then we'll see it in quantity, for dieters as well as vegetarians, and surely as cheap filling for expensive meat entries. More power to it.

I try to read at least one book a month. It's not that I don't like reading, but that I am a slow reader and there's a lot to keep up with. This time it was Enchanted Realms, edited by James Richey, my collaborator on Quest for the Fallen Star. This is an anthology of fantasy stories by different writers, self published at Xlibris. So how are these shorter pieces that didn't make it to traditional print? In between. They have good ideas, often well enough developed, but there are lapses of syntax and imperfect treatment. So I can see why these didn't make it, yet neither are they washouts. I recommend it for those who aren't fussy readers. If you like new slants on vampires, spirit invocations, romance--there's even one where a woman wins a faerie music contest with a kazoo.

Last column I commented on those dropped-panty cards, so reader Rachel put me on to a site that contains a whole series of similar pictures, with commentary. Check it at www.lileks.com/institute/index.html. The commentary thinks it's ludicrous to suppose that a luscious young woman's panties would drop down like that in a public place; elastic wouldn't let go that suddenly. But if the elastic stretched, so she tightened the panties with a pin, and then the pin slipped, it could happen, couldn't it? At least in fond imagination. Reminds me of a remark a naughty-minded grandmother relayed to me: "Panties aren't the best thing there is, just next to it."


Piers and granddaughter at 10 months

We prepared carefully for our first trip out of state in three years. We're senior citizens now, and our youthful aversion to traveling has matured into senior aversion. But Daughter #1 P gave increasingly firm hints that if we wanted to meet Granddaughter #1 L before she was a teen we'd better get our posteriors in gear. So Daughter #2 agreed to house-sit and dog-sit for us, and we caught up on all mail and chores, delivered my balky Linux system to the shop for work during our absence, and the taxi service picked us up at 2 PM Thursday 7-26-2001. We took the new toll-way extension that has been making its way north from Tampa over the years, and it was blessedly uncrowded, with a nice paved bicycle path paralleling it. Then the bike path detached itself and took off into the wilderness, who knows where; I know of no one who has taken that path who has ever returned. (Of course that sentence would still be accurate if the last four words were omitted.) Maybe it leads to a little house made of candy where a nice old woman has a fine oven to show off to plump children. I'm not sure our children quite believed that when I told them the story decades ago, though I could show them the book where it appeared. We had anticipated bad weather to clog the highway, so were early, and sneaked into the airport just before Cumulo Fracto Nimbus, the meanest of storms, caught on that we were out. Thus we were an hour and three quarters early for our flight, which was better than being late. I had magazines along, NEW SCIENTIST and LIBERAL OPINION WEEK, and a big fantasy novel to read for blurbing, Kushiel's Chosen, by Jacqueline Carey, sequel to her excellent Kushiel's Dart. I always bring along reading material so that the stupid mundane world can't throw away gobs of my time for nothing. Had I but known…

Our bags were all within carryon tolerance, but our flight was UNTIED (whatever), notorious for arbitrarily changing size restrictions. Sure enough, the woman at the counter took one look at my wheeled suitcase and banned it, and we had to check it. And sure enough, as we boarded the plane, others were bringing similar and larger bags on with them. I suppose it depends which clerk you encounter, and how much air rage you evince. Having said that, I must also say that the baggage space over our seats was not filled before we got there by goblins who boarded out of turn, neither going nor returning. So I must grudgingly approve the airline's policy of restricting carryon baggage. They had our vegetarian orders straight, going and returning, good meals, and the headphones for the movie were free. The movie was Delivering Milo, about a boy who doesn't want to be born; it's a heavenly problem persuading him, as he tours our rather imperfect planet and society. Fracto Cloud, having caught on that we were traveling, pursued, and surrounded Denver, forcing our flight to go around and come in late from the other side. Fortunately the connecting flight was similarly delayed, so we didn't miss it; Fracto miscalculated on that. An hour late we resumed flight, and this time there was ample leg room. Of course we were on the rear seat next to the emergency exit, with a six foot deep space before us; still, it was nice. Being back there was interesting; we saw how they wheeled in the supplies through the rear side door as big metal cubes which then opened out into tiers of food, stacked adjacent to the toilet chamber. On occasion some fell on the floor, and was of course picked up; why waste good food? No, they didn't put it in the same hopper; I think it was disposed of. The attendants worked constantly; it is obviously no sinecure. I happened to cough just as the stewardess got splashed by a falling drink; she thought I was laughing, and told me off. I kept my mouth shut; I did think it was funny. I was also amused by the words NO STEP on the wing; obviously ogres built that plane. Ogres get around.

In due course we arrived in Oregon, a state with towns like Bend, Burns, and Drain, more evidence of ogres, who describe things rather directly. Also Merlin, Murphy, Wonder, showing imagination, and a county named Morrow; those who travel to Morrow never get there to Day. We rented our car, a compact Pontific, and searched for our motel, which wasn't there. After driving back and forth a while we pored over the map: it was just OFF the road, with no sign at the turn. But of course this is Mundania, where they don't believe in signs or other magic. It was okay once we found it, and there was already a message from P: stay put, they were coming to Eugene in the morning anyway. Their friend C had just had heart surgery, and they would visit him in the hospital, and another day bring him home for care. So we met them for brunch at a health food restaurant, and met Granddaughter L, a cute baby at ten months age. L wasted no time charming folk at the restaurant, as she lives to explore the world. In the hospital waiting room P risked leaving L with us while she and son-in-law J went up to visit C. That became a little adventure, because the moment L saw them leave she headed on all fours for the elevator. I followed cautiously; L had known me only an hour or so, and I wasn't sure just how much guff she would accept from me. Fortunately she got distracted by the scene, and curved around until she found an empty wheelchair with all manner of handholds on the wheels. She drew herself up to survey the situation, quickly charming the hospital personnel. The thing is, L is a home-birthed, breast-fed, attachment-parented baby who gets a lot of attention and sleeps with her parents. In my day the official baby books were against much of this; I seriously doubted those books' wisdom, and discovered much that Dr. Spock evidently had never learned about babies. Our daughter picked up where we left off, and the result is a very large, active, healthy, and positive baby who will surely make waves of her own in due course. After using up the wheelchair she proceeded to the check-in desk. I gambled (a) that L would accept my help, and (b) that the folk of the desk would be receptive, and carefully lifted L to the top of the desk. It worked; baby and ladies were mutually intrigued. We were still charming folk when J returned and took her back. So my first session with L was a success; I had almost forgotten, in the course of 30 years, how much fun a baby can be. My wife, W, would get her turns later; for now she merely knitted in grandmotherly fashion, keeping an eye on the situation. That's what grandmothers do.

Thereafter we let the family be and drove south through some truly lovely scenery to the West Bestern (or whatever) motel near the farm and checked in. Nice room, king size bed, table with two chairs, refrigerator, iron, coffeemaker, and very good Continental breakfast at the office. If we ever travel there again, we'll stay at the same place. It's at a truck stop, and that's a separate sort of community tacitly isolated from through-traffic and the riff-raff, with its own mini-mall including grocery store and department store, and any services truckers might need, such as a phone bank, TV room, gaming machines, Laundromat, and public shower, 24 hours a day. That makes it pretty nice for other folk too; it seems that wedding parties come there. No sense getting married where you might get bored in the night. I made a mental note: the days when truck stops were dirty alleys seem to be gone; I'll look for a truck stop next time I have to spend the night on the road, even if I'm not getting married. And the trucks were there in force, coming and going at all hours of the day, most of them 18 wheelers, but some 22 or even 26 wheelers, with three or four axles at the tail ends. Also tandems and triplets, legal in Oregon, and ones that resemble giant praying mantises. One truck even had a folded airplane on it. Huge beasties.

Then J, P, & L led us--the car tag says DOULA--to their farm. This is five acres set into a wooded hillside, the house hidden behind Douglas fir trees. They have goats, sheep, chickens, and two emus, which are big birds like ostriches, only less so. The sheep are special: Jacob sheep, with four or more horns. Two grow up, two down, and they are handsome beasts. I never thought much of sheep compared to goats; goats say "maaa" and are alert and smart, while sheep say "baaa" and just want to follow the leader. But the Jacob sheep is goat-like, having some independence of mind. Maybe the extra horns provide superior anchorage for the brain. It seems in nature emus prey on sheep and other animals; when they try to go after the lambs, the adults make use of those formidable horns to convey a message, and thereafter the emus are better mannered. So it's not hard times in the country, down on Penny's Farm, if you're a sheep. J took me hiking up the steep back slope, though copious poison oak; we were both cautious about that. That five acres is surely somewhat more, if measured on the slant. The house has a porch overlooking the pasture, girt about with flowers; hummingbirds come to the hummingbird feeder, and for the first time I saw one perch instead of hovering. Then supper, with home-brewed ale J made; he's a chemist, working for a private company that tests the public water supply, so he knows how to make good ale. L was indefatigable, interested in everything, curious about us old folk.

We returned to the motel and turned in at 9 PM, which was midnight Florida time. And of course woke up on home time: 4 AM for me, 7 AM home. I made notes, read, and pondered jet lag; at least I hadn't awakened at 5 home time, this time. When we went to the farm, we learned that L had vomited four times in the night; maybe the cucumber? Because L is breast fed, P has to limit her own diet, as it passes through and can give the baby colic. So cucumbers were now off P's diet. J was thinking of taking down several dead trees in the pasture, before they fell on an animal. He's never used a chain saw, but I have had a good deal of experience, mainly from our decade using a wood stove, so it seemed to be a good time. I relayed what I had learned: go for the biggest, most powerful saw you can swing; it feels much lighter as it cuts through hard wood like seeming butter. But treat it like the dangerous implement it is; like a computer, it can do a lot of damage in a hurry if you mess up. He could rent one for a dollar an inch a day, for a bar anywhere from nine to 54 inches long. That's dirt cheap compared to city rental. Meanwhile we all went to Eugene again, checking on C and delivering a goat kid to a buyer. We ate at a Saturday festival, then toured it. All manner of things on sale, all of the made or found by the seller: decorative items made from cans, clothing, wood carvings, jugs, mugs, jewelry, art tiles, sculpture, rings, earrings, necklaces, hats, "fresh picked rainbows" made of flowing silken threads, crockery, psychic readings, soap, purses, wallets, pictures, candles, skirts made from old neckties, ceramic piggy banks, colored stones, hemp yarn, honey, berries, garden produce, patterned "spinners" that were disks that flashed out patterns when spun--more, but my memory and notes fail me. We concluded the day back at the farm, discussing Project WomonCare, (the second O is a female symbol) that helps expectant mothers in a number of ways, such as providing midwives, doulas, and special services. P is a doula, one who helps a woman through her pregnancy; if you are pregnant and have no idea what's going on, get a doula and relax. Then we returned to the motel.

And mischief. W set her handbag down on the bed and said "Where is the car key?" We checked; she had removed it from the car, but it wasn't in her purse, or the ground, in the room, or anywhere. It had simply vanished in those few seconds between car and room. We analyzed and concluded that the key must have fallen from her purse when she reached to the back seat to retrieve her hat, and landed out of sight in a fluke accident. This was frustrating as anything; we were locked out, and our remaining luggage was in the car. So she called Aphid, the car rental agency, to see whether they had a duplicate key, and got a run-around, with connections not being made, numbers not answering. Aphid, easy to deal with before, did not seem to be trying harder now. Then next morning, Sunday, the motel director suggested a towing service; he knew one five minutes away. The man came, wedged the window to the side, shone a light down, and used a bent wire to hook open the door. Sure enough, under the driver's seat was the key. We were back in business.

W wasn't feeling well (can't think why), so she skipped breakfast, but I had some, and finished off the goat's milk they had given us. Then the farm contingent arrived, and we joined them in the van for a trip to the Pacific shore. I sat beside L, who slept in her backwards-facing car seat. And I started feeling low. I have not been carsick in maybe five decades, but it seemed I was working up to it now. That messed up my reading. Indeed, in due course I had to grab L's plastic beach bucket and heave a bellyful of yellow goo into it. Then we stopped at a roadside rest stop with a privy, and I jetted a gutful of mudwater into it. That was more than carsickness! J did not feel good either, but I had the worst case of what may have touched all of us--remember L's nocturnal heaves?--in varying degrees. It seemed like the 24 hour grippe, but for me that was merely the first stage; it was another day before I could eat significantly, and three more before I could do so without caution. For a while I lived on Gatorade, each sip swished in my mouth for a minute so that it would not hit my stomach cold and undiluted. Then yogurt. No more goat milk; I'm sure it was innocent, but it was the last thing I had taken before the illness, which cast a dark shadow on my taste for it, for all that I was raised on goat milk. I spent 24 hours in pajamas, mostly sleeping. In all I had seven sieges of vomiting, averaging seven heaves, each accompanied by more pure liquid diarrhea. The color gradually changed from yellow to orange to black with specks; in fact the final set of heaves and jets looked identical, make of that what you will. I was tempted to subtitle this section "49 Heaves." I also suffered weakness, so that at one point I walked at the rate of maybe half a mile an hour, and chills and fevers, sometimes simultaneously: sweaty body, freezing feet. It rather blotted out the central part of our visit. At least, because the others had felt some of it too, they knew I wasn't faking. Well, I hope they knew.

Aside from that, how was the visit? Good enough. Between emissions I saw the Pacific dunes, and I hope they forgive me for adding organic matter to their substance. The approach was scenic, as the road, river, and railroad tracks threaded their way between mountains. One eatery sign said ROAD KILL GRILL. Just as well I wasn't hungry. There was light rain, and it was cool. Even in July, Oregon was running to lows of 50°F or below, highs in the 70's or 80's. We had brought jackets, which helped. When we returned to the motel I didn't even read, which is one indication of illness. At one point W sat in the chair beside the bed, in her panties, her bare legs up on the bed toward me, and I wasn't much interested in looking. That's a phenomenal indication of illness. Monday she did laundry while I snoozed. By evening I recovered enough to watch some TV, where there was an interesting feature on demolishing city buildings without damaging adjacent structures. They sort of implode, and a cloud of dust rises to conceal the rubble. I felt like one of those buildings. In the night I had a long weird dream, concluding with my receipt of a package containing something for me to autograph. It turned out to be a Mickey Mouse plaque. "If they want me to sign Mickey, I'll sign Mickey," I said as I woke. That day as we drove to the farm we saw a deer on the road, unconcerned about moving off, and often there are geese settled by the side. Their nonchalant attitude says much about the care local drivers take. We met their friend C, now out of the hospital, and he and I compared notes. It seemed that we felt similar, physically, for rather different causes, each of us being weak and uncomfortable, but improving. His situation was complicated by his pain medication, which wasn't quite right, but naturally there was a runaround about changing it so that there would not be bad side effects. I thought doctors were catching on to the need for proper pain management, but apparently the word has not filtered all the way to the field. Then the others went off while I remained alone on the farm, resuming my reading. In the afternoon C and I accompanied P to the garden to harvest vegetables for dinner; I wound up holding L, and it's amazing how heavy 23 pounds of active baby can feel when a person is coming off an illness. Then we reviewed two volumes of birth and baby pictures; I can't say I am accustomed to seeing my daughter and her daughter both naked, but as I have remarked elsewhere, I regarded myself as the most liberal member of my wider family before P came on the scene. She leaves me in the dust. I wonder whether L will in due course eclipse her similarly?

Wednesday was AwGhost 1th, a nice day, and I felt a bit better. We went to a restaurant for breakfast, and I was able to eat much of it. Then we joined L and company in the van, and I returned L's beach bucket, which we had washed out. This day we drove to Roseburg. The River Umpqua followed us, and sometimes there were young trees growing out of the steep slopes at right angles to the ground, not the horizon. We stopped at Winchester Dam, which has a salmon fish bypass structured like a jigsaw puzzle; fortunately all the fish have to do to find their way is swim against the current. From the road the dam looked to be only about six feet high, but when we followed the 98 steps down to it, it grew to more like 15 feet. Dams do that. The steady sound of rushing water lent a feeling of power. There are windows in the bypass labyrinth, under the water, where we could admire the swirling liquid and the fish. One handsome two foot long brute turned out to be a Coho Silver Salmon. We learned that the rainbow trout is the same as the steelhead, but it doesn't migrate. So if you meet a fish, and are in doubt, ask it whether it travels. There is an ongoing fish count, and the numbers are improving as environmental efforts reverse some of the damage done by our heedless forebears.

Then on to Roseburg, which spreads across the steepest slopes it can find, making me nervous about brakes. There are trees throughout, but the houses can be set so close together that one might lean out one window and kiss one's friend's girlfriend next door in another window. There are little STOP plaques in the centers of intersections. Elsewhere signs let you turn right without stopping at stop signs, which is convenient. We stopped in at WomonCare, where P works when she can, and of course L charmed the ladies. She was one of the biggest babies on their chart. P is a bit militant about those who claim that vegetarians or breast feeders can't have big healthy babies; it is obviously untrue. She is not alone; a bumper sticker on a car in their lot said DO NOT MEDDLE IN THE AFFAIRS OF DRAGONS, FOR YOU ARE CRUNCHY AND GOOD WITH KETCHUP.

Back at the farm, we played the video adaptation we had made of our old movie film of P at L's present age, just as she started walking. P had a fancy head of blonding curls. "Our baby had more hair than yours does," I teased P. She didn't reply; could she have been jealous? Actually L's hair is nice enough, just not as long. Surprising how much younger the peripheral characters looked then, such as W and me. I was sorry we weren't able to get the chain saw and take down those big dead trees, but the illness blotted that out along with the fancier meals. Many pictures of the three generations were taken, L generally at center stage. Then it was time for us to go; sorrow is such sweet parting. It seems to have been a good visit despite the illness, and we did get to know L.

The journey home was uneventful, and we made it by 6 PM, 3 PM Oregon time, to be welcomed by Obsidian Dog. Florida was a steam bath, Tropical Storm Barry was dawdling in the Gulf, mosquitoes hovered in clouds, and rain threatened. There was a pile of 8 days' newspapers to catch up on, plus a week's worth of snail mail. I downloaded 165 HiPiers emails, and 35 more by the time I caught up on those, and learned that premiere science fiction writer Poul Anderson had died at the turn of the month. I knew him personally, and liked him, and thought he was a great writer, and loved his novel Unman and another about super intelligence; this was unkind news. There were piles of statements from publishers to check in and run through our accounts, complicated contracts to review and sign, and 120 folios of Realty Check to autograph yesterday. I had made it through only 130 of 580 pages in Cushiel, my reading having been slowed by the illness, and now there was a new nigh five pound manuscript also demanding reading for blurbing. My exercise dumbbells had gained weight, my bows had become about 5 pounds harder to pull, and the drive had gotten longer for my running. I phoned the shop, and learned that my Linux computer system, taken there nine days before so that it could be fixed during my absence, had not yet been started on. Thus this trip report had to be done on my old Windows system, grrr. I was coming up on my 67th birthday, to be followed in two days by $4000 worth of dental surgery. Welcome to Mundania!
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