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It has been a busy two months. On December 14 my father Alfred died. He was 93 and had been fading for some time, his physical and mental horizons shrinking. It is painful to watch it happening to a family member, but this is something most people experience in the course of their lifetimes, so I won't belabor it with details. My Trip Report describing my meeting with Family in this connection follows this column. Let's just say it was time. Instead I'll mention a few selective items of the myriad in my memory. One was the bassoon: he learned to play it when young because it was a difficult instrument and there wasn't much competition, providing easier access into an orchestra. Alfred was musical; I never heard him play the bassoon, but loved the way he played the accordion, and I believe he knew other instruments. I have a deep love of music, and it is always with me as I work, in the form of songs on the radio; it fills an aspect of my life. Well, he had less use for his bassoon when he was in England and Spain in the 1930s, and lent it to the bassoonist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, if my imperfect memory suffices. The man used it for a month or so and liked it so well that he had to have it; he offered a good price to buy it. Alfred didn't want to part with it, but the man insisted, arguing with him all afternoon, and finally Alfred yielded and sold it. He didn't want to spend the money, though his finances were lean at the time, so he put it into an account to draw interest and grow. When I graduated from college in 1956 he used that money to buy me my first car, a 1955 second hand Volkswagen Bug. That car enabled my new wife and I to survive our first years of marriage; she drove it from Vermont to Oklahoma to join me at Ft. Sill when I was in the US Army. The legacy of Alfred's prized bassoon. I feel belatedly guilty for in my fashion depriving him of it, yet I do appreciate it, and there are funds I have used since to benefit others similarly, passing on the favor.

When we came to America, and my parents' marriage slowly foundered, my mother was absent much of the time, and it was Alfred who took care of my sister and me. There were positives and negatives, as other children of fractured families know, but one positive was that he read to us at night and told us stories when we were together by day, working on some common chore. I loved those stories, which were bright spots in an otherwise generally unhappy life, and I think my fertile imagination stems from them. When I had children of my own I passed along that favor too; we read to them every night until they were teens. And of course I came to make my living as a writer of stories, as some folk may be aware. So my father's social influence may have been critical in the formation of my life's work.

My mother was a creature of the city, preferring the conveniences of civilization. My father was a creature of the country, liking the forest and self sufficiency in its isolation. I liked both, and a major theme in my writing has been the relation of the two, as shown in the Adept series that juxtaposes a super science metropolis with a range where unicorns graze, or my novel Realty Check, with a house whose front door opens on a busy city street, and whose back door opens on an eternal forest. But if I had to choose between them, I would choose the forest. Xanth is a forested realm. I am an environmentalist, and hate to see the despoliation of nature by the constant encroachment of the human species. I feel safer walking through wilderness than I do on a city street. I live on a tree farm I own. This is the legacy of my father's forest.

So aspects of Alfred are in me, apart from the genetic. Now you know some of the threads. This summer I will write a fictionalization of the main women in my father's life, of which my mother was not necessarily the most significant one. This won't be a commercial effort so much as an exploration of personal understanding. I may publish it for Anthony completists, but it is really a family and memory thing, rather than an entertainment. My uncle Phil died the following month; he was a deeply religious man, and got caught up in a cult that took him and his considerable potential out of circulation. Observing that, I developed an abiding aversion to religious cults, and I'm not easy about the big religions either, being a lifelong agnostic. There is a good deal else on my mind than frivolous fantasy.

However, that fantasy does power my career, and more of it is coming. There is a motion picture option on Xanth, and one on On a Pale Horse. An option means someone has paid money to reserve a piece for a year or more while deciding to make a movie; if the decision is favorable, the option is exercised, and a good deal more money money is paid. Top Cow, a comics company, had the option on Pale Horse. Well, Disney is now interested in it, and it seems that Jamie Foxx will produce it and play the part of Zane, the man who is so shaken when he has a pistol to his head and sees Death coming for him that he shoots Death instead, then has to take Death's place. Paul Guay of Liar Liar will adapt the novel for the screen. Readers are berating me for this; am I so badly in need of money? Actually no; I have had a good career and am a wealthy man. But not only do I want my books to be read, I want them to be seen, and gambling on the movies is a necessary stage in that process. I don't choose who makes the movie; I follow the standard advice to take the money and run, knowing that what emerges from the movie meat grinder may have little resemblance to my novel. I'm hoping for the best. Disney can do good work when it chooses to. Meanwhile, my original novel will always be available for folk to read, so they can see exactly how the two compare. That seems fair to me.

Meanwhile I have other fantasy in the fire. My dirty book Pornucopia is now back in print at Mundania Press, so readers need no longer get ripped off paying ten times its natural price. I have completed the first draft of the sequel, The Magic Fart, just as dirty in a flatulent way. Now that Mundania Press is up and running, it is also tackling a reissue of Macroscope, and the first publication of my ChroMagic fantasy series, starting with Key to Havoc. All of these except the third ChroMagic should be available before the year is out, and that will follow early next year. In Jamboree I proofread Havoc for that edition; it's a big sexy novel, a quarter million words. I started it five years ago, and got tired of waiting for traditional publishers to catch on that I write more than Xanth, and that my readers might be interested in more than Xanth. In fact I regard this as an end run around the bean counter idiocy of Parnassus, which is to say, the traditional publishing establishment. So soon enough, readers will be able to judge whether I or the traditional publishers have the right of it. I have worked to promote alternative publication for everyone, in the form of support for small press, Internet, and self publishing. I regard this as part of the proof of that. If these novels flop, Parnassus will be vindicated.

I have agreed to be the final judge for Fantasy in the annual Draco Award contest instituted this year by Internet publisher DOUBLE DRAGON. See the entry in the Internet Publishing Survey elsewhere on this site. This is open to unpublished and self published manuscripts; I lobbied to get approval for the latter, having an interest in the self publishing industry. I feel that a new writer should not be penalized for putting his money behind his imagination. There are three categories, and the judges for the other two are Mike Resnick for Science Fiction and Mike Arnzen for Horror. The winners well be published by DD, which is, by all accounts so far, a good one.

Speaking of Internet publishing, sometimes I get a certain devious pleasure in lecturing those I feel are going wrong. AMBER QUILL announced it would delete all queries unread, and I told them they were shooting themselves in the foot. Well, they wouldn't have deleted my query, they said. In my response to their hurt email I say in part: Okay, but what about unknown writers? My purpose in this survey is to discover markets for the little folk, whose entrance is often the nether port of the privy... "The correct way to handle a serious query is to answer it. A form reply will do: 'Thank you for thinking of us, Mr. Shakespeare, but we aren't into plays.' You should never give prospective contributors the idea that nothing they have to offer could possibly be of interest to you--even if that happens to be the case." You can check the full entry in the Survey if you care to. Some publishers thank me, some send corrections, and some threaten me. All part of the fun of being the Ogre.

In the Tampa Bay area of Florida, where I live, we have a generally hapless professional football team, the Buccaneers. You may wonder what this has to do with fantasy. I shall make the case. This year Xanth, which is the magic aspect of Florida, will complete its first magic trilogy: three cubed, 27 novels. When the Bucs first formed, they lost their first 26 games. That presaged 26 lean years. Even when they had a real chance to get somewhere, bad calls by the officials stifled it. What did they think this was, a presidential election? This was the magic 27th year, and the Bucs brought the leading defense in football to meet the leading offense, and stifled it, winning the Super Bowl by 27 points. Any questions? Stifle them.

I get mail. As I like to say, 99% of my readers love my books; the other 1% review them. That's not entirely true; the percentage of reviewers is much smaller, and not all of them actually read the books, their opinions already fully formed. That leaves a bit of room for those readers who don't like them. One woman wrote to condemn the overwhelming sexuality of Xanth, which she felt was obviously written for testosterone stressed teen boys. I responded briefly, nor really arguing with her, saying I regarded her as a lost cause as far as keeping her as a reader went, and hoping she would find a writer she liked better. Sigh; some folk mistake politeness for weakness, and she returned saying that the fact that I hadn't refuted her meant that I knew I was wrong. So no more Mister Nice Ogre; I let her have it with the following missive:

Here is why I regard you as a lost cause as far as keeping a reader goes: you read Demons Don't Dream, which alternates between a male viewpoint and a female viewpoint, and did not appreciate the difference in characterization. The young woman's perspective was distinct from that of the young man. She did not attune to breasts or panties; the man did. You were, it seems, unable to tolerate the man's perspective, and condemned the author for it. Apparently you required him to have another female perspective. That's not the way I write. Zombie Lover also has a young woman's viewpoint alternating with male viewpoints; again the woman is not fascinated by female flesh (or by penises) while the men are - and you object to the male portrayal. It is not accurate characterization you seek, but the suppression of the male interest, even in obvious parody.

If my fan mail is a guide, I have more female readers than male readers, and most of them appreciate my sensitivity to the female perspective. You, in contrast, evidently do not. Instead you protest references to "boobs" though you would have to look extremely hard at my fiction ever to find that word used other than in negative characterization of a crude male. Thus it seems that you come to my fiction with a pre-existing agenda, seeing what you expect to see rather than what is there. Thus you refused even to read Isle of Woman because of your expectation of its nature, so did not discover that it is a serious historical novel that is realistic rather than humorous about sex. Indeed, sex is there - but with your disinclination to accept any reference to it, you would be turned off. If you care to try that novel, you will indeed see that women are as interested in men as men are in women, albeit in a different way.

Your mind seems to be already made up. I don't write for closed minds. I repeat: find a writer who writes your way, and leave me to my existing readership. You are not going to persuade me to write about men as if they are women, any more than I am going to persuade you to let your agenda rest.

That essentially concluded our correspondence. As can be seen, I gave her a chance to try my serious fiction, but she was resistive, as it is contrary to her agenda, which has little to do with what is on the page. My patience with closed minds is limited. I do find women to be a fascinating species, and when I'm not doing parody I can write sensitively about them. An example is the story I wrote while traveling, "The Key," which is simply a dialogue between two women concerning an abusive man; if I don't find publication for it, I might put it on here at HiPiers as an example of the way I do relate to the concerns of women.

The biggest reader response I received to my Dismember column was on GRY: a score of letters. That's the question about the third word in the English language that ends in those three letters, like Angry and Hungry; I couldn't figure it out (ogres are not noted for their intelligence) so put it to my readers. The first letter was from Rob Miles, who said it's an oral trick, where the answer is any word that ends in G or Y, which sounds like GRY when spoken. He felt it was a cheap joke. The second was from Robert Lot, who gave what turned out to be the dominant explanation: the key is the sentence "What's the third word in the English language?" The answer is "language." It has nothing to do with the original question, and is thus another cheap trick. The third letter was from Michael Graves, who said that the riddle is often written incorrectly, making it have no answer. That was the case in the variant I first encountered. Then came my collaborator Al Tella (The Willing Spirit), who said that there is a third word in the mundane dictionary: gry itself, which means a small measure. So there is a third word! He added that if you go to the non-mundane dictionary there are others, such as ogry (ogre-like--why didn't I think of that?), pigry (whore house), hagry pigry (where the whores are hags), dogry (kennel), wigry (wig shop), bugry (my yard in summer), fangry (mad vampire), analphalligry (the study of phallic assholes), phongry (ass-backwards gryphon). This is getting snigry; time to ease off. Then Margaret Caragan went to the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the ultimate authority; it's the size on an encyclopedia, and even the Compact Edition, which I have, which requires a magnifying glass to read, is huge. She came up with aggry, which is a glass bead found buried in the earth in Ghana, puggry, a light scarf wound around a hat or helmet to protect the head from the sun, and meagry, of meager appearance, which it seems appeared in an Ann Landers column. Then came correspondent Mary Baker, who must have done a computer search, with a list of one hundred gry words. Many are variants, such as half-angry or wind-hungry, but many more are not. This does seem to give the lie to the statement that there are only three such words. It seems there is a whole Web site devoted to this subject: www.contestcen.com/gry.htm. So my thanks to all of you who responded, even if I didn't name all of you here, and I think we can let this one rest now.

However, since my readers are obviously more knowledgeable than I am, I'll throw out a couple more questions. Way back in the Pleistocene epoch when I was young (um, before purists jump on me: that's hyperbole = humorous exaggeration) there was a song singing the praises of a man's girlfriend. Part of it went "She's got a pair of hips, just like two battleships; I buy her everything to keep her in style." I have struggled for about 50 years trying to figure out in what way two battleships have sex appeal. Anybody have an answer?

And here's the big one: the reader comment I receive most is that my fiction puts the reader into the scene, actually seeming to live in it instead of merely reading it. I love to hear that; it's the way it is for me when I write it. I am in every scene I write, and I see it through the eyes of every character I write about, male or female. I'm glad it translates, so that my readers are having the same experience I am. It is clear that it doesn't happen for editors, reviewers, and critics, but of course there is no blood in those stones. My question is, how is that empathy conveyed? I am limited to words on the printed page, following established conventions of syntax and spelling, just as a thousand other writers do. What am I doing that they aren't? I want to know, so as to be sure to keep doing it.

I'm an environmentalist, which means I try to do my bit to help preserve the precious natural global heritage. Unfortunately the political powers that be at the moment seem dedicated to destroying it in the name of greed. One of the organizations struggling to protect our resources from despoliation is the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, or FSEEE. They sent me a free copy of a huge volume, WELFARE RANCHING. It is 13.5 by 12 inches, 370 pages from cover to cover, and weighs six and a half pounds. It's really a beautiful picture book with a list price of $75. Yet it has some stomach-turningly ugly pictures, along with many beautiful ones. It is showing the 300 million acres of public land that are currently leased for private livestock production. In a nutshell: the ranchers pay a token fee for grazing their bovines on land belonging to all of us, and this is impoverishing it and costing us money. They are getting a destructively free ride. Once lovely flower-filled land becomes ugly barrenness, and the pictures show it. The home where the buffalo roam may become littered with cow carcasses. Ugh, the pictures! It presents a series of myths vs. truths, such as whether ranchers are good stewards of the land--they aren't, because they can't be; cattle are wrong for this land. Are rangelands improving? No, they have been seriously overgrazed. Does wildlife benefit? No, hundreds of species are in danger of extinction. So it continues, a grim story. Thus the book's title: this is welfare for the ranchers, and they are destroying the western environment. There needs to be brutal reform: get those cows off. An interesting aspect is the way the FSEEE's FOREST MAGAZINE reviews this book and another, RANCHING WEST OF THE 100TH MERIDIAN that has a different outlook: an editor of each volume reviews the other. This we get insightful commentary; my presentation here is essentially one sided, based on my general impression of one book. But I'm pretty sure there's a serious problem, with the current drought in that area.

We saw a notice in the newspaper: my APC power backup has been recalled. Seems some overheated and could cause a fire. So I called the number, gave my information, and they sent me a replacement, no problem. Except that the supposedly simple matter of putting my old one in the box the new one came in and returning it, isn't; there is no return label or instructions. So we'll have to ship it back at our expense to whatever address we can find, and hope they get it straight. When I inquired, since my unit never got hotter than lukewarm, they said that something like eight of two million had the problem, so they're playing it safe.

A comment I saw that resonated: with an apparently gratuitous war looming, fomented by chicken hawks--that is, those who avoided military service themselves, but now are gun-ho for others to fight--the suggestion is that we institute a draft limited to the sons of rich folk, and see how eager the politicians are for war then. I can support that; I have no sons.

Once I got my last Xanth novel done--that was #28, Currant Events, about the Muse of History and a red berry--I figured to relax and watch some videos. Then my father died, preempting the last half of Dismember. So okay, Jamboree--and it filled in too. Sigh. Maybe FeBlueberry. But I did watch a few, such as The Lover, promoted as super sexy but actually a quality film about a fifteen year old French girl in Vietnam in the 1920s who has an affair with a wealthy Chinese man twice her age. The conflict of cultures makes their love impossible to keep. I ordered the DVD Midnight Tease 1 and 2, getting two fifteen dollar movies for the price of one; it's a double sided disc you simply turn over for the other movie. At one point I got what I think is called the blue screen of death; the sound kept playing, but there was no picture, just blank blue. Fortunately next day it worked okay. Two stories of strip tease girls who get murdered. I didn't care for the murders, but liked their sexy dances a lot. There was also Clean Slate, about a detective who loses his memory every time he sleeps. That's a wild romp, as things keep tearing up his life: a lovely woman begs him to protect her, thugs want him to pay up what he owes them, the police are after him, and so on. We also went to the cinema to see Solaris, a science fiction mystery with disturbing implications, and the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, which certainly delivers tension and battle, with an almost womanless cast. And we watched the TV movie War Stories, which impressed me with the way it shows the gritty, awful, frightening realities of war. My military stint was in peace time; I never saw combat. But World War Two disrupted my life as a child in England and brought me to America; I remain highly conscious of my luck in escaping it, which was a very close call. Fomenting needless war is an abomination.

Perhaps connected: THE ECONOMIST had an editorial titled "Is torture ever justified?" At first blush, most folk would say no. But if you capture a terrorist who knows which plane is about to be hijacked to take out which building, do you honor his personal rights and let the hijacking happen? Then it becomes easier to say yes. The magazine concludes no, and I agree. The thing is, once you open the door on torture, it's not going to remain a rare last-resort-only expedient; it's going to become increasingly common, and for lesser offenses, such as criticizing a government official. Such a slippery slope has been the case elsewhere in the world. So you are signing a pact with the devil, for immediate gain but the loss of your soul, and in time you are bound to regret it. The ends do not justify the means. Also, as I see it, when torture is used to extract confessions, it is too effective; just pick up anyone on the street and torture him until he confesses despite being innocent. Some police methods smack of this. Remember those wilding kids in New York's Central Park, raping and almost killing that lady jogger? They confessed--and now DNA shows someone else did it. In fact, I am uneasy about this business of plea bargaining: you stand accused, but you can get a lighter sentence if you confess, saving the state the trouble of a trial. So if you are innocent, and they convict you with trumped up evidence, you get a worse sentence than someone who is guilty and cops the plea. Is this justice? Torture, or even just the threat of it, would magnify this problem. Remember the Inquisition? Folk confessed to having sex with the devil; do you really think they were guilty?

I did a verbal interview with Michael Evo that was released the day after Christmas at www.dragonpage.com. I understand it did well for them. Haven't heard it myself, but I have a fair idea what I said.

We get SPAM. One I saved out to comment on here: it demanded in bold print "Want a BIG Penis?" and went on to promote pills that supposedly do the job with no exercise, surgery, pumping, or stretching; it happens easily and gently in just a few weeks. How Big Can You Get? it demands rhetorically, and answers that you can grow up to three full inches in length, and get thicker too. But the best part, it says, is that when the woman in your life sees how massive and manly you have become, she will surrender everything you have always wanted. "As you drive your penis deep inside her she'll gasp as you dominate her. And the intense satisfaction you give her will be the BEST sex she has ever had." Thus the spiel. Now my comment: first, I seriously doubt that it is true, and believe that anyone falling for this will be bilked of whatever money he pays for these pills. Second, this business of women craving massive male penises is fiction. Just about any man can have sex with just about any woman, both being amenable, in large part because of standardization of the parts; the average penis is sized to fit the average vagina. Why would a woman want to be painfully impaled on a phallus that is half again as big as she can reasonably accommodate? She would prefer to have a conveniently sized penis. In fact many, perhaps most, women would be satisfied to leave the penis out of it, and just cuddle, kiss, and exchange sweet nothings. What a woman wants in a man is support, gentleness, reliability, attention, and appreciation, rather than a member the size of a club. So this whole ad is nonsense. Correct me if I'm wrong, distaff readers.

Shorter shrift: correspondent Tom Lang sent me a set of picture postcards: What Muslims want vs. what Americans want. One is of black garbed Iranian militants practicing with their pistols, the other is of the Kilgore College Rangerettes doing a high kick, showing their panties. Why do I prefer the latter picture? We received a junk mail catalog from LILLIPUT with intriguing novelties, like scale models of famous tall buildings--the Petronas Towers in Indonesia look like standing corncobs--and you can get the World Trade Center set. Also cutaway models of submarines and warships. A tiny model train that circles its seven inch diameter loop of track. A rolling drum clock that takes a week to make it to the bottom of its 24" ramp, that motion powering its timekeeping. Only $4,450.50. Elsewhere you can buy theme caskets, such as one painted to resemble a golf course. Just the thing for an idle afterlife. Column by local color writer Jan Glidewell, whom I know, summarizing twenty years of child tragedies in this area. The one I remember most keenly is Jennifer Odom, age 12, abducted and killed in 1993, and they never caught her killer. Which reminds me of this intrusive database the government is assembling that will have all the data on all people, nominally to catch terrorists--but would it catch child killers? I suspect it will be good mainly to get the dirt on any known person a bureaucrat doesn't like. Ad for a health newsletter, saying that vegetarians are sicklier, have slumping sex drive, and die younger. Bullshit! A smart vegetarian is healthier than a garden variety dead-meat eater. News in ALTERNATIVES, the health newsletter I do subscribe to, having winnowed the best from many: selenium helps ward off depression and other mental problems, and Brazil nuts are one of the richest sources, but other nuts are also very good for health nuts. The spice turmeric, found in curry, guards against Alzheimer's. Email relayed by my daughter Penny relates to the way the current powers that be oppose abortion and also oppose contraception. Evidently they don't just want to make abortions unnecessary, as universal effective contraception would; they want to control sex itself. Let's face it: almost nobody really likes abortion, and we'd all rather see it gone--by seeing that no unwanted babies are conceived. Since sex is not about to be abolished, despite the evident wish of some, that means contraception or sterilization. Is that too complicated for religious conservatives to understand? Coincidentally, the spread of access to contraception, even in Catholic countries, may be about to abate the global population problem; birth rates are dropping worldwide. Now if the same can just be done for VD... SPAM: "Tired of American women? Russian Mail Order Brides." Thanks, but as an immigrant who married an American woman, I'm satisfied. Editorial by Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor in chief of US NEWS & WORLD REPORT: in the Arab world lies are openly taught about the Jews, fomenting hatred, refusing to accept the Jewish state's right to exist--and Israel is supposed to turn the other cheek? Remember that pregnant pig amendment to the Florida constitution? Now there is news of a hog farmer sending his sows to slaughter and quitting the business rather than comply. One down. Junk mail: "Tired of BIGOTS on the air?" Join the National Organization for Women--NOW--and join their campaign to expose Rush Limbaugh. I have no quarrel with NOW, but anyone who can't see the nature of the man called the incorrigible dirigible is an idiot. The answer to the abuse of free speech is more free speech; by all means expose the bigots. Now, having enraged the conservatives, let me go on to the Mormons: THE ECONOMIST reports that a devout Mormon, Thomas Murphy, says that the claim of the Book of Mormon that Native Americans are descended from lost Israelites is disproved by genetic evidence, and the Book is fiction. I knew this decades ago; it was pirated from an unpublished science fiction novel. I have argued the case with Mormons, who don't want to hear it. But as THE ECONOMIST says, similar might be said of other great religious books. Note from Ori Tend: the site www.FetchBook.Info offers a free service to compare prices of books so you can get the best price. If you try it and like it, let him know. US NEWS has an example of the idiocy of publishers: History writer Joy Hakim got the weird idea that students would like history better if it was presented in an interesting manner, so she wrote it that way. It was rejected by 15 publishers as too interesting before OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS gambled on it in 1993. It sold four million copies, and students do like it. Maybe I should have taken my GEODYSSEY to Oxford? A new study indicates that state laws that allow citizens to carry concealed weapons do not reduce crime, and may even increase it. GLOBAL MARCH AGAINST CHILD LABOR says that an estimated 246 million children are working as child laborers, most in bad conditions. Child servants, prostitutes, slaves, and other exploitations. The egregious inhumanity of man to man disgusts me.

Meanwhile I will attend the EPIC convention at Tampa March 6-8 and give the keynote address, and be on hand for the rest of it. I plan to speak for half an hour, and field questions for half an hour. I have not attended a convention in years, and may not again, so this is the occasion for those who want books autographed or just to chat to meet me. The big booksigning will be at Carrollwood Barnes & Noble, 11802 Dale Mabry Highway N, Tampa Florida, from 7-10 PM. I'm not asocial, I just don't like to tear myself away from my writing, and am most comfortable at home with my wife; the older I get, the worse I get in this respect.

And as I set up to edit this column on the First of FeBlueberry, came the awful news of the space shuttle Columbia crashing. Damn! These missions have become routine and I hardly pay attention, but I hate it when something like this happens. Five men and two women lost; somehow it seems worse about the women, who in my foolish fancy shouldn't suffer violent male-type deaths. I knew none of those folk, but suddenly I mourn them all.

Philadelphia Trip report

I hate to travel, and avoid it at every opportunity. I had succeeded in not leaving the state in the year 2002. Then my father Alfred died the morning of December 14, Saturday. He was 93?. He had been fading, his physical and mental horizons narrowing, until he was a shell of the man he had been, and it was time. Still, death is not a pleasant business, and I'm sorry to see it.

The news triggered a cascade of events. My sister Teresa notified me, and we notified our daughters, and Daughter #1 Penny booked passage with her husband John and daughter Logan from Oregon to Pennsylvania. My wife set me up a five day trip north, she remaining home to keep the hearth. We learned that the airlines have significantly reduced Grief fares, but they require such things as confirmation from the funeral home, and we did not know those details, so didn't bother. Which is the problem with grief trips, as perhaps the airlines know: you're not inclined to fool around with niggling details, you just need to get there soon.

I took along a fat little notepaper book and made notes constantly during the trip. I'm a writer; that's the sort of thing I do. I also took a book to read that Cheryl had given me two years before, saved for a travel occasion: The Darwin Awards, by Wendy Northcutt, commemorating idiots who manage to remove themselves from the gene pool by doing sublimely foolish things. I also took five magazines to catch up on. And never got around to the book, thus demonstrating my own idiocy. We had hired a taxi service, and promptly at 9:45 AM Monday, December 16, 2002, Sharon arrived to pick me up. During the hour and a half trip to Orlando we talked about the hazards of travel and about raising children. Every human being has his or her personal history and concerns; as a writer I'm interested. Then at AIR TRAN I was offered an upgrade from coach to first class for $35, so I took it. I guess they had a spare seat, and it made sense to proffer a bargain rather than let it go empty. They said my credit card address didn't match my ticket address, so I offered another card, the one we had used to buy the tickets, but they couldn't accept that either. Finally they asked whether I had cash. Yes, so I forked over the cash. Odd that the cards bounced; they work everywhere else. Maybe they thought there was a knife hidden therein? So I had the pleasure of about 50% more room, and a larger bag of pretzels. I was also allowed to carry on my suitcase and briefcase; the published restrictions had been so small that we could not use a small enough bag, so this was a relief. It was weird having things go right; I thought it was in the Big Book of Rules that things went wrong for me when I travel alone. The security check was interesting. This was my first post 9/11 trip, so the experience was new. I had to clear out my pockets, take off coat and outer shirt, and run it all through in a bedpan. My impact kerambit self defense weapon was there in plain sight but they ignored it. Instead they challenged my briefcase, running it through the grinder a second time. Lo, there was a small pair of blunt-nosed scissors in there, lost in a crevice; I had not known they were there. But they turned out to be okay; they were not confiscated. Then I had a couple hours to wait for my plane; that's why I had reading material. Also granola bars, and Vitamin C. The week before my wife had caught a horrendous cold/cough, but I had staved it off with one gram of C per hour for three days. C does stop a cold, and perhaps later in this century the medical profession will grudgingly recognize that. But the cold can recur of you stop the C too suddenly, so I was careful. Then when I boarded the plane, I was selected for the Random Check. This time I had to take off my shoes and be wanded all over. Fortunately I was clean, physically; the wand doesn't check the mind. The flight itself was uneventful; I admired the patchwork of roads, houses, lakes, and the tributaries to the St. Johns River, looking like varicose veins. The forests look like mold, the houses like grains of sand, the clouds like cotton fluff, and the flat larger landscape like a giant game of mumbledepeg, sliced by erratically straight segments of roads. Farther north the drought was evident as rivers became bare gray channels.

We landed early, and I found my way out into the freezing Philadelphia air. AIR TRAN was at the very edge of the airport complex, so I made my way up the windy street checking for other names until I found UNITED. I located the concourse where Flight 90 should arrive; I would intercept Penny's party there in another hour. Meanwhile I had to call Niece Erin. Naturally I couldn't figure out the pay phone; there was no book or decipherable instructions. So I asked at the nearby information desk, and they said to put in 35 cents and dial my number. So I did that, and a recording came on telling me to try again. This is typical of my luck with phones; they are ornery devices. So I inquired at the desk again, and they concluded that I should try it with 50 cents. Then another traveler suggested that I use her cell phone. She even dialed the number for me; my incompetence was evident. Got Erin, told her I was safely there and waiting to intercept Penny. Returned the phone and thanked the woman. When I traveled to New York I had helped a young black woman by carrying her baby carriage down a steep flight of steps; this time a black woman helped me, as it were returning the favor. These vignettes of strangers assisting travelers are a bright spot in my general abhorrence of traveling.

I managed to intercept Penny, and she rented a car (license tag BTC 66-77, which I figured mnemonically stood for Before The Crash, things were at sixes and sevens; I'm not sure she fully appreciated the interpretation) and drove to Erin's house in Lansdowne, which served as a base of operations for the week. It's a fine old house on a nice forested acre beside the river. Penny's daughter Logan and Erin's daughter Greta interacted, two cute little girls in the age two range, keeping the silence constantly at bay. Thursday they were joined by a third, Niece Caroline's daughter Amelia, a notch older. We wanted to get the three of them together for a picture, but it was like solving one of those tilting puzzles, with one always flying elsewhere. Finally they watched a TV program upstairs, and after I was home Erin sent an email attachment of the three of them side by side in bed, watching. Meanwhile I tried to maintain my exercise schedule; lacking dumbbells, I hefted Greta's little chairs instead, mornings, while listening to MORNING EDITION on the headset radio a reader gave me. The main problem was that the chair legs liked to catch the wire and yank the radio suddenly onto the floor. Perhaps fittingly, they ran a serial spoof "I'd Rather Eat Pants," of which listeners later said it helped them make up their minds when to turn off the radio.

Tuesday I wrote a story,"The Key," during interstices in the ongoing activity, about the relationship between a woman and her ex daughter in law; it turned out she preferred the young woman to her errant son. I'm a writer; that's what I do, though I have no immediate market for a 2,200 word mainstream story. I went with Penny and her husband John to Normandy Farms, where we met Alfred's friends Curtis and Charmoine, and Janet Norton, who had known both Norma (Alfred's first wife, my mother) and Genevieve (his second wife, a very nice woman). In the course of the dialog I mentioned that my wife and I have been married 46 years, and how that makes me nervous because her parents were married 46 years when death did them part. C & C, who have been married 61 years, told of friends who lasted exactly 46 years, and others did too; there turned out to be a reassuring number of cases in which death set 46 as the limit. Then my sister Teresa arrived, and Bonnie, who had been helping Alfred in the past year, and we repaired to his room, where his remaining things were. Two of the girls who work at Normandy were amazed by my resemblance to Alfred, having I think no notion of my notoriety as a writer. We got his things organized and distributed; I had little notion what to do, but fortunately Teresa and Penny were competent, and the sad job got done.

Wednesday I went with Erin's husband Bruce to meet the CEO of Xlibris, John Feldcamp; I'm a significant investor in Xlibris and on its board of directors, so knew that it may be expanding soon, and hiring new people, so is alert for prospects. We met at a restaurant for lunch--only to discover that the restaurant was closed. My normal travel luck seemed to be returning. So we went to John's Xlibris office instead, and had sandwiches, and later I got a tour of their establishment, which I hadn't seen since they moved to larger quarters. When I returned to the house Cousin Dotsy and husband Bert were there, bringing a beautiful basket of fruit that reminded me of the time I had the measles at Westtown School, an illness that was perhaps my closest approach to death, and when I at last emerged from that awful well, there was a phenomenal basket of fruit Dotsy's parents had sent. It was like seeing the glorious First Dawn after touring Hell. Bert and Dotsy had recently visited us in Florida, as had John Feldcamp, but it was nice seeing them again. In the evening the Pennies, the Erins, and Erin's friends Heather and Christian, who were also fans of mine, joined us at the Asakura Restaurant for a fancy Japanese supper. We seemed to be the only customers, which was perhaps just as well, because Heather/Christian's little boy Isaac was of similar age to Logan and Greta and liked to run around.

Thursday John and I toured the property, Erin as guide, admiring the huge trees and the stories associated with the property. Then John and I walked around the neighborhood. Then I went with Penny, Logan, Erin and Greta to the shopping center where they had a two story merry-go-round Alfred had liked. Children pay, adults go free, but after one session I stayed off, as I was getting motion sick. I did pose with Logan as Penny took a picture; that picture is now in a subsection of the HiPiers What's New section. Logan at age two is as cute as ever, but my head looks disembodied; I told you I was getting queasy. There was a fancy fountain there, with jets of water that formed a number of different circular patterns high and low; Logan and I watched intrigued. We had lunch and returned to the house, and at 4 PM Alfred's long-time friend Stan arrived, then Teresa, Niece Caroline, and her daughter Amelia. Teresa showed off her new Toyota Prius hybrid car, and gave Stan and me a ride. It's an impressive machine, getting 55 miles to the gallon in city driving. Back at the house we chatted amicably, then had bread, cheese, and a ham Teresa brought for the non-vegetarians. We settled by the fireplace in the living room for an informal ceremony: a Quakerly silence, then we each spoke of aspects of our memories of Alfred, while the three toddlers ran around. We agreed that Alfred would have liked that setting. John told of a dialog with Alfred concerning the merit of stout (as in beer, ale, porter, and stout), and passed around a glass of stout from which each of us sipped. So it was a nice and I think appropriate occasion. In the evening Erin and I watched the Survivor finale on TV, a shared guilty pleasure; too bad the Florida woman didn't win, but she was evidently too decent for that.

Friday Erin took me to the airport, and I had an uneventful trip to Florida. Naturally I saw no car waiting for me; then Sharon tapped me on the elbow from behind. It had been so jammed she couldn't get in, so she had parked the car and come for me afoot. We went to the parking garage, and she couldn't find the car key. My travel luck was returning in force. She finally dumped everything out of her purse and the key reluctantly appeared. I read my story"The Key" to Sharon as she drove me home, as it seemed relevant to the occasion with a key getting dropped, and it's a woman's story, and she liked it. I'm a writer, as I may have mentioned every so often; I like folk to read what I write. I made it safely home at 4:15 PM Friday the 20th, vastly relieved; as is evident, women took care of me at every stage of my trip, as I doddered along, but my favorite is my wife--and next day came down with diarrhea and vomiting, maybe from something I picked up on the trip. O joy. It wasn't as bad as what I got when we traveled to Oregon; only three sessions with a cumulative 15 heaves this time. I found that the bunnies had eaten all my Garbage Garden potatoes and the tomato plant during my absence, and the mail had piled up horrendously; I wrote more than 80 letters the last ten days of the month, catching up. Apart from that, it was a nice Christmas.

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