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Piers Anthony at work
JeJune 2003
I hate making errors, especially when they embarrass other folk, but poop happens. In my EPIC convention report it was Michele R Bardsley, not Jennifer Dunne, who helped me get into my room when my key-card failed. My apology to both. I also left out a letter when I mentioned The Society of Children's Book Writers; the address should be www.scbwi.org. I have made an entry for it in the Internet Publishing survey.

Speaking of poop: I heard on MORNING EDITION that if you ask children in a class whether they want to learn about excretory functions, they're bored before you begin. But if you call it pooping, puking, pissing, burping and farting, they're interested. I wonder whether there is a lesson about effective writing there? The kind of books critics like are about excretory functions, while I write lowbrow titles like The Magic Fart.

Circa 1980 my wife and I started investing. We decided to diversify the easy way: we bought 200 shares of AT&T stock just before Ma Bell fragmented into the seven Baby Bells. Since then there have been so many splits and recombinations that it's a torture just figuring out what to pay tax on, and we hope to start selling them and simplifying our investment. We get two copies of most, for accounts that somehow got split, and when we tried several times to merge them we got nowhere, because big corporations just don't listen. So selling seems best. Meanwhile I do look at the statements, and noted that recently Verizon had a shareholder initiative to limit CEO pay to 50 times that of the average worker. Yep--the management was arguing against this limit. CEO pay for such corporations now runs about 1,500 times that of lowly workers. If I ran the world, I'd limit the CEOs to a 10 to 1 ratio, and if they quit rather than endure that poverty, I'm sure there would be competent workers ready to be promoted to that office. This idea that companies exist to shovel money to officers while squeezing the blood out of workers and clients is foreign to me. Obviously I'm not a Republican; I'm a registered independent. Otherwise I might understand.

When I encounter something I don't know (you'd be amazed how often that happens) I have had a simple expedient: ask my readers. Again they have been coming through. But one asked why I don't just go to a search engine for myself? Well, in prior days I tried that. The thing would chug along and produce pages of listings with mysterious percentages following each, none of which related to my need. Obviously I wasn't sufficiently geek to appreciate how this benefited me. But this time I tried it again, and here is the story. A reader asked about the ghost in On a Pale Horse, Molly Malone. Well, she's from a well known Irish folk song, "Cockles and Mussels." I checked my book of Irish ballads--and the song wasn't there. I did further research: no song. How could a song I knew so well suddenly not exist? This sort of thing happens to me more often than is comfortable; it's as if my non-belief in the supernatural causes the supernatural to go after me, especially when I travel. I remember when I did spot research on the unicorn, and suddenly it no longer existed; it had become fantasy. The rest of you probably think it was always fantasy. That's the way it works; reality changes retroactively, and few folk realize. So I wrote a story relating, and that was my very first sale, "Possible to Rue," showing how a number of creatures have thus been fantasized. But that didn't bring them back; the damage was done. Okay, so I knew I had to get on this in a hurry, before the new reality had time to solidify. I tried Google--and just like that it gave me a page of references to Molly Malone, mostly pubs in Ireland, but one covered the fabulous legend. A fishmonger by day, a courtesan by night, until she mysteriously died. Maybe a client smelled something fishy? So I couldn't save her as a historical character, but at least I saved the legend. Well, almost; it is now listed as a "fake" legend, as if such a thing is possible. Maybe if I had gone to Google first, before wasting time on books? Reality can be so fleeting, it's gone before you realize. But I do wonder how it managed to exclude Molly from the Irish ballad book; that looks like a critic's agenda in operation, similar to the one that excludes me from being listed as an effective writer. Since when did the hearty Irish get in bed with the critics?

So anyway, the readers came through on other questions. That Rudyard Kipling poem turns out to be associated with the story "The Man Who Was" identified by Jackie Barnes, Sabbir Muhit, and others. The most competent answer was by Vicki M Taylor, who sent the full poem and story. It starts "The earth gave up her dead that tide,/ Into our camp he came." The story is about a British party in India where a Russian officer is a guest, and a bedraggled lunatic straggles in. He turns out to have been a prisoner the Russians had "forgotten" to repatriate thirty years before because he had insulted an officer; only now had he escaped and made his way to the home territory. So now the British know what the Russians did, and there will be a reckoning. It concludes "But a terrible spree there's sure to be/ When he comes back again." Another reader put me on to the site for The Diary of Bobby Sands, who staged a hunger strike in 1981 as a prisoner in Ireland, protesting English occupation. On the fifth day of the hunger strike he quotes that poem. On the seventeenth day he concludes "They won't break me because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people, is in my heart. The day will dawn when all the people of Ireland will have the desire for freedom to show. It is then we'll see the rising of the moon." So he wasn't in bed with the critics.

Incomplete progress on that poem about the four letter word. Elizabeth "Windy" Riggs identified it as "Ode to the Four Letter Word" in the volume Bawdy Ballads & Dirty Ditties of the Wartime RAF. I don't know for sure that's the poem, but it does seem like my kind of book, so I asked my daughter who knows how to buy things from Amazon (I don't do money on the Internet) to order it for me, but Amazon didn't have it.

The mysterious piece of music garnered some suggestions. Windy Riggs thought it might be the Easter overture by Rimsky-Korsakov. Mike Shannon in Belgium thought it might be an excerpt from "The Volga Boatman." Simon Ashlund in Sweden suggested "Conquest of Paradise." That turned out to be dynamic and moving music, and I like it, but it wasn't the one. Adrian McCarthy said to check out "O Fortuna" from the opera Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. It seems to be an experimental opera; maybe some day it will be on video so I can see and hear it. I think that's it, because I heard it in the background of a TV ad for that production. He said it's in the soundtrack for the movie Excalibur. Shla'tekkin the Centaur also mentioned Excalibur. As it happens, I have that on cassette, so I played it, and yes, that theme does appear. So this one has been nailed. My readers are just so smart.

Several readers identified the Latin quote. It seems the copy I had used single quote marks that looked like lower case L, so I had it wrong. It is Oderint dum metuant, or "Let them hate, so long as they fear." Fred Heywood and Bettina Dilger clarified that for me. The bad Roman Emperor Caligula had that philosophy, now echoed by the American administration. Parallels to imperial Rome are apt and disturbing, as are those to Germany's Third Reich.

Then there's the song I heard once on the radio when hitchhiking in 1953, whose refrain I remembered as "I'm glad I kissed those other lips/ Before I kissed your own; / If I had not kissed those other lips,/ I never would have known." Decades later I heard Eddie fisher sing it on TV. So I started collecting Eddie Fisher songs, but it wasn't there. I have a hundred dollar book listing American popular songs, but it's not there either. It seemed to have vanished, per that cosmic deletion agenda mentioned above. Ann Holme Cooper was doing research on Eddie Fisher songs, and picked up my reference in an Internet query, and told me it is "When I Was Young," circa 1953. But it's not listed in my book. So she sent me the words, and it surely is the song, almost what I remember: "I'm glad I kissed the other lips/ Before I kissed your own. / For I was young, so very young, / I never would have known." I looked up the site she listed, and it is as she described it. How could Eddie Fisher sing a song that the official records deny exists? The workings of this reality-changing power continue to intrigue me, particularly when the break isn't quite clean.

Which brings me to the movie Matrix Reloaded. In this period we saw Bullet Proof Monk, which was fun but not great, and X-Men 2, fun and solid with some nice female shapes. Preparing for the third, I watched our video of Matrix, and you know, that's a better movie than I remembered, making more sense. Here in the Speculative Fiction genre (do not call it Sci-Fi, you turd) the works of Phil K Dick are well known, and this was reminiscent of his takes on ever changing reality. I mean, how do we know reality? When we examine solid matter too closely it turns out to be mostly vacuum infused by electrically charged motes, beginning and ending we know not when or how. So the reality we think we know could indeed be a construct. Matrix Reloaded continues where Matrix leaves off, with a bit too much pointless kung-fu type fighting for my taste--the repetition bores me when every blow is countered, on and on--but has a nice car chase. Does it make sense? I doubt it, but I'll watch the third one in the series. Certainly it helps explain the reality-changing phenomenon I have remarked on here. When a black cat walks by, and walks by again, that's a hitch in reality that means it's being imperfectly changed. Okay, and when an Eddie Fisher song or a Molly Malone legend disappears only partially, isn't that a similar indication? But who is doing it, and why? I think some healthy paranoia is in order.

I mentioned growing volunteer things in our garbage garden. Well, the fenced potato, tomato, and squash all did well. The potato ran its full course and died back, leaving a nice medium-small new potato. The tomato is still growing, spreading voluminously, but is not yet producing fruit; these plants take time. The squash grew up the chicken wire fence, reached the top, and set up ten flower buds. The flower at the base bloomed, and then the second. Meanwhile I had a number of squash seeds left over from last year, so decided to plant them before they faded; I don't know how long they last. So these were planted squash, an exception. Then as I left the garden my foot snagged on the other squash fence, and I windmilled, losing my balance. And accidentally ripped out the fence, and the squash with it. Appalled, I replaced it, putting the broken stem back in the ground and watering it, but of course I had killed it. Except that it wasn't dead; the leaves all wilted but it opened another flower. In a week it started new little leaves. It was recovering! But then caterpillars or something ate off the leaves. In its weakened state it couldn't handle that and it died. It would have been producing squash by then, if I hadn't ripped it out. Okay, so now there are 34 new squash plants growing; the loss of that one still bothers me. I cared about that one.

Simultaneously there were adventures with the wrens and wasps. The wrens increased their nest to five eggs, in due course hatched them--and it must have been a snake, coming in the night and bloodlessly cleaning them out. All were gone, the nest undisturbed. So the wrens set up house again, building a new nest in an old umbrella I had leaning in the corner of the pool enclosure. It seemed a singularly insecure site, but soon they had a nest and three eggs. And when they hatched--the predator came again and they were gone. This is nature in operation, but it bothers me. The little wasp, the one whose wingspan hardly extends beyond a thumbnail, slowly constructed her nest and in due course hatched three more wasps. They set to work enlarging the nest--and something took the entire nest away. There were four wasps with no nest. They they were two wasps; maybe the newest ones couldn't survive without it. Two two set about rebuilding on the same site, and now the nest is shaping up again. Three more wasps have hatched, so now they are five. Will the brave effort suffer the same fate? I worry. I suspect many folk would find it laughable to be concerned about the individual welfare of garden plants or birds or insects; that's the way I am, nevertheless.

Which brings me to another subject: Asperger syndrome, AS. This is a relatively newly devised diagnosis that is coming to the fore. It is a mild form of autism; it has been conjectured that some leading figures may have had it, like Albert Einstein. Three key symptoms are obsessive interests, difficulty in social relationships, and problems communicating. Folk with AS have trouble with casual chatting; they can't do small talk and generally lack a sense of humor. But they can grasp complex systems, and can be great musicians, mathematicians, engineers, or physicists. Or to put it my way: their brains are wired for performance, not socializing. They are more akin to powerful motorcycles than to friendly horses. The geeks of Silicon Valley may run to this; that would explain why they produce such powerful programs that somehow don't relate well to the needs of real people, with manuals that may be technically accurate but don't help much. Asperger syndrome.

I have been pondering a parallel track: empathy. This term was coined about a century ago and means literally "feeling into." A person or creature with empathy can imagine another person or creature's emotion and feel something similar himself. He infers what others feel, and reacts to it, to a degree. Few animals do much of this, but some more than others, and primates most of all. Mankind has taken it to an extreme. I'm sure it facilitates hunting, because our ancestors could get into the minds of their prey and know how it would react, where it would hide. It facilitates social intercourse, because people understand how other people feel. It helps make large social groups feasible, and tribes, states, and nations. I conjecture that it is a lack of empathy that typifies AS. Those whose brains are wired into complicated disciplines have less circuitry for social feeling. Thus geeks. Similarly those who are strong on empathy may lack the qualities necessary to accomplish great tasks.

So how does all this relate to the squashes, birds and wasps? I do tend to feel their feelings, as I understand them, and hurt when they hurt. I feel similarly for my characters as I write fiction, and for my readers, to whom I relate well. It may make me a better writer, and is surely something technically minded critics have trouble fathoming. They are different mindsets. But it is a mystery, because my research into my own family history suggests that my ancestors suffered from lack of empathy, and may have has AS. They tended to be great businessmen or highly religious, even founding their own cults. How did I come to be different--or am I different? There are qualities in me that echo those of my father and grandfather and other relatives. I'm a workaholic with a dedication to my craft that resembles religious fervor. But I do have empathy and a sense of humor, and am adept at small talk. So I wonder.

So on to writing: I wondered whether I should read some Romantica, the sexy romance genre, to see how it compares to my own naughty erotica. ELLORA'S CAVE took me up on that and sent me two novels in exchange for The Magic Fart: The Empress' New Clothes by Jaid Black and The Switch by Diane Whiteside. The first is science fantasy wherein Zor, the masculine hunk king of a planet, seeks his Sacred Mate, who turns out to be the earth girl Kyra. He abducts her and marries her. His culture practices sex often and openly, in full detail; no ellipsis here. During a banquet he reaches out and titillates her clitoris until she climaxes; she can't stop him, being bound by magic and not wanting to make a public scene. Women have multiple orgasms; men have sex freely with sexy female forms. There is still the pervasive yearning, the instant knowledge that he or she is The One that seems typical of Romance, but this does have a story and more sex than you can shake a penis at. The Switch is contemporary, standard to a point: Woman in bookstore encounters a handsome man and is intrigued. Soon they are alone together practicing a form of dominance. Indeed, this is a bondage/sadomasochism story; the trick is that each partner has to be able to switch, being dominant or submissive. Genital, oral, anal, whatever, done fully. There are things like nipple clamps on either party to induce some token pain, and butt plugs to affect the nature of sexual penetration, without ellipsis. So if you are into kinky sex, this has it. But the characters are carefully drawn; they do have lives outside the bed. It's well crafted and I liked it, though I am not into its elements; there is a certain education to be had here. So is this pornography? No, because it has characterization and a developed story. Is it sexy! You bet. Is it equivalent to my dirty books? In sexual detail, yes; in fact it has more detail. But mine still break the Romance taboos, because they don't draw the line at bestiality, necrophilia, urination, defecation and similar scatological issues. Mine also get into demon sex, impossible for normal human beings. One example: when a demoness wants to punish a man, she runs her limber tongue into his anus and squeezes his prostate, forcing him to ejaculate again after he has spent. It's not fun; it feels more like rape. So mine are too dirty for this genre. But if you like competent sex with character and story, instead of all-sex or no-sex that some conventional genres force on us, Romantica is the genre for you. ELLORA'S CAVE started it but other publishers are imitating it, so you should be able to find all you want.

One day I checked my email. There were 67 in, but when I trashed the spam it boiled down to 14. This is annoying; even if I wanted a larger penis or to pay off all my debts, I wouldn't need several solicitations in those areas each day. Everybody complains about spam but it just gets worse. According to an article in the April 25 2003 THE ECONOMIST it is costing Americans maybe ten billion dollars this year lost in productivity and extra spending to combat it, and worldwide costs are much larger. So what can be done about it? The answer, as I see it, is simple: the servers should charge for emails. If they cost one cent each to send it wouldn't break regular folk, but it would hit the million-copy spammers with $10,000 bills for each mass mailing, and that would sober them up rapidly. So obviously spam can be stopped--if those who transmit it want to. Similar goes for viruses: if my computer can spot and eliminate viruses, why can't the servers do it, and decline to forward any? That would speed up the Internet, because those viruses are much bigger than simple emails. So again: why don't they? Obviously they don't have the welfare of users in mind, but I should think it would simplify their own operation. Are they stupid, or is there some reason they want spam and viruses? Meanwhile some hackers are going after the spammers, locating them and jamming them with so much spam that they can't operate. Guerrilla computer warfare: I love it.

From time to time I have corresponded with Osmond Beckwith, an erstwhile small publisher who published one of the most significant volumes I've read, Rationale of the Dirty Joke by the late G. Legman, that presents thousands of dirty jokes and analyzes them, showing how they relate to the core nature of mankind. Legman said that he could judge character by a person's favorite dirty joke, and surely he could. My favorite relates to communication in a story, and I had the pleasure of advising Mr. Legman that his comprehensive compendium lacked it, as he acknowledged: I had heard one he hadn't. That was a naughty thrill. But Beckwith is a person in his own right. In 1981 I bought his anecdotal novel Vernon, which I took to be autobiographical; there are things that really can't be said straight, so must be cloaked as fiction. This year he sent me Polly, self published with no credits at all; the text simply starts on page 1 and ends on page 447. It's about 145,000 words, a solid book about a special woman, written I think circa 1990. Beckwith I believe is older than I am; he won't be around forever, and he writes well. So if you are interested in out of the way material that Parnassus ignores, consider this offer: the author will supply sample copies of both Polly and his earlier wood-engraving illustrated novel Vernon to e-mail requests to OsmondBeckwith@hotmail.com or by snail mail to Osmond Beckwith, 376 Franklin Road, Denville NJ 07834. This is a genuine offer and not an advertising gimmick. Like so many of us, he wants his material to be read, and at this point has printed copies to spare. But if you care to, you could send him a $5 bill to cover packing and shipping. Sure, you can wait until after you receive the books, if you remain suspicious.

One of my roommates in college in the 1950s was Robert Pancoast, a class ahead of me and two or three years older. He was odd in ways, so was my kind of person. One fall he and I hiked the southern Vermont portion of the Long Trail, I doing it in bare feet. One summer he joined me logging at our forest farm in Vermont. Once he and I went camping with our respective girlfriends. Mine remains with me; we'll celebrate our 47th anniversary in JeJune. His did not. He graduated and moved on in life, becoming an economist. He married and divorced. Then he went to Ukraine as an economics teacher. There in Ukraine, lost, not speaking the language, he was desperate for someone who spoke English. He encountered a librarian, Nelli, who spoke just a little English, and he fell on his knees before her singing a verse from a popular song whose Ukranian words he really didn't know: "You are the one I've been waiting for!" She feared he was a bit crazy, but did help him find his way. It became a wacky romance, and in due course they married. Robert was happy, having found love at last, but he missed American food. When McDonald's opened its first outlet in Ukraine in 1997, its first customer was Robert Pancoast. They gave him a ride in an air balloon. Nelli wasn't sure about this, but they took the ride. It turned out to be a bit more of an adventure than planned. The balloon drifted off course and fell into the Dnieper River. The pilot managed to get it aloft again, but they were soaked. Robert suffered ill health thereafter, and sued McDonald's, but evidence mysteriously disappeared so it didn't get far. They were short of texts in Ukraine, so I put him in touch with my old high school roommate Ronald Bodkin, an economics professor in Canada, who was able to help him with economics texts. I facilitated their visit to America to attend the college reunion of 1998, where my wife and I got together with them and they met a number of old friends, and then they went on to visit the Bodkins in Canada. Robert got some treatment for his eyes in America and they returned to Ukraine. His health problems continued, and on February 27, 2003 he died. He was 71. I got the news from his widow Nelli as I was writing this column. The old order passeth. About all I can say at this point is that I'm glad Robert got some happiness toward the end of his life.

In Mayhem we had a visit from our two and a half year old Granddaughter, her parents trailing along. She was cute and active. It has been some time since we had children that age. It was fun, but we discover in our dotage that we don't care to tackle child raising from scratch again. We played with marbles, with the gyroscope, with the seven unit Babushka doll from Ukraine, endlessly taking it apart and putting it back together, with cloth dolls, with cookie tin converted to drum. We went to the forest park where there were all manner of swings and slides and things on springs, and a few other children to interact with.

I continue to break in the left handed compound bow in archery. I can now draw it well enough, but there was something skew about my aim. First arrows kept going right; I fixed that by raising the right side of the arrow rest. Then they started going low, though I wasn't aiming low. I remembered when I kept missing to the side with the prior bow and fixed it by getting a new arrow rest that didn't let arrows slide off when loosed; this time I suspected that the arrow rest, which is spring mounted, was dropping down as I loosed. So I used a bent paper clip to jam it in the upright position--and then my arrows missed high, not low. Okay, that didn't improve my score but suggested that it was indeed the equipment; I can't score well when the arrow rest lowers my aim a random amount. I'm not sure why it's sprung, since that does seem to spoil aim, but at least I fixed it. Meanwhile I heard back from Laval Falks, mentioned last column, and learned more about him. He is serving as the national Federation director of the Archery Shooter's Association (ASA), coordinating and providing direction for the ASA's 210 member archery clubs across the nation. He's an active tournament archer on both the local and national level. So as I said before, he is serious about archery, somewhat the way I am serious about writing. No, I haven't asked him about why an arrow rest should be designed to drop an arrow randomly low, fearing that his answer would make me look idiotic. My guess is that the arrow rest is intended to stabilize an arrow so that a shaking hand or trace irregularity doesn't foul the shot, like a shock absorber on a car preventing the jolts of the road from jarring the passengers, but that my 34 inch long arrows are too heavy so weigh it down. I see that the ASA site has an ad for Cabela's, the same place where I order targets. Every time I miss my target array and lose or damage an arrow I get more interested in larger targets. I've been looking for one lost arrow for over a month now. The poor thing probably thinks I've forgotten it.

Recent studies have indicated that the Atkins diet actually works, at least at first; after a time there's no difference from other diets, so it's not a permanent cure. I don't like the Atkins diet, ever since my father tried it, eating all fat, and did not lose weight; in fact by the time he died he weighed so much that he could no longer stand. By then he was off Atkins, but my annoyance remains. It mainly proves that you can eat anything and lose weight if you limit your diet to that one thing and take supplements to provide other necessary nourishment. There's a more sensible way: have a balanced diet and don't overeat. For good health exercise regularly, sleep well, try to avoid unnecessary stress, stay low on sweets and alcohol, and away from tobacco. It works for me; I remain my college weight. All it really takes is reasonable discipline. Why is that so scarce?

Have you seen that new bra, NuBra? Two pink hemispheres that stick to the breasts and hook together, making a woman look upstandingly bra-less. No, I haven't persuaded my wife to wear one. Sigh.

Those Nigerian solicitations continue to come in, several a day. But some are getting more original. One was from Princess Joy Mswati of the ruling family of Swaziland, who got into trouble when she protested her elder brother the king's decision to forcefully marry a seventeen year old virgin as his tenth wife. Joy had to leave, and now needs to siphon her $25 million out of England. 15% to me if I help, and who knows what other favors from the Princess? Too bad I'm a cagey old man.

Depression is one of my buttons; as I have said, I have skirted its abyss close enough to have a grim respect for it. I've had considerable correspondence with teen girls not because (as some critics would have it) I'm sexually attracted to underage flesh, but because I do not laugh at or belittle their depression; I know they are suffering. I'd like to know how to truly abolish it, even if that should cost me some readers. Despite claims of psychologists, the problem is nowhere near solved; in fact it's getting worse, and a sizable segment of the population experiences it. An interview in NEW SCIENTIST for April 12, 2003, says depression will soon rank second in the global disease burden, suicide rates are rising, and the toll is horrific. Mental illness costs Britain two billion pounds a year, and surely more in America. It seems that depressed people have excessive REM (rapid eye movement) sleep: they dream far more than healthy people do. Wow--now I know why I'm a dreamer! Dreams are there to process memories--that's been my thesis for years, and slowly science is catching up to me--but in some folk they overload and use up a lot of energy. Treat that problem and it might abate depression in a day. Depression, this interview suggests, is not merely a chemical imbalance in the brain; it is caused by worry about needs for control, meaning, intimacy, connections, and this worry is a misuse of imagination. Now I have the most active imagination I know of; could it connect to my mood? Would abating my mild depression cause me to lose the quality that makes me a successful writer? That's scary. It seems that counseling that encourages introspection will inevitably deepen depression. Freud thought that the unconscious mind was like a cesspool, so the noxious elements had to be conjured up and expiated. But dreams do this already and shouldn't be duplicated. The interview also suggests that the right and left brains may not communicate well with each other and so left-hemisphere thoughts can come across to the right hemisphere as "hearing voices." And folk with good imaginations are more likely to suffer post traumatic stress. I'm not sure I can afford to believe all this, but it's worth pondering.

Another question of the day is torture. There's plenty of it; ask Amnesty International. I am appalled by it; I think torturers should be hung up by their thumbs and probed with hot irons until--um, let me reconsider that. (For the slavering critic who has somehow read this far: this is grim humor, not an expression of hypocrisy.) But here's the crux: if a kidnapper buries a child in a vault with only 12 hours of air, and you catch the kidnapper but he refuses to tell where the child is as the hours pass, do you give him a good night's rest as the child dies, or do you do what it takes to make him tell? That is, torture him. I'm not sure I can answer that question. If you justify torture in one case, it becomes easier to justify it in another, in a deadly slippery slope, until at last folk get tortured for criticizing the government. But if you let kidnappers get away with it, many more children will be at risk. There's also the fact that an innocent person will say anything, especially what the torturers want him to say, to escape further torture, so the results are not necessarily reliable. Remember the Inquisition, where women confessed to having sex with demons. Police would be able to elicit a confession confirming their charge, even if they have the wrong suspect. There's too much of that already, as DNA testing is demonstrating. So I'm against torture, but could squirm some if pressed on specific cases.

I trust most readers know I maintain an ongoing and sometimes feisty survey of Internet publishing and services for the benefit of aspiring writers. Every so often I phrase something there in a way that pleases me, so here are a couple of examples. A writer was displeased with the response of one publisher, but my information about this publisher was good, so I said: "I think you should keep them on your list, as a future piece might connect and they might do better with it than a hungrier publisher would. To make a crude analogy: if you were single and looking, you might be cautious about cursing the handsome billionaire just because he didn't ask you out, because the neighborhood grease monkey who is eager to get into your pants may not really be a better prospect." Another publisher came back with a good response to my caution about preserving movie rights, and that got me into a spot discussion perhaps of more general interest The publisher quoted my shouting (that is, the capitals) and added to it: "DON'T LET THE PUBLISHER GRAB MOVIE RIGHTS--UNLESS THEY ARE LIKE LIONHEARTED WHO HAS THE CONTACTS AND PARTNERS TO DEVELOP THOSE RIGHTS." Then my discussion: "If an author doesn't have an agent, working through the publisher may be the best shot for a movie. So there you have the 'He said, she said' abridged dialog. I must say that movie options are complicated and a writer who tries to handle them alone is likely to get stung, so this does make sense. If a movie option offer comes to you and you don't trust the publisher, GET AN AGENT. If it's a real movie offer, any agent will jump at the chance to get a piece of the action. That's likely to mean a regular agent for your book, and a separate Hollywood agent the book agent will contact. Yes, maybe double commissions, but do it anyway; barrels of money may be on the line, but the sharks in those waters can be fierce. If the movie interest fades out the moment an agent appears, it's probably either spurious or a rip-off ploy; a real movie outfit will be satisfied to work with an agent."

Shorter shrift: NEW SCIENTIST had an article about Cold Fusion. That was the fabulous low-tech breakthrough to garner fusion power that turned out to be spurious, to my regret. Except that it seems one outfit didn't give up on it: the US Navy. The Navy is not noted for wild goose chases, so this is interesting. Simple, cheap cold fusion power would be a world-transforming breakthrough. We'll see. US NEWS & WORLD REPORT has a letter remarking that Nazi Hermann Goering, when asked how Hitler gained the support of the German people, said that it was fairly easy to convince them that they were in imminent danger of attack while denouncing the pacifists as unpatriotic and aiding the enemy. Considering the recent American campaign against Iraq based on claims of weapons of mass destruction, it is evident who was paying attention to Goering. US NEWS had more on Hitler's machinations, which evidently remain a model. The Humanist magazine FREE INQUIRYs Spring 2003 issue has an article titled "Fascism Anyone?" by Lawrence W. Britt that considers five repressive regimes and what they had in common: Powerful expressions of nationalism. Disdain for human rights. Scapegoats as a unifying cause. Militarism. Sexism. Controlled mass media. Obsession with national security. Religion tied to the ruling elite. Power of corporations protected. Power of labor suppressed. Suppression of intellectuals and the arts. Obsession with crime and punishment. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Fraudulent elections. Of course, the article concludes, we don't see any of that in democratic America...

Over the years I have supported environmental causes and organizations, but sometimes they disappoint me. I dropped The Wilderness Society when its chief executive bulldozed old growth trees from his property and the Society ignored my pointed query. Now I learn that the Nature Conservancy, which accepts donations of property, sells it, and uses the money to buy and protect environmentally sensitive land, is not exactly what I thought. It has amassed three billion dollars in assets, but has logged forests, engineered a $64 million deal paving the way for opulent houses on fragile grasslands, and drilled for natural gas under a breeding ground of an endangered bird species. Corporations like General Motors, American Electric Power Co, and Georgia-Pacific have been represented on its board, and Mobil Oil, Exxon, and Dow Chemical Co are major supporters. It seems somehow loath to get at all confrontational with the big polluters. This is not to say that it has joined the enemy, but probably other organizations will more truly represent the environment, and my interest will turn toward them.

And Sunday, JeJune 1, as I struggled to wrap up this column, there were other things to do. A letter explains it, but first I must explain the letter: In a Georgia school they have a program relating to Flat Stanley. In that story Stanley was squished flat, but that made it possible to mail him places so he could readily travel. Well, twelve year old Courtney sent me Flat Courtney, who looks a little like Raggedy Ann, asking me to report on local activities. Here is the text of my letter:

Dear Courtney,

And here is Flat Courtney back. I don't like to travel, so I didn't go out of town, but today I did go to see a movie with my wife and daughter. You see, they each had a birthday in Mayhem, so we celebrated it by going to see Finding Nemo and eating at a restaurant. So it was a good occasion for Flat Courtney to participate in.

Finding Nemo is a wonderful movie about a little orange clownfish, Nemo, who gets abducted by a dentist and put in an aquarium. His father Marlin is desperate to rescue him, because he's the only survivor of 400 baby fish. (Ugly story; no need to go into detail.) He sets out with Dory, a blue lady fish with a short memory; she can't remember what happened more than a moment ago, so she's not a lot of help, but he can't get rid of her. They get accidentally swallowed by a whale who takes them to the coast of Sydney, Australia, where Nemo is captive. A pelican tries to help them, but things get fouled up. There's a hilarious scene in the dentist's office where the dentist is running around trying to catch the pelican and a little girl is screaming her head off, and the folk in the waiting room think this is horrible dentistry. Nemo plays dead and finally manages to get flushed down the toilet and washed back out to sea, and all ends happily after a few more scares. There are some lovely colorful scenes and some scary ones, but overall it's a lot of fun and you'll surely like it if you haven't seen it already. I'm sure Flat Courtney loved it, especially blue Dory fish, who is almost as flat as Courtney.

Then we stopped at EL RANCHITO for a Mexican dinner, but Flat Courtney didn't eat anything because she didn't want to get fat. I mean, a burrito is as fattening as a small burro, and she wouldn't fit in the envelope.

PREVENTION sent me a solicitation: "Let food be your Miracle Medicine." I'm a vegetarian and do pay attention to my diet; those who say vegetarianism is unhealthy are ignorant about what smart vegetarians eat. But I've always been a bit wary of PREVENTION. For one thing, it uses what I call prick-tease ads: the kind that lead you on, then deny you unless you pay. "Just one small serving of this delicious 'miracle' food gives you more protection against cancer than 60 cups of broccoli!" See page 221 of their touted book. But this booklet does give some hints; it recommends preventing cancer with strawberries, and says one little carrot a day slashes your risk of stroke by 68%, and to live longer eat pizza, and that grapefruit is your mighty shield against breast cancer, pasta will stop heartburn, heal a wound with honey, eat a pear to slash your cholesterol, reduce your blood pressure with celery, fight heart disease with nuts, prevent cancer with cherries, perk up your love live with apricots, and stop the stinging and itching of a bee sting or mosquito bite by rubbing it with an onion. I suspect that just about any food is considered good for something, so a healthy diet should accomplish wonders without the need for this book. But about vegetarianism: anyone is a potential convert, because they have discovered that many tropical ants are vegetarians, and there is also a species of piranha fish in French Guiana that is vegetarian. Maybe "Piranha" could be taken as a condensation of "Piers Anthony," so this vegetarian could have relatives you wouldn't want to mess with.

Post card addressed to Anthony Piers suggests this new version of the Pledge of Allegiance: "Before the flag of the United States of America I FREELY pledge allegiance to that republic's Constitution and to the democracy enshrined within, our nation one with valor, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Makes sense to me.

Every so often Dear Abby reruns a hilarious story titled "A Dog Named Sex." It concludes when Sex gets lost, and the owner looks for him in an alley. Challenged by a cop, he explains "I'm looking for Sex." His case comes up Friday. Not connected except in my wicked imagination is an item on a local plant: at Coral Gables, Florida, they have a rare tropical flower that bloomed. They call it Mr. Stinky because it smells like a cross between rotting roadkill and eggs left in the sun, the putrid stench suffusing the neighborhood. Here's why it relates to a name like Sex: its official designation is Amorphophallus titanum, loosely translated as "enormous vague phallus," looking like a seven foot tall male member. So if you come to see it, when the cop inquires what you're looking for, say "A stinky seven foot penis." He may not be amused.

Which reminds me in turn of another news item, seriously unfunny: In Ethiopia women have a serious problem, obstetric fistulas. A women doesn't have much independence in that neighborhood, so can get pregnant early and may have a baby too big for her pelvis. After several days of labor without a doctor, the baby dies, and the girl is left with a hole between her bladder, vagina, and maybe also her rectum. Thus urine and feces drip constantly down her legs, and she stinks. She may be abandoned by her husband or rapist and driven out of the village. She can be attacked by hyenas who are attracted by the smell and come to tear her apart. Dr. Catherine Hamilton has helped 24,000 women overcome this condition, and two American women are campaigning to get people to donate one dollar each to make up the money that President Bush cut, to prevent and treat these fistulas. Dr. Lewis Wall is begging for funds to build a fistula hospital in West Africa (www.wfmic.org).

A reader put me on to the Betty Dodson site, www.bettydodson.com. It's about liberating masturbation, erotic sex education, and promoting sexual diversity. So if you want to see nonjudgmental discussions of sex that aren't straight porno, this is one place. One man says that he loves to sniff a woman's panties as he jerks off, and asks Betty to send him hers. She declines because she doesn't wear panties. A woman's fantasy of sex with her father makes her feel dirty sometimes. Then there's the joy of fist fucking. There's a woman's letter to her man, going into detail about how she will penetrate his rectum with her nine inch dildo. Actually there is similar in the Romantica novel The Switch discussed above, so this is evidently current practice. It seems sexual role reversals are enjoyed by some. I admit to ignorance: where is the line between "straight" and "gay" sex? If the dildo is wielded by a woman it's straight, and if by a man it's gay? Does it matter? There's a sodomy case that relates, addressing whether the same act of anal penetration is normal if done with a woman and criminal if done with a man. Then there's Jane Juska: at age 66 she feared her sex life was over, so she placed an ad inviting sex with any man she liked. She got such a response that she wrote a book about it: A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. But a newspaper column suggests that a marriage based on being really hot for each other may not be the best basis. I agree. When I was with a girl in college, I considered whether there were factors beyond sex appeal to make an enduring marriage, and concluded that there were. So I married her, and we'll have our 47th anniversary this month, JeJune. An Internet forwarding says that in the 1500s most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May; even so, brides carried bouquets of flowers to hide their body odor. That is evidently still true today.

Look, I have so much stuff in my "Column" folder that I could go on way too long; I can't comment on it all. So let me cut it off here, concluding with this from NEW SCIENTIST: Women it seems have a double life. From their fathers they get an X chromosome (boys get the Y), but since they already have one from their mothers, one has to be turned off. This is accomplished randomly, so that a woman is a patchwork of mother and father X chromosomes. This can lead to patches of different kinds of skin, to auto-immune reactions, and to considerable differences between identical female twins. So they aren't identical, despite having the same genetics and upbringing. Maybe that explains some of the mystery of women; they really are more complicated and conflicted than men.

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