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Piers Anthony at work
JeJune 2005

Now I think it can be told. As I start this column, Mayhem 28, 2005, it is my wife's 68th birthday. There were times when I suffered nagging little doubts that she would make it. She suffers from a progressive illness that slowly robbed her of her strength, until she was unable to walk or even stand, and could not use her hands well enough to type. I had to heave her in and out of the wheelchair and take over all the household chores, as described last column. She saw doctor after doctor, but the relentless malady continued. Her mind was unaffected, apart from the extraordinary frustration of being unable to do even simple things like washing herself, but she had essentially lost her body. Well, now we have a diagnosis: Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, CIDP for short. That tongue-twister describes a rare (figures differ, ranging from one in a hundred thousand to one in a million) malady that vaguely resembles Lou Gehrig's Disease, and Muscular Dystrophy, and Multiple Sclerosis, but is less deadly because there is a treatment for it. It may be considered the chronic form of the Guillame-Barre syndrome. In layman's terms, the myelin, or fatty insulation around her nerves, was getting stripped, so that the nerve signals were not getting through to the muscles of her arms and legs, and the muscles were wasting away from disuse. Think of an old fashioned radio or TV set, with all the tubes and wires, with bugs eating away the insulation around the wires so they short out. Too much of that, and the set stops functioning well. This is not her only health problem, and of course I have my own, but it's the one that we have had to reckon with at this time.

Fortunately, as mentioned, there is a treatment. It is, it seems, fabulously expensive--thousands of dollars per dose--but we are covered by Medicare. She was given five four-hour infusions of Immunoglobulin G in the hospital, and in a week her physical volition started to return. At this writing, two weeks after the treatment, she is able to move her arms and legs, to stand briefly, to wheel herself around the house, and to do the spot exercises the physical therapist requires. We hope that soon she will be able to walk again, perhaps with the walker, and to drive again. We don't know how far her recovery will progress. She tires readily, and must rest for much of the day, but there is a reasonable prospect of sufficient recovery to enable her to live an almost normal life. She may have to have regular booster treatments once a month, but if they give her back her life, good enough. Medicare also helped with some home care; a procession of nurses, therapists, and an aide came to assist, and that made a significant difference in the darkest days. Our daughter also lent invaluable help; as I believe I have quoted before, “A son is a son until he takes a wife, but a daughter's a daughter all of her life.” We had the wit to have daughters.

I still handle the household chores, and my time remains squeezed, but with the recovery of my wife, some of my working time is coming back. Last column I described how my novel writing went from 78,000 words in December to 17,000 in March. Well, in April it was 24,000, and in May, 30,000. I may even be able to write my next Xanth novel on schedule, and make its deadline. But this business has impressed on me the cold equations governing my livelihood. For decades my correspondence has taken approximately one third of my working time, not because I love writing letters, but because I feel it is part of the profession of writing to be reasonably responsive to one's readers. But when my working time plummets, it can get to where I'm spending as much or more time on correspondence as on paying writing. Something has to give. No reader wants to be cut off; in fact this month when I directly answered one, he thought that some functionary had answered in my stead and sent a hurt missive. I told him politely to take his suspicions elsewhere; he apologized, and all is well. But this suggests the kind of response I would get if others really did take over my mail, as I understand is the case with most “celebrities.” I put that in quotes because I don't regard myself as such. So it's a problem. I have no staff. Hitherto my wife has downloaded my email, I have penciled brief answers, which she has transcribed to email answers. With her illness I had to learn how to do all that myself, so my letters were if anything even more personal than before--and surely riddled with more typos and confusions. It may be that if the movies based on my novels or series are made and do well, I really will become a celebrity, and my fan mail will expand to the point where I will have to hire folk to handle it. If that happens, I'll let you know in this column.

Meanwhile I'm still plugging away, and pondering ways to save that huge chunk of time so I won't overrun my deadline on Xanth. I suppose if I have to hurt feelings in order to get my paying work done, then that's the way it will just have to be. I think I will have to shorten these bimonthly columns, and slow down on the survey of electronic publishers too; these things simply gobble time I can no longer afford. I fit reading in while waiting for my wife at the hospital or doctor's or therapists offices, and sometimes made writing notes there so that if I got two hours at home alone I could buzz out a thousand words of fictive text, which would be it for that day, before returning to the hospital to pick her up. It isn't just my writing that has slowed; I have excellent magazines like NEW SCIENTIST and US NEWS & WORLD REPORT that I really like to read, as I have a lively interest in the world around me, but these and others are piling up unread. My accounts haven't been caught up in weeks. We had to request a postponement on our income tax, because it is complicated--there are dozens of supplementary sheets with their obscure instructions, requiring spot research into disordered piles of statements and receipts, and it is simply beyond our ability at present. We haven't gone out to see a movie in months (and the statistics show it: box-office receipts are down), and even the videos I bought and want to watch sit untouched. Entertainment? That's out, when my writing time sometimes comes at the cost of my sleep, there not being time enough for both. It hasn't been a fun period. Our daughter gave me the first season of Family Business, and I watched the first few episodes and love this sexy humor, but that too got squeezed out unfinished.

Of course if my wife recovers fully, I'll recover more time; but I suspect that I will never have the writing time I had before. I'm not going to let her drive into town alone until I'm sure she's well enough, and that may not be soon if ever. She won't be taking back the household chores until she's ready. So I expect to continue for now. Actually I'm learning where things are in town and the grocery store; I've done more driving and shopping these past few months than I did in decades before. I've learned how to use the microwave oven, the toaster oven, and the big stove oven; how to make salad, how to wash dishes, use the rickety laundry washer and dryer, and so on, and I'm more efficient at these things than I was. But sometimes the hectic schedule of doctors, hospital, therapy, and assorted necessary shopping left no time for lunch, and I simply used “glop”: the nutritive supplements you can buy in cans or bottles, like Ensure, Nutrament, Boost, or the house brands that match them in food value at a cheaper price. I have managed to stabilize my weight, using these. Sometimes there's even a bit of food fun. I'll put a chocolate kiss on my wife's plate when I serve a meal, a token. We have desserts now, as we did not before, like pudding, ice cream bars, or brownies. So maybe they aren't the healthiest things, but when you are forced to contemplate the chance of there being no tomorrow, as it were, some indulgence seems warranted. Once when I brought her myriad required daily pills I slipped in an M&M, similar size and shape. Yes, she noticed. You see, every pill is color and shape coded, so a person doesn't eat an emetic instead an anti-acid. I've learned how to cut pills in half, too; there's a neat little tool, though it gets tricky on oblong pills. Once I made a smiley face on the peanut buttered bread she has with her late night pills, using the half-pills for eyes. It's her penalty for marrying a creative person; she should have known better. There were other bits of humor: when her sister called, I held the phone near enough to be sure she could hear and called “It's your stupid sister!” Old family joke. When the IV nurse at the hospital mentioned how expensive the medication was, and my wife mentioned that soon we'd get the report on her diagnosis-confirming muscle biopsy--that was a surgical procedure, not a mere needle stick--I said “Wouldn't it been too bad if it turned out this is the wrong treatment--especially if it's working.” I tend to make people laugh wherever I go, though I am largely anonymous by preference; they assume I'm simply a retired fogy who was once a teacher. Well...

Some readers have expressed surprise or gratification that I have tackled my wife's situation as I have. It's not as if there is a choice. Did they think I was going to put her in a ravine and leave her bones to the jackals? This is marriage, not a passing convenience, and she would have been doing the same for me were our positions reversed. Bear in mind that she's the one who went to work, decades ago, so I could stay home and try to achieve my foolish dream of becoming a writer. Thus I became known while she remained anonymous. I have a very long memory for that sort of thing. I have read of young wives who give up their higher education and go to work so as to put their ambitious husbands through medical or law school or whatever; then when those men get successful they dump the wives and seek more educated ones. I'm sure there is a name for that sort of attitude, but it would be too obscene for this column. Yes, my wife never finished her college education, because of me, though having a higher IQ. We married for life, and death will us part--not soon, we hope. I have heard from several other house-husbands who sent their sympathy; obviously they also take their marriages seriously. I don't mean to give the impression that it's all fun and generosity; that is far from the case, and it has not been a vacation.

Perhaps related: from an article by Sheila Reed in the newspaper Seniority supplement: Communication is the key to a great marriage. “Many couples said that there needed to be a balance of humor, commitment, respect, compromise, friendship and trust.”

One incidental change is my hair style. My wife and I used to cut each other's hair one a month or so, as barber and beauty shops are too awkward to reach and too expensive. She can no longer cut my hair, so it's growing longer. So now I'm wearing a ponytail. It started pretty grubby, because it's hard to do it with one inch of hair and my clumsy hands behind my head, and holding it in place was a struggle. So I shopped and found a set of little girls' clips that look like miniature clamshell dredging buckets in pretty colors, and they work well. As my hair grows longer, it should get easier and neater, and I'll look less like a refugee from a horror house. Now I notice men with ponytails, and there are a number, some with a foot or more of length. I am also jealous of women with their longer hair that all sweeps faultlessly into a perfect plume, without the messy straggles I inevitably have. Women have it easy. (Ooops--now comes the barrage of outrage from women. I was talking about hair, not sexist society. This time. Honest.)

What else is new? I boo-booed last column when I mentioned Other Losses, the book that exposes the way the allies killed a million disarmed German soldiers after World War Two was over, listing the reviewer as the author. The author is James Bacque, and it's an idiotic mistake because I actually talked to him on the phone once.

I tried skipping my ongoing archery reports, figuring that readers would be bored, but some turned out to be interested. So here's another report: I made a record of a sort. One day my right side score, counting when I hit the center minus when I miss the whole bleeping target, was 2-1. My left side score was 0-12. So of 24 arrows, I missed with 13. My last session, after starting this column, was 2-2 right side, and 1-10 left side. Par for the course. But here is the significance: since I'm missing more than half of them anyway, I decided to experiment. I have assumed that my hand twists the bow as I loose, and that sends the arrows wrong. So this time the arrows were clustering right and low. So I tried deliberately twisting the bow to the left. And it made no difference; I continued to miss right. So then I tried deliberately twisting it right--and one missed way left, two right, same as before. It made no difference how I twisted the bow. All this time I have been trying to correct a fault that made no difference. So what's with the left side bow? I don't know, but it seems it isn't me. Which verifies what I've been saying: the arrows simply aren't going where I'm aiming them. This seems supernatural, but there it is.

I got a new debit card, and it's a blessing. It gives me cash, it pays for my gasoline, it pays for prescriptions and groceries. I had been using my wife's, but we concluded it was time for me to have my own. But there's one curios thing: it has a PIN number so that I can prove I'm me. But I can get gasoline just by giving my zip code. So if someone stole my card, all he'd have to do is know the local zip code and he could use it, no PIN necessary. So where is the safeguard? Am I missing something?

A quarter century ago we bought 200 AT&T shares, just before the company fissioned into Ma Bell and the seven Baby Bells. This was deliberate on our part; we wanted easy diversification. With all the further splits and mergers the picture is hopelessly confused now, complicating our taxes, and we'd just as soon cash them in and be done with it. Meanwhile we're getting statements galore, and endless proxy votes. There's always a single slate of directors you can vote for or against, sort of like Russian style democracy. They will have shareholder proposals relating to curbing runaway executive pay--does someone really need several million dollars a year and a platinum parachute to sit in an overpriced easy chair and watch the company lose money? Shouldn't political contributions be subject to verification by the shareholders, who may not all be rich Republicans? Shouldn't there be independent auditing, to avoid Enron style accounting? The directors inevitably argue against all the stockholder proposals, but I always vote for them as a matter of civic duty. Does it make any difference? I doubt it, but it's the principle of the thing.

I don't pay a lot of attention to television, mainly because I'm trying to make supper, catch up on a worthy magazine, or do some necessary chore. There are shows I'd like, if I could afford the time to pay much attention. I try to watch Las Vegas, because of all those scantily clad girls, and CSI for the intriguing crime mysteries, but don't really succeed. But one that does command most of my attention is House, about the quirky irascible doctor who is nevertheless a genius in his profession. I guess I identify in some devious way with quirky irascible geniuses, or maybe with cases of mysterious incapacitating illnesses. I told my wife, before her diagnosis, that she should go see Dr. House. I wonder if he's an Asperger? So I got caught up in his awkward romance with the young lady doctor, who is for my taste as lovely as any woman on TV, especially when they let her try.

I commented last column on the report that some children have imaginary friends, while I, perhaps unfortunately, did not. I have a further thought on that: I realized that many adults also have imaginary friends. They call them God, Allah, JHVH, Zoroaster, or some other term, and it is considered socially correct to walk with, talk with, and beg favors of these supernatural friends by means of prayer. Indeed, they try to persuade others to have the same friends, and can get violent when others don't respond affirmatively. There may have been more war justified by religion than by any other motive. I remember a long ago statement by Paul Harvey: “All over the world, people are killing people in the name of religion.” It remains true. I remain agnostic.

Each year the chimney swifts colonize our unused chimney, and young ones get down into the fireplace and we have to help them out. We meant to screen the chimney off last winter, but got distracted by other things--see this column's opening paragraph--and didn't. Now they are back again. But recently I read an article saying that modern chimneys aren't the same, being unsuitable for swifts, so they are suffering loss of habitat and are fading as a species. Sigh; we'll let our chimney be.

As I age, my brain gets brittle. I try to exercise it by doing the daily newspaper chess and word jumble puzzles, and by writing challenging fiction, but it still ossifies around the edges. I lose track of words I know. I think it is that they are in my memory storage bank, but the access lines are getting clogged or demyelinated so I can't always reach them. For example, I wanted the term for a place where criminals or other socially undesirable folk are sent to be put safely out of the way. You know, agnostics, liberals, feminists, novelists, retirees and similar ilk. No, not prison, not Reno, not Australia, not Hell. What is the word? Well, I remembered that Robert Heinlein--he was a noted science fiction writer, for you children who came on the scene recently and think the Ten Commandments were originally sent from Bill Gates by email--had a story that used that word as its title. So I went to my library and located the collection of his stories The Past Through Tomorrow, published the same year as my first novel, 1967, and looked through the table of contents, and there it was: “Coventry.” That's what it took to run down that word. I should reread that story; it's a good one. In fact I should probably reread the whole book. Now if I only had the time.

I have two books to comment on, that both relate to doing heavy writing in the space of a month. The first is First Draft in 30 Days by Karen S Wiesner, who does the annual Definitive Guide to Electronic Publishing that I have quarreled with because she was loath to include the self publishers that actually do about 90% of the books. She knows her stuff, though. Let's say you are an aspiring writer, and you're not concerned with being a best seller or famous, you just want to write your novel for the sheer satisfaction of it. You have no idea how to proceed, because you have tried several times but always stalled out, uncertain how to put it all together and not wanting to settle for less than your best. Well, this is the book for you. It is subtitled “A novel writer's system for building a complete and cohesive manuscript,” and that's what it is. I liken it to an income tax form: maybe a pain to fill out all those lines and boxes, but when you do, you have the job done: in this case, the job of organizing your novel. It is paced for one month, and at the end you will have so thorough a summary that you can write the thing at your own pace and be sure there will never be Writer's Block. It really is an instruction manual for creative writing, oxymoronic as that may seem.

The other book is No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, and it is complementary in nature. (Note the spelling: complEment, not complIment: it meshes nicely with the other book.) This is by the guy who started the fad of writing a 50,000 word novel in a single month, quality no object, just for the experience. It is all about motivation and making the time. Its schedule is as rigorous as Karen's book, but the purpose differs significantly. Karen wants you to work out a good novel, maybe an award winner. Chris wants you just to bat it out; you're a winner when you hit that 50,000th word, no matter what it is. His subtitle is “A low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days,” and that's what it is. I have heard from my readers who have tried it; I think mine weren't successful, in that they did not bat of the required wordage in the required time, but they still found it a formidable experience. So is there a point to writing without plot, characterization, theme, or anything? Yes, actually, because these things will come with your later revision, using the framework to build a better work. In that sense it is similar to Karen's book: that first month is a way to set up for more careful work to come. You can do it from your detailed summary or from your wild and woolly complete text; in either case you have something substantial to work from. That may make a big difference.

So is either process the way I work? No. But you see, I have been writing novels for 40 years and have done over 130 of them; I have had a certain amount of experience and already know the ropes. I probably do the things described in both books, just not formally. They happen automatically as I write, the myriad elements constantly sifting into place. When you have been noveling (marvelous term from No Plot?) for several decades, then maybe you too will be able to wing it as I do. But if you are a beginner, this is good stuff to consider. Both books have nice comment and advice along the way. “There's no wrong way to write a book--but there are ineffective ways of writing.” KW. “It's fine to just start. And making it up as you go along does not require you to be a particularly gifted novelist.” CB “Sadly, too many authors believe that outlines are a last resort. They see writing as a magical series of epiphanies that somehow takes them from the first page of a novel to the last with little or no premeditation.” KW “Treating a novel like a hands-on writing classroom--where advancement relies as much on dramatic failures as it does on heroic successes--has been an amazingly liberating experience for me.” CB “Most of us have one thing in common: We come up with ideas in a chaotic, nonlinear way.” KS “Ray Bradbury said it best: 'Your intuition knows what it wants to write, so get out of the way.'” CB I could continue with worthwhile quotes, but I trust this makes the point: if you want to write a novel, but somehow can't, these books, singly or together, will get you there. Karen has advice for making your characters come to life--give them internal and external conflicts--while Chris has advice on motivation: “A little fear goes a long, long way.” That is, your fear of ridicule if you quit. Karen is practical on an intellectual plane; Chris is practical on a gut-level plane. Heaven and Hell, as it were. Both have their places in writing. Both books recommend brainstorming, which is thought or discussion in an effort to come up with ideas and solutions. Of the two, Karen is better for the serious writer, while Chris is more fun to read. Healthy nourishing salad vs. junk food.

When I dug into my files of old printed HiPiers issues to get the Gyspsy discussion last column, I made a serendipitous discovery of another piece I did that I'd like to share with you. Here it is, dating from just ten years ago:

A Little Something

Two years ago I was approached by an advertising agency: they had this great idea for a TV ad campaign for jeans, and was I interested? I considered their notion, and liked it, so I agreed, and referred the matter to my literary agent for handling. He was in the midst of negotiations when the jeans folk suddenly ceased communicating. No such ad campaign was run, as far as I know. My impression of ad agencies is bemused; I picture rare wild birds who take flight without notice. So I was left with the presentation I had worked up as a six part series, adapted from my Mode framework; it had nowhere to go. So now I present it to you, as an excerpt from what might have been. Try to visualize this as a series of one minute cliffhanger adventure TV sequences, with a handsome actor wearing clean fitted jeans, and a lovely actress in well-filled jeans that incidentally tend to catch the camera's close eye. I think it would have sold a lot of jeans, had it come to be.

Jordache Mode

Chapter 1:
         Yon paused as he encountered the attractive young woman in jeans. The street was crowded, and they had almost collided on the sidewalk. In fact her chin brushed his shoulder as she twisted to avoid him. “Sorry,” she said, with an embarrassed little smile.
          “My pleasure,” he replied gallantly. He wondered whether he should say more, or just get out of her way.
         But before he could decide, rods of light appeared before him. He hesitated, then touched one with a finger, in case it was something dangerous, like a laser beam. He discovered to his surprise that it was solid, if translucent; it might look like light, but it was some kind of shining plastic bar.
          “It's a cage!” the woman cried, frightened.
         Then the sidewalk vibrated, and the world beyond the bars flickered and disappeared. A new scene formed around them: a huge cave. Yon looked wildly around, and then up. Their cage was suspended from a stalactite, hanging above what looked like boiling lava.
          “We've got to get out of here,” Yon said, too surprised to be frightened. “Uh, I'm Yon, as in John only with a Y.”
          “I'm Alethea,” she replied. “Letha for short. How can we get out? These bars seem strong.”
         He took hold of one and wrenched it hard. It gave a little. “Maybe if we pull on it together.”
         Letha put both her small hands on the bar. Yon had to reach around her to get his own hands on it near hers. “I'm not getting fresh,” he said.
         She glanced down at his jeans. “I have to trust a man wearing my brand of jeans.”
         There was a noise like a deep gong being struck behind them. Startled they both looked back, their faces almost touching. A platform appeared, and on it was a huge horrible vaguely manlike shape with enormous insect eyes.
         Terrified, Yon and Letha hurled themselves at the shining wall of their cage. The bars splintered, and they lurched together out into the air. Letha screamed piercingly and clutched him as they fell. On any other occasion, Yon would have loved the experience.

Chapter 2:
         They landed in water. It was a rushing river, carrying them rapidly downstream. Yon, an experienced swimmer, righted himself in a moment, but then saw that Letha was in trouble. She was being carried through the rapids down toward what looked and sounded like the brink of a waterfall.
          “I can't swim!” she gasped.
         Yon spied a tree leaning over the water. He threw up a hand and caught it. With his other hand he caught at Letha's clothing. Then he drew himself to the base of the tree, out of the worst of the current. In a moment he could stand. Letha was still floundering, but he had a firm hold on a belt-loop of her jeans and was able to haul her to safety. He couldn't help noticing that she filled those wet jeans very nicely.
         Then she got her own footing and stood beside him. “You saved me, Yon!” she exclaimed, hugging him.
          “Well, I had to, Letha,” he said, trying to make light of it. “You're wearing my brand of jeans.”
         She smiled as she disengaged. Her hair was plastered against her head and shoulders and her clothing was soaking, but she looked quite good to him. “But how did we get out here in the wilderness? We were in a volcanic cave.”
          “I don't know,” he admitted. “But maybe we can find our way back to civilization. Come on; I'll help you up the bank.” He put his arm around her slender waist, no longer feeling awkward about it. They started up the steep bank of the river.
         There was the sound of a gong behind them. They both looked back, alarmed. There was the bug-eyed monster on its floating platform, coming after them. Letha screamed.
          “Run!” Yon cried, half yanking her along with him as he scrambled up the bank. But the monster was close behind.
         Suddenly the river bank disappeared. The two of them fell forward, stumbling.
         They were on a broad plain--and before them was a huge-fanged dinosaur.

Chapter 3:
          “Don't scream, Letha,” Yon whispered urgently. “It may attack if it knows we're afraid.”
         Indeed, the reptile seemed to be considering an attack anyway. It made a hissing growl and licked its snout, eying them. But it didn't advance, so they had a little bit of leeway.
          “I'm dry!” Letha exclaimed, surprised. “So are you, Yon.”
         Yon glanced at her. She was right; her clothing was dry from blouse to jeans, and her hair was no longer matted. She looked just about perfect. He was no longer dripping, either. “This must be a--a new mode of existence,” he said. “Every ten feet or so we enter a new reality, and we don't take anything from the old one.”
         She caught on quickly. “So if we can move ten feet, maybe that dinosaur will be gone!”
          “If I'm right. But then we'll be in some other world, maybe worse than this one.”
          “I don't think so. That thing is about to charge.”
         She was right. The dinosaur was settling into a crouch, as if about to spring at them. It looked big and strong enough to catch them if they tried to run--and Yon did not want to step back, because they might find themselves in the raging river again. “Maybe if we surprise it by diving under it as it pounces,” he said. “If we can get ten feet--”
          “Good idea,” she agreed. “But Yon, in case we don't make it--” She drew her face up to his for a kiss.
         He obliged. It was amazingly sweet. Perhaps the tension of the occasion heightened the emotion.
         Then the dinosaur charged. The two of them dived directly toward it, and under its huge belly. They hit the ground, and scrambled--
         And they were on a tiny ledge, high up the sheer face of an impossibly high mountain, about to fall.

Chapter 4:
         Letha stifled her scream. Both of them grabbed for the bits of rocky outcropping within reach. Letha's came away in her hand, and she started to fall outward from the mountain.
         But Yon's hand had caught solidly. He flung his free arm around Letha and hauled her in. “Gotcha,” he gasped. “And I won't let you go. Trust me, Letha.”
          “I do, Yon,” she said. She looked down, and closed her eyes, wincing. “Get me safely off this mountain and I'll show you how much.”
         Yon would have been quite interested in the implication, if he weren't so concerned for their situation. “I think we have to inch our way along for ten feet,” he said. “That should put us in a new reality mode--maybe a better one.”
          “I'm afraid of heights,” she said. “I don't dare open my eyes.”
          “But if we don't move--” he began.
          “Maybe ten feet down is as good as ten feet across,” she said. “Suppose we jump?”
          “But if you're afraid of heights--”
          “I can do it with my eyes closed.”
          “Maybe I can move us along this ledge,” he said. “Keep your eyes closed; I'll guide you. Now stretch your hand out. There's a good ridge within reach.”
         She reached out. Then Yon saw the bug-eyed monster. It appeared on its platform, floating in the air at their level. It had some sort of device in its tentacle. It swung the nozzle around to point at them.
          “Jump!” Yon cried, suiting action to word.
         The two of them pushed away from the cliff face and plunged toward the distant ground.
         And landed on the cross-ties of a railroad track. But this was scant improvement, because there was a train bearing down on them.
         Now Letha felt free to scream.

Chapter 5:
         Yon searched desperately for a way off the tracks, but they were in a deep railroad cut with walls of granite rising steeply on either side. He knew that there would be no more clearance than necessary, because the railroad company would not have cared to spend the money blasting out extra rock. They were stuck directly in the path of the onrushing locomotive. He saw its head-lamp approaching at frightening velocity.
          “Letha, we must run ten feet,” Yon said. “To get into another mode.”
          “Right, Yon!” Letha agreed. They held hands and ran along the track, away from the train. But nothing changed. They must have gone in the wrong direction.
          “I think this is the end, Letha,” he said.
          “Maybe not,” she said. “I heard that there's always some clearance under a train. Maybe if we lie down flat between the rails, it will pass over us.”
          “I never thought of that!” he said. “It's our only chance.”
         They quickly got down between the rails, lying side by side. The ground shuddered with the mass of the approaching machine.
          “Want to know something weird?” Yon cried over the roar.
          “What could be weirder than this?” Letha cried back.
          “I think I love you.”
         She smiled wanly. “It must be my jeans.”
         Then the train was roaring over them, blotting out all other light and sound.
         When it passed, they picked themselves up. “About what you said--” Letha began.
          “I didn't mean to embarrass you. We hardly know each other. Forget I said it.”
          “But is it true?”
         Yon was suddenly abashed. He tried to work up the courage to answer. Letha waited expectantly.
         There was the sound of a gong. The bug eyed monster appeared on its platform. Its tentacles twiddled with knobs on its sinister device.
          “Run the other way!” Yon cried.
          “Got it.”
         They ran between the rails in the direction opposite to that of the train. The bug eyed monster pursued them, aiming its device.
         Then they were in a chamber. There were bags marked with dollar signs all around.
          “We're in a bank vault!” Letha cried, astonished.
         Behind them the massive vault door closed, sealing them in.

Chapter 6:
         Yon tried the vault door. It would not budge. There was no way to open it from inside. “Letha, we're locked in!”
          “And we don't have ten feet to move to another room,” Letha said. “Yon, I fear we're done for this time.”
          “Maybe a bank official will let us out.”
          “Let's hope so. Yon, about what you said--”
          “We're probably going to die,” he said. “So I might as well admit it. Yes, it's true; I think I love you, Letha.”
         She smiled. “And I think I love you, Yon. It has been a brief but intense association.”
         He took her in his arms and kissed her. “Even if we die, maybe it's worth it.”
         There was a gong. The bug eyed monster floated in on its platform.
         Yon grabbed for a bag. “They say you can't throw money at problems,” he said. “But I'll try.” He heaved the bag at the monster, but missed.
         The creature twiddled with its device. Suddenly there was a new voice. “Wait, man creatures!” the device said. “I am here to help you!”
          “You and my tax auditor,” Letha snorted.
         Yon picked up another bag. “How are you going to help us?” he demanded.
          “We are saving two of the finest specimens of your species, male and female. Now you must come with me to the zoo, where you will be excellently cared for.”
          “How do you know we're the finest?” Letha demanded.
          “By your youth, health, and quality apparel. We observe that only your most intelligent members wear that brand.” A light speared out and illuminated their jeans.
          “Okay,” Yon said. “I'll give you that. We have good taste in apparel. But what are you saving us from?”
          “The imminent destruction of your planet by a meteor strike.”
         Yon looked at Letha, appalled. Could this be true? He had the sick suspicion that it was. Yet the notion of spending the rest of his life in a comfortable zoo with her had its insidious appeal.


Back to the dull present column. And I can't help wondering whether Jordashe's fortune might have been better, had they stayed around long enough to make and run those commercials. Ah, well.

As regular column readers know, I am politically liberal, and have a profound distrust of the machinations of conservatives. I remain suspicious of the last two presidential elections. Now a reader sent me a link to Black Box Voting at www.blackboxvoting.org/ , a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to consumer protection for elections. It tells how a hack demonstrated how he could alter the election results by 100,000 votes, leaving no trace. “It calls into question the results of as many as 40 million votes in 30 states.” Exactly. If a hacker could do it without a trace, what about the company that makes the voting machines, openly dedicated to electing Republicans? A reader or two has assured me that there really wasn't anything odd about the exit polls that didn't match the election results; the Kerry folk voted early, so were better represented, is all. THE WASHINGTOR SPECTATOR had an article that relates. It seems some exit polls were altered after the election outcome was known, making them retroactively confirm to the published vote tallies. The original polls told a different story. The exit polls did differ from the official tallies, and this should have been random, except that in every case the variance of the tallied votes went toward Bush. This occurred in every one of the close states. Statistically that's an indication of a problem or outright fraud. There is an easy explanation: the voting machines were loaded dice favoring Bush. Thus he retained the office despite the thwarted will of the voters. It is a continuing disaster; the voters can no longer simply vote out a bad incumbent.

Recently I have had songs constantly going through my head. Now this could be a sign of mental breakdown--critics will emphatically agree--or merely songs I heard on the radio that got lodged for a while. But I had the radios off, because I needed always to be able to hear my wife if she called, in case she wasn't near an intercom. Also, some of those songs are not on the radio. They come from all over, many from incidental contacts, like the parodies of ads or sacred songs: “Pepsi Cola, stinky drink, pour it down the kitchen sink; smells like vinegar, tastes like ink.” “Far above Cayuga's waters there's an awful smell; part of it's Cayuga's waters, most of it's Cornell.” No disparagement intended; these are just what I first heard as a child. “My favorite pastime after dark, is goosing statues in the park; if Sherman's horse can take it why can't you?” I've always loved songs, of any nature, and memorized many in my youth, and those remain pretty much with me today. So here are some of the lines I was hearing, which I think have a certain interest of their own apart from the music. I generally know the titles and melodies, so they aren't mysteries in that sense, but maybe some will evoke memories in readers of my generation. “Dip his finger in the water, come and cool my TONGUE 'cause I'm tormented in the flame.” “Cleanse us with the blood and water streaming from thy pierced side.” “All day we faced the barren waste without the taste of water. Cool, clear water.” “Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.” “Angelico, Angelico, mama's going to take you back; Angelico, Angelico, teach you all the things you lack.” “Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing; Onward the sailors cry; Carry the lad who's born to be king, Over the sea to Skye.” “I feel pretty, oh so pretty...I pity any girl who isn't me tonight.” “Hey, look me over.” “For the last time, pretend you are mine; my darling, kiss me goodbye.” “But the vaults are filled with silver, that the miner sweated for.” “Tell ol' Pharaoh, to let my people go.” “And the earth smells of summer.” “And I will hear the sod you tread above me.” “Dem bones, dem bones, dry bones; now hear the word of the Lord.” “I went to the rock for to hide my face, And the rock cried out 'No hiding place! No hiding place down here.'” “Young girl inside of me just had to learn, that the woman inside of me must have its turn.” “Take me out to the ball game.” “The night of the marriage, she lay on the bed; her breasts they were heaving, her legs they were spread.” “Down by the station early in the morning; see the little puffer-bellies all in a row.” “For to maintain my two brothers and me.” “Cheer up, weary traveler; after darkness comes the day.” “Down beside some water flow, by the banks of the O-hi-O.” Make of it all what you will, the sonic stalactites of my draining skull.

Some time back I received an email query from the TV quiz show Jeopardy about the pronunciation of Xanth. Then early in May it was a question there; my wife heard it: “Xanth is a series created by this author. If you say his name you'll hear it in his name.” And--O shame!--no one was able to answer it. Pier-Xanth-ony. Thus was my fifteen seconds of fame aborted. And no, that juxtaposition wasn't intentional; I thought of it only years later, when Xanth got famous.

We have two cars: a 1995 Saturn station wagon, and a 1995 Ford Aspire. Both have given good service, but we aren't big drivers. In fact, until my wife's illness, I hardly drove at all. In the course of a decade we have put 20,000 miles on the Saturn, and 30,000 on the Ford. Now we are considering replacing them. We're interested in one that can better handle a wheelchair--it's a chore to jam it into the little Aspire, and my wife can't even get out of the low-slung Saturn. We also like good fuel economy. In the old days on good days I got 40 miles to the gallon on my Volkswagen Bug. Then they stopped making them, and of course the company's fortune plummeted. You have one of the most successful models ever produced, so you quit making it? Idiocy abounds. So how do we get good size AND good mileage? We're pondering the Ford Escape SUV with the hybrid engine. But it costs about $10,000 more than a conventional engine, and even if it reduced our fuel cost to zero, we would not earn that back in a decade. Sigh. Apart from that, I really like the Saturn, one of the safest cars made, and am not eager to give it up.

I am a rainfall freak. We have a rain gauge, and I keep a record. Each month this year there has been more rain. But it looked as if May would not beat April's 6.5 inches, because a day before the end the total was only 4.6 inches. Then on the last day, mostly in the last two hours, we got a thunderstorm: Fracto dumped 3.6 inches on us, bringing the month to 8.2 inches total. Phew!

I have piles of clippings and such I wanted to comment on, in my irascible plain-speaking way. But I am out of time. I have novels to write. So I simply have to cut it off here, and probably future columns will be shorter. I also may have to stop routinely checking Publishing Survey sites, and settle for spot updates as things are called to my attention. I regret this, but that's the way it is.

Well, a compromise: I checked the pile and pulled out three items. There is the case of the Naked Nanny in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was constantly grabbing at her breasts and buttocks. She was 23 and the employment wasn't ideal, but she had to work where she could. He watched a sex scene on a video, then demanded that she remove her clothing. She was tired, having been working 100 hour weeks, and finally it was easier simply to yield. She took off her clothing and lay down on the couch, letting him handle her all over, poking his finger into her vagina. Then his mother appeared. The nanny was arrested and is now a registered sex offender. The boy agrees with his mother that he did nothing wrong. He was four years old. Okay, she was of age and he was underage, but I think they got it backwards, and that boy, so readily forgiven the most abusive behavior, is apt to grow up into full criminality.

Elsewhere in the nation, Mary Kaye Letourneau was close to one of her grade school students. After several years, when he was 12 and she 34, they had sex, and in due course she had his baby. She was sent to prison. She got out, and had another baby by him, and was imprisoned again. Now the two have married, she 43, he 22. She can no longer be punished for loving him. What is the age limit on true love? Were they wrong, or was society wrong?

And from a letter in the ST PETERSBURG TIMES by James McGill: “Inconvenient as it might be to acknowledge, Jesus was a liberal by almost any definition of the word.” Yes, and he was crucified for it. “As for atheists, it is possible to believe that Christ got the message right without having to believe there once existed a God on earth, walking on water and raising the dead.” Amen.

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