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Piers Anthony at work
OctOgre 2005

You haven't had enough of irascible liberalistic ranting? Well, keep reading, and get another bellyful. Age does not seem to be mellowing me.

Half a slew, maybe even three quarters of a slew of notes this time. Let's start with the reader responses on the questions I asked last column, such as what about dentures? I said I was tired of pouring money into the black hole of my mouth, only to have continued pains and repairs. Well, at first it seemed to be about 50-50 on whether dentures were smart or a mistake. One book says that dentures will subtract ten years from your life, though I don't see the rationale. But as responses continued, the balance shifted to about 80-20 in favor of dentures. I didn't keep any exact tabulation, but I think my informal impression is close enough. Some were savage. One said that dentists will tell you that nothing can match your own natural teeth. “They lie!” Some feel that dentists simply want to keep the expensive work coming in. I would not accuse them so harshly, but I have observed that a person's philosophy is strongly affected by the source of his income. Thus you get workers wanting a minimum wage raise, job health benefits, and more paid vacations, aligning with the political liberal persuasion. Businessmen want lower wages for workers, lower taxes on profits, and for the government to stay the hell out of private enterprise, aligning with the conservative persuasion. Such views are deeply held, verging on religious conviction--but trace the money, and the root of the philosophies clarifies. (So why didn't I convert to conservative, once I made a small fortune writing funny fantasy? Well, I did, financially. I remain socially and intellectually liberal; that doesn't affect my income. So I'm not breaking the rule. Also, they say you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy. I remain a farm boy at heart. You have heard of Piers Plowman?) So naturally dentists would see the preservation of natural teeth, whatever the cost, as best. But the folk whose mouths and budgets have problems would prefer to have a cheap, permanent, comfortable fix. One article says there is a new candy, CaviStat in BasicMints, that mimics saliva and counteracts the tooth decay process. That interests me. I don't care about candy, but would love to finally stop my tooth decay. One application neutralizes harmful plaque acids for nearly 24 hours. It's supposed to be available later this year through dental professionals. We'll see.

One thing I learned: it makes a huge difference how good the dentures are. For a perfect fit, you need to go to a denturist. That's denture + ist. One who specializes in dentures. A regular dentist is unlikely to do a great job on dentures, because he lacks practice and it will cost him money in the long run. So I asked my dentist for a referral to a denturist. The closest he could come in this neck of the backwoods was a prosthodontist ( = tooth replacement specialist), and I haven't yet seen him. One thing that inhibits me is the amount I have already invested in my mouth, with a dozen root canals, four implants, and countless onlays and crowns. I hesitate to rip all that out unless I see mouth-heaven within reach. So I haven't decided anything, but do appreciate the informed advice of many readers. I'm surprised by how many turn out to have teeth like mine: despite diligent care, they rot.

Then there's the origin of the terms head for ship's bathroom and mess for military restaurant. These, too, are interesting, and I had many informed responses. It turns out that the head was originally the front end of the ship, where sailors went to defecate and urinate. Now you'd think they would prefer to do it off the rear of the ship, and let the stuff float harmlessly away behind. Not so, for in the sailing days the wind that powered the sails came from behind. So it was the head of the ship where the solids, liquids, and especially the smells were blown away. It does make sense. When things changed, and ships were propelled by other than wind power, the name stuck, and it remains the head. You bare your tail in the head. In my Bio of a Space Tyrant series the future navy has a tail as well as a head: for mandatory weekly sex.

The first to send a detailed discussion of mess was Thomas L. Bruns. The original sense of the word was “a quantity of food.” This broadened to include the dishes used, the mixture of ingredients, and the group regularly taking their meals together. It could also mean sloppy or unappealing food. Often four folk ate together, such as half a gun crew. Thus mess deck, where the crew ate. There was also a German word mischen, meaning to mix. You can see the later meaning of the word emerging from this, uh, mess of origins. Now we know.

Other continuing news: my wife's improvement proceeds, and now she hardly uses the wheelchair or walker, and sometimes not even the cane. We do have a disabled parking ticket now, and in large parking lots she will use it, because though she can walk well enough 50 feet to the store, she would have a problem walking a thousand feet in one of those miles-wide parking lots. So things are good. However, this condition does not necessarily continue to respond to medication, and this is not her only problem, so we remain wary. The other shoe has not yet dropped, and summer could yet progress to winter. Meanwhile her recovery has enabled me to write at about ¾ par, instead of the ½ par I expected. That pleases me, though I am still postponing time-consuming things like cleaning house and clipping back our long drive until after I make my deadline.

On occasion I mention TV ads I like. For a while there was a car ad featuring several lithe young female drummers in red. I wish they had put the damn car shots in the background and let us see more of those dramatic women. And the marching bands facing off: Red, Blue, Black. They do that one right, spending most of the time on the bands, and then concluding with their ad for bread.

My wife keeps our business accounts, and tax time came at the depth of her illness. Our taxes are complicated; supplementary papers can be something like 50 sheets thick. It still irritates me that the Reagan-era tax reform turned out to mean tax cuts, not simplification. How about a flat tax with no exceptions, so ordinary folk don't have to hire tax accountants just to figure out how much they owe, and no two accountants agree? So we filed for a postponement, sending in the estimated money without the tax forms. By August 15 she had recovered enough to catch up on the forms--and we owed more money, because of being caught by the AMT, the Alternative Minimum Tax. Donating to charities, suffering business reverses, and so on are valid tax deductions, but it goes for naught with the AMT kicks in. Okay, what I want to know is where is that AMT when all these multi-billion dollar corporations pay zero taxes despite monstrous profits? Why does it seem to apply only to those of us with legitimate deductions? That's a rhetorical question; we know the answer. In the current political atmosphere, the big boys are supposed to get off free while the grunts pay though the nose. Too many grunts are too stupid to catch on, so they vote in administrations that promise to persecute gays and put God into government while continuing the economic rip-off. It is to vomit.

I had spot surgery on my cheek. No, not my ass; my face. I had spotted a little patch that would crust over, then clear, then crust again. So I called it to the attention of my skin doctor, and in due course he cut it out. It turned out to be a precursor to squamous cell carcinoma, not threatening but could become so if allowed to develop long enough. Thirteen years ago the same doctor took out a basil cell carcinoma on my right ear, cutting out a pie-shaped slice and sewing the ear together again smaller. Reminds me of a limerick about a man with ears of two different sizes. Never mind; it's a clean limerick. These tumors are cancer, but distinctly less dangerous than the bad one, melanoma. I doubt I was ever in much danger. I was also slated for spine surgery the end of SapTimber, to facilitate the fusing of the crushed disk in my tail. Every day I am limited by pain if I don't watch my motions, and if I sleep in the wrong position I can really regret it. I'd like to get it the hell fixed. But it turned out that I'd have to spend three months recuperating, doing no real exercise other than walking, no archery, no 20 pound dumbbells, no nothing beyond 5 pounds. So who would lift the 45 pound wheelchair into and out of the van for my wife? Who would even carry the groceries? And in three months the muscles and fitness I have spent decades developing would fade entirely away, and then I'd have to start over. If my wife had a crises, who would bail her out? The chances of her needing serious help in that time are significant. So I canceled; I simply can't afford it at this time.

I learned that Frances Wagner died. I have many fans, astounding my critics, and I try to answer their letters responsively. She was just another one, a teacher slightly older than I, Roman Catholic, very much her own woman. She was also a very private person, and I pondered hard before deciding to mention her here, as she surely would not have approved. What lifted her out of the throng, in my perception, was her mention of the time when as a girl she lived in Panama, and saw the poverty of the ordinary people there. She wanted to help them, and talked to the local Catholic priest. He told her, in essence, that it was impossible to alleviate the poverty of the masses; all she could do was impoverish herself in the effort. She was not quite satisfied with that. Neither was I. She called me a genius, not once but many times. I laughed it off; I claim to be a competent writer with a conscience, but that's genius only in a very limited sense. I concluded that it was her way of saying she liked me. It was a close correspondence. I introduced her to my father, and he would have married her had she been amenable. And I think she had more than a reader's interest in me. She would sent me gifts, though I tried to discourage this. She walled off her back yard to make a hidden garden, a bower, with ornamental shrubs and statuary, reflecting the privacy and internal beauty of her nature. At any rate she was a presence in my life, and her abrupt death from a stroke was a shock. She was quite health-conscious, as I am, and I thought she would exist indefinitely. I understand that she was about to start a letter to me when it happened. She was a good woman.

In 1977 we bought a pendulum clock. Wards had had an octagonal pendulum clock that intrigued us, and we ordered it, but it didn't work. They replaced it with another, and that didn't work. It turned out that both clocks had been dropped and broken. I think a whole shipment of them had been dropped. With that frustration on our minds, we went to a local clock store and bought a different clock. It winds with two springs, and the pendulum keeps the time. For 28 years it ran. But when my wife had to make her bed in the living room, being unable to mount the stairs to the bedroom, the hourly bonging was too loud, so we turned off the bongs. And the clock stopped. Well, it was getting old. But when she recovered enough, after six months, to return upstairs at night, I turned the bongs on and tried the clock again, and it's working fine, keeping perfect time. Except for one thing: it bongs the hour, one bong per hour, though the day and night--except for the hours of six and seven, when it bongs eight. Okay, we can handle that. It reminds me of the song “My Grandfather's Clock,” whose words I memorized as a child; it's a lovely song about the relationship of grandfather and clock, who lived and died together. My family learned the song from a book of songs, and discovered after a time that they had one note wrong: “But it stopped, short, never to go again, when the old man died.” The note marking “go” was hollow, meaning it needed to be held an extra half-note. “Never to go-o again.” I remember a friend humorously holding that note for several beats, “never to go-o-o-o-o again.” Fun. So will our clock stop forever when I do?

Another song I remember, in the ongoing musical refrain of my brain, is more humorous. It's a parody of the popular song that goes “I want a girl, just like the girl, who married dear old dad.” The parody goes “I want a beer, just like the beer, that pickled dear old dad. It was the beer, and the only beer, that daddy ever had. A good old fashioned beer with lots of foam; took ten men to carry daddy home.” They don't brew beer as they used to. I also remember one with a line “City girls just seem to find out early how to open doors with just a smile.” If that song were in Xanth, it would be “Ogresses just seem to find out early how to curdle milk with just a smile.” And I remember one I think was titled “You're In the Army Now,” with a line “You'll never get rich, you son of a bitch, you're in the Army now.” How come I never hear that line today?

Another spot memory. At my age we are mostly made of memories; bear with it. At one time I wrote little poems for thank-you notes for Christmas gifts and such. My wife's grandmother gave me a little key holder in the shape of an oblong padded box; the lid would open and the key could be kept inside. It reminded me of an ornate miniature coffin. My poem concluded “So thanks again for what you did, unearthing from the place it hid, the coffin with the flip-top lid.”

Which brings me to the movies, by one of my circuitous routes: The Corpse Bride. With my wife's recovery we are seeing movies again. I loved it; it's my kind of gore. Claymation, I think, with figures posed in clay, and animated by a tedious process of many slightly-changing poses. The young man, rehearsing his wedding vow while walking in the forest, finally gets it right, and places the ring on a twig, symbolically completing the statement. But it's not a twig; its the ring finger of a murdered girl, who animates and says “I do.” He has inadvertently married the corpse. There are maggots in her head, her left arm is skeletal; she is definitely dead and spoiling, but sort of cute for all that. My favorite sequence is when the two sit at the same piano and play a duet; the romance is becoming real. We also saw The Chocolate Factory after all, and Sky High, which was fun. So it's standard formula stuff; it was well enough done.

In this period I encountered an ethical consideration. To date I have not accepted payment for anything I blurb or recommend; my opinions are not for sale. Now I have an offer to lend my name for the promotion of a possible television series of adventures that I would neither write nor participate in. They may have been inspired by my Incarnations of Immortality series; there are elements of similarity. I have no monopoly on Death as a human figure; others have done it before me. My contribution to originality was to make Death an office that an ordinary person could occupy, like stepping into an existing position with a company. I also have had some fun with the Deathcar, that is way more than a car; in fact it is a transformation of Mortis, Death's horse. Well, this series has people discovering magically endowed cars and acquiring special abilities from that association. Again, I was far from the first to have a remarkable car in my fiction; I merely had my take on it. But taken as a whole, I believe this series has more than a coincidental affiliation with my novels, and elements may have been inspired by them. I have no problem with that; sometimes I get inspired by elements in the fiction of other writers. So I think my readers would find this television series interesting, though I have nothing to do with its essence or detail. The question is whether it is ethical for me to lend my name to its promotion in return for a percentage of the take. Pretty much free money. I am a commercial writer; I do write for money. But not only for money, and today I am financially independent, so do have a choice. I pondered, and believe I will try it and see. If I don't like the way it turns out, I won't do it again. If the deal goes through, and I receive 1.2 slews of reactions by readers/viewers who feel they were led astray by my recommendation, I'll surely heed their input. That's the polite rendition of “How could you back this crock of shit, you money-grubbing peckerhead?”

When I graduated from high school my great aunt gave me a copy of Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds. That transformed my summer. I had made it to that point unable to recognize any bird other than the cardinal, because it was all red. My bird-watching roommate Peter Wickham took me out bird hunting one day and helped me identify my first other bird: a slate-colored junco. But in that summer I learned virtually all the birds of Vermont, by constant observation in field and forest with reference to the book, and was never bird-ignorant again. However, thereafter I got interested in other things, such as education and girls, and didn't learn any more birds. If a Vermont bird passes by here, like the piliated woodpecker or hermit thrush, I recognize it instantly, but local avians can be a struggle. I do recognize the sand hill crane, however, by its call: it sounds like a squeaky grandfather clock being wound. Still, when I was exercise-running one morning I spied a bird flitting around that I thought I should recognize, a warbler. So I repaired to the book, and got it: the redstart. Good enough. Except for one thing: Florida is outside its range. Well, tough titty, experts; we do have restarts here in central forested Florida.

And my archery. I'm the “Peanuts” comic's Charlie Brown of archery; I never get it right. Tired of arrows flying anywhere except where I aimed them, with my left handed bow, I finally changed back to the old style arrow rest. There followed the usual several-session hassle of getting it zeroed in. I had to carve a block out of plastic foam to set the arrow rest out far enough so that the arrows would aim approximately where the sights did. I finally got it just about right, as mentioned last column. Then the plastic block flew off as I loosed an arrow. I recovered it and bound it securely with tape. But that caused the arrow rest to tilt slightly, and the arrows were falling out even as I aimed. I had to tilt the bow well left to prevent that, and zero in yet again. But when I had it almost right, the arrow rest tore itself loose from the block and disappeared into the terrain. So what now? I got a crazy genius notion: I made my own arrow rest. I took the left earpiece of an old broken pair of sunglasses and taped it to my block. And zeroed in again. And you know, it's working, sort of. My scores aren't better, but the misses are more consistent: all high, low, left or right. When I find the sweet center spot, who knows, I may finally be able to hit the target consistently. But my last effort, during this column, was 6.5 - 2 right side, and 1-10 left side. That's not promising. After a week I found the lost regular arrow rest on the drive, so may have to return to it, this time more securely fastened.

Odds & endments: There is a word pronounced click or kleek, meaning a coterie or small exclusive group of people. I had occasion to use it, so looked it up to verify the spelling. And couldn't find it. After interminable inefficient struggle I finally got there: clique. Now at last I know. I saw a picture of the shuttle being carried on the back of a larger airplane back to Florida, where it lives, and I realized what they were really doing: mating in flight. Some birds do it; obviously so do airplanes. I sent the picture to Jenny, so she'd know how airplanes reproduce. We still get reams of spam in our email. I say yet again: the servers could eliminate spam, viruses, spyware, and overlarge files--if they wanted to. Why don't they want to? How does it pay them to screw their clients? If it doesn't stop, in time the Internet will be vacated by serious folk, just as they flee a city buried in garbage. I let my trial subscription to PLAYBOY magazine lapse--it's fun, but I am after all in my 70s now and not in that scene--but they continue to send me issues. So I page through them. The October issue did me a spot favor, listing the seven media-forbidden words. They are defecate, urinate, copulate, vagina, fellatio, breasts, and having intimate relations with one's female parent. Interesting that a man can fart and ram his cock into her gash without violating the forbidden list. But he had better not sing a song about broken-hearted little tom-tits. Which vaguely reminds me: on a date, a guy can get to first base with a girl, or second base, third base, or a home run. But I've never been quite sure where the lines are drawn. I assume that first base equates to necking, above the neck, and second base is petting, below the neck. A home run would be full sexual interplay. But third base--ah, there's the rub. Below the waist? Oral-genital contact? Hands on each other's privates? Mutual stimulation? President-Clinton-style fooling around? I've never seen a definition. Anyone out there know for sure?

My exercise runs aren't what they used to be; my age and back have slowed them, but I continue on the theory that revving up my system thrice weekly is good for me. My mind is active--it's always active--and sometimes in this thinking time I get nice breakthroughs on novel plot twists and such. This time I remembered how the springbok, a south African gazelle, springs so efficiently that when it lands it recovers 90 per cent of the energy it uses when springing. And I wondered how much that would extend its range. And as with the supposedly simple weather probability calculation I struggled with a coupla columns ago, it turned out be not so simple for my septuagenerian noggin. Say it has an energy quotient of 100, and recovers 90 of that; that means it actually uses only 10. So that would extend its range ten fold (10 X 10 = 100). But suppose you calculate it another way, subtracting the 10 per cent it uses each spring. Thus the original total of 100 would become 90 after one spring, and 81 after the second (90 - 10%), 73 after the third, and so on down to zero. Such progressive chains typically use about half the total (the average of 1 to 100 would be about 50), which suggests it might extend its range only five fold. On the second jump, does it go only nine tenths as far, and eight tenths on the third jump? That reduces it further. So I wind up hopelessly confused, and I fear the lion will catch that poor springbok before it gets its calculations in order. Maybe it's an old one, and this is nature's way, taking out those who can no longer do the math.

I maintain an ongoing survey of electronic and self publishers, and related services, elsewhere at this site. I started it because I wanted a meaningful answer for aspiring writers' queries to me, and now it has something like 500 entries and has become an end in itself. I gather it is bookmarked by a number of folk who neither know nor care who I am; they just check that page. Okay, if it serves, fine. I regard this entire HiPiers site as a service to my readers and anyone else who happens to pass through; I'm not trying for any high listing on Internet rankings and am not eager to exchange links for any such purpose. I'm just doing what I feel needs doing, drawing on my experience in traditional and self publishing and my immunity to retaliation by publishers to facilitate the process for others. (Some know what's what, but fear they'll be blacklisted if they tell. Some know, but don't give a shit for the welfare of others.) I make no bones about my bias as a writer; as far as I'm concerned, if evil is being done, chances are it's a publisher screwing the writers.

But there is an Achilles heel in this smug assumption: I try to be fair. Sometimes the publisher, much as it pains me to say it, has the right of a case. An example is Venus Press. Last time I reported serious anonymous complaints against it; this time I'm reversing my judgment because the balance of evidence favors the publisher. I am still tacitly blacklisted in some circles; for example, chances are that if you read a listing of the best fantasy writers extant, my name will not be on it no matter how long a list it is. (Memory fogs, but I think I once saw a list of 50 top fantasy writers. I wasn't on it.) If you challenge it, you will be stonewalled, or they'll simply say that they have a right to their opinion that I am a poor writer. Indeed they do, but they may not be telling the whole truth. They won't call it a blacklist against someone who refuses to play the game. I don't want to do that to anyone else, not even a publisher. I fear I was taken in by a smear campaign. So if you have erotic fiction to sell, consider Venus, listed in my survey. And if you want to be entertained, consider reading some of my fantasy. No, nothing of mine is published at Venus; it's just an incidental parallel for the sake of artistic expression of an ugly reality.

Another publisher is JUST MY BEST (JMB), also listed. I give it a so-so entry, but the publisher sent me detailed information, and I regard it as an excellent statement of the publisher's side of things. I must digest it down considerably for brevity, but here is the essence. JMB started business in January 2001, and in three and a half years lost $80,000. In the process the line between what they were and what they have become has blurred. They made some bad early choices, and it cost them dearly. They realized that their romantic dreams of success were unrealistic. They paid for everything from cover art by pro artists to copyright registration. They relied on ambitious authors to promote their books, thus benefiting themselves and the publisher. But some author's didn't, even though this was in the contract.

In 2002 they set up a subsidiary for self publishing, AARBooks. They hoped that this would pump some essential money into the company so it wouldn't go broke. It didn't work, and they did go broke in August 2004. They were in limbo until January 2005, when they brought all their imprints together as JMBPUB (Just My Best Book Publishing). They sent emails to their authors explaining the situation. Authors would now have to edit their own books to make them legible, register their own copyrights, purchase 25 copies of their own books (at author discounts of 45%), and contribute to the cost of their personal web page creation. All this would come to about $500 per book. If they didn't like it, they would be free to go elsewhere.

The response was amazing. No, their headquarters was not stink bombed. The authors volunteered to edit, review, and critique one another's work. They donated short stories for an anthology in an attempt to raise money for the firm. Those who were artistic volunteered to help with book cover design. Some authors offered to market all of the books JMBPUB had published. And sales picked up. The staff worked overtime to get the titles ready for publication. But they need to sell 1,500 to 2,000 copies of each book--remember, this is traditional publishing, meaning physical copies--to break even. As yet, no author has that kind of sales. But the publisher is continuing to try. It prides itself on publishing quality books in attractive packages, and making them available worldwide in brick & mortar stores. So they are not quite traditional, nor are they a vanity press or print on demand publisher. It's more like a partnership venture. You can find them at www.jmbpub.com/.

So that's it from a publisher's view. There is after all another side.

We had hurricanes. Both Katrina and Rita passed Florida on their way to the other side of the Gulf of Mexico, revving up as they went. We hardly felt them, but other places did, notably New Orleans. Reams have been published elsewhere, so there's no need for me to belabor it; I'll just say that I hate what it suggests about the species of mankind when the moment there is a calamity, looters come out, not to feed themselves, but to steal jewelry, electronics, and luxury items, raping, burning, and shooting at rescue workers and hospitals. I understand that some reports of the mayhem were exaggerated, but any of this is bad. I received a long report circulated on the Internet of tourists caught there; they commissioned buses to transport them out, but FEMA confiscated the buses, leaving them stranded. So it seems FEMA was hardly better than the looters. When they tried to walk out of the flooded city, the police of the neighboring town barred them, shooting over their heads. Okay, the neighbors were already full up with refugees--but there has to be a better way. There was failure on every level from local to national, and FEMA mainly covered itself in shame by its inefficiency and incompetence. It seems that the National Guard, supposedly existing to help in such national emergencies, had personnel and equipment sent to Iraq instead. And the flood control system had had its budget cut so that the necessary levees were not shorn up to prevent flooding. So it was in significant part a political failing, as party cronies were appointed instead of competent administrators, needed money was sent overseas, and the looming problem was ignored until the disaster happened. This is one of the penalties of putting greedy incompetents in office. There may be worse penalties in the offing.

And I received a generally circulated email titled “Don't give your hurricane donations to the American Red Cross.” The essence was that the Red Cross actually distributes only about one third of the money it collects for such calamities as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. The rest goes to the war on terror, which may mean toward bombing countries like Afghanistan and expanding the police state operations in America. “The history is clear, the Red Cross and other large so-called charities are in actual fact front group collection agencies for the military industrial complex.” I can't speak for the truth of such a charge, but I remember that when I was in the US Army in the 1950s most soldiers I encountered hated the Red Cross, but respected the Salvation Army. I am not exaggerating. Once we were marched to a Red Cross support meeting, and it became a virtual riot as the soldiers spoke their minds with brutal candor. It seems that things haven't much changed in the interim. So we donated to the Salvation Army for Katrina. I'm not much for faith-based organizations, but this is one I do support, as its faith seems to be legitimate.

Meanwhile here in the Florida backwoods we had a quiet anniversary of last year's four-storm month. The little mulberry tree I transplanted to save it from the trucks is doing fine. We had no power failure. I have received letters worrying about us; I can assure all & sundry that we're okay in that respect.

My Xanth novel #29 Pet Peeve should be out in hardcover around the time this column is. It is perhaps the naughtiest Xanth, and I am not aware of any censoring. I rather think readers will like the irascible talking bird, who also has a chapter in the following novel, #30 Stork Naked. I am presently on schedule on #31 Air Apparent, thanks to my wife's recovery. (Actually, she suggested that title.)

I proofread Orn for the Mundania Press edition. That's the sequel to Omnivore, with OX to come. It's been decades since Orn was first published, and I hardly remembered it, but liked it well enough this reading. It's my dinosaur novel, but since then much more has been discovered, so it has become dated. For one thing, the meteor theory postdates it, and I think that's a better explanation for the demise of the dinosaurs than the one I present in the novel. One character therein is the beautiful woman Aquilon, named after the cold northwest wind, who was inspired by a spot mundane event. A couple of events. In high school there was a girl who much of my class longed for, but she seldom smiled. One time I did see her smile, and it didn't work; her face was prettier composed. I made a mental note: some folk shouldn't smile. Thus Aquilon, who never smiled. When I had some dental work, the receptionist smiled at me as I departed. She was an ordinary girl, but that smile lighted the room, transforming her. I knew it was calculated, to make me feel less miserable about my aching mouth, and didn't react, but I remembered. And when Aquilon learned to smile, that was how she did it, measured, controlled, for a purpose. Just an incidental element going into her characterization for this series. I also noted to my surprise that my first mention of my Theory of Dreams occurred in Orn. (Its more complete presentation is in the later Shame of Man.) That is, dreams as processors of relevant memories. Science is slowly catching up to what I knew decades ago, and the theory is being confirmed.

I try to read at least a book a month, though my time has been squeezed recently. For September it was The Slow Poisoning of America by John & Michelle Erb. The author sent me an autographed copy, “To Piers Anthony, the man who inspired so much.” You can find the book on sale at www.spofamerica.com. This is some book. The thesis, as you might guess, is that we are being poisoned. What makes it potent is that every charge and detail is footnoted; this is a work of scholarship. It starts with fluoride, and makes the case that not only does it not prevent tooth decay, it is bad for your system. The list of effects is horrendous: premature aging, arthritis, mottled teeth, brain and kidney damage, lowered IQ, some cancer, hyperactivity--this is scary stuff. So how the hell did it get approved for household use, even promoted as a health measure? Well, it seems it is a waste product of the refinement of aluminum, and ALCOA wanted a cheap way to get rid of it. It is used as rat poison, but there is more than that market can handle. So they promoted it as a health supplement, and evidently had the clout to get the government to go along with that. What a deal: sell your wastes as medicine. So now dentists actually recommend it. I know; I tried it on my dentist's advice, and had an allergic reaction; I won't touch it again. (But my wife, who is her own woman, is using it.) If you use it, or require your children to, you should read this book. Chances are you want to get the hell off it.

Then it tackles monosodium glutamate (MSG), the substance that enhances the taste of just about everything. But if you are one of those who is sensitive to it, you may be paying a horrendous price. The author even suggests that the current wave of obesity may be an effect. Again, you will want to read this book and form your own opinion. With luck you are not among those it affects. But it's enough to make me extremely wary.

My favorite magazine has been the British NEW SCIENTIST. When renewal time came up I called their 800 number and resubscribed for three years. After two months when I was still getting expiration notices, I called again. They could find no record. So I resubscribed again, and in apology they gave me a ten per cent discount. Two months after that the issues stopped coming. Obviously that subscription had not taken either. So I wrote them a letter describing the situation and asking “What does it take to subscribe? Obviously the phone won't do it.” I gave them my credit card information a third time. And so far I have no response and no magazines. Do I smell bad or something?

This is ugly. An article in the September/October The Humanist magazine tells of evidence that journalists in Iraq are being deliberately targeted for murder--by U.S. forces. It seems our government doesn't want the truth about Iraq to be known, and if you don't get the message, you may be dead. Hardly a day goes by when I don't wish that the Supreme Court had had the integrity in 1980 to put the winner in as president; we are paying a hideous price for that corruption on practically every front. As the Hightower Lowdown says about “strict constructionist” Antonin Scalia: “The fact is that Scalia and other right-wing judges are not hesitant at all to be ardent activists and stretch the Constitution to the breaking point any time it serves their own ideological or political goals.” Columnist David Broder sums up a view: As long as conservatism was simply striving for power, it was intellectually honest. But conservative institutions, conceived in combat, have in power become self-perpetuating, churning their direct-mail lists in pursuit of cash. Most conservative books are pseudo-books, ghostwritten pastiches whose primary purpose seems to be the photo of the “author” on the cover. I'm not surprised; in my view, publicity and greed were always prime motivating forces of so-called conservatism. In power it is no longer masked. And Columnist Robyn E Blumner in the ST PETERSBURG TIMES says “To Bush, being president is not an act of public service in which you are accountable to the press and the people and are limited by the power of two other governmental branches. It is the anointing of a regent for a four- or eight-year stint. That includes the ability to imprison people at will, to offer untruths without compunction as justifications for war and to spend the entire treasury (and more) without worrying about the consequences. In that now-famous debate question, Bush was unable to identify a single mistake he made as president, because monarchs don't err.”

THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR, discussing bottom-feeding publishers, mentions one editor by name: Adrian Zackheim of Penguin. Seems Zackheim asked the author to write a biography of Apple and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. It took four months for the contract to arrive. There was heavy research, as you might imagine, and that delay added to the contract delay. Then Zackheim canceled the contract and asked for the return of the advance. Need I say it? This is shit publishing. I believe it, because the same editor did something similar to me, years back; it was why I left Morrow/Avon and took Xanth to Tor. Obviously publishers hardly care about ethical dealing, and most writers can't do much about it. Hence interest in self publishing by writers who have seen how it is. An article in the local newspaper, CITRUS COUNTY CHRONICLE, by Steve Arthur, relates. “If you aren't a celebrity or a famous criminal, chances are you will have a hard time getting your literary work published by an established publishing house.” “Hence the emergence of the self publishing industry, which has arisen to meet the demands of frustrated writers who are willing to foot the bill themselves, just to get their tales and ideas into print.” But only books published by large publishing houses are considered and catalogued by the library of Congress. So a small book publisher has filed a federal lawsuit. “You published your book yourself? Yours is a vanity press publication. The book is self published, is nothing more than a book-like object. It will not be reviewed in the press; the retailers will not stock it. Your business is dead in the water.” Yes indeed; I have been there and done that. It's essentially a closed shop. “Needless to say, this arrangement suits the big publishers nicely. Because there can be no competition from an entrepreneurial author; intrinsic merit is of no particular value to a big publisher and favoritism can reign supreme: there is nothing to lose by rejecting a book that has merit, no incentive to seek it out.” Now you know why I support electronic, small press, and self publishing, despite having made my fortune traditionally, and maybe why some traditional writers and publishers don't much like me or alternative publishing. They prefer the closed shop.

A reader called my attention to a typo in DoOon Mode. About ten pages into Chapter 2 occurs this sentence: “Cat [a character] had evidently taken the trouble to discover the diver's needs, and to accommodate them.” Obviously there is a problem with “diver's,” as this is not talking about underwater adventure. The proper word could be “diverse.” My original script is lost amidst the hard disk of a disconnected computer, but it seemed to me that this could be a copy-editor introduced error. Because the word I would have used is “divers,” which means several. Someone, unfamiliar with the word, might have “corrected” it, and I missed the change and did not get to cancel it. But ha, I have backup disks going back years. I dug out the one for that novel, called up the place--and verified that the typo was mine. Sigh. I would so much rather have blamed someone else.

Editorial in a local newspaper says it's too bad that the effective anti-smoking ads are gone, another victim of budget cutting, because they did work in cutting down youth smoking. But it would take a constitutional amendment in Florida to force the lawmakers to do what's right, and even then they might simply ignore it. Florida legislators don't represent the public interest any more than the national ones do. They did not ignore this issue; oh, no, they passed a budget that prohibits any spending on antismoking ads. So you know in whose pocket they reside. But for any who tried smoking as a teen, then couldn't stop, I'll mention again that my wife was caught that way, and smoked for 50 years, until Nicotrol Inhalers made her an instant ex-smoker. She puffs on an inhaler instead of a cigarette, and is no longer damaging her lungs or general health that way. They do work. It's prescription treatment, and not cheap, so you have to ask your doctor, but it's worth it. A hell of a lot cheaper than lung cancer.

I'm not part of the nightclub scene, being an old fogy, and in fact I never was part of it, being married and not sexually venturesome. So it's one of those things I've probably forgotten more about than I ever knew. But a newspaper article says that today, increasingly, straight women are getting physical with each other on the nightclub dance floor. Seems it's a turn-on for watching men. That I can see: to a typical man, the only reason two women would make love would be because they lack a man, and the moment he steps into the picture, they'll both focus exclusively on him. The typical man, of course, is a romantic idiot. So if I were single, and an attractive lesbian couple offered to keep house for me, would I take them up on it? Yes, probably; I'm typical.

One of my intellectual interests (critics would say obsessions) is empathy. I believe it is, in considerable part, what makes our species human. It's the ability to put yourself emotionally in the other person's position, to feel his pain. Liberals tend to have it; conservatives tend to lack it. I was struck by an item in Dear Abby recently, relating to neglected children. “We are raising a generation of lost and confused children. Psychologists have concluded that children who grow up without love do not learn empathy. They can't feel the pain others experience. These are the teens who lash out in rage and go on shooting sprees and feel no remorse.”

Newspaper article, one of many, says that it's not only the American government that is going into debt at a rate that can't be sustained. Regular citizens go into debt to live beyond their means. I understand that credit card debt is ballooning. An article says that at least 8 of the 10 characteristics of a bubble environment currently exist in America. The thing about a bubble is that it gets big, then abruptly pops. At some point this will all come crashing down. The typical what me worry? attitude is reminiscent of the folk in New Orleans who didn't worry about living below sea level, until the hurricane came. National debt now comes to $145,000 per person, and it's rising. Sometimes I feel as though I'm on the Titanic, and no one else cares about the water leaking into the hold. I can't patch the ship alone; no one can, especially when the captain is in denial about the problem.

More odds & endments: An idea whose time may be coming: solar power generated hydrogen for hydrogen powered cars. This could get us the hell off our addiction to foreign oil. The big outfits don't seem to be much interested, but individuals are. So salvation may yet come from a local garage operation. There's a haunted building in Orlando, Florida (Florida takes a back seat to none when it comes to crazy items), and a restaurant refuses to move in because of it. Bad for business, you know. So the owner is filing a lawsuit to decide whether its haunted, and if so, whether the ghosts would interfere with business. One ghost is a bartender and two dancing girls. Another is a slender man in a black coat playing a piano. Folk could hear the piano. But when approached, the man would smile and disappear. Okay, as a fantasy author I think I'm qualified to answer this. The restaurant's balk is ludicrous. No, the ghosts will not interfere with business; they are not inimical and clearly mean no harm. They're just doing their things. In fact they will be good for business. Patrons will come from miles around to see those dancing girls, especially if their clothing fuzzes out at high moments. Duh. Another item: they have discovered that some folk really are not interested in sex. They are the asexuals, and may constitute about one per cent of the population, compared to 4% who describe themselves as homosexual or bisexual. Now they have an organization and an Internet site: www.asexuality.org, with a blog and discussion board. I wonder what they talk about. Sex? Then there is the local Suncoast case of Debra Lefave, a stunning blonde teacher who had sex with a fourteen year old student. So she's up for child molestation, though as I see it, a beautiful woman can hardly molest a teen boy; he is eager for it throughout. The police hauled her in and took pictures of her genitals that are said to match anything you can see in porn. Her lawyer wants to suppress those pictures before they get loose on the Internet. I can see his point. So what would I call child abuse? Right here in Citrus County is the Dollar case, where the parents of adopted children shocked them with cattle prods, pulled out their toenails with pliers, hit them with hammers, and starved them so that 14 year old twins weighed 36 and 38 pounds. Why did they do it? Because, they say, they are firm believers in the God almighty, devout Christians. It's nice to have that explanation.

Remember the poem I rediscovered last column, “Ode to Four Letter Words”? A reader sent me a copy that says it is copyrighted 2003-5 by John Mehlberg. The hell--this poem dates from at least 1957 when I first heard it. Is there such a thing as copyright squatting?

Ending endments: On SapTimber 30 we were in Ocala, Florida--my wife had a dental appointment there--so checked the big Books-A-Million store there. And found two copies of Pet Peeve on sale. So I was right: it's in print. But we didn't see the paperback for Currant Events. That same day my agent notified me that Split Infinity will be made into an anime movie. That is perhaps a lesser thing than a straight theater movie, but if they do a good job my readers should like it. The options on the Xanth and Incarnations of Immortality series remain. And the streak of ever-higher rainfall months here continued through AwGhost, with over 11 inches, but pooped out in SapTimber, with under 2 inches. Ah, well.

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