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DisMember 2007

We saw a feature in the local CITRUS CHRONICLE newspaper, the one where my daughter the Newspaperwoman works. You know, we old folk who never accomplished much of note in our lives tend to live through the accomplishments of our children. This feature was about two cyclists on recumbent tricycles. I use a recumbent bike, and like it, but as I get older and my sense of balance declines, I am keeping an eye out for alternatives. My adult scooter is one, and it's great. But a trike would be nice too. Trouble is, they cost around two and a half thousand dollars. Well, later that day we went grocery shopping, and who should appear but those two cyclists, a man and woman. They parked their trikes and went shopping at the same Publix we did. We paused to admire the machines, very nice, but I suspect they were even more expensive, three thousand dollars or more. If I'd had my wits about me I would have said ”We saw the article about you!” But naturally I didn't think of that until too late. Ever thus; I had lost even that faint chance for association with notoriety.

So what did I do of note? I had a colonoscopy. I had one about seven years ago, but now they want me to have one every five years. For those who don't know, a colonoscopy is about the ultimate in ass reaming. They delve about six feet into your rectum, exploring your large intestine, looking for polyps, cancer, goblins or worse. No shit. The procedure itself isn't so bad, but the lead-in is awful. You drink this medicine that makes you defecate a yellow stream. It's not quite like nether projectile vomiting, but it tries. It's like the old joke, one of a series of lecher vs. innocent girl dialogues typically done in involuntary darkness, such as a sudden power failure: HE (deep menacing voice): “I'm going to dig a pit.” SHE (squeaky girl voice): “No, no, no!” HE: “And I'll throw you in it!” SHE: “No, no, no!” HE: “And I'll feed you nothing but Ex-Lax!” SHE: “No, no, I'll starve!” HE: “You'll shit.” This is worse than that. They want your entire digestive tract squeaky clean. The actual procedure is done with anesthetic and you're hardly aware of it. Well, when they wheeled me in to the operating chamber the female anesthetist introduced herself. You get no privacy in these things; anyone can have at your ass. I said “I'll bet I can make you laugh.” Oh? I suspect she had not encountered that line before in that situation. So I said “When I had the last colonoscopy I told the doctor I wanted it without anesthesia. He said that that would make him nervous. I thought about having a nervous doctor doing the procedure...” Yes, she laughed. Yes, it was a true story. Then suddenly I was in the recovery room twenty minutes or more later. She had knocked me out totally, so I couldn't watch the action on the TV monitor as I did before. Can't think why, unless she was afraid I'd keep talking and make the doctor laugh so hard that his hands would be shaking. That might not be ideal either. No, they didn't find anything; my colon was clean. That's more than can be said for my mind. Here's another of those jokes: HE: “The whip, the whip, the whip!” SHE: “No, no, no!” HE: The whip, the whip the whip!” SHE: “No, no, no!” HE: “THE WHIP, THE WHIP, THE WHIP!” SHE: “Anything but the whip!” HE (after a significant pause): “Anything?” (spoken with horrendous implication) SHE: “The whip, the whip, the whip!

Last column I spoke of the fragments of the lead-in to “Hello Young Lovers” I couldn't remember or locate, and asked my readers' help. I got it, starting about ten seconds later; they knew how to use Google in a way I had not, the key being to include the word “lyrics” in the description. It starts “When I think of Tom/ I think of a night/ When the earth smelled of summer/ And the sky was streaked with white/ The soft mist of England/ Was sleeping on a hill/ I remember this/ And I always will...” There turned out to be two variants, one with a typo that it seems has never been corrected. Regardless, it's a beautiful lead-in to a nice song, and I thank all of you for your effort. Here is the list of you, in the approximate order I heard from you: Jenee, Nicole, Steve, Man-Kit, Alma, Danielle, Eleonore, David, Michelle, Lynda, Ben, Giang, Patti, Rhonda, Nora, Ann, Jess, Vicki, Wendy, Marcia, Jeannine, Alecia, Mark, Rusty, Ellen, Elizabeth, Sarah, Erica, Marilynn, Ralan (yes, that Ralan), Kimberley, Kathy, Bruce, Gary, Irene, Jessica, TaoPhoenix, Jayj. I have more Google-eyed friends out there than I realized. (If you're old-timer enough to catch the punny allusion to Barney Google with the googly eyes, you're too old for comfort.) TaoPhoenix also gave me advice on using the search engine that will make future searches more effective.

Armed with such new expertise, I tackled one I have wondered about for years. On a variety TV show several decades back they were explaining in song to a Dumb Blonde (now don't take off on me about that; I have mentioned before how my blonde daughter and I tease each other) about where products came from, such as potatoes from Idaho. “Oh, I get it,” she said, and started singing: “Pencils come from Pencilvania...” And I found it! “Pencils come from Pennlysvania, Vests from Vest Virginia, Tents from Tentassee” and others such as mink from Wyomink, camp chairs from New Hampchair, minnows from Minnosota, and coats from Dakota. More fun. I also ran down the song that names all the states, “What did Della wear? She wore a New Jersey...” So, thanks to my responsive readers, I have learned better how to Google.

So here's one you won't be able to Google so readily: a few months back in the daily newspaper comic strip “Sally Forth” Sally's mother was visiting, and was critical of everyone, constantly putting others on the defensive. Until she encountered her granddaughter's friend Faye, who had an apt response. She paused. “You I like,” she said. “Right back at you, ma'am,” Faye responded. I should have saved out that strip, because ever since I have wondered what it was Faye said to win that respect, and can't remember. Does anyone out there know?

And another: I fall asleep in my chair after 10 PM. I don't turn in, because my wife's an evening person and though I'm a morning person, I don't want her navigating the stairs alone when she treks to the bedroom, lest she fall. She had some bad falls three years ago when her illness was undiagnosed; at one point there was a question whether she would ever be able to walk again. Ours is an ordinary tragedy, a morning person paired with an evening person, about which I once read a poem, which concluded “By some peculiar quirk of life/ They always wind up man and wife.” Amen. So I stay, and every so often I'll catch a snippet of TV. One such is two comic figures in about a three second bit, one saying “That's some bad hat, Harry.” What is the purpose of this ad, if it is an ad? To sell hats?

I mentioned Google above. The Author's Guild Bulletin had a nice story there. Google has been copying the contents of every book in reach for its giant database, regardless of copyright. They don't understand why some publishers and writers object. Well, it seems Richard Charkin, CEO of Macmillan, confessed that he took two computers from the Google booth at BookExpo America. Why? Well, the owner had not specifically told him not to steal them, and there was no sign forbidding it. When Google asked for their return, he did so. “It is exactly what Google expects publishers to expect and accept in respect to intellectual property.” Well, how about that, Google?

Last time I reported on my experience with Viagra, the stuff that stiffens the spine, or something. But that $12 per pill bugs me, even though a quarter pill works. In fact now it works within 15 minutes instead of 20. So I tried recommended non-prescription alternatives. I can now report that L-Arginine doesn't work. Neither does L-Carnatine. So I tried Libido-Max, whose makers are so sure it works that they offer a money-back guarantee. Um, marginal; it seems to work, but not well enough to bring a full erection. Half measures aren't ideal when it comes to sex; it's like missing the bridge and plunging into the swamp. Sure, you can try again, but spontaneity suffers. I have yet to try yohimbe. It looks as if Viagra gets away with screw-deal prices because there is no cheaper alternative.

Last time, also, I mentioned the death of Tim Thielen, and the problem of bigotry, as he was gay. I said his family had disowned him. That brought a rebuke. I should have clarified that there was one notable exception: his mother. She not only accepted and supported him, she's a member of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and has been arrested more than once for participating in protests. She left her Baptist church because of their anti-gay stance. I regret implying that Tim's whole family rejected him; that was not the case.

I received (yet another) request from a reader to tone down the panty references in Xanth, in case children should see them. Sigh. Xanth is and always was adult fiction. It's biggest market may be children, but it's not listed as children's literature, and children who read it are technically straying into adult territory. Apart from that, the notion that children don't know what panties are, and will be freaked out by such humorous references, is a stretch. I don't propose to get into self censorship here. Were I to eliminate everything anyone objects to, notably puns and naughty references, I would be left with a terminally bland adult series limited to the supposed tastes of children. That would be like the fabled newspaper that went out of business for lack of readership, because it published nothing anyone objected to. Actually I have written for children; Tortoise Reform, at Mundania Press, is an example. Why didn't it go to a regular big publisher? None wanted it. Pandora Park is another example; that was vetted by a teacher who read it to classes of children, who loved it, and it is sanitary. No puns, no panties. It remains unpublished: I couldn't even get an agent to handle it. Any further questions?

Leslie Flood died. He was my literary agent in England, when he took over the Carnell agency, where I was, when Carnell died in 1972, and had it until passing it on to Pamela Buckmaster in 1986. He had run a bookshop in London, and was a founder of the International Fantasy awards. He did well for me, and I'm sorry he's gone, though I never met him personally.

I read some books. Spring Rain on the Wind, a romantic fantasy by Kristina O'Donelly of Inverness, is a story of Bedelia in Georgia, America, in 1827 on, and her psychic ancestral identity Spring Rain, 1762. Gradually the two identities relate to each other in the course of savage history. I faulted this to the author because the conclusion read like a summary that should have been greatly extended, and learned that she suffered an ailment that made it painful to type, forcing abridgment. Ouch, in more that one sense.

I read The Complete Guide to Writing Science Fiction, Volume one, First Contact. I contributed its final chapter, on the writing life. This is edited by Dave A Law and Darin Park, with a number of contributors, and it's competent. If you want to know about writing in this genre, this book can help you. I did learn things from it. Such as how long a man booted from a spaceship airlock into vacuum might live. He would lose consciousness in ten to fifteen seconds, but if rescued within 90 seconds might survive. But if your interest is in writing and marketing fiction, rather than in swimming in vacuum, this book will take you through the history of the genre, the several sub-genres, technology, world building, crafting aliens, bringing your characters to life, monsters, humor, marketing, promotion, fan fiction—everything. Unfortunately there was a glitch. The program that rendered the manuscript into print changed every italicized capital N to capital I, I presume taking the Italicize command as a letter. So in my chapter we have reference to the book Io Plot, Io Problem, and one of the chapters is by Bob Ialor, and another chapter has reference to Ieuromancer by William Gibson. I notified the editor, but got no response; I suspect he was swamped. It's a good book regardless.

I read Unholy Domain by Dan Ronco. This is the sequel to Peacemaker, and is another fast paced high-tech hard-hitting adventure with a bit of romance along the way. One one side is a global computer/robot company that means to take over the world; on the other, a fanatic religious cult that means to do the same. Neither side hesitates to use torture, murder, or devious connivance. There are pertinent thoughts about technology and religion. Caught in the middle is David Brown, who just wants to find out the truth about his condemned father, heedless of warnings about his likely fate if he doesn't quit. This aspect reminds me of a nature movie I saw once, when a wolf and an owl both went after the same mouse, fought each other for it, and in the confusion the mouse escaped. But David Brown's luck can't endure long. I mentioned the bit of romance: he's 21, she's maybe 33, an erstwhile friend of his father, and they fall for each other almost as they meet. That's not your garden variety romance. I did enjoy this novel.

And I read Under a Velvet Cloak, the Nox novel, 8th in the Incarnations of Immortality series, as galleys from Mundania press. I wrote it in 2004 after querying my readers here whether I should, and when it didn't find a traditional print publisher I let Mundania have it. It was based on a detailed summary by Stephen Smith, who had studied the series. Three years lend some perspective, so I could get a better sense of the whole. I find it intelligible, which is good considering the complexity of the background, interesting, and I think it does wrap up the series well enough. If a reader reads this one without having read any of the others, he should be able to follow it, though spot sections may be dense. I do try to write my series novels so that they can also stand alone. There are writers who find such an effort anathema; chances are you are no longer reading those authors. Is Velvet Cloak up to the standard of the others? I think maybe not; it is simpler and more sexy. The protagonist spends time in a whorehouse, and works her way up, hence the sexual theme. There's also a vampire theme; you don't see much of that from me elsewhere. I think my favorite line is “He's your brother. He's your lover. He's not your friend.” Yes, he is all that. A girl can't be too careful.

There there was Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, sent to me by Kathe Gogolewski. This is the history of Mortenson, a mountain climber, who got lost on the mountain and wound up near death in a small village in northern Pakistan. Their resources were meager, but they took care of him, a stranger, and he truly appreciated it. So he resolved to repay them by building a school they desperately needed. Therein lies the story. First he had to raise the money, then purchase the supplies, then get them there despite another village's attempt to hijack them. But then the home village decided that they needed a bridge across the river more than the school, so he had to go through the process again to build the bridge, then build the school. But he finally got it done. Then other villages wanted schools. He wound up building dozens of schools, financed by Americans; no government, America or Pakistan, contributed. This is a fascinating and wonderful tale. Oh, the relevance of the title? As I recall it's that local custom says that strangers share the first cup of tea. Meet again for a second, you are friends. Share a third, and you are Family. Mortenson became beloved in Pakistan despite the complications of the American invasion of its neighbor Afghanistan.

Hamilton, a mail order bookseller, had the hardcover edition of The Stonehenge Gate by Jack Williamson on sale for six dollars, so I bought it and read it, because Williamson was the one who brought me into the genre. He must have written this in his 90s. I am now a far more critical reader than I was when I first encountered him as a teen. I was curious not only about the novel, but about my reaction. Well, mixed. Four friends locate a Stonehenge-like trilithon, huge stones in a pattern, and it turns out to be a gateway to another world. The woman gets abducted by a monster and carried through it, and the men follow. They find themselves in a hellish realm, fight through another gateway or two, and are on a moving highway with illusion scenery. Then two of them get captured by natives and the middle half of the novel is essentially a colonial Africa story, with the blacks restive against the cruelly dominant whites. The black member of the party has a birthmark on his forehead, which is taken for a signal that he is the hero who will lead the blacks to victory. I conjecture that Williamson had an unfinished historical novel with no marketing prospects, so he recast it as space opera with the Stonehenge Gates. Two of the foul original characters are hardly seen in the novel, and the viewpoint character simply observes the struggle of the black friend, who falls in love with a white woman of a prominent family. The black man was the only one with any real feeling. So it's a novel, but I think not a great one. Williamson writes well enough, but here his characters lack much human feeling, and I never got really involved in the story. It is old-style science fiction in the sense that there are wonders galore, but little romance and less sex. The characters are mainly there to observe the wonders.

As I write this, the Hollywood script writers are on strike. Naturally I side with the writers. The publishers are still grabbing what should not be theirs, such as all the income from online and digital versions of writers' efforts. Apparently the corporations think that writers aren't entitled to be paid for their work, and indeed, are so resistive to the idea, that, as with the ornery cow, only a kick to the head will make them reconsider. A strike that shuts down the industry is such a kick. Harlan Ellison's lawsuit that halted the piracy of his and other writer's material online was another such kick. So was the National Writer's Union suit against the New York Times et al. Writers damn well should be paid for their work. It's that simple, even if corporations and thieves are unable to comprehend it. Will this affect my own novels that are being worked into movie/TV versions? It may. I still wish the writers well. Simple justice requires that they prevail.

Speaking of writer/publisher quarrels: I received copies of one from both author and publisher, both of whom I am leaving anonymous. Here is my letter, which I think contains some good general advice for other writers and publishers:

I am sending this same response to each party:

I received copies of this cat fight—pardon me, altercation—between an aggrieved author and [Publisher] ... As a general rule, an author's proper response to a rejection is a dignified silence. Privately she is free to cuss out the idiots roundly; I have done so for decades. But publicly there should be nothing. In this case the author responded vituperatively to what was a standard and moderately helpful rejection. That evoked an unnecessary (publishers, also, are best advised to maintain dignified silence) sarcastic and slightly threatening response from the publisher that mentioned Phaze. That got my attention, as I originated that term in my novel Split Infinity, and I have a financial interest in Mundania, the parent company of the Phaze imprint.

Conclusion: both responses are bad form, but the author started it. I recommend that both parties drop the subject, as it reflects credit on neither.

Then of course there are author/critic relations, an almost unfailing source of bile. Reader Cheryl Beukelman sent me this relevant quotation: “Critics are like Eunuchs in a harem. They're there every night, they see how it's done every night, they see how it should be done every night, but they can't do it themselves.” -- Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

I finished writing Xanth #33 Jumper Cable. This features the big spider Jumper and seven maidens on a mission to repair a key cable that connects Xanth to Mundania, now that the two are separate worlds. Two of the maidens are the princesses Dawn and Eve, age 19, sexy and mischievous. (I've had a thing for 19 year old girls ever since I married one.) When Jumper must assume man form, Dawn flashes her bra and Eve her panties, just about freaking him out. Naturally the fate of Xanth hangs on the success of the mission. There's some fun along the way, such as encountering the man in the low castle, the crazy writer Dick Philip, and the ghost sheep Ram Bunctious, who tells an obnoxious male ghost that he means to “make a ewe out of ewe” and has the horn to do it. In sum, exactly the kind of twisted naughtiness the critics hate.

Speaking of craziness, I got into a debate about Jesus with a minister. He brought up the familiar thesis that either Jesus was a stark raving lunatic, or he really was the son of God. I am an agnostic who does believe in Jesus, in the sense that he was a good man with a belief and a mission, but I have no belief in the supernatural. Or, for that matter, in extremes rather than the middle ground. Here is an excerpt of my response:

Of course arguing with a Man of God about religion is a fool's errand. So naturally I plow into it. I elected to join no religion not because I lacked conviction, but because I found no religion that met my standards of integrity, consistency and common sense. I am coming up on 60 years since that decision, and have found no cause to change my mind. I am a humanist, with all that implies.

I have another fabled child's response for you: the small boy's statement “Faith is believing what you know ain't so.” And an adult's: what's the difference between God and a doctor? God does not think he's a doctor.

I was raised as a Quaker, and I have an abiding respect for the simplicity and sincerity of the Quaker belief that there is the divine spirit in everyone; we are all children of God. In that sense, Jesus was God, as are we all. I like G B Shaw's warning in the Revolutionist's Handbook, supplementary to Man and Superman: “Beware of the man whose god is in the sky.” So while I feel that a good teacher does not have to be God—after all, I have been credited with teaching many to read, and I'm not God—that interpretation may cover it.

Most people have some illusions, of lesser or greater extent. That does not make them either mad or correct. Jesus may have thought he was God; that doesn't make it so. He may simply have been mistaken.

But there is another aspect you may not have considered. The Gospels were crafted some time after Jesus died, and there were few if any reliable texts covering his life. It had to be mostly word of mouth, which is notoriously variable. The Apostles may have garbled things, or added details they thought would enhance their narratives. Thus they could have attributed things to Jesus that he never said, such as personal God claims he never made, or miracles he never claimed to perform. Even today we have no first hand reports. Even if Jesus was divine, can the same be said for all the word of mouth narrators who had input into the Bible? And of course the Bible itself may have been censored. That's something that bothers me.

So, to put it bluntly, I doubt you have a case that would be persuasive to an objective person. You can cite your own belief, and that of your parishioners, but that is not objective truth. There are those who have violently differing views of Christianity and Jesus, such as the Muslims. Who is to say which view is correct?

He responded that the gospels were written by the direct disciples of Jesus, so were first hand reports. That would of course tighten the case. But authorities are not united on this; the Gospel of Matthew is attributed to Matthew, but may have been written by Mark or someone else. In any event, the Gospels date from maybe 60 years after Jesus' death, so the accuracy of memory and conviction may be questioned. And the debate goes on. It will probably never be settled. He raised another question: the story of a man on the sinking Titanic, John Harper, who sacrificed himself to save others, both physically and by converting them to the acceptance of Jesus. And how can the mysterious disappearance of Jesus body from the tomb be explained, if not by his rising after death? I replied:

One question is whether the Gospel of Matthew was really written by him; my sources say “attributed” and there are scholars who suggest that it was written by some nonentity who put that name on it to give it credence. So we can't be sure of its authenticity. But neither can we be sure it isn't authentic. I have clear memories of events of my youth, and Matthew would have been similar in this respect. So it could have been an honest rendering. That, however, does not vindicate miracles in my mind. I have clear memories of things I now know to be impossible. It simply means that my understanding of the time was flawed.

The Titanic narration is interesting. When I wrote the biography of my father, based in his life-long, several million word long personal journal, I learned that the father of the woman he loved had died on the Titanic. Worse, the woman also died tragically at age 20, leaving my father grieving for his lifetime. It is an irony that I regard the lost woman as a likely better partner for him than my mother was; my parents' marriage was unhappy, and that of course affected my childhood. So I have emotional issues that skirt the Titanic. But yes, John Harper was a generous believer. Does it authenticate what he believed in? No. Christians die for Christianity, as suicide bombers die for Islam. I would prefer to have people lending similar devotion to rational causes, such as promoting peace and a sustainable Earth.

Was Jesus' body missing? The choices seem to be between a confusion of memory, or the removal of the body by other parties. I could appreciate a bureaucratic snafu where the wrong body was moved, and the mistake was then covered up, leaving it a mystery. Again the choice is not between the supernatural and a foul lie, but somewhere in the murky center. This either-or tendency, the thinking that something must be one extreme or the other, seems typical of those who are not completely rational. And I wonder: why should it be so important to argue for the supernatural, rather than to heed the message Jesus tried to give, of tolerance and compassion? Would Jesus ever have countenanced torture or killing in his name? I suspect he would become impatient, and say something like “Who cares where my mortal body went? It might as well lie beneath the sea. Focus instead on the perfection of your own spirit, so that in due course you may join me in Heaven.” And I would differ only in that I believe it is best to do what is right because it is right, not in the hope of some reward in an imaginary realm. And I think Jesus himself would respect that difference. It's part of what you might take as my agnostic arrogance, that I believe that if Jesus came again to the mortal realm, he would prefer to spend an hour in dialogue with someone like me than with a born-again Southern Baptist or similar.

Similarly now there is the debate about the use of torture. The current administration pretends that waterboarding, a technique of simulated drowning that I understand does cause the death of some victims, is not torture. But historically it has been considered such, and America convicted Japanese who practiced it in World War Two of torture. So suddenly it's not torture when our side does it? I am horrified and disgusted. Horrified by its use, and disgusted that it seems the definition of torture has become political: I'm not sure any Republican official has condemned it. So much for “morality.”

Our daughter gave us a massage chair. This is quite a device. You sit in it, and for fifteen minutes it plays music in your ear and feels up your legs and torso. So I made notes for a potential story, where the chair gets really fresh. Who knows what the limit might be? If there were a chest pad, and face pad, you could get the feel of someone of the opposite gender hugging and kissing you. Maybe such a chair will be developed in due course.

Kristina O'Donnelly relayed a news item: staring at women's breasts is good for men's health and makes them live longer. Ten minutes a day is equivalent to a 30 minute aerobics workout. It cuts the risk of a stroke and heart attack in half, and can extend his life four to five years. Hmm. This is intriguing, but I suspect it's humor. Still, it might explain why married men live longer than single men: they get more regular looks. And what's the effect of staring at women's bare bottoms? Maybe there really is something to panty magic. Perhaps related: newspaper had an article titled “A Century of Support” about the history of the bra. The word “brassiere” was coined in 1907 by VOGUE magazine, and the bra developed over the years to its present fullness. Okay.

Possibly related: in the 1950s 70 percent of couples made it to the 25 year mark. Now only 50% do. The rest are widowed, divorced, or separated. It doesn't say how many make it past 50 years. Meanwhile the supposed seven year itch has been reduced to five years. Married couples are at the greatest risk of divorcing just before their fifth anniversary. But those who make it past 5 years, and past 10 years, are more likely to be permanent. Actually I understand it's a four year itch: time to get acquainted, marry, generate a child or two, and wean them. Then it's time to split and try new combinations. That's the 200,000 year evolutionary pattern. People are merely recognizing it sooner now. And another article says that close friends who have sex, called Friend With Benefits, or FWB, with no romantic expectations, still can get hung up emotionally. They are afraid to develop feelings, lest they not be reciprocated. Thus romance is a threat, when all they want is sex. It's an intriguing inversion. Apparently there are risks regardless.

Another article relates to age and a paradox of wisdom. Young folk may be sharp but lack experience, so make mistakes. Old folk are less sharp, but their accumulated experience guides them so they continue to do well. But that can make them intellectually lazy, and like unused muscles that atrophy, the problem solving aspects of the brain fade. These folk may not realize how limited they are becoming. I've seen it; I left DEL REY as a publisher because Lester del Rey had become increasingly incapable of seeing the author's side. He did not have a problem, for example, with hacking out an entire chapter or Author's Note, and similarly disastrous internal editing. The only way I could save my fiction was to leave the publisher, and that I believe cost both publisher and author heavily. I was I understand one of four significant authors who departed for this reason. It's somewhat like getting drunk: the more a person drinks, the more certain he is that his judgment is perfect. That can turn off others whose judgment is not clouded, and when he drives it can kill him. Okay, I'm getting to that age myself now, and it's a route I don't want to go. What to do? Fortunately there is an answer: just as I exercise my body, I also exercise my mind. I do the daily chess and Jumble word puzzles in the newspaper, and I address my fan mail honestly instead of just dismissing difficult questions. I seek mental challenges of diverse kinds, as may be evident in these columns. It's one reason I refuse to be limited to Xanth, fun as it is. In this manner I fight to delay the inevitable loss of mind. Oh, it is happening; I am caught increasingly frequently by the inability to fetch words from my memory. Such as the word for staying young longer, until some creatures even start reproducing in their juvenile states; there's a word for it, I know the word, I recognize it when I see it, but I can't just pull it out of my mind. Or the name of someone I knew in college and remember well, but can't spot recall. It happens to everyone on occasion, but it's happening to me uncomfortably often. Sometimes I can't even remember the titles of my novels, and have to look them up. Its frustrating but I can live with it. What I don't want to live with is loss of reasoning power. And if I do lose it, I want to know it, so I can retire before I harm my reputation. I expect it to be an increasingly difficult challenge, like the question how do I know I'm sane? Only the insane can be absolutely sure, and they get it wrong.

Which perhaps leads into another type of challenge: solicitations. They come in constantly, the underlying assumption evidently being that if I have money or property, someone else deserves it. I've never seen a bad cause; every one is deserving, especially in the eye of its solicitor. But if I gave to every one, to the extent the solicitors desire, I would soon enough be broke. It's a bottomless pit. I have commented on this before, but they keep coming, so here's yet another take. In this case an assistant principal of a school in another state was putting together a library focusing on writing, music and visual arts. He felt the genre was overlooked, so planned to address it, featuring Piers Anthony. And he wanted me to send him autographed books. So my answer:

Here is the problem: there are thousands of schools, libraries, and organizations, all doing good work, all underfunded in a society that seems to value money, notoriety, and power more than education or the arts. I deplore the situation, but I am unable to send my books to them all. I have no easy way of knowing whether those who request books from me are more worthy of such support than the others. So I conclude that individual communities should support their own institutions, rather than soliciting support from others. If every worthy outfit solicited similarly, and all honored each other's solicitations, the result would be a massive mailing of books back and forth, without any net benefit for any. It would be a variant of a pyramid scheme.

So as a matter of principle, I decline to participate. I regret it if this means that fewer students will read my books, but it seems the only appropriate course.

So did he understand? Of course not. He was sorry I found his cause unworthy. Yes, it would have been easier for me simply to have ignored his request. But every so often I do try to explain, though I know it's likely to be a waste of time. And of course I still don't know whether it was legitimate, or just someone trying to catch free books for his private collection or, worse, to sell on eBay, making a few dollars at my expense. It has happened before.

News item: a man received an enlistment bonus to join the Army. He got injured by a roadside bomb, blinded in one eye. So they booted him—and demanded that he repay part of the bonus, because he hadn't served his full enlistment. In effect they were punishing him for getting wounded in combat. It seems this is current military policy, to demand payment when a soldier gets hurt in the war they send him to. It reminds me of some of the words in a song we sang in college: “The foreman's name was Tom McCann/ By God he was a blame mean man/ One day a premature blast went off/ And a mile in the air when big Jim Goff/ When next payday came around/ Jim Goff a dollar short was found/ When he asked 'What for?' came this reply:/ 'You're docked for the time you was up in the sky.'” Well, when news of this outrage got public, suddenly the Pentagon said they would no longer seek repayment, from this one soldier. Amazing what a little publicity can do. But the policy remains in place for all those who are not making headlines, and thousands of wounded soldiers may have been forced to pay. I think this whole war is a disaster, foisted on us by a megalomaniac ignoramus and his heartless party, but I suspect even ardent supporters would agree that this policy is an outrage. What's next—demanding payment from the families of soldiers killed before their full enlistments are up?

I mentioned the daily newspaper puzzles. Have you noticed how the most difficult word in the Jumble is typically the third one? It's as if they have reserved that spot for the worst one. And the chess: when they have an especially intractable one, they say “Too easy for a hint.” And sometimes they get it wrong. For example, I date stamped and cut out the one for October 20, 2007. Those who save old newspapers, or are adept at running such things down on the Internet can verify this if they wish. It was White to Play, but the advantage was plainly with Black who could eliminate White's last piece, a bishop, then use its Knight and King to win in the end game. Or, if White did not sacrifice its Bishop, Black would promote a pawn to Queen, and readily win. So I checked their too-easy-for-a-hint answer. It completely ignored Black's ploy. In real life Black would simply win, not being bound by such ignorance. So in response to White's a5, Black would move g4, and the crunch would be on. If any who check this out disagree, let me know. I'm no chess expert, but this one is really not sophisticated.

Another item says that 34% of people believe in ghosts, and some say they've seen one. Yeah, sure. Reminds me of the time when I was in the Army in Oklahoma, and a weather balloon got loose and drifted over the highway. Sure enough, came reports of a flying saucer, and one woman said she had seen inside, little green men drinking tea. Green tea, I'm sure.

NEW SCIENTIST had a collection of articles on Death. It says that the distinction between life and death is becoming increasingly fuzzy. That death is not the real enemy, but rather it is aging and disabilities. Yes, people are living longer—but so are their periods of ill health, as it were. It is the latter that we should be addressing. Better to live 70 years in good health, than 80 years with the last 20 helpless or demented. Longer lifespans in a world of decreasing resources will inevitably force heart-wrenching moral dilemmas. Will we have to choose who lives? I think I am relieved that this crunch is likely to come after my time; the Baby Boomers are more likely to face it. But it would make sense to promote voluntary painless suicide for those who prefer it; that would make things better for the rest of us. Universal cremation would save needed space. The articles described assorted ways of dying: drowning, heart attack, bleeding to death, fire, decapitation, electrocution, fall from a height, hanging, lethal injection, explosive decompression. A letter in a later issue says that a slow loss of air pressure, or of oxygen, is painless; high-flying pilots can be taken out by it, unaware. Why do none of these appeal to me? So how would I prefer to die? I think I'd like to have a pill I could take, and in, say, one hour there would be a sudden surge of discomfort warning me that if I did not take the antidote, which would restore me harmlessly, I would lose consciousness and die painlessly in the following hour. So I could change my mind, as well I might. The death pill would be packaged with the antidote and plainly marked so there would be no confusion. Perhaps there would be a court appointment, where I would state to the judge that yes, I was rational, had thought it through, and wanted that pill, and that no one was forcing it on me. Maybe such a death would have to be semi-public, so there could be no question of sneak murder. But for those in terminal pain, or otherwise deprived of any point in living longer, such a pill could be a literal godsend.

Columnist Deb price, noted for her support of gays of either gender, remarks on bullying. That's one of my buttons. To rehearse briefly what I have said before, I was the smallest in my class as a child, and I learned about bullying from the underside. I am tempted to think that bullies should be picked up by the feet and have their heads bashed into stout trees. To put it more politely: zero tolerance. Bullies have been described as baby criminals. This article says that one in ten high school dropouts blames bullying. Gangs are part of the syndrome. Congresswoman Linda Sanchez is introducing legislation requiring schools to specifically address the most common types of attacks, based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion. School needs to be a place “where kids can go and learn in peace—without fear” she says. Amen. I would amend that to also tackle bullies who force smaller kids to do their homework for them, to yield their lunch money, or lie to teachers and/or parents lest they get their heads beat in. And to address the verbal bullying girls can get into. What to do with incorrigible bullies? Maybe put them in separate schools. Keep them away from regular kids. Get the message through to them: clean up their acts or be fast tracked toward prison. Bullies do respect power.

But here is part of the problem: the attitudes of the school administration. The mother of a 12 year old juvenile football player tipped the local newspaper that four of the coaches had histories of multiple arrests, drug charges, and weapons offenses. I can appreciate her concern. So what did the school system do? It banned her husband—a non-criminal coach—and her son from the game, saying that her “strong hatred, disgust and negativity about [the] organization could cause disruption.” In another case a girl reported, accurately, that a teacher was having sex with a student. They queried the teacher, who of course denied it. The girl was suspended. Oh, yes, these cases were reversed when the matters became public. But what kind of a school system instinctively punishes the whistle blowers instead of the guilty parties? Ours, it seems. No wonder bullies thrive. Some schools are trying to reform, identifying the kinds of bullying that take place, encouraging children to oppose it. Um, lots of luck: if you tell a bully to cut it out, you had better be bigger and stronger than he is, because otherwise he'll pulp you. So they need to get the bullies the hell out. Where to send them is another problem, as mentioned above; I suggest an answer in my story “Bully” in Relationships.

Now bullying is going online. Some bullies cultivate romantic friendships, then tell off the victims and circulate their emails for maximum embarrassment. In one case, the bully boy didn't even exist; he was crafted by adult neighbors of the girl's family to avenge a grudge. The thirteen year old victim committed suicide. And it seems there is no legal or social recourse; the bullies are free to do their thing indefinitely. Now I believe in freedom of expression, but this strains my tolerance. The essence of my position is that yes, there should be complete freedom of speech, including mean spirited speech, but that there should also be consequences for the abuse of it. If you tell a lie that kills someone, you should be put on trial for murder. With that understanding, go ahead and lie, shithead.

There is yet another kind of bullying: by employers. Criticize your boss, chances are you get fired. Even when trying to save the Everglades. Richard Harvey worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. He objected to a proposal by the US army Corps of Engineers to solve Lake Okeechobee's pollution problems by funneling the pollution into Biscayne National Park. Some solution! So he was removed. My question is, who removed him, and why wasn't that person fired?

Column by Paul Krugman: “The smart money, then, knows that the surge has failed, that the war is lost, and that Iraq is going the way of Yugoslavia.” The war is actually about oil, and is not getting it. Letter in the ST PETERSBURG TIMES by Donna Gray says “By privatizing the war, future profits of American companies operating in Iraq now depend on the continuation of this war...we need to join together, left and right, secular and religious, and demand answers about who got rich on this war, and most of all, why.” As if we don't already know the answers.

Circumcision rates are declining in the US. Good for them; it's past time for them to stop practicing religious mutilation on helpless babies who don't belong to that religion. One study suggests that circumcised men have less chance of getting AIDS. They'd have even less chance if doctors simply cut off their penises at birth. I think it make more sense to be careful about sex, avoiding infected partners and using condoms.

There's a new little car making a pitch for success: the Smart Fortwo, under 9 feet long, 5.1 feet wide, 5.1 feet tall, 40 miles per gallon, $12-17,000. It's a cute thing and I wish it well. But our old Volkswagen Bug got 40 mpg in country driving and held four, and our current Prius gets 45. So I trust that better cars are coming.

We saw a movie, selected by by wife and daughter, who run my mundane life: Enchanted. And I have to was it was enchanting, and we loved it. It's a sort of parody of standard Disney cartoon themes, notably Snow White, starting with a nice lovely girl who dreams of marrying a handsome prince. When she cleans house she puts her head out the window and musically summons the cute creatures of the forest who hurry in to do the job: birds, bunnies, deer, everything. Then she meets the Prince, who is ready to marry her on the morrow. But his wicked stepmother won't have it, as he will assume power when he marries, displacing her. So she pushes the girl into a sort of pit, and she winds up in real life, no longer a cartoon. A mundane man with a mundane daughter helps her. When she cleans his house, she summons the animals, and the creatures of the city come in: pigeons, rats, roaches, flies, and they clean it up. Lovely touch. His daughter really likes her, and in time she starts to fall for the man, which complicates her relationship with the Prince, who comes to the mundane realm to rescue her. Of course things get really wacky by the end, but it's nicely done and a hell of a lot of fun.

I have been wending the Xlibris labyrinth to publish Alfred, the biography of my father. This is not a commercial book, and I think few of my readers would be interested in it; its more like private family history. I put in for Xlibris' cheapest deal, $300, and have to say that the process was reasonably comprehensible, and my representative there phoned me at every turn, maybe a dozen times in all. Now at last it's done, it's available at Xlibris, and I'll be ordering copies for family members. Adding the cost of corrections, and ordering ten copies, adds about $200, making it a $500 project in all. If this is Xlibris' most minimal service, it's good enough. The whole process took about three months, mostly waiting for Xlibris to set up the galleys and then the corrected physical copy, and there were no mistakes. I put more effort into the writing of this book, for less expected readership, than any other project, my interest being in seeing that my father will not depart this realm unknown. I recommend this sort of thing to others: write your book, whether to record your own otherwise lost thoughts, or to pay homage to your family members, and self publish it. Not for notoriety, not for large sales, certainly not for money. Just because it is a thing worth doing. No one else will do your particular thing, and it will lend deserving but unknown folk a little bit of immortality. Members of your family as yet unborn may truly appreciate your effort, in due course.

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