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OctOgre 2008
HI-

We saw this year's Mummy movie, on my 74th birthday, AwGhost 6.  It has an intelligible story line and more violence than you can shake a bandage at, with flashes of humor, such as when the huge white yeti boot a bad guy over a building and cheer as if they scored a goal, or when the protagonist can't catch a fish, so shoots them instead, and then his wife bites on a bullet when eating the cooked fish.  Is there any larger significance?  Not that I can fathom.  So this is the classical tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  But fun if you like that type, and actually I do.

 

In my program of re-watching videos I liked in the past, I watched Pleasantville, and liked it very well.  We saw it in the theater November 1, 1998 after finding the time of Antz inconvenient.  I would have preferred to see Antz, but went along, and then Pleasantville really wowed me and I was glad to have seen it instead.  We saw Antz later on TV, so didn't actually miss it, and it's good too.  Anyway, in Pleasantville a teen boy and girl, siblings, get magically transposed into a TV program of the 50s, Pleasantville, that is shown in black and white.  So now they are in black and white, and not totally pleased.  In Pleasantville everything is G rated and positive.  Everyone is cheerful and obeys all the rules and is always successful.  The basketball players always score baskets.  The girls are always pretty and properly dressed.  In short, to teens of the 90s, this is absolutely boring.  So Sister dates a local boy and starts showing him what a date can be.  Not only does that freak him out, it puts him into color.  Sister explains to Pleasantville Mother about sex, and since Father wouldn't be into anything like that—remember the G rating—she tells Mother how to get sexual pleasure without a man.  Mother tries it in the bathtub, and not only does she experience a rare sensation, she becomes colorful too.  It seems that it is the experience of real emotion that does it, and all over town people start getting color.  Naturally there's a conservative reaction, and in some places signs appear saying NO COLOREDS.  It goes on from there, freely dabbling in the social implications.  I think it's a great movie.

I also re-watched Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's last movie.  Beautiful title, interesting movie.  Young doctor's lovely wife confesses to having had a fantasy about an affair with another man, and that sends the doctor into a turmoil.  He sneaks into a sort of Satanic sex club, gets caught, his life is in peril, but one of the lovely ladies, a patient of his who recognizes him, proffers her life instead.  So they let him go and she dies of a drug overdose.  He tries to investigate, but his other contacts keep turning up abruptly dead.  Finally the Satanists make it clear that if he doesn't give over and shut his mouth, his wife will pay the price.  So he will keep the secret, but he and his wife make up.  Is this really a great film?  It is intriguing, and I like the statuesque bare women, but I have to say that it's good but not great.

 

A reader, Rigel Kent, sent me a link, in response to my passing comment on the peril of guns in the house: www.guncite.com/gun_control_gedgaga.html.  It seems the statistics cited by gun control nuts—if I'm going to call some folk gun nuts, I should designate the other side similarly—are incomplete.  Yes, when you add up the unintentional death, the criminal homicides, suicides, and unknowns you get 389, and only 9 self-protection homicides.  There's the 43 to one ratio.  But there are as I see it two things about that.  First, the vast majority of those deaths, 333, are from suicide.  I feel that a person who wants to off himself should be allowed to, so I don't regard this as gun abuse.  That leaves 56 deaths to 9 self protections.  That's still a 7-1 negative ratio, but not nearly as horrendous.  Second, the study also compared violent deaths in the home that did not involve a gun.  The same categories this time are 0, 50, 347, 0 = 397, to 4 self protections.  The ratio is 99-1.  Again if you exclude suicides, it's 50-4, or 12.5-1.  That's worse than the guns!  It almost looks as if you are safer with the gun.  What about the times a bad guy comes to rob, rape, or kill you, but you warn him off with your gun and no one is killed?  But I think it more likely means that shit happens, with or without a gun, so there's not a lot of difference.  It's really a non-issue.  Which leaves me determinedly neutral on the issue.

 

Two Dear Abby columns in AwGhost addressed the issue of cheating in school.  This subject interests me, because I did not cheat in school, and graduated in the third quarter of my class (and not the top of that), then went on to become perhaps the most commercially successful member of that class.  Obviously my grades did not reflect my future.  I was indeed one of the smarter students in terms of IQ, and I associated with top students, rooming in the course of four years with three or four of them, the nerds, though that's hardly a valid indication.  They knew, as the school did not, that I wasn't stupid.  But as with the gun control issue, the context fudges the implication.  The school, for complicated reasons, simply did not address my needs or potential.  Had I cheated, I still would have been far from a top student.  My success as a writer owes a huge component to sheer guts and luck, with talent being a significant but not dominant factor—and of course talent was not what high school was about.  Memorization and conformity were the key elements, and imagination could be penalized, so you can see why I didn't fit well.  But what about cheating?  Teachers—and I was once a teacher, and it was an issue—try to make students understand that cheating is wrong, and are met with incredulous stares and “Can I go now?”  Yes indeed.  When I taught high school English in the 1960s, my students tried to tell me that I didn't have the right to penalize them for cheating.  It seems that attitude hasn't changed. So here is my take on it, which hasn't changed in more than fifty years: you are supposed to be in school to learn something, and tests are supposed to be an indication how well you are succeeding.  If you cheat, the tests are invalidated.  Then what's the point?  So how can a cheater succeed in life?  Well, some do—witness the current political and corporate scenes—but the culture can suffer grievously as ignorant greed runs rampant.  People who cheat rather than learn are really cheating themselves as well as harming others whom they illegitimately displace.  They are best avoided.  I think I would favor keeping a close check, and removing cheaters from the educational scene, as they evidently aren't interested in learning, leaving the classes to those who are serious.  What to do thereafter with the cheaters?  Let them languish uneducated until they learn the basic rule: honesty.

 

Dialogue with another fundamentalist, who asked me to give a reason why I don't believe in God.  This is not the kind of dialogue I care for, because I know it is wasted time: a believer will never understand rational nonbelief.  I feel it should be the other way around: why does a believer believe, in the face of lack of evidence for the existence of the supernatural?  But you won't get much in the way of a rational answer.  So, like Jesus, I sometimes resort to little stories.  That's what his parables were: stories to make points that others might otherwise have trouble accepting.  Here is an excerpt:

 

There is a story about a guru who was pained by all the manifest evils of the world.  A friend said “But why not tune that out?  You have a good life here.  Focus on that, forget the rest, and be happy.”  And the guru said “It's not the kind of happiness I care for.”

Okay.  I can see that belief in God, the Afterlife, and Cosmic Justice can be quite comforting, even if it is built of a tissue of illusion.  It's not the kind of comfort I care for.

 

And more with the minister.  I remain free with my liberal humanist opinions, especially when asked:

 

You ask about the line between conviction and bigotry.  It can be tricky to fathom on occasion.  Bigots seldom see themselves as bigots; they simply take for granted that blacks, Jews, homosexuals, orientals and such are inferior and need to be kept in their place on the other side of the tracks for the sake of a smoothly functioning society.  What can fudge the line is when bigots know they are wrong, but instead of reforming, try to mask it.  So they use literacy tests that no one could pass to prevent blacks from voting, or seek to define marriage in such a way as to prevent gays from getting its advantages.  Where do I stand on such issues?  Any citizen should get to vote, and I hope will be informed and responsible, though it is evident that masses of uninformed do vote.  Any two people should get to marry.  Yes, to me marriage is between a man and a woman, but acknowledging that some see it differently, I leave the choice to them.  Maybe extend the present system, where the legal marriage is authorized by the state, while the social marriage is performed in a church ceremony.  So those who belong to churches that will marry gays can have the ceremony, while those whose churches won't can still obtain the legal benefits of a state marriage. 

Too often I see greed, lust, and bigotry clothed in religion.  Look at the wealth of the Catholic Church.  Look at the masked plural marriages of the Mormons.  Look at those who say the Bible calls blacks the children of Cain.  Such things surely disgust you as they do me.  I just re-watched a video I had, refreshing my memory of it: Eyes Wide Shut, wherein a man with a troubled marriage blunders into a Satanic conclave where masked men have at beautiful bare masked women.  This is illicit sex clothed in religious vestments.  Religion, whether stemming from Heaven or Hell, can be used to justify anything.

My general attitude about homosexuality is that I am adamantly heterosexual, and I don't want anyone even trying to convince me otherwise; my mind is closed in that respect.  I assume that the gays are similarly locked in to their orientation.  Therefor I follow the golden rule and do not try to change them, and don't want them to try to change me.  With that understanding we can and do get along compatibly.  My wife and I were both shocked and sorry when the gay man who did the best work on my computer system, a close friend of our daughter's, suddenly died of complications of diabetes.  We liked him.  I think a person who feels compelled to try to change gays or deny them ordinary rights is flirting with bigotry, even if his religion justifies it.

 

Okay, this may stir some outraged responses, not all of which will be bigoted; I like to think that the folk who read my blog-type columns are reasonably tolerant.  I am not saying that the Catholic Church is obsessed with money or the Mormons with sex; there's a lot more to both than that, and much of it is good.  But some of their adherents do use those religions to clothe their unholy desires, and I'm not sure those religions completely condemn that minority, any more than the Southern Baptists truly condemn the underlying racism of their origin.

 

In a prior column I mentioned the cute little plants floating in our returned-to-nature swimming pool, which turned out to be duckweed.  It prospered, and expanded so much that I was afraid it would take over the whole pool.  I wasn't sure our frogs would like that.  So I dipped out most of it, leaving a smaller amount to continue.  That was fine.  Then, abruptly, it disappeared.  Apparently some ailment wiped it out in a couple of days.  That saddened me.  But two months later, it is reappearing, with tiny plants slowly growing.  Did it get too hot in the summer for it?  Or is it like bamboo, which may all die, ridding itself of predators before regrowing?  Nature has mysteries yet.

 

Florida has suffered a drought the past few years, but finally Tropical Storm Fay came by, aiming for us as they all do, but these storms' eyes are not very good so they generally miss.  She headed north but swerved east, and we got nothing.  So she turned around and tried again, this time missing us to the north.  But it was a closer miss, and we caught the southern edge.  It was about a nine inch event, catching us up in rain.  Then the drought resumed, as one storm after another missed Florida and plowed into Louisiana or Texas.  What we try to do is have them brush close enough to give us good rain, but not close enough to blow us away.  It's a tricky maneuver.

 

My ne'er-do-well archery practice continues.  I loose 12 arrows with the right hand bow, then 12 with the left hand bow.  I have an array of 11 targets, with lesser ones surrounding the main one so that when I miss I don't lose my five to six dollar arrows.  And I miss a lot.  Too often I am left standing with the bow aimed at center, watching the arrows fling wildly to the sides.  Was it the severely damaged or missing fletching?  Then one day it was rainy, so I stayed in and repaired damaged arrows.  The forked tip is the nock, and if it breaks I can't loose the arrow.  I replaced 14 nocks, recovering in that manner 14 decent arrows.  Then I used them—and my scores were just as bad.  But it was an improvement, because my misses were more like inches instead of feet.  I miss the whole target array more seldom now.  Once, looking for a lost arrow, I saw instead the tail of a rattlesnake.  No problem; it wasn't looking for trouble, and slowly slithered away.  I'm glad I didn't step on it, though.  We let the local wildlife be.  The only exception is the pigs, because they wanted to take over the whole tree farm, ruining it for other creatures.  We allow them to be hunted, and that has solved that problem.  Another time I was using the metal detector to locate buried arrows, and passed a metal bolt that gave no signal.  What kind of metal is invisible to a metal detector?

 

We watched some of the Olympics.  Yes, it's too bad that China has such a bad human rights record, but they did put on a phenomenal opening show, and some events were compelling.  For example a couple of the swims: when Lezak, in the last lap of the relay, was behind, swimming against the world record holder.  He buckled down, made the fastest surge ever, and won by under a tenth of a second.  Another was decided by one hundredth of a second.  Then there was Nastia, with a name that sounds like Hell, with a figure from Heaven.  And the closing show, where this London double-decker bus slowly turned inside out and became a performance stand.

 

On occasion I need a rhyme, or sometimes a word with a similar ending.  My rhyming dictionary was given me by my wife in 1960 with the inscription “This dictionary/ As you can see/ Is meant for rhymes/ Like me, be, thee.//  But 'cause this book/ Is just for you/ I will not look/ To make this work.”  How can I not love her?

 

Health.  I was given a bone density test, which I thought was incidental because I do not fit the profile for osteoporosis, that is bone loss.  I exercise seriously, remain lean, eat a healthy vegetarian diet, and take calcium, magnesium, and Vitamin D supplements.  Lo, I tested low.  It seems my thyroid deficiency—I'm on Synthroid, or its generic equivalent—is responsible.  A depletion of -2.5 is the threshold, and I was -3.7.  So I am being treated with Reclast.  Cost me $2700 for a single annual treatment.  I am covered by Medicare, and so is the drug, but they won't cover it for me because I have not tried the oral Boniva which put my wife into chronic misery, or actually fractured a hip.  And how much would it cost Medicare if it had to cover a fractured hip?  Should I have waited for that before treatment?  Meanwhile I got a harness with a pocket, and now carry my cell phone with me when I run, so that if my hip should go, I will be able to call my wife, instead of lying alone in the forest for hours with the mosquitoes. Elsewhere in the wider family we got a serious scare: cancer.  It turned out not to be brain cancer, but cancer in the brain.  That's not a meaningless distinction.  Brain cancer is awkward to treat because you can't cut away an extra inch of tissue all around to be sure of getting it all.  But this was melanoma, skin cancer which had metastasized to the brain.  They treated it with the Gamma Knife, which focuses 201 beams of radiation on the tumor and fries it without damaging surrounding tissue.  If you have to have surgery in your head, this is the kind to have.  Hardly any recovery problem.  So what at first blush seemed like a death sentence turned out to be much less deadly, thanks to modern technology.  Meanwhile we got Cancer Awareness bracelets, soft plastic bands folk wear to show their solidarity with those who have suffered cancer.  Ours are black, for melanoma.  Other colors are for other types: breast = pink, lung = white, gray = brain, yellow = bladder, light blue = prostate, and so on.

 

Don Callandar died.  He was the author of the light fantasy series beginning with Pyromancer, which I blurbed in the 1990s.  We met when we went to Orlando to consider a retirement community there, Village on the Green, and he and his wife were very helpful.  He was a nice guy, and those were fun novels.

 

I placed three more novels with TOR in a package deal because I wanted to get the final GEODYSSEY novel, Climate of Change, into print.  So TOR will bring that out, and Xanths #33 Jumper Cable and #34 Knot Gneiss.  That last is about 4/5 through at this writing, moving well, and I expect to finish it in another month or so.  Xanth does normally move well.  I am in the process of completing the alphabet in Xanth titles; there are only four letters to go.

 

A chain of thought took me to a spot essay I wrote for Hugh Downs My America, copyright 2002, one of hundreds of books published in response to 9-11.  It was published on the first anniversary, and has some impassioned essays among the 150 there, but seems to have disappeared in the welter of similar books.  So now I'll run that essay here, on the assumption that few of my readers have seen it.  The trends I noticed there seem to have worsened in the intervening six years, and I believe my thoughts remain relevant today.

 

I'm an immigrant.  I'm from England, and it was England I longed for as a child; America felt like exile.  My parents did relief work in Spain during its savage civil war, feeding starving children, until my father was “disappeared” by the victorious dictatorship.  He smuggled out a note, and with that and the threat of financial repercussions, they were able to get him free, though banished.  Thus we came to America on the last commercial ship out, as World War II engulfed Europe.  I don't like discrimination against immigrants; too many are far worse off than we were, victims of totalitarian abuses.  American is a refuge.

I'm a writer.  I write because my imagination will not be suppressed.  America has the freedom for the flowering of the arts, including writing. When I write, I get love for my fiction and ire for my success.  I understand what it is like to be the object of such mixed attentions.

I'm a naturalized American.  My education, career, family, and future are here.  I believe in the constitutional values, for I choose to  subscribe to them, and wince when I see them abridged.  Unfortunately there is some of that occurring now, as fanaticism, greed, and lust for power prosper in the name of patriotism.  I do have a notion where that leads.  Yet I hope and believe that in time American will cast off these illnesses and return to the grandeur of its aspirations.

America is relatively wealthy and free and proud, so is loved and hated regardless of its merits.  Love inspires tolerance; hatred sponsors terrorism.  I saw one building become a ghastly smokestack, and a plane crash into another like a deadly chicken coming home to roost, and I saw the tall towers fall.  I  saw the heroes and the bigots roused, and the shock of illusion shattered.  I remembered the assassination of John Kennedy, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and I thought of the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

I'm an immigrant.  I'm a writer.  I'm American.

 

Here is the text of a letter I sent to the California Franchise Tax Board that I think is largely self explanatory.

 

Yesterday I received your dunning notice for $9,432.27, consisting of income tax for the year 2006, penalty, and interest.  I am not paying it.

We went through this in 1997; your records should confirm it, and if not, mine do.  I have never lived or worked in California, and therefore I am not a California taxpayer.  I have lived and worked in Florida since 1959.  I do not owe any California income tax.

My literary agent is in California; you wrote to me at his address.  He forwards payments from around the world to me in the normal agent/client manner.  If you lost my legal address, it is on this letter.  Please remove me from your mailing list.

 

And to think some folk say I don't suffer fools or rascals gladly.

 

I am a slow reader, and can't even keep up with the books I receive free.  I try to read at least ten pages a day of something, and I'm fairly choosy.  Here's a report on some:

 

I mentioned last column No Such Thing as a Free Ride? edited by Simon and Tom Sikes, because I am in it.  Now I have read the full book, and have to say that there are hitchhiking stories therein that put mine to shame.  One is in comic form.  Another tells of picking up a stranded motorist in 1942 who turned out to be Edsel Ford, president of the Ford Motor Company.  Ford paid for their hotel room, sent them envelopes containing hundred dollar bills—a small fortune back then—and sent mechanics to fix their car, practically rebuilding it into a super car.  They had done a good turn for the right person.  Others are philosophical essays.  Some few are by women, who are at greater risk when hitchhiking.  Some hitched in other countries, not necessarily knowing the native language.  Such adventures make me nervous.

 

Warm Earth, by Angela Jackson.  This is a novel of the Spanish Civil War, as seen by three British nurses.  The author sent me a copy because years ago I helped a minor bit of her research by sending Bio of an Ogre, which contains as an appendix my mother's narrative of my family's experience there, per my note in the essay above.  This novel is massively detailed, and reading it gave me more of a feel for what it was like; I was at age four and five, too young to appreciate it then.  Many folk today don't realize the significance of that war.  It was a kind of rehearsal  for World War Two, as the fascists of Germany and Italy sent their airplanes and troops to practice.  It started when Spain's own military set out to take over, and their superiority of hardware enabled them to do it in three years.  A popular song on the loyalist side was “The Four Insurgent Generals,” which concluded “They'll all be hanging!”  Alas, not so.  The nurses of the novel saw blood aplenty, and the tragedy of a noble but losing cause.  There is irony, as one nurse—not one of the protagonists—prefers to eat undisturbed. So she removes the latch from the kitchen door so no one else can get in.  Then new nurses came; there was an explosion, and they didn't know where to find the missing handle, could not get out in time, and one died.  A protagonist wanted to report her, as she surely deserved to be brought to account.  But another overruled her: the effort would disrupt the war effort.  So the guilty nurse, showing no remorse, got away with it.  I winced, as I was supposed to.  Such things happen in war, and sacrifices do have to be made, not all of them honorable.  War is ugly, not romantic.  I am impressed by the depth of the author's research, but I can see that she is not an experienced novelist.  She has an imperfect notion of paragraphing, and her characters did not quite come to life for me.  Three nurses, and I tended to confuse one with another.  Characters need to be well differentiated by appearance, character, and setting, and these were, but I think not sufficiently.  So I feel that some potential was wasted.  Still, it is a significant work, and I recommend it to those who have an interest in the subject.  That ugly little war should not be forgotten.

 

I read Bits of the Dead, an illustrated anthology edited by Kieth Gouveia, which I received because I contributed to it.  It consists of little zombie stories, as different authors present their takes on zombies, some of them stomach turning. If you are a zombie fan, as I am not, this could be fun.  My entry is “The Courting” wherein a zombie woman seduces a man who is about to die; that way she gets his expiring life essence.  I also read Blood of the Dead by A P Fuchs, another revolting story.  First there comes a sort of gray rain, then the zombies, converted in masses from ordinary living folk and insatiably hungry for living flesh.  I'm not clear why zombies, whose digestive system is rotting guts, want to eat at all, and why they can't settle for zombie flesh.  Only about one person in a thousand avoids conversion, reason unknown, and these are the immediate target of the wretched throngs.  Four living folk are traced: an old man, a mature man, a young man, and a woman.  They are constantly  fighting off and fleeing the attacking zombies.  That's essentially the book, which cuts off amid a scene unfinished, after a tantalizing glimpse at the powers that are behind the scene; it's the first volume of a trilogy.  Presumably the gray rain and the survival of the few will be explained subsequently.

 

If my reaction to these books seems negative, it may be because I am not feeling well.  As I reached the point in this column where I started the reviews, I had that Reclast treatment.  It said there could be flu-like side effects.  That's like “Some assembly required”: likely to be an aggravating understatement.  I might as well have had the flu itself.  It started ten hours after the infusion, when I got the sudden violent shivers.  In the next three days my fever peaked at 101.9°F and I felt awful.  I was weak, and my exercise schedule was wiped out: Archery, running, sex.  That last was when my wife knew it was serious.  I do assorted supplementary exercises; they too were extinguished.  Oh, I tried, but some involve getting down on the floor.  Getting down there was a tedious and sometimes painful chore, and getting back up was another, and I couldn't do the exercises anyway.  A tortoise could have kept pace with the speed of my walking.  My hips hurt, and my knees, back, shoulders, and heels.  Yes, heels; they hurt.  I don't recall that one from the flu.  My right thumb operated only with pain.  When I wanted to look to the side, I had to turn my whole body in that direction, because my neck was stiff.  My digestion wasn't affected, directly, but food tasted like cardboard and finishing a cup of liquid was a challenge because my neck didn't want to bend back.  I began to suffer urinary incontinence, starting to pee in my pants before I could make it to a proper place—and then it was be maybe half a bladderfull.  While a BM was the opposite, reluctant to depart the sanctity of my intestine.  That kind of thing is not much fun.  Sleeping at night was uncomfortable, because I have to sleep on my side, because of my collapsed disk, and my hip soon became uncomfortable to the point of pain, so I had to roll over to the other side.  And I was too weak to do it.  I had to shove myself an inch, pant a while, then shove another inch, getting into position so I could turn over without too much pain, and when I did I was perilously close to the edge of the bed, but unable to move myself back.  My wife said the sound of my groaning interfered with her sleep.  Each night seemed about three years long.  By day most of what I could do was sit in my easy chair and sleep; at least there my hips were not under pressure.  I couldn't type effectively, because about every third word was badly typoed; my fingers were missing the keys.  The sloppiness wasn't limited to typing.  I had to use the car to fetch the newspapers, and parked it skew so that we couldn't get around it in the garage.  Today is the fourth day, my fever is down, and I'm resuming work on this column after three days doing essentially nothing, while my novel remains on pause at 77,000 words and incoming commitments wait.  I hope that soon I will recover enough to resume exercise and start catching up on the backlog.  I hope the treatment works, because it is costing me more than I expected.  I think my misery extended to the stock market, because during it the DOW dropped 777.7 points.  My wife is bearing with it.  OctOgre 1th update: I did run, actually walked and lumbered, and survived it.  My time for the route was under 17 minutes the last time before the treatment; this time it was over 27 minutes.  But it's a start.  And the stock market, taking note of my improvement, bounced back almost 500 points.  You thought such things were random?

 

So the rest of this column will be abbreviated, with only passing nods given to items that deserve full discussions, and it may not be as scintillatingly sharp as usual.  Well, up to my normal standard, anyway.  I watched the video Obsession, distributed with our newspaper, whose thesis is that the Arabs are teaching hate of America in their schools.  Sure some are, but those freaks bear about the same relationship to the majority as the Ku Klux Klan does to Christianity.  We have our own hard-liners, as the Republican nominating convention demonstrated.  You can put lipstick on a pig, but it accomplishes nothing, and it annoys the pig.  Obsession doesn't seem to mention the oil connection, which the reason we are messing around in that region of the world, and why we don't just cut them off and leave them to their own bigotries.

 

I received a query from an author whose self published book spent weeks on the Barnes & Noble list in the top 15-20 percent, yet when his statements came they said he had under ten sales.  This looked skew to me, so I queried two publishers where I have connections, Xlibris and Mundania, whose statements I believe are accurate, and neither of which was the one to which the query related, and got immediate answers.  In essence, it is that the B&N list is meaningless, because it carries something like five million titles, the vast majority of which are out of print, second hand, or just junk books that nobody is buying anyway.  So even one copy sold puts it will into the top tier, and several copies would jack it up higher yet.  Those who make such lists don't like to let it be known how irrelevant they are, because there's a lot of business by interested visitors who would be less interested if they knew how small the pickings actually were.  So they don't give out figures, just rankings.  They surely have the hard figures, they just keep them out of sight.

 

So let's try to reconstruct a correspondence table, so that authors will have a better notion.  I conjecture that a book is not listed, say, in the top million, unless it sells at least one copy.  That would be in the top 20% of five million titles.  If so, then every book above it must sell at least that much.  So if # 1,000,000 sells one copy, there must be at least one million copies of assorted books sold.  Let's say that # 100,000 sells ten copies, and is in the top 2% of five million.  The books above it must sell at least that much.  That means another million copies sold.  #10,000 would be in the top two tenths of one percent, and maybe sells 100 copies, which means another million.  We're getting massive spread-out sales here, yet the individual title's sales are dirt poor compared to those of any traditional print book.  My early Xanth novels have each sold over a million copies in paperback (they never had hardback editions); my electronic sales of other titles are in the tens or less.  What does it take to get, say, 50,000 sales per title?  I suspect you have to be into the straight top ten, not ten %, and anything below that is likely to be nothing much.  Probably sales are less than those I have conjectured.  So those rankings really are meaningless.  If any authors or publishers want to send me, anonymously, comparative figures, maybe we can get an alignment.  Meanwhile, ten copies or fewer sold after placing in the top two percent?  It seems not only possible but likely.  Your publishers are not necessarily cheating you; the system is giving you unrealistic expectations.  But I would like to blow the whistle on this systematic deception; authors deserve better, and there are small but honest publishers who may be unfairly condemned.

 

A reader wondered about the conventional wisdom that fiction should not carry a message.  “Must fiction be utterly pointless to be entertaining?”  I responded with a spot essay: “I have more than one take on this.  Fiction has more than one purpose or point as I see it, and one purpose is entertainment.  It should always be entertaining, because if it isn't, few will bother to listen.  That is, originally stories were told around the fire in the evening, keeping children out of mischief.  If it didn't interest them, they would stray, get lost, and eaten by a bear.  Books are a written form, serving a similar purpose.  Radio/TV/Internet are extensions of it.  All depend on their entertainment value to garner their audiences.  (paragraph) But originally fiction also educated and inculcated social values.  It also encouraged a greater facility with language, a hallmark of our species.  Our brain may have expanded enormously to accommodate the phenomenal intricacies and concepts of language.  So to me, fiction without purpose is like empty calories: it just makes you fat and lazy.  I believe there should always be a point.  It should be entertainingly phrased, but there.  My definition of purpose is broad: information, education, encouragement, diversion, wonder, laughter—we need all of these and more.  Any will do.  (paragraph) What you don't want is a point without entertainment.  That's a lecture, like foul-tasting medicine, and may alienate the audience.  But to claim that there should be no point is wrong.  (paragraph) In sum: good fiction should be a synthesis of purpose and entertainment.  Those who claim otherwise are surely ignorant.”

 

Last column I asked about “Hamina, hamina” in the Curtis comic strip as he viewed his luscious teacher.  I received several answers.  It seems it derives from Jackie Gleason in “The Honeymooners,” when he got flustered, a show I didn't watch.  Another explanation is that it is used by men when they are speechless with lust for a woman.  That fits too.  Thanks, readers.

 

You may not have noticed or cared much about the Georgia vs. Russia situation, being distracted by the Olympics, and maybe never heard of South Ossetia, but it's something I happen to know a bit about.  Because earlier this year I was completing my historical novel Climate of Change, and that's a setting.  To make an obscenely shortened version of part of the vast panorama of Asia, one of the wild tribes that moved into Asia Minor was the Alani, and they have been in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea for two thousand years, with shifting fortunes.  Remember my mention of the captured Alani princess in a prior column?  They are now known as the Ossetians, and they just want to be free to govern their own domain, which may be known as Alania, but they have been broken into two parts: North Ossetia and South Ossetia.  One is in the Russian sphere, the other in the Georgian sphere.  The South Ossetians have been allowed some reasonable autonomy.  But recently Georgia decided it was going to deprive them of that, and rolled in tanks, expecting the USA to back it up.  Utter folly!  The USA has a long history of reneging on commitments, and was true to form this time.  For one thing, all its spare resources are taken up in the ill-gotten war of choice in Iraq.  So when neighboring Alani ally Russia responded with tanks that counter-invaded Georgia, Georgia was screwed.  But Georgia started it.  They may lose South Ossetia, and it may finally merge with North Ossetia and become Alania, and I for one will be glad to see it.  There was similar mischief most of a century ago known as the Armenian Genocide; the Ossetians had sympathy for their oppressed neighbors.  I have been there, in my fashion, and remain an Alani fan.  I'd like to see the Basques, split between France and Spain, similarly freed and unified.

 

Newspaper item: the estimated life expectancy for a white male born in 1936 was 58 years.  I was born in in 1934, so I have outlived my term.  But someone who makes it to age 72 can expect to live a dozen more years.  That gives me another decade.  Okay.  I still have novels to write.

 

There are those who want to convert America from a secular state to a religious one.  I think those folk don't much like the Constitution.  But little do they appreciate the can of worms they seek to open.  They think it would become a Christian state, but there is no guarantee it would work out that way.  It has been suggested that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster be state-established, its precepts being as valid as, say, Creationism.  That's not what these advocates mean?  As I see it, one form of nonsense is as valid as another.

 

From time to time I see remarks by Republicans saying that the Democrats have accomplished almost nothing since they took over House and Senate two years ago.  A solicitation from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (for some reason both Republicans and Democrats seem to assume that as a registered independent since 1959, I must be one of them) gives a reason: the Republicans have now filibustered more bills than any congress in United States history.  So the obstructionists are hypocritically blaming the Democrats for doing nothing.  Of course the Democrats have an answer: vote so many of them in next time that they have a filibuster-proof majority.

 

One thing that chronically bemuses me is that most of those who oppose abortion also oppose sex education and contraception.  I think that's nonsense, because effective contraception is the most likely way to stop abortions.  Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin is a poster case for the failure of this attitude, because her teen age unmarried daughter is pregnant.  If she can't enforce abstinence in her own daughter, how does she think any other parent will?  People are welcome to their personal ideologies, but some realism would help.

 

Via the Internet, another itemization of the warning signs of fascism: strong nationalism, disdain for human rights, finding enemies as scapegoats to unify the population, supremacy of the military, sexism, controlled mass media, obsession with national security, religion in government, protection of corporate power, suppression of labor power, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, obsession with crime and punishment, rampant cronyism and corruption, and fraudulent elections.  Sound like anyone we know?

 

There has been a local spate of articles and outrage relating to pictures published of new scanning machines at the Tampa International Airport.  They in effect strip-search passengers without touching them.  A company worker demonstrated, a moderately esthetic woman in clothing, then shown from several angles via the screen.  She's basically bare, her genital area showing, her breasts somewhat compacted by her invisible bra.  Overall, not a very attractive rendition.  I see this an an example of the problem of X-ray vision: what you see is not titillating.  So will it prevent passengers from smuggling bombs aboard planes?  I hope so.  Those who object: what alternative do they offer, given that there are those who do bomb and hijack airplanes?

 

And more sex ads arriving via snail.  Sniff 'n' Stiff claims that when you sniff it, in five second you'll be erect, bigger and harder.  And Vaquerax says it will double the size of your penis, and triple its hardness.  Well, maybe.  Sounds much like the old Internet ads that promise the impossible.

 

Article in THE HUMANIST covers a familiar theme for me: if you are concerned about he environment, adopt a vegetarian diet.  It is the most environmentally friendly there is, while the meat diet is the opposite, wreaking damage, especially with modern high-intensity factory farming.  The livestock sector is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  So apart from the moral question of the attendant cruelty to the animals, vegetarianism makes economic and environmental sense.  However, not all vegetation is equal.  Child labor is used in growing cocoa plants for the chocolate we like so well.  Children are kidnapped and sold into a life of slave labor.  They have tried to make a protocol that will phase out child labor, but most companies ignore it.

 

As usual, I have a pile of items I wanted to comment on, but I'm out of time.  Sigh.

PIERS
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