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This is the first of my monthly columns, contrasted with my bimonthly columns of the past decade or so.  My purpose is to be a bit more current, regularize my schedule, and to cut the length.  This one is 5,100 words, and I hope future ones will be less.  It remains a blog-type effort, reflecting my experiences and thoughts.  There is no larger political, religious, social, or practical agenda, though my liberal, agnostic, vegetarian realism is bound to show.  My comments on books, movies, events and people always reflects my personal take on them, objective and subjective.  Those who don't like my positions are free to take a flying leap into a bad-tempered tornado—uh, let me rephrase: politely disagree or to read something else.  The same goes for my ongoing Survey of Electronic Publishers and Related Services, elsewhere at this site.  I have very little sympathy for those who seem to think I don't have a right to my own opinions on my own site.

I read Island of Fog, by Keith Robinson.  This is a juvenile novel featuring twelve year old children who are confined with their parents on an island perpetually shrouded by fog.   The story is of the mystery of the fog and their residence within it.  They discover that it issues from a vent on the interior of the island, which seems to be guarded by a dangerous monster, and that a sea monster prevents them from trying to escape the island.  Their parents are close-mouthed.  Then it gets worse: the children start developing special transforming abilities, becoming monsters indeed, but able to revert at will to their human forms.  What is going on?  Slowly they find out.  They keep it from the adults, especially a nosy outsider, not trusting her motives, and this seems justified.  I loved this novel; it starts interesting, develops tension, and concludes with reasonable explanations that relate to the whole world.  It is evidently the first of a series.  It should be some series.  The author was pleased with my reaction, and has described our correspondence in his blog at www.unearthlytales.com/.

We saw the animated movie Up.  I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't that.  It starts with the protagonist as a child who is befriended by a slightly pushy girl who has imagination and ambition.  They grow up, marry, and have a good life, but never quite get around to her last ambition, to visit a special remarkable waterfall in South America.  Seemingly suddenly she has passed on and he is old, crotchety, feeble, and left with the house, lonely memories, and her things-to-do scrapbook.  Younger folk want to move him out so they can have the space.  This portion was really a summary, but it impacted me, because I too met a girl long ago, one thing led to another, and this month we had our 53rd anniversary; more on that anon.  I doubt there is as much time ahead of us as we have behind us, and I fear becoming an old crotchety widower with a house, memories, and surpassing loneliness.  A woman can make such a difference in a man's life!  Fortunately this is only the beginning of the movie.  He gets into a phenomenal adventure, with his house floating away lofted by a myriad colored balloons.  Yes it's animation, but soon enough you tune that aspect out and are in the story, which gets scary in places.  There's no new romance, and no earth-shaking accomplishments, but it is satisfying on a personal basis.  This is perhaps the best movie I've seen so far this year, though I haven't forgotten Slumdog Millionaire.  It's a close call.

I read The Faceless Man by Jack Vance, originally published as The Anome.  Small publisher Underwood-Miller published it in 1983 and sent me a hardcover copy, part of a boxed set.  A quarter century has passed, so I thought it was about time to read it.  Jack Vance has been a favorite genre author of mine ever since I read a story from The Dying Earth about fifty years ago, and I regard him as perhaps the finest fantasy author extant.  I try to read a variety of material, ranging from rank amateur to award winning, in a constant assessment of the nature of writing.  This is, I think, one of Vance's incidental novels, the story of a young man in an excruciatingly controlling society, who manages to break free to an extent and travel as a musician.  He wants to free his mother from her servitude, but by the time he earns the money to do so, she has been abducted by raiders and is dying.  He is annoyed, to understate the case, and tries to get the anonymous ruler, the faceless man, to avenge her by wiping out the brutish raiders.  But he is not taken seriously.  Eventually he forges satisfaction of a kind, though I found the conclusion inconclusive.  Along the way I found strengths and weaknesses of the author.  Vance is a master stylist who can take some getting used to.  I remember back in 1966 in a dialogue with Keith Laumer he mentioned Vance with admiration.  I said Vance's dialogue was wooden.  “Not wooden, carved,” he said.  I thought about it and concluded he was correct.  There is real beauty there when you tune in to it.  Describing the society's emphasis on rites of purification, an elder mentions “the necessary depravity of birth.”  A critic of that society said “Consider: a group which nightly intoxicates itself into a frenzy of erotic hallucinations under the pretext of religious asceticism—isn't this sublime insouciance?”  Along a drive were “clear glass tablets, each encasing the monumental effigy of a dynastic king.  The poses were identical; the kings stood with right feet slightly forward, forefingers pointing at the ground, the faces wearing somber, almost puzzled expressions, eyes staring ahead, as if in contemplation of an astounding future.”  The city itself is interesting.  “In all the human universe there was no city like Garwiy, which was built of glass—blocks, slabs, prisms, cylinders of glass: purple, green, lavender, blue, rose, dark scarlet.”  Yet I fault the author for having an imperfect grasp of proper paragraphing, and being at times immune to the concerns of the reader.  So it's a mixture of marvelously detailed physical and cultural descriptions, highly original ideas, and occasional obscurity or dullness.  Yet toward the end as things come into focus it has all the gentleness of a machine gun turret rising out of the fog and orienting on the viewer.  I'd call Vance an acquired taste.

 

In the June 2009 column I asked for help from readers on how walking skeletons reproduce, for which I will give a credit in the book.  The most comprehensive early answer was by Erin Schram, who identified the novels and even quoted relevant passages.  Others were by Russell Leverett, Heather Hatch, Sean Draven, Jan Perlmutter, Bridget “Bee” Allen, Kerry Melissa Anne Garrigan.  They will be listed.  Oh—how do they do it?  He strikes her so hard she flies apart.  This is known as knocking her up.  He selects small bones from the collection and assembles them into a baby skeleton.  I'm not sure how his girlfriend Princess Dawn will go for that, nice as her bones may be; women can be fussy about the darnedest things.  How are the genders distinguished?  Girl skeletons have one more rib.  I will give this list of credits in the Author's Note in Well-Tempered Clavicle, which should be published in 2011, assuming I get it written and sold in good order.

 

Related, but not for credit in a book: Cassie Palmer read Air Apparent and asked a question: since the supposedly murdered body in the Good Magician's Castle's cellar turned out to be Fracto Cloud in condensed form, why did Fracto condense in the first place?  Clouds don't like to condense unless they have to.  My senility strikes again; I don't remember.  Is there a reader out there who does remember?

 

We had our 53rd anniversary, as mentioned aboove.  Did we fling a wild party?  No.  Make passionate love?  No.  Go out for a movie and dinner?  No.  We stayed quietly home and celebrated by having a slice of cheesecake.  It was too sweet.  I worked on an erotic story for Relationships 4, “Running the Line,” about a man who gets caught in a women's club version of “roofies,” which they called “cellarees,” with the man being the one who is drugged and made a sex slave for a few hours, and wakes with a sore member and no memory of the event.  PHAZE may balk, so it may go to eXcessica or elsewhere where they aren't quite as taboo conscious.  I refuse to be unduly limited by the limitations of electronic publishers; I get enough of that in traditional print.  And I answered five fan letters.  My wife spent the afternoon answering the phone at CASA, the local shelter for abused women, unpaid volunteer work, as she does each week.  I'm tempted to tell callers on the phone who ask for her that she's at the abused women's shelter, and listen for the ensuing silence.  But there were no calls here that afternoon.  It was nevertheless a day to remember.  In the morning I thought I'd re-watch one of my videos, my way of celebrating (I'm an old fogy, remember, with a good deal more fading past than promising future), but when I tried to get it out of the tight shelving a bunch of stuff carelessly stacked on top fell behind the shelf.  So I got down on my knees and pulled out the lower VHS cassettes so I could reach behind and fish out the assorted fallen stuff.  Frustrating waste of time.  When I had things out, I replaced the cassettes and put things away.  The last was a DVD that must have been lost there for a long time.  I turned it over, and it was Flight Plan with Jodie Foster.  Wow!  I had been looking for that for months with no success.  Now I know what had happened to it.  So I put it in and re-watched it.  That's the story of the woman who, with her six year old daughter, flies back to America with the casket of her accidentally dead husband.  They sleep during the long flight.  Then she wakes, and the seat beside her is empty; her daughter is gone, and not only does no one on the plane know where she is, they tell her that there is no record of her daughter ever having been on the plane.  In fact the record shows that the daughter died with the husband.  Jodie, near the breaking point, must have imagined that the girl survived.  So she's not just crazed, she's crazy.  It goes on from there, and of course the viewer's sympathy is with Jodie, because we saw the girl with her as they boarded.  I certainly relate, because when I first suffered the depression and fatigue, back in 1966, that thirty years later turned out to be a thyroid deficiency, they diagnosed me as imagining it, and I got excluded on my insurance for all mental disease.  As I like to say, I wasn't crazy, the medical profession was.  Today, with chronic fatigue rampant, and some doctors suffering from it, they are less quick to call it imaginary.  So I know exactly how it feels to know you are right (that is, I knew I had a physical, not mental condition) and not only not be believed, but be labeled kooky because of it.  I'm sure many viewers have had roughly similar experiences in lesser venues.  So I enjoyed the serendipitously found video.  Then in the late afternoon came rain.  We need rain; Florida has been in a three year drought that has precipitously (pun) dropped the water table, and we don't want any more dead trees on our tree farm.  But nature, with its perversity, likes to schedule rain at the most inconvenient times.  So at 5 PM, when my wife was ready to drive home, she called me: so much rain and lightning out that she preferred to wait a bit for it to abate.  Naturally that aggravated Nature (you are getting these puns?  Naturally—Nature?) and she threw a fit worthy of some publishers.  There was a three minute power failure, followed by others, as the storm raged.  Came a second call at 5:25 from the Prius (do I need to spell out why we use a highly fuel efficient car, or why we have cell phones?): there was a dead pine tree down near our gate blocking her access.  The storm had blown it down, completing the trap.  So I piled clippers, hand saw, and 6 foot crowbar into the van (or why we have two cars?) and drove out there, ¾ mile, in the constantly flashing lightning, booming thunder, and drenchpouring squalls.  I'm not sure I've ever seen our drive so flooded before.  I mean, the weather was really out to get us.  I parked the other side of the fallen tree, struggled into a flimsy raincoat, and started sawing, while the rain still poured down.  Yes, all that lightning as I stood in the coursing river that was our drive made us nervous, but there was no way out but on.  The trunk was neatly caught between the living pine trees on either side of the drive; it had to be severed.  It was a perfectly timed, perfectly placed obstruction.  And almost immediately in that wetness the saw blade bound.  I wished I could have used the small electric saw we have, but I didn't dare in such weather.  Or the ax, but its head is loose, making it dangerous to use in distracting circumstances.  So I struggled, jamming the saw blade a few inches at a time, until I was far enough through to use the crowbar to jam the trunk to the side and open the cut a bit for more sawing.  I finally got it severed, then hauled half the tree out to the north, and swung the other half aside to the south.  (Or why I exercise seriously, maintaining my fitness for emergencies?)  That enabled my wife to drive through, and in due course I followed.  Of course the storm eased then; no point in raining when I didn't have to be out in it.  The total rainfall came to three inches, our most for a day so far this year.  (The St Pete Times newspaper, which seems sometimes to make up its local weather figures, reported no significant rain in the county that day, though some areas got as much as eight inches according to the TV.)  As I also like to say, I have absolutely no belief in the supernatural; therefore the supernatural has a grudge against me, and every so often messes up my life, just to show it can.  Thus passed our anniversary.  Surely there are no questions.

 

Next day I watched the video I had been going to see, before I found Flight Plan.  This was In the Realm of the Senses, which I had first watched in 2003 and pretty much forgotten in six years.  But as I viewed it, it came back with a vengeance.  This is a powerful, erotic, once-banned tragic love story of an ex-prostitute who takes a position in a wealthy household, has an affair with the master, and becomes obsessive.  He is understandably intrigued; she's a very pretty girl.  The older woman who runs his household tries to warn him that this girl is dangerous to him, whereupon he rapes the woman; I gather this is his way of saying she should mind her own business.  But she is correct, and the girl is in due course the death of him.  She is insanely jealous of his other affairs, and of his wife; she mentions her desire to cut off his penis so it can't go into any other woman.  She is constantly taking it into her, vaginally and orally.  They experiment with her choking him, to give him a stronger erection while he is in her; when that leads to his death, she does cut off his genitals and saves them.  She loved truly too well.  Along the way are intriguing incidents, such as when they are eating shelled whole eggs, and he pushes one into her vagina so that she has to squat like a chicken and lay it back out.  We see all of her nice body, and his penis, and we see the sex directly and the egg going in and out; no ellipses here.  It's some movie, based, apparently, on a true story in Japan in 1936.

 

In the JeJune column I mentioned noticing a song in Terminator TV.  Ian Covell filled me in on that.  It's a humorous traditional Scottish song titled “Donald, Where's Your Trousers?”  It turns out that Donald is wearing a kilt.  “I just got in from the Isle of Skye/ I'm not very big and I'm awfully shy/ The ladies shout as I go by/ 'Donald where's your trousers?'”   Cute.  I've been intrigued by the Scottish Island of Skye ever since hearing the evocative “Skye Boat Song” as a child.  It's more like a peninsula than a true island, but it has a history.

 

Article in NEW SCIENTIST about the problem of law and libel.  As I have shown in my ongoing survey of electronic publishing and related services, publishers stop at little to suppress adverse reviews, regardless of the merits of the cases.  It's an arena, and the person who enters it must be prepared to fight.  It seems that this is true in more than publishing.  Challenge the scientific validity of a claim or product, and you can get sued for libel even if what you say is true.  Because the truth might cost a company sales and money, and it will fight savagely to maintain its business.  Writers may have their articles edited before publication to avoid the risk.  It reminds me of historical religious objection to such ideas as the world being round or revolving around the sun, and they had some nasty ways to enforce such objections, such as torture or burning at the stake.  Now Britain has stern libel laws, whose oppressive reach extends far beyond Britain.  Anything published in English, as is common in America, might be seen by a reader in England, so any English language publication can be affected.  An example: The Guardian newspaper published an opinion piece suggesting the the use of chiropractic—that is, bone manipulation--for treating various children's ailments was bogus.  So the British Chiropractic Association sued for libel.  Other outfits sue similarly to stifle research.  They don't have to show that any damage has been suffered; it is the defendant who has to refute that.  This “reverse burden of proof,” in the opinion of many, discredits British libel law.  Forget about having the right of the case; if you don't have the money to make your case, you lose, and that judgment can be enforced outside Britain.  The state of New York has gone so far as to legislate to prevent English libel judgments being enforced there.  Elsewhere, if you have scientific criticism, better keep your mouth shut, as it can cost you.  Anyway, another article in NEW SCIENTIST examines chiropractic claims.  These are not made by all practitioners, but some do believe they can treat asthma, digestive disorders, infant colic, menstrual pains, sport injuries, tension headaches, migraine, as well as back pain.  Three controlled studies have found that spinal manipulation has no beneficial effect on most of these.  I'm a skeptic myself, but I will say that it was a chiropractor who took one look at me when I was young and diagnosed a problem: my right side was an inch or so higher than my left side.  He had me stand on two scales, and 60 pounds was on one, 40 pounds on the other.  My whole body was misaligned.  I believe it dated from the year I used a scooter as a child; I always pushed with my right foot, and apparently my right leg wound up longer.  I had to wear corrective shoes for some time, to grow my body back into alignment.  So how come the regular doctors missed that?  Today, incidentally, I use a scooter, and I make damn sure to use both feet evenly.  In fact I push once with my left, then once with my right, alternating every time.  Nevertheless, I simply don't believe that bone manipulation is likely to alleviate a digestive disorder, and I resent the idea that I could be sued for saying so here in my own blog column.  How about the American First Amendment—you know, freedom of speech?  It's not free if some special interest in another country can stifle it despite having no proof that my belief is false.  I was born in England, and was British for my first 24 years before being naturalized American, and retain considerable respect for the old country, but this is wrong.

 

Another NEW SCIENTIST article considers creativity's complex relationship with IQ.  This of course interests me, as I am not the smartest person I know, but I may be one of the creativest.  ( = craziest, to some critics.)  It seems there is a chemical, N-acetyl-aspartate, NAA, that is associated with mental health and metabolism.  High levels of NAA in one section of the brain is associated with intelligence.  Low of NAA levels correlates with high creativity in people of average intelligence. But the reverse was true in folk with high intelligence.  Now there's a creative result!  They conjecture that smarter people have tighter control of their frontal cortexes, so it doesn't interfere.  They wonder whether NAA also correlates with convergent thinking: the ability to bring lots of individual factors together into a single idea.  Maybe so; like maybe writing a novel?

 

And another NEW SCIENTIST article is about female ejaculation.  It seems some women do.  Here is the key: the sexual anatomy of men and women differs imperfectly.  You know how men have nipples and women have a clitoris, which is a vestigial penis.  I understand that the organ that becomes the prostate in men becomes the uterus in women.  But maybe not, because they have found some prostate tissue in women, and this can produce and ejaculate some fluid.  They analyzed this fluid and found it is similar to male ejaculate.  The fabled G-spot may relate, being more such tissue.  Some say that the visible clitoris is merely the tip of a much more substantial organ that extends back around the vagina.  So it is true: some women have more male in them than others.

 

Yet another “manliness” ad in the snail mail, this one for Erextra, a male enhancement supplement.  “Be prepared for something big.  And that's the extent of its claim.  They are selling it on the basis of the reader's assumption, with no tangible claims.  So when it doesn't work, the user has no recourse.  I do consider that big—big humbug.  But I wrote a short-short story, “Sex-Ion,” based on the idea that such novelties actually work.  I get ideas from all over, which is one reason I read junk mail.

 

A big issue today is health care reform.  We have what is claimed to be the best, but seems to be the worst national health care among first-world countries, with about 46 million people uninsured while HMOs have huge bonuses for their CEOs.  Special interests dominate the system, leading to ever increasing prices and costs.  It seems that some 60% of all bankruptcies are wholly or partly caused by medical charges.  I object on principle to this your-money-or-your-life approach; too many people are impoverished or dying.  A newspaper article says we have to ask whether the doctor is set up to meet the needs of the patient, or to maximize revenue.  Someone has to be accountable for the totality of care; otherwise you get a system that has no brakes.  One promising reform is to have a single-payer plan, that can bargain down prices for drugs and procedures, making them affordable to more people who need them.  They have it in other countries, and it works.  So when the Senate Finance Committee had a public roundtable discussion, advocates came and posed a simple question: Will you allow an advocate for a single-payer national health plan to have a seat at the table?  And for that those advocates were arrested and jailed.  Is this really America and not Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia?  Did we recently have an election that shifted power to the reformists?  Apparently not.  If I were in charge, it would not be the people's true representatives getting hustled to prison.

 

War is an ugly business, especially when conducted by chicken hawks—you know, those who avoid service for themselves, but are eager to promote wars for others to fight—who have little idea of the real needs of soldiers in the field.  Apart from the dreadful tally of post traumatic stress syndrome victims loosed upon a thoughtless society, there are the routine conditions.  The Army Field Manual says you need a minimum on one gallon of water a day to survive, and in desert conditions a soldier's water losses can be up to four gallons a day.  In Iraq temperatures reached 130 degrees, but soldiers were given half a gallon of water a day.  They started getting sick, getting kidney stones, and passing out.  How did they survive?  They raided the pallets of bottled water.  Right: they had to turn criminal to get enough drinking water.  I am one of those who feel that invading Iraq was wrong, but apart from that we should support our troops, who have no choice about being there.  This is more like pissing on the troops, if the piss doesn't dry up in the heat.

 

A “Shoe” comic strip, remarking that they used to give the criminally insane straitjackets, but now they get their own talk shows.  Can't think whom it's thinking of.  Maybe someone will sue.

 

From the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC): two residents of West Bend, Wisconsin, complained about library books dealing with gay and lesbian issues, claiming they suffered emotional damage because of the presence of the books in the library.  The Christian Civil Liberties Union is suing.  “They seek monetary damage against the city and library, resignation of the mayor, removal and a public burning of the books.”  So they are book-burners.  I think Jesus Christ would weep to see such intolerance practiced in his name.  But don't condemn all folk in West Bend as bigots; others there are mobilizing to defend the First Amendment, free speech.  If you don't like books about homosexual issues, don't read them, but you can't deny others their right to read them.  It's that simple.

 

Energy is a global problem, including finding enough of it, and dealing with the pollutions it causes.  How can we “green” our society?  America is still hostage to special interests to an unfortunate extent, but other countries aren't necessarily handcuffed by monetary greed.  Freiburg, Germany has become a model, moving increasingly toward energy-saving alternatives.  The town center is a vehicle-free zone with foot-wide water canals running along the streets to provide natural cooling and ambiance.  There's a public transit system of electric trams and buses.  Grassy swales (dips) to percolate rainwater into the aquifer, while sewage waste is collected in a biogas plant along with organic household waste for electric power generation.  Solar power, cycling paths, walkways, stores within strolling distance from residential sections.  There are no free-standing homes; instead there are attractive four story buildings with balconies.  Residents can sell their extra solar power back to the city, so they have an incentive for efficiency.  We could do it in America, too—if we wanted to.

 

A woman named Terry Martin Hekker wrote a book defending her choice to stay home and devote herself to her family, titled Ever Since Adam & Eve, the Satisfactions of Housewifery and Motherhood in the Age of Do-Your-Own-Thing.  Then on her 40th wedding anniversary her husband dumped her for a younger woman, plunging her into economic and social chaos.  So she wrote a second book, titled Disregard First Book.  Now she champions women's right to have their own careers and be independent.  She learned late, but she did learn.  More power to her.

 

Here in Florida a horror story has been about the way four boys in a middle school raped another boy with a hockey stick on four occasions.  It seems parents and school administrators are the last to know about the kind of bullying that can go on.  I suspect it's because they don't want to know.  I learned about bullying from the bottom up, when I was the smallest person in my school class, male or female.  I learned to fight, and my militant attitude continues to this day.  I don't like bullies, and those who try it against me now—I'm thinking primarily of publishers—can discover a hard-nosed response they don't like.  I have gone to law more than once, and always won my case.  But I fear I am the exception; other victims may be scarred for life.  Reform is needed, and it should start at the schools.  What do I recommend?  Know the signs, locate the bullies, and remove them from the schools.  They can go to reform schools or prison.  It has been said that a bully is a baby criminal; that may be the case.  That will leave the majority of students to pursue their education without being savaged by those without conscience.  It can be done—if the schools want to.  I was once a high school teacher, and I'm not at all sure they want to, unfortunately.

 

I'm getting older, and can't do all the things I could when younger, and time seems to fly by ever-faster.  Are popular celebrity icons dying younger, or is it just my aging perspective?  I'm thinking of Farah Fawcett, once of Charlie's Angels, at age 62, and Michael Jackson, you know, brother of the woman with the breast, at age 50.  It seemed like only a few hours between them.

 

Until Aw-Ghost, then, weather and critics permitting.

PIERS
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