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Piers the handyman 2007
Mayhem 2011
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I was setting up for my twice-weekly target practice, always a disaster but I do it for the exercise, and found some leaves and moss on my main target. That means the wrens were thinking of building there. I cleared it off, as this was not a fit place for them. Then by evening there was about five times as much nesting material there as before; the wrens had obviously worked hard all day. What could I do? If they wanted that site that badly, I'd just have to shut down archery for a couple of months and let them have their family. There were other chores I could do in that time. Thus I went out to gravel the long drive, filling in the last of the swales that had developed over the winter. Next time I went out to clip a channel across a bad curve so that we can see an oncoming car before we crash into it at the apex of the curve. And of course I suffered a chain of thought; I do that constantly. Here I was cutting down saplings who were only trying to find their place in the sun. I hate that, yet we had made the drive to drive safely on and they were filling in the space we had cleared when we put in the drive. If we did not maintain it, in due course there would be no drive, just the forest, and we would have no access. So my need trumps theirs, mainly because I have the power of action that they lack. But it bothers me. My very existence means that the lives of others are terminated or seriously compromised, when they never wished me any evil. This is of course the problem of mankind in microcosm; the existence of every human being is rough on other life on Earth. Few seem even to notice, let alone care. Meanwhile the wren's nest that started this chapter of activity remains complete and unused. Apparently they made more than one, and are using the other. If there is no activity there in a couple of weeks I'll remove it and resume archery.

 

Vaguely related: there used to be a hawk's nest in a tree along our drive. Every year or so there'd be a new young hawk coming on the scene, and like any teenager, figured he owned the region and would scream at us as we passed. Last year he must have landed before the house and a predator was lurking; I found his feathers in a mass, and there was silence on the drive. So this year the hawk family moved to a safer site: a tree in our back yard. Okay; they're welcome. Also related: in Apull the Chimney Swifts arrived. Years ago we were going to cover our brick chimney to keep the birds out, but then I read that with fewer chimneys being built the swifts are having a hard time finding places to nest. So we left the chimney alone, as we don't use the fireplace anyway, and provide the summer home for the swifts. We moved into the forest for the forest environment, and now encourage it in the little ways we can.

 

In Jamboree, as I may have mentioned before, I got out a radish to add to our evening salad, and the little thing was leafing out desperately in the darkness of the refrigerator. I figured if it was that eager to grow, I should let it, and I planted it in our garden. It grew wonderfully, becoming a fine many-leaved plant. Then something ate it off. Ouch! But I continued to water it, and protected it with chicken wire, hoping, and in due course it put out new leaves and prospered. This month it flowered. Success! I had enabled it to fulfill its life mission. Whether it will start new radishes from seeds I don't know, but at least it had its chance.

 

On a sadder note: our pendulum clock died. Back in 1977 Wards had a nice hexagon or octagon shaped pendulum clock we liked, so we bought it, but it didn't work and we exchanged it for another. That one didn't work either. After three clocks they determined that a shipment of them had been dropped, breaking them all. So we gave up on that, but the idea of the clock remained, and we stopped at a clock store and bought a more conventionally shaped one. That lasted over 33 years, but finally when I wound it it refused to run any more. I guess it was just plain worn out. I care about machines as I do about animals and plants and, oh, yes, people, and am sorry to see it perish.

 

Last year at the end of Marsh my wife tripped and fell, getting hairline fractures in her arm and leg. She was out for weeks, recovering, and I hated being alone. But this is not about that; it's about the bedsheets. When she was away, I washed only my own sheets; when she returned we resumed with both sets. But now they were out of alignment. We have two sets of sheets: a flower pattern in two colors, and a squares pattern in two colors. We matched the patterns, and she got the brown-eyed sheets, I the blue-eyed sheets. But because of the interruption they no longer matched designs. What to do? We finally figured it out, and after the laundry I put one of the just-washed sets back on while shifting the other set as usual. Now they are back matching. That's a relief. We don't like dissonance in bed.

 

Grocery shopping is routine. For decades my wife did it alone, then for months I did it alone. Now we do it together; I remain paranoid about things like falls. I pick out the best head of lettuce while she picks out the best tomatoes; I fetch the milk while she fetches the yogurt, I go ahead and locate the shortest checkout line and signal her so we don't get stuck in the slowest one, and so on. We're efficient. One day as I was weighing packages of bell peppers I saw a buxom store attendant carefully arranging a display of fruits a couple of aisles down. She was facing me, concentrating to get that display exactly right, leaning forward. Her decolletage was a little loose, and I got a marvelous line of sight. So when the time comes for nominations from the field, I'd like to nominate her for best display.

 

I'm a workaholic, especially when writing. But between sieges of writing I like to play computer card games as a sort of change of pace. I've played many, many games of Klondike and others. About the best game was Baker's Dozen, wherein all the cards are laid out face up in four rows and you have to move them about to clear cards to build in the aces. But it had a couple of faults: it did not allow blank spaces to be used for anything, and sometimes two or three kings would get piled up and could not be moved. I wished they would allow blanks spaces to be used, if only to unpile kings. I had tried FreeCell twenty years ago, which fixes the flaws in Baker's Dozen, and recommended it to my wife, who played it a lot, but I did not because it required too much attention and I wanted a low-attention game. But since I moved to PCLinuxOS I tried it again, and discovered that in twenty years they have improved things. Now they have Hints, so you don't have to search forever to discover the one stupid move you can make, and an Undo for when you make that stupid move, and a This Game is Winnable/Unwinnable message that alerts you when you're going wrong. With those three features I can navigate the sometimes difficult labyrinths and win. There were no instructions (PC has some holes) so I had to figure out the rules by hit or miss. I lost three, then caught on and now have a win streak of over 250. The thing is I don't quit a game until I win it, whether it takes four minutes or over an hour. I conclude that FreeCell as it is here is indeed the best computer card game, with the right level of challenge and assists. I even used it as an analogy of life in Trail Mix: Amoeba.

 

On Sunday mornings as I scoot out to fetch the newspapers—for those new to this column, I use an adult scooter, the kind you push with your foot, as it works almost as well as a bicycle and I have no trouble balancing on it in the near darkness of pre-dawn—and while I scoot along I have a mental/emotional routine I started when my mother died in 1991. She had requested that lines from the poem “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke be read at her memorial, and I did read them, and subsequently memorized the whole poem. It begins “If I should die, think only this of me, that there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” My mother was English, and I was born in England, so it's relevant. Then I sing to myself—not aloud, as my singing voice has been torpedoed by age—a song I heard once on the radio in 1956, in the first year of our marriage, and loved but couldn't find. Decades later fans identified it for me “Remember Me” or “The Girl in the Wood.” I memorized that also. It's the story of a boy who met a maiden in the wood, a lovely sprite who fascinated him then disappeared. When he became a man he could not find any woman to match her, so was doomed to celibacy. That song has been echoed in my first published novel, Chthon, and in Xanth, and remains with me. So I sing it after reciting “The Soldier,” remembering my mother. As the years passed, and my father died in 2002, I added him to my litany. Then when my daughter Penny died in 20009 I added her. So now it is a time for memory and grief for the three of them, my private memorial ritual. Of the three, the worst was the last, because it was out of turn, cutting off her life halfway. Oh Penny!

 

Songs constantly go through my head, some dating back 70 years. Some are fragments I may never have known completely. One of these is “Dobre.” It starts “Dobre from a cliff of marble, took aim at a gray dove. Woe is he, the mark he found was his own true-love's dear heart.” I have wondered over the course of 50 years whether maybe the dove was perched on the wall of his castle, and he overshot it and scored on his true love inside, or whether he scored on the dove, and it turned out to be his shape-changing true love in an alternate form. Who was Dobre? Was he maybe a historical character? I remain sorry for Dobre, his true-love, and the dove.

 

A reader, Rudy Reyes, sent me a number of corrections of typos on the 5th ChroMagic novel, Key to Survival. I posted them, and sent them to the publisher, and the edition will be updated in due course. I had a complaint from a female reader that there was too much sex in that volume. I replied that ChroMagic is billed as sexy fantasy, and it is. But that alerted me, and when I posted the corrections I randomly sampled the text, and there is indeed a lot of sex in it. In fact I think it is fair to say that sex is to ChroMagic what puns are to Xanth. Some readers love those aspects, some hate them. I do write different kinds of fiction. But I remember how Robert Heinlein, arguably the premiere science fiction writer, got older and the sexual content of his fiction increased. Some writers orient or immortality as they age. That's not good or bad in itself, but bears watching. My fiction does tend to be sexy, and while it is not in the league of pure erotic fiction (except then I write erotica), it is a good deal more so than is standard fantasy. I may ease off on that aspect, in the interest of staying in the central vein. But for curious readers: yes, as I age, my sexual capacity diminishes, but my interest remains keen. It's the curse of senescence.

 

In the course of writing the second Trail Mix novel, Beetle Juice, I had reference to the Mandelbrot set. This is a mathematical plotting of a fractal formula where a complicated boundary line has to be calculated point by point. Fractals are self-similar elaborations of basic designs. For example, you might draw a triangle, then draw small triangles on each side, making it a six pointed figure. Then draw yet smaller triangles on each of the new sides, and so on. Soon you'll have a pretty intricate illustration. In 1980 mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot devised a formula whose graphic plot (that is, lines drawn on paper) became an amazingly complicated shape whose basic form resembled a squat bug. Since then computers have calculated endless extensions, and while the smaller bugs built on the main one are similar, they are not identical. In fact the greater the magnification, they more intricate the designs become. When colored they become beautiful. Is it art? Without doubt. So I got lost again in the marvels of it, as I did twenty years ago. I recommend contemplation of the Mandelbrot set to anyone who thinks math and art don't overlap.

 

Last column I mentioned some things readers picked up on and provided valuable feedback. One is LibreOffice, which I thought looked very similar to OpenOffice, the word processor I use in Linux. It turns out they are the same. Oracle bought out the company that had OpenOffice, and is abandoning it, so the OO crew declared liberty and carries on the tradition in the form of LibreOffice. I will be changing to it, in due course, as a matter of principle and expedience. I mentioned Kristina O'Donnelly, fearing she was no longer with us. Readers informed me that her husband had a bad setback and she gave up writing so as to tend to him. I know how that is; my wife's reduced capacity prevents us from traveling much beyond Citrus County, and when she fell a year ago and fractured bones in arm and leg I was seriously disrupted. We do need our significant others. Kristina should be writing again in due course. Another thing I mentioned a few months ago was my satisfaction with the new liquid pencil. I love it, but have discovered that one lasts only about a month for me, and the lead can't be replaced. So I have three expensive dead pencils and am returning with regret to the old fashioned refillable kind. And my present Linux distribution, PCLinuxOS, is very good, but has some flaws. It won't print, so I have to back up my files and go elsewhere to print out each day. Sometimes it closes my files without asking or saving. A couple of times it has done so with the one I was typing in, and I found myself typing into a blank screen. I do make frequent typos, some of which get me into obscure territory, but never had that particular problem before, so I think it's a hole in PC. I wish I could turn off the Alt key when I'm not using it, so that an accidental touch on it doesn't send me into fantasy-land, but of course programmers don't like to provide truly useful options. So while I like PC, just as I like the liquid lead pencil, I am still looking for the Perfect Linux. It seems to be as elusive as the Perfect Woman, who turns out later to sweat and snore. Ed Howdershelt, who has helped me before, says Puppy Linux seems great. I'll take a look at that.

 

I don't review everything I read. In Apull I proofread the galleys for Xanth #35 Well-Tempered Clavicle, and believe it is up the the Xanthly standard, with an interesting story and squishes of puns, beginning with the title, a pun on Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. It's the story of Picka Bone, the walking skeleton, who discovers he can remove his clavicles—shoulder bones—and play music on his ribs. He gets good at it, so good that when Princess Dawn hears him play, she falls in love with him. That's bad news, because she's simply not his type; she has all that meaty flesh on her nice bones. But Princess Sorceresses are not accustomed to hearing the word “No,” if they even understand it, so Picka is in for a siege unlike any he has experienced before. Yes, he's a commoner, but on rare occasion royalty does marry commoners, as a recent British wedding suggests. The novel was written just as my elder daughter Penny died, so was in deep shadow; perhaps that accounts for the greater violence in it, as Picka battles the dread Music Monster. Music becomes more than sound; it can conjure fireballs, mesmerize people, and shake the ground. There is also the traveling Caprice Castle that contains Pundora's Box, which they need to get to pack the excess puns of Xanth into. It will be published in hardcover in OctOgre 2011.

 

Climate of Change, the conclusion of my GEODYSSEY series, has now been published in mass market paper by TOR. This is my serious fiction, long-range historical, about a hundred thousand years, carrying up to the year 2050. It follows a seeming family through a number of historical events, my view of history being other than standard. It concludes on a positive note: they have finally solved the problems of overpopulation and destruction of resources, but perhaps not in a way most folk would like. The alternative, of course, is global destruction, which is where I fear we are headed. Along the way the legends of Roland and King Arthur are effectively debunked; the first is based on nothing, the second on tales of the Alani in Asia. This is fiction for thinking readers.

 

I read All My Husbands by Susie Lee, which I believe she has self published on Kindle. She used to run the Ferret & Dove sanctuary before the death of her husband made it infeasible, but she still loves animals. She had five husbands, and some of them were real characters. One turned out to be gay, another was a possible child molester, another seemed to go slowly crazy. Susie is a character herself, with strong opinions, a tender heart, and constant brushes with the supernatural. It is easy reading.

 

Newspaper article on where language began indicates that it originated in southwestern Africa and spread from there, simplifying as it went. Maybe, but my take on it is that it developed as mankind did in the course of a couple million years in the Lake Victoria region, the original Garden of Eden, and that the patterning of the last hundred thousand years represents merely its most recent spread. Perhaps related, article in NEW SCIENTIST suggests that fire was not the catalyst for mankind's shrinkage of gut, growth of brain, and colonization of the world. They figure that controlled use of fire dates back only 300,000 to 400,000 years. But many others feel that fire dates back at least 1.6 million years. I'm with the latter. I suspect fire generated man more than man generated fire.

 

A column by David Brooks on a book by James Geary indicates that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words. A metaphor is a figure of speech wherein a term is applied to something it isn't, like “He's an ogre” or “The ship of state.”  It appears that metaphors in speech are like puns in Xanth: remove them and you impoverish it. Makes sense to me. As a writer I freely use metaphors, similes (he looks like an ogre; government moves like a ship) and other figures of speech. I'm all for it; communication would be pretty dull if we were limited to straight narration. Metaphors lend imagery to otherwise sodden expression. There's another: how can words be sodden? A marsh is sodden. But use of the word conjures a background image of trudging through a foot-soaking marsh rife with leaches, making it seem objectionable, and that's what I want. To make things seem prettier or uglier than they are, without actually saying so. It's an art. I did it when I referred to a female publisher who had attacked me as having foam at her muzzle. I didn't actually call her a rabid bitch (which is another metaphor), but I suspect the message got through, thanks to the unsubtle metaphor. The traditional portrayals of the major American political parties are metaphors: the donkey and the elephant. So when I note how Pinocchio’s nose grew every time he told a lie, establishing the principle, I'm not actually saying anything directly when I remark on just how long the elephant's nose has gotten. So why should Republicans get mad? Just because I'm a liberal commenting on a well-known property of the elephant, nothing personal. Ah, metaphors...

PIERS
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