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This was another "off" month as I worked on the backlog of books to read and videos to watch. I am also engaged in a third Aladdin collaboration with J R Rain, Aladdin and the Flying Dutchman, wherein he sails the cursed ship on a quest to save mankind from the likely horrors of the doors to Hades being unlocked and flung open: a literal hell on earth. We surely wouldn't want that to happen; we have enough problems already.

 

I read Attic Toys, edited by Jeremy C Shipp, published in Marsh by Evil Jester Press. I got an electronic copy so as to proofread my story therein, “Living Doll.” The story requirement was simple: there had to be an attic and a toy, and that is the case with most of the stories herein. My story concerns a doll found in an attic that comes seductively to life, but needs to be returned to the Sorceress who made it, lest she be angry and destroy the town. But the doll is not sure she wants to be returned, and tries to persuade the young man to keep her for his own satisfaction. The other stories are widely varied, mostly horror, wherein dolls come to life and eat their finders, or similarly unpleasant themes. The one that impressed me most was the last one, “The Tea-Serving Doll” by Mae Empson, wherein the doll comes to life and really helps the poor girl who invokes him, and not just with tea; it has a marvelously mannered flavor. At any rate, horror fans should like this volume. I'm not a horror fan, so while I recognize the quality of the stories, they don't generally turn me on.

 

I read Slave Girl, A Story of Triumph Over a Controlled Life, by Jacqi Fromaeux. This is actually an autobiography of a woman my age who was determined to achieve control over her own life instead of being a slave to circumstance. Her father was brutal, constantly beating and whipping any child who messed up in any way or tried to show any independence. She was one a hundred pounds when grown; she got whipped anyway. But she made it through school and then college, then got married without knowing anything about sex or contraception. Her husband was a decent man but incompetent managing money, so they were constantly in financial trouble. She finally divorced him, which annoyed his family. Meanwhile she taught school, until she finally retired. She got cancer, had to have mastectomies, but it kept returning. She survived it. She was finally running her life her own way, no longer a slave. Finally she wrote her personal history and published it. It is an interesting life.

 

I Watched The Walking Dead, a video my daughter lent me. (Clarification for sometime readers of this column: we had two daughters. The elder died. The younger is a zombie fan.) I'm not especially partial to zombies, though they have appeared in my fiction. But this is one taut, compelling narrative. A sheriff's deputy gets shot, wakes in the hospital, and discovers everyone gone and dead all around. The zombies have raided, and taken over the city of Atlanta. They can be “killed” with shots through their heads; otherwise they eat any living flesh they catch. He finds some survivors, but the zombies are in pursuit, and the escape is harrowing. It continues, showing also the stresses within the groups of survivors. Some deserted vehicles still run, at least until their gasoline runs out. Guns still fire while the ammunition lasts. It's one hell of a story, with an occasional peek into a nice halter. And it works its way into one hell of a climax. I don't know whether there will be another season; presumably the survivors will carry on regardless. But this was one zombie story that riveted me.

 

I watched The Mask of Zorro, one of a set of three Anthony Hopkins movies I got on sale for about $11 for the three. I'm not sure whether I've seen it before; I think it was a sequel I saw, because I really didn't remember it. A fun movie, full of impossible action and effects, plus one lovely girl. What more does a viewer want? I also watched the third movie in the package, Legends of the Fall, a grim family history of a man with three sons, all of whom loved the same woman. The one she was engaged to died in World War 1; then she loved his brother, but he was wild and left for years, and she married the third. In the end many are dead, but the two surviving brothers are friends again. I can't says I enjoyed the movie, but I respect its power. And I watched one of five Stanley Kramer videos I got in a set for $15.64, or about three dollars per movie; I like bargains. This one was The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, story and screenplay by Dr. Seuss. It's a juvenile romp, a musical, with a boy required to take piano lessons dreaming of his music teacher enslaving 500 boys—that's 5,000 piano-playing fingers—to play on a piano 500 yards long to realize the music master's ambition. The lad's mother is captive too; the master plans to do her the favor of marrying her after the performance. That would doom the boy to a lifetime of piano practice. Ugh! All non-piano musicians are relegated to the dungeon, and we have a sequence there where they make phenomenal music. It is just the kind of thing a rebellious boy would imagine, nicely choreographed. I note that there is only one woman in the cast of hundreds: the boy's mother, with no hint of any impropriety.

 

I read The Legend of Rachel Petersen by J T Baroni, published by Damnation Books www.damnationbooks.com. This is a story within a story, wherein an executive is bypassed for a promotion he deserves and resigns in a huff, then has to struggle to make a living. He decides to try writing, and finds it not as easy as expected. Then he comes across the grave of a twelve year old girl who died during the American Civil War, and decides to write about her. She is Rachel Petersen, a pretty child in a red print dress, and the legend says she brutally murdered her family then hanged herself in remorse. But what was her motive for such a crime? And how could she have strung up the rope over a beam too high for her to reach? Was she murdered? Then who killed her family? Then the story flows, as the facts are teased out, and they hardly match the legend. This is a ghost story, with the spirit of the girl released from her grave after 90 years and signaling for help. The legends are lies. Finally they get it straight: she was brutally raped and murdered, innocent of any crime. The ghost, exonerated, is finally able to rest in peace. That's the inner story. The outer one, of the first time author, shows his best-selling success, but also a hint that the ghost story is becoming real, perhaps to be replayed in the real world. Is this a great novel? No. But it's fun in its fashion.

 

I watched The Wild One, another Stanley Kramer film. I wasn't overly impressed. Other than the lead, Marlon Brando, the actors seemed to be reading their lines. Actors today are much sharper than they were in the 1950s. It's about a motorcycle gang that rides into town and stirs things up, with a bit of interest between Brando and the police chief's daughter, that amounts to some dialogue and a kiss, which it seems was about as far as movie romance could go in the 50s. I continue to be amazed by what they regarded as appealing female costume in those days, with a fully covered torso and impossibly conic breasts.

 

I read The Pun Also Rises, by John Pollack. I don't regard myself as a punster, really; my readers send them in and I use them and credit them in the Author Notes. The pun tends to be disparaged as the lowest form of humor, but this book makes the case that it is a high form; indeed, that it helped make man mentally superior. Sophisticated language is the hallmark of our species, and the nuances of words that have two or more meanings can be grasped only by folk with sophisticated minds. Quick decisions have to be made about what the meanings are and how they relate; context is vital. It also covers related humor, like Spoonerisms, the reversal of first letters. Spooner is reputed to have seen a couple kissing in a punt (small boat) and was outraged. "Young man, cunts are not for pissing in!" That reminds me of some my grandmother told me as a child, such as the professor bawling out a wayward student: "You have hissed three of my mystery lectures. In fact you have tasted the whole worm!" It is said that humor and creativity stem from similar mental processes. "Puns reveal a mind free to ream frontiers of possibility, without shame or fear of being wrong." It makes a pretty good case. It also says that people who prefer order to ambiguity may hate all puns, which they take as deliberate and disruptive nonsense. In short, they don't get it. It also explores the development of language itself. Making words for things is fine, but humans developed a revolutionary new system, syntax, with abstract words like To, Of, Which, Because, and Why that don't correlate with things in the natural world; they enable us to manipulate words and concepts to make complex interactions. How did this happen? Almost a million years ago humans crossed significant bodies of water, as documented paleontologically; they must have made rafts or boats and learned to sail, and that would have required more sophisticated language than just "Big water ahead." By half a million years ago man had mastered fire, with the host of changes that brought about, including cooking and eating flesh. They were able to go into cold climates, colonizing the rest of the world. 150,000 years ago they achieved their modern anatomical state. We know they had puns, because there's a 35,000 year old figurine that is a naked woman one way up, and an erect penis upside down. That's a physical dirty joke; we may be sure they had verbal equivalents. I have remarked that my magic land of Xanth is made of puns; now it seems that mankind itself is made of puns. Well, good for us.

 

 

I viewed the third Kramer film, Ship of Fools. This one I had real hopes for, as I have heard of it. Alas, I was disappointed. It's not a bad movie, just not the huge significant adventure I had somehow anticipated. It's just about several people aboard a ship traveling from America to Germany in the early 1930s, that small segment of their lives. One is the ship's doctor, who treats a woman for insomnia, and they develop a relationship. She will be imprisoned in Germany; he could get off the ship with her before they arrive and thus spare her that, for he falls in love with her, but in the end he doesn't. There are references to the antisemitism of the Nazis that extends quietly through the community of the ship. One man remarks on the foolishness of thinking anything really bad will come of it: there are a million Jews in Germany; what are they going to do, kill them all? That's a chilling foreshadowing of what will happen, while fools refuse to see it coming. Every person in the ship is a fool in some manner. But aren't we all, as we sail through life? I think my favorite part was the Flamenco dancing, done by the ship's entertainment staff, very sharp, though I'm not sure how it relates to the Fools theme.

 

In Jamboree 2012 Richard Black-Howell responded to my comment on hearing part of a recorded Crepitation contest, providing me with a link to it. Because we are on dial-up a 14 minute recording would take us hours to load, literally, so I bided my time. Then in Marsh my wife connected via WiFi at the local library and downloaded it for me, and after 50 years I finally got to listen to the whole of that recording. It is The Great Crepitation Contest of 1946, beautifully done, describing the world championship farting contest, with every fart named. The challenger, Boomer of Australia, makes a record-breaking effort; then Lord Windesmear matches it and is about to win when he disqualifies himself by shitting. O, tragedy! But I'm glad to have it at last. It is called the granddaddy of all party records. I'm sorry I wasn't at that party.

 

Frustration: my Linux computer program one day decided not to automatically restore my prior session any more. I spent an hour struggling with it, and it has that feature checked, but no longer does it. No error message, it just treats a normal shutdown as if the system crashed. So that's that lost hour, plus ten minutes each day as I set up my files again. Then when I was doing my monthly Electronic Publishing Survey update I threw away another hour because I had marked last month's checking to the letter E when actually I had done through E. Dial-up files are slow loading, even with the pictures turned off, and I don't mark a spot update unless something changes, so it took me that time to realize. I'm old, but I have a lot of stuff to do, and every lost hour hurts.

 

I read Flame And Fortune, by Brian Clopper, published by Behemoth Books last year. This is a fabulous story, full of imagination. It features the fire elemental Flame, whose mere touch burns what he touches, and his friend Fenris Fortune, a were-elf, and a will-o'-wisp Maleeka, a tiny girl who lives in a lamp. This unlikely trio is good-hearted but tends to blunder constantly into trouble. Maybe one example will do to illustrate the tapestry of magic here. At one point they are trekking toward their destination when a storm comes up and they must take shelter in a house with an odd old woman; she is hospitable, but says don't even look at the papers on her desk. Naturally Fenris is curious, so he waits until the others are asleep then starts reading the letter on the desk. And it starts Dear Stranger, I hate that you have decided to read my words... What's going on here? Well, it seems that whoever reads the letter to the end will get trapped inside it, and that last victim doesn't want to do that to him so is trying to dissuade him. But he can't stop reading. I love the imagination of that sequence. To my mind, Clopper is emerging as a significant fantasy writer, not just for children.

 

Sometimes I catch snatches of TV that my wife may be ignoring while I'm making supper. (We both have definite preferences about what is in the TV background while we are reading books or magazines; the wrong programs are jarring.) This time it was Phantom of the Opera, which we saw years ago as a stage production and were wowed; this was a movie version, less impressive, but it has its moments. The music is absolutely beautiful in places, such as the Music of the Night: "Turn your face away from the garish light of day; turn your face away from cold unfeeling light, and listen to the music of the night." That really puts a new face on night versus day. What caught me in passing was the heroine singing sustained single notes, one after the other, strong, clear, amazing in their power. I presume she was required to practice her scales or something; I don't remember it from the stage version. I was really impressed by the evocative effect of such notes. Later, when supper was served, I watched a sequence I remembered with mixed thoughts, when the phantom was demanding that she choose between him and her handsome normal boyfriend, who was about to be killed if her answer were wrong. Such forced choices are spurious; if you take someone because of a threat, you are unlikely ever to truly love that person. Well, she said she had chosen. Then she kissed the Phantom, no token peck; it was a full-fledged passionate effort that evidently knocked him for a loop. Then he freed the boyfriend and got out of her life. That's where I have a problem figuring it out. Such a kiss should normally mean she had chosen the Phantom, but it evidently signaled to him that she had not, and he had to bow to her will. Was that it? Or was she ready to give herself to the Phantom in order to save the life of her boyfriend, and he realized the futility of that? Or was it simply a farewell kiss? I wish I knew. Maybe I missed a line of dialogue.

 

Political/Economic comment. Bear in mind that I am arch liberal, and this is my blog, where I speak without much hindrance. Newspaper article by Eduardo Porter: Was there an alternative to the Obama Stimulus package? Remember, eight years of Republican administration had converted a prosperous economy with surpluses into what threatened to be the next Depression, and Obama bailed it out. We are still slowly recovering from the Bush disaster, hoping the pit can be escaped despite Republican opposition to any salvation. They prefer to follow Hoover's example, and let the nation wallow in the depths indefinitely; you will remember that it was Roosevelt who finally pulled the country out, years later. Why? Because what is bad for the nation is good for billionaires. They would like to see the feudal system return, with a few fabulously wealthy plutocrats and a great majority of serfs helplessly serving them. Of course that's not what the Republicans claim, because if regular folk understood their real agenda, no Republican would ever win political office. So what do Republican alternatives offer? Fiscal austerity, for one thing. They don't want the rich to be taxed, they want the poor to get by on less. The article says that after trying government stimulus in 2009, many European countries reversed course and slashed their budgets, per the conservative mantra, thinking this would bolster the economy. But so far, these policies have proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Britain tried it, for example, and shot its recovery in the foot. The Obama stimulus, in contrast, is leading to slow recovery in America. The fact is, if you want to stimulate the economy, giving money to the rich has little effect, while giving money to the poor has much effect, because the poor will spend it immediately and it will surge through the economy like a rising tide. Economics is complicated in detail, but that's the essence. But you will never hear that from a conservative.

 

More on how doctors die: they tend to eschew heroic measures to preserve life, having seen its futility in their patients. They know the limits, and they generally do go gently into that good night, focusing on family and personal satisfactions rather than trying to fight the inevitable. I can see it. My daughter Penny had been a slender young woman, but the treatments for her cancer boosted her weight up to maybe 350 pounds before she died. If she had it to do over, would she have taken those treatments, even if they did extend her life somewhat? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that if I ever face a similar situation (and at my age, that may not be far distant), I'll be wary of heroics.

 

Perhaps related: Essay my surviving daughter the Newspaperwoman passed along to us: "You Want a Physicist to Speak at your Funeral" because he will talk about the conservation of energy, so your energy has not died. The photons that bounced off you will continue to bounce off survivors. Not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.

 

A researcher asked me to verify a remark I am said to have made: "When one person makes an accusation, check to be sure he himself is not the guilty one. Sometimes it is those whose case is weak who make the most clamour." I don't remember, but I agree with it and could have said it, though I would have spelled the word the American way "clamor." I say a lot of things, being an opinionated sort, as readers of this column may have noticed. So I could not identify precisely where or when or by whom this was said. If there are any of the type of fan who know more about my words than I do reading this, maybe one will pinpoint this one for me. I seem to be ignorant, even about my own utterances.

 

Article by Laura Sanders in SCIENCE NEWS about a new theory of consciousness. Consciousness is one of my pet interests, one of three things I hope to fathom before I die, existence and life being the other two. Why does consciousness exist? The author suggests a prime reason may be predictive powers. It allows us to understand the past and predict the future. That really helps in a dangerous world. Then the author suggests that any system, whether made of nerve cells, silicon chips, or light beams, could be conscious, but that it requires a sense of self. That is my assumption in my novella To Be A Woman, where the female humanoid robot Elasa becomes conscious. I do the best I can with any piece of writing, but some affect my feeling more than others, and Woman is one such. Another is The Sopaths, my horror novel, which has its own questions about the nature of the human condition. The author of a related study of free will in animals no longer eats them, something I understand perfectly. A related article indicates that the path from the outside world to the interior of the brain is not a straight line; a whole lot more is going on. "What is now clear is that the brain is not a stimulus-driven robot that directly translates the outer world into a conscious experience." For sure.

 

Several brief notes in THE WEEK: a study indicating that wealth breeds selfishness. "The rich really are different: they're more likely than other folks to lie, cheat, and steal." They have less empathy, and feel entitled. That explains a lot. I'm rich, for a writer, but my focus is on integrity, compassion, and facilitating things for other writers. Maybe I got rich too late to mold my character. What I have observed of other successful writers suggests I'm an exception; few seem to care what happens to those who follow after. Next note: Why do women wear red? Because men assume that women in red want sex. This may date from chimps, where female faces get red when they're in heat. Hell, what about the monkeys whose bottoms become bright red at mating time? That's about as obvious as you can get. So human women, lacking bare bottoms in public, put on rouge and lipstick to convey the same message. I may have noted before how we emulate our genitalia, with men wearing phallic ties and women showing breast cleavage suggestive of flesh closer to home base: the buttocks. Next note: Do names matter? Yes, they are badges bearing information about our class, education, and ethnicity. But they are not destiny; a picture counts more.

 

I read the Advice column in the newspaper; never can tell what you might learn there. Tell Me About It, hosted by Carolyn Hax, can be thoughtful. It seems a woman complained about her husband going to strip clubs or watching pornography and finally got him to stop. But there's a response that puts another face on it. A man's girlfriend made him stop going to strip clubs. Then she had a problem with any restaurant with scantily clad women. Then any sports bar with female servers. Then he had to stop talking with female friends. Then he had to stop attending his relatives' holidays; only hers were allowed. Finally his brother interceded with common sense: The original girlfriend simply wanted to control his whole life, whatever the pretext. Now he is with a woman who has no problem with his interests. I read that, and naturally considered its relevance to my own life. I know when I'm well off. I've never been to a strip club, but if there came a reason to attend, I suspect my wife would attend with me. I have erotic videos; she doesn't care to watch them, but doesn't mind if I do. I'm not much interested in her knitting magazines but don't mind how many she has. Sometimes she gives me books of erotic art. She got together with our daughter to download the Great Crepitation Contest for me. We have different interests, but don't seek to restrict any of them for each other. Mutual tolerance is a great virtue in marriage. Ours is coming up on 56 years. And yes, we still have regular sex, though the interest is mine rather than hers. It's more of a challenge without Viagra, but can be done. We don't travel much or do conventions, but this is because of her health concerns, not a controlling attitude.

 

Zits comic for March 28, 2012: at school lunch one says he'll try the fried rat brains, while the other wants the steamed leeches. For some reason the server is not amused. They conclude they are comedically ahead of their time. Then the second says "Wait—I think I got what I ordered." Lovely.

 

Leonard Pitts' newspaper column remarks on color. The big local news in these parts of Florida is how a white man confronted and shot to death an unarmed black teen and wasn't even arrested. This sort of thing happens and many folk don't even consider it racism. I think now that the incident is making the news, that may change. The white man said he was using the stand-your-ground law, where you can resist an intruder with force, even killing him. I think it's a bad law, and that too may change because of this case. Stand your ground? The white man was in effect stalking the teen out in the open. The teen was just going home, talking to his girlfriend on a cell phone. Exactly what led up to the shooting is as yet unknown; the shooter says the teen jumped him and bashed his head repeatedly into the pavement, though nothing like that shows in the police video. Anyway, Columnist Pits was rebuked by a letter writer for inaccuracy: the killer was Hispanic, not white. Really? Pitts makes the point that Hispanic is white, duh. And of course there are experts who believe that race itself is a fraud, that there really is no such thing. I'd like to see that sorted out too. You can kill a man because of his race, and race does not exist?

 

Paul Krugman remarks that large numbers of Republicans firmly believe that global warming is a hoax. And how Rush Limbaugh and Fox viewers believe that Obamacare just doubled in cost. It's a lie, but that doesn't seem to bother such folk; any lie will do if it forwards their agenda, which is to put their kind in power. I remember when I was in school, and a teacher said the reason he opposed the Communists was because they spread lies to achieve their purposes. I appreciated his point. Now we have conservatives and Republicans doing the same. They should be similarly opposed until they mend their ways. I don't want liars in power, and can't think why anyone not a conservative or a liar would. And it's too bad that conservatism no longer stands for integrity and old-fashioned values like hard work and fiscal prudence. How about preserving the environment, a good biblical stricture? Since there seems to be profit in pollution, they pretend it has no consequence. Thus no global warming, a faith-based support of greed. NEW SCIENTIST remarks that climatologists have to recognize that they are in a street fight. They sure are; they think that the facts should prevail, when they are up against dishonest fanatics. Meanwhile, about Rush: THE WEEK's gossip section says that his wife threatened to leave him after he called a female birth-control advocate a slut and a prostitute. He will reform his big mouth to that extent, or else. The fact that you want to plan your family does not make you a whore. But what about the fact that you will say anything without regard to the truth to forward your agenda? What does that make you?

 

Also from THE WEEK: a new study shows that eating just one serving of red meat per day dramatically increases your risk of premature death. That's one risk my vegetarianism avoids.

PIERS
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