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The Ogre's Den image
Piers the handyman 2007
Jamboree 2012

I couldn't connect to Twitter to verify whether my Tweets story really is being run. Then my wife remembered that I had turned off the picture-loading aspect of my Firefox browser, so that I would not have to wait twenty minutes per site to check hundreds of Electronic Publishing Survey entries. So I turned pictures on, and voila! got the Tweets. They seem to have been interrupted for the holiday season; the actual story has about 70 more chapters to go. If it turns out to be popular, I'll write a sequel. If no one notices when it ends, I'll let it be. I trust readers will let me know, one way or the other. When I checked, only about 20 chapters were there, through #51; I hope there's a way for new readers to get the prior ones, but if there isn't, I may in due course run the full thing here at the HiPiers site, or on the blog site. I'm still finding my way, limited in part by new-fangled 21st century technology that my creaky 20th century background struggles to keep up with, and in part by the lack of broadband access, here in the hinterland.


Theoretically boys don't play with dolls and girls don't do violent sports, but if you call the dolls action figures, then they're okay for boys. It's all a matter of nomenclature. As an adult I have a doll, one Franklin Mint made of Rapunzel with the long hair, which they gave me when we did Xanth figurine business. But I don't play with her; she merely overlooks my study, now ironically reminding me of my similarly long-blond-haired daughter Penny, though hers was only about a yard long. As a child I had a little cloth dog doll I called Boss, not knowing then that this is generally a cow name. I liked it so well I took it with me one day as we played in a distant forest field, setting it at the base of a central tree. And forgot to pick it up when we returned to the house. I hurried back out to fetch it, but it was gone; some animal had taken it. It was one of my painful early lessons in responsibility: don't leave your treasures unattended. Decades later, when we had two daughters, there were dolls galore. One of them was mine: a figure of a two year old girl set in a frame, titled Portrait of Penny. I liked it because it really did look like daughter Penny at that age. But then Penny grew old enough to reach things, and got that doll and stripped it nude and washed its hair, and it was ruined; we had to throw the remnant out. I wish I could have kept it out of her reach, just as I wish I could have kept the living Penny out of cancer's reach. Sigh.


We went to an auction. Not for gimcracks; this one was for parcels of land. We have lived here on the tree farm for 23 years, and its sort of like a peninsula in Lake Tsoda Popka, with the adjacent property taking up the other half of it. So when it was put up for auction, we were interested. We have about 93 acres here, and the parcel we wanted was about 70 acres that would perfectly fill out our holding. So we checked it out, driving through it one day, and another day I walked the length and breadth of it. Part of it is dense old-growth oak forest; part is planted in slash pines, same as ours is. It nicely completes the circuit of the pond, half of whose shore is ours, never mind that in this drought you can walk across the baked mudflat it has become. It was just ideal. We talked with other interested parties, one being the pastor of a local church who wanted land his children could enjoy, another who wanted to make a homestead with access to the lake. So we signed up for the auction, hoping to pick it up cheap. My wife and I discussed it, determining exactly how much it might be worth and how much we would be willing to pay for it, which is not the same thing. Land values have taken a beating here in backwoods Florida, as they have everywhere in this recession, so the idea of getting a bargain price was not far-fetched. The recession is like the drought, making cheap and ugly what is normally precious and beautiful. We got disabused on several counts. We expected sober straightforward bidding on each of the three parcels. Since we wanted #3, we'd see how it went on #1 and #2 and be guided accordingly. What we didn't expect was the carnival atmosphere. They had a man playing loud spirited music on a keyboard as if it were a revival, hawkers whooping it up, fake good humor complete with jokes, and almost unintelligible deafening loudspeaker communications. Then instead of straightforward bidding for each parcel, they had bidding for the price per acre, and the winner got to choose which parcel he wanted at that price. Imagine that system at the grocery store: this product is nine point three cents per ounce, and you have to figure out the price of the twelve and a half ounce package yourself, assuming another shopper doesn't get it for nine point four cents, or be unpleasantly surprised at the checkout counter. The auctioning itself was of the sing-song mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm do I hear two fifty? Two forty nine, two fifty? Mmm-mmm-mmm two fifty one? variety. Fortunately we had done our homework, and knew that our limit was about $2,500 per acre for the land we wanted, or about $175,000 for the parcel. We were looking for land to keep as forest acreage, undeveloped, where the deer and the gopher tortoises could roam unmolested, as they do on our present tree farm. They started at $2,000 per acre and went rapidly up to over $4,000, I think all the way up to $7,000, so neither we nor any of those around us ever put in a bid; we were already priced out. Evidently those other bidders were of the pave-it-over, make-a-million persuasion, willing to pay much higher prices. In Florida they try to tax based on “highest and best use,” which doesn't mean pristine, it means putting a city on it. One of the sideline cheerleaders asked me didn't I want to bid? And I replied “Not in this price range.” Their whole object seemed to be to confuse the suckers into bidding more than they intended, not realizing the full amount they were committing to. So it was a disappointment on several fronts. With luck it will take a century for them to pave it all over. Maybe longer, if the drought-recession doesn't end.


I watched another pair of videos: Rebel Without a Cause, and The Bridges of Madison County.  I had Rebel for years on a cassette, but when I tried to play it it turned out to be a bad cassette, not playing at all. So it was my frustration and being balked that made me get the DVD when it was on sale for six and a half bucks. I knew the main actors had later died in dramatic ways. I had read Bridges the book and later seen the movie, but fell asleep before it ended, so wanted to fill in what I had missed when it too was available for six and a half. Thus my irrelevant reason for pairing them off: prior balks. Rebel has been exalted as one of the great movies of all time, showing the enormous acting skill of James Dean and the potential of Natalie Wood. Well, he was handsome in a sultry way, and she had the remarkable ideal figure of the time, impossibly thin with outstanding conic breasts. I confess I did like looking at her. The story itself is of a high school gang and a “chicken” contest where one boy drives over the brink and is killed, and the consequences thereof. Dean and Natalie, similarly misunderstood by their parents, slowly come together and even kiss. A good story, I think, but not a great one. The actual rebel without a cause, who dies at the end, seems not to be Dean but a supporting actor. Okay.

Bridges started with the book, of course, a surprise super bestseller. I read it mainly to study the art of it: what made this routine illicit affair so compelling? I concluded that it was the verisimilitude, the seeming reality of it. It was so easy to believe in it happening just that way. Forbidden love, always intriguing. The affair was exhilarating, the conclusion painful. I remember a critic ridiculing the stars in the movie as miscast for this story; well shove the critic, as these actors turn out to be perfect for this story. The movie is essentially true to it, punctuated by the virtual participation of the lady's two children as after her death they read the notebooks that detail the affair and slowly come to understand. Briefly, this: a traveling photographer encounters a lonely housewife, and they fulfill each others' needs, she for some romantic adventure, he for the love of a good woman. Sex is perhaps the least of it; what counts is the nova explosion of desperate love. A four day affair, frustrated feeling forever after. They must separate, and do, with mutual heartache. They ironically can't find each other later when her husband dies, and the photographer dies alone when he didn't really have to. That's the simple tragedy of it. The children learn from the retroactive experience and improve their own difficult relationships; it has not been entirely in vain. So the two movies are parallel in their intense human feeling. Both are well done, well acted, emotionally powerful. Both cover the events of just a few days. Lives can change significantly in days, even if they don't outwardly show it much. Of the two, Bridges affects me more strongly.


I watched another set of two dollar videos. The Fog and The Learning Curve. I expected junky horror and junky sex/violence, respectively, and wasn't really disappointed. The Fog turned out to be a well crafted mystery, with an eerie glowing fog rolling in, deadly pirate spooks in it, killing innocent folk. Turns out the pirate treasure was stolen a century ago and they want it back. The gold is in the form of a huge cross at the church. When the priest realizes this and gives it back, the fog recedes, sparing the town further mischief. Makes sense on its terms. Then at the end the fog returns to take out the priest. That doesn't make sense; there was no longer a motive. So it was a nice set-up with a blown ending. Too bad. The Learning Curve is a Bonnie and Clyde type scheme wherein a young woman lures men into attempting sex, then screams rape, and her partner comes to her rescue and gets reluctantly bought off. That's how they get money from chumps. Then they try it against a pro, who knows how to do it better than they do, and get brought into larger scams. It is sexy; watching that shapely girl running ahead in a bikini is something. But she has second thoughts as she sees the harm to an innocent shopkeeper and wants out. Thus she is not on the scene when the FBI tries to arrest them. Then it dissolves into sheer mayhem with wholesale killing. All except the girl, who rides off on her scooter. So how do the two movies compare? I think they are similar in that each could have been better than it was. I liked the sinister fog in the one, and the shapely girl in the other; apart from that they are pretty much average efforts. Maybe there's a reason they were on sale dirt cheap.


I watched La Femme Musketeer, which picks up a generation after The Three Musketeers, featuring their three sons and one daughter, Valentine, all similarly trained. She wants to be a full musketeer, but there's never been a woman in that role. The Cardinal is plotting to take power from the King; the musketeers support the king but get framed for murder as the plot complicates. I expected swashbuckling junk, but this turned out to be a cut above that. It's a solid story with nice scenery and costuming, good acting, and, yes, plenty of swashbuckle. Of course the plots against the king are foiled in the end, and Valentine is admitted at a musketeer. I enjoyed it despite the absence of sex or any romance for the Femme. She's merely a pretty girl impossibly wielding a sword.


I watched The Omega Man featuring Charleton Heston in a Los Angeles decimated by germ warfare. By day the streets are deserted; by night The Family spooks who can't see in daylight emerge to burn whatever they can. He sees a live young woman, but she flees. Later they get together, and she takes him to her group of refugees who survive. They develop a serum from his blood that may cure the Family, but it turns out the Family doesn't want to be cured, it just wants to kill the last uninfected folk. In the end The Family gets them, and he dies while the refugees escape to maybe start a new day. Downbeat, but it could be close to reality if the world should ever come to this pass. After all, we are seeing the disaster that global warming is bringing, and yet an entire political party is fighting to ensure that the disaster proceed on schedule.


I read Stupid History by Leland Gregory. This is a fun volume, detailing the idiotic decisions and confusions through history. Paul Revere didn't ride into Concord to warn “The British are coming!” He was captured along the way and it was another member of his party who got through. Magellan didn't circumnavigate the globe; he was killed in the Philippines, and only one of his five ships made it back home, with 18 of its 50 crew-members alive. Lizzie Borden didn't kill her parents. Lincoln didn't write The Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on a train; he started work on it eleven days before the event, and there are five known drafts of it. William Tell never shot the apple from his son's head, because William Tell never existed; he was a mere story. Why can't you buy cashews in the shell? Because they have no shells; they are seeds. The Greeks did not set up bare statues; they were painted with clothing, or if nude, flesh tones and pubic hair. The Puritans were not saintly livers; they indulged in the same evils they condemned in others. What they wanted was power for themselves, not others. And so on, hundreds of items. I have a quarrel with a couple: it says the great Chinese Wall can't after all be seen from the moon. Well, sure, but it omitted a relevant reason: there is not now and never has been a 3,200 mile Chinese Wall. It always consisted of sections of wall interspersed by hundreds of miles of gaps guarded by troops. And it says it is not true that half of all marriages end in divorce; that it would be correct if each person married only once and divorced once, but in fact some folk marry and divorce several times, so the true figure is one in four marriages divorcing. Huh? Elementary math suggests that who marries how many times does not change the statistic. What the author is thinking of is how many people divorce, and if some folk marry and divorce many times while others don't, the true rate may be one in four. People, not marriages. So if three couples marry for life, and the fourth house on the block sees three divorces by the same occupant, that looks like as many divorces as stable marriages, but is really only one quarter of the people there. One made me wince: Jean Baptiste de Chateaubrun spent forty years writing and revising two plays, his life's work, only to discover that his housekeeper had carelessly used the manuscripts as wrapping paper, and they were gone. Or this: Socialist Eugene Debs ran for president in 1920 while serving a ten year sentence for publicly criticizing the government's questionable use of the Espionage Act in prosecuting people. This was America? Yet today we have the Patriot Act... And this: in 1864 Paraguay declared war on all three of its neighbors, and lost an estimated 90% of its population. I have read of that elsewhere, understanding that they lost 90% of their men, but re-populated so industriously that in a generation they were back to the normal male-female ratio. Amazing! But here's the math: since boys and girls are born about evenly, one generation is all it takes. No miracle. There also lists of bizarre books that were actually published, like The Pleasures of the Torture Chamber, Sex After Death, How to Cook Husbands, How to be Happy Though Married, Games You Can Play with Your Pussy, and Old Age: Its Cause and Prevention. In 1767 a ship was exploring the Tahitian Islands and the crewmen discovered that the lovely young native women would trade sex for iron nails, which were very useful there. But soon the ship was falling apart because the men were taking all its nails. The author conjectures that this could have been the origin of “getting nailed” as a synonym for sex. In 1972 the Oregon Health Department discovered that the chunks in Hoody's Chunky Style Peanut Butter were not peanuts but rat droppings. So the government acted. Now it requires no more than 50 insect fragments per hundred grams of peanut butter. That is so reassuring! But what the book does not mention is the earlier scandal of the Depression era, as I remember, where it turned out that when a flour company put out rat bait to control the rats, the workers were less than diligent. In one case a worker found a dead rat, so he simply tossed the rat and the rest of the poison into the huge grinding hopper where no one would know. And companies still object to regulations that inconvenience them by forbidding this sort of thing. Tort “reform” is sometimes their effort to abolish bothersome health regulations, “Tort” being a wrongful act not specifically covered in a contract, such as dumping poison into commercial flour. The book picks up on something I have always suspected: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast” not “beast”; it was a typo. I believe it was a similar typo that turned a camel's hair rope into a camel in the Bible, making it a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle despite all common sense. Jesus often spoke figuratively, but not that figuratively. It says that farting contests were held in ancient Japan, with prizes for loudness and duration, and are today returning there. Hey, let's bring that back as an Olympic sport! I remember back in 1959 we bought our first house, and one cupboard was painted over. So I pried it open, and there inside was a single old-fashioned record. We played it, and it was a “crepitation” contest, with Lord Windesmear being challenged for the championship. They had names for every type of fart, from cute little Freeps to elaborate Follow-up Bloopers. Unfortunately it was a two-record set, and all we had was the first one, but a co-worker told me how the second one went. Lord Windesmear made a phenomenal winning effort, only to be disqualified at the end because, well, he shit. I wonder whether that recording is on DVD today? On and on; you get the picture. Oh, one more? Okay. The city of Des Moines was named after an Indian word for the region. Only three centuries later did a researcher check the language, to discover that the literal translation was “The shit-faces.” As I said, it's a fun book I bought from Hamilton, the remainder bookseller, for about four dollars.


I read The Five and Twenty Tales of the Genie, by Sivadasa, translated from the Sanskrit by Chandra Rajan. This is part of the voluminous mythological lore of India. I bought it because I am a fan of the Arabian Nights tales, and this seemed to be related. 25 genie tales? That could be fabulous. It turned out that these were not tales about genies, but tales told by a genie. The framework is weird. The essence is that a king finds a corpse hanging from a tree in a forest. He cuts it down and carries it back to town so it can be properly buried. As he carries it, a genie possesses it and talks to the king, telling him a tale. When the king arrives in town the tale is finished, and the body disappears, to be re-hung on the tree. He has to start over, and hears another tale. The 24 tales plus the framework tale make up the story. Each ends with a question by the genie. For example, #21: four brothers got to four places to get educated. When they get together again they demonstrate their new abilities. One found a dead lion in the forest. He assembled the bones into a skeleton. Another brother clothed it with flesh, the third added blood and hair, and the fourth brought it to life. Whereupon the lion ate them all. Then the terminal question: which of the brothers was the biggest fool? The king answered that it was the one who gave the lion life. That was correct, and the corpse vanished, to reappear back on the tree. Many other tales relate to young love, where handsome young men and lovely young women merely see each other in passing and are instantly smitten with undying love, and they will die of grief if it is not requited, and some do. There is magic, but mostly it's about relationships and the ethical questions that result. When all the tales have been told and correctly answered except the last, which I think had no answer, the king was approved to go on to bigger things.


I watched My Own Worst Enemy, a TV series that we never got to watch, having neither cable nor satellite. I picked up the first season, 9 episodes, as another $7.50 DVD. This is a story of two men, Henry the family man, and Edward the James Bond type killer. Totally different types, except for one thing: they both occupy the same body. Henry is really a created identity for when Edward is off duty, with a wife and son, and never the twain shall meet. Except that they have become “broken”--they change back and forth randomly, so that Henry winds up on an Edward mission, and Edward can find himself making out with Henry's wife. Henry is not completely pleased with that, especially when his wife tells him fondly that what they did last night was so illegal it shouldn't have a name. So now the two facets know of each other, and exchange messages by recording them on their cell phone. This is necessary so Edward can clue Henry in on a mission, so that Henry in his ignorance doesn't get them both killed. Even so, those missions are dangerous, and death constantly threatens. It's a fabulous fast-action series with nice human interactions along the way. I shall have to see if there was a second season, and whether it's available on DVD.


I watched The Remains of the Day, an Anthony Hopkins movie. I regard Hopkins as a consummate actor, though it is possible I am being influenced by his first name. In this movie he is the head butler at a wealthy estate, constrained to keep his personal opinions private in the face of upper class bigotry. He falls in love with the head housekeeper, but neither of them can afford to admit it, and she reluctantly marries elsewhere. There's also the background of the British willful blindness to the vicious deceptions of Nazi Adolf Hitler, who claimed to want peace while planning war. “Peace in our time” was always a costly illusion. How could they have been such fools? So I found it depressing. I was born in in England and lived there at the time period of this movie, but never related to the upper class. It's just not my scene.


I read Sequence 77 by Darin M Preston, published by Lucid Style Author Services www.Creative2aT.com. This novel ranges from the 1930s to the near future, and if I understand it correctly concerns a scientist's work to develop a virus that will cause babies to be born with random races rather than those of their parents. That is the scientist's effort to eradicate bigotry: how can you hate other races if your own children may be of those races? Whether this would work I can't say, as bigotry is not limited to race, but it's an interesting notion. The narrative is mostly from the view of two government agents investigating a biological oddity that someone is trying to conceal. It could be a fast paced thriller. Unfortunately for me indifferent writing spoils it. A good editor could have helped a lot, eliminating pervasive “saidisms”--that is, using words other than “said” for dialogue, thus attracting attention to identifiers that should be inconspicuous—and distinguishing between “may” and “might” and cleaning up spot spelling errors like “miniscule,” which is sometimes correctly spelled but not always. There is good characterization and description, and the author evidently knows his settings, but the errors spoiled it for me.


We celebrated Christmas Dismember 24, because Daughter had to work Sunday. We were busy with gifts and such, and Tofu Turkey (I don't miss meat, but don't object to its imitations), and then I had a pile of dishes to wash, but I caught passing snatches of The Sound of Music on the background TV. I understand Julie Andrews was the star of the stage production of My Fair Lady and did a great job, but the numskulls who govern movie-making thought she wasn't well enough known to do for the movie and replaced her. Then she starred in The Sound of Music, which is surely one of the greatest movies ever made, and she's perfect in it. So it's over-familiar, yet it caught me again, and I watched one of my favorite sequences, wherein Julie is trying to teach the eldest boy to dance, but can't do it well because he's not tall enough, until the father cuts in. Then it becomes a beautifully mannered dance, with Julie showing up to full advantage, a lovely young woman, until the flirtatious nature of it gets to her and she breaks off. He is, after all, engaged to another woman. I just love it. I may have to get it on DVD so I can watch that dance over and over; I am enamored of it. Music and dance—two of the arts that lifted mankind out of the animal state, along with painting, sculpture, acting, and storytelling. One by one the qualities that distinguish mankind from other animals are falling, as apes and birds use tools, dolphins communicate, others have crude language with syntax, problem-solving intelligence, etc., but as far as I know we remain the only species that appreciates art for art's sake.


I read The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. My wife gave it to me for Christmas, knowing that I was organizing for my next novel, To Be A Woman, about a female humanoid robot who becomes conscious and of course wants to become completely human. There have been many humanoid robots in science fiction and fantasy, some of them mine, and the matter of machine consciousness has been explored before, but this will be my more considered take on it, a serious effort. The book is subtitled “What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive,” and it explores many interesting bypaths. It focuses mainly on the Turing Test, which is essentially a five minute dialogue with another party via typing, and deciding whether the other party is or is not a machine. Given world enough and time you should have little trouble telling, but in five minutes it can be difficult, because of sophisticated response programs. They even put in typos. One person flummoxed the machine by typing utter nonsense, that would make any real person draw a blank, and the machine went on with its program, unruffled. I'm sure that error was quickly fixed. The book inquires “Where is the keep of our selfhood?” and that certainly relates; if we are conscious individuals, why can't a machine be the same? I have felt throughout that consciousness is an emergent quality of a feedback loop, thinking about ourselves thinking, and a machine should be able to do the same. I suspect it's a fairly simple thing, once we catch on to it. Then comes the question whether a conscious humanoid robot, virtually indistinguishable from a living person, is a person. But that's not the thrust of this book; the author is exploring how we can tell machine from person, and that leads to devious questions. Such as what about the two halves of our brains? Cut the corpus callosum, the cable that connects them, and the hemispheres seem to be two different people. The one we know best is the left one, which controls the right side, the logical one; the hidden one is the artistic one. (This is phenomenally oversimplified.) So why do we even need the artistic side? Three R's conservatives seem to feel we don't, and try to cut the arts out of schools in the name of fiscal responsibility. But the book gives an example of the pitfalls of pure logic: give a person the choice of two equivalent pens to take, and the pure logician can't make the choice because neither is clearly better; there is no “rational” or “correct” choice. But the artistic mind has no trouble; one pen may be a pretty green, and that's the one. Its outer color is irrelevant to its function, but relevant to the mood of the user. Similarly pure logic lets us down when we consider life itself. The book quotes a line from the poet Yeats: “Sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal.” That succinctly describes us all; we're pretty much in Hell, and can only dream of Heaven. As I put it in a novel: life has no meaning unless we live for meaning. It is that “silent” right hemisphere that provides the meaning. We are dying from the moment we are birthed, but maybe we can accomplish something if we try. My whole livelihood as a creative writer is based on that effort, which, ultimately, is artistic rather than rational. The book remarks on the traditional fairy tale ending: they all lived happily ever after. That really means that nothing interesting happened to them thereafter; they lapsed into dullness. Is that really the goal of life? I like to think that my own life did not lose interest when I married. So this book gives me many things to ponder, as I try to craft a machine that will effectively come to life. At what point does the appearance become the reality?


Darrell Sweet died. He was close to my age, and wound up doing the great majority of the covers for my Xanth novels. We were “introduced” via Judy-Lynn del Rey. I understand when she saw him walking along at a convention she hurried up to ask him to do a cover, and it went from there. Later she solicited me for a novel, and I said “But Ballantine is blacklisting me!” because I had protested getting cheated, and she said no longer; they had a notion of my case because Lester del Rey had been similarly cheated. I wrestled with the notion of giving the six-year blacklister another try and finally decided to do it, and that turned out to be about the best decision of my writing career. I suspect signing on with them was similarly significant for Darrell Sweet. I never met him personally, but certainly he was a competent artist, and our careers were thus linked.


I reviewed the copyedited manuscript for the simplified language edition of A Spell For Chameleon, the first Xanth novel. I set up that edition twenty years ago, but was on the outs with the publisher, so it had nowhere to go; now we have a deal and they are publishing it electronically. It's the same novel, merely with simpler words, easier to read. This was an experience, because the copyeditior's changes—and there were two and a half slews of them—were marked in Revision Mode, and I had to go into a special mode to make any changes of my own. But once I got past the learning curve, I concluded it's a good system, and saves cumbersome mailing back and forth. So keep an eye out for that electronic edition, especially if the deliberately complicated vocabulary of the original was a problem. It was that way because the editor feared it would be taken for a children's novel; Xanth is and always was an adult series, though children do read it, thus learning about naughty things like panties and bleeps that scorch foliage and freak out maiden aunts.


I completed Relationships 5, the ongoing series of collections of mostly erotic stories and sent it to its publisher. I also sent in One and Wonder, my anthology of favorite stories from when I was a reader over half a century ago, to its prospective publisher. So folk who are curious what impressed me when I was a teen will be able to read those stories, which are by many of the names in the science fiction field like Theodore Sturgeon, William Tenn, and Jack Williamson. Do they stand up to today's stories? Maybe the readers will judge.


I value plants as I do creatures, and each has its history. Maybe a decade ago we had a Christmas Cactus in a pot, but when I went to transplant it outside, I discovered it had not waited on me; its roots had extended out the bottom of the pot and anchored on the tile beside the swimming pool. Okay, so I left it there. The pot crumbled away and it was left on the bare surface, but it endured. In fact it thrived and bloomed before Christmas each year, sometimes as many as a hundred flowers. Last year it had about fifty. Then something ate it off. So I put little plastic domes over the bare stems, trying to protect it, and in due course it grew back. This year it was starting three flowers, with more in the offing—when the predator struck again, eating off everything outside the domes. Now I have a notion what's doing it: an opossum raids our pool enclosure, which is highly porous. Sigh. We don't seek to hurt the native creatures, and do suffer their ravages. Raccoons raid our garbage, gopher tortoises graze our grass, as do rabbits; in fact last year they ate it all and we really have none left. I had to enclose some plants in chicken wire to stop the deer from eating them. I'd like to find a harmless spray that would discourage the animals without hurting them.


Our daughter found a good sale on Z-Coil sandals and bought several pairs, giving some to us. These have strong spiral springs on the heels, so they feel bouncy. They look weird from behind because there are no heels, just the springs. I'm wearing mine now, cautiously, because I don't want to trip and fall. They're supposed to be good for the feet. I haven't noticed a difference, but they are reasonably comfortable to wear.


Newspaper column by David Brooks remarks how European countries like Germany and the Netherlands played by the rules and practiced good governance, living within their means, while Greece, Italy, and Span did not. Now the responsible countries are expected to bail out the irresponsible ones. Even today many in Greece are not willing to pay their taxes. Is this fair? I think of the story of the ant and the grasshopper, with the ant being condemned for not bailing out the grasshopper. But the USA is no model; the people who caused our financial crisis were never held responsible and are still raking in huge bonuses while the great majority of folk suffer privation. So what's to be done? Whatever it is, it won't happen without a thorough political housecleaning. That seems impossible; we are too far corrupted. I fear for the future. THE DISH has some recommendations: eradicate the Bush tax cuts. That may be feasible, because if nothing is done they will expire the end of 2012. Require that all Americans pay the same Social Security tax on all earnings. Investigate the Crash of 2008 and bring to justice those who committed any crimes. Join the rest of the free world and create a single-payer, free and universal health care system that covers all Americans all of the time. Reduce the carbon emissions that are destroying the planet, finding ways to wean us from fossil fuels. Establish voting reforms that, among other things, eliminate the legal personhood of corporations. (Maybe some day machines will develop caring and conscience, but don't count on corporations ever doing it.) There's more, but you get the idea. I'd love to see any or all of them happen, but it's a pipe dream.


A reader advised me that December 23 is the day of Festivus, celebrated by putting up an annual pole and airing grievances. “During the past year, you have disappointed me in the following ways...” I would start with the politicians mentioned above.


The Ask Marilyn column often has something interesting. But sometimes she goofs. The Christmas Day column posed a reader question that if an organization with 400 employees randomly drug tested 100 every three months, so the chances of being tested was 25% per quarter, and those 100 are returned thereafter to the pool, what are the chances for a year? Marilyn said they remained 25%. That strikes me as wrong. If you have one chance in 4 of being tested, each time, for a year you have 4 such ¼ chances, or an extreme likelihood of being tested. Duh.


David Brooks—I am beginning to notice that name as one of the sharper newspaper columnists—discusses the annual Sidney Awards for the best magazine essays. One of them intrigued me because it echoes my own thinking: when you check the universe, the likelihood of life existing seems so remote that one is led to one of two conclusions: there is a God who designed it, or there are an infinite variety of universes of every type, among which is ours. So it's not coincidence, merely one of the very few that clicked. We are here to observe it because it is the one in a squintillion to the googolplex power that is right for us. That doesn't answer the deeper riddle of why anything exists, instead of nothing, which I should think would be the default state. My best theory there is that the very concept of utter nothingness is flawed—can nothing be conceived without a conceiver?--so that inherent stress causes the cosmic carpet to crack or wrinkle, and that wrinkle is the multiverse.


Interesting graph of the ongoing GOP Iowa caucus poll results shows six of the eight current candidates leading at one point, and the seventh, Santorum, rising fast, late. The one halfway decent one, Huntsman, has always been last, of course. Republicans don't want decency, they want a winner.


Item in THE WEEK says multivitamins do more harm than good. That women who take them are more likely to die of any cause than those who don't. It concludes that you should eat as many vegetables and fruits as you can. Well, I'm a male vegetarian who does take supplements to make up what I would otherwise get in meat. I say the healthy thing to do is to pay attention to what you eat and avoid deleterious substances like high fructose corn syrup and salt overload. And do exercise and get enough sleep. Life is like driving in a thunderstorm: be constantly careful and watch out for the idiots who aren't.


Why are we warm bodied? Article in NEW SCIENTIST addresses that. The liabilities are obvious; a warm bodied creature has to eat nearly 50 times more frequently than a boa constrictor. Okay, so those big snakes spend much time in torpor; still reptiles get along well enough without self-generating body heat. Why did mammals and birds choose (figuratively) heat? There has to be a survival benefit. The answer, suggested here, is fungi. Fungi are everywhere, including on plants and animals, including insects. Everywhere except mammals and birds. Because we maintain a body temperature just above what fungi can handle. Even so, we can get infected on our fringes, with things like ringworm and athlete's foot, maybe because our feet can dip below the limit. It would be far worse if we let our overall temperature slide. So we maintain the furnace despite its energy cost.


Here in Citrus County, Florida, we value our rare birds. The celebrated whooping cranes winter here, but there are other less threatened species. Among these are the sandhill crane, a handsome bird that makes a call as it flies sounding like winding a rusty grandfather clock, letting the world know. We have them on our tree farm, and sometimes see them standing by a road. A larger cousin migrates to Canada. Well, now the shits in Kentucky have decided to start hunting them as they pass by. These lovely big birds are just crossing over the territory, not looking for trouble, and they're going to get shot. Way to go, bang-for-brains.


On the last day of the year I received my author's copies of The Sopaths, probably my most shocking novel. It looks good, with the sexy bare-breasted teen sopath called Autopsy, Topsy for short, on the cover, more mischief than almost any man can handle. In due course we'll make the novel available electronically too, but for now you can find it via regular channels and www.eraserheadpress.com. It's a horror story that is bound to arouse some book-burners, but I doubt anyone will be able to claim seriously that it's inferior fiction. For one thing it poses the question just which side are the be-fruitful-and-multiply-or-else  folk are really serving, knowing that overpopulation is leading to the sure destruction of the world as we know it: God or Satan?


Another item in THE WEEK: a number of luminaries were asked to write letters of advice to their 16 year old selves. One of them started “Dear Piers.” That got my attention. It turned out to be Piers Morgan. I like to think that the category of Piers is a rare but superior one, like a pretty bird, so I'm rooting for something special here. He quotes several family members, such as Mother: “Ambition knows no bounds.” Also public figures like Donald Trump: “Think big and kick ass.” And himself: “Don't take anything too seriously.” So what would I say to my younger self? Remember, I was the one who rationally judged his life and concluded it wasn't worth it. In fact, at that age my closest cousin, with everything to live for, died of cancer, while I, the one without prospects, unhappily survived. What kind of a God would be so sadistic? But as it turned out, God may have known what He was doing, devious as the course was for a lifelong nonbeliever. So I would say “Hang on, Piers; it does get better.”

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