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Piers the handyman 2007
AwGhost 2013

This was an interim month, one where I wasn't writing a novel, so I had time to catch up on reading, video movies, and chores.

I read Pallitine Rising by Roderick Davidson. This is the story of Taryn, a disadvantaged teen girl who can fight like a boy, who flees her abusive home to strike out on her own. She tries to rob food from a sleeping man, Thoman, only to find that he's not really asleep. He likes her look and fighting spirit, and takes her on as an apprentice to become a pallitine (perhaps adapted from palatine, one with royal privileges), a kind of knight. She's a pretty girl, but he treats her like a respected daughter. She has a new and far better home, and is completely loyal to him. Her interactions with other trainees are mixed; one she likes turns out to be a traitor, while one she doesn't like is honorable. She learns to fight with a sword and does show promise as a warrior, gender no barrier. In the end they go to slay a kind of dragon that has been marauding, but the creature is no pushover, and Thoman is killed. Taryn will be a pallitine on her own. There are punctuation flaws and loose ends, but this is a well developed knightly tale that promises good things to come.

I read Gameworld, by C J Farley. This is a children's story, featuring a pre-teen boy who is good at online games. That's about where its resemblance to other books of that description stops. There are real children here, who blunder, quarrel, pop blisters, get pissed, suffer bullying, and fart—things almost guaranteed to freak out parents, teachers, librarians, and children's book reviewers who seem to live in an aseptic fantasy realm when it comes to the real nature of children. They get into a competitive fantasy game that seems not to be limited to online; those who qualify are simply in it with no machine connection. There are mysteries and challenges galore as they rise through the game levels, leading to a climactic battle between the powers of good (and some of mixed nature), against evil as the framework collapses. There are dark forces operating, such as shadow stealers; a person who loses his shadow may be doomed. There are figures from Jamaican legend with odd powers, lending a different flavor, and indications that they are playing for more than game points; the welfare of Earth society itself may be on the line, and victory is not guaranteed to go to the righteous. In sum, there's some adult-level mind stretching here. This novel could become quite successful with children, if the usual purveyors of denial don't manage to suppress it.

I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, wherein seven retirement age folk find cheaper residence in India in a hotel of that name. It's actually an old edifice, needing renovation, run imperfectly by an eager young man. There are problems adjusting to the culture of India, and some within the group; one man is gay, and a married couple is breaking up. But gradually they acclimatize and start making it in the changed situation, and finding new things, including some romance. They had expected to finish their lives in the same mode they have lived them; such change is uncomfortable, but better in the end.

I watched Letters To Juliet, wherein there is a wall in Verona, Italy, where folk with romantic problems can write them out as letters to the original Juliet, the fictional heroine of Romeo and Juliet, and these are answered by a group of women in the name of Juliet. The protagonist, Sophie, a very pretty girl, discovers a fifty-year-old letter hidden behind a stone, written by Claire, and answers it. The woman comes with her handsome grandson, and the three of them commence a search for all the local men of the name of Claire's original lover, something like 74 of them. Along the way Sophie and the grandson, initially somewhat hostile to each other, develop respect, and finally love. Claire observes and encourages this; at one point she tells Grandson “Don't wait fifty years, as I did.” Claire finally is reunited with her man, and the two younger folk also realize their love. It's a good initial situation with a predictable outcome, but nicely done, and it moved me.

More DISCOVER science videos accumulated as I wrote my novel, and I watched them. Evolve: Flight was as interesting as expected. It has happened only four times, with reptiles, insects, birds, and bats, and each is different. The first pterosaur weighed up to 440 pounds, quadruple as much as anything else, and seems to have used sheer power to heave itself into the air and stay there. Inserts are small, and so require relatively little energy to fly. Birds have hollow bones to make them light. Bats have echolocation so they can fly flawlessly by night. The flying machines of men seem clumsy in comparison. Flight is a great advantage, but it exacts its price. The first fliers did it by launching themselves into the air. I had thought that climbing trees and dropping from branches more likely, but of course that would be time consuming, especially when caught on the ground and needing instant escape. Modern Marvels: Batteries is yet another one you'd think would be dull, but isn't; it not only defines the basics, such as anode and cathode, it gets into the Tesla electric car, which the kind anyone would like to drive if the price were about a tenth what it is, and the mission on Mars. The fact is, just about every machine depends on batteries to some extent, and if all batteries suddenly failed, things would crash, in many cases literally. They are constantly being improved, and our future surely well be even more battery-ized. Echo: An Elephant to Remember shows Echo, a matriarch elephant tracked by the park observers for over 35 years until she died at about 65. The folk in the cars parked nearby and the wild elephants came to know them, even approaching to nudge the vehicles, which were obviously not a threat. The family groups are governed by the matriarchs, and a wise one like Echo will safeguard the group so that it increases in size. At one point Echo had to choose between her daughter who was ailing in the drought, and her grandson, who would not survive here. She took the grandson to a better foraging place, and returned with him a few weeks later, but the daughter was dead. The elephants are very family oriented, and help each other as much as they can. The observers are not allowed to interfere, which can be painful as they watch an elephant die.

I watched Brokeback Mountain. I bought it when I saw it on sale, knowing it was a quality movie that I probably would not enjoy, and that's correct on both scores. Two young men spend a summer together herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain, and they fall for each other. In those days; being openly homosexual was a death sentence for employment, socially, and often literally, so they couldn't admit it. Each married and had one or more children, but their truest passion was for each other. This messed up their marriages and put them in private torment, and they hated being in this situation, wishing they could either live together openly, or get rid of their love. They could do neither. In the end one dies, it is said when a tire he was changing blew up in his face, but there's a strong hint that he was actually beaten to death by homophobes. One nice touch is at the end the survivor's nineteen year old daughter is getting married, and she looks exactly like her mother at that age, surely played by the same actress. He loves her, and surely regrets not being able to fully love her mother; that's part of the tragedy of the situation. So it was painful for me to watch. I am so thoroughly heterosexual that the male on male love scenes made me wince, yet I appreciate the integrity of them and wish that the two could have been openly together. At least today the anti-gay bigotry is reluctantly receding.

I watched Django Unchained. This is about as hard-hitting an action movie as I've seen. It doesn't spare the language; a black man or woman is a nigger, whether the speaker is white or black. A white bounty hunter in pre-Civil-War American south intercepts a chained gang of slaves, seeking one who can recognize his quarry. This is Django, who was sold to one harsh master, and his wife to another. He wants to recover his wife. When the slaver foreman threatens to shoot the bounty hunter, the latter suddenly draws and fells him and takes Django, whom he trains to be a gunfighter. They track down and kill people on the wanted list and collect the bounties on them. There are a number of vicious sequences as Django learns the business. It winds up with a showdown at the ranch where the wife is held, and just about everybody is killed. Django kills most of the survivors and takes his wife. They have become outlaws. This is compelling throughout.

I watched Lincoln. This was not what I had expected, which was a biography of the man. This was simply about the ratification of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, abolishing slavery. President Lincoln was active in securing votes for it, with many in congress reluctant to commit. I liked one exchange, where a person was asked whether he thought all men were equal, a loaded question when so many believed that blacks were inferior, and he said not literally, since the baboon before him was obviously inferior, but before the law, yes. It seems Lincoln was forever telling little stories, one of which was about a painting of George Washington on the wall of the privy room in a Britisher's house. Was that appropriate placement? Yes, because the picture of Washington was guaranteed to make an Englishman shit. Is it a good movie? Yes. Did I find it compelling? No. All the backs and forths of close-minded congressmen may be true to political life, then and now, but it's long familiar and soon becomes dull. At the end there was an announcement that Lincoln had been shot, conveniently offstage. How's that for drama in a movie? So okay, it was worth watching, but not my idea or entertainment.

I read Ned Firebreak by Brian Clopper, www.brianclopper.com. This is a wild fantasy wherein the protagonist, Ned, wakes attended by four or more pretty princesses to find much of his memory missing. Just what is his relationship to any of them, especially the cute Lil? They seem to know, but won't tell. It seems that he is not supposed to be informed, lest there be a dire consequence. It gets on into a walking, talking tree, a talking sword, a talking dragon, and nefarious plots, with no certainty about who is really friend or enemy. It only starts to make sense in the end, but by then they are in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of darkness. A bonus, or penalty, depending on your view, is a sorcerer whose magic is accomplished only by puns. There's no telling how many minds have been rotted by Xanth puns, but the author counts himself among them. So this is to be considered light fantasy, though there is plenty of bloodshed.

I watched O. Henry's Full House, a black/white collection of five animations of O. Henry's stories. “The Cop and the Anthem” has a broke hobo trying to get arrested so he can spend three months of the cold winter in a nice warm jail, but his efforts keep going wrong, until at last he is surprised by an arrest for vagrancy. “The Clarion Call” has a crook and detective opposing each other, but the detective owes the crook a thousand dollars and must ethically pay it before putting him away. He does so by collecting the reward money for turning the crook in. My favorite is “The Last Leaf,” with a downtrodden artist knowing he's no good, and a young woman convinced that when the last leaf falls from a tree outside her window she will die, and the leaves are going fast. But in the morning one leaf survives, and she turns the corner and will live. Then it turns out that the artist pained it on the wall behind the tree, dying of exposure in the process. He was a good artist, where it counted. “The Ransom of Red Chief” two men abduct a ten-year-old boy to hold for ransom, but the kid is too much of a handful and they wind up paying his family to take him back. And “Gift of the Magi,” a famous one, where she sells her lovely hair to buy a chain for his gold watch, and he sells the watch to buy combs for her hair. I was hoping the the movie would fudge it to make a happy ending, but it didn't. I noted the wife's huge impossibly conical breasts; they don't make them like that any more. These stories were okay, but really not much compared to modern efforts.

I read Cautionary Tales by Piers Anthony, a collection of twenty of my own stories and essays dating from 1991 to 2013. Over the years, I have contributed stories to assorted magazines or anthologies on request, and written spot essays also on request, doing the best I can in each case, and it seemed time to share them with a wider readership. Some need to be approached with caution, so each has a warning so that no innocent readers will be freaked out. It starts with “Bluebeard,” published in 1995 by the British INTERZONE magazine, that issue guest-edited by Charles Platt. It seems that a ten-year-old girl is sneaking into an adult online game, where she gets one hell of a graphic involuntary sexual education. See why there's a Caution? Another is “Cartaphilus,” the Wandering Jew cursed by Jesus to linger two thousand years in life, until Jesus will return. He hates Jesus and would gladly kill him, if that would release Cartaphilus from life. “Serial,” censored out of Relationships 3 because it features rape; eXcessica published it instead, and it has done very well as a separate story. Therein Militia makes a business of raping men and selling the recordings, until she tries it on a male serial rapist who sees her coming. Several, like “Knave,” “Medusa,” and “Rat Bait” involve graphic weird sex. For instance in “Rat Bait” a child is afraid to sleep in a supposedly haunted bed because she says there's a slimy-tongued monster there. So her mother sleeps in it instead, to prove there's nothing there—and the monster really works her over with disgusting sex, such as reaming her colon with that massive tongue, forcing her to climax. And “Adult Conspiracy,” which torpedoes that aspect of Xanth. The essays include “Pep Talk” done for NaNoWriMo, the effort to write a 50,000 word novel in one month; it's a harangue which includes a naughty collaboration by a married Accountant and an underage Coed. So there's plenty here to freak out the timid. It will be self published in due course.

I read Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt. When I was in college I read the thesis of a student that purported to doubt everything and work down to whatever kernel of reality remained. It concluded that Man is the Universe, and Self does not exist. The author of the thesis was unable to accept either conclusion, though I had no problem with them; I heard later that he committed suicide. This book covers similar material, and addresses the most fundamental question of all time: why is there something rather than nothing? Let's face it, it would be easier, philosophically, for there to be nothing, and surely that's the way things started. So how could everything we know in the universe have come from nothing? What about conservation of matter, or the lack of it? There's supposed to be no free lunch. The book summarizes the thinking of philosophers through the ages, including considerations of Self, and the notion that it is really our imagination that generates the universe, and it's dense reading, and never does come to a conclusion. The best guess, for my taste, is that it was a quantum fluctuation in the void: a bubble of energy adding up to zero that became our Big Bang. Matter is merely energy twisted around itself, and gravity is considered negative energy, so mathematically they all cancel out, with interesting permutations that include the development of life and consciousness so we can theorize about it all. But we really don't know.

I watched the video Alexander Revisited—The Final Cut, a three and a half hour movie I bought for six bucks from DAEDALUS. It seems that there was a movie in 2004, and the Director's Cut in 2005, neither of which was complete, so then in 2007 came this complete version, unrated. It's some movie, covering the life of Alexander the Conqueror, narrated by Anthony Hopkins. (There's something about his first name I like, though I'm sure he would be just as fine an actor by any other name.) It switches back and forth from his age 5 to his death at almost 33, not confusing because the sequences are labeled. Battles are shown sort of symbolically, with Macedon Right Flank, Macedon Left Flank, Macedon Center, all consisting of charging men and horses partly obscured by dust. I wouldn't know who won if it weren't announced. More interesting are the insights into Alexander's nature, his loves and hates, his bisexuality, and the unrest of his army as it stays in the field too long; the men want to see their families. He was a complicated man, who virtually ruled the world at age 25, yet was taken out by a fever with a suspicion of poisoning seven years later. His family background was a mess, with his mother hating his abusive father, and possible arranging to have him assassinated, thus promoting Alexander to king. How far might he have gone, had he survived?

Last month I got two tooth implants and a bone graft. This month another tooth cracked and came loose, so now it has been replaced by another implant. I have had more root canals than anyone else I know, at least a dozen; now I seem to be heading that way in implants, as the current surgery will bring my total to eight. As I think I said before, I'll be really annoyed if I die before I get a good decade's chewing from these expensive artificial teeth.

The gun control debate continues, with the local killing of a black teen by a white man who provoked a confrontation, and according to jury members got away with murder. They just couldn't quite nail it, what with the notorious Florida stand-your-ground law, so had to let him go. The gun lobby opposes background checks and other sensible measures to reduce the slaughter; just want to sell more guns. President Obama had the Center for Disease Control and Prevention assess the existing research on gun violence, and there is a list of its ten most salient conclusions. America's rate of gun-related homicide is almost twenty times as high as that of other high-income countries. But the rate of gun violence is diminishing, not increasing; guns account for less than one percent of all unintentional fatalities. Only a third of our firearms are handguns, but they are used in 87% of violent crimes. Mass shootings are not the problem; since 1983 they have accounted for 547 deaths, of a total of 335,000. Gun suicide is a bigger killer than gun homicide. Guns are often and effectively used for self defense, but carrying guns for that is an arms race. Denying guns to people under restraining orders saves lives. Criminals obtain guns generally from legitimate dealers, not a few bad dealers. Additional research is needed—but has been blocked by Congress.

I learned from an ad for a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC bird book that Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, borrowed the name from the author of The Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond. So Fleming gave Bond an autographed copy of a first edition, from the thief of his identity.

It turns out that the dispersant used on the BP oil spell is more destructive to human health and the environment than the spill itself. Doctors are treating clusters of symptoms unlike anything treated in the past: rashes, burns, eye irritation, breathing, kidney, headaches, memory loss, impotence, fatigue, cramps, seizures, and a trance-like state. Anyone who lives or vacations along the Gulf of Mexico, or consumes Gulf seafood is at risk. It is being covered up, but news is leaking out. BP of course has a publicity campaign claiming the dispersant is safe, but if you're serious about your health, stay clear.

Odd notes: Newspaper article by H Gilbert Welch suggests that medical pricing is verging on the criminal. “Medical care is intended to help people, not enrich providers.” In one case a doctor's practice was bought out by a hospital, and in a year the cost of a cardiac stress test went from $2,000 to $8,000. Another newspaper article by Mathew Malady (a made-up name?) says cursing isn't what it used to be. In The Avengers a man refers to a woman as a “Mewling quim.” That translates to “whimpering vagina.” I remember how a violent German curse translates to “Thunder weather.” Florida's New Capitol building in Tallahassee looks like an erect penis with two balls, perhaps the most phallic structure in the world. How better to say “Screw you!” to the paying public? An article originating in TheDailyBeast.com asks why Republicans are so afraid of Obamacare? They call it a train wreck. So why don't they just sit back and let it wreck? Because they are terrified that it will actually work. Troubling new trend: women are increasingly likely to binge drink, get arrested for drunken driving, or wind up in the emergency room dangerously intoxicated. I guess one problem with equal rights is that they get equal wrongs too. And a letter in NEW SCIENTIST by Valerie Moyses remarks on how all manner of body based services can be sold, but only the sale of sex is considered wrong. Why? I read the answer long ago: in the old days Jehovah was losing worshipers to the temples of the Goddess, which offered sex for donations, so they tried to make sex itself abhorrent. That was not entirely successful, but does carry through in some religions today, notably the Catholic Church. It's a stricture relating to competitive religion, rather than honest morality. So people still practice sex, but often feel guilty about it, and try to forbid it in others where they can. All to spite the pagan goddess.

As some of my readers know, I have a serious interest in human history and nature, and I read about developments with interest. A Smithsonian article by Jerry Adler “Why Fire Makes Us Human,” which I saw summarized in the newspaper, really makes the case. Fire kept our ancestors warm at night, so they no longer needed fur, and their bare skin made for better cooling so they could run farther and faster after prey without overheating. Fire frightened away nocturnal predators so we could sleep safely on the ground instead of in the trees. The larger gatherings this facilitated was the basis of the new human society. We do owe much of our nature to fire. The Human Spark by Jerome Kagan reviewed in NEW SCIENTIST says that it is more than our brain that sets us apart from animals. We have the ability to speak a symbolic language, to infer the thoughts and feeling of others (empathy), understand the meaning of a prohibited action (laws), and become conscious of our own feelings, intentions, and actions. I don't know; those seem like brain activities to me. For non-brain qualities I'd consider our remarkable sexuality, running and throwing abilities, and balancing on two feet so we can carry things. But, he says, today traditional moral standards are being eroded and replaced by a belief in the value of wealth and celebrity. Oh, I doubt our ancestors were much better; we've been an imperfect species all along. But we do have a lot going for us, and against us. There is still some diminishing hope that we'll get it under control before we wipe out the world. Our social and environmental attitudes have not matched our scientific and technological achievements.

I watched Harold and Maude, a 1971 movie. This claims to be a different kind of romance, and it is. Harold is a spoiled rich boy, maybe 19, and Maude is a wild old spirit, 79. Harold is obsessed with death, pretending grisly suicide fifteen times, and attending local funerals. At the latter he meets Maude, another frequent attender; they have a common interest. She takes him for rides in stolen cars, freaking out traffic cops, even stealing a cop's motorcycle when he stops her for reckless driving. Harold falls in love with her and wants to marry her, which of course freaks out his mother, who is setting up dates with girls his age. It's funny; one scene made me laugh out loud; now, frustratingly, I can't remember which one that was. (Okay, so next day I went back and spent almost an hour reviewing scenes, searching for it, and finally found it: when Harold's mother introduces him to the second of three young-woman dates she has set up for him, he pulls out a meat cleaver and chops off his left hand. A fake hand, but that does sort of ruin the mood. He's not interested in girls his age.) In a couple of scenes Harold and Maude are evidently waking up after sleeping together, the implication being that maybe they had sex; apparently in 1971 that's as close to it as movies were allowed to come without losing the PG rating. But Maude commits suicide on her 80 th birthday, which freaks out Harold. He fakes one more suicide, then wanders off, singing of freedom in the manner Maude has taught him. There are nice songs by Cat Stevens throughout, though not my favorite, “Morning Has Broken.” It's a fun movie.

And I saw Hitchcock, which turned out to be about the filming of Psycho. I was amazed to learn that the issue was in doubt until the end. The film was running days behind schedule and over budget and the studio was restive, threatening not to release it at all. Hitchcock and his wife, who it seems was just as much responsible for his movies as he was, though she did not get the credit for it, worked desperately to edit it to get it right. And when the infamous shower scene, which the studio had wanted to cut or nullify, came on, Hitchcock was in the lobby listening to the audience, and his arms were conducting their screams. He knew he had a winner, and it more or less saved his career. I remember when my wife and I saw the movie in the theater, and when the shower scene came, there was a scream that triggered the rest of the audience and there was chaos in the theater. Oh yes, it was effective. Now I am glad to have seen the other side of it. I was also impressed with how well the lead actor, Anthony Hopkins, merged with the part; he looked and sounded like the original.

Frustration Dept.: the past few years we had had a patch of air potatoes, an invasive vine species that can cover regular trees, taking their sunlight, and thus killing them. The leaves are a pretty green heart shape, and the fruit looks like small potatoes, hanging above ground, hence the name. So I decided to eliminate them. Last year I picked up 600 air potatoes, but this year when the rains came hundreds more sprouted. I pulled them out, but in days as many more appeared. I chopped them out with hoe and bush scythe, but again in days, hundreds more. It became apparent that I could either spend my time going after air potatoes, or handling the rest of my life and career. I need an easy way to eliminate them, hoping to find a spray or something that won't damage regular plants. If anyone knows of one, let me know.

On Jewel-Lye 30 I participated in a radio interview for a program called the Dawn of Shades, now it its seventh year, hosted by Gia Scott, a longtime fan of mine and writer herself. I should have mentioned its coming in my last Column, but forgot. Even so, Gia said that interview broke their record. Average is 225,000 logged-in listeners, while mine was about 255,000. Those who missed it, thanks to my neglect, can find the archive copy at http://paranormalradionetwork.org/2013/07/30/

dawn-of-shades-with-guest-piers-anthony-sci-fi-fantasy-author.aspx, at least for the next 90 days. It was a two hour conversation, like a living room chat, just the two of us, by no means limited to the writing of fantasy. I talked about having to write in pencil on a clipboard so as to be able to be constantly with my hyperactive daughter, then jumping from pencil to computer when she grew up and went to college. About trying to be positive in commenting on amateur manuscripts that are not yet there. About the several fantasy series I have done; many readers know of Xanth, but not of ChroMagic. About answering my fan mail; it seems that many writers don't. Garden variety stuff, largely familiar to regular Column readers; no steamy secrets here. Naturally I'm not at my sharpest when it's all ad lib, but then, who is?

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