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Piers the handyman 2007
OctOgre 2013

Having finally caught up on pressing projects, I resumed reading and watching videos. I watched Love and Other Disasters, a romantic comedy I bought for $3 in significant part because of its intriguing cover: young woman sitting with knees under chin, legs exposed under her skirt, seeming to show much more than is actually the case. Actually in the movie she does appear nude, but again, nothing essential is visible. She lives with a gay man, so isn't sensitive about what she shows, and indeed is busy trying to fix him up with some nice man. She decides to marry one gay man so he won't have to leave England, then, horrors, discovers he's not gay and throws a fit. Finally her gay friend sets her straight: the man is everything she thinks he is, apart from that one detail; she should let herself love him, as he loves her. Except that he's already left the country. All ends up haphazardly well, however.

I watched Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond movie and a good one. He gets shot and during the process of recovery isn't at his best, which leads so some refreshing characterization. His female boss M, played by Judi Dench, is involved, and in the end gets shot and killed; this is how you retire an actor in Bond land. I also liked his female associate, competent field agent Eve, a lovely black woman who at one point is trying to shoot Bond's assailant as they fight atop a charging train, can't get a clear shot but is ordered to take her shot anyway—and hits Bond. It really wasn't her fault, but ever after, he teases her about how much safer he'd feel if she retired to a desk job, and finally she does, becoming Eve Moneypenny, who I'm sure has been in the office before, making the role bit anachronistic. A fun movie.

I watched Shutter Island, a compelling thriller starring one of the few names I recognize, Leonardo DiCaprio, because of his role in Titanic. He is a US marshal arriving at an island prison hospital for the criminally insane near Boston, and from the start things are tense. There's a report that a woman has mysteriously escaped from her locked cell, so he's investigating. He has been studying this facility for years, and now has the chance to see it first hand. A woman patient working in a field holds her finger to her mouth, signaling secret, and another diverts the guard and quickly scribbles the word RUN for his eyes alone. A slip of paper under a tile in the escaped woman's cell asks cryptically who is the 67th? Only later does it appear that the marshal himself is the 67th, a prisoner who deludes himself about his identity. He searches the island and finds the escaped prisoner, who tells him she was a nurse who balked at the horrible experiments being performed in the lighthouse, so now she's falsely accused of killing her husband and children. She was never married, had no children. Meanwhile the marshal is suffering some bad-memory hallucinations of his own. It continues, and finally the marshal has to decide whether to go along with their story that he is a lunatic himself, and survive, or deny it and get killed. It ends with that question, the implication being that his investigation of the facility alerted its personnel and they arranged to lure him there and silence him. But we can't be quite sure. This is a fine reality-questioning story. It reminds me of a question in A E van Vogt's The Players of Null-A: “How do you know you're sane?” He finally answers “I don't know that I'm sane.” Actually none of us do; sanity is largely defined by the opinions of others. And my own experience, 50 years ago: when they could not diagnose the source of my chronic fatigue, they labeled me neurasthenic, and my medical insurance tried to rider (eliminate) me for all mental diseases. In short, they thought I was crazy. Only decades later did it get nailed: hypothyroid, fixed at last by one little levothyroxin pill a day, the only medication I take. I never was crazy; the medical profession was. So I have considerable sympathy for those similarly afflicted by medical ignorance. Many people do, which is why paranoid movies like this prosper.

I watched You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, a romantic comedy, wherein couples break up and form new liaisons, which then don't necessarily work out as the foibles of the new partners become evident. One person is a novelist who doesn't quite have a second salable book in him; that sort of thing makes me uncomfortable, can't think why. Another was married 40 years, then gets interested in a call girl. More discomfort. Another religiously follows the advice of a card reader who may be a charlatan (I have no belief in anything supernatural, but those who do believe are not necessarily charlatans), and that sort of thing makes me uncomfortable too. So while this is clever and uncomfortably true to life, it's not my idea of fun.

I read the 685-page novel In the Courts of the Sun, by Brian D'Amato, because it was the second one my wife put on my new Kindle reader. This one, too, is densely packed with detail and often clever phrasing. For example, when a helicopter flies overhead it goes fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck. That is the sound they make. It's the story of a modern day Maya man of Nicaragua, where for some time they have been trying to eradicate the Maya people so as to clear their land for exploitation. No one much seems to care, other that the Maya themselves; certainly not the American government. The protagonist is among other things a player of the Game, which is a complex merging of disparate elements that can be used as a kind of sensing of what is happening in the world. He gets involved in a project to interview a top player of the past, a Mayan woman circa 640 AD, so as to learn her secrets and enable better play today. Because something is attacking America, starting in Florida, and thousands are dying, and maybe only the Game can fathom the identity of the enemy. Time travel is impossible, but there's a workaround: they send his mind back to occupy the mind of a man of the time. Only it turns out to be the wrong man, and it's a hell of a struggle to proceed with the mission. He does finally meet the woman player, and she really is a genius of the type, like a chess grandmaster of grandmasters. She's pretty, too. But it's complicated—everything is complicated—and she is in danger of being arrested, tortured, and killed for helping him. Then back to the present; I was sorry to see no more of her. They do run down and nullify the enemy, but it turns out to be only the first novel of a trilogy. I presume we'll see more of the lady in the sequels. There's a woman in the present, too; I found myself hoping that the Game woman would somehow visit the mind of the modern one, but that didn't happen. The author clearly knows a lot about history, about games, about human nature; wherever he touches on something that I have prior information about, he's right on. I am simplifying things here that really are not simple. So this is a considerable novel in more than one sense, but it helps if the reader has a mind, which may limit its appeal.

I viewed The Plague, a sort of zombie horror story. These are generally not my type, but this one, apart from being $3 cheap was presented by Clive Barker, a writer and movie maker who has a mind. Well, I don't know. It starts intriguingly, with a man discovering his son comatose, and it turns out that all children under age 9 are the same. Twice a day they suffer seizures, and that's it. Then ten years later they revive as zombies, attacking any regular folk, even the parents who have lovingly cared for them in the interim. It becomes a horror chase movie, as the zombies catch on to disabling cars and shooting guns. Then at the end a man realizes that peace is the answer; the zombies are killing all unpeaceful folk, which is most of us. Find peace and happiness in your soul, and the zombies will leave you alone. End of story. This doesn't satisfy me. What about the loving parents brutally killed? What do the zombies live on? How do they propose to make a new society without any of the apparatus of the old, such has farming and hauling in produce to eat? And what set them up for the ten year hiatus with precisely timed seizures? There has to be a larger scheme here, and that isn't clarified. So in the end this is nonsense, as are most zombie stories. Brainless, as if written by zombies. So I think I'll continue being an unfan of this genre. It's not that I hate the undead, but their dull minds are wearing.

I watched Knight and Day, and was sure I'd seen it before, but I didn't remember the whole center of it, just the beginning and end and hints of the middle. So I checked, and discovered that my wife and I saw it in the theater on our anniversary in 2010. Amazing how much I forgot in only three years. It used to be that I could see thirty seconds of something on TV and recite the whole story line from when I'd seen it before. Evidently my memory is fading in my dotage. It's a thriller/humor adventure wherein a young woman finds herself on an airplane with Tom Cruise, who then is attacked by all the plane's personnel and wipes them all out and crash-lands the plane while she screams helplessly. That's what pretty girls do in movie-land; it's part of their appeal. Turns out he has a new kind of battery so powerful that one little C-cell can power a city for a month. So naturally the bad guys will stop at nothing to get it. Once he stops screaming, the girl turn out to be nervy and clever and helpful. It was fun seeing again.

I had a detailed complaint from a writer about a publisher: it had informed him that after consideration by its editors and outside readers it was rejecting his book. Obviously it was a close call and the publisher had gone the extra mile to make the decision. His objection? He felt the use of outside readers was a violation of his literary rights. I told him bluntly that he had no case; the use of outside readers is standard. He then took off on me and my supposed ignorance. I responded detailing some of my history with rogue publishing, getting cheated and blacklisted when I queried a writer's organization about it, though it was later confirmed that the publisher was cheating authors. I had a valid case; he did not. He responded, in essence, that I should have been more forceful in my case (I had not mentioned that I got a lawyer), and continued “So you want to blacklist me for objecting to your assessment of the situation? Phooey on you, buster.” Apparently what he picked up from my getting blacklisted was that I was trying to blacklist him. “I am surprised at your implied threat, which I think is bullshit, especially coming from a fellow author.” I had made no threat, direct or implied; I had tried to show him that I am no fan of publisher arrogance. “As for my book, I remind you that you know nothing about its contents whatsoever, so keep your sophomoric comments about its worth to yourself. That was indeed an egregious overstep.” I had made no comment at all on his book, which I had not seen, other than suggesting that if the publisher was as bad as he said, he might be better off getting rejected there. He said I was unable to write a business letter, though he had never seen one of mine apart from the ones telling him he had no case. “Your latest childish response doubly proves it.” Oh? Could he quote examples of what he claimed I said, as I am doing here with respect to his letters? He concluded with “Do not write back. I never want to hear from you again.” You bet; he wanted to protect himself from any reasonable refutation of his diatribe. And threatening me if I even commented publicly on this exchange. Well, we'll see. I leave him anonymous, as is my policy; I cite this exchange as an example of what some publishers face by authors who can't take any rejection without going ballistic. My stance is mainly on the side of authors, but publishers on occasion do have a case with unreasonable writers, as this shows. This paranoid couldn't take even a polite rejection, and was out to badmouth and even threaten anyone who tried to set him straight.

I watched RED, a Bruce Willis thriller. The letters turn out to stand for Retired, Extremely Dangerous. No shit. I can take or leave Bruce Willis, but this one I loved. He is a retired CIA operative, when suddenly a squad comes to kill him. No threats, no warning, nothing; they invade his house at night, weapons at the ready, and when they don't take him out that way, they form a phalanx of machine-gun wielding men who march on his house laying down a horizontal wall of bullets. He escapes, but wonders why they want to kill him, since he has done nothing in his retirement. He goes to warn his hoped-for girlfriend in another city, because he knows his calls have been monitored and she is now in danger because of her association with him. She of course does not understand, and he has to abduct her to save her. She's not pleased. But soon enough she sees the enemy in action and realizes that he is not imagining things, and joins him in the quest to find out what's going on. It's a formula, but a good one. He recruits several other older agents, some former enemies, and they make a team that pulls some lovely stunts on the way to brutal success. One thing I didn't quite get was why the nemesis who is out to kill him suffers a change of heart at the end and helps him.

I saw the stage production of The Phantom of the Opera on DVD. We saw a stage production in person in Tampa in 1997, and I saw the movie version in 2005; this was different from both. It's a phenomenal production, almost better on stage than in the movie. I understand that Phantom is the most successful opera ever, and I can appreciate why. It's lavish, with great music, and an odd romance. Essentially, there is a seeming ghost in the opera house, circa 1900, who makes demands and messes up operas if not accommodated. When he decides to install a new lead singer, the old one starts croaking like a frog in mid song and the new, young, pretty Christine has be be promoted in a hurry. The ghost is actually a live man with a mutilated face, so he wears a half mask. He clearly loves Christine, to whom he gave his lovely music of the night, but she is afraid of him, preferring a handsome young man. In the climax he is about to kill the young man; Christine can save him only by committing to the Phantom. She rises to the occasion by kissing the Phantom with such passion that he is stunned, and releases the young man and leaves the opera house. I've never been certain how that worked, but it's impressive. Regardless, this is one wow of a show, and its music has haunted me ever since I first heard it. “Turn your face away from the garish light of day...”

The Frog Haiku site asked for an annual contribution. My wife buzzed out four. I came up with “My lady frog friend / Mourning the loss of my love / Curses that gold ball.” That's a reference to the fairy tale “The Princess and the Frog,” from the Frog-Prince's viewpoint. I mean, what about his girlfriend in the pond? That stupid gold ball the princess rolled into the pond cost the frog femme her boyfriend. She has a right to be upset. How would you like it if a careless girl stole your boyfriend, leaving you with nothing but a mess of unfertilized frog's eggs? There could be another story there.

I'm getting old, already beyond the average age of death for men, and my systems are starting to wear. My vision is no longer 20-20, more like 20-40 and declining; my exercise runs are slower, and I have to use the penis pump to get a full erection for sex. Age is the daughter of a dog. So I wondered about my hearing, as there are times when the actors in movies or TV seem to be mumbling, and I now prefer to put on the subtitles to be sure I get all the dialogue. So I got tested. They gave me a headset and played faint triple beeps, and I buzzed the dingus when I heard them. Then dialogue, and I wasn’t sure whether she said “sit” or “set.” The results showed some hearing loss. I was okay in the lower ranges, but progressively worse in the treble ranges. That explains why I can't hear the beep when a modern thermometer says it's ready. So they fitted me with a roughly $2,000 per ear set of hearing aids and gave me a month to try them out. They worked; suddenly things crackled with an authority I had not heard before. My shoes squeaked as I walked; the computer keyboard clacked vigorously. When I walked outside the dry leaves were almost painfully loud. But the units were awkward to put on—I had to use a mirror to get them right—and tended to get dislodged by my glasses, if they didn't push my glasses off my face. The extra sound was not actually useful; I didn't need to hear constant sibilance when I talked or when I rode my recumbent bicycle. So I concluded that this was not for me. I would not care to use the hearing aid even if it was free, so why pay a bundle for it? Yes, I could get it at quarter price via the internet, but it's still too much money for something I don't really need, yet. Maybe in a few years when I do really need it, there will be a more convenient, comfortable, cheaper version.

I watched two more Discover videos. These seem less vibrant than prior ones; I suspect they are getting near the bottom of the barrel. One is “Modern Marvels: Whiskey,” and it views like a commercial for the drink, going into the processes of brewing, aging, and the nuances of flavoring. It seems that whiskey is the world's second biggest selling alcohol, after vodka. I'm not drinking now, because my wife can't—it conflicts with her medications—and if she doesn’t then I don't. But if I did, I'd way prefer vodka. I've never been much of a drinker anyway; I don't like to interfere with my mind, which I need for my writing fiction. The other was “E2: Energy” sort of cobbled together from three shorter features. One is about wind power in north central USA as they get into it; energy derived from wind could power the whole country, and could readily be developed if they subsidized it the way they do nuclear and fossil fuel industries. But there hasn't been much interest in this country, and of course the entrenched energy industries oppose anything free, like wind. Then power from human and wastes development in India, potentially a phenomenal benefit to the poor. And development of electric cars, and efforts to reduce the weight of cars; at present 99% of the energy in a gallon of gasoline goes to moving the car, and one percent to moving the person in the car. That's not efficient. The Volt is a good start, but the price must come down.

J R Rain of vampire housewife PI fame and I wrote another collaboration. This is the novella Dolfin Tayle, featuring Azael, a girl dolphin who loses her whole dolphin pod to illicit netting and barely escapes herself. Local friendly seals help her survive, and later she is contacted by aliens who have come to save Earth from a deadly magnetic flux that will wipe out all local life if not diverted. The aliens have the technology to do that, but they are deep sea creatures who can't go on land to meet the humans they will need to actually build the repulsor. So Azael is recruited to be an intermediary. The problem is, she hates humans, with good reason, as do whales, seals, squid and other smart species. Yet she doesn't want to see all life on Earth extinguished. What is she to do? Therein lies a story, with a strong environmental theme, and we tell it. It should be available now, self published; check it out.

Frederik Pohl died, age 93. He was a science fiction writer and editor with a fabulous record in both respects, well known within the genre, and a good man. I knew him personally; I interviewed him once at Necronomicon in Tampa. When I was practice teaching in 1963 a student sent a deliberately awful story to him at GALAXY magazine, in my name. I explained to Pohl, and he told me of how an aspiring writer had once sent him a story, and friends had played a practical joke on him, intercepting the rejection and substituting a letter saying Pohl was so impressed he was offering the man a job. Pohl learned of it when the guy showed up to report for work. Of course there was no job; I really don't consider such jokes to be funny. But it showed how well Pohl understood about what had happened to me. For some time he wrote indifferent fiction of the type the market wanted. Then, abruptly, he started writing great imaginative novels. I asked him what had happened, and he said that he had decided to write for himself. That really made a difference. No, I don't condemn anyone for writing to the market; we all have to do it if we want to get published regularly, or at least we did prior to the age of electronic publishing. I compromise by doing both. If you want to read my commercial fiction, read Xanth; if you want to read what else I want to write, read Aliena, The Sopaths, Tatham Mound, or the ChroMagic series. Pohl compromised similarly. More power to him.

There has been recent concern about the place of American students compared to those of other countries. Education is a highly mixed bag, with an entrenched bureaucracy that is resistant to reform. Remember, I was once a teacher. But institutions vary, and teachers vary, and it isn't all bad. The newspaper published sample questions the New York Times solicited from educators for good questions to ask today's high school students. These are doozies! I think I got about eight of ten, but each was a challenge. For example this one I missed: a horse runs a two lap race around a circular track. During the first lap its average speed is 20 miles per hour. What must the horse's average speed be during the second lap so that its average speed over the course of the entire two-lap race is 40 mph? I thought 60, reasoning that an hour at 20 and an hour at 60 would total 80, or 40 for each lap. But I was uneasy, because this wasn't a two hour race, but a limited distance track, which is not the same thing. Sure enough, I blew it; the answer is that the horse would have to be infinitely fast. Why? Say the track is 20 miles; then the horse has run 20 miles in an hour. But it needs to run 40 miles in that hour, and it can't; the time has already been used up. If that is instantly clear to you, you have a better mind than I do.

Should America intervene militarily in Syria, or anywhere else? Some say no, let them sort it out by themselves; we can't police the world. Some say we must not stand by and watch atrocities being perpetrated. Newspaper article by Sebastian Junger says that there is no peace without force, and makes a persuasive case. The dictators are not going to stop their depredations merely because others don't approve; they will only be stopped by force. “In this context, doing nothing in the face of evil becomes the equivalent of actively supporting evil; morally speaking there is no middle ground.” I'm not sure I agree completely, but it's hard to disagree completely either. “At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death, and isolationism becomes a form of genocide.” Wow! Yet this is essentially why I, after being raised as a pacifist Quaker, elected not to practice either pacifism or Quakerism; they simply are not feasible in the real world. The pacifist allows the bad guys to take over. An some point someone needs to stand up and make the rapists stop raping victims, the serial killer stop killing innocents, the rogue publishers stop ripping off writers. It does get ugly, but the alternative is uglier. We live in an imperfect world, and moral compromise is often necessary, distasteful as it may seem.

As I type this, the specter of a government shutdown looms, as the Republicans block the needed budget and raising of the debt limit to cover expenses already voted on. They evidently want to force the government to renege. They did this about 15 years ago, and wiped themselves out in the process; apparently they don't have good memories. This time they are trying to use it to defund Obamacare, but President Obama is standing firm, as he should. He tried making nice with the Republicans early on, and all they did was shit on him. I think his memory is solid. Why are they so desperate to stop Obamacare? Because they know that once it's in, the people will like it, as they like Medicare, which the Republicans opposed similarly. As they like Social Security, ditto. The idea of benefiting the common man makes Republicans apoplectic. Or, as the Thom Hartmann Blog said a couple months ago, it's because the Republican Party is a cult. Cult leaders put their members in physically or emotionally distressing situations to soften them up. They reduce complex problems to bumper stickers, and demand loyalty above all else to the cult. “Our president is fighting an uphill battle to restore vital programs that could put Americans back to work, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, and stimulate our struggling economy. For the sake of our nation, let's hope he can defeat the cult, and bring back the Great Society by enacting a new New Deal.”

RESIST (www.resistinc.org) funds obscure and less popular initiatives; I have mentioned it before. One of the outfits they support is the Trans Youth Support Network, which helps transgender youth. That is, those who feel they were born into the wrong bodies, such as a man in a woman's body or vice versa. “Young trans women of color, who are facing extreme violence and abuse in their lives, who are routinely attacked by strangers, lovers, police, and doctors, and then who are refused access to shelter, education, employment, and healthcare.” This is America, the Land of the Free, who crowns her good with brotherhood? If I ruled the world, it would be the bigots who get chastised, not folk who are different in one way or another. Of course you may then snidely ask, aren't the bigots born that way? But I say no, they choose that orientation.

Fewer teens are having babies. Are we suffering a recent surge of morality? Hardly. Newspaper article by Amanda Marcotte says that it is because they are now getting access to more efficient contraception. In California, for instance, the rate dropped from more than 70 births per 1,000 girls to 28. Conservative states, which oppose contraception, have higher rates; they substitute ideology for common sense. “Teens simply do better if they're given the tools to stay safe when they do have sex, and don't do as well with the 'just say no' message.” That reminds me of one of the things the US Army got right: about sex with locals, don't do it, but when you do, use this, and a kit to protect you from VD. Give the teens the message and the kit.

A twelve year old Florida girl, relentlessly bullied online, committed suicide. It's called cyber-bullying, and it's hard to escape. This one seems to have started because of a boy. Well, now they have identified 15 of the girls involved; I think they should be charged as accessories to murder. They knew what they were doing and they wouldn't stop. They even told her she should die. This sort of thing needs to be stopped.

The Sunday supplement PARADE had an article on heroism, and identified four characteristics of real-life heroes. 1. They abide by a moral code. 2. They've been trained to take action. 3. They're highly compassionate. 4. They perform ordinary acts of kindness. Can it really be that simple?

Article in the AARP magazine by Joe Conason is titled “My Lunch With Bill.” That's former President Clinton, who it seems has turned vegan: no meat, fish, or dairy products. He's doing it for his health, and it seems to be working. I'm vegetarian, using eggs and dairy products; vegan is the next step up, as it were. I respect the vegans, who have more dietary discipline than I do.

And NEW SCIENTIST has an article by Katia Moskvitch on the race for the world's cleanest fossil fuel supply. These are methane hydrates, hidden deep in the sea and lakes. They are all across the world; the problem is to get at them, maybe two miles under water. It could be a huge bonanza, and maybe ease global warming if hydrates replace polluting fossil fuels.

So after I caught up somewhat on reading and videos, what did I do? Back to the fun part of my life, writing stories for the next Relationships volume. Last month I wrote two, but there were more in the backlog, ideas that have been kicking around for months or a year that simply needed to be harvested before they spoiled. One notion turned out to be a story set, “Pro-Tem” and “Ad Hoc.” In the first a liberal young woman strikes up a conversation with a conservative older widower in the airport. She's going to visit her conservative father, whom she doesn't understand, and he's visiting his liberal son, ditto. They hope to come to some understandings so they can get along better. They argue cases about abortion and gay marriage, and impress each other. When the flight is canceled, she accepts his invitation to share his hotel room for the night, not for free; she insists on being his mistress pro-tem, to contribute her share, as she is broke. When he tries to politely demur, she flashes him with breast and thigh and he yields, as she is a very pretty girl. The sequel starts a year later: the one night stand has become a continuing affair, and they both hate to admit it, but they are in love. They can't marry, so he introduces her to his liberal son, with whom he now gets along better. Then it gets interesting. I like these stories because real social issues are explored. Then I wrote “Stress Club,” wherein a young man attends Sex 101 at college, and it's one wow of a course, taught by an hourglass figured woman who then takes him as a private lover. You haven't seen a course like this, where every participant becomes thoroughly experienced and proficient right there in the classroom. Teen male dream, of course, sexy as hell, at least at the beginning. I also wrote “Aztec Queen” for an anthology, wherein a nasty young woman cheats villainously to win a beauty contest, then learns the prize is not exactly what she thought. I will continue writing stories next month; I love it.

Until next month, hoping the government shutdown doesn't defund the internet--

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