Sometimes there's a question about just what I'm doing in this column. It's a sort of blog-type effort where I review books I read and videos I view, then discuss news items I pick up on and thoughts as they occur to me. It's an informal kind of thing, not intended to be particularly impressive; it's just a window into my ongoing contemporary existence. I'm a politically independent, religiously agnostic, vegetarian novelist and storyist, generally satisfied to leave the opinions of others alone, but capable of cutting comments when pushed. It's really all about me, even the reviews. Nobody has to read it, and those who do are welcome to skip past paragraphs on things that don't interest them. At such time as I kick the bucket, this will serve as a record of my last decade or more of whatever. Is that clear now? I didn't think so. Ah, well. Carry on.
I watched ULTIMATE DINOSAUR COLLECTION, about 8 hours of DVD video I got early last year but waited until I had time to view it. This is a BBC production, a series of TV shows collected, and it's phenomenal. It brings the entire age of dinosaurs to life, from their precursors to their destruction, and it covers the air and sea creatures too. I have had an interest in dinosaurs since I wrote Orn, my dinosaur novel, but that was over 40 years ago and much has been learned since then. Individuals are personalized, so we follow the life history of a pteranodon and of an allosaur and really come to feel for them in their rough lives. Part of it is personalized another way: a contemporary man travels back in time to visit the seven deadliest seas of the past 450 million years or so, actually interacting with dinosaurs. That's science fiction, of course, but effective. This satisfies me that had it not been for the meteor strike, the dinosaurs would still govern Earth; the mammals would not have been able to displace them. For my taste there is not a dull moment in this presentation, and I recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in past times. There is also a brief feature describing how they made it, that is interesting too.
I read Valley of Monsters by Keith Robinson, the seventh in the Island of Fog series. This is another good one, well crafted and hard hitting. The author thought he'd write a trilogy, then it burst its manacles and became a series. I know how that happens; this year I'll be writing the 40th Xanth novel, in what was supposed to be a singleton rather than a series. In this one protagonist Hal, the dragon boy, struggles with the werewolf his body is trying to become as the result of a werewolf bite. The wolf is growing stronger, almost seeming to have a mind of its own, not caring that Hal prefers to be a dragon. When he tries to transform to dragon form while the wolf is manifesting, in an effort to override the ailment, he becomes a hairy messed up wolf type dragon. Ouch! There appears to be no cure, unless he wants to give up shape-shifting entirely. Meanwhile he and his friends are trying to locate long-lost twin sphinx shape changers who don't want to be sphinxes; in fact that's one reason they hid. Both quests become tense. I was impressed by the depth of the characterization; issues are not black and white, but shades of gray with no certain answers. I recommend this book along with its predecessors; Keith Robinson is still gaining strength as a novelist. I suspect that part of the reason traditional publishing is fading is because it had no interest in publishing material like this, and now the staid old order can be bypassed.
I watched the BBC video EARTH The Biography, a scant four hours of surprisingly interesting descriptions and analysis of aspects of our planet. Such as volcanoes: it makes a convincing case that without them we would not exist. You see it's volcanoes, and their larger roots as tectonic circulation, that formed the continents; otherwise the planet would by covered with water, nothing projecting up for us to stand on. Ice: it has shaped our land surfaces. Meteor strikes: as mentioned above, without their devastating impacts we would not be here. We owe what we are to these huge slow forces (well, a meteor strike is not slow at the moment of impact, okay), and they are well worth knowing about. Which ties in to something I mentioned before: Fermi's Paradox. Charlie Geilfuss clarified for me that this is the question of why, given the billions of planets that surely exist that will support life, so that there should be thousands or even millions of intelligent alien civilizations in our galaxy, why haven't we heard from any or seen any evidence of their existence? Okay, I had heard of that question; I just didn't know its name. Well, giving the amazing coincidences that contributed to the development of intelligent life on Earth, on which not even a hundredth of one percent of time has intelligent life existed, if you had millions of identical Earths, probably very few would have intelligent life an any given time. Mostly they would be ruled by dinosaurs, or plant life, or bacteria, and such things don't send out message to other planets. Also, if such civilizations do exist, and don't destroy themselves within thousands of years as we are trying to, it could take up to a hundred thousand years, even at light speed, for any such message to reach us. Maybe it's still on the way. So I see no paradox. Let's wait that hundred thousand years, and if there's still no alien word, or evidence of alien-made planetary destruction, then we can reconsider. We just have to be patient.
In the first week of Jamboree I took time to catch up on DVDs, as described above, then on the 7th started writing the short novel—about 42,000 words—Neris. This is “siren” spelled backwards, a notion I had while reading the Sunday Prince Valiant comic, wherein sirens are luring the men to their likely doom. Suppose, I thought, there were a sirens who summoned not men but women? Would that be a reverse siren, a neris? Well, in the novel I have the sea god Nereus summoning a mortal woman, breeding her, and sending her home with one of his 50 daughters, a lovely nude nereid sea nymph, to help her raise her half-god son Neris. You see, Nereus is fed up with two things: human fossil fuel pollution of his deep sea habitat, and having no male heir. I mean, fifty daughters in succession? It's time for a change. So Neris will grow up to tackle pollution, and have to fight the human powers that be who are busy profiteering from polluting the world via untempered fossil fuels. He enlists the help of Ouroborus, the giant serpent who rings the world, holding his tail in his mouth, and Siphon, a siren who preys on men by luring them into sex with her, then sucking out their blood via their trapped penis. She's beautiful, but really not what you would call a nice girl. To get her help he first has to conquer her, so it's a challenge. Neris can sing to lure women the way Siphon does to lure men, so it's an interesting encounter. So there are things happening in this adult novel, which I expect to self publish this year. With luck it will stir a storm of protest from fossils of more than one persuasion. You thought I was becoming less ornery in my fossilage? No such luck.
Came Fecal Sample time again, testing for occult blood. I hate it despite the implication of the supernatural. Every year it seems to get more complicated. To avoid false positives I had to go on a diet excluding bananas, apples, and many other wholesome foods, and stay off Vitamin C. Then the collection apparatus, which was a sort of half bowl put over the toilet. It seemed impossible to do anything without making a feculent mess. Then I realized that I had it backwards: the half bowl went on the back half of the toilet bowl, not the front half, so as to catch the poop without catching the pee. (Sorry about the language; this is a dirty business.) Then poke into the stuff with a popsickle stick, twice, for two samples per defecation, three different days. I got through it, but it reminded me of the story about blowing eggs, you know, to have the empty shells for decorations. The instructor said “First, perforate the apex end of the egg. Next, do the same for the basal end. Then, applying the lips to the basal aperture, by forcefully exhaling the breath discharge the egg of its contents.” Grandma leaned over and whispered “It sure is complicated now! When I was a girl we just poked a hole in each end and blowed.” Unfortunately that doesn't work well with fecal samples.
We subscribe to two newspapers, THE TAMPA BAY TIMES and THE CITRUS COUNTY CHRONICLE for bay area and local news, respectively. Daughter Cheryl works at the CHRONICLE, so we sort of have to keep up with it. The same deliverer handles both papers, and I think others. One morning instead of the CHRONICLE we got THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. Huh? So we called in—and the man was glad to hear from us. The papers had been running late, and he was up much of the night sorting them, and knew when he had to deliver the JOURNAL that he'd put it in the wrong box. But which one? Our call identified it. He came immediately and we swapped newspapers. Now he could take the JOURNAL to where it belonged. How often do you call in a complaint, only to be welcomed like that?
Amanda “Kei” Andrews, in Germany, sent me her analysis of my story “In the Barn,” which she hopes to include in due course as part of her doctoral thesis. That's the story, for those who may have forgotten it, featuring large breasted bare girls as cows being milked in the dairy barn. It was first published in Harlan Ellison's Again Dangerous Visions, 1972, later republished in my collection Anthonology. I wrote it as an exercise in perspective: should we really be treating animals this way? Critics dismissed it as “vegetarian fiction” or in one case, Piers Anthony covering himself in shit. (Maybe he was anticipating my occult blood fecal sample experience?) It's the kind of review attention I get, if I get any at all, and is a reason I tend to hold critics in contempt; they seldom seem to pick up on what I write, merely on what they have decided a frivolous fantasy writer should write. Well, now at last someone understands the story. She sent me the paper, which I think may be longer than the story itself. It is titled Piers Anthony's “In the Barn”: A Case for Animal Rights. It thoroughly analyzes every aspect of the story, showing how its theme and terminology make the case that what we are doing is abusive, as the simple substitution of one mammal for another in the barn demonstrates. Would you want your baby daughter placed in a dark isolation tank, her thumbs bound so they well never be properly opposed for proper dexterity, her tongue cut so she will never properly speak, her brain systematically denied stimulation so she will never have full human intelligence? But well fed with a diet calculated to give her healthy mammaries so she will grow up to be a fine placid milker? Oh, that would bother you? But it's okay to do similar to bovines? I have to say that my story really shines with the potent analysis that points up all its details as if they are works of genius. I suspect that the genius is mostly in the analysis. I love it, of course, and hope Amanda makes it through to her doctorate. But she does remind me of questions. I have been an ovo-lacto vegetarian for 60 years because I don't like hurting animals, and killing hurts them. But I figured that cows and hens can be well treated, so I use their products. I grew up on a goat farm, and the milking goats were my friends, and later I owned two myself. We also had chickens, and treated them well too. But the more I see of the way commercial farming treats them, as in my story, the more I have to wonder. Should I turn vegan, eschewing all animal products? That's something I will ponder.
From time to time I have reported on my experiences as a duffer archery practitioner. For about 18 years I have loosed arrows at a target, never at an animal, as part of my exercise regimen. I don't need to have great accuracy; the arm strength required for a miss is the same as for a score. Still, it has been dismaying to see my scores progress from so-so to abysmal. My last session, wherein I count plus one for each arrow that hits the one foot square target center, and minus one for each one that misses the target entirely, was 0-10 right handed, and 0-11 left handed. I use the same bow, right and left, since my left side bows are defunct. But my equipment is getting old and worn, especially the arrows; I constantly have to refletch, and they as constantly get torn up again in the forest foliage. A badly fletched arrow does not go where it is aimed; that's a major problem. Typically I lose one or two per session, which means spending another half hour searching for them, using metal detector or weed hook to find the ones buried in the ground. A lot of my time is being wasted, and it only threatens to get worse. I suppose I could buy new equipment, and that would help for a while. My wife suggested that I finally give it up, and I think she's right. I will still use the bow for exercise, drawing it 20 times a day, but that's it. I still have the rest of my exercise program, with the running, cycling, and hand weights. I regret it, but let's face it, at age 79 I'm not going to have a brave new experience in archery. Of course that example leaves the question of sex, with my potentials wearing down similarly...
We live in the forest, in part because I like trees and other plants, and the wild animals. When a little volunteer mulberry tree was in danger of getting run over, I transplanted it to a safe place, where it wasn't much safer, because a damn hit and run car cut through our yard and mowed it down, but a smaller companion stem survived. We put up posts to stop any such traffic, and now that stem has grown into a teen age tree maybe 15 feet tall. In 1988 we inherited a potted Christmas Cactus flower from my wife's father; I set it in the pool enclosure until I could find a good place to transplant it, but then when I went to do that it had rooted to the floor. So I left it there, and it thrived for two decades, producing as many as a hundred flowers at a time. But not this year; it gets eaten down at night by a rogue animal. I rescued a severed branch and planted it in a pot, and it too thrived, but then it too got eaten down. So now two remaining twigs are transplanted to the kitchen windowsill, where they seem happy. Every plant has its story. This year I noticed five little plants in the forest that looked familiar, and finally identified them as belonging to the begonia family. Maybe they are poor cousins without fancy flowers, but I still wish them the best. Until two were abruptly gone, evidently eaten off; we do have wild rabbits here, and deer, and opossums and armadillos. Sigh; what could I do? So I dug up one of the survivors, and it is now in a planter on the kitchen windowsill beside the Christmas Cactus and a little ivy. With luck it will prosper there, and in time we'll find out exactly what it is.
Daughter Penny, who died four years ago, used to give me flannel shirts for birthdays and Christmas, until I had about 50 extra shirts. Mainly I used T-shirts, as Florida is warm, so the 50 were neglected. But this past month we've had some un-Florida-like cold days, so now I am wearing those flannel shirts. They're nice, but they keep reminding me of Penny. I'd gladly take another 50 shirts if only she lived again. Sigh.
I try to answer my fan mail responsively, and indeed, I have learned much from my fans over the decades, though the effort, in its several ramifications such as the weekly letter to paralyzed Jenny and correspondence related to my ongoing survey of electronic publishers, costs my perhaps a third of my working time. As I see it, every person who writes to me is another human being, deserving of the courtesy of a response. Some correspondents have become collaborators, and we have novels in print. One such is J R Rain; we've done several recent short novels together, the most recent ones being Dragon Assassin and Dolfin Tayle. Another was the late Roberto Fuentes, who got me into judo and thus my exercise program, and the Jason Striker martial arts series of novels; he changed my life. Others can take odd turns. I was discussing movies with an aspiring scriptwriter, and it seemed that our tastes were completely opposite. I wondered academically whether there were any movies we both would like. So we started exchanging VHS and later DVD videos, and it turned out that there is an overlap, actually a fairly substantial group in the center. A number of the videos I have reviewed in this column over the months were borrowed from her. We have each introduced the other to movies we would not otherwise have chosen, and generally (there are exceptions) enjoyed them; it's a broadening experience. If I ever meet her, I'll take her to a movie, provided we can agree on which one. There are many others, scattered around the world; they're great people. But some, perhaps inadvertently, abuse it. I don't guarantee to answer any particular fan more than once, but usually I do. Then there was one who had many good ideas about Xanth, which I duly noted for possible use in future novels. But when he required a dozen letters in a month, each taking about half an hour of my time, it was too much of a good thing and I had to call a halt. Such a step is never pleasant for me, but as with the archery, I have to decide where my time is best spent. Over the years similar cutoffs have occurred, almost inevitably with hurt feelings; in one case the person's psychologist wrote to me to ask me to continue the correspondence. I asked the psychologist whether he worked for free, as I had expended about two thousand dollars of my working time on that one correspondent, and I was not exaggerating. Another reader was so affronted when I cut him off that he came to Florida, rented a car, and drove by my house, then wrote me a letter criticizing my yard. Years later he reconsidered, and attended a book signing where he apologized, and we shook hands. There was one who sent me daily hundred page letters, and one who emailed me every day for a year with comments like “You're looking great today.” Some folk seem just to want to take my time. But I'm old, not certain how much longer I have, and I am running the household because my wife is infirm, and my spare time is precious. I don't take vacations or days off; I just set aside blocks of time for different things. So it can be complicated, practically and emotionally. But if I did not set reasonable limits, my time would in due course be entirely consumed by the folk who don't set such limits, and feel they are entitled to my time without limit. Understand, there are no bad guys here, just more good guys than I can keep up with. I am a novelist rather than a correspondent; that's just the way it is.
I read the health newsletter Alternatives, by Dr. David Williams, drdavidwilliams.com, because its the best out of maybe a dozen I have tried over the years. If you're interest in your health, as I am, I suggest that you look it up. The January 2014 issue discusses statins, whose use is dramatically increasing, and this discussion satisfies me that I don't ever want to go on statins. One point he makes is about statistics: say a statin regimen reduces heart problems by 25%, that's a recommendation, right? But if only four folk per year of a hundred have heart problems, and statins reduce them to three a year, sure that's a 25% reduction, but it really saves only one of a hundred, a much less impressive figure. Meanwhile 20-30 percent of all statin users will develop diabetes, a true one in four chance. Treating type 2 diabetes (the less devastating kind), considering the ballooning cost of drugs, is apt to cost as much as $50,000 a year. Is this a racket? “Every individual with type 2 diabetes becomes a potential ATM machine that spits out money for a lifetime.” That's brilliant marketing, if you're a drug company; not so much if you're an ordinary person whose well-meaning doctor puts you on statins. Especially if you don't have comprehensive insurance. That's not all. If you regularly exercise, as I do, there's a 25% chance you will experience muscle achiness or fatigue, rising to 75% among competing athletes. They are actually experiencing muscle damage which will likely take them out as competitors. Other statin side effects include memory and cognition impairment, stomach pain, diarrhea, depression, irritability, liver damage, sexual dysfunction (ouch!), osteoporosis, nerve damage, and a higher risk of cancer. Would you want to pay $50,000 a year for that? So is there an alternative—this being the newsletter of alternatives—to statins? Yes. One prospect is choline, part of the Vitamin B complex, which is involved in the formation of cell membranes, protects against cardiovascular disease, and is essential to general health. The details of its operation are complicated but persuasive. Modern dietary changes have contributed to a reduction of choline in the diet, leading indirectly to mischief. The minimum dietary intake has been set at 550 mg per day for men and 425 for women, and probably the ideal dose is much higher. But the average American intake is about 350 mg a day. The best sources are mainly off my diet, like turkey heart and chicken liver, but also wheat germ and egg yolks. Choline is a component of lecithin, and lecithin granules can help supplement it in the diet economically. I plan to. If you're one of my readers, I want to keep you around, so I hope you consider it too. Don't take my word; do your own spot research. It might significantly extend your health and life. (I buy my vitamins and such by mail order from Swanson, www.swansonvitamins.com, because it's reliable and the cheapest source, sometimes a tenth of the store price for things, but there are surely other good sources. A bottle of Sunflower Lecithin granules, a month's supply, runs about ten dollars there.)
I try the chess puzzles in the daily newspaper, but they are becoming increasingly unedited. Once recently there were two white kings; I checkmated one, but the keyed answer was to checkmate the other. They can overlook simple solutions in favor of complicated ones. Here's a sample from January 18, 2014: the challenge is for White to win Black's Queen. Okay, the keyed solution does that. But my solution is mate on the move, which is surely better. Those who can access that day's problem can verify this. Try Qe6 mate. See what I mean? Surely I am not the only one actually paying attention here.
Newspaper article by Jennifer Berman January 19, 2014, mentions that fluoride is linked to hypothyroidism (in English = low thyroid function, a condition I have; one pill a day abates both my fatigue and depression); that's just one more reason to avoid the supposed benefits of fluoridation. But another thing in the article makes me wonder: the author was told to wait half an hour after eating to brush her teeth, and not to brush more than twice daily, lest she destroy the enamel. I brush my teeth four times a day, on my dentist's recommendation. I'd like to know more about this, as all my efforts to save my teeth seem to have resulted mainly in ever-more expensive remedial treatments, currently five more implants. I have long suspected that standard dental recommendations are calculated to extract the most money from patients rather than actually promote healthy teeth, and it seems to have been working on me. Had I this to do over from the start, I surely would have gone to full dentures early on.
Other notes: Farewell column January 19 by Robyn Blumner, a liberal I generally read, in secret part because her picture reminds me of my daughter Penny. It seems she's an atheist (I'm agnostic, but the distinction is technical; we're fellow travelers) and mentions Richard Dawkins, author of many science books and The God Delusion, and quotes him saying that an atheist just takes modern skepticism about prior gods Thor or Baal one god further. Beautiful! Another article promotes the benefits of fasting, which it seems go beyond weight loss. I'm skeptical. Another article says that when someone loses a family member, don't ever compare. That is, don't say “I lost a child myself, so I know how you feel.” Well, I did lose a child, and I remember one reader response, of many, telling how when he lost his wife the pain slowly faded, but every so often something would make it flare up again. That helped, in part because that's exactly how it is. So I reject that advice, and will continue to draw an any similar experiences I may have had when relating to the pain of others. It can really help when you know a person is not just repeating a bland encouragement from a book, but has actually been there. Which matter of losses in turn suggests a recent local case: a man was texting in a movie theater, before the main feature came on, and that so annoyed the man sitting behind him that finally he pulled a gun and shot him dead. Sure you shouldn't text during a movie, but neither should you kill folk who annoy you. And an article commenting on advocating Do What You Love, pointing out that this is feasible only for the rich; the rest of us have to grub at whatever we can to survive. Another article remarks on how rich people really do think they're superior, rather than just lucky. Amen! So they blame the poor for being jobless, when there are too few jobs to be had. And Michael Moore, who says Obamacare is awful, essentially because it caters to the greedy insurance industry; I have to agree. He says we should work toward a single payer Medicare-for-all model. I agree. Obamacare is a compromise, the best that could be done in the present people-be-damned political/economic environment. But it's a step, and if we can build toward something better, so much the better. But getting the greed-heads out will be a long, slow, frustrating process. And an article from Bloomberg.com, reprinted in THE WEEK, says that though liberals long for a single-payer system, to get rid of the insurance companies, they aren't the cause of the rising health care costs. It's doctors, hospitals, and drug companies. Insurance has a 2.2 percent return on revenue, but drug companies make 16-20 percent, and doctors are more likely than any other profession to have incomes in the top 1 percent. They simply have too much power in America. So while an average MRI costs $363 in France, it costs $1,211 in America. I think that health care should be to help folk survive, not to make millionaires at the expense of ordinary folk. It should not be your money or your life.
Pete Seeger died, age 94. He was a popular folk singer who got blacklisted for his leftist leanings. I think time has proved him largely right and the bigots who rejected him wrong. He sang at my college in the 1950s, and I remember him singing a forbidden song titled “I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war.” Nobody would publish such an unpatriotic song? What the hell is wrong with wanting peace, even if the big munitions industries do make fortunes from a chronic state of war? I'm not a pacifist, and I do think there are occasions when war is the only feasible answer, such as when Nazi Germany tried to take over Europe and kill all the Jews, Gypsies, and gays. But to blacklist a song for advocating peace? I'm disgusted. I think Seeger was a fair singer and a good man.
While I' m writing a novel, other things tend to wait. I have half a slew of videos that came in from several sources, and several books too. I hope to catch up on them in FeBlueberry, my way of taking time off, so if you don't like spot reviews, skip the next HiPiers Column.
|Click here to read previous newsletters
|Home | What's New | Newsletter
Internet Publishing | Books | Xanth
Awards | Links | Email Us