I continue muddling along. I have a house guest now, who helps where she can, but mainly my daughter Cheryl keeps my course reasonably steady. I continue with the household routine, keep learning things I need to know now that my wife can’t handle them, like handling email and paying the bills, and I keep writing, of course. But in case anyone wonders whether being a widower is fun, no, it isn’t.
We watched Moana on the big TV. This is a Disney animation. This is a story of the south sea islands, wherein Moana, pronounced mo-Ana, the teen daughter of the chief, sets out almost alone to save her people from starvation because the local fish have run out. She has only a more or less cockeyed rooster for company. The seas are rough, and it's all she can do to survive, but she is determined. She encounters the demigod Mao, who once had the power to change forms thanks to his huge magic fishhook. But he lost the fishhook. She prevails on him to join her quest and they travel together, facing perilous threats. Mao manages to recover his fishhook, and that helps. But then they must brace the fiery goddess of the volcano. Moana nerves herself and goes to the goddess and gives her back her silver heart. That transforms her into a beneficial spirit, and she helps them accomplish their missions. There's no romance, no sex, no gruesome deaths. This may not seem like much, but I think it is the finest animation movie I've seen; it has adventure and heart and amazing realism, so that the animation does seem alive.
We watched Poms, wherein Martha, a woman of retirement age, comes to a retirement community and is immediately welcomed with more enthusiasm than she is really prepared for. She had thought to quietly acclimatize herself. One thing leads to another, and she decides to form a club for cheer-leading. Folk look askance, as this is considered to be an endeavor for teens, not grandmothers. She gathers seven more old women, and they practice, with problems of health and fitness and their own children who don't want them to embarrass themselves. Then they go to a contest, where the teen girls perform phenomenal acrobatic flips and tosses, wa-a-ay out of the seniors' league. They do embarrass themselves, banging into each other and falling. But they persist, and do finally compete, in their own set style, and in the end wow the crowd with their age-defined performance. But Martha turns out to have cancer, and she is dead within a year, leaving mainly a fond memory of what she accomplished. It is based on a true story, and I applaud it. I mean, cheerleading is supposed to be encouraging the audience to cheer the team, right? Who says the cheerleaders have to be sexy teens?
We watched Long Shot. This is humorous political with quite serious undertones. A woman runs for president, with a reasonable chance. She favors good causes, such as saving the environment, so naturally has difficult going. She hires a speechwriter three years her junior whom as a teen she babysat, and he has had a crush on her ever since. He has the touch, and her speeches are effective. She's driven and passionate, as politicians are, and when she gets a hankering for him, she promptly seduces him. When complications require her to back off her environmental stance, he resigns, being even more devoted to that than she is. But he still loves her, and she discovers she loves him. A political enemy manages to get a video of him masturbating to one of her speeches, and uses that to smear them. She finally publicly announces that she loves him, and wants him with her. So he masturbates; so does everyone, she says. She brings him back, they align on the environment, and succeed in forging on to victory. A nervy movie I doubt they could have made a generation ago. I like the environmental theme; we do need an about face on the politics of that.
I read Valkyrie: Darkness Awaits, by Mark McQuillen & Mara Reitsma. This is an 120,000 word fantasy, and only the first part of a continuing narrative. There's a huge cast of characters, and relationships are complicated. It is set in an alternate universe with a five thousand year history. Magic abounds. There are the Valkyrie women, who resemble Amazons, and Elves who resemble humans; Dwarves, and assorted other species, generally assuming human form, whose original forms can be dragons or even a ball of energy. Many are in the form of lovely women, and a number are eager for sex with human men or women, some of which is shown in fair detail. War is imminent, that will likely wipe out one side or the other; it has been building for some time, and some Valkyries have been corrupted and are sowing mischief, undermining the human cause. So there is real trouble brewing. One of the Good Guys is Gil Swanson, a human soldier. A Good Girl is Gil's niece Tisiphone, who has long been cooped up for her own education and safety, and savagely resents it. She uses a kind of magic mirror to see far-away events, and can travel in the blink of an eye, literally. Gradually we learn parts of what is going on, and uncover obscure relationships. A huge battle is about to occur. So there is a major story developing here. However, it is not ready to be published; it needs a competent copy-editor to harrow it into shape.
We went to Sea World, in Orlando, Florida. This is an amusement park as extensive as the others, with sights and rides, but focusing on the sea and its importance to the global environment, which focus I approve of. We went to the show at Shamu Stadium, where the orcas, otherwise known as killer whales, performed, leaping from the water, turning somersaults, and deliberately splashing the audience. I am concerned about whether captive animals of some intelligence really like being required to perform, but suspect they do like the splashing. Then we moved on to Antarctica, Empire of the Penguin, and saw the penguins virtually flying through the water, and saw videos of their life in the frozen wastes. We took a mock helicopter flight across the arctic, wherein the room became the helicopter and shook about as the front video showed a scary ride. It was remarkably effective; it did feel like perilous flying. We rode in one of their whirl-around boats on icy seas. We went on to admire the sharks, jellyfish, seals, and dolphins, and many-colored fish, and we ate at their restaurants. I of course also noticed the women visitors, who came in all shapes from intriguing to appalling. Overall it was a fun excursion, worth a day to assimilate.
We watched The Meg, a movie about a fearsome ancient shark freed from a deep section of the sea, somewhere between 75 and 90 feet long, whale sized. It has a seemingly insatiable hunger. They barely escape it, only to discover that a second one followed it to the surface. So there is likely to be continuing mischief.
We watched Isn't It Romantic, the madcap story of an overweight woman of about 40 who dreams of romance but knows it doesn't happen to the likes of her. Then a purse snatcher grabs her handbag, she fight him off, and walks into a post. She wakes in the hospital, then goes on to an odd adventure, with her dull messy room becoming splendid and a handsome man courting her. But she actually prefers a more ordinary friend, who gets taken by a more glamorous friend, and they are about to be married. She tries to stop that, then realizes that actually she loves herself, and lets him go. She collides again, and wakes back in the real world. So she acts, going after the man she likes, and discovers that his eyes have always been on her. So there is a happy conclusion after all. It culminates in a grand dance, with her as the central dancer midst the beauties, and actually it works. It's a fine dream. Why can't plain folk have dreams too? The pretty folk will not be nearly as pretty in twenty years, while the ones with character will still have it then. So this is a fun farce with a kernel of truth.
I read Werewolf Max and the Midnight Zombies by N A Davenport. This is part of a series for preteen children, simply told, with illustrations. It is theoretically horror, but not bad enough to really scare ten year olds; rather it educates them about the nature of the breed. Max is late getting home, and gets chased down and bitten by what he thinks is a big dog, but is actually a werewolf. Soon Max becomes a werewolf himself, with enhanced powers of sight and smell and hearing, and increased strength. He also heals rapidly. He can change to wolf form at any time, but then the kill lust is upon him and he might even attack his own family. Other werewolves clarify this for him, and guide him as he tackles zombies and fights banshees. Then he learns how to change form and remain in control, a great improvement, and shows the others how. By the end he is satisfied with his new condition. I enjoyed this short novel, and believe that children will also; it’s a fun read, the action is continuous, and I will move promptly on to the sequels.
And the first sequel is Werewolf Max and the Banshee Girl. A new girl, Keira, comes to Max’s school, and shares his class. She smells and looks like a banshee, one of the chalk-white, midnight-black haired females whose scream can knock out werewolves. Yet she seems almost like a regular girl. He joins a Halloween project with her, and when working on it she meets his little sister Maddie, who likes her. That makes Max nervous; banshees are as dangerous as werewolves. He tries to spy on Keira, but doesn’t learn much. Then the banshees strike, abducting Maddie—and Keira helps him rescue her. Then the werewolves corner Keira, and Max diverts them so she can escape. Now Keira is in trouble with the banshees and Max is in trouble with the werewolves. Can the two of them actually become friends? Future novels in the series should clarify the answer. I liked this novel, and found it compelling: preteens should like it too. In it we learn how banshees are made, which is different from the way werewolves do it by biting.
Then the prequel, Lost in the Graveyard. This concerns Max’s friend Tim, who got out of control and bit him, making Max a werewolf too. That’s a hazard for werewolves: they get wild and can’t control themselves. Tim, as a human boy, gets left alone in a graveyard by bad boys. Zombies emerge and attack him; werewolves attack the zombies, and Tim accidentally gets bitten. Then he has to learn how to behave as a werewolf, lest he go wild and kill his family. He discovers that he heals extremely rapidly, and has phenomenal strength; when he strikes a stout tree branch, he breaks it right off the tree. At the end he meets Max and they become friends; later they will both be part of the same werewolf pack. Overall I like this series very well, and recommend it to adults who prefer their horror mild instead of Jalapeno style, as well as to children. Threats of death abound, but are mostly escaped. We gain some sympathy for werewolves, and maybe even for some banshees: they are people too. But zombies, not so much.
Daniel Daly, for whom I wrote my essay relating to If There Is a God, asked me to write him a snail mail letter of substance for his collection. I pondered a month, then wrote and sent him this:
I have views on a number of things, but perhaps most important to me is the question of the state of our world today. I feel that mankind is overrunning it, driving other species to extinction, and destroying the environment in several ways. This needs to be halted or reversed, but I fear that the powers that be are locked into greed and denial, sacrificing tomorrow for seeming wealth today. They like to say that Malthus was wrong, in his prediction of disaster if our course does not change, but I believe he was right, and that the world as we know it today is doomed unless we make what amounts to a U-turn soon. The seas, lakes, and rivers are polluted, killing fish; the sky is polluted, killing birds; the land is polluted, surely killing us in due course. Our failure to stop the juggernaut of overpopulation will lead to mass starvation as resources are exhausted, and the likely inheritors will be the rats, the roaches, and the germs.
What can be done? Many things, but the more pertinent question is what will be done. One aspect is food: the mass consumption of meat is causing a significant portion of the damage, as forests are cleared to make pastures for cows, pigs, hens, and other creatures raised only to be slaughtered for food. Antibiotics to keep them healthy are leaking into the environment, causing resistant strains to develop, spoiling the effect, so that the original treatments no longer work, and the risk of plagues increases. However, progress is being made as plant-based meat imitations are developed, equivalent to the original in appearance, texture, and nutrition, and there is hope that within a decade or so the animal slaughter industry will be driven out of business.
Another aspect is the use of fossil fuels. These pollute and heat the sky so that it becomes unhealthy to breathe in cities and elsewhere, and warm the planet so that the climate is affected, causing deleterious changes to animal and plant life. The seas are rising as the ice of the poles and mountain glaciers melts, and those dependent on the waters of formerly stable rivers will suffer as they slowly dry up. Storms are becoming increasingly savage in some areas, while some formerly damp areas are drying up, becoming deserts.
I may focus on energy, in my quest to do my part to ameliorate the damage we are doing to the world. Some say that nuclear power is the only way to go, but aspects of that are downright dangerous, considering its toxic waste and the efforts of terrorists. Some say solar or wind, and these are good, but not reliable for steady power unless superior battery storage is developed. Some say plant power, such as burning wood or processing fuel from compost, but these deprive the world of organic material that we need for food. So I think the one ultimately best bet is geothermal, in which wells drill down to where the interior is hot, and use that heat to generate the power we need. It is non-polluting and inexhaustible. The challenge is to get to it and pipe it out. A place like Yellowstone Park has that heat near the surface, but elsewhere the heat is deeper, perhaps miles down. We need to develop better drilling technology, so that the drilling itself doesn't waste energy and pollute the environment. We also need to be careful not to destabilize the ground in the manner of fracking. So there are challenges, but I suspect this is the best long-term solution.
Even if food and energy are solved, the problem of overpopulation remains. We need to cut our numbers to a tenth or so, and as yet I see no kind way to accomplish that. So that's an essay for another time.
I received a letter from Grace Norvell of the Policy Lab team, on a similar subject. She told me in part “As you know, spending time in nature can have massive positive effects on an individual’s both mental and physical health. Our society is now so dependent on smart phones and other digital avenues for interaction and communication, but with this there have been some troubling repercussions. There is no doubt that growth in technology has produced many great things for us, but with this we have also experienced spikes in both mental and physical disease.” So they are performing nature and gardening clinical trials, looking to dive deeper into the research behind the positive effects of individuals interacting with nature. Their web site is Clinical trials on the positive effects of gardening and experincing nature.
I have been returning to nature in my own limited fashion. Since my wife died we have been engaged in massive housecleaning, and this month got to the garage and the pool. Now the garage holds two cars instead of one car and junk. The pool returned to nature long ago — we discovered that 80 degrees may be hot for air but it is cold for water to swim in — and was colonized by algae and frogs. We caught a bucketful of tadpoles and I took them to the nearby lake. Now we are filling it in with dirt, and I expect to make it into a protected sunken garden. Will it require a full greenhouse to shield it from the hungry flower-consuming forest animals, caterpillars, the chill of winter and the heat of summer? We’ll see.
Interesting and somewhat alarming column in the January 2020 issue of LOCUS, “Inaction is a Form of Action” by Cory Doctorow. It describes the insidious ways that American free speech can be curtailed by private corporations with plenty of money. For example, a curtailed-speech restaurant can buy out its competition, so if you have no choice except to eat there you can’t talk politics. Also, professional internet trolls can learn the nuances of the rules and exploit them. “That means that the rules intended to catch bad conduct will only stop amateur trolls – and innocent people.” “The US government has made very few laws regarding speech online, and yet we live in an environment that has been very toxic to speech itself.” “We are now in a speech environment where power is so concentrated that the whims of a half-dozen tech execs determine—for all intents and purposes—who may speak and what they may say.” He recommends that Net Neutrality should be reinstated. “Because inaction in the face of danger is a form of action.” Yes, I was sorry to see Net Neutrality go, knowing that was mischief. We are indeed losing our freedoms, and if we are not sheep we do not want to be herded into the corral for fleecing or butchering. I have always been a goat among sheep, getting in trouble for not going along with the herd. Don’t be a sheep.
We watched Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, which I think may be the finest animation movie I’ve seen. I really liked Moana, but I think this is even better. I understand it was a massive box office flop, maybe because it wasn’t standard fare. A man much like Jesus has been in prison for years, though the people adore him. Then he is released, but when he refuses to sign a paper renouncing all his beliefs, they execute him. This happened to Jesus and I think to other prophets: the powers that be don’t like getting the masses riled up with other values than submission to authority. Along the way is a cute little girl who refuses to talk, and her lovely mother. The girl meets the Prophet, who teaches her how to imagine things like flying with the birds, and she finally begins to talk, first only to him, then generally. There is absolutely beautiful dancing. There are special animation effects, not to make it look like real life, but to show the kind of wonderful art pure animation can generate. The whole thing is a marvelous work of art, and I recommend it to anyone with a mind and feelings. Too bad there aren’t more such folk extant.
I have been getting behind on my reading, thanks to complications in my life as I try to orient on what remains of my future, which means this column is shorter that recent ones, but I do have some notes. Article by a dentist in the local newspaper titled “Fluoride key to protecting health.” The hell it is; the opposite is the case, but it would be useless to try to argue with one who thinks he knows. Political cartoon on Jamboree 23 has two parts. The first shows Arlingthon cemetery gravestones, labeled “Gave their lives for their country.” The second part shows the Senate GOP, labeled “Gave their country for Trump’s lies.” Macanudo cartoon for Jamboree 1 shows Theseus facing the monstrous Minataur, asking “Does it help if I tell you I’m vegan?” Solicitation from cfi Center For Inquiry says in part “Sociologists have found that the more a population clings to religion the more likely it is to suffer a wide range of social dysfunctions. Within countries and within states in the United States, a high degree of religious belief predicts poor outcomes relative to average income, income inequality, homicide, incarceration rates, healthfulness such as longevity, and other similar measures. As to out-of-wedlock births, the two states with the highest rate are Mississippi and Louisiana, which are among the top states for church attendance.” Newspaper column by high school senior Renata Happle for 1-30-2020 titled “We need real-world sex ed” says that a friend of hers is suffering from chlamydia and HPV that she might have avoided had schools taught sex education. “Forty-one percent of teens are sexually active” but schools not only don’t teach safe sex, they actively prevent it from being taught there. Shame on them. Newspaper item 1-18-2020 says that a study shows that high speed jet air dryers disperse 20 times more germs than paper towels. And here I thought the air blowers were sanitary! Item in THE WEEK for January 17 2020 says not to count on electric cars. Until they can go hundreds of miles without refueling, and doing so easily, at comparable cost, they are essentially toys. Damn: I was counting on them. WASHINGTON SPECTATOR for October 1, 2019 (I told you I was behind on my reading) says that a handful of conservative billionaires, Christian leaders, and Media Barons are holding democracy in the US hostage. It does make the case. Newspaper letter says that General Soleimani went to Iraq on a peace mission, and was assassinated because the powers that be in America don’t want peace in the middle east. Could that be true?
THE WEEK reprinted an article from THE ATLANTIC titled “Learning to accept your decline,” by Arthur Brooks. Its thesis is that the happiness of most adults falls through their 30s and 40s and bottoms out in their early 50s. Then for most folk contentment increases until about age 70; thereafter it is mixed. Some stay steady, some get happier until death, but others, especially men, see their happiness plummet. Depression and suicide rates for men increase after age 75. Giftedness and early achievements are not insurance against later suffering. The waning of ability is especially brutal psychologically. “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,” race car driver Alex Dias Ribeiro wrote. The end of success is the end of the line, and many die of bitterness, or search for more success somewhere else and are unhappy when that is elusive. Charles Darwin of evolution fame is cited as an example: he stagnated later in life and was depressed. J S Bach the composer is another example, managing to avoid depression by becoming an instructor. Others just have to accept their inevitable decline. In creative careers success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career, on average. “Decline is inevitable, and it occurs earlier than almost any of us wants to believe.” But if we accept it, we will be less unhappy. Okay, I have been a full time pro writer for 54 years, a bestseller in the 1980s, and am still writing today. Have I lost my edge and don’t know it? I don’t think so, but I could be in denial. As far as I can tell, my imagination and writing skill remain at the level they were in the past. But this study makes me nervous. Readers of this monthly column and my recent Xanth novels will surely let me know whether I am an exception or deluded.
Let me conclude with an example of what it is like to be alone. I received a call I wanted to answer, but in a Senior Moment I couldn’t remember which button on the phone to push. So it went to the answering machine. So I typed the other party an email to explain, and tried to send it — and it glitched, saying I had entered a wrong password. What? I didn’t enter any password: I didn’t need to, as I had already sent other emails that day. We finally emailed on another phone Daughter Cheryl, away in Orlando, who then handled it. Then it turned out that my letter had gotten through, despite the error message. And my afternoon was chewed up, when I was trying to complete this column and do key letters. I started the day with plenty of time to spare, but finished jammed. All because I couldn't find the usual button on the phone. As I like to put it, I have no belief in the supernatural, and glitches from left field are that, so the supernatural constantly gets back at me like this, even by faking error messages.
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