The Ogre’s Den image
Piers gets his first smartphone
Piers gets his first smartphone, August 2022

SapTimber 2022

HI –

This month, the bored ogres take a break from intimidating dragons and have at innocent forests, tying knots in the trunks of saplings and smashing mature trees into kindling for fires, making their sap fly. For some reason trees don't really like ogres any better than dragons do, especially when the ogres are having fun.

I turned 88 in AwGhost, and seem to be in reasonable health after recovering from a heart condition and a siege of covid. MaryLee and I have been married over two years and are not planning on quitting any time soon. We never did have a honeymoon, though if the pandemic ever abates we might travel a bit. As I think I have commented before, a Chinese curse is “May you live in interesting times.” We do, as perhaps these monthly columns of mine reflect. Other men my age are retired or dead; I won't do the first, but am not keen either on the other.

If any of you are interested in MaryLee herself, or want to see more pictures of our garden, or to read some of her poems and flash fiction, check out her blog: Dreams of the Purple Koala at murimccage.wordpress.com.

I know the Internet is the big thing these days, but I still keep an eye on regular paper catalogs. I put in an order to AMERICANS SCIENCE & SURPLUS for ten items, and now I am slowly digesting them. The 2x to 3x glasses I'm using, as my old eyes don't see small print as well as they used to. After a few tries I got the nice big yo-yo to work. I unfolded the Mylar blanket, and it's nice, but now I face a challenge to get it folded again. The digital stopwatch is nice; I'll be using it to time my exercise walks. I got the classic drinking bird to work, sort of, after many tries, and think I have figured out its secret: it moves the same without the water to poke its beak into, while a bubble is released at its rear when that rises the correct amount. So it farts internally, letting the heavier fluid return to its place, shifting the balance. But the scientific calculator needs a new battery, and I have one, but haven't figured out how to install it. Ditto for the white digital futuristic LED watch they had for $9.50; I love its look, but how to get a battery in befuddles me. I have to unscrew the screws, but they are microscopic, while my tools are tool sized. As I have mentioned, I'm old, I come from another century, and am still confused by aspects of this one in a way the natives aren't. Is Fate telling me that I should have stayed in my own century? Which reminds me deviously how I teased my first wife, Carol, about fifty years later: I said she was 19 when I married her, but she didn't STAY nineteen. Which in turn reminds me, as deviously, of a cartoon I like, that said that Chad was disappointed to learn that the new see-through nightie he bought his wife didn't work. She was posing in front of him, shapely as anything, but he couldn't see the TV game through her. Men can have unrealistic expectations, especially those with the intellects of ogres.

I stopped reading and reviewing novels in 2021 when they squeezed out my writing time. I used to have more time to keep up with things, but my life complicated when my long-term wife Carol died late in 2019 and sacrifices had to be made. But after I finished writing my latest Xanth novel,Three Novel Nymphs, I took a break and readDragon Dance, by Jordan Zlotolow. It is the third in a fantasy trilogy. I read the first,Dragon Blade, late in 2015, and the second,Dragon Flute, early in 2019. Here the protagonist is Prince Ralius Bloom, who has more or less retired to another world, ours, and is teaching a small college class in gothic literature in Los Angeles as Professor Ralius Foley. Until the other realm abruptly intervenes, and the Dragon Princess Suja bursts in with her golden scaled dragon Oro. She says he killed her mother, and she is out for revenge. Caught by surprise, because dragons are rare in our dull mundane realm, he clicks the metal tip of his pen and it becomes a three foot long broadsword. He fights her off and subdues her and the dragon with the Dragon Flute so that she becomes a co-ed type girl in jeans and T-shirt, while the dragon becomes a little lizard. That's how it starts. A swarm of dragons attacks Los Angeles, and it takes serious measures to fight them off. There is plenty of imagination and action here, which continues throughout the novel as Ralius beats back serious mischief in both this world and his home world of Calladrin, develops a relationship with Cynthia, a religious studies teacher he meets and marries, and becomes king. The novel's style is mundane, but the story is phenomenal, and fantasy readers should enjoy it. I don't promise to resume reviewing the novels of other writers; that may be rare and capricious.

MaryLee and I had a 24 year long correspondence before I wrote to her and invited her to visit me to explore the prospect of companionship and perhaps more. (It turned out to be more.) One of the aspects that made it meaningful was our exchange of videos. When we discussed movie tastes it seemed that ours were opposite. I liked sexy fantasy adventures, she liked Victorian age fashion. So I suggested that we compare notes in more detail to find out whether there was any overlap. That is, movies we both liked. Maybe 15% to 25% of the larger spectrum? So we started the exchange. Lo, it turned out that the overlap was more like 75% to 85%. We both liked Star Trek and similar types. It became a regular thing, and we introduced each other to movies we would not have chosen for ourselves but turned out to like a lot. A taste-broadening experience. In retrospect I see it as a kind of courtship, for all that I was married and not about to compromise that, while she had had a bad marriage that left her wary of men. It enabled us to get to know each other better in an unhurried milieu. Now at last we can watch them together, and as irony would have it, we hardly ever do, because of distractions like a heart flutter (me), sciatica (her), and covid (me, certainly, and probably her too). But as we slowly settle down to mundane marriage, we hope to watch more. One day in AwGhost, 2022, we went shopping, and bought 7 cheap movies at Big Lots. For example, one was Mamma Mia! which we picked up on sale for $1.25. (Did I mention cheap?) I remembered seeing it and being disappointed that of all the ABBA songs sung there, they omitted my favorite,Fernando. Neither of us are keen on rewatching familiar movies; there are too many new ones to catch up on. But watching an old movie with a new friend makes it a new experience. What surprised me was that while I don't remember every detail, the details normally come back in force when I see them again. Not this time. It was as if I hadn't seen it before. So did I merely see previews? Or, more alarming, has my once crystal sharp memory for movies become fogged? One concern when I was put under for dental surgery – all my teeth have been replaced with implants and dentures – was that such anesthesia may cause memory loss. I have dozens of DVD videos on my shelves that I know I watched, but I have little or no idea of their content. I presume that if I watched them again, and keyed into the scenes, I'd say “Oh, yes, I remember that topless dancer nice innocent girl!” Now I'm not so sure. Regardless, this is one great movie, with songs galore and a wild plot. Sophie is about to get married, and wants her father to give her away. But her mother (Meryl Streep) had affairs with three men at the time she conceived Sophie, and no one knows which one is the father. So Sophie invites all three of the potential fathers to her wedding, hoping to figure it out in due course. They don't know why, and her mother doesn't know she's doing it. All three arrive together. That's when it gets wild. One side note: actor Pierce (for some reason I like variants of my name, Piers) Brosnan, is not a singer, but here he has to sing. It must have been a challenge. I recommend this movie for couples who like music and wild stories. I was struck by the way that a song sung by one person can be nice, but when sung by two in harmony becomes a dimension better.

The next night we sawSister Act, another I had seen before but hardly remembered. Whoopi Goldberg stars as a low class singer who happens to see a mob killing and has to flee and hide for her life. She winds up in a convent, courtesy of witness protection, the last place anyone would think to look for her. The head nun doesn't approve, knowing how completely un-nunlike Whoopi is, but has no choice. Put in the abysmal choir, challenged to improve it, Whoopi takes hold, being a singer if not a nun, and soon converts it to a formidable musical force. Even the Pope comes to hear it. This of course plays havoc with her concealment, and the killers do come after her, but the police manage to catch them, so Whoopi is safe. MaryLee and I watched it like a dating couple, eating, holding hands, and cuddling on the couch.

The next night we watched aDoctor Who episode, where the lady Doctor and her companions get caught in a time loop with murderous Daleks out to incinerate them. They get blasted, and the next turn of the loop comes into play, only to get blasted again. At last they figure out a strategy and escape. I have to say that this one is reminiscent of the earlier shows, where their budget was small, not as good. A lot of running around, literally, and repetitive sequences. The Daleks are like big cones with lights on, with one goal: annihilate. That gets tiresome after the first half dozen times. I still like this version of the Doctor, but understand that her tenure is about to end. Ah, well.

This month's one minute waiting for the email connection book is Whispers from the Stone Age, by David M. Gardner. I got it in January 2007, courtesy of the author, and read and reviewed it then. The cover is delightful, showing in the foreground a hairy caveman before a small fire, beside a spreading tree, and a modern woman in a bright red dress in the middle-ground, gazing out over a giant canyon. Maybe she is a distant descendant of his. In fact surely she is. But as with the movies, my senescent memory has wiped out the content. Which is a shame, because even just taking one minute peeks I can see that this is about as sharp and relevant a book as I have seen. Yes, it has a favorable reference to me: “Piers Anthony is the hardest working writer I know.” But that's not why I am so impressed by this book. It is because this is just about the most relevant exploration of the human condition I have seen. Understand, I did serious research in human history and nature for my GEODYSSEY series, and know something about the subject. Whispers is teaching me more. Some quotes should make the point. “Why is it so hard for me, and everyone around me, to be happy?” “'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.' Why? Why? Why? This three letter word is the pure essence of humanity.” “You laugh, you cry, you love, you hate, you think, you eat, you sleep … How different are you really when compared to stone age humans?” “If you have unlimited wants without realizing your limitations, then you will always lust after the things that you cannot afford.” “Because we are social animals, we care a great deal about what other people think.” “Guns don't kill people, people don't kill people either, it's people WITH guns that kill people.” He tells the story of a catastrophe that killed 99% of the human population and traumatized the rest. A science fiction horror story? No, this was the eruption of a super volcano called Toba that was the largest in the past two million years, about 74,000 years ago, emitting an ash cloud about 2,800 times as great as Mt. St. Helens, leaving maybe 1,000 to 2,000 human survivors. We who live today are descendants of that lucky remnant, which shaped our nature. Without it we personally might not exist, as the other 99% would have governed, diluting and probably eliminating our line. We were severely culled. Not that we're perfect, even so. He discusses the cruelties of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. “There is no law forbidding the cruelty of bullies, and people with power tend to use it, not deny it.” “It's the easiest thing in the world to be mean.” “In essence there are a lot of little Hitlers running around our schools. Hitler's evil is not the exception in this world—it is everywhere, he didn't do the job alone.” The Dark Side is there for a reason—social survival. We are still stone age savages and behave that way even today, driven to ensure our own survival at the expense of others.” So that delicate woman on the cover isn't as nice as she pretends. “Now high school children could be appreciative, they could be considerate, they could be nice … really how hard would it be...Apparently it's much easier to be mean, to be cruel …” “I can say with confidence that 'Social cruelty' (the modern term for bullying) will never go away in public schools.” He should know; he was a teacher. So was I, and I agree.

Continuing in Whispers: one mother was concerned because her daughter was getting picked on because she was smarter. Even that difference sets off the phenomenon, it's the difference itself that does it. Mom taught Daughter otherwise. “There is too much social risk for groups of children and adults alike, too much fear, too much social standing to lose.” I relate; I was never part of the in-group, going my own way, and it cost me, but damned if I will turn off my brain or my conscience to be one of the guys. You reading this column may relate too, being different yourselves; that's why you like me, no? I hate bigotry, even if it is ingrained in our species. But on with the book. Asexual organisms usually become extinct. “Why? All the clones apparently had the right sort of identical physical characteristics to be alive and happy before the change [in the environment] occurred – would they be so lucky after a drastic change?” “Sexual reproduction between a male and a female mixes up the genes and produces offspring that are similar, but not identical, to the parents. With sex you end up with a lot of variety, and variety is important when the environment changes. Variety helps to ensure survival.” And there, by damn, is the secret of sex: to keep us changing and thus surviving. “Of all the different species that ever existed on this planet, over 99% are now extinct. The nature of nature's game is Change or Die. Are you in?” “In essence, the changing environment acts as a filter, weeding out the inferior (the sick the weak, the stupid, the unlucky) and elevating the superior (the healthy, the strong, the clever, the lucky).” The author discusses Darwin, his discoveries and realizations that are now scientific gospel. Darwin studied beetles, among other things, preserving in alcohol over 1,500 species. “Beetles, by the way, are the most 'successfully diverse' type of organism on the Earth 75% of all species are insects, and of them, the lowly beetle reigns supreme. Line up every living animal on this planet, and one out of every five will be beetle.” And back to our own species: “Before the eruption there were approximately 100,000 modern humans running around, looking very much like us but obviously behaving very primitively. There is no evidence of clothing, or art, or truly creative endeavors before this point. Enter the explosion and massive climate shift.” So what was different about the 1,000 survivors, apart from being lucky? “Well, part of the success of many primates, including Man and the Great Apes, is our ability to work together as a group, socially, for the benefit of all.” “We almost went extinct, but a few talented, violent, and lucky individuals made it and passed their genetic heritage on to us.” “Humans started carving simple geometric designs into at least one chunk of relatively soft rock called Red Ochre. [OH-ker]. “It appears that the boundary between the periods of human non-creativity and true creativity is the Indonesian explosion: it actually refined the human species, forced it to be smarter and creative in order to survive.” And of course sex contributed. “Sex feels good for a reason … a filter of pleasure; only the sexy survive.” “...inch for inch and pound for pound, the human male has the largest penis of any primate its size.” To caress the woman, inside? And about the kiss: stone age parents “had to chew up the food and pass it lips to lips to their children who were born toothless. Your lips are super-sensitive for a reason, humans had to eat to live—kissing came later.” He discusses Chinese foot binding to make women's feet seem small. My comment is that we do it too; it is called high heels, that give women ten times the foot ailments of men. They cripple themselves in the name of fashion. And the mind. “There is no gene structure that is unique to humans. ALL of our genes have been borrowed from other species.” How? “DNA, or DeoxyriboNucleic [dee-AHK-see-RYE-bo-new-CLAY-ick] Acid, is a replicating organic molecule; it's a living microscopic machine. Sometimes referred to as 'the blueprint of life', it spells it out in a four letter code the instructions to make you, or a butterfly, or an oak tree.” “Most of your DNA is not human DNA. You share it with cousins found far and wide.” The active genes between humans and chimps are over 99% identical. In fact we have 90% identical genetic material shared with dogs. What animal is the oldest? “It is the lowly sponge.” Yes, we are descended from the sponge. “We have a mouth, and a digestive tract, and an anus. What are we but a tube, a fancy one with appendages?” “We are all tubes, our DNA builds us that way for a reason, it's a very successful form; tubes of the world, unite!” “Think of all the other creatures that also have a mouth, a digestive 'tube', and an anus—just like you. The squid, the eagle, the cockroach.” “You go from microscopic to gargantuan, from one cell you become trillions, a vast collection all connected together—over 80,000 miles of neurons, more than 600 muscles, 206 bones...” “We think that because we have language and technology we are separated from the beasts. But it's not that simple—we are still mostly beast ourselves.” “We learn and pass on knowledge, thanks to language, which is nothing more than code. Language is a way to record information. The person may die, but the words, the information, lives on. This sounds an awful lot like DNA, doesn't it?” “Language is the new DNA, the new advancement, the new storehouse of human knowledge and achievement—it is an instruction booklet, literally.”

And more. “A lot had to happen to produce you, much of which you do not know, though you can learn. The calcium in your bones, the iron in your blood, the oxygen in your cells—they were all formed inside the hearts of stars, stars that exploded to scatter their seeds, all the bits that would eventually make you, into the cold cosmos. They would come together again, these pieces, under gravity—they would reform into a sun, a planet, even 'you' over time. Your DNA built you according to instructions, but the parts had to come from somewhere. They came from stars.” “Mammals take their name from the 'mammary glands' found in a female's breasts—caring mothers make and feed milk to their babies; even dolphins nurse. (Blue whale babies suck up 150 gallows of milk a day for the first five months of life...).” “From recent brain chemistry studies, we have discovered that the emotion of 'love' releases chemicals that stimulate cranial pleasure centers in ways similar to the drug cocaine.” “By the way, female dolphins are NOT monogamous, only 3% of mammal species are, and male dolphins are quite vicious toward each other. Don't think friendly 'Flipper', think ferocious 'Orca' -- killer whales are actually dolphins, not whales.” “Groups of people normally dislike those other groups that are different from them—it's the way that humanity, and many other species, operate for their own survival. And it has worked, this fearing of strainers.” “Living in a small hunting group is how we developed—the Stone Age refined how we interact with each other. We feared our neighbors, and for good reason. There is only so much food to go around after all. Survival in the Stone Age was never guaranteed...” “This fear of strangers has grown out of a general fear of the new and different.” “There is fear of injury, fear of sickness, fear of death, fear of rejection, of being outcast by the group.” “Human mothers can die during childbirth a lot more readily than our animal cousins—from the bleeding and the pain (labor pains last about 13 hours for a new mother, and 5 hours each for the future siblings) Why are we so unlucky this way? It's our heads. We pay the price for big brains and our social intelligence; we have a big head literally as well as figuratively.” “It takes nine long months, almost the longest of any mammal, for our bodies and brains to grow inside the womb.” “As humans we take the longest of any mammal to reach full adult status.” “We spend our lives judging and being judged—we can't help it, it's part of what got us here, the good and not so good side of being a social analytical tool maker.” ”We wage war against prejudice in society—it's not fair to pre-judge a person based on their sex, or skin pigmentation, or age, or hair color, or place of national/local origin or sexual inclinations or religion, or weight, or number of missing limbs—the list goes on. But to not prejudge would go against what it means to be human: you are denying the processing power of the big brain, the one that got us here. To be fair is a modern concept—the Stone Age world lacked fairness, there was no written law.” “Don't just be happy, learn how to be happy even when the deck is stacked against you, because it is a lot of the time.”

Okay, this is barely halfway through the book; I will continue next column. But it should be enough to show why I regard it as one of the most relevant books in print. If you want to understand yourself and your species, indeed, your place in the universe, read it for yourself.

EQUEDIA arrives weekly. The issue for 8-7-22 says in essence that people can no longer afford to buy houses. There will be a real estate collapse starting this year. Not just in America. The issue for 8-16-22 says that hundreds of men, women, and elders have been beaten up in the streets for mortgages. This happened in China. People were paying mortgage loans for houses being built. Except that the houses were never built. So they stopped paying and made demonstrations against the rip-off, and the government called in “security forces” to break up the demonstrations. They don't pussyfoot. There is footage of tanks in the streets. It seems that construction prices rose so much, like going up ten fold in 20 years, that the developers couldn't afford to build them. Hence the mischief. Abandoned condo developments are now so common in China that they are called “rotten tail buildings.” “These are just the first dominoes in a multi-trillion dollar chain.” That's bad, but Equedia suspects it's actually much worse, because the government actively censors relevant documents on the internet. More than 400,000 customers can't access their bank deposits from four rural banks, which have frozen $1.5 billion. The whole banking system is getting destabilized. Our concern is that it could happen in America. The issue for 8-21-22 is about the power crisis in Europe. Russia pumps out around 40% of Europe's gas, via a single 47 inch diameter pipe called Nord Stream, the world's longest, stretching 745 miles under the Baltic Sea to Germany. They have scaled it back to only 20% of what it is capable of pumping. Countries that refuse to pay for their gas in rubles get cut off. Russia is squeezing Europe. Where will it end? We may not enjoy finding out. The issue for 8-28-22 trashes the Inflation Reduction Act. “It's yet another deficit-exploding program that will only compound the problem.” Equedia evidently doesn't like clean energy, which cuts the profits of the old fossil fuels industry. “The counterproductive result is that this supply shortage is stoking energy prices to the extent that governments are shifting to the dirtiest fuel of all, coal, and polluting even more.” My reaction is that they need to get into the inexhaustible nonpolluting energy source, geothermal. It will take a while to develop, but once it gets there, the problem is solved.

Magazines: theUniversity of South Florida Magazine has a lovely quote by Steve Fessler, a Life Member of the College of the Arts and Broadway investor: “If I want to touch the past, I touch a rock. If I want to touch the present, I touch a flower . If I want to touch the future, I touch a life.” The Week for August 12, 2022 has an item from Slate about Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's religious crusade. He feels that religious liberty is under threat from an increasingly secular society and its new moral code. That code includes women's equality and reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and secular public education “everything Alito despises.” If that's true, it suggests that he despises true democracy. The conservative mission, the item says, is to empower fellow believers to govern the godless. This is mischief. Individuals are free to ignore fundamental American rights, but Supreme Court Justices? An obituary in that issue covers basketball star Bill Russell. I was never much of a fan of basketball, as I was short in high school, but I note that he was born in 1934; that's my year, making him my age. I like to think it was a good year. And an item on America's crisis of early death. A study shows that from 1933 to 2021 some 626,000 Americans died before the average in other countries. Gun violence, car accidents, heart disease, drug overdoses, and suicides may account for it, but also it's the lack of a social safety net that other countries have, including universal health care. We think we're better off than anywhere else, but this gives that the lie.The Week for August 19, 2022, reprints a column from The Washington Post on the economy. We fear recession, but are currently adding jobs. And from the New York Times, an antitrust shot at the wrong target: the effort to prevent Penguin Random House from buying Simon & Schuster, to maintain competitiveness and a market for writers, ignores the elephant in the room. Amazon is by far the largest seller of books in the U.S; traditional publishers have had to merge to remain competitive. And in the obits, Olivia Newton-John, who like me was born in England, once said “It annoys me when people think because it's commercial, it's bad. If people like it, that's what it's supposed to be.” Amen, Olivia!” As a commercial writer I feel the critics who think they should govern rather than the market are idiots. As I have commented, nobody likes me except the readers, who I feel are by definition correct.

Clippings: I received an email ad for “Match Seniors Elite Dating.” “Summer may be ending, but your dating life could just be getting started.” This is pitched at 50+ singles. I am old enough, but not looking for a date; my wife might not approve. But if I were single and looking, yes I might be interested. I remain fascinated by women, and though the young ones look better, I would prefer one in my own age range, give or take a quarter century. So I don't object to receiving such ads. So why didn't I sign up for such a service when my wife Carol died? One prime reason is that I have little way of knowing the true nature of an unfamiliar woman. Would she be just out for my money or my notoriety? So I bypassed that by considering a correspondent who was not a gold digger, seeking character rather than youth. I don't regret it. Author Salman Rushdie, who wroteThe Satanic Verses, was attacked and knifed by a fanatic Muslim. Fortunately he survives. As a writer myself, I don't like death threats against writers. We should have freedom to write what pleases us and the readers, not constrained by religious scruples. And we passed the 45th anniversary of the death of the singer Elvis Presley. He was actually five months younger than I, and I'm sorry he did not get to live out his full life. Apparently he was on the pot, and strained too hard, and something broke. I think of him when I'm on the pot, not eager to follow his example.

And on the first of the month we went to the Verizon store and bought a new smartphone for MaryLee with more power than her old one, and one for me on her plan, and a new more powerful Jetpack for email and such. So I will be getting on the learning curve, trying to proceed from a dumb donkey to a smart ass. MaryLee is trying to bring me reluctantly into the twenty first century. I will surely have more to report on this next month.

So be it for another month.

Piers

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