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Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011 Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011. Photo by Jane McConnell.
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I watched the DISCOVER video Mega Disasters: Volcanic Winter. 75,000 years ago Mt. Toba erupted on Sumatra, vastly more powerful than any contemporary volcano, a super volcano, putting cubic miles of magma into the sky and wiping out all life within 500 miles. But that was only the beginning. It blew so much ash and sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere 15 miles up that it brought climatic chaos, including a volcanic winter that dropped the global temperature twenty five degrees Fahrenheit, bringing a freezing death for a decade, and a thousand year ice age that was already in the making. Animal and plant life were devastated, including mankind. There may have been a million people spread around Africa and Asia at the time; they were almost wiped out, reduced to maybe 30,000 in Africa near the equator, the one place where there was a bit of warmth. We alive today date from that tiny fragment of 5,000 breeding-age females. Other animals also crashed similarly. We date our modern genesis to Toba. If such an eruption should happen again today, could we survive it? There will indeed be similar eruptions, that we are unable to prevent. Some are in America, such as Yellowstone, which is a gigantic caldera. It erupts every 600,000 years or so, and is about due again. It could cover the entire united States in four inches of ash, burying everything, and the air would be too toxic to breathe, the water too polluted to drink. We'd be doomed. It's not a question of if, but when. We can only hope that it's not soon.

I read The Gray Stopgap by DL Tolleson, published by the Lighthouse Press originally in 2001; this is the 4th edition. Nevertheless, it could use a competent proofreader; there are multiple minor errors. (The author advises me that they are indeed going over it to deal with those errors.) It is, however, one powerful novel, and there is a movie option on it. It could certainly make a hard hitting movie. Karns Gray has been the subject of an experiment that almost killed him but left him with some unusual mental and physical powers, among them, maybe, immortality, if he doesn't get killed. He falls in love with Gail, who suddenly tells him she's pregnant and not by him, and ends their relationship, but he can't stop loving her. Another woman comes to love him, but he is locked into the memory of his first love. He also has a devious connection to a dangerous artificial intelligence called FORBS, Then, twenty years later, he encounters Gail again, and learns that she did love him, and still does, and that she bore his daughter. So why did she leave him? Ah, there's part of the story. So there's a kind of romance mixed in with complicated technology and some brutal action. Satellites and airplanes have been erratically losing contact in certain regions, and they can't figure out why. Gray is investigating why, and it leads him to some ugly encounters. This is borderline science fiction, and not for every taste; for example some of the sex is lethally intense and memories of past events can be ugly. But overall it is compelling and sometimes mind stretching, and I recommend it for readers who like unusual adventure and can handle the tough sections. There will be a sequel in due course.

I watched Wild. I read the book and reviewed it here in 2013: the story of Cheryl Strayed who set out to hike the thousand mile long Pacific Crest Trail, ruined her feet, and changed her life. She was woefully unprepared for the ordeal; just carrying her huge supply backpack was a struggle. She knew she could quit anytime, but refused despite fatigue, discomfort, and fear. She does take breaks to get decent meals and maybe a shower, returning to the same spot on the trail to resume progress. The movie intersperses her memories, as the book did; the movie seems reasonably true to the book. She meets a few other hikers, mostly at rest stops, decent men who well understand the challenge of the trail. But she marches on alone, through desert and then snow. And through her memories. How she cheated on her husband, a decent man. How her mother died, too young, at 45. Her prior sexual encounters; she was a woman who liked sex. Is she lonely on the trail? No worse than in her life. Drugs. After her divorce she took the same Strayed because she had strayed. On the trail, thirst: a tank of water for travelers turned out to be empty. Finds contaminated water, uses iodine pills to denature it. Encounters men she helps get water, but is extremely wary of their attitude toward her. Yet she finds friends among the hikers, and music is ever with her, in her head. Her life has been like the trail, often difficult, unpleasant, wrongheaded, yet ultimately redeeming. She makes it to the Canadian border, and lo, her fouled up life has changed. Do I recommend this movie? Yes, I believe it has something to say to every person who risks the awkward trail we call life.

I watched The Charge of The Light Brigade. This relates, coincidentally, to the Russian/Turkish war that stimulated jingoism in England, as I mentioned in the last HiPiers column. Was England going to let the Russian bear push Turkey around? This starts with the social aspect, the impression the horsemen make on the ladies. The elegant dancing. The fancy meals. The training of the horsemen. The racism. The British officers look down on Indians—that is, folk from India, who are darker than the Brits. But the main character is from service in India and is said to be the finest horseman in Europe. So they need him, but there is friction. British arrogance is on full display. It is interspersed by nice cartoons of the Russian Bear, Turkey as an innocent maiden, and the British Lion. The Bear grabs the Maiden, the Lion punches the Bear in the snoot and saves the maiden. Or so the popular jingoistic fancy has it. Then back to the reality, which is much more brutal. Cholera infects the troops, who start falling to the ground, struck down before ever engaging the enemy. The men march, the horses prance. Then the explosive shells start detonating, and they march on past the bodies. War ain't beanbags. The Russians have taken over the British big guns, and it is the job of the light brigade to recover those guns. It is supposed to flank them, but the incompetent commander charges them from the front, and of course the brigade gets mowed down. Then the officers argue about who gave the order. Thus is one of the finest brigades wiped out by officers' folly. This movie is effective on more than one level, and a good one.

I watched Misconduct, wherein a young lawyer is almost seduced by his ex girlfriend and learns of evidence incriminating a corrupt pharmacy magnate she works for and is dating. This is mischief, but he is determined to pursue the case. He is soon risking his wife, career, and his own life, the likely price unless he quits. The opposition isn't bluffing; people start dying. It gets ugly. But he wins through to discover that things aren't as he thought they were. Considered overall, for my taste the big names like Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, and several pretty girls, don't make up for a scatter-shot plot that hardly makes sense.

I watched The Age of Adaline, about a woman who suffers a near death experience at age 29 and thereafter never ages. Her daughter becomes an old woman, aging normally, but keeps her secret. Then she falls in love. That's mischief, of course. Does she tell him, or break it off? Then she meets his folks, and his father is one of her former boyfriends, and remembers her. She tries to flee again, suffers another near death experience, and resumes aging. And marries the son, after telling him the truth. So it's a standard romance, in a manner, with with that difference. I loved it.

I watched Half-Caste, one of my dollar movies. Four students are fascinated with an African legend of a half-human, half-leopard creature, like a werewolf; call it a were-leopard. Head of a leopard, body of a man. Not to be believed, of course. Until it starts manifesting. They handle it like a documentary, with hand held movie cameras and action-activated cameras. A person becomes an animal, charging around on four feet, attacking others. Two of the boys get aggressive about the girl as they quarrel among themselves. Sometimes it seems that every third word is “Fuck!” It finally dissolves into mindless violence. It has Spanish subtitles; I regret I never got to learn Spanish; it was the one foreign language I wanted to, but I was required to take Latin and German instead.

I watched Hell's Gate, another dollar movie with Spanish subtitles. A little girl wanders off the farm and meets another girl her age, before her mother calls her back home. Then escaped prisoners invade and kill her parents, before she manages to shoot them. Or was it really she who did it, or the other girl? 18 years later paranormal things start happening, such as a friend getting mysteriously killed, and she sees that girl again, now a woman. But she's off her meds. She sees the number 11:11 scratched in blood. She evinces a paranormal mind state. Doors open mysteriously for her, and close. Others suspect her of doing mischief. The phantom woman is the one who did the killing. Sarah backs her off to save her boyfriend, but then has to go with the phantom. Children again, they walk into the field. Or is it a dream? If it is, the horror continues. Is she sane? The easiest answer is No.

I watched The Demon Within, the third dollar movie. The protagonist is named Sarah again. She's taking sculpture classes, and finds herself living next to a deranged murderer who acts out Hamlet. Sarah gets interested in her art teacher, while the murderer prowls around, setting little spy cameras. Is there an incubus in the area, trying to enter Sarah's dreams to get her pregnant? Is Sarah psychic? She talks to the local Tarot reader, who is very afraid for her—and he kills the reader. The art teacher dies in a separate accident. Then Sarah spies on him, and learns how he has been spying on her. He comes after her. She flees. He tries to rape her, and throws her into the sea. Then a statue of her appears in his apartment, opens its eyes, and stabs him. And it turns out she has survived, when all around her died, and is pregnant with the demon seed. There will surely be future mischief.

I read A Moment of War by Laurie Lee (a man despite the name). This is a memoir about his service during the Spanish Civil War. I read it because I have an interest, having been there myself at a young age. To rehearse a history that some of my readers already know: My parents were doing relief work in Spain for the British Quaker organization in 1936 when General Franco and his minions used Spain's own army to invade and conquer it, 1936-39. Once the fighting stopped, my sister and I rejoined the family there in Barcelona, Spain. Then my father was arrested in 1940, apparently simply because he was there, and “disappeared,” except that he managed to smuggle out a message and my mother used that and the threat of substantial withdrawal of international financial support to get him out. Quaker pacifism be damned; you have to communicate with dictators in a language they understand. It is one reason I grew up to be neither pacifist nor Quaker, thought I respect the precepts to a fair extent. But he was required to leave the country, as dictators don't like to leave evidence of their mistakes. That's how we came to America on the last ship out before World War Two engulfed Europe. I had my 6th birthday on the ship, the Excalibur, (signaling my future career in fantasy?) with a cake made of sawdust, as pastry supplies were scant. Thus my interest; that war did significantly affect my life. And yes, I don't like dictators, though I'm glad to be in America instead of growing up in Spain, as might otherwise have been the case. The war in Spain was really a rehearsal for the later war in Europe, as the Axis powers tried out their new hardware on Spanish targets, notably shown in Picasso's Guernica painting. The allies mostly ignored this, until their turn came. There's a lesson to ponder. Okay, Laurie Lee crossed the Pyrenees in winter to sneak in and join the resistance. They treated him with suspicion, but let him participate. His experience shows the fouled-up-edness of the effort, with good guys getting killed by friends as well as by enemies, and general ineffectiveness. For example, one man was set up with a machine-gun, but when the enemy came it turned out they had given him the wrong ammunition. So much for him. Th author saw a lot of hungry waiting and little action. Resistance fighters came from all over the world, which meant a problem in communication. They trained using pretend rifles and a covered pram as a mock enemy tank. As time passed half the unit he was in disappeared, probably mostly from disgust and desertion. Finally he was sent back to England via France, with foul-ups that put him three weeks in prison; this must have been before the Germans invaded France. The whole thing is just a fragment, but the bleakness of his experience and indeed, the whole effort, comes across via his beautifully evocative writing. This is definitely worth reading, particularly by those idiots who now flock similarly to ISIS. War is not glorious and not fun; it is ugly and scary, especially for the ordinary citizens reluctantly caught in it.

I watched Duck Dynasty, Season One, borrowed from my daughter. I had understood that there was bigotry, but I didn't see that here. It starts with a general introduction to the characters and discussion of the making of the video. They are rednecks and proud of it. One nice thing is that at the beginning of each program they spot identify the characters as they appear, so you can keep track. I mean, all rednecks look pretty much alike to me, though their wives, daughters, and sisters-in-law are sightly. The central character is Willie; the others are his relatives, associates, and whatnot. They are trying to organize the business of making duck calls and decoys, and things are fouling up. The men are long haired, full bearded and look chronically unkempt, but they mean to establish a multi-million dollar commercial enterprise, there in the Louisiana swamp. The women seem often auxiliary; what's important is how well they can cook. Big family meals, blessed at the start. Sports are vital. Willie tries to teach his wife to play football, without much success; it's not a woman thing. They carve a football field out of the wilderness and choose up teams to play a family game. Togetherness, though some family members are more responsible than others. A beaver dam interrupts their water flow, so they blow it up, literally. In my day, the beaver was a protected species, but they go to war against the beavers with bullets and flame throwers. The fact is, in their meandering way they are pretty efficient as they move into modern times. They also take time off for golf, their way: hitting the balls into the air and shooting them there like skeets. Frog catching and yucky butchering. A squirrel hunt. Mama insists on getting goats; that's mischief. I was raised on a goat farm; I remember. I also learned about ducks, and maybe about women: “Ducks are like women: they don't like a lot of mud on their butts.” Live and learn. Mama also decides to learn how to run a restaurant, but changes her mind when she discovers how complicated it is. They decide to build the world's biggest duck call, starting with a suitable tree trunk. More trouble. But it works. Then they decide to go into wine making, so they buy a vineyard—where all the plants are dead. There is evidently some work to do. The four girl children participate. They play around and get all muddy, so the men hose them off in their clothing. The girls aren't keen on gutting fish, either. So they buy some table grapes—a grape's a grape, after all—and set about squeezing out the juice. It's sort of messy. They don't have time for nuances; they simply dump the juice in with a few bags of sugar: their original recipe, like nothing known before. It looks great in wine glasses, but tastes like crap. Oh, well. Then into honey; they set out to vacuum up wild bees to get at their honey. They get stung. Also sprayed by a skunk. Par for the course. We learn how to handle the boyfriend of your fourteen year old daughter: you make her cry, I make you cry. Then a fishing contest, to see who can make the most money selling fish. Catching big catfish in nets. Setting up a stand by the roadside. Only one problem: folk aren't stopping to buy the fish. What to do? Find a different market. Sell direct to a restaurant? But they need more than you have. So you make a deal with the competition to merge the catches to make enough for the bigger deal. The women get a sewing machine but don't know how to use it. Lo, Paw knows how, and competently demonstrates; he learned it in the army. An ornery alligator appears in the equipment; how to get it out? Put meat on a string and haul it off to the water. Then they go turkey hunting, because turkeys taste better than ducks. The males try to mate with the decoy, and get shot. Then the blindfolded judging: which turkey tastes better, the men's or the women's? The women's. Ah, well. Willie gets tired of trying to keep the business when the family keeps veering off every which way. So he stakes the company's future on a race between two big snapping turtles. His turtle wins. So what's next? Thus ends the first season. The bonus disc has a half hour interview with the actors, who seem to enjoy being in the show. It was more fun for me to watch than I expected, not being a redneck.
What else in the month of AwGhost? I worked on a collaborative novel with Ken Kelly, Magenta Salvation, writing almost 18,000 words as part of my contribution. It's the third in a trilogy we don't yet have a publisher for. The novels are good enough, but publishers can be a nuisance. One got Xanthitis, wanting only Xanth from me; that's fairly common. Another is good, but slow; my pieces can take years to see publication. Another wanted us to sign away life-of-copyright, meaning we don't get our literary rights back until 70 years after we die. They pretend not to understand why that doesn't appeal to authors. Others are unproven; I want to know that my work will be fairly treated, effectively promoted, and honestly handled in the accounts. It's dismaying how that turns off some publishers. I have several novellas at small publishers I like, as my monthly announcements show; I'm waiting to see what their sales are like. So far I haven't found the Perfect Publisher. If I have to, I'll organize my own Piers Publishing, doing it right. But I'm not eager, knowing that countless others have had the same idea, and wound up doing it wrong. My synapses are hard wired for writing, not publishing, and I'm old; I'm trying to simplify my life, rather than complicate it. Stay tuned; I'll probably decide one way or another by the end of the year.

Did I mention age? I had my 82nd birthday AwGhost 6. We celebrated with a slice of cheesecake, no candles. The day before, I stubbed my bare right foot against the bathroom door frame, just missing by a little in the dark. Hoo! It took hours for the pain to subside, and days for the purple bruises to fade, and at the end of the month I still get twinges when I walk wrong. So what's my advice for octogenarians? DON'T STUB YOUR TOES. Then a week later I was manhandling the wheelchair out of a tight fit in the car, and must have pulled a muscle, because next morning my left shoulder was sore. That, too, persisted for weeks, and still twinges when I exercise. Why the wheelchair? Because my wife tires if she has to walk too far or stand too long, and the wheelchair eases that. We do what we can to cope with the inconveniences of advancing age. As I like to put it, age is a lady dog.

Remember that sabal palmetto (cabbage palm) I cut down behind the house? Belatedly recognizing it as the state tree of Florida, I let it be thereafter, and am watching it grow back. This is interesting. Regular trees grow from the top, but palms evidently grow from the bottom. First a beheaded stalk grew up about a foot. Then came another with the tips of the frond missing, the stubbed fingers forming a fan about eight inches deep. That's where it was in the ground when I cut things off at ground level. Then came a spike, which grew about three feet tall and slowly opened into a magnificent 40 segment frond, still growing. Now another spike is rising. The tree is in business, and I will not molest it again.

About six months ago I bought a batch of books, one of which was the huge Sports Illustrated SWIMSUIT—50 Years of Beautiful, which we put on the coffee table, and I look at it daily. I love the body painting, where the fancy suits are painted on; the models are actually nude. I like the way they show all the relevant covers for that half century, followed by a listing with little pictures of all the models in alphabetical order by first name. I note that only U, W, and X are missing; you'd think they could have rousted up models named Ursula, Wanda, or Xanthe. But I spied a mystery: who modeled the fabulous cover, showing the buxom torso in front on the front cover, and from the back on the back cover? She wears a bikini consisting of pictures from the volume. Neat. There is no credit. Bugged, I pondered pictures, and finally identified her: Tyra Banks, the first model of color to make the series. Her small pictures are on the suit in front and back. So I solved the mystery. But why no credit?

What else was there? Oh, yes, the Olympics. I watched them in fragments, as I was busy writing, reading, or doing household chores, so missed most of it; my wife watched more. I was struck by the synchronized swimming, which was absolutely beautiful. I love art in sports, being an artist myself. Yes, you critics: writing is an art, though I had once aspired to be a painter. I also liked the Beach Volleyball, seeing those slender girls bouncing around. But I wondered about the scoring: does a game go 15, 21, or 25 points? Do you have to win the serve before a point counts? There did not seem to be consistency. Also, sometimes one team would win a decisive point, only to have it credited to the other side, no one protesting. Volleyball seems to have changed since my day. In high school, for a routine assignment, I wrote a paper titled The Volleyballiad, a parody of The Iliad that wowed the class. It featured players like Achoos, flat of foot, which the teacher corrected to Achilles fleet of foot; it seemed my humor did not make the grade. Then there were the relay races, in one of which the American team took third place, only to be subsequently disqualified on a technicality. I will be watching less of that in future.

Songs and poems constantly flicker through the hollows of my cranium, and sometimes they are elusive. Decades ago I hear Eddie Fisher sing a song one of whose refrains was “I'm glad I kissed those other lips, before I kissed your own; if I had not kissed those other lips, I never would have known.” Trying to run it down, I got a book listing all the popular songs of the century. Everything was there but that one. I bought a series that recorded them; ditto. I verified its existence via the Internet. But when I finally got the words, they weren't there. The latter part of the refrain was “For I was young, so very young, I never would have known.” But I had heard the song on the radio, and later saw Fisher sing it on TV; I was struck by “If I had not kissed those other lips.” Am I in an alternate reality, where if the song is credited at all, it is worded wrong? Well now it is happening again, in a different venue, poetry. I have heard snatches of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem “Trains,” with the lines “...bells clang, and the whistle blowing; there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going.” Folk of the contemporary realm don't understand the fascination of trains of my day, where they represented the lure of travel to faraway places or the return to civilization from the distant wastelands. But that poem simply isn't in my comprehensive literary references. I did find one I wasn't looking for at that moment: “My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night. But oh my foes and ah my friends, it gives a wondrous light.” Maybe if I had been looking for that one, I would have found the train. Well, this month my wife went online and found the poem. It is titled “Travel” and the lines are fouled up. “...and better friends I'll not be knowing; Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take, No matter where it's going.” The Internet was too much for the curse, but still the curse messed up title and line. It's hard to win against the supernatural. Then there was the VCR movie I ordered a decade or so back, and they sent me the wrong one. Mine started with Seven or Seventh; so did theirs, but it wasn't the one I had ordered. Rather than argue the case, I decided to reorder the correct one—and never found it available again. It still bugs me today, and I have gone over catalog after catalog looking for it, and finding every other movie starting with Seven but not that. I even forgot the exact title, which complicated things. But I had marked it on the cover of incorrect one; all I needed to do was check that, get the correct title, and resume my search. I can no longer play VCR tapes, so I want it on DVD. I checked the boxes where I stored all those hundreds of old tapes—and it wasn't there. The one I wanted to check was missing. I must have set it aside, and now in my senescence can't remember where. Did I mention how age is a lady dog? Then one day I got a genius (for me) notion: I have an old 800 page video catalog that might list it. And lo, I had even circled it and folded down the corner of the page, back when I did know the title. It is The Seventh Seal, a 1957 movie featuring Ingmar Bergman, wherein Death makes a deal with a disillusioned knight: play a game of chess with live people as the chess pieces. What the stakes are I don't know; I'll have to watch the movie. When I find it. If it hasn't changed or vanished the way my other interests do. I think I have mentioned before that I have no belief in the supernatural; therefore it does its best to mess me up, with insidious success.

Soul of the Cell, my 38,000 word novella, is being published in SapTimber by eXcessica. In this one a young man, an artist with a fresh liberal arts degree, answers an ad that promises a year's pay for one month's evaluation for alien contact, with laboratory sex included. “Critical importance to global welfare. High creativity essential,” it concludes. That really intrigues him; it hits on several of his buttons. On the way he meets a young woman who is also answering the ad, though they are polar opposites in many respects. It goes on from there, as they study the cell and form mandatory couples. Why is high creativity needed to study a dull cell? Where are the aliens? This is one of my wilder efforts, sexy yet deadly serious in the message with an underlying concept I doubt has been done before. It really will stretch your mind, if it is not bolted closed.

My dentist has been wroth with me because I don't floss my teeth, having ascertained to my satisfaction it wasn't worth the effort. Well, now the news is out: there is no proof that flossing works. Studies simply don't validate its efficacy. Right; as with fluoridation, what the dental profession knows is wrong. Naturally dentists aren't eager to change; they are subject to their illusions, just as the rest of us are in other matters.

Each week THE WEEK magazine runs several Wit & Wisdom quotes that I generally find interesting. For example in the August 19-26 issue they had this one by Tony Bennett: “When the uncreative tell the creative what to do, it stops being art.” Amen! Yet that is exactly what we have in traditional publishing. The writers are generally creative, but the publishers are generally interested mainly in money, and they determine what gets published. That's one reason I support electronic publishing: it's not in it for the money so much as the art. At least, it started that way.

And the weather. As I write this Tropical Depression #9 has finally shifted into Tropical Storm Hermine and is heading for our area. (Web underling's note: Hermine grew to hurricane strength after Mr. A sent this to be posted online.) Every storm takes aim at me, but their eyes aren't good so they generally miss. This one tried harder than most, dawdling, trying to get her act together, but will pass us to the north. We did get just over ten inches of rain for AwGhost, a good total, but no drenchpour.

I have a pile of clippings, but this column is long enough already and I don't know whether my layman's opinionations on science, economics, politics and such are worth any more to the welfare of the world than flossing is to teeth; there is no validation of efficacy. So I'll let it rest for now.


PIERS
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