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Darrell Bain's Newsletter

September 2005

  Tonto, The Tool-Making and Tool-Using Dachshund. Books. What's New. Around the House. Mirror Neurons. Nanobots  and Various Other Tidbits.

We love dachshunds, and have ever since our first one, who was also the first dog we allowed to live inside the house with us. His name was Biscuit and we've since decided that he was born a people and only incidentally inhabited a dog's body. He died from an accident and the subsequent surgery all too young, but he was the most intelligent and people oriented dog I've ever heard or read about. He learned to drive and to spell and constantly involved us in all kinds of crazy situations and escapades. Like the time he ate one of my Viagra pills, or the time he cleared out our precinct building by making them think a terrorist attack was underway, or his heart warming and heart-wrenching visits with us to the nursing home where my parents resided or...but read for yourself. I wrote a book about his life after he died which has been published, entitled "Doggie Biscuit!" Actually, he had impressed Betty and I so much with his intelligence and warm, antic-loving heart that I had already started the book when his life was tragically cut short. We shelled out $2,500.00 for the surgery without a qualm, when we could ill afford it, if that tells you anything. Anyway, all the above is preliminary to the lead story of this month's newsletter: Tonto, the dog we got--not as a replacement, because Biscuit can never be replaced--he was one in a million--but as a way to ease our aching hearts.

We're soft hearted. We picked the runt of the litter, knowing he might not be as well adjusted as his littermates, but we felt sorry for the little fellow. I had just used the name Tonto for a character's name in a book, Prion Promises I believe it was, and we agreed on that name (meaning faithful friend) in the sort of hope that he would ease his way into our hearts like Biscuit had. We had no idea that we had picked a dachshund with some other flaws besides being a runt. He turned out to be cross-eyed, had only one testicle (not apparent when doggies are puppies), has terrible nightmares and most important of all, we believe he has AHDD. Tonto is stubborn, was hard to housebreak and has a one track mind. At first we thought he was retarded as well, but already he had wormed his way into our hearts and bed, so we kept the little fellow. What made us decide he wasn't deficient in mental skills, but simply one of those who marches to his own drummer, was that Tonto began making and using a tool.

First we noticed that he had a fixation on sticks, an easy habit to acquire since we live surrounded by pine trees, which tend to lose lots of branches. Tonto would spend an inordinate amount of time dragging sticks around. From there he graduated to selecting shorter sticks and using them to purposely push pine straw up into piles on the tarmac of our drive way. And then we noticed that he was not only using a tool for a specific purpose, but that he was actually manufacturing them! We watched one day as he roamed around looking for a stick of the proper length and girth to push straw with. The sticks had to be of a certain length, otherwise he had trouble using them, for you see, he holds the sticks in his mouth, sticking straight out in front of him. Too long and it was unwieldy; too short and it wouldn't work right. That day, he selected a stick, tried it out and then determined that it was too long for proper pine straw shoveling. Thereupon, he chewed the stick in two, making it the proper length for easy handling and proceeded happily about his business. At first we thought it was accidental--but we saw him do the same thing over and over.

To show you what it involves, I'm inserting a picture of him here, going about his business of shoveling pine straw into piles. You can clearly see the tooth marks on the end of the stick near his mouth where he chewed it in two, making it the right length.

Tonto spends innumerable hours at his self-appointed task. We have no idea what he gets out of it, but he obviously loves it. Or did, until he pushed the straw around so many times, rearranging it after our vehicles disrupted his neat little piles, that it was so broken up and battered into little pieces (the straw, not the sticks) that shoveling it didn't work very well. Or perhaps he mostly quit doing it when he discovered what fun forked sticks are. He doesn't care about length with them. He holds one of the forks and turns in circles, sweeping the straw rather than pushing it, meantime keeping his eyes fixed on the other fork to keep it up in the air and watching it move as he does. He still loves doing that, as well as occasionally deciding to do a little shoveling when a high wind shakes down some fresh straw. Then he either finds or makes him a stick of the proper length, as in the past, and gets busy.

As mentioned, we have no idea of the significance or meaning of his activities, but he obviously either enjoys it or is obsessed with it. That dog loves sticks and pine straw and the things he can do when he combines the two of them. Comments are welcome if anyone has ideas to explain Tonto's behavior or if they've ever seen anything like this before.

I belong to lovedachs@yahoogroups.com and buy some supplies at Dachshund Rescue and you can find many other fine dachshund groups on the web if you are interested in dachshunds. Betty and I love our little short legged, snuffly nosed, dumbo eared, furry bodied, mentally challenged, undersized child who can't speak English but nevertheless managed to take command of our household in very short order. Love is blind.

Last month I mentioned that since beginning to write for pay rather than pleasure, my reading time has been substantially reduced. I used to go through five to ten books a week, mostly fiction, some non-fiction. Sometimes I read as many as twenty books a week. Now I only manage two or three in the same length of time. There's a plus, though. Now that I no longer have that much time to read, I have become impatient with books that don't catch my attention right off, or that go off into situations where I can't suspend disbelief enough to enjoy them, or that begin to drag or...well, you get the idea. You've experienced all that, I'm sure. I used to plow on through almost every book I picked up. It had to be pretty bad to make me put it down. No more. If I'm not hooked by the first few chapters, into the trade box they go. And I'm no longer loath to discard a book I've gone half way through if it degenerates into something I don't like or can't believe, no matter the time I've already invested in it. No sense throwing good money after bad is an analogous expression.

There's another side to this too, and here I'm addressing older readers. As you age, you don't want to waste what time remains to you on something you're not enjoying. Thus, Betty and I both tend to discard many more books than we used to without having finished them. I don't really think the quality of writing has decreased, despite the pundits. There's still way more good fiction and non-fiction out there than I can keep up with. Waaayyy more. That fact is irritating in a way. I can remember back in the sixties when I could pretty near read all the science fiction novels being published, if not all the shorter works. No more. There's just too much out there. I just know I must be missing some really good writing, and I don't read only science fiction. I like a lot of non-fiction and general mainstream fiction, and detective and lawyer and thriller genres and so on.

So what am I reading now and what have I recently read? What do I recommend this month? For non-fiction (perhaps you could call it historical fiction) I can say without the least bit of reservation, go read The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara. It's a fictionalized history of the revolutionary war, but sticks as close to facts as is humanly possible. It's a great book and makes you realize how very close we came to not winning our independence in 1776, though I personally think there would have been another revolution not too many years later had it failed. Now there's a good subject for Harry Turtledove. He's about the best there is for doing alternate histories. Someone who knows him speak to the man. Okay? And let me know what he says.

For fiction, I'm presently reading Robert Silverberg's "Alien Years" for the first time. I really don't know what to make of it yet. So far it's a bit unbelievable, but Silverberg is such a good writer that I'm still going on it. Another I've read (actually two) are by Michael Marshall. I rarely buy two books by the same author at once when I haven't sampled him before, but for some reason I bought both of them and I'm glad I did, for otherwise I would have been left hanging. The two books are the "Straw Men" and the"Upright Man." Marshall tends to ramble a bit, but most of his ramblings make sense. These were an unusual type of Suspense/Thriller. No less a personage than Stephen King thought they were pretty good. I herewith add my "pretty good" to his.

And last, I re-read William Tenn's "Of Men And Monsters." It isn't horror, it's straight science fiction, and one of the most unusual themes I've run across in my long association with the genre, that of humans as nothing more then pests to giant creatures, analogous to us and mice or rats. Try it; you won't be sorry. You may have to go to Amazon to get a used copy.

All right, so much for tool using dogs and books. What else happened around here recently which might be of interest to my readers? Oh yes. Remember Betty's birthday party where she got a new refrigerator and freezer as well as a giant (and I mean giant) bouquet of red roses? Well, being generous souls, we tried to find a needy family for the old refrigerator through our daughter's church, through other networking and so forth. No takers. We then put an ad in a local sheet advertising it for a hundred dollars. We sold it within hours and have had innumerable phone calls since. Human nature is funny. You can't give something away but put a price on it and you have to practically beat off people wanting it.

Back to books for a moment. The original version of The Sex Gates is out as an E-book at Fictionwise.com and eReader.com. A print version and audio version will be out eventually. For all the fans of The Sex Gates, the book which helped me attain my following, this version has a widely divergent ending, is complete in one volume, has more characters and was written alone, rather than with a collaborator. Sometimes it's nice to visit your old work and have a chance to re-edit it and clear up matters and wax eloquent about what you did way back when. I put in a little foreword, too.

My last newsletter drew some responses. One was from a retired educator who likes my style and wanted me to co-author a book on the failings of education in the United States. Me write and him do the research. I had to turn that one down, even though it would have been interesting to do, and there's certainly room for improvement in our educational system, but I have too many other things I want to do right now. Just a note here: until I married Betty and both her daughters became school teachers, I had no real concept of what teachers go through or how many hours they spend at their job. Pat leaves home about 7:30 for the five minute drive to school and rarely makes it home before 5:30 or 6:00, then spends more time grading papers and more time on weekends with various chores related to school. She has so many aggravating situations involving children and the educational bureaucracy that it would drive me insane. For this she makes about 35 K a year. Be glad we have such dedicated types.

Has anyone heard of mirror neurons? They're a special type of neuron which purportedly enable us to mimic other people's actions, or maybe are instrumental in empathy and even perhaps have something to do with "mind-reading" such as old married couples practice. Maybe even real mind reading? I found the subject so interesting that I started a novel using the concept and am well along in it. Go type "mirror neurons" into google, or google scholar and see what you come up with.

A fan wrote me and said nanobots had recently been created which, when injected into the bloodstream of chimpanzees, busily go about unplugging McDonald's clogged arteries. I didn't realize they were so far along (the nanobots, not McDonald's). It was part of a recent program on television. I didn't see it but wish I had. Nanotechnology is another fascinating subject with huge implications for our future.

Remember the relative with all the bad luck, the one whose house burned to the ground? A couple of weeks afterward, he gathered his kids and relatives and they intended to go to the homesite and spend the day sifting through the ashes for family mementos and anything else salvageable. Guess what? Sometime in the days before they arrived, someone or more likely several someones, had gone there, with rakes. They had sifted the ashes thoroughly, taking every single thing that might even possibly have value, including family treasures of no use to anyone except him. Talk about low-life scum! Vultures would be a more apt term.

And last subject for this month. Beginning next month, with the October newsletter, I plan on listing four or five books each month from a list I compiled back around 1990. I called it "The 100 Most Readable (and re-readable) Science Fiction Novels ever published." I made it into an article and had it scheduled for publication when it got cut because of length. I even had a suggestion that I turn it into a book and actually started to, but other events intervened and I never got back to it. Interestingly enough, many of the books I had listed made it into the "Retroactive Hugo Awards." So I guess my tastes in SF aren't all that bad! More about this next month.

Darrell Bain
September 2005
Shepherd, Texas

 

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