I was recently directed back to Garrison Keillor, who hosted one of the two radio shows I listened to growing up.1 Now 80, he writes a very nourishing substack. Here's a taste:
Happiness is circumstantial, bliss is brief, joy is for angels and small children,
contentment is fragile and easily interrupted, gaiety doesn’t happen until eighty, and for jubilation you need to find a good roller coaster and someone to ride it with you and
scream, but cheerfulness is a choice, like choosing chocolate rather than a spoonful of
mud. Take the chocolate.
And it's funny he should say that, because last Saturday I got exactly that choice.
We were with Pavlina's employees on a beautiful spring morning, planting trees for "a New Forest for Sofia." When I'd heard of the project, I'd imagined going up into the mountains to plant rows of Douglas firs like the Communist brigades of old. As we drove deeper into the flat valley north of Sofia, I supposed we'd be rewilding a riverbank. But no, we parked between the wheat and canola and tramped out to join the other teams in what was clearly last-year's cornfield. I suppose someone is just buying whatever land they can and putting trees on it. I'm not sure that will work, but I did see an oak from last year, about two feet tall and surrounded by grass and wildflowers. So far, nobody has driven a tractor over it.
Pavlina, Maggie, Ellie, and I were all issued gloves and (for the adults) shovels, then led out into the field where the rest of Pavlina's team was replacing green-painted markers with trees.
The past week had been gray, chilly and drizzly, and so would the next. But on Saturday, the clouds sailed slowly past us, and did not pause to dump their water. They set forth toward the Balkan Mountain, casting shadows over us like someone was twisting the sun's dimmer switch. The breeze was strong. You couldn't imagine a more perfect day to work outside.
I thought it would be most efficient if I dug several holes at once and then came back and filled them in. How wrong I was. One of the organizers came and told me that the soil would dry out that way. Break up the clumps of dirt and pack them around the sapling so there aren't any air pockets under its roots. Don't put all the soil back in, so you can get a little dip in the ground to catch rainwater around the tree. "I keep explaining this, but there are a lot of idiots —I mean volunteers —who don't listen." I crouched down despite the protests of my hamstrings and pushed my fingers into the dirt.
Before I continue, I should take a moment to explain the concept of a skalichka. A skala (accent on the second syllable) is a big rock or a boulder or a cliff. A skalichka, a "little big rock,"is a Bulgarian treat traditionally made by bakeries from yesterday's leftover cake, molded into a cone and covered in chocolate. Think "aerodynamic brownie."
Anyway, while Pavlina, 10-year-old Maggie and I worked, 7-year-old Ellie found worms to play with. Through the process of natural selection, the worms in our yard have learned to fear her tread. They scream and run for cover, but the worms in this field north of Sofia were more naive. "Look at 'im wriggle!" bellows Ellie as she thrusts her cupped hands toward the disgusted face of one of her mother's team. "He's so pink!" And, "Look, Dad, when I squeeze the dirt and squish it, it turns like clay. Look at the clay, Dad! Look!" And the brown, amorphous object in her hand went right into her mouth.
Now, you know what really happened. I, however, have formed certain expectations about my daughter over the last seven years. She uses her hands instead of a kleenex. She tried to keep a family of oranges under the couch in a warm nest made of her laundered clothes. Once, when I was walking ahead of her after a rain shower, I heard "puddle splash splash! Sluuurp!" She's gross, is what I'm saying. My mind was ready to accept the fact that she's just put a clump of dirt in her mouth and bitten down on the chewy worm center.
I spoke not with anger or shock. I pleaded, "Ellie, don't put dirt in your mouth."
She looked at me. "But, Dad, it's a skalichka."
The mud was in her other hand. To be fair, there was no hand-washing station in sight, and that skalichka really was probably 30% dirt. It would probably do her immune system good.
I still have a ways to go on my journey to cheerfulness. When presented with chocolate and mud, I chose mud. I assumed the worst. Ellie, however, was wiser than me. Wiser than any of us. She chose both.
Hwuh! What else has been going on? My family and I got to hang out with the fascinating and friendly paleontologists Vladi Nikolov and Steve Brusatte, I attended elementary school talent shows, took some good walks in the forest, started doing pull-ups, and I was happy to hear someone wants to make a fan fiction of Fellow Tetrapod. Watch that space.
Fellow Tetrapod itself still refuses to end. I had to go down to two posts a week, but we are still inching toward the finish line. I finally got one of those Royal Road readers who just comments with "thank you for the chapter," which means I must have made it to the big time.
And I read stuff:
The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
I re-read The Shadow of the Torturer last month and found that since I'd read it the first time, I'd grown up some and I enjoyed the book more now. The same is true of The Claw of the Conciliator, although maybe not quite so much. The second book of the New Sun is faster-paced than the first, and I don't actually like that as much. The problems don't seem as hard to overcome. But there is more execution!
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
It's too long, and a bit soapy, but I haven't seen anyone do a better job with people telling each other exactly what they are most afraid of hearing. The heavy scenes spin perilously, and I caught myself saying out loud, "Oh no! Not the Man in the Beanie!"
Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl
Often entertaining, occasionally sexy, but sometimes kind of mean. Mostly, though, these stories are just bizarre. They're essentially long-form dirty jokes. In my opinion, the middle one was funniest.
That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
Remember the ending that Tolkien tacked onto the Lord of the Rings where ancient evil re-branded itself as modernity and cut down the fine old trees of the Shire? This is a whole book of that.
It was interesting to see what worried conservatives right after WWII, but I kept looking for and not finding compassion or humor. The philosophical moralizing got in the way of the characters, plot, and - worst of all - world building. "Macrobes" is a cool idea and I wanted more, darn it.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
Beautiful, thoughtful language describes a failing farm in colonial-era East Africa. I was feeling like I wanted more after reading Going Solo and Wind, Sand, and Stars, and this hit the spot.
Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle
I love a book that tells me about what's out there in the world for me to enjoy, and how to go about doing it. I was given my first cigar on the night before my wedding. If anyone ever gives me another, I'll know what to do with it.
An Immense World by Ed Yong
What's it like to be a nonhuman animal? Let's see how we can find out! Here's a catalog of all the ways we've found that animals experience the world. That's interesting, and what's more interesting is the experiments we did to figure that out.
1"A Prairie Home Companion." The other was "Car Talk."
See you next month
Daniel M. Bensen