February Newsletter: Invitations
I was sitting in the spare room of my mother-in-law's office on Gurko street, writing angrily to another writer. It was Wednesday, and I only have so much time on Wednesdays, but here I was, pouring my bitterness onto a page that nobody else would ever read. That's a good thing, believe me.
Long-time readers of my newsletters will know that I have a tendency to "get bitten" by things I read. I know it's silly, and I am working on it, but the written word still gets under my skin. The current literary irritant came (via substack) to my inbox on Tuesday night, when I was tired and my defenses were down. It was another one of those damn rabble-rousers. "Now is the time to panic," it said. "Killing babies in their cribs," it said. Existential risk!
Which existential risk, exactly? It doesn't matter. You've read stuff like this before. If you're like me, thinking about the end of the world doesn't do you any good. In fact, it does me bad. I'm moody and uncreative, I snap at people, and I have trouble sleeping. So what do I do about it?
The first thing I tried was an approach one of my readers used on me. He started following Fellow Tetrapod after a positive review raised the story's profile on Royal Road, and he seemed to enjoy what I was writing. But then he said he was going to start skimming until General Graa reunited with Mr. Grumbles.
I'll back up and offer some context in case any of you aren't up to date with Fellow Tetrapod: some misguided staff members at the human embassy decide to steal the pet of a powerful alien diplomat. Shenanigans ensue, and now here was this reader was telling me he didn't like the alien being separated from the pet. That's the central conflict of the story.
I reassured him that Mr. Grumbles would be reunited with General Graa at the end and asked him what it was exactly that bothered him. He told me he was reminded of a real story he'd read about a someone whose friends had kidnapped and lost their dog. My reader had, in other words, been bitten. He wanted to make sure he could trust me not to bite him again in that same tender place. Was he being too sensitive? You could ask the same question about me.
Taking to my writer, I tried to say the same thing as my reader had said to me: "I like your blog, but I'm not going to read any more articles about existential risk." I could have said more. In fact, a friend asked me why I didn't. I didn't say more because I don't think it would have done any good.
The metaphor I use in my own head is that a writer is the host and the reader a guest. You invite a stranger in, you sit with them, you serve them something good. Even if you don't have what they need, you're gentle with them. Likewise, as a guest, you're respectful. You might say "no existential risk, please," but you don't hand your host a list of demands. If this isn't the house for you, you just leave.
I received no response from my writer, and next week there came another article about existential risk. I felt like a fool for paying over $100 for a year's subscription to that substack and then cancelling it, but I considered how foolish it would be to continue to get another one of these things every week. Call that hundred dollars a lesson, or at least a sunk cost. I can't say that I "just" left because of all the embarrassing angst you read above, but I did leave. I have better places to be.
There has been a lot of talk about overly-sensitive readers and overly-political writers. I wonder if we can't frame this problem more productively as a breakdown of trust. Can I trust writers to make me feel welcome? Can I trust readers to not to spit my work back into my face? Or is this metaphor not to your liking?
Gentle reader, what do you think?
In other news, Fellow Tetrapod has rounded the corner into the home stretch, still on-track to end sometime before Easter. It has not one but two reviews now, the second of which compares the story favorable to the work of the Strugatsky Brothers. There's very little room for improvement there, as far as praise goes.
There's now quite a lively conversation going on in the comments, and I cordially invite you to take part in it.
I'm also thinking impure thoughts about my new project. Watch out: I have a map and a conlang for this one.
And I read some stuff
Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
Patera Silk gets in deeper trouble as a civil war and foreign invasion coalesce around him. Not that he's aware of that - we readers struggle to keep up with events just as much as he does. Silk's in danger from spies, soldiers, robots, hyenas, robots again, petty dictators, and giant fish, not to mention all these beautiful women. But he does the best he can. Wolfe is such a pleasure to read. Fun fact: the cover is my favorite in all science fiction.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Quintessential Phase by Douglas Adams.
The radio play was not nearly as good as the book. A lot got cut, and the tacked-on happy ending didn't work. I mostly listened to it because I love the theme music and so I can read and enjoy the book that much sooner. I owe this book a lot, from the way I appreciate a sandwich to the way I visualize the higher dimensions. What is it that's printed on the world-destroying tool wielded by petty-minded villains? "Panic."
The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor
There is some violence in these stories, much absurdity, and yes, some bitterness against women. But they're honest and funny. I owe a debt to the friend who reminded me about Garrison Keillor, whose radio show played a big part in raising me. And I seem to have turned out all right. By the way, Keillor's substack is gracious and sweet, and a lot of his books are available free with your audible subscription. Check them out.
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend
This book was recommended to me by Razib Zhan's Unsupervised Learning substack. It was fascinating and even inspirational (keep an eye on my upcoming fantasy story for Aztec influences), and the author clearly loves the subject matter. There were places where I wanted more: what archaeology tells us about pre-conquest history, say, and more from post-conquest written sources. I am a bit suspicious about the lengths Townsend goes to excuse any of the Aztec practices we might not like, while the Spaniards are portrayed as brutal pirates and slavers. But what else can one expect? And a history that leaves you inspired and itching to do more research is a good history.
The Talented Mr. Varg by Alexander McCall Smith
I read this one in the rocking chair in my parents' living room, chuckling to myself. Ulf Varg continues to try to be a good man in a ridiculous world. His dog is still depressed and his dates don't go very well at all. But at least Blomquist likes him! Go, Blomquist!
See you next month.
There was an urge to panic. My body wanted to go vertical and stick my head out of the water while my arms flailed. I wasn't in danger of drowning, I told myself. I was just trying to learn how to breath on my left side while doing the crawl.
The idea came to me at a hotel pool in early December with a shock of terror. I had a long-time student who liked to swim, and I wanted to get the sort of exercise you can't get in a hotel pool. My student was learning techniques for long-distance swimming. Maybe he'd tell me about them. We could have lunch and coffee afterward. Maybe we'd be friends.
That's the sort of weight I tend to put on plans like this, which is why they're so hard to act on. Listening to that fear, I'd close myself up in the attic of my apartment. But other people keep us sane. I needed1 to get out more. Some exercise wouldn't hurt, either.
So, there I was in Sofia's "Palace of Sport," failing to breath bilaterally. I'd take in a breath under my right elbow, stretch my arm, pull it under me...two, three...and I'd remember a moment too late that my face was supposed to be under my left armpit now. What was I doing? Why wasn't there fresh air in my lungs already? Where had all this water come from??!?
The Palace of Sport is actually just around the corner from my office and admission is 8 leva. I'd wanted for years to establish a routine of going there, but only managed to do it once or twice. It just seemed like such a drag to get my swim stuff together and go there and change. The showers are cold and the bathroom is colder. "Here, flip-flops and swim hats are worn," demands the little old lady at the desk, and you'd better not forget it.
And then, what? You splash back and forth for a while? When do you stop? There's a clock on the wall, but I'm so nearsighted, I can't read it. What if I spend too much time in the pool and miss my next class? Worse, what if I haven't spent enough time in the pool and I'm bored? What are you supposed to think about, there in the chlorine, one lap after another?
Bilateral breathing! That's what you think about. "Now we are men," my swim-buddy as we exited the frigid showers. And, you know, he can see the clock without glasses. At lunch, we talked about our kids and long-distance swimming techniques. The proper way at which elbows should be bent and wrists twisted. Kicking is not so important for long distances. What's happening with the social contract between China's government and its citizens? How about the US? The EU? How do we get our kids to read more?
On Tuesday nights I dive into bed, exhausted. On Wednesdays, inspiration sparks between the new connections I've made. Take a deep breath, and stretch your arm into another stroke.
In other news, Fellow Tetrapod continues with new weird creatures every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This week, you can get the Extrusians for free on Royal Road or for a dollar on Patreon, the Sprocket.
"The River God," the short comic that I edited for Simon Roy is now up on his Patreon. It's about bitterness growing monstrous over deep time, and it can be yours for three shiny dollars. More to come from that direction, soon, but in the mean time, here's a meme!
Where will you post this guy, eh?
Finally, there's a new short story on Patreon about mice. I'm thinking about where else I want to post it. It's a political story, which makes it frightening. But shouldn't I do what frightens me? Didn't I just write a whole newsletter about just that thing? Gentle readers, what's your advice?
And I read some books
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton -
I last read Jurassic Park when I was in middle school, and this time around my favorite parts were the technical details. "I can't fix the code because the lead developer didn't leave comments!" "I'm secretly happy the dinosaurs can breed because that means I reconstructed something like real animals." "Of course it's obvious you'd need to use auxiliary power to charge the capacitors before you can start the main generator turbines."
Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean B. Carroll -
I learned about this book from "Evo Devo," a song by acapellascience, and I have to say, I like the song better. Maybe all the surprises were already spoiled for me, because I didn't find much in the book that I didn't already know. I'd recommend that Song and Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin.
Renegade Mage and Heretic Mage by Inadvisably Compelled -
I try not to read more than one book in a given series per month, but these things are like popcorn. I haven't been this entertained since Will Wight's Cradle books. Our hero Callum keeps trying to go live quietly somewhere, but his conscience won't let him. He kills some bad guys and he gets in even more trouble with the corrupt magical government. I enjoy the magic and worldbuilding, and the characters are fine, but most of all I appreciate the pace and the craftsmanship of the plot. Keep going, IC!
The Scarab Mission by James L. Cambias -
This book is the sequel to The Godel Operation, which introduced a sprawling, far-future solar-system and a secret that spanned its history and might destroy it. The stakes of The Scarab Mission are much smaller, and it felt as if Cambias was playing in the sandbox he'd made. The story was occasionally inspired (the finger biting part was delightfully horrible), but the inspired pieces didn't link together. There was a lurking sense of "why does any of this matter?" But I read this on a long plane trip, and didn't mind it so much when the guy in front of me jammed the back of his seat into my knees. So thank you, Cambias.
Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe -
This is a beautiful book that I didn't appreciate nearly enough when I read it for the first time in high school. It follows Patera Silk, a priest on a generation ship. Silk's religion, it quickly becomes clear, is a cult of personality for the dictator who commissioned the ship to be built and installed a digital copy of his mind into its computers. His wife, children, and mistress got to be gods and goddesses too. But none of that matters, because Patera Silk finds real meaning in what he does. He had a religious experience and now he has a church to save.
A second paragraph?? Yes. The cover art that Richard Bober's painted for these books deserve special mention. Even in high school I thought they were gorgeous. Now I can't think of any book covers I like more.
1 Past tense? Ha!
See you next month
It was three days before Christmas and the Missoula Carousel was deserted, but still somehow open. It was somewhere between -6 and -18 degrees outside,1 and big exterior shutters around the big-top-shaped building had been closed to prevent anyone's nose-hairs from freezing off.
I stumbled in, dragged by my children.
The Carousel is a surreal place for me. It was built in the early nineties by a local nonprofit that wanted to put an antique frame and a handful of newly-carved ponies into use. The result is gorgeous. Every pony (not "horse"), gargoyle, and decorated gew-gah is hand-carved and unique. The music is produced by a mechanical organ. The operators are not merely friendly, but kind and engaged, even on a day when no sane person should be there. Even the signs in the bathroom are gentle.
The surreality comes from the fact that my younger daughter Ellie loves the carousel with all her heart, and wants to be there as often as possible and for as long as possible. I've probably logged days there at this point —jetlagged, sleep-deprived, motion-sick, or just regular old virus-sick —watching things go around and around.
The rule of thumb for jet lag is you feel it for about as many days as the time zones you've crossed. There are nine hours of difference between my home in Bulgaria and my parents' house in Montana, and we'd there for a week. I was just about feeling like I should be awake and not asleep, except I'd also caught an exotic North American virus. My guts and joints did not feel up to the task of existing, but Pavlina needed to shop for presents and my kids needed those ponies. I handed over the bag of tokens, piled all of our winter clothes onto the chair next to me, and just sort of sagged there, feeling warmed-over.
I didn't listen to an audio-book. I was trying to cut back; I wanted to be more open to experiences. I can now call that experiment a success, but at the time I wanted to experience being nauseous at the carousel a little bit less. The girls got on and off the carousel, the smiling, hugely-bearded operator let them try to pluck the brass ring from the mouth of a wooden dragon,2 and things went around and around.
But like I said, they were the only kids on the thing. December 22nd is not usually a popular day, especially when it's nearly twenty below, and the operator had reasonably scheduled the electricians to come in and fix some lights. He had absolutely no reason to apologize, but he did and offered to give us a tour of the workshop where they made the ponies.
The operator wasn't the carpenter/tour-guide, that was John, a smaller man with a smaller beard. He showed us the large, blank pieces of wood that could be fitted together and carved into a new pony. There are 41 of them (38 on the carousel at any given time) and each one has a name, a mythology, and a story of who built it and why. John teaches carving classes every week, which produce about one new pony a year.3 I told him I wished I could join the classes, but I live in Sofia, where the only places with this much craftsmanship and attention to detail are churches. John liked that.
It was my goal on this vacation to be more open, not only to experiences, but to people. I wanted to hear their stories and include them in mine. I think I succeeded, even at times when I felt like sausage being thawed in a microwave.
Now I'm back in Sofia, the last vestiges of jet lag giving way to what might be a new virus, my first week of classes and writing mostly behind me. I think I can do this. I think I can stay open.
In other news, Fellow Tetrapod has successful ended its Christmas hiatus and embarked on its second half. If you like cooking, office politics, and speculative evolution, you can read the story so far for free on Royal Road or one week in advance on Patreon.
I can also now talk about my project with Simon Roy. A comic set on his deep-future, post-human-haunted Earth, "The River God" is about finding meaning in regret and relativistic space-travel. There's a giant woman in it!
I'm sure Simon has plans to publish this for free at some point. For now, though, you can read the whole thing only on his Patreon. In my humble opinion, it's worth the $3.
And I read a few books:
Valuable Humans in Transit and Other Stories by qntm
This is a thoughtfully-constructed collection. All of the stories have some bearing on the theme, most notably the first and last. The author's most popular recent story "Lena" gets pride of place in the middle of the book, and it's given a sequel. This is the sort of science fiction I wish more people would write. Qntm is not immune to techno-pessimism, and his taste sometimes slides into outright horror, but he hangs a star of hope above it all.
There is no Antimemetics Division by qntm
I read this when it was serialized on the SCP website, bought the ebook when it came out, then waited a while to re-read it because this book is nightmarish. I mean that precisely; qntm skillfully captures that moment of horrible realization that both recognizes the monster and causes it to manifest. It's right behind you.
The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus
I listened to this as an audiobook, which means I now have to go back and read the thing. All I've got so far as images: a cat perched over an anthill, Sisyphus with his cheek pressed to the rock. I think a re-read will be worth it.
The Iron Gate by Harry Connolly
I was disappointed by this book. I enjoyed the previous Twenty Palaces novels and I was glad that Connolly found a way to continue the series as indie-published books. However, this one was in need of an editor. The mystery works fine at first: Ray Lily is trapped in a pocket-universe with people forced to act out cartoonish roles. How can he wake them up and get out? No spoilers, but then things get simple and easy: kill the bad guy. The whole thing felt half-baked and didn't incline me to read the next one.
Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle
A cute little story about an ad executive from London who has a midlife crisis and opens a hotel in Provence. There's a tiny bit of a bank heist going on, but mostly it's about choosing the right kind of marble for the footpath to the swimming pool. I enjoyed it like a chilled white wine with goat cheese under the shade of an olive tree.
2 The dragon's name is Lucky Red Ringer.
3 If my memory serves me correctly.
So there I was. I'd torn my nail on a rainbow trout.
It was a gray-green day on the northern slopes of the Pirin Mountain. Maggie, Ellie, and I were tagging along on Pavlina's team-building weekend, which, today, included a visit to a fish farm/restaurant. One could catch fish there. Could the girls catch fish there? Pavlina was nervous about hooks and falling into the water, but decided to stop worrying and go into the restaurant for fish, fries, and beer.
I also decided to stop worrying. That was my goal on this trip: practice having a good time and giving a good time to others. Next step: my daughters. Did they want to catch fish? You bet they did!
The fish farm consisted of a pair of round pools, each about ten meters across, dug into the side of a hill. Water from up-slope could spend some time with the fish before it cascaded majestically into a fern-hung ravine. A tall metal fence stopped us from joining the ferns, while the fish were protected by an ankle-high construction of wood and what looked like electrified wire. Perhaps the management felt that it was only fair to fry a tourist for every few dozen fish.
At first glance, the pools themselves seemed empty. The only fish immediately in evidence was a single albino trout, hanging like a holy banana over the tannin-colored fallen leaves. After we'd made the culturally required references to The Golden Fish and took a closer look, all the other fish appeared. They were mostly rainbow trout, a North American fish called in Bulgarian syomgova pastarva or "salmon-trout" — brown, spotted backs above the deeper, darker, much longer shapes of sturgeon. We didn't try to catch the sturgeon.
The fishing poles provided by the management were three meters of plastic strung with line and a little hook on the end. They gave you some bread to use as bait and, if you remembered to ask, a bucket to put your fish in. I was afraid someone would get stuck with the hook, so I held it and pressed the lump of damp bread on while Maggie held the end of the rod, telling me to let go.
She lowered the hook into the water and I barely had a chance to breathe out before she caught a fish.
Now the hell what? There was some debate about whether we wanted to eat this fish or not. And I had not remembered to ask for a bucket. At least I would get the fish off the hook. That was easy. Then it went into the smaller holding pool where the catch-and-release fish could get over their stress.
Now it was Ellie's turn. The pole was about three times her height, this time we would kill and eat this fish, and whoop! She caught one.
Ellie backed up, screaming with shock and delight into the penduluming face of the trout. She jumped up and down, but by this time I'd grabbed the line just over the fish's mouth. I caught hold of its mucus-coated body and removed hook. I didn't so much put it in the bucket as direct my hands toward the bucket in time to let it wriggle slimily in. Now what? Was I supposed to bash it on the head? I didn't. Next time, I swore I would.
It was an unwise oath. A third fish heaved in my hands, and my reflexes cleverly decided that there was no way to stop this fish from escaping. Stupidly, however, they also decided that it was Very Important for the trout to go into the recovery pool rather than the general population. I made a diagonal lunge, adding my shove to the trout's wriggle, sending it flying neatly into the safety of the recovery pool. This put my center of gravity right over the nearest sturgeon.
Reflexes again took over. My right hand swooped to clutch the tiny fence that ringed the pool. This broke like a graham cracker. My hand, holding half a shattered fence post, dug into the mud, and robbed the fish of their revenge. The electric wire might have helped. Very fortunately, it wasn't turned on.
So, out of the three fish my kids caught, we managed to eat one of them. It was good, but unfortunately we'd filled up on french fries, so we didn't enjoy it as much as we might have. I didn't notice my nail until we were leaving, relieved to be back out in the damp chill, rather than the over-heated, fish-smelling interior of the restaurant. The nail plates of my right middle and ring fingers don't go all the way to the tip (some of the few remaining scars of my cancer surgery six years ago) and so this sort of thing happens periodically. It's a price I'd gladly pay again to see my daughters scream like that.
What a month November was. I feel like I ran a marathon at a sprint, recovering from each collapse only long enough to dash out on the next. I'm going to make sure January is calmer (because it's too late for December to be calm). And I should have some interesting news in my next newsletter.
As of now, though, all I can say is I poured all my creative energy into my speculative-evolution-and-cooking serialized web novel Fellow Tetrapod. The first half of the story (about 70K words) is now available for free on Royal Road, and I think you'll like it. Go read it if you haven't already, and I'll have more for you in January.
And I read some stuff. Actually some good stuff.
Metamancer: A Hard Progression Fantasy by OscarWilder
This is an in-progress web serial on Royal Road. I've tried several stories on this platform and this and Paranoid Mage stand out. Metamancer is mostly a standard portal fantasy, where a ex-marine soon-to-be dad finds himself teleported to a fantasy world. I was intrigued when the main character fails to get what he wants despite his skills and intelligence, but I wasn't hooked until he tells a character with a magic lie-detector ring, "I'm not from this world. I don't have magic. I just want to get home to my wife and unborn child." The ring flashes on that last statement. The last sentence was a lie.
This story has some bite and isn't bad, either. There's a litRPG class and progression system, but this turns out to just be an artifact of the main character's subconscious, rather than the usual real-life video game. I recommend it.
My Life in France by Julia Child
Living in Bulgaria as I do, I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what sort of foreigner I should be. Julia Child is as close to my model as you're likely to get in print. She flung herself into French life with a cheerful ferocity that is almost frightening. She grabs the people around her, digs in her fingers, and takes a deep, appreciative breath. Delightful!
The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith
For some reason, I went into this book thinking it was "McCall Smith does urban fantasy." It is not. It is a sweet, sedate, and bemused slice of life with mysteries. The Ladies' Detective Agency with more hair. The sex, the politics, and the moral struggles are all the more powerful for their understatement. This is a gentle book, warm and human with only the merest whiff of wolf.
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner
This book's mission is to use declassified CIA internal memos to determine whether America's intelligence community succeeded in its mandate to prevent a second Pearl Harbor. "No," it answers. Weiner's characterization of the CIA is a pack of charlatans, dilettantes, and do-nothing sinecures who only occasionally take a break from meaningless report-writing to engineer a fiasco. I can't help but feel a lack of objectivity. I suppose I'll need to find another in-depth report on American secret intelligence to form an opinion.
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
I first read this book way back in middle school, and I had forgotten almost everything about it. The only memories I had going in was that Dirk Gently slept upside-down like a bat, there's a robot that believes things for you, and something about music and coelacanths. What I got this time was Douglas Adams trying to deal with an idea that wouldn't fit comfortably into either Dr. Who or The Hitchhiker's Guide, and also trying to write a Novel. It's sweet and nutty. Occasionally excellent and unfailingly entertaining, even when it doesn't make sense.
Night Train to Memphis by Elizabeth Peters
Egyptologist Barbara Mertz wrote under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters about a medieval art historian named Vicky Bliss who pretended to be an Egyptologist walking in the footsteps of Amelia Peabody Emerson, another of Mertz's characters. Egyptian revolutionaries, international antiquities smugglers, international police, Vicky's boss, Vicky's lover and his new bride, and her potential mother-in-law are all out to either get/protect her. It was fun and frantic, but everything happened for a reason. Not tangled, in fact, but densely woven.
Nation by Terry Pratchett
I enjoyed this somewhat less on the second read than on the first (when the ending made my cry). I think the difference is that now I've had my own brush with death, and I reached different conclusions from Pratchett. But that's okay. He makes his point well. Still five stars.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
"...my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they *did* love...literary academia was split into warring camps of deconstructionsits, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading 'texts' in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written."
I usually stay far away from literary analysis, which poisons my desire to write. In the above quote from the introduction to her book, Prose promises she won't do that to you. She also implies that she'll dig into the question of what there is to love about literature. She delivers on both. Why choose one word over another? Why pause to describe a scene, and how? Did you see that? Did you see what the author did there? Isn't that sublime? You can do it too.
I'm now working my way through Prose's bibliography.
From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C. Dennett
Daniel Dennett sets out to reconcile materialism with our subjective experience of having minds. He seems to be satisfied where he ended up, but he lost me somewhere along the way. I would say this is not a good book to listen to as an audiobook - it needs your full attention. I am grateful though, that I caught Dennett's dissection of the question "why" into "what for" and "how come." I'll go back and read this book to pick up the other gems I missed the first time.
See you next month.
She Done Me Wrong
(see the original post on Patreon for more pictures and links)
So, there I was, mad at my mother in law.
Pavlina and I take pre-bedtime walks. Often she's mad at someone at work, and I have to talk her down. This time the roles were reversed, and what my anger lacked in frequency it made up in intensity. Pavlina tried agreeing with me ("yes, it is unfair"). She tried disagreeing with me ("no, the budgie room really was a mess"). "What have you read recently?" She asked, trying to divert me onto other topics. I told her I didn't want to talk about what we were reading and just stomped along in silence for a few minutes. Pavlina, the Ferrari of wives, waited patiently.
I started at the surface. It's late at night. Too late to get angry about how dirty the budgie room is. It's a mean trick to tell the girls that the budgies will die if their room is too messy. This is just you, mother in law, getting tired and throwing a tantrum at the end of the day.
But I'd just read Nonviolent Communication (see below), which said that my job in an argument was not to judge or to diagnose. That made me angrier! What was wrong with me that I couldn't follow the precepts of Marshal Rosenberg? And what were they again?
You made me...no wait...I am angry because you...because I was having father-daughter-time watching cartoons with the girls and suddenly you're up in the budgie room yelling at them. The story I'm telling myself (with a nod to Brene Brown) is that you're jealous of the girls and want them doing things with you and not with me and that's...not true. Whew!
This had all happened internally, and it felt a bit silly to say it out loud to Pavlina. What sort of idiot am I that I come up with all these rationalizations for the rivalry between son- and mother-in-law, a story so cliche that entire languages have evolved ways to deal with it? And I felt selfish.
Why selfish, I wondered. My other father-daughter time is taking the girls to the park, where they play with their friends and I read stuff on my phone. Did I feel guilty about that? Yes. Especially since what I'd read was a Substack newsletter.
Since I subscribed to a bunch of Substack newsletters in the summer, I had stopped reading the Economist so much. The newsletters were more gripping, somehow, more vivid. Given the choice, I reached for them rather than the news magazine. I knew that by doing so I was eating my ice cream before my broccoli, but I hadn't done anything about it.
Anyway. This newsletter I read in park. It was a story about an American man (presumably real) who's wife done him wrong. She called the cops after he yelled at her. The cops put the man in the system. The system made the man go to counseling. When the man was at counseling, he wasn't working, and the wife divorced him. The story ends with the wife and her unemployed boyfriend living off the husband's alimony payments while he only refrains from suicide because he wants to see his children. She done him wrong!
You can see why this story gripped me, a husband and father who's worried about the news coming out of his home country. And you can see why then I went home and got mad at my mother-in-law. Yes, the story I read on Substack was designed to upset me and manipulate my emotions. No, it didn't have much to do with my actual problem and certainly didn't suggest a solution. It was ridiculous of me to take this fable written by some guy on Substack and map it onto my life. And yet, I kept thinking of that unemployed boyfriend. I kept thinking she done me wrong!
I admitted all this to Pavlina, and finally it was out of me. Yes, I had been quite silly, but saying it made me less so. And I could take some credit. I'd unsubscribed from that newsletter before that fight about the budgie room. Even before I blew up, I knew that something was off. The story I'd read had hooks, and I was wise enough to cut off their source.
My friend Paul Venet told me about how when he was an art teacher, he made his students read the newspaper between classes. "Because it was a class on anatomy and perspective, and the news is full of anatomy and perspective!" I didn't ask him what he meant by that because we only had an hour to talk, but anyway I know that I need to read the news. Without it, I would have less to talk about with friends, and to inspire my stories. But you are what you eat.
No, I haven't quit Substack. I just unsubscribed from that newsletter (and, later in the month, a few others). The ones left, like the Economist, ought to inform rather than convince. They're for me to eat, rather than the reverse.
In other news, Fellow Tetrapod finished its first month of serialization with 20 followers and some inspiring comments. By now (the middle of November) there's more. I think the experiment is working so far. You can read a more detailed introspection here (scroll down).
I haven't had much time for non-Fellow-T stuff, but I did work a little on the script for the First Knife sequel (Pavlina calls it "Second Spoon"). Artyom (now safe in an undisclosed location) matched the words to his flabbergasting pictures.
I made a pretty picture of my own and a short Halloween story to go with it. And I found out about maptoglobe.com.
Finally, I read some books last month.
The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
This book seems to me like a sequel for the sake of a sequel. The Moties are a species driven by biology to expand endlessly if they ever get out into interstellar space. Oops, looks like they're going to get out (this was rather deftly foreshadowed, by the way). And who better to negotiate the compromise between we-annihilate-them and they-annihilate-us than a man who was horribly traumatized the last time he met Moties? Despite that potentially interesting problem, we don't get much character development. Worse, the problem of and solution to the Moties isn't very interesting. But I do want to go back and read A Mote in God's Eye.
Taste: My Life through Food by Stanly Tucci
Unlike many celebrity writers, Tucci doesn't posture. He actually has important things he wants to say. He keeps a very narrow focus on his personal experience, recounting whole conversations from memory (he must keep a very good diary) and observing himself and others with an eye that can be ironic or even disapproving, but never cruel. And of course he's funny.
If this were just a collection of a celebrity's conversations and experiences with food and other celebrities, it would have been good enough. But then we get to the part of the book that covers the last three years. I've read a lot about the Pandemic, but more importantly, I've lived it. Tucci captured the experience with a gentle vulnerability that I haven't seen anywhere else. There's the other thing, too. It came as a surprise to me, and I want it to be a surprise to you too. Go read this book.
The Fist That Opens the Heart by Conradin
I read the short stories of the Rational Fiction Fest 2022, and this is my favorite. It was good enough that I recounted the story over cocktails (on a WEEKNIGHT!) to a couple of friends: a great kung fu hero invents a technique that solves his enemies psychological problems. He fights an Eastern sorcerer and breaks his enemy's urge to feel powerful. Crunch. Now the sorcerer is a peaceful teacher of the Nine Precepts. Then the hero turns his power on the narrator of the story. It's a cool premise well-executed.
Paranoid Mage by Inadvisably Compelled
This might be the most fun I've had with a book all year. That sense that the whole world goes away and now it's 5pm. The last time I was so transported by a novel was the Martian. I cannot thank Inadvisably Compelled enough for consuming my weekend.
Paranoid Mage is about a man (rather than a boy) who finds out he's part of a secret magical world. And you have a rare kind of magic. Congratulations. Now it's time to train you up for the epic war we're fighting on another world.
Our protagonist is having none of that. He escapes and goes off the grid. The problem is that he doesn't know what the grid _is_. He can see magic, but he can only barely use it. Who can he trust to train him and not turn him in? But without training, he doesn't stand a chance against the magical police, who are hunting him down. It's a fascinating dilemma.
Count to Infinity by John C. Wright
This book could have been really, really good. It (or at any rate the series that it concludes) could have been a genre touch-stone like A Fire Upon the Deep. Instead, it's just ambitious.
Here is one of my two most memorable lines in the book:
"I have two salt and pepper shakers back home shaped like two famous statues of you and her. When you put the shakers together on the tablecloth, they kiss. It is really sweet. You are the pepper."
The problem is, this is only one moment of two. The emotional and philosophical notes are all there. The plot and worldbuilding support them. But I very rarely found myself believing that these are real people. Otherwise, it's all "he went there and did this and had that conversation." A summary, rather than a story.
And then there is the utter, I'd even say contemptuous lack of editing. What was Tor doing? Certainly not pushing Wright to produce a manuscript closer to its potential, and then waiting to print it until it was ready. We get out-and-out typos like "darks stars." That's a shame. It's as if we only got a sketch of the Sistine Chapel fresco because the Pope and Michelangelo couldn't get over their personal feud.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Like so many other pop-sci behavioral economics books, Predictably Irrational is solidly mired in its time. It was the pre-2010s, nobody wanted another Financial Crisis, economists were trying to prove they weren't evil, and the Replication Crisis had yet to begin. There's a bit of "I'm not saying we should run the world like Burning Man, but I went to Burning Man and it was great!"
As usual, what I liked best were the personal stories. Ariely had some real things happen to him, but understandably doesn't talk much about his traumatic medical past. Mostly he talks about fooling undergraduates into making silly decisions. I approve.
Uncrowned by Will Wight
I'd forgotten that Uncrowned and Wintersteel weren't the same book, and was disappointed that this book wasn't Wintersteel :) But aside from that, this - my second reading - gave me a better look at Will Wight's craft. It's interesting to see how he grows his world to keep ahead of both the readers and his main character. Characters and countries that before were only mentioned in passing, now get their full-color backstories. The towering god-like powers of the last book are now (relative to Lindon) only somewhat impressive, the subsidiaries of even greater titans. Only a small amount of ret-conning is required. It's a solid piece of work.
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg
This book was recommended by a introspective friend, bent on doing and being better. I was a little hesitant to start something so serious, but like my friend, this book is gentle above all. The basic premise is that people are driven to violence by their emotional needs. Fulfill the needs, and the violence evaporates. It's good theory, which Rosenberg supports with stories from himself and others. An argument in a taxi is averted. A battle of wills turns back into a negotiation. A woman defuses her would-be rapist. Strong, useful stuff.
See you next month
The Good Fishes
This post appeared one week earlier on my patreon
There's a fish shack on the Danube, just up-stream from Srebarna: Restorant Krai Rekata. The cook fries whatever was brought in that day, or else you can get the stew.
I ate my catfish steak with french fries and beer, thinking of the Ancient Egyptians and the meals they must have enjoyed. I didn't speak much.
None of us adults felt much like talking, and it wasn't entirely because we were living mindfully in the moment. I remember eating my fish with a sort of spiteful relish. It was delicious; I was having a good time despite our guest.
It's hard fighting with your friend. Harder still during a road trip, when you're trapped together in the car while your wife is trying to overtake a truck. Pavlina put a stop to the argument, but of course it continued to flow under the surface.
We had all the rest of our trip that day: lunch, checking into the guest house, the natural history museum, the nature walk, and now dinner.
There was a time when I would have just wallowed in resentment. No, I'm fine. It's just I can't enjoy this stuffed owl, those distant pelicans, the bee-eaters swooping brilliantly above our heads. It's fine! The birds are ugly and the fish is bitter.
Instead, I took a Valerian pill. I figured out what a generous, compassionate person would do. I found some time to get my thoughts out on paper, and I talked with Pavlina. Most of all, I tried to suspend judgment and watch. I wasn't entirely successful, but when I saw a praying mantis or a bee-eater, I was happy.
As evening closed in, Pavlina got up from the picnic table and walked off by herself. I followed her, suppressing my desire to reach in and fix things. We just stood there, looking at the river, commenting on the pale shells in the darkening water.
We thought at first they were fireflies. Little green spots plipped out and over the surface. Experimentally, I tossed in a rock. Was that splash bright only because it reflected the lights from the fish shack? No.
I'd been looking for this for years, although I'd never expected to find it in fresh water. Wherever it was disturbed, the river glowed.
I don't know whether we called over our friend and the girls or whether they came to join us on their own recognizance. Either way, we stood there, watching, talking about what might be responsible for the sea sparkle.*
You lunge into the stream of consciousness and your feelings scatter. You don't know you're miserable, but you still crave a solution. "How can I get this vacation back on track?" "How can I fix you?" That won't work. Just watch them. Some thoughts are sweet, others salty. Some are not for you to fry. Briefly, some of them shine.
Another month of vacation, and you know I didn't write much. I did, however, draw, which is something I want to do more of. I also created a new website and I'd very much appreciate feedback on it. What do you think? Is there anything you'd like to see, but aren't seeing?
I prepared materials for Chicon, and you might like to see the presentation I made for my workshop on Speculative Evolution. Recordings are forthcoming, I think. Wealthgiver is still available for beta-reading. And stay tuned for news about Fellow Tetrapod, which I will begin serializing in October.
And I read some stuff.
Radical Candor by Kim Scott - pretty good IT management advice
The author is thoughtful and, despite a certain preoccupation with "bias," pragmatic. Scott talks about her own mistakes with some real vulnerability, and makes the much-needed point that it's a manager's job to be human.
The Inhabited Island by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – "Nowhere do they live more stupidly."
According to the afterword in the English edition, the Strugatsky brothers wanted The Inhabited Island to be "unadulterated, toothless entertainment." They then went on to write something as toothless and entertaining as a Tyrannosaurus. A Communist super-man from the future Soviet Union crash-lands on the rump of a defeated empire, populated by brainwashed prisoners who treat each other even more cruelly than the paranoid, belligerent state. It cuts right to the bone.
"And there are many such spheres in existence on which people live far worse than you do, and some on which they live far better. But nowhere do they live more stupidly."
Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – many good ingredients fail to combine
This is another of Crichton's historical dramatizations, but where he turned the Great Gold Robbery into a story, he was less successful with pirates. There are lots of ingredients - drinking, fighting, pillaging, betrayal, beautiful witches, sea monsters – but it fails to cohere. At the end, there's a seductive beauty, and I struggled to remember which one she was supposed to be. It seems this book was published posthumously, and so it probably lacked the final revision that Crichton was planning to make.
Atomic Habits by James Clear - rather like The Power of Habit
I put off reading Atomic Habits for a while because I thought there would be too much overlap between it and The Power of Habit. I was right. There's a bit of personal stuff about Clear's head trauma, which I appreciated, but then I wanted more. I guess I like anecdotes. Oh! Here's one of mine: a friend read Atomic Habits and followed its advice to a new job and losing a bunch of weight. She runs marathons now. So, read this one or The Power of the Habit and you should be fine.
Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven - a retired Admiral expands on that commencement speech he gave
I guess my expectations were too high for this one. It's good advice: make your bed in the morning so you begin the day with one task well done. Then go out and do some more. Yes, I like it, and the rest of the stories McRaven shares from his time in basic training. I have to say, though, I got more out of Leadership Strategy and Tactics by Jocko Willinck. Maybe McRaven was too high-ranking to share any of the really good stories.
Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe - Now Latro is wandering around Egypt!
This book might be a little easier to follow than the first two in the series, or else I've gotten better at reading between the lines and figuring out what's going on. Latro, a brain-damaged proto-Roman mercenary, is sent on a mission to find the source of the Nile while trying to either cure or come to terms with his inability to remember and his ability to see gods and monsters. It may be that he's a better person with his affliction than without it. Also: wizards, ancient curses, crocodile women, and fried fish with beer. Delicious.
That's Not What I Meant! By Deborah Tannen - no, you're both wrong
You never asks a question to which the answer might be "no." But you always clearly ask for what you want. Each of you assume that the other shares your communication style. You're both wrong, but this is a problem that can be solved.
Compared with The Culture Code, "That's Not What I Meant" is more rigorous and grounded in research (as you'd expect from a professor of socio-linguistics). The best parts, for me, are the rich anecdotes about the various ways minds fail to meet and conversations go off the rails. My one criticism is that Tannen is too enamored of cross-cultural differences - it's been my experience that even people in the same family can play by totally different conversational rules. But I loved these lectures. I'll use them in my communication classes.
See you next month.
*It might have been ostracods, or the same species of dinoflagellate that produces red tides. The fireflies were fish, covered in plankton.
Daniel M. Bensen