September Newsletter: The Vacuum Brush

So there I was, tiptoeing off the one non-creaky floorboard, executing a graceful leap to the tile floor of our apartment’s cloak-room, trying not to wake up Pavlina. It was like my fifth trip to the bathroom, and it was 2am.

Sleeping felt like unspooling hair from the brush of a vacuum cleaner. I’d grab a tangle and pull, but the motor pulled back in the other direction. I couldn’t free the motor to continue its natural motion unless I forced it into reverse. I could not, in other words, switch off and unwind.

I pass through the door
(Cool breeze under hot sun)
And into autumn.

I hadn’t even noticed that the tension was there until bed time. I’d gotten up that morning all right, taken my shower, and dropped Ellie off at nursery school. Then off to Maggie’s first day of school. In Bulgaria, that’s a big deal. On the first day of first grade, you put on your prettiest dress or most gentlemanly little suit* and your parents take you to your classroom, where there are balloons and your books wrapped in ribbons. The teacher gives a speech and feeds you honey and bread. A platoon of enormous 12th-graders escorts you down to the playground, where you line up with all the other students for another speech, performances by the school’s folk music and rock bands, then more speeches. Daddy locks his spine and stands there, wishing that he had a hat and that kids these days didn’t have so many tattoos.

We were out by 11am. We played outside, went out to lunch, went home. I relaxed and worked on my Thracian conlanging – I even had a good idea for a plot point connecting the language and mythology in Wealthgiver. I took the girls to the park, and I had a whole conversation there with the other parents in Bulgarian. A huge milestone for me.

I didn’t realize until bedtime that I’d been bracing myself all day. I’d propped myself up in the school during the speeches, and again at lunch and in the park. I couldn’t let myself relax because I was standing on the edge of a precipice. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Maggie, standing in that school’s playground, alone amidst all the kids and teachers. The only thing I could remember from my first day of school was being dropped off, and realizing my parents were gone.

Through three panes of glass
Moonlight is much refracted
But still it’s there.

1st grade isn’t like nursery school. The kids get homework. Their teachers push them. The other kids might be jerks. It’s one step closer to Real Life, which I can only occasionally handle. How could I be sure my daughter would be all right?

Of course I couldn’t be sure. One of the properties of Real Life is that there are no assurances that things will be all right. All we can do is prepare ourselves as best we can, then see what happens. In my case, there’s an intermediate step where I take 100mg of diphenhydramine hydrochloride, which put me to sleep so I wasn’t a zombie on Maggie’s first real day of school.

And it was okay. Maggie went to school. She’s been going to school for two weeks (ahem, three weeks now, since I’m so late getting this newsletter out). She’s learning how to read and add. She tried to learn how to lie about doing her homework, and instead learned that that she shouldn’t lie about doing her homework. The other day, she translated a Russian cartoon, which…what? How? After just two weeks of Russian class? Today is the first day of swimming lessons in the big pool. I even managed to go home early and take a nap that day after I stayed up worrying. My apartment was empty because all my screaming babies are in school now!

Fall has begun and the cold air balances the hot sunlight. The Virginia creeper has turned the color of cranberries, and, three years ago, I was recovering. Sometimes things turn out better than it is possible for us to hope.

A few yellow leaves
The smell of seared capsaicin
From a chushkopek

September saw me get back into harness and start pulling again. I have begun the beta revision of Interchange, the sequel to Junction, and I’m now about halfway through. This second time is more work because I’m constrained by the scenes I’ve already written, but there’s fun to be had in making things deeper and better researched.

I’ve also been meddling with my team’s efforts to finish the first three issues of…that thing I can’t talk about. But it’s coming! In January!

And I am basically done with the vocabulary of Thracian. Now comes the grammar and eventually the phonology. It’s kind of sad not to have that mental health exercise of patiently copying entrees from one spreadsheet into another, but look at this! I can make it rhyme!

Kapt kapēnon ainē kesa
Byźai darsai hupo desă.
Ebru, aiźi, byźaskă
Skalmon, bleptē, bruzaskă,
Asăn ivălwent ta uper siksen
Kăpă pe ta ve abbrinksen.

Da spilsen opē rinkon strymē
Parăn dan, śam tară dymă.
Źerē ibutwe mygēnē.
Zymē merēper udrēnē.**
Ki byźas eski pyrăn źilmăn,
Aigis pie robton saimon.

Yes, I did fiddle with the transliteration again. <ē> is e as in cafe or latte <ă> is u as in mud, or duck <ź> is th as in clothes or these, <ś> is th as in thin or thimble, and <y> is a rounded “ee” sound as in German über. What do you think? Too confusing?

And the translation:

There were one time
Some brave goats under heaven.
A kid, a nanny goat, and a billy goat
Clever, loyal, and tough
Who wanted to prance up
A hill to fatten themselves.

But blocked a swift-flowing river
Their path, with an evil guardian.
A slimy beast she was
A very great water dragon.
As a goat eats green corn
A serpent sucks blood.

Eh? Pretty good, huh? No, I didn’t delay sending out this newsletter until I had figured out those rhymes! Pft! Where did you get that idea?

And I got something published this month. The SFWA blog snapped up “Transportation,” my essay on trauma and its kinship to the ability of fiction to grip and transport us. I’ve gotten some very kind feedback from it, and I’m thinking about doing more for SFWA. I’ve started reading their blog, and I generally find it useful and interesting.

The essay and its reception also got me thinking about reaching out to a wider audience. So this month I’m experimenting with posting this newsletter to the public as well as sending it to the email list. Let’s see how that goes. (And don’t worry, people on the mailing list – you’ll still get preferential treatment unavailable to the grubby plebeians).

That may be another reason I’m so late getting this newsletter out. It’s a bit scary to write something that strangers might read.

…said the novelist.

(cough) Anyway! Here’s some stuff I enjoyed in September:

The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks – Wow! Weeks has been through some stuff since he started this series. The first couple of books were fun and ambitious with a few structural problems, then their characters started to take religion seriously and suffer. The transition was a bit wobbly and I almost didn’t pick up Blood Mirror (the fourth in the series), but now we’ve switched over to the new track, and it’s a very good track indeed. Bad things really happen, and the characters really deal with them. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten better marriage advice from an epic fantasy book.

3zekiel by Peter Cawdron – This book began splendidly with a missionary’s son in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who just happens to live underneath a space elevator being built by aliens. The ending got a bit thin. Cawdron needed one more revision to put some meat on those bones. But I enjoyed it. I’m going to read more independent fiction and more stuff from this guy in particular.

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark – There’s some very good stuff in here about the Cosmic Microwave Background and author’s work to examine it for asymmetries that would suggest that the universe is finite in size (spoiler: there aren’t any). An interesting description of the inflation of the early universe and the creation of space, as well. Some more dubious efforts to explain why the author thinks the universe is a mathematical object. And I was not at all amused by the list of ways the universe might break at any moment and kill us all. So, three stars?

The How to Raise a Parent podcast – it’s nothing revolutionary, and it’s right on the edge of being too much of an advertisement for…some kind of milk company? But they did give me some good ideas.

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance – the first Jack Vance book I finished! And it’s all because of that meddling Simon Roy and his illustrations of the dragons. It’s a good story about what one might call irreconcilable cultural differences. (No, no, you don’t understand. You see, we want to enslave you. What is it about the concept of utter subjugation do you find so hard to grasp?) As Lord Vetinari said, there are no good guys and bad guys, just bad guys on different sides.

Kolobok – the delightful cartoon that Maggie translated for me. I enjoyed it so much, I made a kolobok for myself!

It was good.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold – A reread, with an eye to Bujold’s process. I get the feeling this one was more outlined than the others. Or maybe an experiment with a slower, more slice-of-life novel. Whatever it was, it was different from previous novels in the Vorkosigan series and it didn’t quite work for me. It only really gelled during the denouement, which was excellent. So it’s still worth reading, but you should read the other books in the series first.

Veritasium – Kim recommended this and I love it! Think Mythbusters, but with a bit more journalism and much more science. Expect the intermediate axis theorem to show up in Interchange!

The Fall or Dodge in Hell by Neil Stephenson – yeah, the reviewers are right. The book stars with a lovely, heart-piercing, scintillant treatise on death and subjective experience. You should buy the book, read that first chapter, then give the book to someone else so that they can read the first chapter. The rest of it goes steadily downhill. Although I do sympathize with the author’s disgust with social media, I don’t think the answer is MMORPGs.

How To by Randall Munroe – Pavlina and I have a new in-joke now: “When you see Australia, it’s time to slow down.” This book is a lot of fun, and it finally explained time dilation as you approach light speed in a way that makes sense. I need to get me one of them magic scooters.

Neon Prey by John Stanford – the bad guys needed a bit more in this one. They were gross as hell, but they didn’t quite click. It was nice that the sidekick got a boyfriend, though.

The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone – I didn’t like the writing, but the history was interesting. There was a very brief window between 1890 and 1910 when you could be an agricultural spy for the American government, ship in a bunch of lemons from China, and transform the Californian economy. Heady times. Also, there’s an eccentric millionaire who just really liked to hang out with botanists? Bully for him!

Phew. I finally wrote this thing. Now to find some new stuff to do in October before I have to write the next newsletter 😛

*with little bowties!
**The real word is Zymydrēnós, an epithet of Asclepius. Perhaps it breaks down into Zym-ydr-ēn, or dragon-water-of. If so, its parts would be cognate to  Bulgarian “zmey” and Greek “hydra.”

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