July Newsletter: Addicted to Praise

We are addicted to praise.

Wham! Bold opening statement. Innovative! Piercing! Insightful! First word: “we,” conjuring warmth and belonging. Last word: the uplifting “praise,” like the satisfying smack of a teammate’s hand against your back. But there in the middle: the chill and lonely depths of “addicted.” Oh, such soaring and plummeting emotions! What a sentence! I’ve got goosebumps.

What about you?

Did you like my writing? Do you like me? Please, tell me you like me.

An enclosed garden.

Between the buildings, leaf-nets

Catch the angled light.

So, there I was, stomping down a dusty road in northern Greece, just steaming with anger. I walked to our vacation house, plunked myself down on a chair on the deck, and sat there, crystallizing my brine.

A fine, salty crust grew across my body as I contemplated my mother-in-law and how she wanted to use the shower upstairs instead of me.

It was even worse when the rage ran out. Later, once the kids were done with the outside shower and I had rinsed the salt off, I collapsed. I just lay in bed, crushed at the thought that our guests had seen my tantrum.

Because this was the third day of our first-ever “parents-of-friends” vacation. That’s the parents of my older daughter’s best friend – a wonderful, kind, undemanding couple, who speak Bulgarian. They speak English too, but they were happy to help me practice Bulgarian and I didn’t want to be that American who makes everyone speak English.

In theory, that should mean that I spoke Bulgarian with them. In practice, I barely spoke at all. Conversation depressed me. If I managed to construct a correct sentence, oh, well, good job, Dan, you just managed to scrape the bottom of your social obligation as a host. Congratulations! Any six-year-old could have said what you just said. And then of course, when I do make grammatical mistakes, or I don’t know the right word, or everyone else is laughing and I don’t know why, the floor drops out from under me. I’m not even scraping the bottom. I’m failing.

I was supposed to be entertaining my guests. But here I was instead, steaming on the deck of the vacation house. In English, I could have said, “Sorry. Urgh! What’s wrong with me? Haha. Mothers in law, am I right? But no, she just doesn’t want sand on the floor upstairs.” I didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out how to say that all in Bulgarian.* I just sat there silently. What must they think of me?

Heaviness of mind

Without the strength to unload.

Clouds through the ceiling.

We humans are ridiculously social. For most of our history, if your community didn’t like you, you straight-up died. We’ve had to evolve to feel disapproval as if it’s physical punishment. Praise, we respond to as if it’s a drug. A big shot of happy-juice right into the center of the brain.

That’s why family vacations are so hard on me. My wife has conversations I can’t follow and my supply of praise dries up. I go through withdrawal. Last summer we visited her brother, and I had honest-to-God auditory hallucinations. A literal voice in my head to me, “nobody wants to hear what you have to say.”

I fought it. I told myself this was “negative self-talk,” and an untrue story I was telling myself. It didn’t work, until just this past weekend, after I came home from Greece and talked to a biologist friend. She’s the one who told me about this addiction to praise that we humans share. My friend has had a very hard year, but she’s happy now because she’s doing good science, and her boss tells her so. She’s getting her fix.

Well, so did I. I cornered my wife and made her listen to a song I liked. She said, “wow, what a great song.” And that was it. I got my fix. I was happy.

It’s ridiculous, but there you are. Human. A political animal addicted to praise. But what is an addiction but a way to pull yourself forward?

The fresh air hits me.

I should open more windows.

I should stay out here.

Don’t worry, I don’t really want you to tell me you like this newsletter, but I do want to know about you. When was the last time someone praised you?

Thanks, Tex and Kim, who responded to my last newsletter with idea about how to get back out there on the internet. It’s that old what will they think of me problem again – I was afraid I’d be called out. “How dare you say that thing? Don’t you know it’s offensive?” My response? “I didn’t know that. Thank you for teaching me.” Whew. Big load off my shoulders. I’ve been able to be more active on deviantart and the speculative evolution forum. The facebook group hasn’t seen as much love from me because I’m still not sure what do with it, but I’ll start by posting this newsletter there. Then it seems people want to do some worldbuilding? I can do worlbuilding…

…as you may have seen with my first attempt at a facebook live video! It’s about aliens I drew. My idea was to cover up my stupid face with pretty pictures, and also give myself a reason to draw again. I think I’ll try again next month, but if you have any suggestions about how to make better videos, please tell me.

The wind in the night

Rustles the leaves of beach trees

Above them them: the stars

Another reason I’ve been able to do so much non-writing stuff is I finished the alpha draft for Interchange! This alpha draft/scaffolding story/speedwriting technique really works! I now have a fifty-thousand-word skeleton for a hundred-thousand-word story, and it feels good. I’ll let it rest until September, then pick it up and develop it into something other people can read.

As far as Wealthgiver goes, I’m especially proud of my successful “deciphering” of two phrases from some real Thracian inscriptions. Ne ni dakatro so (From the Kyolmen inscription) = “For the same will be done to you.” And Tilezupta miē era zēlta (from the Ezerovo ring) = “Tilezupta to me has sent golden things.” Each of those words has a solid etymology and a declension or conjugation that fits with what I know of Ancient Greek and Phyrgian. No, I’m under no delusions that I’ve discovered something real, but I’m happy with the translations I’ve made up for myself.

What would you think if I gave you a new line of my Thracian fairy-tale each month? You’d hate it? Too bad! Here’s lines one (slightly updated) and two.

Igâpan ainē kesa ebru, aizi, byzaskâ,

Asn ivâlan ta eitan uper kâpisea pi ta ve abbrinkan.

There apparently were one time a kid, a nanny-goat, and a billy-goat,

Who apparently wanted to go up the hill for to fatten themselves up.

Whatever will happen to those goats? Tune in next time!

There are some new developments with Junctionas well. It got a very generous review from the British Fantasy Society and an essay I wrote about writing Junction got sold (the very same day!) to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I’ll let you know when it’s available. Also: book plates! A friend in Australia wants me to sign his book, so I sighed a sticker, which I’ll mail to him. Then he can stick it in his book. What about the rest of you? Do you want a book plate? I’ll send you one with my signature and a little drawing on it.

In other news, Kim Moravec made this hilarious illustration of my haiku “after the skunk trees”. Maybe something like that’ll be my next facebook live video, if I’m not feeling like aliens.

And I’m going to Worldcon in August! Are you going to be at Worldcon? Tell me! Let’s hang out.

If your curious about the song I shared with my wife, it’s “Fear” by Ben Rector. It, “Dreamcatcher” by Set It Off, and “History Repeating” by The Megas form the nucleus of my new playlist: Armor Down. What is Armor Down? Maybe next month I’ll be able to tell you 😉

Here’s what I read this month:

The Castlemaine Murders by Kerry Greenwood – Some nice stuff on Chinese-Australian history in this one. She could have developed the sister plot, though.

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown – A heartfelt and constructive book about putting yourself into uncomfortable situations (such as writing personal stories and sending them to an 80-person mailing list). Brown is a big part of the reason I’m putting myself back out there.

Cetaganda by Louis McMaster Bujold – A reread for the third time. Damn she’s good. There’s this horrible space-ubermensch, genetically engineered to conquer planets, but all he really wants is for you to like these perfumes he’s distilled. He worked really hard on them!

Shadows of the Limelight by Alexander Wales – a fun, tight web serial novel about a Italian renaissance-type world, in which famous people get magical super powers. The more people know your name, the more powerful you are. And wouldn’t you know it, a humble street-rat gets himself embroiled in this nightmarish reality-show, where it matters less who you murder than the songs that you sing about it afterward.

Axiomatic by Greg Egan  – wow, was Greg Egan in a dark place when he wrote this. There is a lot of angst about life in a meaningless universe, trying to find a mission for yourself, then dealing with the inevitable consequences of your terrible choices. Four stars!

“The Study of Anglophysics,” “A Modern Myth,” “It Was You Who Made My Eyes Blue,” and “…And I Show You HowDeep the Rabbit Hole Goes” by Scott Alexander – These are Alexander’s most recent short stories. They’re all fun, but my far away favorite is “…And I Show You How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes,” where a bunch of twenty-somethings take pills that give them superpowers. Some of them should have considered their choices more carefully. My wife and I quote this one to each other.

The Darkness That Comes Before by Scott R. Bakker – This was almost a great book. It could have been as transformative for me as Unsong, but there was a grim humorlessness, and a certain clumsiness with plotting, that left me untransformed. And while I love the I’ve-been-working-on-this-since-college complexity of the constructed languages and worldbuilding, those umlauts were totally unnecessary, Scott.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child – This was my first Jack Reacher book. I liked the tight plotting and I learned some interesting thing about army medicine and opioid addiction. There wasn’t much zing to the book, though. I get the impression the author just sort of churned it out.

Heck is it almost 6 already? I gotta go! See you next month!

*It is, by the way, “Tashta kashta obrashta.

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