June Newsletter: Behold, a Dog

So there was my younger daughter, caught in an epistemological crisis. She’s five. Let’s call her Mikhaela.

It was one of those early summer days in western Bulgaria, when the clouds pile like surf over the mountains. Over the course of the day, the air gets hazier, the pressure and humidity rise until you feel like you’re carrying a sea in your sinuses. The breaking point always comes in the afternoon, when the steel blue sky finally cracks. Then it pours and thunders for fifteen minutes.

We weren’t yet at that breaking point. It was still just heavy and blue when I took Mishi and her older sister (let’s call her Juli), to the playground in our village. We spent a happy hour looking at bugs and trying to turn off the water fountain, and then this other little girl showed up with her grandpa. She was three.

We came out of Lockdown in Sofia in the spring of 2021. Mishi went to daycare for about four weeks, but even then we didn’t play with other kids in parks because Pavlina and I didn’t get fully vaccinated until the beginning of June. So that three-year old was the first time in a year I’d seen Mishi play with a younger kid in over a year. It was illuminating.

The three-year-old had a stuffed kitty and a T-shirt with a doggy on it. So far, so good. Everyone loves a carnivorous mammal. But she kept calling her stuffed toy “my dog.”

“That’s not a dog,” said Mishi, “that’s a cat.”

“No, it’s my doggy!”

Mishi, thinking she held the logical trump card, pointed at the dog on the girl’s shirt. “So what’s that on your shirt?”

“It’s a bear.”

“No,” said Mishi, still working hard. “That’s not a bear, it’s a dog.”

“No, it’s a bear.” The little girl rubbed the image on her shirt, thinking. “It’s a bear because it has long ears.”

Mishi’s fists bunched. Bears didn’t have long ears. And the ears of the thing on the other kid’s shirt weren’t long, because it wasn’t a bear, it was a goddamn dog.

“All right,” said Mishi, “let’s play a new game. It’s called ‘What is the Right Name for this Animal?'”

Juli, who has had more experience with younger children said, “let’s go play on the swings.”

I watched this all, reflecting on what a good father I was for teaching Juli that “someone else’s imagination can’t be wrong.”

But then I remembered our house guest of the previous week.

Once Pavlina and I were vaccinated, we invited this friend over whom we hadn’t talked to for two years. Ho boy.

She wasn’t an anti-vaxxer in general, I think. She just hated the Covid-19 vaccines, specifically. The vaccines that didn’t cause blood-clots would rewrite your DNA, and anyway the Coronavirus wasn’t so dangerous. Her parents were ruining their health staying in their home during the lockdown, when what they should have been doing was getting outdoor exercise and eating a low-sugar, vegetarian, gluten-free diet like our friend.

This, while we were sitting indoors, eating the raspberry pie I’d made for her. I admit I felt a twinge about that, but that wasn’t what got me.

What got me was the fact that I have been deathly ill (it was cancer, not Covid). At that time, if I hadn’t listened to my doctors, I might have died. Facts are important.

But I didn’t say that. To my credit, I also didn’t suggest we play “What is the Right Response to the Novel Coronavirus?” Instead, I went quiet. I stayed quiet for about two hours, then got up, saying I needed to make dinner.

“What are you making?” asked my vegetarian guest.

“Duck,” I said.

I felt guilty after that, but it wasn’t until Mishi’s “behold, a dog” moment in the park that I realized why. Haven’t I told my daughters that one’s imagination cannot be wrong? Had my friend attacked me? Or had she invited me to play a comforting game of Let’s Pretend?

When I was out of the room, pan-frying my passive-agressive duck breast, Pavlina extracted some more information: of course our friend bent her dietary restrictions when it came to eating dishes (such as pie) which had been specially made for her. She was happy she had chosen to live in Bulgaria. She was angry at her parents for another, personal reason. She had reasons for creating her fantasy, the same as me.

“So what should I have done?” I asked Pavlina.

“Exactly what you did,” she said. “Our friend triggered you, and you got out of there. You have to take your hand out of the fire before you start treating the burns.”

Okay, but what should I do next time? I’m not sure, but I’ll take the lead from my daughters.

Facts are important, but other kids’ imaginations can’t be wrong. What we’re doing here isn’t setting policy for the Ministry of Health or making corrections to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. What we’re doing is playing with each other.

No, I don’t want to play that game. I want to know what’s going on with your parents. How do you overcome your fear that you might get sick again? Do you want to go on the slide with me? Have some more pie.

***

And in other news…

Whoo-ee! What a month! A month for finishing things.

Petrolea’s serialization ended, so now you can read the whole novella starting here.

I wrote a little short story in the New Frontiers universe called Appendix.

I got some lovely copies of Interchange – its launch date is July 20th, but you can preorder the book now.

The virtual launch party for Interchange will be on the 27th of July (Tuesday) and you can Register here. If you post about the launch party (and tell me you did so), your name will go into the pot to win prizes. Right now there’s like three people in the pot, so your chances are pretty good.

And finally Wealthgiver gamma is done! This is the “meat” draft where I read through the whole string of scenes and made sure they push and pull against each other, and the whole story works (even if it isn’t pretty yet). This is also the first draft that’s open to critique, so if you’d like to read this rough draft of a story about nation-building cave-Thracians, tell me and I’ll send you a file.

And I read some stuff

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I liked it, but I wanted more. Maybe that’s the point. There’s this sense of massive, impenetrable depth. What the hell was Kurtz actually doing? Who was that woman with all the jewelry? I kept waiting to dig in and get to the real story, but the narrator couldn’t stay in the jungle long enough, or else he would have died too. It is also a pleasure to read something written by someone who came late to the English language, but loved and was amused by it.

Judaism by Geoffrey Wigoder

Part of a series that offer nice overviews of many religions. Good, basic information. It’s good to know this stuff.

The Initiate by James L. Cambias

Probably my favorite novel of the month. I can safely say now that I’ll buy whatever Cambias writes. He does worldbuilding splendidly and his characters aren’t bad either. Especially in the Initiate, the characters worked very well: an ex-soldier is recruited to destroy a secret, world-running cabal of wizards after one of their demons kills his family. Excellent stuff. I was disappointed by the ending, but the fun I had along the way more than made up for it. I spent every day anticipating the chance to read this book.

Carl Jung: How to Believe by Mark Vernon

A very short summary of the life and work of Carl Jung. It was good research for Wealthgiver.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

A good companion to Make Time, giving some psychological/philosophical underpinning. The basic idea is that you do a better job at whatever you’re doing if you dig in and work in a flow-state without distraction for 1-2 hours at a stretch. I was writing Wealthgiver at the time and experimented with the techniques in Deep Work (the ones I hadn’t already evolved in parallel) and they really did work. My criticism comes at the beginning, where Newport tries to scare you into reading him, and where he misunderstands the nature of management. A CEO close to me tells me that she also has to engage in deep work – it’s just that her deep work is built of many smaller conversations with clients and employees. So Newport was more right than he knew.

Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold

I re-read this right after finishing my re-read of Beguilement, and that was a good idea. Beguilement and Legacy really are one story about people trying to fix the world around their relationship. My only wish is that I could find out more about that world. God damn they must have some interesting archeology.

She Dreams in Blood by Michael R. Fletcher

This is the sequel to Black Stone Heart, and continues the story of a re-incarnated Dark Lord as he tries to put his Evil Empire back together (by hunting down, murdering, and absorbing all the memories of all the other incarnations of the same Dark Lord). I enjoyed the first one, but I was expecting more from the second. I wanted to see new wrinkles emerge – things the main character didn’t know that turn the premise on its head. Instead She Dreams in Blood was more of the same, with higher stakes and larger collateral damage. I don’t think I’ll read the next one.

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carré

Thoroughly enjoyable and instructive for both students of writing and the human condition. The spy novelist (and ex-spy) John Le Carré writes about his life and work from the perspective of a retired 80-something living in a Swiss Chalet. Not a bad life. And when the President of Italy requests that I give him one of my books, I’ll make sure to have one specially bound in leather with gold embossing. I didn’t know you could do that.

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