November Newsletter: The Scarf

I fell through the door with a sense of desperation.

There wasn’t anything particularly wrong back there in the building, just my office with my computer on the big table and my backpack and slightly uncomfortable chair. I had sat there this morning and written, just as I was supposed to. And before that, dropped off our younger daughter at kindergarten. Before that, combed her hair, woke her up, coffee, low-carb breakfast, the alarm at 6:15.

We often hear stories about the terror of routine. The daily grind. The cage. You do what you do because that’s what you do at this time. After writing comes lunch and coffee, checking my email, one English class, planning, another class, more planning. It could have been a series of fun and interesting challenges, but it wasn’t.

I could see from my calendar that I was taking more time to get less done with each passing  week. Part of my class planning was to video myself telling a joke1 and I had to do four takes just to appear to be alive. Why was everything so gray?

So here I was, escaping the building for just a few minutes to buy lunch. I stumbled over the pavement and looked across the street where, between the expensive Italian grocery and excellent (and cheap) spaghetteria, a new place had opened: “Africa inspired fashion.” And, according to my calendar, it was time to buy Pavlina a surprise present.

I fell through the door with great relief.

“Hello,” said the proprietor. She was a short black woman with a broad face and darker skin around her eyes. Maybe she hadn’t been sleeping well, either. Her accent reminded me of a friend of mine, who’s from Nigeria.

“I’m looking for a scarf for my wife,” I said. Scarves are always a good bet because you can’t possibly buy one that doesn’t fit.

“Okay,” she said. “How big?”


I looked around the little shop. There were shirts on hangers on either side, piles of folded cloth on a cabinet, and in the back, a desk with a sewing machine. My brain failed to combine these clues and I still thought I could just buy a ready-made scarf and get back to work.

“A thin scarf will just go around the neck.” She mimed helpfully. “A wider scarf can go around the neck or around the head. Let me show you.” She held up her phone, which displayed photos on woman with elaborately-wrapped heads.

Was I late in checking my email? “I don’t know if my wife knows how to wrap a scarf like that.”

“Don’t worry. I will teach her! You bring her in here.”

And I thought: a human connection. What a relief.

The proprietor showed me the folded bolts of cloth I had thought were scarves, and I chose a black, gold, and blue pattern, pretty as a poison dart frog. She approved, and picked up a second bolt of fabric, talking about how she would make a scarf for herself as well. I knew something about her day. Or else she thought her choice was better than mine.

She calculated a price for me and I figured out when I could pick up the scarf. I went back to the office, and the rest of my work passed just as gray-ly as I described. But when I shut down my computer and switched my audiobook to fiction, I felt something aside from the usual cracked-open-and-scooped-out exhaustion of the end of the work day. I was looking forward to that scarf.

I got it (“Bring your wife back here and I’ll teach her. She can tell her friends.”) and strode down Shishman street, swinging my bag, listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Giving Pavlina that scarf was the best thing I did that day.

It could be a simple story, but I’ll add another layer; that evening I fell asleep on the couch at 8:30.

My routine wasn’t the problem. Nor was a lack of magnesium or the inability to catch the lightning of inspiration every morning. The problem was that I wasn’t getting enough sleep.

The routine helped me. Like a frame around my day, it showed off the bright blue and gold of the one spectacular thing I did. And like a frame, it gave me a place to rest my spirit level and determine what was crooked.

In other news, that Specbio workshop went well. We built mice the size of elephants and carnivorous rhinos. You can see the recordings starting here. And tell me if you want me to do more of these things.

Not much to report about the books. Centuries Unlimited is still waiting for a publisher to pick it up. Fellow Tetrapod is now nearing its two-thirds mark, but I don’t think I’ll be done with it before Christmas. This draft turned out to be slower going than I intended, maybe because I’m aiming for a less organized, Douglas-Adams-type style. I love the sound of deadlines whooshing past my head.

Wealthgiver is gearing up for its final pre-agent revision. I’m going to print it out and read through it this weekend so if you have things you want to tell me about Wealthgiver, now’s your chance.

And I drew some! I have a whippomorph, a bit of world-building material for the First Knife sequel, and some funny fishes. I’m drawing fairly regularly now. It’s almost – dare I say? – a routine.

(“Two Great Cats Dancing” by my younger daughter)

And I read some stuff this month:

Red Roulette by Desmond Shum – The autobiography of a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur up to the point where the Party kidnapped his ex-wife. I read this as research for a novel, and it gave me exactly what I was looking for: an honest and occasionally vulnerable perspective on the powerful people of 21st-century China. Shum’s bitter disillusionment with the Chinese Communist Party is honest and very personal. And aside from that, I enjoyed learning how one goes about importing chicken pieces and building airports.

Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett – the History Monks have another difficult day. As always, I had a lot of fun watching Pratchett explore what happens when you mess with time. This was my third re-read, I think, and this time I saw the seams in the story. The ostensible main character(s) don’t come together until close to the end, and are rather less interesting than Lu-Tze and Lady LeJean. But there are still some inspired visuals – I can still see orange blur zipping away into the deepening twilight of ever-slower time.

The Wisdom of Teams by Jon R. Katzenbach – how teams make themselves (or fail to). I went in expecting something as useful as insightful as Good to Great, or as human as The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, but we never got there. The lessons ended at “succeed as a group against high odds,” which is fine, but what about failure? What about people who don’t fit? I wish they’d dug deeper.

Reaper by Will Wight – the gang fights a hungry labyrinth. We get a rather nice explanation of the Dreadgods and where they came from. The most interesting stuff is about how a team can work when every individual is struggling for self-betterment. How do you not leave your friends behind, but also not slow down? If only Wight gave us an answer to that question.

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold – Miles ends up accidentally in command of a mercenary fleet again. This was maybe the third time I’d read this book, and this time I was intrigued by the structure. Each chapter is almost a short story in its own right, especially at the beginning. Sometimes it seems as if Bujold was lost and fumbling around, but there’s also a charming verisimilitude to the way we actually do feel our way from one part of our lives to the next. You get the promotion, just not in the way you thought you would. (And at the end, Bujold ties the psychological cords together masterfully.)

Woke Racism by John McWhorter – how to live graciously around the politically correct. McWhorter tells us why he thinks the new political correctness (a.k.a. “wokeness” or “Electism,” as he calls it) is a religion. This model was immensely helpful to me, because I thought I was going crazy, or else watching the Anglosphere go crazy. Now I feel like I have a better grip on what’s happening. I’ve had profound conversations with the devout of other religions, so why not my PC friends? I got less use out of the second half of the book, which is about what we should do now. McWhorter doesn’t think it worthwhile to make people reject their new religion, but only to live around them. I’m worried that this advice boils down to “choose a different bubble to live in.” There is one piece of wisdom I treasure, though: “you *will* be called a racist on the internet.” Yes. May I stand tall enough to one day be called a racist on the internet.

On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson – what we can expect from H. sapiens, at least until genetic engineering. This was research for a book, and a re-read. I didn’t remember much from the first time around, but maybe that’s just because I internalized the information on human behavior. Like other old, influential books, On Human Nature suffers from the passage of time. The true parts now appear obvious, and the false parts ridiculous. I wish there was a more current wide-scope book for laypeople about the behavior of the human animal, but I haven’t found it yet.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – what if Harry Potter was a scientist? There’s something Terry Pratchett said in an interview about a wizard who produces sparkly lights in the air, and how that’s actually a lot less impressive than the way we make sparkly lights in the real world, which is by means of a tradition of science and industry stretching back five hundred years. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is that observation threaded through a self-insert Harry Potter fanfic. I originally bounced off the written version, but the audiobook on spotify worked in a way the text didn’t. Yudokowsky makes a lot of first-time-writer mistakes, occasionally loses his grip on the plot, and works him self up, but the brilliant flashes of insight make up for a lot. I spent my day looking forward to listening to the next chapter, which means that this is a good book.

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith – Mma Romotswe thinks about men. This was a reread, and I liked it much better the second time. I think the first time I was frustrated by the very slow pace and oddly-balanced pacing — this is a mystery novel in which the investigations take up only the last three or four chapters. The characters spend a long time wandering around and thinking their thoughts. But now that I’ve read the first three books, I know that these are interesting characters. And now that I’ve grown up a little, I can appreciate those interesting thoughts.

The Double-Barreled Detective by Mark Twain — A boy with a preternatural sense of smell is raised for the purpose of revenge. This story doesn’t live up to its promise, but I liked the part about the esophagus. That’s a good trick, what Twain did there.

And there’s a new season of Bluey! It’s even better than the first two.

1The one about the two horses

2Be warned that the audiobook is unfinished, will be 500 hours long when it is finished, and is only updated once a week.

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