April newsletter: Doing Good

So there we were, giving this stranger 200 leva.

“What? Are you serious?”  He wasn’t being sarcastic. He really wanted to check that what he thought was happening was actually happening. His face scrunched up, trying not to cry.

That was when I was finally sure this wasn’t all a scam.

It had started as a quick – and rather unpleasant – walk. The weather had turned mean: chilly and blustery, with bitter little needles of water blowing up into our faces. But Pavlina and I needed a break. We’d gotten this weekend by ourselves in Sofia while the girls stayed with their grandparents in the village. It was supposed to be relaxing, but instead we had nothing to do but work.

At 11, we finally pulled ourselves away from our computers and piles of laundry to just move our legs a bit. We walked quickly, shoulders hunched against the needle rain, talking about I can’t remember what. We swung around the back end of our neighborhood, heading home.

Someone yelled. It was clearly the sound of a person, but inarticulate and raw. Pavlina and I both looked up.

Across the street was a medium-sized apartment building. Three or four men stood around the high little tables of a corner store, but none of them had yelled. Like us, the men were looking at the building’s other corner. This was hollowed out into a square tunnel for cars to drive through on their way to the parking lot behind. In this damp, gray cave stood a couple with a baby in a stroller and three enormous bags.

The baby was crying in high, grinding alarm. The sound sent me back to the time when our baby had cried like that. Thank goodness she was older now.

“Do you think something is wrong?” I asked.

The mother yelled again. She strode to the wall of the tunnel and smacked her arms against it. She did it just like I used to, like I still sometimes do when I lose my grip on my life. Lift at the shoulders, elbows at ninety degrees as if you’re doing a pull-up. Then bring your forearms down on the wall as if it’s the cause of all your frustrations, as if once you smash this barrier, your life will start working properly again.

Pavlina and I cut across the road and approached the couple. “Nuzhda ot pomosht?” I asked. A memorized line. Is there need of help?

“Neshto da Vi pomognem?” asked Pavlina. Is there something we can help you with?

The father told Pavlina that the three of them had been kicked out of or in any case left a homeless shelter. He was calling various emergency numbers. Pavlina tried calling a friend of ours who works for Caritas, but it was 11am on a Sunday and she didn’t answer. The mother picked up the baby and put him back in the stroller. It made no difference. Both of them cried, and the father paced and shushed them as he and Pavlina searched on their phones for other numbers to call.

A man from the cafe at the building’s other corner walked into view. I braced myself for him to start yelling, but no. He had been listening. He suggested other places to call.

Pavlina and I put our heads together. “Can we go buy some chocolate for the baby?” “I didn’t bring my wallet.” “Let’s go home and get it.” “Tell them to stay here.”

We did, and walked fast. I had my own phone out, looking up the hotel in our neighborhood and the prices there. A night for two adults and one child: 170 leva.

“Should we just book it for them?”

“No. They can do whatever they want with the money.”

Pavlina told me where the cash was and I broke into a jog. I was worried that we’d get back there and the family would be gone.

They weren’t gone. Pavlina gave the father an envelope of cash, just the way my students used to pay me. He looked at me, absolutely shocked. “Are you serious?”

“We have children too,” Pavlina explained.

He came in low, arms stretched out, head ducked so as not to meet my eyes and cry. I felt teary and awkward myself. I hugged him back and tried my best to explain where the hotel was and what its name was. Pavlina hugged the mother, who thanked us, crying openly. The baby kept wailing. He was too upset to figure out what to do with the chocolate Pavlina gave him.

We walked home through a tunnel formed by the budding chestnut trees and the metal grate of the fence around a basketball court. The weather was still miserable.

“Should we have led them to the hotel?” I fretted. “Should I have helped them carry their stuff?”

“No,” said Pavlina. “Some big foreign guy carries off your bags? They’d feel obligated to talk to us and do something to thank us.” She made a clean-slate gesture. “No strings attached.”

I imagined the family in their warm hotel room, full of room service food, taking their showers, having their break-downs in safety, and reassembling their lives. Would any of that actually happen? Did I need to know?

“We just help them,” I said.

Doing good can be easy. You know what makes sense for you to do, and you’ve built up a means to do it. You expand your base. You grow your business. Once you put yourself in a position where you have something to give, you notice opportunities to give it.

We went home afterward and had lunch.

To see these posts a week earlier and with pictures, support my work on Patreon for $1.


In other news, The project I dragged myself away from that Sunday in April was The Barrayaran Sprachbund. It was supposed to be a fun little linguistic sketch of the languages of Lois McMaster Bujold’s planet of Barrayar, but blew up and took over my life for two weeks. People seemed to like it, though. And I did translate the first sentence of the UN declaration of human rights into four made-up future languages, so there’s that.

I also had a fun conversation with people on the Spec Evo forum about self-editing DNA  and the fascinating real-world microbe Deinoccus radiodurans. And, in honor of Easter, I re-posted two fun cooking-themed short stories: “A Piece of Cake” which is about baking a kozunak in space, and “Culinary International: The Rising Agent” which is just as silly as it sounds.

April’s exclusive story for my patrons was “Lords of the World” a short story originally published in Alternate History Magazine about the post-colonial present day a hundred years after H.G.Wells’s War of the Worlds. In Chapter 6 of The World’s Other Side , Bounce got drunk for the first time and made indecent suggestions to John.

On the video front: I gave some thought to things I want to change. The result was a new schedule (every other week rather than once a week) and some more audio editing (so we don’t say “um” so much). The first of these new videos is the first half of a story Paul Venet told to a group of Fulbright volunteers about his experience helping a Somali refugee prepare for her US citizenship exam. Come back to my channel every other Friday for rest of Paul’s story, followed by my nuts-and-bolts run-through of how I teach English online.

This is all in aid of Pavlina and my project with Fulbright Bulgaria teaching English and Bulgarian to Ukrainian Refugees. I had the pleasure of listening in to our very first class just last night. It’s really happening. If you would like to volunteer to be a teacher, sign up here.



And some stuff I enjoyed:

Monday Starts on Saturday by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – A satire of Soviet academia and Russian folklore by people who loved both.

The Strugatsky brothers wrote in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s, but their work still reads to me as fresh and sincere. And dark. Monday Starts on Saturday is about a computer programmer who gets dragooned into working for the government agency that deals with magic and supernatural activities. The book is part of a conversation about where we came from and where we’re headed, all the while playfully satirizing the academic processes that are supposed to take us into the future. Are we really moving closer to the end of human suffering, or this all a hollow shell built by self-interested charlatans? In either case, it’s fun to watch a homunculus try to eat infinite fish-heads.

As for the darkness: read this glossary entry from the back the book: “The Hammer of Witches: a medieval manual on third-degree interrogation. Now obsolete.”

Making Money by Terry Pratchett —  my favorite was the mad economist

“Nice to meet you,” says the mad economist, “We’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.” That was my favorite part. Book two of the Moist Von Lipwig sub-series has a good grip on its main characters and a good villain. On this (my third-maybe?) read-through, though, I started to see the seams. I wish the mad economist and the golems were integrated more into Lipwig’s story. And I wanted to see the clown-battle. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the book.

The Revelations by Erik Hoel — like running through the woods in a thunderstorm while your philosophy professor yells at you

Too rarely, I read a recent book that gives me hope for the publishing industry. Piranessi was one, The Darkness that Comes Before was another. The Revelations is the third and it reminds me of both. The Revelations is a literary novel rather than scifi, urban fantasy, mystery, romance, or perhaps office drama, but it has elements of all of them. Its main character is lost trying to make sense of the world and himself, perpetually on the edge of nervous breakdown because of the insanely ambitious goal he’s set for himself: solve the Problem of Consciousness. Then there’s sex, murder, conspiracies, and Something Weird Going on. And it’s gorgeously written. Please go read it so we can talk about it.

By the way, if you’re disappointed in the ending, I recommend you read this review, which helped me figure out what the author was talking about.

Hard to be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky — Why you shouldn’t join the peasent revolt, even though you have mad martial arts skills and a helicopter

There has been a whole lot of discussion about contact between advanced and primitive cultures in science fiction, but I don’t think I’ve seen a take on it as honest as this. An anthropologist from Earth documenting the culture of a medieval planet (and playing out his childhood Three Musketeers fantasies) finds himself caught up in something that looks a whole lot like the rise of an oppressive 20th-century-style dictatorship. What the hell is going on? And how to you stand it?

I also got a lot out of the afterword by Boris Strugatsky, which gave me some guidance about how to write around censorship.

Death Game Quality Assurance by Andrew Rowe – aggressively mediocre

I was intrigued by the premise: “what would really happen in Ready Player One.” The story delivered, but only in the narrowest way. Rather than getting the world built only around players of video games, we get the world built only around the QA team. It was interesting learning a little of how Quality Assurance works, but I’m sure there’s more to the video-game industry than that. The characters were bland – I got the impression they were written mostly to meet expectations and not offend. What kept me reading was the bad guy. Both his character and his voice actor’s performance were bold and fun.

Adam Ragusea — he taught me how to make roast potatoes and coq au vin! A low-key, informative, and subtly funny channel.

See you next month

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