May Newsletter: Korban

So there I was, walking home through the park with Maggie, singing.

We sailed away in the roughest of waters.

Row, me bully-boys, row!

But now we return in the most royal quarters.

And row, me bully-boys, row!

“Is that a song from Mossflower?” Maggie* asked. “Because it sounds like something Gonff would sing.”

I was overjoyed. It was a hard week.

(see the newsletter with all the pictures on my Patreon)

I say that I “got sick” six years ago. To be clearer, I got sick over the course of about a year. What happened on June 1st 2016 was that I underwent emergency surgery to remove a  tumor from my large intestine.

I remember the way the sun shone as we left the hospital after the first visit. The smell of growing grass when I left the hospital after my first surgery. Then, before the second, telling Pavlina in my most pitiful voice that I wanted to go home. I remember much too well.

Those of you who’ve followed this newsletter for a while know how much I work on myself. This is why.

For the last six years, when the weather turned good, I curled up. At first, it was every sunny day between January and July. Over time, I managed to chip away at the problem, and this year I was free until the last three days of May.

On Monday the 30th, I sat working in my comfortable chair, and a pang of anxiety pierced my stomach.  It felt like when you try to cross the street and a car speeds past your the tips of your shoe’s. You’re going to sleep and something crashes over in the kitchen. You’re sneaking a piece of cake and a family member appears. That squeeze. Danger!

In the past, I looked for reasons for the fear. Is there something wrong with my chair? Is this email I’m reading a threat? But after five revolutions around the carousel, I know what’s happening. My calendar has a yearly-recurring event called “Hard Week.”

It wasn’t just anxiety pangs. All the resistance had been cranked up. It seemed impossible to summon up the energy to do anything creative. I wanted nothing more than to curl up and wait for the world to get easier, but I had to go out.

There’s a Bulgarian tradition called korban (compare Arabic qurbān and Hebrew korbán). On the anniversary of something bad happening to you, you slaughter an animal and feed it to guests. I don’t know how to slaughter things, so I generally buy a lot of meat and invite guests over to eat it. This year (before the “hard time” set in) I set myself the challenge of going to a butcher and having a conversation with him about exactly what sort of meat I should use. In order to make sure I’d follow through even in the midst of my anguish, I tied the butcher trip to picking up Maggie from school.

It worked. I tried to sabotage myself, but Maggie needed to get picked up. I got out the door and made it to her and the two of us made it to the butcher’s before closing time.

“Do you want me to explain for you?” Maggie asked. She gets worried because Dad doesn’t speak Bulgarian well.

“No, I want to have a conversation with the butcher. This is how you get better.” I took out my phone. “Now, hold on while I look up the word for ‘recommend.'”


“Thank you.” We entered the store. “Zdraveite. Imate neshto da predporachate za korban?

Predporachvate,” Maggie corrected me.

The two butchers looked at each other. They explained that korban should be lamb or beef, and this shop sold pork. I should go next door.

“Told you so,” said Maggie.

Excellent. A fresh chance to get the conjugation of that verb right.

The butcher next door he told me that “with us” the meat for each korban should be the same as the first. So what had I eaten for my first korban?

I didn’t remember, but I did know that last year I’d had beef. Beef, I told him.

The butcher slid down his counter and indicated a hump of chuck the size of a basketball. How about this?

I needed to feed (4+1+2+2+(2?)=9~11), and I’d practiced the sentence: “Za edinaiset hora.”

Edinaiset choveka,” corrected Maggie.

The butcher said it was usually about a quarter of a kilogram per person, so… he looked at me expectantly.

Zero point two five times eleven, but would Pavlina’s aunt and uncle even show up? What about her cousin and her husband? Remember that time you had a Fourth of July party and bought way too much ground beef? Danger. Danger.

The butcher was still looking at me.

I guessed a kilogram and a bit. Doing the math now, I see that was about half of what I needed, but the butcher just wrapped up the whole piece of chuck and sold it to me.

What I really wanted was for him to sell me some of that aged stuff he had hanging in the special chilling room, but at this point I was done. The attempt at math had used up the last of my willpower.

But then, leaving the shop, I felt an enormous surge of relief. I’d had a conversation. Success was still possible.

“Let’s get cherries,” I told Maggie. There was a green-grocer on the way to the subway station.

You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your practice. That’s why I work on myself. When life is light, I exercise. I set challenges. I build up the strength so that I can stay standing when the weight increases.

I could pick up Maggie and buy meat and cherries with her. I could walk to the metro station with her, swinging my bags and singing.

And it’s row, me bully-boys

We’re in a hurry, boys

We’ve got a long way to go.

We’ll sing and we’ll dance and bid farewell to France

And it’s row, me bully-boys, row.

In other news, I started a substack. So far, it’s just a place where I put these newsletters when they go public, but maybe it will be easier for you to read.

I attended my first of the monthly meetings of the Sofia ACX Rationalists. I was impressed by the other attendees, but even more by the fact that they spent half an hour arguing about the economy then voted to read a book about economics recommended by the guy they were arguing with (this one). If  you’re interested (and you live in Sofia) why not come to the next meeting?

I got the second generation of conodonts done for my spec-evo art project and I’ve signed up to give a (virtual) presentation at this year’s Specposium. In early July, I’ll be talking about Junction (link), Interchange (link), and how to build a real story around the creatures you made up. You can join the discord and talk to me.

I finally got my “We are the Good” advertisement translated from English to Vessian (the made-up language of Wealthgiver). You can read it here.

I posted my short story Uncle in the Entrance (a sketch of what might grow into an urban fantasy set in Bulgaria) and the next chapter of The World’s Other Side  on my Patreon, which you can see for a mere dollar.

And I am very nearly done with the “skin draft” of Wealthgiver. As I write this, I just have the made-up language to add in. I think I’ll be done with that by the end of June. Shall I then send the draft to you? Tell me if you’d like to beta-read Wealthgiver, a book about the difference between love and worship and how to build a nation out of cave-dwelling assassins.

Things I’ve liked this month:

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

A WWI vet, chilled by his experience with death, is kidnapped by a  syncretic cult of Himalayan mystics with a human longevity project. Their home: the Pass through the Shang Mountain. Shang Ri La.

In its strange, contemplative way, this book is a lot like Wealthgiver. It’s not at all the sort of thing you’d expect to be popular, but perhaps it gave soldiers some comfort during World War 2.

Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life by Jordan B. Peterson

Most self-improvement books I listen to with interest, curiosity, and occasionally frustration. Peterson’s is one of the few I also had fun with. I looked forward to reading it the way I usually look forward to reading novels.

Peterson begins with his harrowing (and, to me, relatable) story of multiple international health crises, giving dark depths to the advice that follows. This advice is on balancing order and chaos in one’s life, illustrated by anecdotes from Peterson’s personal experience and psychology practice. I might have wished for less alchemical symbolism, but I took his points. The fact that Person writes so little about the negative public reaction to his work shows both that he practices what he preaches, and that what he preaches works.

The Metropolitan Man by Alexander Wales

A well-researched and fun meditation on the nature of Superman, as seen through the eyes of his nemesis and his love interest. How does Superman do what he does? What rules govern his powers? How can you bear sharing a planet with him? Superman himself is never the point of view of a scene, which makes less a hero and more a god, a force of nature who weeps. There’s also an interesting illustration of the anguish caused by the combination of consequentialist utilitarianism and the awareness of opportunity cost.

Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse

Jeeves bends the universe around his desire to go fishing. He does go fishing, then cleans up the mess so that all the right people marry each other.

Street of the Five Moons by Elizabeth Peters

I liked this one better than Trojan Gold, perhaps because the focus is tighter. Each scene collapses excitingly into the next, ratcheting up tension, but never becoming tense. There’s an art counterfeiting ring, a very big dog, beautiful people making love to each other (off screen), and mechanical gargoyles. I enjoyed the ride.

The Physicians of Vilnoc by Louis McMaster Bujold

I liked this one more than most of the Penric stories, to the extent that I recommend it if you can find it for free on Audible. There’s an interesting medical mystery and a some noticeable character development. There isn’t much else, but I didn’t feel as let down as in the “Orphans of Raspay.” Maybe Bujold is getting better at not promising more than can be delivered in a novella, or maybe my expectations were more reasonable this time.  I still think her earlier work was better.

The Cunning Man by D.J. Butler

A fun and thoughtful dive into 1930s Utah (plus witchcraft). Hiram Woolley is a middle aged, fatherly witch (that is, a “cunning man”), burdened by the need to always do good. He manages, but man oh man. The other characters are all delightfully gray and human in their own moralities (except the demon, who is inhuman and definitely evil). I dug the practical folk magic, too.

Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink

This is a book written by a retired navy SEAL with a picture on the front of a scowling male face. I wasn’t at all prepared for the fuzzy underbelly Willink immediately exposed. There’s an anecdote where the author solved his conflict of personality with an arrogant entrepreneur by saying, “you know, I really admire you.” “I admire you too, bro!” I’ll admit a lump came to my throat when they hugged it out. Beyond the warm fuzzies, Willink does an excellent job of specifying techniques to take yourself out of the heat of the moment and do what needs to be done.

Have fun this month. Talk to you later.

*I’ve decided it’s okay for you to know my older daughter’s name.

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