The Good Fishes
This post appeared one week earlier on my patreon
There's a fish shack on the Danube, just up-stream from Srebarna: Restorant Krai Rekata. The cook fries whatever was brought in that day, or else you can get the stew.
I ate my catfish steak with french fries and beer, thinking of the Ancient Egyptians and the meals they must have enjoyed. I didn't speak much.
None of us adults felt much like talking, and it wasn't entirely because we were living mindfully in the moment. I remember eating my fish with a sort of spiteful relish. It was delicious; I was having a good time despite our guest.
It's hard fighting with your friend. Harder still during a road trip, when you're trapped together in the car while your wife is trying to overtake a truck. Pavlina put a stop to the argument, but of course it continued to flow under the surface.
We had all the rest of our trip that day: lunch, checking into the guest house, the natural history museum, the nature walk, and now dinner.
There was a time when I would have just wallowed in resentment. No, I'm fine. It's just I can't enjoy this stuffed owl, those distant pelicans, the bee-eaters swooping brilliantly above our heads. It's fine! The birds are ugly and the fish is bitter.
Instead, I took a Valerian pill. I figured out what a generous, compassionate person would do. I found some time to get my thoughts out on paper, and I talked with Pavlina. Most of all, I tried to suspend judgment and watch. I wasn't entirely successful, but when I saw a praying mantis or a bee-eater, I was happy.
As evening closed in, Pavlina got up from the picnic table and walked off by herself. I followed her, suppressing my desire to reach in and fix things. We just stood there, looking at the river, commenting on the pale shells in the darkening water.
We thought at first they were fireflies. Little green spots plipped out and over the surface. Experimentally, I tossed in a rock. Was that splash bright only because it reflected the lights from the fish shack? No.
I'd been looking for this for years, although I'd never expected to find it in fresh water. Wherever it was disturbed, the river glowed.
I don't know whether we called over our friend and the girls or whether they came to join us on their own recognizance. Either way, we stood there, watching, talking about what might be responsible for the sea sparkle.*
You lunge into the stream of consciousness and your feelings scatter. You don't know you're miserable, but you still crave a solution. "How can I get this vacation back on track?" "How can I fix you?" That won't work. Just watch them. Some thoughts are sweet, others salty. Some are not for you to fry. Briefly, some of them shine.
Another month of vacation, and you know I didn't write much. I did, however, draw, which is something I want to do more of. I also created a new website and I'd very much appreciate feedback on it. What do you think? Is there anything you'd like to see, but aren't seeing?
I prepared materials for Chicon, and you might like to see the presentation I made for my workshop on Speculative Evolution. Recordings are forthcoming, I think. Wealthgiver is still available for beta-reading. And stay tuned for news about Fellow Tetrapod, which I will begin serializing in October.
And I read some stuff.
Radical Candor by Kim Scott - pretty good IT management advice
The author is thoughtful and, despite a certain preoccupation with "bias," pragmatic. Scott talks about her own mistakes with some real vulnerability, and makes the much-needed point that it's a manager's job to be human.
The Inhabited Island by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – "Nowhere do they live more stupidly."
According to the afterword in the English edition, the Strugatsky brothers wanted The Inhabited Island to be "unadulterated, toothless entertainment." They then went on to write something as toothless and entertaining as a Tyrannosaurus. A Communist super-man from the future Soviet Union crash-lands on the rump of a defeated empire, populated by brainwashed prisoners who treat each other even more cruelly than the paranoid, belligerent state. It cuts right to the bone.
"And there are many such spheres in existence on which people live far worse than you do, and some on which they live far better. But nowhere do they live more stupidly."
Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – many good ingredients fail to combine
This is another of Crichton's historical dramatizations, but where he turned the Great Gold Robbery into a story, he was less successful with pirates. There are lots of ingredients - drinking, fighting, pillaging, betrayal, beautiful witches, sea monsters – but it fails to cohere. At the end, there's a seductive beauty, and I struggled to remember which one she was supposed to be. It seems this book was published posthumously, and so it probably lacked the final revision that Crichton was planning to make.
Atomic Habits by James Clear - rather like The Power of Habit
I put off reading Atomic Habits for a while because I thought there would be too much overlap between it and The Power of Habit. I was right. There's a bit of personal stuff about Clear's head trauma, which I appreciated, but then I wanted more. I guess I like anecdotes. Oh! Here's one of mine: a friend read Atomic Habits and followed its advice to a new job and losing a bunch of weight. She runs marathons now. So, read this one or The Power of the Habit and you should be fine.
Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven - a retired Admiral expands on that commencement speech he gave
I guess my expectations were too high for this one. It's good advice: make your bed in the morning so you begin the day with one task well done. Then go out and do some more. Yes, I like it, and the rest of the stories McRaven shares from his time in basic training. I have to say, though, I got more out of Leadership Strategy and Tactics by Jocko Willinck. Maybe McRaven was too high-ranking to share any of the really good stories.
Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe - Now Latro is wandering around Egypt!
This book might be a little easier to follow than the first two in the series, or else I've gotten better at reading between the lines and figuring out what's going on. Latro, a brain-damaged proto-Roman mercenary, is sent on a mission to find the source of the Nile while trying to either cure or come to terms with his inability to remember and his ability to see gods and monsters. It may be that he's a better person with his affliction than without it. Also: wizards, ancient curses, crocodile women, and fried fish with beer. Delicious.
That's Not What I Meant! By Deborah Tannen - no, you're both wrong
You never asks a question to which the answer might be "no." But you always clearly ask for what you want. Each of you assume that the other shares your communication style. You're both wrong, but this is a problem that can be solved.
Compared with The Culture Code, "That's Not What I Meant" is more rigorous and grounded in research (as you'd expect from a professor of socio-linguistics). The best parts, for me, are the rich anecdotes about the various ways minds fail to meet and conversations go off the rails. My one criticism is that Tannen is too enamored of cross-cultural differences - it's been my experience that even people in the same family can play by totally different conversational rules. But I loved these lectures. I'll use them in my communication classes.
See you next month.
*It might have been ostracods, or the same species of dinoflagellate that produces red tides. The fireflies were fish, covered in plankton.