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The Big Short directed by Adam McKay

There are times, and now is one of them, when I have the sense that most of the success of the Judd Apatow empire is the result of Adam McKay being a comic genius.

So... The Big Short is a parody of Moneyball. All of my problems with Moneyball? Adam McKay is aware of them and he devotes considerable effort to lampooning them. (He also minors in lampooning Scorsese's appalling Wolf of Wall Street, a movie I couldn't endure past the first half hour.) One of The big Short's most arresting scenes involves Margot Robbie, the actress from Wolf of Wall Street, sitting naked in a bubble bath and talking about collateralized debt obligations. This scene serves multiple purposes. At its most obvious, it is a commentary on the impossibility of this movie: Nobody can make CDOs sexy. They are fundamentally, deliberately unsexy. Even when shot in the most horribly sexist, objectifying way, even when oversimplifying the explanation in the most horrendously condescending way, Margot Robbie cannot make CDOs an interesting subject. And in making this point, McKay brilliantly casts shade on Wolf of Wall Street, which tried to be a cautionary tale of Wall Street greed and excess and instead got caught up in trying to sell the excess, trying to sell the sex and drugs, trying to sell the pleasure as the entertainment to pair with the moralizing. But thirdly, the scene is a brilliant summation of what Michael Lewis tries to do. He tries to make CDOs sexy, to depict them in a way that people will find entertaining.

But this is bullshit. How do we know it's bullshit? Adam McKay has Brad Pitt (of Moneyball Brad Pitt!) explain it to us in clear terms: Celebrating the bears who created the big short is heinous, not because they didn't have a right to do it, not because they don't deserve the money, but because what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy and the ruination of many, many lives.

The Big Short begins with the smugness that characterizes every word out of Princeton Man Michael Lewis's pen, but it takes every opportunity to puncture it. It depicts scenes using Lewis's credulously oversimplified dialogue, scenes you can't believe happened as described, but you can certainly believe that the people interviewed simplified the dialogue in retelling it to Lewis, who then reported it as the gospel truth- and just as you're rolling your eyes thinking here Lewis goes again, Ryan Gosling shows up, breaks the fourth wall, and says "None of this actually happened like this." It's an incredibly striking effect to deconstruct the easy narrative.

The heroes of The Big Short are not heroes. There are no heroes in The Big Short. That doesn't mean you can't sympathize with them, sympathize with Michael Carell's fund manager trying to stick it to Wall Street in a misplaced crusade to right unrightable wrongs or sympathize with Christian Bale's brilliantly weird hedge fund manager trying to persuade his clients to hold on just long enough to actually benefit from the crisis he sees as unavoidable in the numbers, but you can't call what they do heroic. There is a lot of great acting here, but it is not in service to a feel-good story.

But I worry, because not everyone is as jaded about Michael Lewis as I am. My sense from skimming reviews is that not everyone understood that this movie was a parody of Moneyball. Not everyone got that the scene where Anthony Bourdain compares CDOs to fish or the scene where Selena Gomez talks about synthetic CDOs are not serious efforts to explain the financial market, they're jokes about how understanding the financial market isn't something you do by watching a movie, or by reading a Michael Lewis book. And not everyone will recognize that the moralizing the movie engages in in its rather impressive gut-punch ending is also leavened by the humor: Adam McKay is preaching at you about fixing the markets, but he's also preaching at you about saving our consumerist society. He's not preaching an easy salvation, that there's some obvious regulation you can get Congress to pass that will stop this from happening again, he's preaching for smart people and moral people to talk to each other and figure out how to create a system where evil people and dumb people can't win. By doing the hard and complicated work that the movie is unwilling to do. By not being stupid, by not listening to Michael Lewis tell us how it all happened and how easy it was to see the signs if you were only Christian Bale. By working within the recognition that in order for a solution to happen, it has to acknowledge that everyone in the world is rightly working toward their own self-interest.
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The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson

This was one of the books I received for Yuletide bookswap, and have finally finished. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's one of the best popular science books I've ever read, and I have had a few opinions about popular science books in my day.

It tells the story of an 1850s London cholera epidemic and the amateur epidemiologists who finally provided compelling statistical and epidemiological evidence of cholera's water-borne cause and the specific locus of the outbreak in one particular well.

Its central protagonists are a pioneeering anesthesiologist, John Snow, and a church curate, Reverend Henry Whitehead, who together did the excruciating and dangerous work of surveying residents of the afflicted neighborhood and piecing together the water usage trails that proved their case, work that ultimately saved millions if not billions of lives down the line. And it was so good at giving me scientific method feels, so that the moment when Whitehead uncovered proof of how the water had been infected (a proof that was inevitable by that point in the analysis, but which provided the basically indisputable proof that the analysis had been correct), it actually made me weep with pride for humanity (though I was admittedly on 30 hours without sleep at that point, stuck in my second airport of the day).

The epilogue is a little loopy in its speculative extrapolations, but otherwise I have no complaints. Grateful to my gift giver for introducing me to this wonderful story. I may request John Snow/Henry Whitehead fic for Yuletide, too.


The Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Fleming

A short little book, more of my reading around Hamilton. (Though as a document of the Jefferson presidency, this features more of Burr than Hamilton.)

Fleming takes as a given that the Louisiana Purchase ultimately worked out well for the US- few historians would disagree, I think. For a relatively small amount of money, spent at a moment when Hamilton's banking reforms and a booming American economy had the US comparatively flush, the US greatly expanded its territorial claims, avoided a war with Spain or France that Fleming thinks may have been looming, and set the tone for a century of American expansion. (Of course, in other ways this expansion was a mixed legacy. It's obviously not clear that France had the right to sell this land given that it was occupied by numerous Native tribes. If France did have a right to sell this land, this right was governed by treaties the Louisiana Purchase obligated the US to also recognize; the US immediately proceeded to disregard these treaties and also impose martial law on the remaining French in New Orleans out of a concern from Jefferson that they were not ready to enjoy the fruits of democracy.)

Fleming's focus, then, is on the difficulties surrounding the actual purchase, of the role of the brutal war of the French to retake Haiti and its impact on the terms of the purchase, on the political wrangling between Jefferson Republicans and the weakened remnant of the Federalists, on the personal rivalries between chief negotiators Robert Livingston and James Monroe, and on the difficulty of negotiating with Talleyrand and Napoleon. Fleming's writing is clear, straightforward, and detailed, and he creates a vivid picture of the setting. I found the book informative but not deeply significant.


I is for Innocent by Sue Grafton

Possibly the best of the series, it innovates in form while retaining all the core elements that make the Kinsey Milhone books great- the vivid California setting deepening in complexity with each story, the toughness and vulnerability of Kinsey, the importance of actually pounding pavement to investigation, the complexity of the motivations for the interactions of witnesses with Kinsey, the monstrous but recognizable villains.

Unlike a lot of the series, which get conventional in their ending with Kinsey finally putting the pieces together and outsmarting the bad guy, I liked that even after Kinsey put the pieces together, the villain succeeded in tricking her for a time. It made him seem even more dangerous and capable, and made the ultimate conclusion feel that much more earned.


Medium Rare by Anthony Bourdain

Borrowed from the swaps table at Vividcon because the flight delays meant I'd read all the books I'd brought and needed something for the trip home. It's not a book I'd otherwise read, and I actively disliked a good third of the book, the part that consisted of personal vendettas against other chefs. But there were some good parts, some good meditations on the place of food and restaurants in our culture, and it was certainly fine as an airplane book, where you're always getting distracted from being able to really focus on anything complex anyway.
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Weirdest troll/spam comment I've ever gotten on a fic:

From a user known as Le Star-Lord, left on a fic that is definitely not a Marvel fic

Wow! This fic of yours is perfect!
If you know MARVEL's Earth 9997(Earth X),
can you please write a Galactus(Franklin Richards)/Silver Surfer(Norrin Radd) fic
in which the two get married after a major catastrophe called "The Dashover"
and a dreadful week called "Freaky Weeky"?
I want the title to be "Jay-Jay And The Preposterous Plight Of The Purple Package People"!
(Incidentally, the name Jay-Jay is only in the title.)
This is a request!

P.S:Make sure someone says "Zoo-Wee Mama!" during the Dashover
and the fic ends with Diana Ross' Ain't No Mountain High Enough!



Part of me wants to feed the troll? I know better, but in some ways it is my kind of prompt.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Last Sukkot I had all these etrogim after the holiday I wasn't sure what to do with. Searching online came across some suggestions to make etrog infused vodka, so I gave it a try. It is incredibly simple: You dump the peels into a mason jar full of vodka, let it sit for a few weeks, add some sugar, and you're done. It came out surprisingly well and other people agreed- to a person, they all expressed surprise that they were enjoying it.

Since it was so simple to do for such good results, I wanted to try doing more vodka infusing. About a month ago I threw some Granny Smith apples and a stick of cinnamon into a mason jar of vodka. Taste tests after two weeks were not promising- the cinnamon overwhelmed everything. It was like drinking Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I decided to see if removing the cinnamon and letting it sit for another few weeks would save things. It helped! After two more weeks, it was still too cinnamonny, but it was also appley and it was much closer to balance. Straining it through filter cloth also helped to take out some of the cinnamon and bring it more to my taste, though it's not perfectly to my taste.

I brought it to the Shabbos picnic a Jewish networking group in my town threw Shabbos before last and it went over quite well- about 2/3 of the bottle was consumed. Girls seemed to like it better than guys, in general, for whatever reason. Someone told me they liked the feeling of alcohol but not the taste, and that my concoction did a good job of masking the alcohol.

In doing some reading while troubleshooting the apple/cinnamon balance, I came across a suggestion that in retrospect is obvious: The first time you try a flavor, don't do your infusion with an entire bottle of vodka, do it in a smaller mason jar with a smaller quantity of vodka. That way if you screw up, you've wasted less, and you also get to try more different flavors at once. This is especially true when you're just trying a flavor for the first time- when I make more of the apple cinnamon I will probably do another full bottle again, since it went so quickly, but in general going forward it makes sense to experiment in smaller bottles. So at the moment I have an attempt at a smaller batch hot pepper vodka and an asian pear vodka in my cabinet. And we will see how that goes.

One of those little elements of setting up my new apartment has been building up a bit of a liquor cabinet. I don't drink all that much, and when I do it's rarely mixed drinks, so I don't need to go crazy there, but I have a bottle of bourbon, a bottle of vodka, a small bottle of tequila I haven't touched but figure ought to be there for tequila emergencies, a few bottles of wine (I pretty much only drink wine on Shabbat, but I cook with wine more often since I usually have an open bottle half full after Shabbat), and the remainder of a six pack of amber ale. Plus my infusion experiments.
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1973 Directed by John Sichel (after Jonathan Miller), Laurence Olivier as Shylock


Stylistically very old fashioned feeling, which made for something of an adjustment, but it is very well acted in its style and very well directed.

In general, the film chooses to downplay the Judaism of Shylock and the anti-semitism of the text, which kind of surprisingly eases some of my problems with it. Olivier plays Shylock as a cruel, ambitious, but stiff-upper-lip Anglo-Jewish banker who is playing a very dangerous game against Antonio, a cruel, ambitious, stiff-upper-lip, fully Anglo banker. Religion is a subtext for two men who don't wear their faith on their sleeve, or perhaps, whose only faith is money. Religion obviously matters to the text, but Sichel/and/or Miller are not that interested in being faithful to the text, so much as they're interested in being faithful to the play. Lines that invoke Christianity or Judaism tend to get skated over or skipped- the whole "I hate him for he is a Christian" soliloquy is left out, making for a much less sinister-seeming Shylock, but also a much less Jewish-seeming Shylock.

The film's disinterest in Shylock as a Jew is inadvertently (and a little infuriatingly) emphasized in a staging goof where Shylock kisses a mezuzah placed on the left doorpost, rather than the right where it should be. So I should say that while making Merchant of Venice a story about the perils of high capitalism where the faiths of its protagonist and antagonist are irrelevant eases some of my problems with the play, it certainly is not a solution without its own issues.

The trial scene sees a brilliant Portia as a catspaw for the vicious Antonio, who shows none of the agony and fear common in other productions- when he is ordered to lay bare his breast for Shylock's knife, he removes his suit coat, but leaves on a waistcoast and a shirt and looks perfectly calm. When he emerges from the trial victorious he suavely puts his coat back on and strolls out of the courtroom. He is a man used to risking much- and winning. Shylock, too, is a warrior- but his daughter's disappearance throws him off his stride. He does not act meanly in the courtroom. He moves with the confidence of a man with a carefully laid plan, who then sees that plan overturned at the last moment by an unforeseen trick. He is humiliated and wounded, but he takes it as part of the game.

Weirdly, the production ends with Jessica reciting Kaddish for her father, another apparent misunderstanding of how Judaism works. At some level, Merchant is a play about Judaism and its relationship to Christianity, and for all the good things in the Olivier Merchant, it fails to intelligently confront this fundamental element, and the result is disappointing.
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Because my brain fixates sometimes?


2001 Directed by Trevor Nunn, Henry Goodman as Shylock

Not always the most moving film, but a masterclass in how to not fuck up The Merchant of Venice. Which is not the most surprising thing given that it's the only Merchant film that actually cast a Jew as Shylock. (I'm not exactly blaming other directors for not casting Jews in the role- it's not a role a lot of Jewish actors would necessarily want to take, and it's hard to ask a Jew to play a walking talking stereotype. But Goodman brings a hell of a lot to the table.)

Goodman on the problem of playing Shylock: "I felt very strongly that we don't want to be too nice and sympathetic to him. We must believe that he could kill someone. He is actually not a nice guy. He is a scheming, dangerous man. And if you try and make him a nice guy because he is Jewish, and I am Jewish, then you throw away the play. You don't feel sorry for him. You become weary of him." YES. FUCK YES. Henry Goodman gets it.

This is the thing about Shylock, this is why it is so hard to satisfy me when it comes to Merchant: If you play Shylock as a walking, talking anti-semitic stereotype of greed and bloodlust, don't even bother talking to me. But if you try to make Shylock sympathetic, you ruin the play. He is the antagonist and the things he tries to do are inexcusable. And if you make excuses for him, "Oh, poor Shylock, his wife died, he has no legal rights, he is persecuted by all the Christians around him," you are trying to excuse the inexcusable. And that doesn't salvage Shylock. That just means you're not actually taking him seriously.

What you need to do to make Shylock work as a real character is treat him as the villain, but take him seriously as the villain with a meaningful character arc. There are many paths a director can take to this- Nunn and Goodman see Shylock as a conniving bastard, an Iago figure. He's the smartest person in the play, constantly playing people against each other, and he is always wearing a mask in public, always pretending to make friends with the Christians even as he seethes inside, because the dual consciousness is the only way for him to survive life in Venice. But the loss of his daughter knocks him off a step, takes him off his guard. He becomes blinded by his need for revenge, loses sight of the original purpose of the scheme, which was to take advantage of a rare opportunity to actually hurt Antonio, and ends up destroying only himself and his family.

Nunn also emphasizes Shylock's Judaism in his home life, by showing him marking Shabbos dinner with his daughter. But this is not the gentle, quiet, lovely Shabbos dinner of the Tresnjak production- Goodman's version is a complicated affair. Shylock is obsessive about making everything perfect, so obsessive that he yells at his daughter about the placement of dishes. She is sulky, resistant, but ultimately they find themselves on the same page with the recitation of Eishet Chayil, the traditional hymn in praise of good wives that is sung every Friday evening before Kiddush. Jessica and Shylock set aside their frustrations with each other to sing "Eishet Chayil" and remember the wife who had once bound them and now creates an invisible separation between them. In the finale, where Munby had Jessica sing "S'lach Lanu Avinu" from the Amidah, Nunn returns Jessica to "Eishet Chayil" as a remembrance that she has now lost both her mother and her father. It is heartbreaking.

Nunn makes the Shylock/Antonio dynamic even more complicated by giving Antonio other faults besides his anti-semitism. Most productions of Merchant I've seen don't know what to do with Antonio's opening speech about his melancholy- they present it as a thing separate from the rest of the play, and otherwise show a friendly, warm, compassionate Antonio whose only fault is his hatred of the Jew. David Bamber's Antonio, though, is melancholy because he is a closeted gay man in 1930s Germany, who loves Bassanio with a powerful but unrequited love that Bassanio knowingly takes advantage of for his own benefit, again and again, even though Bassanio likes women. Antonio knows he is being taken advantage of, but he will do anything for Bassanio out of his devotion, even things Bassanio is unwilling to accept. This complicated psychosexual dynamic makes Antonio's choices seem less noble, and explains his vulnerability to Shylock's predations. It also makes it easier to appreciate Shylock- yes, he is a monster, but he's not the only monster in the play.

Nunn fabulously de-comedizes every joke in the play, while maintaining a clear awareness that they were written as jokes. He transposes Lancelot's devil on my shoulder monologue to a Weimar cabaret as a written comedy bit, where the (on-stage) audience, which includes Antonio and Bassanio, is laughing because they like laughing at Jews. Shylock walks in, invited to meet with Antonio and seal the deal, and the crowd goes briefly silent, only to resume laughing when Shylock departs. He plays the casket scenes as pure horror scenes, where if something goes wrong Portia will be forced to marry one of these horrible men. He dances over the 'complexion' line so fast you barely notice it. Nunn's Merchant is not a comedy, but it's also not a tragedy- it's a work that was written as a comedy but which we no longer find funny. And that's ultimately why I said that it's not always the most moving film- for all the great character performances, it's often hard in Nunn's Merchant to figure out who to root for. It's often hard to take any joy in any character's triumph, because everyone is so remarkably, indelibly flawed and broken.



1980 Directed by Jack Gold, Warren Mitchell as Shylock

Just an absolute piece of shit from beginning to end. Played as a comedy, but not a funny one. The kind of comedy where the characters all have to laugh overly hard at their jokes to tell the audience that they are jokes. The kind of drama where all the characters have pinched looks from beginning to end to tell you that they're taking things seriously, rather than actually reacting to what's happening. The kind of overly stylized, formal diction that thankfully is being excised in more modern productions of Shakespeare. I don't have much to say about it. I quit twice partway through, and watched the ending with one eye while reading a book.

Shylock lisps like a scary foreigner and schemes aimlessly. "My daughter, my ducats" is played for laughs, which it doesn't earn, the absurdity of the Jew caring as much for his money as the loss of his daughter. Antonio is so melancholy he becomes absent, barely a meaningful character. Even Gratiano's pratfalls fall flat. The trial scene was scratched on my DVD, so I skipped it, and feel like I dodged a bullet.

As far as I can tell, the purpose of this production was to create a basic filmed unabridged reference production that high school teachers can screen for their students, a production that takes no stands and makes no waves and follows along exactly to the text the students were given, that any teacher can use to impose their own lesson plan on top of. Maybe it's effective on its own terms. As art, it is worthless and insulting.


2003 Directed by Michael Radford, Al Pacino as Shylock

It opens with a dense textual title card explaining what life was like for Jews in 16th Century Venice, because everyone knows that Tell, Don't Show is the fundamental principle of great storytelling. Why prove the difficulty of life in Venice for Jews by showing Shylock's life and trusting the audience, when you can spell it out for them before the play starts? And because everyone watching The Merchant of Venice doesn't know what anti-semitism is and needs it explained to them like they're two years old, right? The Radford Merchant is much more egregious than the Munby in its obliviousness to the fact that actual Jews might actually watch his movie. From step one it assumes that Shylock needs defending, that if only you explained to the audience that Shylock's life was hard, they would sympathize with his victimhood rather than thinking of Jews as evil Christ-killing usurers. The prelude goes so far as to show pages of Talmud burning in the pogroms of the Venetians.

I first saw this film when it came out, in a theater, and I had a visceral negative reaction to it. I hated how Pacino played Shylock, the weakness in his character, the opacity in his mien, the lack of apparent intelligence. I hated the victimhood narrative that drives so much of the action, how the film tries to at times justify Shylock's actions, make the audience sympathize, by playing up the violence against Jews, as if that violence could ever justify demanding a pound of Christian flesh. We see Antonio spitting on Shylock, we see Venetians shoving and kicking and swearing at Shylock and his fellow Jews. Nothing can be left to the imagination, Shylock's suffering must be writ tediously large.

This time around, I felt more positively about the film, for several reasons. First, the cinematography and mise en scene is phenomenal. This is a beautiful movie that captures medieval Venice in its complicated glory, with its diverse crowds, its nautical merchant culture, its striking architecture. And all of that is worth praising, because it is a pleasure in its own right.

Second, in the title card there is one fascinating feature I hadn't picked up on the first (two) times around- the text notes that while Venice had laws oppressing Jews, it was comparatively liberal because for most 'sophisticated' Venetians, money and the value of lending with interest was more valuable than obeisance to Christian faith. However, says the title card, 'religious fanatics' hated the Jews for charging interest.

In other words, in Radford's vision of the play, Antonio is not a true Merchant of Venice, committed to winning his fortune at any cost- he's a religious fanatic. This is an amazing twist that Radford and Irons actually carry through from beginning- where Radford shows Antonio attending mass- to end- where Antonio's breast is bared and readied for Shylock's knife, revealing a massive silver cross on his chest. Antonio's hatred of Shylock is not personal, it emerges from his own deep faith in Christ and the Bible. This explains his willingness to lend without interest at obvious personal loss, it explains his willingness to, Christ-like, accept the execution of Shylock's bond. Antonio is not typical for Venice, he is an exceptional man whose personal character impels him to antagonize Jews.

I was talking to [personal profile] ghost_lingering at Club Vivid about how the central tension in the best versions of Merchant is on the idea of the power of promises. Portia believes in oaths so deeply that she will not violate the oath she swore to her father even if it mean she end up married to a hateful man. She believes in oaths so deeply that in the trial scene, she will not invalidate Shylock's bond because to do so would make contracts meaningless. She believes in oaths so deeply that she tests her husband's oath about the ring, and finds him disappointingly lacking. Shylock will have his bond, and the Duke will go along with it because do otherwise would destroy the Venetian commerce system.

In contrast to this principle of promises stands Balthazar's "quality of mercy", which transcends laws and which she urges upon Shylock in lieu of his legalism. What's fascinating about Radford's version of the play is that while it's very much concerned with promises and oaths and mercy, it flips some of the conventional elements of the tension- Pacino plays Shylock as far more apparently merciful than one is used to seeing: When Balthazar speaks of the quality of Mercy, Pacino does not look mocking or scornful- he looks troubled. Portia's message resonates with him, as a pleading for virtue, and he appears to be genuinely considering backing down from his cruel demand. Perhaps he is recalling the original loan, when he pled unsuccessfully for Antonio to be his friend, when he made the offer to lend without interest not as a cruel joke but as an offer of friendship. No matter- ultimately Shylock's heart hardens and he refuses to back down from his legalism. Perhaps he recalls that the religious fanatic Antonio never showed him any Christian mercy.

I also like that Joseph Fiennes' Bassanio is clearly marked as an unreformed spendthrift, with far more servants than I've ever seen a production of Merchant assign him before. That was a clever choice, I think, that calls into deeper question the power imbalance in the Portia/Bassanio relationship as well as the Antonio/Bassanio relationship.

I still think it is a weaker set of choices than Nunn's. I still think Pacino's Shylock is opaque and his actions not well justified by the performance or the staging, and Jessica is a vague whimperer rather than a fully realized character, but I appreciate this version more than I did previously.
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Title: Circles (Ma'agalim)
Vidder: seekingferret
Fandom: The West Wing
Song: "Ma'agalim (Circles)" by Idan Raichel
Content Notes: Club Vivid Premiere 2016. The posted vid is ripped from the con DVD because I seem to have already lost the original file. Will try to find that.
Length: 3:18
Responsible for the lack of consistent title block from vid to vid: seekingferret
Summary Remix of LauraShapiro's West Wing fanvid "Circles", focusing on Toby Ziegler
Acknowledgements Thanks to [personal profile] ghost_lingering for betaing, the tech glitches are not her fault. Thanks for [personal profile] laurashapiro for inspiration.



Lyrics

lyrics )


As often happens when Idan Raichel releases a new album, I listened to "At the Edge of the Beginning" an awful lot when it first came out in January. The album's standout is "Ma'agalim (Circles)", a really great dance tune with thoughtful lyrics. I wanted to vid it before I knew what to vid it to.

The song is also a designed pun: As a song called "Circles", it is intended to be danced as an Israeli circle dance. There's something awfully attractive to me about pun songs. As I listened to the song on repeat, I thought about what I could vid it to, and the punnishness of the title called to me to respond with my own pun. In viddish circles, "Circles" is the name of a well-known West Wing vid premiered about ten years ago at Vividcon by [personal profile] laurashapiro. It tells the story of the West Wing crew bobbing and weaving through the White House to Tommy Schlamme's lyrical camera movement,, the famous 'walk-and-talks' sending the whole West Wing spinning in literal circles as Jed and Leo and Josh and CJ and Toby struggle with the various scandals of the Bartlett administration. It's one of my favorite vids, because it captures characters I love so much, so well. And it's a quintessential vid, one that takes the visual elements of a show and reuses them in a way that completely reinterprets them. So I started to get stuck on the idea of somehow mashing up "Circles" the West Wing vid and "Circles" the Israeli dance song. Especially as a Club Vivid vid it seemed to work- dancing along to this song seems essential to what it says as a vid.

Because "Ma'agalim" is Hebrew and Idan Raichel as a poet and musician often draws inspiration from his Judaism, Toby Ziegler was the natural focal point for this vid, as the locus of Jewish identity on the West Wing. Also because I have ridiculous amounts of Toby Feelz. All the feelz. I don't think this vid says anything really specific about Toby, it just testifies to the way he keeps cycling again and again through the vicissitudes of life, always rolling with the punches, the way he suffers and loses and just carries it inside him and works as hard as he can to serve others, because he believes in America's promise. And how in spite of his surliness he builds family and love all around him, love he's uncertain if he deserves but which ultimately carries him when he needs to be carried. This was for me an intricate vid, with some faster cuts than I typically use, and a quite long list of episode sources, but it also sort of straightforwardly followed from its premise. I knew what images needed to be where with very little rethinking required. I feel like I know Toby very well.

Sadly my laptop broke shortly after submitting this vid, and recovering files from it is a little hit or miss. So I ripped the vid from the con DVD set in order to get it posted quickly. I will try to dig up the cleaner better prettier version of this vid and post that when I can figure out how.
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I did in fact make it to Vividcon more or less in one piece! The only further drama left unreported was that once I got to O'Hare, there was the trouble with my bag, which had been sent from Newark on a later flight than the one I'd been on... I beat my suitcase to Chicago by about forty five minutes, and had to wait to claim it. This was exacerbated by the fact that the very friendly people on the American flight I'd switched to had no fucking clue what United had done with my bag. But no matter, I made it to the hotel around 2PM Friday, just minutes after the food I'd ordered for Shabbos dinner arrived. The hotel staff very helpfully stashed it in a refrigerator until I showed up to claim it. And then the weekend actually got good.

When I got to the con, after a shower and clothing change that made me feel vaguely human again after fifteen hours in trains and planes and airports, I went down to the con suite and found [personal profile] ghost_lingering and [personal profile] thirdblindmouse, the only con attendees I'd met in person before (Proudly Team Fake Birthday!) So that was kind of reassuring to my social anxiety. After brief hellos, we stopped in on the first hour of [personal profile] milly's panel on use of text in vids, which was full of interesting and inspirational ideas that I will probably never follow through on. And then I had to change clothes again into more Shabbos-y clothing and get the food ready for the Shabbos dinner I hosted.

It was me and [personal profile] kass and [personal profile] bironic and [personal profile] the_shoshanna and [personal profile] thefourthvine and [personal profile] ghost_lingering. We tried to bentsch licht but the air conditioning blew out the candles almost as soon as they were lit, which I suppose is better than setting off the fire alarm and sprinklers, as we were worried we might. Then [personal profile] kass made a lovely Kiddush and we ate and talked about all sorts of fascinating stuff with the glorious oneupsmanship that comes of a pile of smart and creative people being in the same room together. This was a complicated weekend for me Jewishly speaking, but this dinner was an unambiguously positive Jewish moment for me and I was so glad to have it. (Also, to the three of you who cornered me at some point afterward and offered to pay for 'their share' of the meal: NO! I mean, thank you for offering, but hosting guests for Shabbos dinner isn't just a mitzvah, it is the clearest thing one can do in emulation of Avraham Avinu. You are not taking that away from me. I was so happy to have all of you at my Shabbos table and that is all the payment I need!)

And then we hurriedly put away the leftovers because it was time for Premieres. They do Vividcon Premieres in two rooms- a main room where supposedly everyone very seriously watches the vids in respectful silence and an overflow room where a little talking and reacting to the vids is allowed (but everyone is seriously there to see the vids, so it's not like people were having irrelevant conversations over the vids). I went to the overflow room and had a really great time, and I'm not sure I ever want to try the main room experience, but it was an extraordinary Premieres show and it was amazing to watch it with so many people who were so attuned to all of the nuances of what makes a great vid great.

Highlights of premieres for me were the Fringe vid "1985", Eurovision vid "Tribute", and ALL THE STAR WARS VIDS. If The Force Awakens was good for anything, it was awakening the enthusiasm and creative impulses of hordes of Star Wars fans. There were so many great Star Wars vid premieres all weekend, not just as Premieres, but the ones at Premieres were wonderfully technically intricate and emotionally expressive vids that surveyed the full breadth of the history of the Star Wars narrative arc and knew exactly how to go for the kill. So many Star Wars feels. So many feels in general, was the story of the weekend.

[personal profile] jmtorres's "1985" was hilarious, but in that "Oh, Walter, you're the most heartbreaking monster" kind of way that never forgot just how destructive 1985 Walter was despite its clear affection for him. I was sitting next to [personal profile] kerithwyn, who basically didn't stop vibrating with excitement from that vid for the next day. And just generally, more Fringe vids is always amazing. I should finish more of mine. :/

And [personal profile] echan's "Tribute", which, holy hell, the batshit is strong. I only know Eurovision from osmosis and seeing gifs, but this vid committed to just how outrageously image dependent Eurovision is. And how music might sometimes take second fiddle to image- this is not the greatest song in the world, this is just a tribute. But the aesthetic power of Eurovision is there anyway.

After premieres I went to sleep. Haha, no, just kidding. Intelligent Ferret would have gone to sleep, but I am not Intelligent Ferret. There was trivia. Trivia, I say! How can I be expected to resist trivia? I am mere flesh, after all. I teamed with [personal profile] jarrow, [personal profile] isweedan, [personal profile] kiki_miserychic, and someone else... [personal profile] ohvienna, maybe? Too much of trivia was vidding and Vividcon-specific knowledge I did not have, but I contributed a little and we had great fun coming up with new ways to fold our answer slips before submitting them.

And then I went to sleep. For real this time. I'd had quite a day, after all. I deserved some sleep. And after all that had happened, it had turned out to be a pretty good day, but it was not the day I'd hoped it would be. I wanted to get in Thursday night so I could ease my way into the Vividcon experience, but instead I came in running and didn't stop running and a part of me never really felt settled in. I really hope next year, (if I go next year, which I probably will) I can get the full weekend experience. Unlike the weekend regional cons I'm more familiar with, Vividcon uses the full Friday for programming, which it needs to do since more of its programming comes in two hour blocks that just eat up the schedule quickly- and has to be that way, if they're going to have time to show vids and do discussion.

Also in the very brief time at the con I had on Friday, I got to see just how amazingly friendly everyone was. I hadn't really worried that much since I knew a bunch of #vidding people who were at the con, so I figured there I had a built in group of people to hang out with, but a part of me did worry about all these new people. And it was great to actually meet [personal profile] elipie and [personal profile] jetpack_monkey and [personal profile] shati and [personal profile] bradcpu and [personal profile] milly and [personal profile] anoel after years of talking to them in irc, but lots of other people just walked up to me and introduced themselves and started talking about vids, and it was so great meeting all these wonderful people. I am not good at meeting new people, not good at introducing myself, but it felt like a thing I could safely do at the con and I did it a bunch and people were okay with it. It was weird because on the other hand, I can see why people might find the con isolating, because despite the great amount of friendliness extended to me as a newbie who barely knew anyone, this was also a convention full of people who have been going to Vividcon together for a decade or more, and the depth of the relationships was intimidating. I definitely felt that, too, that sense of not wanting to jump in when people who'd known each forever and only got to see each other once a year were talking, but... I dunno, it was weird, but mostly it was great.

Saturday morning there was premieres vid review, where people sat in a room and discussed responses to the premieres. This was really neat, hearing really smart people unpack the vids we'd only seen once or twice, kind of figuring them out as we want along. It's fascinating to see all the different kinds of things people see in vids, things I don't necessarily always key on but are important to others. Vid Review was led by [personal profile] jarrow and [personal profile] sisabet, aka Sisarrow, who had so many smart things to say about vids and who still managed to keep the panel moving at the frenetic pace needed to cover all the vids. After Vid Review we broke for lunch.

After lunch, there was a panel on the breadth of Star Trek vids and Star Trek feels, that opened with [personal profile] cosmic_llin's "Long Live" making everyone in the room cry and... continued to more crying, with some laughing mixed in.

Then there was [personal profile] ghost_lingering's panel on nonmusical audio in vids, which introduced a very useful set of taxons for thinking about audio- Is it musical/nonmusical/semi-musical? Is it found audio or created audio?

Then, uh... I think a nap and then dinner and then getting ready for Club Vivid.

I guess the thing to say about Club Vivid is that it lives up to its advertising. Beforehand several people, particularly [personal profile] jarrow, were telling me about how awesome Club Vivid is. And I believed them, but I also figured that nothing is equally awesome for everyone, that there would be elements of CVV that different people would value more or less. But CVV is pretty much all things to all people. It's an exceptional event, the perfect geek dance party.

It's hard to point to a technical reason why this is. I mean, I think there are technical reasons for it- opening with the Joxer Dance as a dancing icebreaker of deep fannish significance, the availability of plentiful alcohol starting an hour before the dancing, the presence and placement of alternate quieter locations for people overwhelmed by the dancing and loud music and flashing lights, the fact that the vids having been created by con-goers gives everyone an investment in enjoyment... in many respects, Club Vivid is in fact very well designed, and clearly honed by years of running it. But more than any of these technical aspects, it is just the fact that so many long-time con-goers have committed fully to making Club Vivid a place that they and everyone else can enjoy. And that's not something I can explain well. I've been at awkward geek dance parties where pressure was applied to lure people out onto the dance floor, and it led to resistance and half-hearted dancing. Nobody put pressure on anyone at CVV, they were just clearly having so much fun, and having fun in so many different ways, that there was no other option but to have fun.

I was nervous as hell when my own Club Vivid premiere played, but people went out of their way to reassure me. [personal profile] anoel and [personal profile] jarrow went up to me beforehand and told me they were excited to see a West Wing vid at Club Vivid, and their enthusiasm was such that it somehow didn't make me feel even more pressured. And [personal profile] ghost_lingering, my beta, kept telling me over and over that people were going to like the vid. I am so appreciative of that support. And then the vid happened, and blink and it was over- all I could see while it was happening was the tiny technical glitches I'd missed before, but people seemed to like it- a bunch of people came over to tell me I'd awoken their Toby Feels, which was really the whole point of the exercise, especially since I was probably the only person at the con who knew what the lyrics meant. And then I could go back to dancing without being stressed.

After CVV, I went up to my room, lit some candles, sat on the floor and read Eicha, the book of Lamentations traditionally recited on Tisha B'av. It was hard to go from the joy of CVV to the sadness of Tisha B'av, and the whole experience was weird, but it felt important to me. I feel like as a Jew I carry so much with me all the time. Paris, and Tel Aviv, and so many others, just adding a little weight to my emotional load everywhere I go. Tisha B'Av in a way is a moment to unload myself.

It's very striking in Perek Gimel of Eicha, how easy it is to read the second half of the perek as sarcasm, especially in light of the first half of the perek. (3:15-19) "He hath filled me with bitterness, He hath sated me with wormwood. He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, He hath made me to wallow in ashes. And I said: 'My strength is perished, and mine expectation from the LORD.' And my soul is removed far off from peace, I forgot prosperity. Remember mine affliction and mine anguish, the wormwood and the gall." That is Yirmiyahu's perspective in the beginning of the Perek, his misery and his doubt and his suffering, but then he shifts. (3:21) "This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope." And it looks at first like he is turning inward to his faith to endure the hardship with honest sincerity and belief, but listen as he goes on: (3:26-29) "It is good that a man should quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and keep silence, because He hath laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope." That doesn't like honest faith. That sounds like too-good-to-be-true faith. It sounds like a parody of faith, like the parroting of faith by a man embittered, a man mocking the idea of being faithful to God when God has been faithless.

And perhaps paradoxically, and perhaps not paradoxically, for Yirmiyahu was a true prophet of great power- speaking those words was an unburdening. Speaking those words of disappointment and frustration with God's delayed mercy centered me, brought me back to my faith.

But on the whole, Tisha B'av was hard at the con. Everyone was eating, everyone was enjoying, and I was not eating but I was definitely enjoying, too, and yet the fasting was keeping me mindful of the meaning of the day, of the fundamental loss that is so central to contemporary Judaism, of Jerusalem as a centering point for the whole nation. And I struggled between those pulls, struggled to be present and engaged at the convention when most of the people I was talking to didn't understand the significance of the day.

Sunday morning I watched part of the Nearly New vidshow, then spent a few hours in the con suite, staffing it for an hour and then chatting with a rotating cast of awesome people about fanfic and vidding and the history of disease and convention history and traffic mishaps and ... oh, I love hanging out with hordes of geeks. And then I went to the Challenge vidshow, which was also full of terrific vids. I think my favorite was [personal profile] trelkez's Kate from Lost vid... I've only seen the first season and a half of the show, and I have little interest in seeing any more, but this vid was so excellent at presenting's Kate's story and so visually striking and beautiful.

And then I flew home and I am exhausted now but very glad I went to Vividcon, and hopeful that next year, with no flight delays and no Jewish fast days, I'll have a more normal and more unreservedly enjoyable con experience.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Hahahaha life sucks right now.

I was supposed to be at Vividcon ten hours ago. My flight was supposed to leave Newark at 9:29PM Eastern and be in Chicago by 10:50PM Central. My new apartment is walking distance to a Northeast Corridor train station and so I walked to the train and took the train to the airport and skated through security in a couple minutes and thought I was so damned clever for getting to the airport so easily. Instead there was lightning and problems with getting the crew in place and a hell of a lot of getting jerked around by the skeleton crew United Airlines had in place, who kept popping up every half hour or so to delay the flight by another half hour. At 1:30AM they finally cancelled the flight leaving us to scramble to find new plans.

I thought outside the box a little and was able to get booked on a flight out of Philadelphia that leaves at 11AM Eastern today, while a lot of my flightmates were settling for flights out of Newark that didn't leave until Saturday, which was obviously a no-go for me. Of course the problem with booking a flight out of Philadelphia was, you know, getting to Philadelphia. By the time I had my new flight booked the train station at Newark was closed for the night, so I had to wait until 4:30AM in the baggage claim at Newark Terminal C, then take the NJ Transit to Trenton, transfer to SEPTA, take SEPTA regional rail to 30th Street Station in Central Philadelphia, transfer to the SEPTA regional out to the Airport, then go through security for my second time in twelve hours, and here I am... running on the hour of sleep I got on the train to Trenton.

In about five hours I will be at Vividcon and hopefully things will stop going wrong and everything will be great for the rest of the weekend. But life sucks a bit right now.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Women Who Would be Rabbis by Pamela Nadell

It's an academic historical survey of the American history of the movement to ordain female Rabbis, mostly covering the conversation in the Reform (and reforming) communities, with a late detour into the Conservative Movement's parallel debates and a small appendix asking about Orthodoxy.

As a work of scholarship, it is thorough and well researched, with some sixty pages of endnotes testifying to the depth of Nadell's search for relevant documentation. Her research takes her as far back as the 1830s and 40s all the way up to the ordination of Amy Eilberg by JTS in the mid '80s. And as a work of reconstructed historiography it is an important work, pointing to the repeated pattern in the history of the struggle for women's ordination to forget its forbears, whom Nadell labels with the term 'proto-Rabbis'. Because the thing that emerges as Nadell takes you through the history is that nobody the media ever labeled as 'first' was ever in any true sense 'first', at least without qualifications. Before Priesand and Eilberg became the first women ordained, respectively, by the Reform and Conservative rabbinical seminaries (and Hurwitz by an at least putatively Orthodox rabbinic seminary), there were a number of women, both among those who attended those seminaries on a non-Rabbinic track and those who did not attend the seminary but were possessed of considerable Jewish education for other reasons, who received some or all of the education of a Rabbi and performed some or all of the roles associated with the Rabbinic profession and may have at least informally been assigned the title of Rabbi or at least spiritual leader.

I did feel that Nadell, though she develops this point extremely effectively from a purely historical point of view, does not delve deeply enough into the theological reasons underpinning some of this confusion, which she seems to assert as mainly the result of sexism (I don't mean to say that she is simplistic in this regard. Nadell's discussion of sexism as a complex social force in American life is quite thorough and historically attenuated.). But Nadell's term 'proto-Rabbi' is ultimately confused, I think, and it may lead to confuse the reader to a certain degree.

What Nadell's excellent book is missing is any thought to the primary question "What is a Rabbi?" I think this is especially important because the answer to this question evolved significantly over the course of the time period Nadell surveys.

The first 'proto-Rabbi' Nadell uncovers is Ray Frank, dubbed in the Jewish media 'the girl Rabbi of the West'. A gifted preacher with minimal formal Jewish education, she spoke compellingly from the pulpit of a number of Jewish congregations in the Western US in the late 19th century, but made no claim to ordination. Frank herself looked back to Rashi's daughters and Miriam and Devorah and the Maid of Ludmir for examples of female leaders of the Jewish people. And I think that exactly points to the problem with the idea of reading Frank as the first proto-Rabbi. Women have always been Jewish leaders, though never with the title of Rabbi. But what is a Rabbi?

The reality that Nadell butts up against is that the responsibilities and training of a Reform Rabbi are very different than the responsibilities and training of an Orthodox Rabbi, and the responsibilities of a Reform Rabbi a hundred years ago were very different than the responsibilities of a contemporary Reform Rabbi, so asking whether women should be Rabbis is not asking a single question, it's really asking a few dozen circumstantially different questions about how and in what conditions a woman can be called a Rabbi. I think generally when people and the media labeled a particular 'proto-Rabbi' as a Rabbinical or pseudo-Rabbinical figure, what they were actually identifying was that the person in question was performing some or all of the tasks that a comparable male Rabbi- of that era and denomination!- would be expected to perform. But this is not necessarily the same thing as being a 'proto-Rabbi' because that seems to require that the male Rabbinate was not a moving target, that gradually the roles women served were more and more 'Rabbi-like' over time, which I do not think is precisely the case.

My own post on the most recent RCA resolution against female ordination speaks to further theological difficulties in the question. Are people really fighting over the function, or the title, or both? Sometimes Nadell engages with these questions, but too often she takes a step back and looks at other societal factors that she seems to think the theological questions the authorities are discussing are proxies for, resulting in fairly sparse and unsatisfying discussion of the actual responsa literature. The theological questions sometimes are proxies for these societal questions, to be sure. She is convincing when she can point to responsas in which rabbinical figures worry about pregnancy and marriage prompting students the seminaries have invested time and effort in to leave the rabbinate, and discussions where people worried about the general capabilities of women to perform rabbinical functions- evidence that sexist societal attitudes about women were (and still are) inflecting the debate about the place of women in the Rabbinate.

But sometimes that's not enough of an answer. One of the 1920s students at Hebrew Union College who sought a Rabbinical ordination if she completed the curriculum, Dora Askowith, ultimately was rejected for failure to complete the second year Hebrew examination, despite otherwise exemplary coursework and research. Nadell assesses this as a sexist failure of the system, noting that other male students might have similarly struggled with the Hebrew curriculum, but they at least knew that if they managed to complete the examination, they would likely receive ordination, whereas Askowith ultimately used it as the reason for dropping out of HUC. And this is no doubt true, but by focusing on the societal issues Nadell obscures the subtle but important practical religious problem, which is that the Hebrew curriculum was probably a more important part of the HUC curriculum in 1920 than it probably is today, because to a greater degree than today graduates of HUC were being sent out to effectively be the only Hebrew-speaking Jew in communities with far less Jewish learning than most practicing Jews have today. HUC required the Hebrew examination because in order to send out its students into the field as it was currently constituted, HUC needed to make sure they were prepared in this area. We can criticize the structural sexism that made it more difficult for students like Askowith (who went on to have a long, successful but undistinguished career as a Jewish history teacher at Hunter College and a more distinguished career as a leader of Reform Jewish institutions) to pursue the Rabbinate, but it's less clear to me that we can criticize the sexism of demanding that women achieve the same requirements as the men.

On the other hand, Helen Levinthal succeeded Askowith a few years later at HUC, fully completed the academic coursework the same as any Rabbinical student, but was unable to receive ordination because of the refusal of the faculty, so it's certainly possible to argue that since even had Askowith completed her coursework she would probably not have been ordained, the roadblock posed by the Hebrew examination was of a fundamentally different character than the challenges imposed on male students.

Nadell shows that again and again, from men who 'in principle' had no objection to female Rabbis, the demand was placed on the first women who would become Rabbis that they be exceptional women, capable of by their visible capability and competence proving any criticism of them unfair. She tries to show that this represented a double standard that kept otherwise deserving women out of the Rabbinate by making the criteria to ordain women impossibly high. Sometimes this is convincing; other times it is less clear to me that the 'double standard' isn't actually a single standard that the female student failed to attain, for a variety of reasons including family obligations, financial difficulty, a sense of isolation engendered by being the only women in school, other competing academic demands, and others. You can make the argument that in recognition of these barriers, someone seeking to bring about true equality should make allowances for women by easing the requirements, but this is not always a wholly satisfying argument.

Likewise, Nadell mentions but doesn't really engage with the distinction between the 'private ordination' received by Regina Jonas and the seminary ordinations received by Priesand, Eilberg, et al. From her position as a contemporary Reform Jew, Nadell wants to read seminary ordination as the real, legitimate ordination that nobody can argue with, since Reform Judaism currently is a movement with a pretty strongly centralized ordination authority. But I think this stands in contrast not only to the more diffuse ordination authority of contemporary Orthodox Judaism, but also to the more diffuse ordination authority of early Reform Judaism, which had multiple streams providing its corps of Rabbis- multiple affiliated and partially affiliated seminaries, as well as defections from Orthodox- and Conservative- seminary trained Rabbis, as well as Rabbis who received private training and private ordination in an era where that sort of direct teacher-to-student ordination was more commonly accepted, though not always without controversy. I think it likely that the merger of the different Reform seminaries and the greater central guidance over the Rabbinical institution made it more likely for an eventual female ordination to happen, and more likely, when it did, for it to be globally accepted by the Reform community without the kind of schism that greeted previous significant evolutions in the Reform practice. But Nadell is so interested in situating the struggle within women's history that she doesn't pay enough attention to situating the struggle with Jewish history.

All that said, this was a fascinating book that I'm glad to have read. And obviously relevant to the interests of some of my readers, if they haven't already read it.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I just saw the new Star Trek movie. I liked it, I guess. I definitely liked it more than the other two reboot films. Those films were just action movies with fanservice. This one... it wasn't exactly a Star Trek movie, I would say, but it was a movie interested in asking the question "What is a Star Trek movie?" which is in some ways better. I like messy uncertain art.

I liked Kirk's anxiety about the 'episodic' nature of the Enterprise's journey, how his central quest in this film is for a mission he can sink his teeth into and commit to, an opportunity to put his stamp on the way the world works, rather than just aimlessly exploring. His conclusion to the quest looks both inward and outward, via a literal piece by piece reassembly of his understanding of his own crew.

I liked Scotty's storyline about being forced into an utterly foreign kind of heroism, of building relationships instead of just interacting with equipment. I liked Bones's struggle to make sense of his friendship with Spock. I wish Sulu and Uhura had been given character arcs, but they were given moments of badass instead, which is perhaps adequate recompense, especially since it was Uhura who was allowed the chance to articulate the movie's ultimate conclusion. And Jaylah was pretty great altogether.

But most of all I liked "The Federation is an Act of War". I felt like in a lot of ways Krall was what Khan should have been in STiD- the threat he poses to the Federation and the reasons why the Federation is flawed but worth trying to improve on.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
The weather hasn't calmed down, but it's cooled down- we've had a series of pretty dramatic summer thunderstorms that have dropped temperatures from the 90s into the 80s and very occasionally into the 70s. I've taken advantage of a few of the lulls in the thunderstorms to get back in the biking thing. Sunday I rode over to the river and then through a riverside park... Google maps says the total trip was about 8 miles, which is a lot for me. I sort of tricked myself into the distance- the trip out to the river is mostly downhill, and the ride along the river was mostly flat, so I kept pushing further out because I wasn't feeling winded, but I struggled on some of the uphill parts heading back. There was one hill in particular that I might've been able to climb at the beginning of the ride, but certainly couldn't at the end, and ended up walking my bike up the hill. But it was a good ride, really pleasant, and my legs were a lot less sore the day than they were after my first bike ride of the summer when I only went half the distance I did yesterday, so maybe my body's adjusting. I always found that to be the case when I was somewhat serious about frisbee in college- I'd come back after winter break of not doing any fitness stuff and the first practice would kill me, and then I'd be fine after that. But my body is not eighteen anymore and it's been a lot longer since I was in shape, so I suspect it'll take longer this time around.

Suburbia makes fitness hard. You basically have to drive everywhere to get to anything useful, so any exercise has to be unpurposeful, done just for its own sake. When I lived in New York City, I didn't need to do exercise because I got several miles of walking done every day, and more on good days. Where I was living for the past ten years, I just didn't have much interest in unpurposeful exercise. I'd get home from work after wrestling with traffic for an hour and be exhausted and grumpy and not want to move. My only exercise of the week came on Shabbos with walking to and from shul. My new town, well, the new township I've technically moved into is even more spaced out than my old one, but I'm two blocks from the border of a town that is much more tightly packed together and has interesting things to walk and bike to. And I have this extra energy that comes of the shorter commute and I'm glad I've been able to burn some of that energy by moving my body.

I also did some stuff in the kitchen Sunday. I baked challah for Vividcon, which is in less than two weeks and I'm very excited about it. I'm hosting a Shabbos dinner at the con, which should be nice. The only problem with VVC is that Saturday night into Sunday is Tisha B'Av, which is a weird semi-holiday that I'm going to have to figure out my comfort level with doing con stuff around. Going straight from Club Vivid to reading Eichah seems weird. On the other hand, I don't want to skip Club Vivid, since I'm premiering a vid there. Eh, I'll figure it out.





Notes on politics I have resisted posting on Facebook:

-My father said when I saw him on Sunday "The liberals keep falling into Trump's traps."

I think in a lot of cases he's right. The baffling case of Donald Trump, Russian agent is a perfect example. The DNC was hacked and their emails released by Wikileaks. It is not clear who the hackers were or what their motivation was. Wikileaks' motivation is general chaos by way of radical information transparency, which is to say, Wikileaks believes that no information should be secret.

The information in the emails included information that was embarrassing to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. In order to deflect attention, Clinton and her advisors suggested that the Russian government might be behind the hacks. They made this suggestion despite their being no evidence of Russian involvement beyond speculation. The FBI was asked and they said something like "Sure, it could be the Russians, we don't know." On this basis the idea that the Russians, with or without the direct collusion of Donald Trump, had hacked the DNC started to be spread by the media as a rumor.

So Donald Trump, confronted with the ridiculous and unfounded accusation that the Russian government is propping up his campaign, made the sarcastic remark that if he could control who the Russians hacked, he would have instead directed them to recover the missing emails Clinton and her legal team deleted from her private email server- emails that she claims were personal but which a lot of people suspect included sensitive political exchanges, emails which she hid using a private server to step around the Freedom of Information Act's requirements for reasonable transparency, even when it meant mishandling sensitive information.

And the Democrats took this- a clear joke, and a barbed one- and started raving about how Donald Trump had committed the treasonous act of calling for a foreign government to hack an American national's server. When Trump has done nothing wrong except suffer the unverified accusations of liberal hacks.

When conservatives- the kind of conservatives like me who fear Trump- see this kind of nonsense game, it makes it harder and harder to take Hillary Clinton seriously as an alternative to Trump. It makes it easier and easier to say "Okay, Trump is a disaster, but voting for Clinton is courting a different kind of disaster. Hillary Clinton doesn't take democracy seriously, either." Easier and easier to say "If Trump is president, he'll only be able to pass the laws that Paul Ryan sends to him, so Congress will act as all the check on his power we'll need."

And Donald Trump knows this. He knows that if he acts like Donald Trump, outrageous and sloppy and insulting, the Democrats will in their outrage and their distorted worldview fall all over themselves making ludicrous accusations against him. And every time they do, it'll bring the people who know better than to swallow these credulous media narratives more securely into his camp. Every time liberals snicker about how reality has a liberal bias, it helps Trump. Reality doesn't have a liberal bias, the media does. And every time a nonsense story like this is spread by the liberal media- and this one was immediately followed up two days later by the nonsense story of how Donald Trump had leaked information about a secret US base in Saudi Arabia from a classified security briefing he hadn't even received!!!!- every time a story like this is spread, people like me say "Well, Trump is a disaster, but I suppose he'll only be able to pass the laws that Paul Ryan sends to him. Maybe Paul Ryan will be able to act as a brake on his lunacy."


-Except that's the problem. For whatever reason- and I admire Paul Ryan, and to a certain degree I admire the way he's trying to maintain his integrity while struggling to keep the Republican Party he was reluctantly entrusted with in one piece, just as I admired John Boehner's ultimately futile efforts toward the same end, Paul Ryan has not upheld his end of the bargain with his conservative base. Paul Ryan was supposed to have emerged from his meetings with Trump, after Trump had effectively become the presumptive nominee, having extracted meaningful concessions from Trump. Meaningful concessions meaning that Trump would stop acting like a racist authoritarian monster and start presenting himself as a President who could actually lead America, all of America.

Paul Ryan has been struggling hard to maintain his integrity, to draw lines in the sand and to call out Trump when Trump crosses those lines. It's astonishing to imagine that the House Majority Leader has called his own party's presidential candidate a racist, but it's happened! More than once in the past two months! That's actually happened! But it's clear that no meaningful deal was arranged. It's clear that Ryan has nothing Trump wants and no power to control what Trump does, and given that this is the case, it's hard to see the Republican Congress, the clusterfuck that has been this Republican Congress, serving as any kind of break on Trump's megalomania.

And so I'm still voting for Hillary Clinton, because it's possible- actually, the more I think on it, plausible- that the combination of Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell will result in the most legislatively productive Congress since the late Clinton/early Bush era. And that productivity could be beautifully tempered by the spirit of compromise.






Emma by Jane Austen

The third Austen novel I've read, and the first which didn't advertise its themes in its title. I enjoyed it greatly, obviously, as it is a great novel. Nobody- nobody!- drops one-liners as brilliantly as Austen. And the whole cast of characters, but particularly Emma Woodhouse herself, are so sharply and complicatedly drawn. There were moments in the later third of the book where I realized that we were still unfolding yet further layers of depth to Emma's personality, new layers that I couldn't have predicted or expected yet which I found completely integrated into my overall sense of who Emma was.

Mr. Knightley is a little hard to like and I think the romantic endgame was a little too neat for me, but I liked basically everything else. I think I particularly like the sense that even when Emma is not behaving well, Austen is rooting for her. There's a really powerful honesty in Austen's writing, and from that honesty emerges love. I am now poking at Northanger Abbey


The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald

Do people know Travis McGee? I think I first learned of McGee from Spider Robinson's Callahan books, as Robinson and Jake are both big fans of MacDonald's work. I've read three or four of them over the years- I haven't particularly been looking for them, but they don't seem to turn up that often. You never see big displays of MacDonald's writing in bookstores or libraries, you rarely turn up the books at used bookstores, but there's about twenty of them and each that I've read so far has been a brilliant mystery novel and also an epitome of that curious genre, the Florida Novel. MacDonald's characters put Hiaasen's to shame. (I also just tried to read a Hiaasen novel, but it didn't take. Sometimes I like Hiaasen, but too often he sounds like reheated Elmore Leonard, like he's trying too hard.) The Long Lavender Look starts off with a pile of cliches- McGeee in jail for a crime he didn't commit, in a secretive rural county with a sheriff who has an unclear backstory- and then MacDonald eases off them one by and the book goes in so many surprising- and moving- directions. The book is funny, but bleak, entertaining but meditative, picaresque but realistic. It's leavened with just the right amount of all the ingredients that flavor life.
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I heard belatedly about director Jonathan Munby's Merchant of Venice, with Jonathan Pryce starring as Shylock, playing a one week stint at the Lincoln Center Festival. It was originally created for the Globe Theater and is apparently now on tour. I did some looking at reviews and saw only good things, and particular notes about some additions to the text I was curious about, so I decided I wanted to see it. By the time I looked, there weren't many seats left. I was left with the choice of spending nearly a hundred dollars for seats all the way in the back, or one fifty for fourth row orchestra seats, and I decided to splurge since it seemed like a fairly small marginal increase- if I was already in for a hundred dollars, might as well make sure I got choice seats. I'm not sure I've ever spent so much money on a theatrical performance, and I instantly to a certain degree regretted it. It is not the kind of money I normally spend and to do so on a play I have such deep, complicated feelings about was a significant risk for that kind of money. Still, it was a staging I didn't really want to miss.

Munby's major question on Merchant is: How can a play so terribly racist be read as a comedy in today's age? His answer is: It shouldn't be. And yet unlike Darko Tresnjak's magnificent transformation of the play into a tragedy, into Shylock's tragedy, Munby commits fully to the text of Merchant as a comedy. Instead of working against that clear intention, he works it against the audience. The persistent question Munby poses to his audience is: "Why are you laughing? This isn't funny!"

He opens the play with an introductory masque, singing, dancing, music and drums, the revelry of a Venetian street carnival. (There is brilliant music throughout the production, with a wide range of meanings.) The actors don't just dance onstage, they dance into the aisles, egging on the audience, and then they start to clap. They clap in rhythm with the drums, the clapping spreads from actor to actor and then, with encouragement from the actors, it spreads to the audience. It built and built, filling the theater, until two Jews, Shylock and a companion, clad in red caps marking them as Jews, blundered through the carnival by mistake. The music stops. The revelers, led by Antonio, spit on and then savagely beat Shylock and his coreligionist. The very same revelers the audience was just clapping along with!!!! (I was not clapping along. The audience participation bits throughout the show did not work on me. I do not identify with the Venetians. I stand with Shylock.) Watching the Venetians beat Shylock was the first time this play made me tear up, but it was not the last. It was just so visceral, watching a Jew beaten on stage for the amusement of the Christian heroes of the play. This is not ancient history, you know. At intermission the couple behind me was reading from the program a small historical note about Elizabethan anti-semitism and snickering. One of them said to the other "It says the Elizabethans were anti-semitic. No shit!" it was such classic New York liberal superiority. I wanted to turn to them and say "21st Century Americans are anti-semitic, too! No shit!" I restrained myself.

Later, Shylock's servant Gobbo grapples with whether to steal from his master the Jew. A devil sits on one shoulder, an angel on the other. Gobbo pulls two people from the audience and brings them on stage to pantomime as the devil and the angel. He enlists the audience to take their behalfs, playing up the comic bawdiness of Gobbo and his ridiculous call and response games until half the audience is cheering for Gobbo to steal from the Jew without realizing it. (I realized it. The audience participation bits did not work on me. I stand with Shylock.)

Again and again, this was Munby's solution to the problem of the play's comic racism- to trick the audience into laughing at it and then pull the curtain back and reveal what they'd just laughed at. But I was never laughing, so I just had the uncomfortable feeling throughout of watching an audience all around me laugh at anti-semitic jokes. Jokes at my expense. It was... revealing.

Merchant is not only the anti-semitic Shakespeare play, though. It's also otherwise racist! People forget that in Morocco's scene there is Portia's infamous line about his complexion, that Aragon's scene is just a long series of ethnic jokes... Munby didn't seek to undermine these scenes at all. He played them as ethnic comedy, as they are written, and I suppose he trusted that the lesson he was teaching in the scenes about the Jews would echo into these scenes, or perhaps he thought a few jokes about savage Africans and fussy Spaniards were funny, or perhaps he just needed to beef up the comedy for his finale to land as hard as he wanted, but I wanted more from these scenes.

What of Shylock? Pryce's Shylock was good, but not great. He was a nervous creature, much abused and much suffering from the abuse, but I actually believed in the negotiation scene that when he spoke of the pound of flesh as his 'merry bond', he meant it. There was little sinister, manipulative intent, little of the chessmaster. This was a reactive Shylock. Pryce and Munby's interpretation of this scene seemed to be that after repeated insulting of Shylock by Antonio, Antonio has the temerity to actually ask a favor of Shylock, and yet even as he asks the favor, Antonio cannot disguise his hatred of Shylock. Shylock sees this, sees how in the midst of begging a favor Antonio cannot resist throwing Shylock's Chumash to the ground and calling him the devil, and sees an opportunity to turn the tables. Not to kill Antonio, but for once in his life to get to laugh at Antonio, rather than the reverse. Refusing interest, demanding a pound of flesh as bond, it is not bloodthirst but a calculated insult of Antonio's worth as a man and a merchant. Only after Jessica's betrayal is Shylock reduced to nothing but vengeance. His kinsman Tubal feeds him this vengeance as an antidote to his grief over losing his daughter: With every yet more sorrowful detail about her departure, Tubal soothes Shylock's fraying nerves by reminding him of Antonio's poor business fortunes, reminding him that at least he will gain his petty insult on the evil merchant as consolation. Except that as Shylock's worldview warps, he no longer sees it as just being an insult. He wants blood. He wants this horrible Christian society that he is trapped in to inflict punishment on Antonio by its own rules, in lieu of restoring Jessica to him.

Jessica's relationship with her father is strained but heartfelt. It is clear that growing up without her mother in the house of Shylock was not easy for her, that she is not leaving for Lorenzo entirely because she loves Lorenzo, but because she knows it will hurt her father. In their opening scene, they bicker at each other in 20th century Yiddish theater Yiddish. (I'm unclear on the historical accuracy of this. Well, okay, I'm half-unclear. I am sure that two Venetian Jews from the 15th century would not talk in 20th century Yiddish theater Yiddish, but I'm not sure if they would have spoken a German-inflected Jewish dialect, as the staging suggests, or if they would have spoken some form of Judeo-Italian, or if they as Northern Italians would have spoken some combination of the two. I just don't know enough about the historical linguistics.) Shylock is trying to impose rules on her for her own safety, but because of who he is, because of the distance between the two of them, he cannot explain himself to her, only order her around. She resents the unexplained restrictions, resents her Jewishness, her Otherness.

But kinship is not all that binds Jessica to Shylock, and it is not all that she is surrendering in joining Lorenzo. Much is made in the later Belmont scenes of Jessica's struggle to adjust to being a Christian. She doesn't know how to act, she doesn't know how to move, she doesn't know how to talk like a Christian. The second act opens with a dance sequence, in which Lorenzo gives her a crucifix necklace to wear and then tries to teach her Christian dances and she struggles and fumbles and ultimately is supplanted by her mistress Portia, who dances effortlessly with Lorenzo as Jessica looks on in frustration. Every time Portia addresses Lorenzo and Jessica, the actress emphasized a distinct pause between addressing Lorenzo and Jessica, a pause clearly intended to Other Jessica. The difference is not just about faith. In becoming a Christian she is asked to give up her culture, too, and learn a new one. I'm not sure if this was intentional, because it seems too subtle a gesture, but the first time Lorenzo gives her a glass of non-kosher wine, she holds it for a minute and then returns it to a table untouched, as if she is uncomfortable with the idea of for the first time drinking unkosher wine. She can shed her faith, but this cultural tradition of being careful about food dies hard. In her next scene we see her drinking, adjusting.

And at last we reach the finale. the much-talked about Coda which reviewers coyly mentioned as the standout feature of this production. Shylock is humbled and humiliated, his daughter's seducer Lorenzo and the hated Antonio to split his fortune, and he to be forcibly converted. When Jessica hears the news, she is brought to her knees in agony and repentance, singing in Hebrew the words of the daily Vidui confession of the Shemoneh Esrei. Pardon us, our Father, for we have sinned; forgive us, our King, for we have transgressed; for You are a good and forgiving God. Blessed are You, Hashem, gracious One who pardons abundantly. At last she feels the call of her heritage, which she has surrendered with little recompense. And then her Hebrew prayer of penitence is drowned out by Christian chanting, as Munby shows us Shylock's baptism. At last, there is no more laughter, no more comedy. The weddings and the happy endings for the Venetians are drowned out by Shylock's misery. And once more, for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, the production reduced me to tears.

Was it worth the money? I don't know. It was powerfully, effectively staged and moving. I love the context that the ending gave to the story, and am glad I got to see Munby's thoughts on the ending and on the idea of racist comedy generally. But it was painful getting that reminder of how differently I see the world than non-Jews, painful seeing all the places they laughed and I wasn't laughing. In the courtroom scene... How can you possibly laugh during the courtroom scene? They offered Shylock double his original 3,000 ducats and he hesitated for a comic moment, caught between his avarice and his wrath, and the audience laughed. The audience laughed at the idea of a Jew comically trapped between his moneylust and his bloodlust! (I didn't laugh. I stand with Shylock.) 21st Century Americans are anti-semitic, too! No shit!

I stand with Shylock, and that is sometimes a difficult thing to do, because he is a caricatured monster from a long bygone era's deepest fears. I do not stand with him because I long to hold in my hand a pound of Christian flesh, or else three thousand ducats plus interest. I stand with him because Shakespeare sometimes manages to make him look like a member of my family, and I stand with him because my family have all vowed together never to forget what it means to be a Jew.
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The weird cognitive dissonance thing of last night's Donald Trump convention speech was agreeing with many of Trump's criticisms of President Obama, and finding the criticisms to come from such an incomprehensible place.

By my lights, the nuclear deal with Iran was a terrible move by President Obama, selling out meaningful pressure on the regime for non-meaningful changes and non-enforceable promises of change. Selling out the security of American allies in the region like Saudi Arabia and Israel at a time when those important allies were fighting to serve American interests in the Middle East of stability, energy security, and promotion of democracy. Trump is right, I think, that this was a significant mistake by Obama, and one that potentially endangers the US and its interests, both business interests and moral interests.

But I would never describe the deal as a 'humiliation'. What does that even mean? What kind of personal investment in America's reputation for foreign policy success would you have to have for the deal to represent a humiliation?

The sort of people Trump is speaking to feel this humiliation, though. I know because I've spoken to some of them, who use this language, and because I've learned that I have no way of moving the needle and moving them off of this language of humiliation. When they perceive the world as laughing at America, they perceive the world as laughing at their personal failure. They want the world to admire America, but more, they want the world to fear America. Not as an end toward some policy goal, but as an end unto itself. I will never understand this.

I will never understand the rhetoric surrounding Obama's 'apology tour' of Hiroshima. Even if we believe that bombing Hiroshima was the 'right' moral choice and needs no apology (Which I think it might have been, though the moral calculus surrounding the choice boggles my ability to make confident moral choices), surely we can recognize that sometimes saying things we don't believe in deference to political allies is a part of diplomacy? Surely, even if we might think that acting softly is the wrong political move at a particular moment, we recognize that it is sometimes necessary and therefore not a personal humiliation?

I will never understand the rhetoric, on both sides of the aisle, about loving America and hating America. It seems disconnected from any recognition of what America means. Consequently it seems to have very little to do with my own love of America. (Which is underpinned by a lot of the stuff in Ted Cruz's speech, frankly. Sometimes Ted Cruz is a frustrating figure, but he is undeniably brilliant and his principles are radiant.)

I am not humiliated by America and I do not see how I could possibly be humiliated by America. I am fortunate to live in a country that lets me rise and fall by the merits of my own moral choices, a country where I need not tie my personal self-worth to that of my nation-state.

And I worry about a politics motivated by humiliation, because it seems destined to act against our real national interest, again and again and again.
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I saw Ghostbusters Sunday. The topline verdict is that it was both fun and funny, and that it had glorious, top-notch technobabble.

No seriously, I aspire to write technobabble that good. It wasn't just euphonious and sciencey, it was self-consistent and it was consistent with the technobabble of the original movie. But it was also euphonious. There were repeated references to ionizing energy that had very little connection to how ionizing energy works in the real world, but which were consistent with each other, and built up a mental image in the viewer's head of how the science of ghostbusting worked. It sounded like real science. And it was paired with scientists thinking like real scientists. I loved how Dr. Gilbert confronted the Bill Murray character by saying "You're right, if I were you I wouldn't believe us, because science is built on experimentation and repeatability and evidence, and you have not seen any compelling evidence yet, so... I am going to show you our evidence." All the scientific method feels.

Holtzmann was the best. "Safety lights are for dudes," indeed. I love her reckless abandon and commitment to engineering improvement. I love how even she can't keep track of all of her own modifications, and how casually she handles nuclear weapons. I love how she iterates, how every failure just brings out her "Okay, now I know how to make the next generation better." I loved her sarcastic guessing about how many safety regulations she's violated. Holtzmann is my engineering anti-hero- though a basic guide to how to do engineering would be: Look at whatever Holtzmann does and do the opposite, it is awesome to imagine a world in which Holtzmann could be successful. (Holtzmann reminds me of the way I wrote Eugenie Rillieux, actually)

I have mixed feelings, though, about the put-it-back-in-the-box ending. I suppose the intention is to suggest explicitly that women can be as successful as men, but they won't get the same credit, and I think there is also commentary about how the discourse between scientists and the public is broken, how the things the public believes about the scientific world are not the same as the things that scientists believe, but... the triumphant ending is part of what I love about the original movie. I like that ultimately the outsider scientists save the world and are recognized for it, that the world readjusts to the reality of ghosts rather than trying to deny they ever existed. The cover-up is not supposed to be part of my Ghostbusters fantasy, damnit.
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Liberty's First Crisis by Charles Slack

A good if sometimes slightly weirdly paced book about the passing of the Sedition Act of 1798, as I continue to stubbornly not watch or listen to Hamilton but read all sorts of interesting books about the early days of the Republic. This one was alternately bleak and terrible and hilarious...

You'd get scenes where Benjamin Bache, Philadelphia printer and favorite grandson of Benjamin Franklin, got thrown in prison for badmouthing the President in a newspaper, and then died of Yellow Fever before he could ever go on trial, leaving his indebted newspaper to a wife already struggling with several young children.

And then you have Luther Baldwin, proudly of Newark, NJ, even back then a bastion of true American Heroes. Baldwin was a spy for Washington during the Revolutionary War, sailing up and down various waterways sabotaging British boats and passing information to the Continental Army. After the war he went into business as a river trader. And then we get to the moment when he displayed his true American heroism. Luther Baldwin was drunk one morning, as one does, and John Adams, President of the United States of America, was travelling through on carriage to the accompaniment of a cannon salute. Irritated by the noise, and needless to say, drunk as a skunk, he observed that he wouldn't mind if someone shoved one of those cannonballs up Adams's arse. Someone overheard this comment and reported him to the US Attorney for New Jersey, who sent him to jail on Sedition charges.

Both of these stories, actually, are equally terrible. It's just that one of them is also incredibly funny. In Slack's even-handed approach to a topic where it is easy for us to kneejerk against the suppression of civil liberties, he argues that the problem was that there were no real meaningful precedents for the kind of freedom of speech the First Amendment promises. The line it draws in the sand was previously unheard of, and everyone was still trying to figure out what it meant. The Federalist's defense, flimsy to modern ears, was that they were merely imprisoning people for statements that in that day's England would have resulted in gruesome execution.

Slack sees the Sedition Act as an early experiment in the limits of American free speech, an experiment that ultimately helped to destroy the Federalist Party and create negative precedents that still serve as vital warnings for us. But he also points out that some of the 'heroes' of the fight against the Sedition Act were unlikely heroes, and some were arguably not heroes at all. Some of the targets of the Federalist crusade were irresponsible journalists heaving poisonous and untrue statements at politicians who were barely managing to hold a fragile young country together. Should they have been more responsible? Of course. Is throwing unfiltered bile at one's political enemies the most productive way to solve America's internal disagreements? Of course not. But suppression of their speech and imprisonment of their supporters is not the American solution to this problem and should never be the American solution to this problem. We are a nation founded on the idea that with as many different viewpoints as we hold, it is better for the government to protect our individual freedom as citizens than to try to protect our national freedom as a community. This is ultimately a harder idea to accept than it would seem at first. There are always temptations and reason to suppress speech one disagrees with and finds hurtful and damaging. But it is the plain truth as I see it.


Somewhere- A Master by Elie Wiesel

Like everyone I know in the Jewish community, I was deeply saddened by the death of the great Elie Wiesel. I've been listening to people share stories and remembrances for the past several weeks, and it inspired me to read another one of his books.

The truth is I've always thought Wiesel was at best a mediocre writer, and Somewhere- a Master does not change this opinion. The prose styling is awkward and repetitive, his topics jump all over the place without apparent reason. This feels like an insensitive thing to say in remembrance of a great man shortly after his death, but there's a reason I am revisiting his writing now in remembrance in spite of the fact that I don't really admire his writing. It's because I do so admire the man.

What Wiesel's books lack in storytelling knack, they make up in courage. Wiesel was one of the bravest men of the 20th century, whose unflinching honesty is apparent in every page he labors to share with his readers. He is not writing because he's good at it. He is not writing because he wants to. He's writing because he feels an obligation to risk himself by sharing of himself with the world.

Somewhere- A Master is a collection of stories about 18th century Hasidic rebbes, part of a larger project on Wiesel's part to set down an oral history of the Hasidic cultures lost in the Holocaust. I've heard all these stories before- not all these specific stories, no, but basically I've heard all these stories before. I will hear them all again, because B"H the Jewish oral tradition has started up again. B"H we tell stories of Jewish leaders in shul every week, in divrei Torah and at tisches and onegs and farbrengens. B"H Hitler didn't win, but Wiesel setting the stories down, ploddingly, earnestly, and insistently, is an act of defiance that resounds. The book is a monument, one that doesn't necessarily benefit from being read, but its mere existence matters. Elie Wiesel mattered, and his loss is a shattering one to the Jewish people, but the Jewish people will survive in part because of what he wrote and what he said, and because of the determination he made that since it had to be said, he would be the one to say it.
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It has been brutally hot this whole past week, except when it is torrentially raining. My brilliant plan to bike ride a few times a week for exercise and local area exploration has been tabled until the weather calms down a little.

I am doing a bit of exploration by car, though. I went to my new local library the other day to get a card and discovered that both my old library and my new one are part of a library consortium with a shared card catalog. So I don't actually need a new card, my old one will work at least until it expires, and I can return books borrowed from either library at either library. This is kind of amazing. Apparently it will also work in the library in the town I work, where I have for years stopped in a few times a week on my lunch break to read without ever checking books out. Yay libraries!

And tomorrow I'll be having Shabbos lunch guests, my first guests in the new apartment! It turns out the sister of one of my college friends now lives two blocks away from me, and my college friend is visiting her sister and her sister's husband for Shabbos, so I'm having them over. This is a friend who hosted me a number of times for Shabbos lunch when we were in school, so it feels really good to return the favor.

I cleaned and reorganized furniture last night in anticipation. My living room is still not totally furnished, I still need to acquire a couch, but set up for Shabbos lunch is easy- I moved my kitchen table to the living room and unfolded the side tabs and put a tablecloth on and it's just the right size. And then I moved all the leftover cardboard from moving into the closet. I was happily moving around the apartment all night afterward enjoying the setup. It's the first time the apartment has been set up for the convenience of anyone but me and it felt nice and balabatishe.
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I'm halfway through Gerald Schroeder's The Science of God, a re-read since I first read it when I was fifteen. I sent a copy to [personal profile] marginaliana in December for Yuletide bookswap, and bought myself a copy since I realized fifteen years is a long time and my feelings about the topics Schroeder explores have changed quite a bit in those fifteen years, so it was probably worth a re-look.

The post I will be posting when I finish the book is already over 3,000 words. And I still have half the book to go. I have a lot of things to say about this book.


H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton

A little uncharacteristic for the series- a little higher on actual detective work than G, but G was atypically low on detective work itself. Raymond Maldonado is probably the series's most compelling villain so far, though, with Pat Usher from B is For Burglar being the only reasonable competition. Neither of these statements is really a spoiler, which I think testifies to the powerful realism of the Kinsey Milhone books. These are not Agatha Christie-esque elegant whodunnits, they are not stories in which secrets unravel at the proper application of brainpower. They're stories about the intersection of people and crimes, which is to say the intersection of people and desire. And so when you meet someone who seems like a bad apple in a Kinsey Milhone story, the odds are pretty good they're a bad apple.
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Spoilers for things nobody minds being spoiled for:

I just torrented issue 2 of Steve Rogers (because I am not paying Marvel to troll me) and surprise, surprise, it's all about how the Red Skull used the Cosmic Cube to turn Steve into Hydra because of the lulz. No seriously, it's pretty much stated that it's for the lulz. With the power of the Cosmic Cube, the Red Skull could just rule the world, but he finds that unsatisfyingly easy. He'd much rather make Steve into the thing most antithetical to who Steve is. (Because that'll sell more comics)

Wait, did I say surprise, surprise? I meant to absolutely no one's surprise at all. This wasn't some great secret, it was the obvious consequence of the first issue, and the second issue reveal was an incredibly tedious flashback retcon monologue from the Red Skull with absolutely no plot. Just bad storytelling all around.

And it's bad storytelling because it's two issues worth of setup for a storyline nobody actually wants to read. Now that I have satisfied my morbid curiosity about the why of it, I will not be torrenting any more of the Steve Rogers comic, and I will certainly not be buying it, because who the hell wants to read about the Cosmic Cube-warped reality where Steve Rogers is a secret Nazi? What deep storytelling well is being tapped?

But ultimately it still feels like Marvel doesn't get the fundamental equivalence that HYDRA is a Nazi organization. There are a few references in issue 2 to the goofy multicolored outfits HYDRA wore in the '60s and '70s comics, and that seems to be the only HYDRA Marvel is trying to connect Steve Rogers to, the HYDRA that doesn't actually stand for anything except opposition to particular superheroes. BUT THAT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE!!!!! The Red Skull and Baron Zemo and Baron Strucker WORKED FOR HITLER. WHAT IS SO COMPLICATED ABOUT THIS? And beyond that, supposing Marvel succeeds in delinking Hydra and National Socialism, so what? Now your big reveal is that Steve has secretly been a lifelong committed member of an agency of vague and generic evil. Who cares? What gives the reveal charge is that Hydra is a Nazi organization, you can't walk away from it when it's the only thing remotely interesting in the whole bit.
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I moved into my new apartment a few weeks ago. So far everything has been going pretty well. The move was smooth and straightforward- since a bad experience a decade ago with moving out of a fifth story walkup, I have been a firm believer in lightweight furniture and especially plastic furniture. I can move any piece of furniture in my apartment myself, which is a great convenience even when you're fortunate enough to be able to ask your family for help with the move.

The biggest headache so far has been an incessant and mysterious stream of dead moths in my bathroom. They have thus far thankfully seemed unable to escape the bathroom to the kitchen, but every day I'd clear away several dead moths and then the next day I'd find a few more on the shower floor, in the sink, on the bathroom floor. A few live ones, too, but those were easily dispatched. I think I have finally resolved this problem, though, with a combination of insect spray and plugging up a hole in a windowsill. No new moths in the past four days!

I still need to figure out how to furnish my living room. I guess my decision is really about how often I intend to entertain. I can design my living room as a place comfortable for a group of people to hang out, or I can design it as a place comfortable for me to retreat to. There is some overlap, of course, but it plays into decisions like whether I want to fill all the walls with bookshelves or whether I want to get more couch space. At the moment the room just has a couple of folding chairs and a light fixture, while I deliberate.

[personal profile] morbane asked, when I posted about moving to my new apartment, about where I was moving from. I don't talk about it much, since it feels like a thing most people in my generation aren't very proud of even though it's very common, but since I graduated college almost a decade ago, I have been living back in my parents' home, as a fairly prototypical boomerang kid. I graduated in 2007 at the heart of the financial meltdown. There were very few jobs available in my field and nobody was biting on my resume. Most of my classmates had decided to go on for extra schooling to wait out the disaster, but I was way too burnt out on college to contemplate that. I spent the summer of '07 on my parent's couch watching all of the West Wing on DVD, and then in the fall I finally worked through my burnout and got to job hunting in earnest. I got a job in October '07 about six months after I graduated, but it was a contract work, temp-to-perm promised in six months, and it was only about a half hour drive from home, so it seemed to make sense to stay at home because of the financial uncertainty. Well, eight years passed, the job got more secure the more experience I got and the more I proved myself useful, and I was still living at home. It was time to move out. So I did.

I get along quite well with my parents, and we've gotten pretty good at maintaining neutral corners when we need space. I've owned my own car, too, so I have the freedom and mobility to leave and find additional space when I needed to get away, too. So basically living at home worked well for me and I haven't been itching to leave for the sake of independence, as was the case for some friends who don't get on with their parents as well. My mother's been subtly pressuring me to move out for the past couple of years, though, not because my being at home was disruptive to her, but because she felt like my progression to some envisioned adulthood was being slowed by my continuing to live at home. I'm not entirely sure this was a reasonable fear, though I sympathize with her worry. And my parents, though they did not live at home into their thirties, lived in an apartment building owned by my grandmother until their early thirties, so my mother's comments always felt a little unfair on those grounds.

But it's true that living at home partially exempted me from some chores and rites of adulthood, though only partially. I was mostly not responsible for cooking, as my mother got home from work three hours before I did and was generally responsible for preparing dinner. But I'm capable of cooking, and have picked up the chore at various times when my mother was unable, including a monthlong stretch after my mother had leg surgery. And I haven't paid a rent bill or mortgage payment, but I have paid various other monthly bills, including credit card bills and car insurance payments. I've handled all my own finances for quite a while. And the best part of living with my parents, unquestionably, is the amount of money I've been able to save from rent. I have the resources to buy a reasonably nice house now, and the plan at the moment is treat this year of living in an apartment as buying myself the time and opportunity to scope out the new town I've moved into for possible homes to buy. Or to decide I want to go in an entirely different direction, who knows?

I am managing these new burdens fine. I like cooking! I never really felt all that comfortable cooking in my mother's kitchen, because a kitchen is in some senses a really personal space that you customize to the way you cook, and because my impulse to learn new things by experimentation never really worked well with the kinds of cooking one is asked to do as a member of a family. And also because I'm bad at not making a mess while cooking. On the occasions when I was left at home alone, I'd take over the kitchen and try new things and my mother always teased me on her return upon finding evidence of my experiments. But I have my own kitchen now and I get to try things without feeling judged! I'm mostly still doing familiar recipes, but with tweaks here and there. I tried a new sauce with the chicken I made a few nights ago, and it was good. I baked challahs to freeze for Shabbas today, and they came out pretty well. It's not the first time I've made challah by myself, but the number of times I've done it is probably in the high single digits. But I'm looking to do it more often. Home baked challah adds something to the Shabbas experience.

Getting the portions right for cooking for one is something I'm re-adjusting to, but mostly I just cook too much and end up with leftovers, and that's been convenient too for the nights when I'm not prepared to cook. This is the first time I've ever been fully responsible for stocking a kitchen- in college I always had roommates to share the burden- so I've been doing food shopping in a little-bit-every-day fashion as I keep discovering kitchen staples that I haven't thought to get yet. I started out with a very limited set of spices, for example, and as new recipes call for new ones I'm adding to my collection. I'm spending a little more on food shopping than I'd anticipated, but I think it's mostly because of these upfront kitchen stocking costs. Once I have that out of the way I should be closer on track.

The new town I moved to has a larger observant Jewish community than the one I moved from. My hometown has a single Orthodox shul- this one has four, plus various shtiebls and so on. I'm going through them giving each a tryout, trying to figure out where I'll fit in. So far I haven't really met too many people in the Jewish community, but I have strategies for meeting people, I think this will turn out okay. I just joined a Facebook group for young Jewish professionals in town. And I still have involvement and obligations in the community I left, which is only about a twenty minute drive away.

And the biggest thing improvement in my life is the commute. My commute was on the order of 35-40 minutes each way, sometimes worse when traffic was bad. My commute is now 15-20 minutes. And it's not just getting an additional forty minutes into my day, it's that those forty minutes were the most unpleasant part of my day, with me having to be continuously alert of darting cars in dense traffic. My commute now is almost joyous. I get home less angry and exhausted and am able to be more productive on non-work things, though mostly that productivity has been channeled towards apartment setup stuff. I look forward to being able to channel it in other directions.


I brought my bike over yesterday and filled up the tires. I took a nice bike ride around town today, exploring the environs. The area I'm in now is smaller and less sprawly than the town I moved from- it's pretty nice to be in biking distance of things I might want to bike to. I biked about four miles and then my legs sort of stiffened up... I need to work on my fitness. I think I'm going to try a late afternoon ride after work a few times a week, if I'm up to it. In the Jersey suburbs everything is driving distances and I've gotten out of the habit of regular exercise, Shabbat walking excepted. Being on my own, setting my own schedule completely, I have an opportunity to build better habits.

One of my friends was saying how living alone is a thing he's not really comfortable with. He's always had roommates, and he's also the sort who's always inviting people into his home. I'm an introvert and I definitely need to at least create space where I can just spend time by myself, but I suppose I do need to keep an eye out that I don't turn my apartment into a retreat I never leave and never make space for other people in. That seems unlikely, though. I figure I'll be able to figure out a balance. (and my mother, who's been nudging me out for a while, is now worried she'll never see me again. Which seems unlikely. The past three weekends I have had family obligations- father's day, my grandfather's headstone unveiling, and going home for Shabbos. I'm wondering when I'll actually get a weekend without seeing my family, now that I've officially moved out. You know, I moved a whole twenty minutes.)

But yeah, I'm in the new place and I'm pretty happy at the moment!

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seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
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