Blog: January 2009

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Applied physics

Dear certain drivers I had the misfortune to be near today: Write "momentum is not always bad" 500 times or until you learn that on icy uphill stretches there is such a thing as "minimum speed", whichever comes second. Having to plan around your antics is a PITA. Thank you.

Driving this morning was "interesting". Nothing had been plowed when I headed out to the morning minyan, which wasn't too surprising (barely past sunrise). Nothing in my neighborhood had been plowed an hour later either, which was cranky-making. They had managed to plow in Greenfield and the south side, but Forbes Avenue (Forbes Avenue!) and Beacon Avenue were untouched when I left for work. I got up Beacon with a running start, but I had to delay until someone got out of the way and that made the guy behind me initially cranky. I think he figured it out as he followed me up, though; that looked like a wave at the top of the hill.

I got stuck on the way to minyan. I could see that I was going to have to stop on a slight incline; I had enough warning to try to aim for the least-bad spot, and it would have worked if someone hadn't decided to pull up right behind me (so no "roll back slightly" option). When traffic moved I couldn't go forward, and I had to wait for the guy behind me to conclude that I wasn't going anywhere and back up himself before I could move. I was wondering if perhaps my tires are just crap (how are Hondas for that in general? it's not age; the car only has 4000 miles), but on the way back later I saw two accidents in that block, so maybe not. On the other hand, I did some unexpected sliding in other places. I think of myself as an average driver; there are undoubtedly things I could learn that would help in situations like this, but I think I mostly do ok.

Things were better tonight, but parts of Beacon still hadn't been plowed. I guess they're just waiting for next week's thaw.

Studying midrash, part 2

Last week I wrote about my first study session with our newest rabbi, but I didn't cover everything. After the midrash I previously wrote about we started a longer one. Read more…

A pleasant musical surprise

As we've been digitizing our music from albums and cassettes (replacing if we can, ripping if we can't), I've been listening for the first time to some of Dani's music. One of his tapes never jumped off the shelf at me: it has a hand-written label and was recorded by someone he corresponded with via email some years back. She plays hammer dulcimer and sent him a tape of her stuff. Everything about the appearance of this tape screamed "living-room recording" to me. Nothing wrong with that (I've made those too), but I just never got that far down in the queue.

It is not a dub of a commercial recording -- or if it is, it's a commercial recording we have been unable to find via Google. Dani sent email to his best guess at a valid address; no reply. Probably stale.

So I was pleasantly surprised when "Ellen Eades: The First Thirty Years" turned out to be quite high quality, both musically and technically. (Dani, it turned out, already knew that but didn't know I didn't.) If this was made in a living room, it was made in an accoustically-adjusted living room with good equipment. And it's not just one track! There are rich arrangements on a variety of instruments here. Very pleasant listening. (Alas, a couple glitches that seem to be the media, not the recording, so I can't do anything about that.)

Google tells me that Ellen Eades plays a bunch of different instruments. The sparse label on this tape doesn't identify any other musicians. I wonder if they're all her. :-) I also wonder if this was a demo tape or a draft that never made it to publication, or if it did get commercially published but has since gone out of print, or what. This is good stuff; I'd like to hear more from her.

SCA parlor game

From bunches of people: 1. Post this list to your journal.
2. Add three SCA-related things to the bottom that you've done.
3. Bold everything in the list that you've done.
4. Tag people, if you're so inclined [I'm not], and watch the list grow.

Read more…

Teaching challenge

Tonight I was scheduled to teach a workshop at my synagogue on everyday blessings. I put together a plan combining text study, discussion, and experience (everything is better with food, right?). I am an inexperienced and nervous teacher, so I rehearsed more than a little bit.

Weather...happened. I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout, given that -- four students, one of them a rabbi. We discussed it (were the people who lived far away nervous about the continued snowfall?) and decided to do an abbreviated session tonight and reschedule for the full one. (I didn't want to punish the folks who actually showed up by saying "so sorry, try again later", but I also wanted people to be comfortable.)

We managed, and the rabbi was very supportive. We had some good discussions, I sent people home with handouts if they wanted them, and we'll save the text study and another exercise I'd planned for another time. Let's try spring. :-) (I'd actually like to do this when the flowers in the garden are in bloom; that'll give a good opportunity to talk about blessings for scents. There are, as Tevye says, blessings for everything. Well, almost everything.)

Studying midrash

A while ago our newest rabbi said that he was agreeable to some one-on-one study. (Hey, he implied it; I didn't just ambush him out of nowhere with the question.) I said I'd like to improve my text-reading skills; he pulled out a (Hebrew) copy of Sefer Aggadah and asked if I recognized it. Sure do, I said; I have that vast collection of midrash in English. He likes midrash too, so he proposed that we study that.

We had our first session this week. This is going to be nifty! Read more…

Siyyum torah

On Shabbat mornings, in addition to the service, we have torah study. Rather than trying to cover the weekly portion (badly) in too little time, this group started with the first letter of the first book (B'reishit) 20 years ago (and a few months), and every week we pick up where we left off. Sometimes we spend weeks (occasionally months) on a passage before continuing. The beauty of this format is that we can stop and explore things when we want to.

Yesterday we finished, and had a big party (called a siyyum). We also started right back in at the end, because you're never really done. :-) I can tell that my rabbi is really pleased by the progress the group has made, and we got congratulatory letters from assorted important people, including Rabbi Eric Yoffie (head of the URJ). (Yeah, yeah, someone must have solicited those letters else how would the like of Rabbi Yoffie even know, but still... nice.)

Our newest rabbi coordinated the festivities, and he asked five congregants (one per book) to speak. I was the first one he asked, so when he said "pick your favorite book" I actually could, though the decision wasn't immediately obvious. (One favorite?) His instruction was: five minutes, talk about something in the book that speaks to me, involve specific text, and leave them with a question to discuss at the individual tables. Here's what I said:

Read more…

Barony 12th night

Today was baronial 12th night, a low-key event. The current incarnation of this event started as a casual gathering at a local university -- free, pot-luck, informal activities, and the occasional walk-in who'd never heard of the SCA before. Last year the event was held at the baron and baroness's castle, which was certainly a more aesthetic environment, and this year it was held in a rented hall. (Still a free event, though -- kudos to the officers for agreeing to that.)

A thing to consider for the future is that if we have a hall (and the castle counts), we could have a feast (maybe with pot-luck dessert, since lots of people seem to prefer bringing desserts anyway). A feast would help anchor the day so people aren't packing up and leaving at 6. And dancing; this year we had room for dancing (didn't last year) but it didn't happen. Oops.

The choir performed -- three Christmas pieces that I sat out, and then one secular song and the procession for baronial court. Court included the competition to choose the new baronial bard; there were two entrants, which made that feasible. One was at her first or second event; I was glad to see her jump in.

Local 12th night has always included a gift exchange, which I've been sitting out in recent years because the "bring a gift, take a random gift" implementation made it hard to provide or receive useful gifts. I really don't need yet another "life in the middle ages" book and would much rather a book on any specific (period) topic, even if it's not my area of interest, because a book on, say, 13th-century farming or 8th-century smithing or whatever is going to be interesting in its own right. But most people don't want to bring gifts like that for fear that they'll end up with someone not interested in those specific topics. (Yes yes, I grant that non-book gifts are theoretically possible. :-) )

However, last year they switched to a different format that was a lot of fun, so when they kept that this year we both participated. I've seen this scheme before but don't know if it has a name. You place the participants in random order; on your turn you can take a wrapped gift from the table or steal one that has already been revealed (and that person then gets to pick from the table or steal). In addition to being entertaining as you see the beer (or whatever) move from person to person, it means you can afford to have non-generic gifts because they'll probably move anyway. Hot items this year included a kids' toy (often grabbed by adults), several bottles of alcohol, a hand-bound blank book, and a hand-bound printed translation of a 16th-century text on nobility (these last two made by barony members). I was #30 of 31 so I thought I had a good chance of hanging onto that last book, but, alas, #31 took it from me. A book we brought (a collection of Columbus-era maps) moved a few times.

Most people packed up and left after court and a short barony meeting, though the event was scheduled to run a few more hours. (I don't think it did; we cleaned up a lot of the tables and chairs before we left.) Various start times had been published, the earliest being 9AM, which might have contributed. We referred to an announcement with one of the later times, so we weren't there then. (Ok, we wouldn't have been there that early anyway...)

I saw no receptacle for financial donations, and it only occurred to me after we got home to think about that. The last free event we had did accept donations; I hope the lack of that at this event doesn't mean we'll be less likely to have another free event. I always contribute more than my fair share to free events I attend, but it just didn't occur to me today without that gentle prod.

Vayigash: managing famines

In the last aliya of this week's portion the torah tells us how Yosef managed food distribution during the famine. In the first year, the Egyptians came to buy bread and Yosef sold it to them -- a straightforward transaction between those who stored grain during the years of plenty and those who did not. As the famine continued, eventually there was no more silver to pay with -- Yosef (proxy for Paro) had it all. At this point the people still sought bread and Yosef accepted livestock in trade -- barter is not uncommon either. But in the second year even the livestock ran out and the people offered themselves in exchange for bread, and Yosef agreed. On the face this seems like indentured servitude, which is also not that unusual (and is supported by the torah, though with time limits).

Now there are some interesting questions one could ask here about what it means for subjects of a king to sell themselves into service to that king. This is ancient Egypt, not feudal Europe; weren't they servants already, particularly when it's time to build a new monument? And the text tells us they sold their land along with themselves -- but the land already belonged to Paro, it appears (and Rashi concurs). So what exactly does this transaction mean? I'll come back to this.

At this point, when the people sell themselves into servitude, there is a change in the text -- the people ask for bread and also for seed to sow the land. This is new. Until now they have only asked for bread. When Yosef gives them the seed he stipulates a tax: 20% of the crop goes to Paro and they keep the rest.

This tax seems like a reasonable arrangement. In fact, it makes me wonder why the people didn't just do that from the start. Instead of beggaring themselves to the point of slavery, why didn't they ask for seed from the start, either buying it outright or agreeing to a tax? Wouldn't they have been better off in the end?

Granted, we often see things in hindsight that we don't see at the time. But I think there is an important shift here, from looking for bread to looking for the means to produce bread. For the first year of the famine the people are content to buy bread; only in the second year do they seek to grow bread and thus sustain themselves. What happened? We don't know. But we do know that once the people decided to participate and not to just consume, Yosef gave them favorable terms, enabling them to produce for themselves and pay from the proceeds.

At no point, by the way, does Yosef just give them the bread. Tzedakah would seem to call for that; we're obligated to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and otherwise help the poor. This is all true, but it doesn't happen in a vacuum, which is why, on the Rambam's hierarchy of charitable acts, giving a man a job is the highest level and giving him money is much lower. Along similar lines, when the torah talks about the case of the overburdened donkey we are commanded to help our fellow lighten its load -- help, but not to do it for him. We must give tzedakah, but the recipient must do his part too.

Perhaps Yosef, in selling bread to the people, was trying to move the Egyptian people from consumers to producers. What need does Paro have for all the silver in the land? Once he has it all, is it even valuable? And as I mentioned earlier, the people are already Paro's subjects; does selling themselves into servitude actually change anything externally? Or is it an internal change -- does Yosef go along with this because he perceives that the people need to sink to a certain level before they'll start to take matters into their own hands and participate in their own sustenance?

We are living through the beginning of a famine today. This is not a food shortage like in Egypt, but the economic situation certainly seems to have the capacity to be as bad for us as the famine was for the Egyptians. Our retirement savings have been cut nearly in half, unemployment is rising, national debts (and thus our future taxes) are way up, and it's a lousy time to be looking for credit (like a mortgage). I begin to understand how the Egyptians felt -- planting seed is hard compared to buying bread, and deep inside I really want to just buy bread and hope the situation passes. But maybe we can learn something from the Egyptians.

This situation, like the famine, is beyond our control, but how we react to it is not. Even though it's hard, maybe it's time to learn more about what our financial statements mean instead of just tossing them in a drawer or deciding not to look at them because they're depressing. Maybe it's a good time to think about job skills: if my job disappeared tomorrow, what would potential employers want to see on my resume that isn't there, and what can I do about it now? Maybe it's a good time to evaluate household budgets and try to restructure debt, before it becomes overwhelming.

Now maybe that's overkill; maybe the famine will pass quickly and in retrospect all we needed to do was buy some bread. But I think it's best to assume that the famines that enter our lives might last for a while, and the sooner we move on from buying bread to buying seed, the better our chances will be of riding it out. There are no guarantees, of course, but if we try then I believe we will not sink as far as the Egyptians did.

Kein y'hi ratzono, may this be God's will.

Not my best torah-reading day

Yesterday morning I read torah. It went ok, I guess, but it wasn't one of my better days. Sigh.

I read the seventh aliya of Vayigash, which is a bit long (Gen 47:11-27, about a column in the scroll). That's not the longest I've read, but it's up there. The vocabulary was mostly ok, though there were some minor variations I had to keep track of, like the rule that changes certain vowels if the word is the last one in a sentence. (No, I don't know why.) There was a higher-than-normal concentration of unusual tropes and a few cases where usual tropes came in unusual groupings. I guess it was just a little bit of a lot of things.

I realized while I was reading that I really should have broken this up for translation purposes -- chant several verses, stop and translate, chant more, and so on. If I were translating from the scroll (sometimes I do) I would have thought of that, maybe. But I didn't plan it in advance and didn't feel confident in just picking a spot on the fly. So I might have created an awkward situation for those not fluent in Hebrew. I got compliments nonetheless, but I don't feel they were earned this time.

My rabbi was there too. I don't think that had a direct effect on the torah reading, but by the end of the reading I was feeling a little flustered (made more mistakes than I should have), and that might have fed on itself a bit. So by the time I got to the d'var torah I was feeling off, and I think I probably talked too fast because I do that when I get nervous. So I need to find ways to detect and deal with that while it's happening rather than only figuring it out after the fact.

Oh, I just realized one thing I can do in that situation, and maybe if I write it down I'll remember. My usual sequence is: torah, d'var, halftarah, both because I tend to talk about the torah portion and because by the time of the haftarah someone is sitting and holding the torah scroll, and it would be a kindness not to make someone hold it through my d'var. (I have tried unsuccessfully to get people to put the dressed scroll back on the reading table so this wouldn't be an issue.) However, if something happens during the reading to throw me off, I can buy some time by doing the haftarah reading first. That's read right out of a book and (in my congregation) is in English, so that can be a chance to catch my breath.

Anyone else have tips for preventing or recovering from performance problems? (I count public speaking in the "performance" bucket.)