Blog: October 2010

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.

Chayei Sarah

When last we heard from Yitzchak, he was bound on a mountain-top and very nearly a burnt offering to God. A divine messenger intervened and Avraham went home, but Yitzchak is not mentioned.

When last we heard from Sarah, she had told Avraham to banish Hagar and their son, Yishmael, which Avraham reluctantly did. The torah does not tell us that Avraham ever saw his older son again. Then Avraham and Yitzchak leave for Mount Moriah, and when we next encounter Sarah it is to learn of her death, which the midrash tells us happened during the Akeidah.

And then there is Avraham. Having done what God told him to do, he now has a wife to bury and two estranged sons, and even God does not talk to him again. The torah doesn't tell us how all of this is affecting him, but I think we can infer that.

What strikes me in the early part of this portion is how Avraham reacts. First he must procure a burial place for Sarah (apparently they were no better than most of us are about making advance arrangements). For this he negotiates with Efron. This makes sense; it is an urgent matter that he must tend to immediately. The other thing we are told he does is to find a wife for Yitzchak. This is not what I would have expected the next episode of Avraham's life to be.

While the torah reports this right after Sarah's burial, we don't actually know how much time has passed. (If you're counting chronologies in this part of the torah you already have other challenges...) We get a hint from the way the rabbis assembled the aliyot in this portion, with no break at all between the two episodes, but that, like the timing of Sarah's death, is interpretation.

Let us suppose that Avraham did immediately turn to this task, even while still mourning Sarah. He nearly killed his son; if Yitzchak is still living in his father's house, as an unwed son might well be, relations are surely uncomfortable. There are a couple ways Avraham could respond to that. One would be to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Yitzchak and try to repair the damage. This is very hard. Another way would be to try to get him out of the house sooner rather than later. Avraham, it appears, took the second option, and even sent a servant to do the work instead of doing it personally. Instead of drawing closer to his remaining family, Avraham appears to be disengaging from them. He cares about the outcome, as we can see from his instructions to his servant, but he does not involve himself in a matter that will be very important to his son, and it appears that Yitzchak, once the jewel of his father's eye, is no longer an active part of his life.

It's easy to see how this happens. Avraham feels terrible about what happened to Yitzchak, and has never confronted the tension between his allegiance to God and his allegiance to family. As for Yitzchak, he is terrified of getting close to the man who hurt him so badly. Neither is all that excited about being around the other. But it's not just a short-term problem; scars like these last a long time, and the longer you let them remain without acting, the harder it becomes to set things right.

And Avraham has this problem with his older son too; he probably feels bad about expelling Yishmael, but he makes no effort to reconcile after the death of the person who asked him to do it. He avoids the two sons he has wronged, and they are all too ready to avoid him too. Later in this parsha Avraham goes on to remarry and have unremarkable sons, and then he dies. It's understandable, but what a sad end to a family that was so eagerly anticipated.

It doesn't have to be this way, but fighting it is hard. When we wrong others or become estranged from those who have wronged us, it is natural to protect ourselves from further hurt and awkwardness. I find it all too easy to write off people who have hurt me, and none of them have done anything nearly as bad as what happened to Avraham's sons. And I find it all too easy to avoid facing up to the wrongs I have done; even the annual prod of the Yamim Nora'im is not always enough to compel me to heal old wounds. It is easier to sweep them under the carpet for another year, thinking that maybe next year I will be stronger and better able to deal with them. But if I haven't been able to in the last several years, what makes me think next year will be different? In the end I, like Avraham, will probably go to my grave with rifts unresolved.

Some rifts may be insurmountable. It is hard to imagine Yitzchak, or any victim of parental abuse, being able to initiate a reconciliation. (And I am not suggesting that victims of abuse try without seeking professional advice first.) Avraham might have been able to mend that rift; it's not clear. But some rifts are repairable; either Yishmael or Avraham could conceivably decide to try again, now that Sarah's jealousy is not a factor. The rifts in my life are not even Yishmael-class, let alone Yitzchak-class; I could repair them if I wanted to. Why don't I want to? What am I waiting for? Am I still hurting, or have I just allowed the habit to form? I think this parsha calls me to face that question. After consideration the outcome might still be the same, or it might not, but I think the torah here is telling us not to just ignore it and abandon relationships by default.

Choir concert

The Debatable Choir performed at the Agincourt event this past weekend. Look, video! (About 18 minutes total.)

The camera was set in advance and not manned, so there was nothing to be done about the two basses and 1.5 sopranos you can't see. We were not that spread out in practice, oops. And we can't even blame it on hoop-skirts! :-)

"Quam Pulcra Es" is in the second part, for those who are wondering how that came out.

Shabbat evening

Yes, that's how I'd like my erev Shabbat to be. More, please.

This week my congregation did something new, which we will do monthly. Out of a desire to reach out to more of the congregation, while recognizing that anything other than "same thing every week" will confuse some people, we're now doing the following: early tot shabbat (reaching out to young families), dinner, then a 7:00 service that's meant to be accessible to everyone without being dumbed-down for kids. Short d'var torah, no torah reading, opportunities for congregants to lead parts of the service (all English readings, this time), and an alternate set of said English readings that are a little less "lofty" than the ones in Mishkan T'filah.

That's actually not the part I liked. I think it can be made to work (though I don't think it will really reach me in particular), but the first one had some bumps and glitches. No, the other part of this is the new "Shabbat BaBayit" (Shabbat in the home) program, led by my rabbi starting at 8 in some congregant's home (different one each month). This is not a service per se; it's a gathering of a smaller number of people (as many as will fit in the house) with songs, stories, thought-provoking commentaries and discussions of same, and socializing. It is specifically for adults.

Because I'm part of the leadership of the congregation I felt an obligation to go to the service at the synagogue, at least for the first one. So I didn't make a reservation for the much-more-attractive Shabbat BaBayit because the timing didn't work. The host asked me about that and after I explained she said to come anyway; she was going to put out the desserts and stuff first, not last, and she thought I'd be able to get there without missing too much. And I did, and it was glorious, and I reluctantly left at about 10:15 because Dani would be wondering where I was (I hadn't expected it to go that long) and it was looking like a half-hour walk home, and now I want to go to all of them.

I can't go to all of them, alas. First, space is limited and I shouldn't be greedy no matter how badly I want to be, and second, not all of them will be where I can walk to them. The next one will be in Fox Chapel -- bummer. (I don't think I can impose on my rabbi, though the thought of stowing away in his car has some appeal. :-) ) But as often as I can, I want to have this thoughtful, intimate, adult-oriented, long-attention-span experience of Shabbat evening. Our morning minyan is wonderfully full of spirit and I have long been a little disappointed that we don't capture that on Friday night. Now we do.

I've never really been able to make the "home" part of Jewish life click. I think it's because one person isn't critical mass (or at least this one person); even when I invite a bunch of people over for Shabbat lunch, we don't manage this level of engagement. We have great conversations and sometimes they're even about torah, but it doesn't feel spiritual, merely social. (Social's not bad; I'd just like to go beyond.) I've been to occasional Shabbat meals in other homes where that spirit was there more, and they've always been families that probably do this together every week. Even if I could do that to Dani, which I can't, we don't have a core group of like-minded people who would get together to do this every week without being led by our rabbi.

But hey, once a month in months when it's within, say, two miles of my house, I can get a Shabbat evening that is matched only by our annual Shabbaton. Score!

Old cassette tapes and the secrets they hold

I discovered two differently-embarrassing things while processing some old audio cassette tapes today.

Item the first:

I had completely forgotten, until I came across the evidence, that early in On the Mark's existence we had booked a concert hall at CMU to record a demo tape (so we could apply to arts festivals, I believe). I know we used connections and not money but I've forgotten the details. (This wasn't a concert; it was just us, the good acoustics of the hall, recording equipment, and an engineer who knew how to drive it.) The technical quality of the tape is very good (I wonder who the engineer was); the content is, well, what you would expect from a young, not-yet-seasoned amateur group, but some of it is pretty good, good enough that I'm certainly keeping it.

This tape, which has long since become separated from its J-card, contains an instrumental piece, renaissance by the feel of it, that I cannot identify -- even though I performed and recorded it! It is not among the instrumental pieces that we ever published on our CDs, so that's no help. It is not among the pieces that the Debatable Consort published on its CD tracks (from the Tape of Dance project). And at that point in OTM's lifespan I was not keeping historical notes about repertoire, so if we dropped a song I deleted its entry from the master cheat sheet. If the other group members can't identify it I will have to resort to digging through piles of sheet music, no small task. Or settle for "Unknown" as the title among my mp3s. Or post it and ask y'all to take a crack at it. Oops.

Item the second:

I was in a short-lived folk-music group before On the Mark. We performed at exactly one SF con. And in listening to that tape now, it's clear that a polite audience could not possibly have made it any clearer that we should stop singing and just play the instrumentals, but we didn't pick up on that during the concert. We figured we were taking a risk by doing instrumental pieces at a con in the first place -- not only weren't we doing filk but we weren't even doing words? How crazy is that? And in reality, that was our best, and best-received, stuff and we should have done more of it.

A different group member's memory of getting access for the recording, in a comment:

As I recall, to record that demo tape we pretty much went over to the College of Fine Arts, and asked. We'd been pointed to a particular studio over there and a recording engineer whose name I can't remember either, but we also had to get through a little bit of Fine Arts bureaucracy.

I remember pointing out, while we were speaking with somebody who could grant us access, that it seemed as if at CMU the question of whether or not a particular thing was "art" seemed to be resolved largely by asking who was doing it, and if they were an "artist" then it was "art." My point was that we were asking for an open-minded consideration of our status as performing artists on campus, even though we were classed in our normal CMU lives as geeks, not as artists. To their everlasting credit, Fine Arts basically said, "Sure, why not?" and we got the use of space and equipment to do that demo tape.

It was a hot week in about July of 1992 and I was in my second month of chemo and feeling pretty much like the inside of a damp cereal box, but as I recall the sessions went quite well, especially given that the group was, if not still in its infancy, at least not much beyond the toddler stage.

Writer's block: open book test

Livejournal, where this was originally posted, had a "writer's prompt" system. This was a response to one of them.

Based on the books on your bookshelf, what conclusions would people draw about you?

They will see several major categories of books, which are a combination of my books and Dani's books. In the front hall are two full-height bookcases. One holds Jewish books (reference materials, prayer books, Hebrew dictionaries and grammar books, bibles, several titles in Hebrew) -- and tucked in at the end of one shelf you'll also find the two volumes by Real Live Preacher, who is decidedly not Jewish. The other holds assorted history books, as do many shelves in the living room. In the living room they will also find quite a few shelves of music books, and a set of shelves containing renaissance art, comics collections, and graphic novels. In the dining room they will find many cookbooks, ranging from The "I Never Cooked Before" Cookbook to reproductions of renaissance manuscripts. Here they will also find an eclectic blend of philosophy, literature, mythology, humor, etiquette, and miscellanea. On the way into the house they may have noticed the two bookcases waiting to be assembled and added to the dining room.

Taking all of this into account I would expect people to conclude that we are multi-faceted geeks, a "geek" being one prone to deep dives into the target areas of interest.

Should they conclude that we read no fiction I would take them upstairs to the library with its dozen bookcases of SF&F paperbacks (double-stacked) and its several bookcases of hardbacks, children's books, and more miscellanea. If they conclude that we read no technical books I would take them to each of our offices. In my office they will find programming books (including an autographed LISP manual) and, probably, on the computer desk assorted volumes from the Jewish-books shelves downstairs.

Taking all of this into account I would expect them to conclude that we are multi-faceted geeks with too much time on our hands who have never parted with any books we have ever owned. They'd be wrong on that last point; I distinctly remember giving a book away once. :-)

Scattered throughout the house they will find eclectic stacks of books on available horizontal surfaces, from which they will likely conclude that we are parallel-processing multi-faceted geeks with too much time on our hands who have never parted with any books we have ever owned.


When I came home from work on erev Sukkot I was greeted by the plaintive wail of a UPS that had lost its will to live (thank you thank you thank you for not doing that 12 hours later!). There was nothing to be done then but unplug things. After Shabbat I replaced it; while I briefly considered just ordering a new battery, I noted that I was using all outlets on the UPS and all the wall outlets and was still resorting to a power squid, and on a recent power outage the UPS hadn't really held up very long.
I was asking it to do too much; time for a bigger one. (And anyway, I didn't want my equipment to be unprotected for the several more days it would take for a new battery to arrive.)

This is as orderly as these things get:

Kindle: first impressions

I received a Kindle as a birthday present (with recognition all around that this was an experiment in many ways). I have no prior experience with e-books; thus far everything I have read has been either on paper or in a web browser, and I've established that I don't have the patience and/or ergonomic satisfaction to read lengthy works via the computer. (Dani reads novels that way sometimes, but I really want to read novels while sitting in a comfy chair with optional feline accessories.)

Yes yes, I'm concerned about both DRM and Amazon's pricing policies. That's not what this entry is about.

So, first look: reading is comfortable. I'm currently reading 1632, which was a free download from Baen, and I'm not seeing the eyestrain I often get with paper yet. (Granted that I haven't read on the Kindle for six hours straight yet, the way I often try to do on paper. Give me time.) The text is crisp, the screen is not back-lit (so none of the computer-specific eyestrain issues are in play), and -- this may sound weird -- the lower contrast of black text on a light grayish background, versus black text on a bright white background, helps me a lot. There are seven or eight settings for font size; number three is working well for me, giving me text big enough to read comfortably but not so big as to overwhelm the device, which has a reading area smaller than a page in a typical paperback book. I'm getting two to three paragraphs on the screen at a time, probably the equivalent of a third to half a page of a paperback in the larger of the font sizes typically used for fiction.

(Nit: it was completely and utterly counter-intuitive to me that, on a device where most commands are reached via menus, changing the font size is behind a magic key on the keyboard. I did read the getting-started guide and I still got that wrong a few times before it settled into muscle memory.)

Paging is easy, though I faced some initial cognitive dissonance because I expect "back" to be on the left, not above "forward". (There are pairs of controls on each side, which I assume makes it handedness-agnostic, though the case imposes a strong preference toward using the controls on the right.) The "redraw" on paging was initially attention-grabbing but settled into being just part of the background after a few minutes. I don't feel slowed by it.

So for reading a book from front to back, it's great. And I'd like to use it for periodicals; there are magazines I've dropped not because I lost interest but because their text was too small. So far the periodicals available through Amazon are not the ones I want to read, but I assume more are being added all the time. I did subscribe to one blog, because I'm willing to pay a dollar a month to get Not Always Right pushed to me. (It gets too many posts per day for me to want to read via RSS and I just never get around to going to their site on a regular basis, but I always enjoy it when I do.) It looks like older blog posts are disappearing from the Kindle after I read them; I'm not sure if that's just how it works or if there's a setting for that -- or how that would be modified were I to bookmark an entry.

Aside: it looks like Hebrew is not one of the supported alphabets; can anyone confirm or deny? If that's wrong and it can support Hebrew natively (as opposed to via PDF), can anyone point me to a siddur?

Now some down-sides, some of which might change with more education:

Navigation within a document is kind of a pain. If there's a table of contents you can use that (entries are links), but flipping through a book looking for the right page is much slower on the Kindle than it is with a physical book. If there's no TOC, I don't know how I can easily jump to "chapter 8" or "page 100" (never mind what page numbers mean in this medium) or "Exodux 20:1". So I'm currently thinking that this is not a good platform for reference material, which is sad because that can be the kind of content you want to carry around compactly. There is a search feature that might help; I haven't spent much time with it yet, in part because:

There is a built-in keyboard (which is of course essential for search or for buying things from Amazon directly from the device), but the keys are small and hard to use. My not-too-enormous fingers are too big to use the pads of my fingers without mis-striking; I use a fingernail. And typing is pretty much going to be one-fingered; I'm using one hand to hold the Kindle and it appears that I can only touch-type (one- or two-handed) if I can use the pads of my fingers. So keyboard use is slow and awkward. (It's also required in order to register the device, by the way, so the keyboard is one of the first features I encountered.)

There is a built-in web browser (labelled "experimental"). Darned if I can figure out how to use it with any site that uses forms. For example, I couldn't figure out how to log in to Gmail with it. This probably requires a better mental model of the "cursor", which also comes up when clipping or highlighting text in a book. I have accidentally highlighted and clipped several items but have not yet managed to do it intentionally.

The Kindle works well for material formatted for e-books or in HTML. As you might expect, it is terrible for most PDFs, which by their nature preserve a page layout. You can zoom in, but then you need to use horizontal scrolling to read across the page, which is bad enough, but it looks like the Kindle's model is "paging", not "scrolling". There might exist PDF-formatted content that I could use on the Kindle -- you can format PDF for any size page, after all -- but in practice most PDFs are formatted for 8.5x11 or 5.5x8.5 pages, both of which are too wide for the Kindle at font sizes I can read. This did not surprise me, by the way; I just confirmed my suspicions.

Some things are just different, neither good nor bad. With an e-book there isn't really a notion of page numbers; you get a progress bar showing percent of the way through what you're reading. As a result, I really don't know how long a book I'm reading; I assume that in time I will learn to interpret the "203 of 12,204 blocks" (or whatever) notation. I realized when starting to read 1632 that I don't know what kind of time commitment I'm signing up for -- is it a 300-page book or a 700-page book? This question is easily answered using means external to the Kindle (I don't need you to tell me here). When I pick up a physical book I can, err, size it up; with the Kindle I can't, yet.

Relatedly, sometimes when I'm reading a physical book I want to check to see how close to the end of a chapter I am, for example to know if I can finish the chapter before having to do some chore. With a physical book I stick my finger on the current page while doing this so I can easily return to where I was reading. On the Kindle I can page forward, but I don't have the easy "return to where I just was" method.

The Kindle remembers where I am in each book, and it returns to exactly the state I was in when I last turned off the device. That's very handy -- no fumbling with bookmarks or flipping through pages to get to where I left off like with a physical book. Especially if periodicals pick up, these automatic bookmarks will be handy -- it's rare that I'm reading only one book, magazine, etc at a time.

I don't have a good sense of battery life yet; the only time it's run out on me so far was when I thought I'd turned it off but had only put it in a sleep state. I also don't know what its capacity is. It's easy to move things between it and a computer via USB, but I probably won't pull anything off of it until I have to (or I know I don't want it, in which case I'll just delete it). You can also email documents to the Kindle, and for a fee you can use the 3G network built into the device to do so. (The free email depends on the Kindle being on a wireless network.)

So that's where I am right now -- very much liking it for some things but a little frustrated with others. Time will tell if the latter are just needing to climb a learning curve or intrinsic to the device.