Blog: April 2020

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.


We received a beautiful and serendipitous gift today for our 20th wedding anniversary (which was a couple weeks ago, but shipping is more complicated during a pandemic). The serendipity requires backstory:

A few years ago, in a year of big design changes, Stack Overflow had a contest with SO-branded cheese boards as prizes. I won one. Recently I've been divesting myself of some of my SO swag and packing most of the rest away, because of the pain and also because I'm not very interested in promoting that company by, say, wearing those t-shirts in public any more.

I offered some of my Stack Overflow/Stack Exchange swag to folks on Mi Yodeya, with the price being a torah teaching of the recipient's choice. I got some thoughtful torah, and a taker for the cheese board. I sent it off to its new home a couple months ago.

We eat cheese not infrequently, by the way.

And then today, somebody who knows nothing of Stack Overflow, recent events there, or swag, sent us this:

bigger nicer cheese board

It's beautiful and well-crafted, and I look forward to using it with much fondness. Yay, 20 years of marriage! Yay, nice gift from someone who didn't know about the extra niceness!

Quarantine rambles

Working from home seems to be mostly going ok for my company. We have several standing "coffee break" video chats each week for the human connection and are using video more for other meetings. We have learned how to add custom background images to Microsoft Teams and this is a source of amusement. (I would like to find some from Babylon 5, particularly images from (a) Minbar and (b) inside the station, but have had no luck so far.) My team has a new person who started a few weeks ago, so he started in quarantine and hasn't yet been to the office. I'm his mentor, so I'm trying to make sure he's getting all the support and human connection he needs. The situation seems roughest on the people who live alone, though the ones with small children at home have challenges too. I'm fortunate to have Dani and the cat.

I have read a little more fiction than usual, some of it made available for free by authors because of the quarantine. Thank you! One that I just finished is Dragon of Glass by Zoe Chant, a delightful, lightweight novel about a transplant from another world and the woman who released him; watching him try to fit into our world is a lot of fun. Tor is making the Murderbot novellas available this week for free (leading up to a novel release next month); I'd read the first a while back but hadn't read the others yet, so this is good timing. I also have a gift waiting from a Kickstarter for a different book (while you're waiting and stuck at home, here...). I also just read (not free) The Body in the Building, a novella by a friend and fellow SE refugee. The point-of-view character is an architect who discovers problems with a major project, and then discovers that those problems were only the tip of an iceberg of bigger problems... I figured out the mystery before the reveal but also fell for some misdirection, so neither too easy nor too hard.

I have been spending more time in the kitchen. Yes I'm cooking all our meals at home aside from very occasional takeout from local restaurants, but also: with the food supply being sometimes erratic, I've upped the produce deliveries and am doing some low-key preserving. I've never canned and don't have the equipment, but I'm pickling things (to refrigerate, not shelf-stable). So far I've pickled eggs, beets, cauliflower, and jalapenos, and will do some carrots next. I also plan to dry some fruit, dried fruit not requiring refrigeration. (I'm trying to keep the fridge full.) I haven't been able to get bread flour since Pesach ended, so I guess I'll try making bread with all-purpose flour. (Also haven't been able to get rye flour.) I would like to get some more seedlings for container gardening, but I don't know if I want to go to Home Depot for them and nobody delivers. (Insert rant about how Home Depot gets to sell plants because they sell stuff for home repair, but local nurseries had to close.)

Someone I know indirectly from Mi Yodeya suggested a book and a series of videos on Reb Nachman that look very personally relevant. (I've read one chapter of the book and seen one of the videos so far; more soon.) I joined an online talmud class (by R' Ethan Tucker of Hadar). A friend pointed out to me that since we're all stuck at home anyway, synagogues in other cities are just as available to me as my local ones. There's one in DC that seems like a good fit for me. Closer to home, my synagogue's two rabbis and cantor each hold a weekly open chat on Zoom, so I'll get to see my rabbi that way tomorrow.

Our choir director sends out daily music selections with accompanying (short) history essays. I'm enjoying these.

I have barely watched any TV.

Leaving personal slavery: lessons from Pesach (class notes)

Last night I watched the recording of a JLI class that had been given for free earlier in the day (but I had a work meeting at the time). The class is Leaving our personal slavery: 10 lessons from Passover for the whole year. taught by Sara Esther Crispe. I don't know anything about the teacher; I went there because I've taken several JLI courses (in the classroom, not online).

What follows are basically my running notes as I listened (and occasionally backed up to hear something again, so I guess it's just as well I missed the livestream). Some of this might sound a little pithy or trite summarized here; I encourage you to listen to the talk (44 minutes) before drawing a negative conclusion just based on my notes.

In English the book is called Exodus, but in Hebrew it's Sh'mot, Names. To leave something which enslaves you, you need to know who you are. Slavery is dehumanizing, taking away your name, reducing people to numbers. When someone tries to strip our identity, that is the foundation of enslaved reality - we have no voice, nobody is going to believe us.

Nobody escapes Mitzrayim (Egypt); we all are there at some point in our lives -- not having freedom of movement, expression, thought. Egypt is something we all go through. It's part of our journey. The same God who put us there takes us out.

It's not "what can I do to escape Egypt", but "what will I learn from the Egypt I'm in?". How do I discover who I am so I can be free?

10 lessons: Read more…

Hiding from yourself

Been thinking about Ben Franklin on giving up essential liberty for temporary safety, and how there's a broader meme of giving up doing the right thing for the safety of holding onto one's illusions. Confronting your mistakes can challenge your self-perception, and that scares some to inaction.

I know someone who's so afraid of facing his sin that he's willing to let hurt and injustice he caused continue unabated and walk away. He feels fragile and at risk, and for him that feeling trumps the damage he did to others. I hope I'm strong enough to avoid his mistake when I need to do teshuva (as we all do).

This person isn't evil. He is, as far as I can tell, paralyzed by his own fears, to the point where he can no longer function as a responsible human who does the hard-but-ethical thing. I pity him. I thank God that I retain my mental and moral function, and I hope I continue to merit that strength and faculty. If we give up ethical behavior for comfort, then what are we?

I am far from perfect. I mess up sometimes. When I become aware, I try to repair the damage I did to the extent I can. Isn't this what we should all aim for?

Pesach 2020

Yisrael came to Egypt and the land flourished because of them. But a new Paro (pharaoh, king) arose who did not know them, and he enslaved them and made their lives hard. And not being content with that, he piled on misery, deliberately acting against them first by making their labors even harder and then by killing their children. When they protested, he prioritizing his own ego and divinity complex not only over justice but also over the well-being of his own people. At every opportunity to change toward the good, Paro hardened his heart and dug in more firmly on the path of evil.

This sounds familiar, on two different fronts.

On one front, the plague of Covid-19 has struck us (I am not asserting a source here) and, even as more people die in the US than anywhere else, even though we were repeatedly warned, our own Paro prioritizes his ego over the well-being of his people, ignoring pleas from governors who don't bow and scrape enough to him, stealing medical supplies from some of them to supply his friends. He prioritizes commerce over health, profit over protecting the vulnerable. The people cry out for rescue.

Now this is not the harsh reign of terror of the torah's Paro; while, sadly, many are stricken who could have been saved, we, unlike Yisrael, can take some measures to protect ourselves. Nothing is certain -- who knows whether that grocery delivery was safe? -- but we can hide at home and try to wait it out.

If we are able to work from home. If we have financial cushions. If we have homes. Never forget that not everyone does. I am fortunate in this regard; many are not. At my (tiny) seder this Pesach, I expressed gratitude for my household being saved (as far as we know), while noting that this year we do not have the national salvation of the Exodus. Many are still in danger.

And then there's the personal front. A Paro driven by ego, contempt for "lesser" people, and sometimes malice arose over me and mine, and did persecute some of us and seek to destroy -- not literally throwing people into the Nile, but metaphorically. There were many chances to correct that path, even saving face, but at each opportunity, the modern Paro hardened his heart, surrounded himself with complicit counselors, and dug in. At every turn, image was more important than teshuva, correcting misdeeds, and tzedakah, righteousness. Counselors who disagreed were driven out without even time for their bread (or health coverage) to finish.

I and many others escaped, and I am grateful for that even though we left both property and people behind. It is an incomplete exodus, as with Israel in Egypt -- rabbinic tradition says that many people feared the unknown and did not join the Exodus. Modern Paro's taskmasters continued to afflict some of those who remained, but also offered trinkets and promises to encourage everyone to stay. Paro's hope, it seems, is that if he gives the slaves straw again to make brick-making less onerous, the slaves will stay and be thankful. And Paro might be right in that.

A new Paro has arisen over the modern Egypt I fled, and has appointed a new vizier to speak publicly on behalf of Egypt. It is too soon to know whether the new Paro and vizier will correct past injustices or continue to sweep them under the royal carpet. Neither Paro nor vizier has sent messengers to all those who were driven out, and so for now Egypt remains Mitzrayim, the narrow place. I feel sorry for the many who remain and hope the new leaders will do teshuva, but Pesach encourages me to look forward and not backward, to a future of promise and not a past of narrow-minded oppression.

I am sad for the unnecessary victims of both Paros. Protecting myself is important and perhaps all I can do, but the Exodus is not complete so long as the oppression of those left behind continues. It was only at the sea of reeds that Yisrael was free from Paro. Sadly, the destruction at the sea of reeds was necessary because of Paro's hardened heart; it was not the desired outcome, and God rebuked the angels who sang triumphantly there. If Paro had ever done teshuva, widespread destruction could have been averted. I hope that our modern Paros will do teshuva and repair rather than enable ongoing damage.

A day much like any other

Get up, shower (because we do not let hygiene lapse).

Make coffee. I seem to have learned to drink coffee. Between us we're going through 4-6 K-cups per day; that jumbo box isn't going to last as long as it looks like it should. And that's with tea and cold drinks as well throughout the day. Remember to drink water; it matters.

Box of tea arrived yesterday. Good.

Plug laptop into dock, start work day. Visit the "pets" chat channel. Mon/Wed/Fri, join the virtual coffee break mid-morning just to see and interact with coworkers. Try to work productively. Pay particular attention to my mentee who joined the company two weeks ago in the midst of all this. Read more…