Monday, March 27, 2006

Random Rant

I got a paper back today, a few corrections, a few inane professorial comments. And for some reason, with every single use of the word 'book' crossed out and replaced with 'novel'. Now, I'll grant that novel is a big, fancy, two-syllable word, second only to "literary work" for pretentiousness of diction, but does that mean that 'book' is automatically incorrect?

Israeli Elections

I admit, I have not been keeping up with Israeli politics too much. Not being an Israeli citizen, I avoid the dilemma of having to figure out who the heck I would support, for which I am profoundly grateful. Still, I was deeply disturbed by the approach I read here. Granted, I think it is unwise to sell one's soul to any political party, but that's as far as I'm willing to go. The notion that all the parties are horrible, let's just ditch the whole mess and wait for Moshiach to sort things out seems to me to an affront not only to the premises of Zionism, but to the very foundations of our responsibilities in this world as Jews and as human beings.

Do I think that any of the parties is perfect? Do I think that there is any solution that will solve all of Israel's problems? Do I even believe that it is likely that we will find a leadership that will not unilaterally give up more land? No, I am afraid I do not. So what? Can we afford to wait on perfect?

Refusal to compromise, to discuss, to accept less than perfect is in itself a decision, and is usually like voting for a third-party candidate (in the American system, that is)- it only ends up lending support to the cause that you fear most. If we refuse to support the lesser of two evils, we often end up supporting the greater, and I think that this decision carries with it full moral culpability for the consequences.

This is the same mentality as the hard-core disengagement protesters. As unmitigated idealists, they could not accept an imperfect reality. There are people who, up to the last minute, simply did not believe that G-d would allow disengagement to occur. There would be lightning, there would be moshiach, there would be whatever it took, but disengagement would not be allowed to happen. But it was.

Moshiach isn't going to come to bail us out of our problems. Because that's our mission in life. We are put on this earth to deal with the darkness and the ugly realities to the best of our abilities, and throwing up our hands and waiting for G-d to swoop in is no more acceptable in the political sphere than it is in any other, no more acceptable than saying that there are some good points on either side of this halachic question, so we ought to wait for a bat kol. Which is not to say that moshiach cannot come tomorrow. Or that he will not. But he is not the answer to these difficult questions, any more than he was the answer to any other problem in Jewish history. Our current conflicts will be answered, as all previous ones have been, by mundane human means. And if we refuse to lend our hands towards directing the course of history, than all that means is that those we most oppose will have more of a say.

Do I trust any leader or party in Israel? No. Do I like the idea of possibly having to cede land and uproot communities? Of course not. Do I hope and pray that moshiach will come tomorrow and finally, finally straighten out all of these problems? Absolutely. Do I cling to this hope, turning my back on the tools and tasks that G-d has laid before us, shunning compromise at the expense of inviting total defeat, tossing my difficult decisions back into G-d's lap? No. I dare not.

Biology Class

Just finished my first biology class of the quarter. It was actually pretty entertaining. Today, of course, was only an introduction, talking about biology and so forth. The teacher kept saying that evolution is the basis of biology, the golden thread that runs through it, without which nothing at all can make any sense, discovered by Darwin based on observation, totally proven, etc, etc, etc. It could just have been my filtering, but I got the distinct impression that she was being just a little defensive. I was enormously entertained; I felt like I, as a representative of backwards religious-right extremism, ought to have been jumping up and shouting "Heresy! Heresy! Burn her!" or something, just so as to fulfill her apparent expectations. Which is funny, since I actually don't find evolution problematic at all, religiously. Based on my understanding of the whole Bereishit thing, especially as read by Dr. Schroeder (sp?) in Bereishit and the Big Bang, etc, it really isn't a problem. And even if it was, I doubt that I would be so horribly offended by even hearing it suggested. Nor, most likely, is there anyone trying to force intelligent design into private university curriculums. But, nonetheless, she was most adamant about the whole subject.
A more interesting point raised was the question of "What is life?" In the scientific sense, not the metaphysical. We came up with no definition that didn't apply to computers, except for "possessing a genetic blue-print", which applies to dead people. I suppose some combination of factors might be necessary- possessing genetic blue-print and responding to stimuli. I think that discussions like this are fascinating because it seems like a question of trying to put words to a vague concept that everyone has, but then you get the most fascinating nafka minot on those edge cases- viruses, AI, point of death questions. The process has a rhythm of its own- definition, counter-example, re-definition, edge case, and so forth. Very legalistic, very gemara actually. Fun stuff. But not really the sort of thing you're going to come to conclusions about in a biology class. Still, for an introduction, it's at least as interesting as reminding us all why evolution rocks.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Lord of the Rings

This post is dedicated to Chana. She knows why

For the longest time, I refused to watch any of the Lord of the Rings movies for fear that I might like them, thus creating a conflict with my extreme dislike of the books. Or rather, of the first book, since I was incapable of mustering up the energy to read any of the others. In fact, I only finished the first one since people told me that I couldn't appreciate or insult it until the end. And after putting myself through one afternoon of pure agony, they went and told me that I had to read the entire trilogy to be able to have a say in these things. Grrrrr.
Anyway, I need not have worried about watching the movies. Last night, I saw Return of the King with a couple of friends from high school. It was, and I say this without hesitation, unmitigatedly awful. Now, admittedly, I was predisposed to mock it, given the fact that I was a little crazy with seeing old friends, sugar, and the lateness of the hour, as well as the fact that I always mock movies as I watch them. It's part of the viewing experience. Or rather, not always mock, if they happen to be good, but engage in a steady stream of comments, predictions, critiques, anything that pops into my head. For some reason, this occasionally annoys people, but last night, everyone else was also mocking at full speed. The movie just made it so darn easy.
To be fair to Tolkein, it is possible that his ideas did not seem so worn-out, humdrum, predictable, pathetic, stereotypical and all around ridiculous when they were new and pioneering. But it is impossible that they ever sounded clever. I mean, I know that the book is fantasy and that this entails some things, but did he really need to have all of the characters converse only in vague, pretentious epic last words at one another? While they gaze, tormented or noble-looking off into the distance? I mean, if I were in a battle and about to die, I don't think that I would comfort others with speeches about a land of white beaches with swift sunrises (What the heck is a swift sunrise, anyway?) More likely the conversation would go like this: "So." "Yeah." "Well. It was..." "Yeah. Let's do this." "Goodbye." "You too." I mean, probably not, probably I have no idea what I would say, but that's more the way that I would write the scene. Probably in real life, no conversation of the kind would go on at all. But certainly not long-winded speeches about honor and courage and love. Read Killer Angels or All Quiet on the Western Front, my friends, if you want to know how people about to die really talk. Or any decent book in the world to learn how people in normal situations act. Not Tolkeinesque, that's for darn sure.
Anyway, the movie, I suppose, had the virtue of cutting out Tolkein's twenty page descriptions of trees, but at the cost of leaving his plot and characters intact. They tried to make up for this by cool action and long, long actions sequences, but you got the impression that they were pouring pepper into concrete- just because you make it spicier doesn't make it edible. Plus the fact that the action sequences all started to look very much alike. Plus the fact that every single twist of the plot, down to the "I am no man" was painfully predictable. Plus the fact that I never felt a scrap of emotion for any of the characters, except for some vague amusement at that crazy one who set himself on fire. I liked Aragon's final rallying speech, but mostly because one of the radio talk show hosts uses it as his opening montage.
All in all, it was a thoroughly ridiculous movie. I suppose that I should be grateful that it did not force me to re-evaluate my opinion of the series, nor concede that the movies were actually good. And it was awfully fun to watch, with a similarly scornful co-audience and plenty of sugar in the blood stream.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Orange Marker

My eldest nephew, telling me what he had been for Purim, informed me that he had been an orange marker for the night (the boy is obsessed with orange) and a "good enemy" (a good soldier, apparently. When we told him that enemy means bad, he said that his teacher had said that good enemies were just very rare. I wonder what that's about). Immediate image...A superhero!
Mild-mannered Good Enemy by day...The Orange Marker by night! He swoops through the air, blotting out evilness with his bold orange strokes! His orange cap signifying a force of freedom and goodness. Faster than spilling ink! More powerful than a highlighter! Can draw on the thickest paper in a single stroke! And then he fades away into that paradoxical alter-ego, the enemy of so many, but good at its heart.
Sorry...I think that the sickness has done something to my head...which isn't really an excuse for the rest of the time, but I suppose all the more reason to take advantage while I may.

Grading Exams

Well, a brief summary of my vacation so far, for those of you who rely on this for details of my life and/or care thereabout. On Shabbat, I hung out with nephews and niece and read. On Motzei Shabbat, we cleaned the living room. On Sunday, I went to a puppet show with nephews and mother early in the afternoon(I may actually post about some aspects of that at some point...there's a point that niggles at me), and spent the rest of Sunday and Monday being extremely sick. It was exceptionally good timing, really. Somehow, my body had kept me going, ignoring those first hints of illness that in hindsight I realize began early into finals, carrying through that stress until it got me to a place where it knew that there was a mother. There are few things nicer than being sick at home. Actually, that's absolutely false. It is still nasty to be sick. But if one must be sick, then it is very good that it should be by a mother who will bring you tea and toast, and a father who will ask how you are feeling, and a brother who will let you steal his library books. Being sick alone is depressing and lonely and altogether icky and I am quite grateful to the old body for having had the sense to take me home before succumbing.
Which has, of course, absolutely nothing to do with grading exams. Shhh. Anyway, so today I went to enter exam grades for my sister, who is TAing for a couple of classes and willing to pay somebody to do the very, very dull work of typing the exam grades into the computer after she grades them.
I was firstly struck by the singular impressiveness of the human mind. Here was my brain, faced with the exceptional, superlative boredom of my task, and it nontheless managed to find things to be interested. And this is even after my nephews, who had been wrestling and jumping on one another in adorable fraternal manner, were chased out of the room. For a while, I entertained myself by rooting for various people as I went through their exams. Based usually on hand-writing, I would decide how well I wanted the person to do and then see if they did. Then I rooted for the females, just to have a change of pace. Then I simply felt bad for those who did awfully, especially a couple of people who seemed to have missed the questions written on the back of the papers and so lost themselves some 10%. And then, the last stage, I stopped caring about the students at all, except to be glad when they got no points at all because then I would have less to add.
At this point, I turned my musings to the general grading process. Here, of a sudden, I became privy to the deliberations that go into grading final exams. My sister says that she was given nearly no guidance, and while not arbitrary, there was necessarily quite a bit of subjectivity. What about my exams, I wondered? The ones that I slaved over, stressed for, worried about, am going to let determine so much of my mood and future? Are they being graded by a stressed grad student somewhere as she tries to keep her children from spilling orange juice on her laptop? Are questions being clarified by a wave of her magic red pen and two points off? Flipping through the exams, I got a sobering awareness that these were people I held. This person here, who got a 40 out of 200- is that because he was goofing off? Is this going to make him reconsider graduate school? Ruin his chances of getting a job? Destroy his GPA?
I am glad that I was simply entering the grades, because had I been the grader, I might have let these considerations affect my grading and that would not have been right. But as it was, I was simply doing busy, mindless work, that left my mind open to wander and ponder and type people's futures into neat little columns into my sister's laptop.

Friday, March 17, 2006


(Inspired by Irina, but I'm not doing the actual survey, because my opinions are a bit too weird to fit into the framework.)
I cannot recall ever having had a nightmare. Not even in the phase of my childhood (around 5) when I had watched And Then There Were None and was freaked out to walk under open windows. The closest thing that I can think of is waking up and thinking, rather reflectively, "Huh. I think that must have been one of those scary-dream things that everybody talks about. What d'ya know?" but I do not recall the dream. Oh, and last shabbat, I dreamt that the person who was supposed to be layning had accidentally learnt the wrong parsha. But even then, there was at most one moment of panic and then everybody was doing what was necessary to cope, taking out tikkunim and teaching themselves aliyot and nobody was yelling at me, so it's hardly nightmarish.
I don't really feel much fear either. Fear of danger or pain, that is. Not that I'm an optimist, but I just never really see the point. Bad stuff may, indeed, happen. So? If it happens, it happens, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. Nothing I do can really affect that one way or the other. Bad things like that are so...finite that they are easily manageable. Take, for example, shots. I hate them, but I can't say I fear them. I'm going to sit down, there is going to be pain, I am going to not enjoy it, and then it is going to be over. There's nothing to be afraid of, since it's just a fact. I guess I feel the same way about most fears, like terrorism or disease. If it happens, then there it is, and now we have to cope with it. It won't be pleasant, it will be awful, but moping about it now does very little good. Do what you can about it and don't worry about what you can't.
Which is not to say that I don't get nervous when I'm walking down a dark street alone at night. But I don't really harp on the fear, since it isn't going to do any good, except maybe teaching me that I oughtn't wander around alone at night. Or when I'm driving, sometimes I'm hit with an awareness of my own vulnerability- if I jerked this wheel suddenly sideways, I could die. And I just...accept the fear, say "yes, good point" and move on.
But I am not fearless. Above anything else, I fear failure, I fear looking stupid, I fear disappointing others. This is fear over which I know I have a direct control, and it's the sort of thing that won't just be over, whatever, but is going to affect other people, and the future, and my self-image, and all that sort of rot. I guess that's why my 'nightmares' involve layning crises- it's a question of my having failed in my responsibility, not having done what I promised to do. Or I get anxiety-ridden over bad grades, because I know that I could have done better, because I know that I have failed others and myself. And I fear some social interactions, when I know that I will feel stupid and awkward, because the pain there is not quantifiable and finite, not easily handled or easily forgotten.
But even these fears don't really control me. I am not really riddled by anxiety or fear of social interaction. I know that I have these fears, and... then they also just become a fact. I say to myself, "Yes, dear, you're scared. I know. I'm scared too. So what? C'mon, we have stuff to do now. Oh, you're scared you're going to look stupid, are you? Sorry to hear that. Now move." Or else "You know what? Yes, that does sound like it's going to be unpleasant. You may be right, that it is simply not worth it, from a cost-benefit point of view. So let's not." I think that, in a way, the worst thing about fear is the fear of fear, because people think that once you're afraid it's some huge calamity or actually matters or something. Fear does not decide us, because it's just something there, just sitting there. We can take it into consideration, but there's no real reason to pretend that it doesn't exist, or to worry if it does. So I guess my phrase would be "We have a whole bunch of things to fear, including fear, but frankly, this should not unduly affect our actions." Not quite so catchy, but pragmatic.


Hey blogworld, long time no see, but between finals and Purim, I had neither time nor energy to spare. Nothing personal.
So anyway, I have been memed (how the heck is that conjugated?) by the ever-sharing E-Kvetcher about my thoughts during megillah reading. Fun topic, I suppose, and I think that I am once again going to be crushingly honest.
1)Watching the joy of the Haman-sneaking game, in which the reader tries to say Haman too quickly for the crowd to catch on and boo, usually resulting in one heart-stopping second when you think that you missed a word when the crowd catches up half a pasuk later, but the reader always goes back anyway. I think our reader succeeded exactly three times, which was a bit of a disappointment, since the Haman thing sort of annoys me. I mean, why does the man gets a standing ovation every time he's mentioned? It's such a random and silly-feeling minhag.
2) Wondering who the heck I'm going to find to layn megilla for the morning reading. For reasons best understood to G-d, I am the official layning co-ordinator for our Hillel, which means that I spend much time a week calling people and nagging them to please layn. (If they didn't want to be called and bothered, they could actually respond to the weekly e-mails, but I guess they enjoy the human contact of: "Hi, this is Tobie." "Hi, Tobie" "Calling about layning" "Right...what parsha is this?" every Thursday) In the end, I did get a layner for the morning, but it was probably cutting it close to have confirmed the night before.
3)Trying not to touch my hair, which is spray-painted blue (temporary dye) and feels like steel wool.
4) And yes, there were actual megilla-related thoughts too. In fact, those others were mostly during the long and annoying noise makings. Let's see...I remember thinking how darn funny the whole story was. You miss that sometimes, that it is an actual comedic story, with crazy bits like Achashverosh issuing a decree that men should rule their households, or his playing around with Haman with the whole "What should a king do for someone he likes?" thing. The megilla, I decided, really ought to make you laugh, or else you're not paying enough attention.
5) The weirdness of so much of the story. No matter how many times I learn this, there are always narrative things that just don't make sense, or that I never have noticed before. This year, the thing that popped out was the fact that the whole mess really was Mordechai's fault. I mean, looking at the story, you always read Mordechai as the hero, and I'm sure that morally he was, but in the literal sense, he was simply undoing the harm that he had done for being so silly.
6) One question that I had always had which was finally answered last year, so I was paying attention to see how well it fit into the narrative, really. I had asked one of my seminary teachers, "What is it with the whole "Mi Hu Zeh" thing? I mean, okay, he didn't know she was Jewish, but how many nations did he condemn to extinction in an average week? I mean, he couldn't make the connection there?" The answer I got was that he hadn't been aware that extermination was involved. According to this teacher, "L'Abdam" can mean to cause them pain or expel them or something like that, and it wasn't until Haman had lurked off on him own that he snuck in the parts about killing everyone. So that the whole genocide thing came as a total shock to Achashverosh. Interesting idea, and it works, I suppose, if you buy the "L'Abdam" thing. Which I don't entirely, but I still like the answer.
7)And the last thing that I was thinking is A) being neurotic about hearing every word, which is hard because not only are there babies crying, but the women in front of me are actually talking to each other! During megilla! Right in front of me! And about three feet from the layner, since it's a pretty small shul! Grrrr... and B) How funny it is that I am so very's interesting the way that halacha turns out. Here is this d'rabbanan mitzva (well, basically d'rabbanan..I think it's actually some more complicated category) that gives me so very much anxiety, while I get a lot less worried about a lot of others, simply because it's a difficult and exact one. Vague mitzvot are so much easier to ignore, but the second you give me some "Must hear EVERY word", I go absolutely anxiety-ridden crazy. Halacha is a funny thing.
Okay, an eclectic list, I know, and not nearly as elevated or intellectual as a lot of other people's, but then again, neither am I. I should tag someone now, right? I think...well...the only real reader left is Mike, so I reckon it'll be him. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Most intelligent Modern Orthodox teenagers today, I think, have some issue that served as their first break with the "system", whether it led to their leaving Orthodoxy, re-evaluating their Orthodoxy, or just having problems with the more right-wing people who were teaching them. For some it is feminism, or mesorah issues, or Bible criticism, or Zionism. For me, this was Amalek.

It began principally in eighth grade, which I suppose is a little late for having this first disillusionment. I suppose I had problems before then, but this is the one that stands out in my mind as The Issue. Maybe it was because of the way my teacher reacted to it- an intelligent, vibrant Rebbetzein, quite right-wing, she took to having me daven at home so that she could have heart-to-hearts with me in another classroom while the rest of the class davened. I wish I could remember more about the whole thing. I don't recall any feelings of resentment; the one clear image of the whole thing is me, sitting on a desk, legs swinging, listening to her earnestly try to explain something. I think she was worried about me- I was the stereotypical "intelligent, having issues with the system" kid, questioning everything in class, making her explain. I know, because she has since told me, that she was worried about my going off the derech.

Amalek, was, of course, not the issue that I had; we also had some interesting discussions about eilu v'eilu- I remember very earnestly arguing that Rashi and Ramban could not possibly both be right about a certain subject because their opinions were
mutually exclusive. I do not recall what she answered. But Amalek was the big one, the one that got me right in the gut, and one that she had no hope of answering. We must have spent several hours, over the course of weeks, sitting in the empty classroom, going over the same question, "How can it be moral to kill innocent people?" I don't remember specifically, but I'm sure she gave me all of the typical answers- if Hashem says it, it must be moral; they are inherently evil ("what about the babies?" "Even the babies." "Then what happens to bechira?" "Amalek is an exception" or something along the lines of "G-d will sort out His own"); it doesn't apply nowadays, so there's nothing to worry about. She never convinced me, and I think that I wanted to be convinced. But her answers frightened me and bothered me. A friend compared it to a Nazi "poisonous mushrooms" parable and I had no answer. (Ack! I have Godwined again. But this time it is so justified.)

I graduated, left that school, went to one that was even more right-wing. My questions did not really bother my faith. Perhaps I was too young to doubt that there were answers out there, even if my teacher didn't know them. Perhaps I am too inertial to make such a shift, perhaps I had too much faith. Whatever it was, I just thought of Amalek as being a question out there, a sort of temporary teiku (not that I had ever had a chance to learn Gemara), something that would be answered in time. I let it go.

I don't remember if it was the summer after eighth grade or the next year, but on one long family car trip to the east coast, I brought along a book by R' Aharon Soloveichik, z"tl (I'm so proud of being able to spell that. I actually have a great Soloveichik spelling story, but here is neither the time nor the place) entitled "Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind", which includes an essay about Amalek. I remember, very clearly, reading it on Shabbat, when there was nowhere to go and nothing to do but hang about the hotel room, since I was too lazy to go on a walk with my family. I remember also the sudden euphoria, feeling that here, finally, were answers, good answers, moral answers. I remember getting up and pacing excitedly around the room, wanting to tell somebody, and then rushing back to re-read it.

In cold blood, of course, this many years later, the argument does not seem all that radical. R' Aharon asked a series of questions on the p'shat of the Sha'ul incident, and answered them by saying that Amalekites could, in fact, escape destruction by accepting the Sheva Mitzvot, or by converting to Judaism, if they so chose. There were several proofs for this, the most convincing that I remember being the fact that there are Amaleki geirim in the gemara, and even in tanach (the man who killed Sha'ul e.g.), so obviously one doesn't have to simply kill them on sight. Again, it's a good argument and a convincing one (there being a lot more proof than I have written here), but what got me was simply the fact that here was somebody who thought my moral question was right, who was going to answer it, who had a moral answer, and, best of all, whose answer was not twisting the p'shat but also dealing with basic, logical questions. Embarrassing as it is to admit now that I have had long exposure to a more open set of beliefs, this really was an epiphany. I know that I sound sheltered, and I suppose I was, in some ways. My parents are both ba'alei teshuva, and their personal views are closer to Modern Orthodox, but my shul, school, and most of my friends were further right, and I had really not been exposed to a large degree to more critically thinking hashkafic analysis. That is to say, I was familiar with the views, but the process impressed me. And what influenced me the most was the sudden clear thought, "I was right. I didn't believe that my teacher's could be the only answer, the right answer, and I was right. I knew this had to moral somehow. I doubted and I fought, and I was right."

During my senior year of high school, I met up with my eighth grade teacher again, which is not surprising, as she lived across the street from one best friend and down the block from another. But this time, we were walking somewhere, and somehow it happened that she got to walk beside me by myself. She brought up the issues I'd had in eighth grade, and asked me if I had found answers. "You know", she said, "looking back at it, I shouldn't have tried to push answers on you. I should have acknowledged that those were good questions without trying to make you accept anything." I wonder if she is wondering whether I am still frum. She has already heard that I am planning to attend secular college, and no doubt it worries her. I tell her, that yes, I have found answers, answers that satisfy me. I don't elaborate, try to explain them to her. I say, somewhat dryly, that I am still frum, and then wonder if it sounds like "the lady doth protest too much", considering as she hasn't brought up the subject yet. I think that I thanked her for going to the effort of dealing with my questions, instead of brushing them off. Maybe that's what gave me the courage to keep looking. Who knows? She seemed satisfied, I suppose. I haven't spoken to her since, although some friends of mine still semi-idolize her and I think that they have kept her apprised of my life.

This story doesn't really have a point. Today, I'm still not sure what I believe about the Amalek issue. Although R' Aharon's answer continues to satisfy me, I am no longer uncomfortable with the idea of there being mitzvot that seem to me immoral. I can't say I'm happy with the issue today, but it no longer irks at me. Perhaps it has gone back vaguely towards a teiku. But for me, parshat Zachor is about that first thrill of having a question, a real, sticky question and slogging through it, not accepting bad answers, but not giving up on there being an answer. About the traces of that sudden euphoria in that hotel room, the sudden epiphany that neither my questions nor my beliefs are wrong, and the sudden realization that I am not alone in questioning.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Much Eerier Quiz

Okay, I know it looks repetative to be doing another one of these...but I found this test eerily accurate. My first result:

Your Personality Profile

You are dignified, spiritual, and wise.
Always unsatisfied, you constantly try to better yourself.
You are also a seeker of knowledge and often buried in books.

You tend to be philosophical, looking for the big picture in life.
You dream of inner peace for yourself, your friends, and the world.
A good friend, you always give of yourself first.

And the other thing that I was debating picking:

Your Personality Profile

You are elegant, withdrawn, and brilliant.
Your mind is a weapon, able to solve any puzzle.
You are also great at poking holes in arguments and common beliefs.

For you, comfort and calm are very important.
You tend to thrive on your own and shrug off most affection.
You prefer to protect your emotions and stay strong.

Now, this I find eerily accurate. In one question...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

One of These Test Things

Argh...I never do these, but I saw this over at Irina's blog, so I figured what the heck.I'm not sure if it's eerily accurate or just annoying...leaning, I'm afraid, towards the latter.

I'm not telling your actual score. Hmph!
King (or Queen) types are generally friendly and like to take care of people. Kings are organized and like everything to be in its place, in all aspects of life. Kings have a hard time tolerating deviance, but have big hearts and are usually understanding. They make good leaders due to their unselfishness. However, Kings have no problem living in luxury and accepting the good rewards they deserve. They are generally straightforward and honest and surrounded by lots of friends, even though they are not extremely outgoing.

The King's complement is the flashy, energetic Magician.

Link: The Medieval Archetype Test written by isayso on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test

Hygiene and Tolerance

Well, absolutely nothing interesting has happened to me recently, which is not so very surprising considering as I have been staying in my room doing homework and studying for finals next week. So this is going to be a totally random post, and it's going to be about hygiene. (Don't ask why...please, don't ask why...there is no why.)
Now, the thing that has always interested me about hygenic standards is how totally random they are (not unlike this post, in fact. And if I use random one more time, I think I may have to shoot myself). Mostly, of course, they are determined by upbringing, but they can vary so much within people of roughly the same cultural and socio-economic background. Take, for example, eating something that has fallen on the ground. Some people think nothing of it, some people are repulsed at the very idea. Or the number of times that a person showers (per week, that is, not per lifetime). Or the amount of dirt they are willing to ingest with their produce. Or how well they wash their dishes. Or sharing straws. Or how often they brush their teeth. Or taking food with their hands. Or eating things little children have touched. Or whether they use deodorant. (okay, that is more cultural.)
The thing is, everybody has a whole bunch of opinions on every one of those issues and these opinions have some pretty fascinating traits. 1)They do not necessarily correspond. At all. There are people who will do things you find disgusting and find things that you do disgusting. There are, sometimes, vague trends of finickiness, but what seminary life taught me is that others simply do not have the same set of disgust reflexes. 2) They are beyond the pall of tolerance. Which is to say, they are so deeply engrained that they create automatic aversion in ways that even moral decisions don't. I think that there are a lot more people who can contemplate the cultural difference that lead to different moral structures, but they're still going to have an automatic "ew!" if they hear about eating bugs. Or people who are really into individuality and you being unique and special, but are going to give you mighty funny looks if you tell them that you only shower once a month. (Okay, even I am going "ew" there). And the funniest thing is that your hygienic decisions are quite unlikely to affect them in any way, unless you are noticeably smelly or paw their food or something.
And this is about where I should wind up in some deep sounding point, but it's kind of late, and I have class tomorrow, and I have to go shower (ironic, isn't it?) and so I guess I am just going to leave it with the observation that hygiene standards are very arbitrary, very firmly held, and really rather funny, if you think about it.

Monday, March 06, 2006

People or Principles?

In Civ, we read a speech by Hannah Arendt, upon her reception of the Lessing Prize, in which she basically says that the hope of humanity lies in friendship, which consists of free and open dialogue between opposing points of view. Fine, nothing particularly radical there.
Then we learned to what degree Arendt lived this. Arendt, a Jew who had to flee Germany because of the Holocaust, maintained a close friendship with her mentor (and one-time lover) Heidegger, despite the fact that he went quite cheerfully over to the Nazis. When I heard this, I was appalled, but it does, I suppose, follow logically upon the question she rhetorically asks her audience: "Would any such doctrine, however convincingly proved, be worth the sacrifice of so much as a single friendship between two men?"
Well. Maybe if I were Chana, I would have a more literary reference here, but the connection that this idea made in my head was to Brothers In Arms, a sci-fi thriller with rather deep undertones written by Lois McMaster Bujold. In one scene, two characters discuss priorities:
"Surely it is more important to be loyal to a person than a principle."
"I suppose that should suprise me, coming from a Barrayaran. From a society that traditionally organizes itself by internal oaths of fealty instead of an external framework of abstract law-is that your father's politics showing?"
..."My mother's theology, actually... Her theory is that principles come and go, but that human souls are immortal and you should therefore throw your lot with the greater part. My mother tends to be extremely logical."
I had a conversation once with a friend about whether we would turn each other into the police for some crime. I said, "Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. I would feel sad, maybe, but I would do it," and she said, "No way." I'm not sure which of us was more shocked at the other. She kept turning to me and saying, "You would snitch on me? I can't believe you, you stool pigeon," and I kept turning to her and saying, "You would let me get away with murder? You would let a murderer walk away." (Yes, it was all in fun and we are still just as good friends. Nor have either of us been called upon to actually make this decision, thank G-d)
I think that our debate goes back to this same question of friendship versus principles. I believe quite strongly in principles, myself. I would, if I had the guts, turn my friend in. I am disgusted by Arendt's continuing friendship with a man who supported policies that included the extermination of her race. Now, fortunately for me, my principles include a great emphasis on respect for other human beings and so forth, or else I might be a very bad person.
This isn't a question of "love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin". I do that. I would probably not hate my friend if I turned her in for murder, but I would do it anyway. This is a question, quite simply, of whether one would sacrifice a friendship for a higher principle or vice versa.
And, like all big questions, both answers sound at the same time appalling and noble, depending on how you spin them. The question can be phrased, "Would you turn on a friend to fulfill your own ideology?" Or it can be phrased, "Would you continue to be friends with someone who you felt was evil?"
I know what my answer to that question is, but I have no idea whether it is right.

Beauty in Math

Every day I leave physics with a new amazement at the coolness of this universe. Actually, with a lot of frustration, but also with the amazement thing. The whole idea that you should be able to put together a set of artificial mathematical rules to describe the world, and that it should really work and be consistent and predict new things and all fit together- pretty crazy, really.
Like take electromagnetism- here we have all of these different forms of energy, and everyone is just having a lovely time analyzing them, and then boom! All of a sudden it turns out that they're really the same thing, sort of, and can convert back and forth in nice mathematical ways. And then Maxwell wanders along and Boom! We discover that this whole craziness will simply yield the speed of light. I mean, who saw that one coming? And why should it have been coming? What reason on earth is there that the world should all fit together with such simple beauty?
And then I went to math. Today we learned about the coolness of relating e^x to sin and cos. Everybody was just fiddling around with these things, which just happened to have all these crazy properties, which are pretty cool in and of themselves, and then along comes De Moivre and discovers that e^(i*pi)+1=0. How crazy is that? We have e, this mysterious number that for some reason has crazy properties and does stuff like always being its own derivative, and also happens to be irrational and transcendental and nobody knows how it got there, it just is. Then we have pi, which likewise is just one of these numbers that just hangs about, inexplicably being the number that circles always come in. Then we have i, which is totally and entirely made-up. In that mathematicians were like, "wouldn't it be cool if there was a square root of -1? Let's pretend that there is." And they did, and it turned out to work! And so all of these totally crazy numbers, end up yielding the basic normal numbers of 0 and 1, off of which everything is built. Why? Who knows? (I mean, I vaguely get the math behind it...It has to do with Taylor Series and stuff, but that's how, not why)
Our math prof said that De Moivre's formula was so overwhelmingly cool that mathematicians used it to prove that there is some kind of Platonic ideal of math, so that math isn't really constructing these truths but discovering them. I find myself agreeing entirely- the sheer compact, logical beauty of the maths seem to be an irrefutable proof of some higher logical order- in fact, one of the most convincing proofs of G-d's existance that I have yet encountered.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

Wow...I think success is going to my head. The story: Once, a long, long time ago, I got into a discussion with my sister, a grad student in economics about how stupid Dr. Suess's Lorax is and what an economist would make of it, thus inspiring this parody. Encouraged by the fact that it was the only post that I have ever written that was actually quoted in other blogs, I submitted it to an undergradutate poetry publication on campus. Surprise of surprises, it was accepted. The publication came out this week (quite funny, really. 75% is "Tears/I want to run/ but there are only shadows"- yes, I know, I can't write poetry- and then this random Suess parody) and apparently was seen by someone with a real big blog and stuff, so now I am getting traffic from Very cool stuff, considering my general small audience (not that I don't love you all or anything)
The silliest thing about all this is that I personally am not all that crazy about the poem. The idea is cute, but it wasn't particularly cleverly written and took around one afternoon. It seems to me, actually, just a little bit cheap. But who am I to argue with popularity?
The only question is how to capitalize on this new-found niche. Another parody, perhaps? But do I stick to Suess, or branch out? Or do I just ignore the whole thing and continue to write my own thing? Oh, the dilemmas of fame.
(Btw, if you're not reading this all in a sardonic tone, then I sound quite stuck-up. I apologize. Please rest assured that in my head, it is all fully sardonic.)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My New Motto

As you may or may not have noticed, but probably didn't because who keeps close track of these things, I have now acquired for myself my own personal motto! In Latin! It's almost ridiculous how euphoric I am. I got a friend who knows Latin to translate it for me (thank you so much!), and we spent some time fiddling with it to make it sound all proper and Latiny.
To me, Latin seems like one of the most quintessentially Geeky talents. So intellectual, so archaic, so useless, so much fun! Nothing says stodgy old professor or 18th century gentleman like Latin.
Which is why it makes me terribly sad that I don't know it. It was never even remotely an option at my high school (hah!), and I haven't gotten a chance to take any college classes on it either, nor is it likely that I will. The advantage of not knowing Latin, of course, is that reading becomes an adventure- like a giant brain teaser. Once, for example, at a boring Oneg Shabbat, a friend and I took a book in Greek off the shelf and tried to figure out what it said, neither of us knowing Greek other than being able to identify and sound out the letters. (It turned out to be the New Testament, and a book that began all with Biblical names, so we got off easy.)
Or, to a lesser extent, why it was so much fun to read the Harry Potter books in Hebrew, a process to which I attribute 90% of my current Hebrew knowledge. Between context, having read the books in English, and my scanty Hebrew, I was just able to make it through, but it was like leaping through breakers of water rather than the normal smooth slog that reading is. (Not that I don't like to read. But usually, little of the fun is derived from basic comprehension.)
And this is also the reason that I'm not going to translate my motto. Give you all the joy of figuring it out for yourselves. Or maybe it's just because I'm evil.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Women's Rosh Chodesh Events

So the other night, I went to one of these women's rosh chodesh events at the Friendly Neighborhood Chabad House. The theme was "The Beauty of the Woman" and the events featured a) fondue b) a dvar torah about how Esther teaches the value of tzniut since she saved the Jewish people in a quiet, behind-the-scenes way, 3) A talk about make-up tips and 4) a talk about parenting tips.
Sigh. Just sigh.
I mean, not that it wasn't fun. It was very fun. And it was entertaining, and in some odd ways informative. And there was chocolate. Much chocolate. And it was nice to hang out with other Jewish women and it was also nice to...fade back into a Jewish, heimish environment for a bit.
But still. I mean, look, I have nothing against females. Some of my best friends are female, including myself. (Have I ever mentioned that sometimes I have a wicked desire to get a t-shirt that reads "Yes, I'm female. So is your mother" and wear it around Me'ah She'arim? Not that I would...but the image is so much fun. But I digress.) But...just because one is female doesn't mean they have to be quite so stereotypically girly.
That was an unfair statement. Why shouldn't they be girly? They are, after all, girls, and trying to pretend that they're too cool and modern to be girly is pretty pathetic. It sounds, in fact, like feminism, and I am vehemently opposed to feminism. (Not the whole "let women have jobs!" feminism. The "we're just like men, only better!" feminism. It smacks of inferiority, denial, ingratitude, and stupidity.)
And, deep down, I also have vague traces of girliness and this is not something of which I am ashamed. G-d chose to create me female, a fact for which I am profoundly grateful, and there's no reason for me to go about dissing it.
But...make-up tips? I just don't see guys having Rosh Chodesh events and discussing sports tips or something. I mean, they do talk sports, almost incessantly if my little brother is any indication, but to have a Rosh Chodesh event organized around it? For some reason, the whole thing feels to me like the speeches that we used to have in high school about how, really, women are just as good as men. And it drove me crazy, not because I thought that they didn't believe it, but because I knew that they would never go to Yeshivot and give them speeches about how, really, they were just as good as women. Only different.
But then again...some girls really enjoyed the speeches. Perhaps it was something they needed to hear. It's just that it gave me a feeling of...considering male to be the default setting. Like, everyone is human, and some people are human and female, as well. And so they get to have special speeches about the special things about them!
And I know that is not necessarily a fair analysis of the attitude they had, and I know that this is not a particularly coherent post, but, then again, my feelings on the subject are not particularly coherent, so there you go. Something about this continues to rub me the wrong way, mentally.
On the other hand....there was chocolate. Lots of chocolate.

Random Useless Thought of the Day

(Wouldn't it be cool if that really were a daily feature?)

Novels only get written by novelists, and histories only by historians. We never read personal accounts of those who did not survive, or of those who did not care to write. We never hear the personal feelings of those whose personal feelings do not include the need to share their personal feelings. We can't read the personal diaries of illiterate peasants, or the philosophy of those who thought that writing philosophy books was nonsense. We are limited to the poetry of poets and the speeches of those who had an audience. And who is there to tell us what it is like to wish to be silent?


First of all, sorry for the long hiatus. I had an eight page paper due Monday, a six page paper due Tuesday, and a two page paper for today. Plus exams are in two weeks, so stress abounds.
Anyway, the last reading for our Humanities class was The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Discussion was...quite an experience, since the book is a dystopian novel about the evils of a radical, anti-feminist theocracy, which of course transitioned into all the chances anyone would want to rant about the radical, anti-feminist theocraticness of today's America under the evil religious right, etc etc.
The main thing that occurred to me while reading and arguing about the book is this: dystopian novels are not fair. They are powerful, meaningful, moving, and often great, but they are not fair, precisely because of this power. By which I mean to say: Illustrating the evils of an idea taken to an extreme does not necessarily invalidate the idea. It may. It may be a sign that the idea contains grains of evil that explode when the idea is fully realized. It may also simply mean that almost every idea is dangerous when taken too far.
So why did the 'unfairness' of this novel bother me more than, say, the unfairness in 1984? Well, to be fair, partially because I agree more with the religious right than I do with communism. But there are a host of other reasons. 1) Communism practically demands that it be taken to the extreme- it is bent on world domination and so forth. 2) I like 1984 more for what it says about universal human ideas than the specifics of the evils of Communism- the book is also about the human spirit, and propoganda, and who knows what else. So, actually, is The Handmaid's Tale. Just not the way that we were discussing it. Which is probably actually a reason 3) We were reading the book as opposing all religious activists, rather than actually more narrowly focused on the evils that would lead to that society, which were very specific religious beliefs, totalitarianism, etc.
But still, at the heart of any dystopian novel is going to an attack on certain ideas, and an attack that necessarily overstates itself, uses what my english teacher in ninth grade called "loaded language." (Heh heh. Great story there. Basically, I argued against her reading of the text and said that the hero of the short story was morally guilty of murder. In hindsight, I may not have been right in this opinion, but I still hold the 'loaded language' thing against her. I mean, just say I'm wrong, it won't kill me and it won't attempt to control my rhetoric. Anyway, back to the point I was making before that long and useless tirade...) And to be fair, one must read every dystopian novel with this realization, rather than convincing oneself that the evils of the philosophy are being correctly represented.