Friday, 12 May 2017

On Music 1: I wrote a filk today, oh boy

So I've always been a little freaked out by Jonathon Coulton's music. I mean the songs he wrote for Portal are fantastic, but I didn't realize until I sang Still Alive for a friend as an undergrad that the lyrics are really friggin creepy. Other songs of his, I noticed right away, and decided to stay as far from them as possible. Like Re: Your Brains, a rousing anthem about a zombie apocalypse. I don't like zombies, I don't like zombies in media, and I am especially creeped out by media from the perspective of zombies trying to get someone to stop fighting and get eaten already.

At least that was me a few years ago. In the last year or so, I've warmed a little to the appeal, or at least the utility, of zombies, though I'm still majorly squicked out by any zombie media that highlights the gory aspects of fighting zombies or the societal collapse inevitable to nearly every bezombied fictional setting. The place where I've accepted the role of the horde in my life and my art is in the worlds of Magic: the Gathering, where a year ago I opened a Liliana, the Last Hope in an Eldritch Moon fat pack and set about constructing a Standard zombie deck. The release of Amonkhet, an ancient-Egypt-themed set, has added some new and interesting things to the possibility space of overwhelming your opponent with zombie tokens, and has gotten me thinking about them again.

And then I was discussing the villain-in-absentia of the set, Nicol Bolas, with somebody in a Magic-themed Discord channel, and they said "I think all he wants is to eat the plane." And then my brain did this.


Sunday, 26 March 2017

On Family Tradition 1: The Goy Boy's Guide to Shabbat at Chez Underling

I have, improbably, convinced the Geek to visit my parents with me for a week that will include one weekend and the first night of Passover. Since the Geek is not Jewish, and gets uncomfortable when religion and ritual things happen, I am compiling step-by-step lists of everything he can expect from Shabbat dinner and the seder. Here is what will happen on Friday night.

Cooking and Music: While my parents finish cooking, they will put on a playlist of Jewish folk music and Israeli pop. If we're lucky, the song shuffler will give us the work of Debbie Friedman, Dan Nichols, and other pleasant memories from my childhood. If we're unlucky, we will get a run of songs by Safam about groups of Jews from around the world escaping persecution. Those songs tend to make me cry.
Setting the table: This will probably be my job. Helping with it will get you brownie points. Here is also where you wash your hands for real (see "Ritual Handwashing" below for an important moment where you don't).
Key items
: Dad will find you a booklet with translations of all the prayers, in which you can follow along. He may also offer you a kippah (traditional skullcap, plural kippot in Hebrew; they are also called yamulkes or yarmulkes in Yiddish) and a multivitamin. Whether you take the vitamin is up to you. I strongly recommend the others.
Candle lighting: Every Jewish holiday begins at sunset and is marked by the lighting of candles and the saying of a prayer by the women of the household. Mom and I will do this. My sister doesn't get home until the next day, but if she were there, she would participate.
Important vocabulary

  • The traditional greeting for Shabbat is "Shabbat shalom" (Hebrew, means "peaceful Shabbat") or "Good Shabbas" (Yiddish). 
  • The name Shabbat means "a period of rest," and refers to G-d resting on the seventh day of Creation.
  • The word "mitzvot" will be thrown around a lot. Mitzvot (Hebrew, singular mitzvah) are divine commandments. There are many of them, including the ten you might remember from Christian Sunday school.
  • I will not be spelling out G-d because of the commandment to not take G-d's name in vain. I will, however, go back and forth about whether to gender G-d. More conservative traditions use male pronouns; Reform prayer books tend not to use any pronouns at all. My sister wrote a screenplay last year for a film class in which all gods use they pronouns, which is why I consider this a dilemma.
Singing: We usually sing three songs before getting into the core of the ritual. The first one is just "shabbat shalom" repeated ad nauseum. The second welcomes any nearby divine messengers to celebrate with us, and the third is about why we observe Shabbat--again, because G-d rested after completing Creation and commanded us to commemorate Creation by resting.
Blessing of the Children: This should go quickly, especially if I'm the only "child" at home. My parents put their hands on my head and ask G-d to bless me as He blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
Blessing for Wine: This is a long one. It starts with the part of Genesis where Creation is done and G-d rests. Then we praise G-d for creating wine, creating the world, leading our ancestors out of Egypt (which will be the subject of my next list), and making Shabbat holy.
Ritual handwashing: You are not required to do this. It is traditional not to speak between the ritual handwashing and the blessing for the bread.
Blessing for Bread: This is quick and tasty. The bread is challah; it is sweet and braided and will have egg and poppyseeds and sesame seeds on top. Everyone puts a hand on the bread and pulls off a piece at the end of the blessing.
Dinner: I'm going to ask for breaded chicken and kasha varnishkes. There will be side salads, but we will make available whatever vegetable you prefer.
Cleanup: It will be mostly my job to clear the table, rinse dishes, and put them in the dishwasher. Helping with this will get you brownie points.
The rest of the evening: Now we get to the resting part. There may be table games (Rummikub and Oh Hell are the most likely; Word Whimsy might be too high-energy); there may also be television. I am not particularly interested in most of the television, though if Mom watches Washington Week, a political review show I used to watch for her civics class, I may stick around out of morbid curiosity. We go to bed when we go to bed.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

On Books 3: Binti and Binti: Home

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor was exactly the novella I needed to read this week.

It's not only that it's a book about an intelligent, resourceful black woman stopping an interstellar war, though finding it as I did during an upswing in all things white, male, and violent, it was certainly refreshing. Binti and its sequel, Binti: Home, have helped solidify in my head what it is I want from literature right now.

I grew up as a middle-class white girl in the suburban US. I will never truly understand what it's like to be Binti Ekeopara Zuzu Danbury Kaipka, either in the traditions of her ethnic group, the Himba people of the Namibian desert; her grand and terrifying adventure through space to the university planet of Oomza; or (G-d forbid) the post-traumatic stress disorder that follows that adventure. But through the experiences and emotions that I do share with Binti, I can begin to try.

I know what it's like to leave everything you know to go to school far from your family. I have spent much of my life surrounded by people who neither understand nor respect my family's customs. I have wrestled with the idea that I am not becoming the person I expected myself to be, that I have left bits of myself behind on the journey from there to her, and the worry that my family will not accept who I have become. I feel closer to this person who is so different from me, because of the things we have in common.

And I think that's something literature should do: connect readers with types of people they've never thought about. Teach them to care about people who are not like them. Help them to understand others’ lives through their own, and their own lives through those of others.

Binti does these things beautifully. You should read it for yourself. The first half of Binti: Home also does these things well. But in the second half of Home, the story does a couple of things that I really wish literature would not do.

Friday, 20 January 2017

On Anime 1: Yuri!!! On Ice

I love Yuri!!! On Ice. Which I suppose doesn't make me anything special. But, since I introduced my sister to it a couple of weeks ago and she didn't understand what I liked about it, I'm going to make a list of the things I like about it.


  • It has beautiful music, animation, and choreography.
  • It's a sports show in which training is shown relatively realistically.
  • It's about a chaste romantic relationship between two young men, with obvious respect for personal boundaries.
  • All the characters who want to harm women, even when they've convinced themselves they have good intentions, are portrayed as the creepy bastards they are.
  • All the characters who appear in the last three episodes have complex personalities. You know exactly why each of the competitors, even the creepy bastards, want to win, and they all think they have good reasons to do so.
  • Yuri's only actual rival, Yurio (Russian Yuri), is not a creepy bastard. He becomes sympathetic very early on, and we get to see him grow up and become disciplined and, in spite of himself, kind.
  • The competitors are from all over the world. While only Phichit, the Thai champion, has dark skin, it's great to see Canada represented separately from the US, and Kazakhstan separately from Russia.
  • Victor is incredibly sexy. He uses it to his advantage, and so do the writers. I did not particularly care about men's figure skating before watching this show. Now I care, because Victor asked me to care.
But the thing I love most about Yuri!!! On Ice is none of these things. I love Yuri!!! On Ice because it gives me a way forward.

I am Katsuki Yuri. I share his anxiety, his frequent inability to tell that people don't hate him (and that he's even an inspiration to others), his fear of being terrible at the one thing he's good at. I share his inability to tell himself that the Grand Prix Final is just another competition: on the day I defended my master's thesis, I was just as blind scared and certain I would do everything wrong, in spite of having explained my research to just about everyone I'd met in the preceding months. I've spent the same kind of time in a rut while I apply for job after job. I have the same patchwork of coping mechanisms, from the proven-useful (mindfulness meditation and spending time with people) to the denialistic (Youtube comedy playlists). And like Yuri, I sometimes wonder if it's all worth it, whether I'll ever achieve the thing I want, whether it would really be so bad to just give up.

But Yuri didn't give up, and his work finally paid off. His performance of Victor's routine caught Victor's attention, and prompted Victor (and his poodle) to travel halfway around the world to be Yuri's coach. The moral of this first part of the story is that miracles happen, but only if you work for them. The only way out is through. My Victor, my miraculous job opportunity that'll solve all my problems*, won't see me if I don't keep skating. So I keep skating.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

On A Video Podcast

Last month, a few of my online acquaintances met to talk about one of my favorite books, The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett, in a Twitch livestream. The host of the stream needed volunteers to be talking heads--that is, actually in the stream as opposed to in the chat--and he picked me. And we had fun. And when we were done recording he said something like "I hope you can come back for future episodes, so that it's not only white guys talking." And I said I would, because I'm always happy when someone wants my opinion, and to bring what diversity I can to what discourse I can. So now I'm a regular on a video podcast book club.

I will add episodes to this post as they happen.

1. December 2016: Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic
2. January 2017: M. H. Boroson, The Girl With Ghost Eyes
3. February 2017: Stephen Hunt, The Court of the Air

Thursday, 29 December 2016

On Games 3: Abzu (spoilers)

When The Geek read my review of Hue, he said it was the best review I could have written given that I didn't play the game. Okay then; let's try it with a game I've actually played.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

On the Meaning of Christmas

My relationship with Christmas has been complicated. It's no wonder; I was born Jewish, and grew up with the knowledge that the majority of the society I lived in believed in things that weren’t real, like Jesus and Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and would, for about a month every year, attempt to force me to believe in those things as well. And I hated it. I have a vivid memory of resisting making a Christmas stocking in kindergarten arts and crafts, insisting that my wonderfully patient teacher find me a Hanukkah-themed craft instead. My mobile made of pipe-cleaner Stars of David wasn’t nearly as pretty as everyone else’s stockings, but I had taken a stand and made a point, and I was satisfied. In later years I would bring dreidels and chocolate gelt to class and teach my classmates how to celebrate Hanukkah.

My desire to assert my religious identity fell off somewhere in middle school, and in eighth grade it vanished altogether: I had transferred to a new school, in the district my mother teaches high school social studies in, in a town where people were very open about the fact that they thought their next-door neighbors who went to a different church were going to hell, let alone teenage me, who had no answer when asked what church I attended. If I wanted to fit in, I had to go to marching band every Friday night and on Yom Kippur. It didn’t work, but I still did it.

As an aside: one of the local bible study groups decided Mom was too good of a person to have to go to hell. Sometimes I can accept it as the compliment it was intended as.

I occasionally tried to connect with my Jewish peers through high school youth group events, but I was just as alone among them as I was in school. My attachment to being Jewish and doing Jewish things waned again in college: I stopped keeping kosher while living in a dorm, I stopped going to Hillel because the people there were all the same people from youth group. I started dating non-Jews.

But I still hated Christmas. I hated the music, the endless Nativity scenes and decorated trees, the debates over whether “Happy Holidays” was an attack on Christmas (spoiler alert: it isn’t), the emphasis on Jesus and the abandonment of Jesus in favor of a Coca-Cola spokesman. I did my best to avoid it, though it only seemed to get more prominent when I moved to Vancouver for grad school and found that the nearest synagogue was an hour away by bus, and the nearest Hillel even farther.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

A few things have happened in the last two years that have changed how I relate both to my Jewish heritage and upbringing and to Christmas. I’ll start with the second: an egomaniac who panders to neo-Nazis became the president-elect of the United States. Suddenly, it’s become important that I be aware of my Jewishness, and that I practice it, not only to keep close the people I care about, but also in defiance of Minority President-Elect Donald Trump and those who do physical and verbal violence in his name.

The first thing is the one I really want to talk about. This is, to lean briefly on a cliché, how I discovered the true meaning of Christmas. Just over two years ago, I started dating a guy I met in my grad school dorm. Let’s call him The Geek. I somehow managed to impress his mother enough that, for our second Christmas together, Geek’s mom invited me to visit. And it was wonderful. I have never felt so happy at a family gathering. This probably has something to do with getting a large number of presents at once for the first time since a birthday in elementary school. It definitely has something to do with finally reaching my destination after an unpleasant night in an airport. It may also have something to do with the found-family effect—my own mother likes to invite all her relatives to things in an effort to keep the peace, which generally results in me spending hours making small talk with people around whom I am uncomfortable.

But here’s where that cliché comes back. What made that Christmas special, and what I think the point of a good Christmas is, is that everybody made an effort to show that they cared about everyone else. What was gotten was neither more nor less than what was given, and everyone seemed really happy to be there—and happy that I, a relative stranger, was there. Even the cat let me feed him.

This year I didn’t get to go anywhere over what we in the Happy Holidays camp call winter break. I’d thought I would get a seasonal job, and by the time it became clear I wouldn’t have one, plane tickets were too expensive for me to visit either my parents or The Geek’s. So he went off to spend three weeks at home, and I’ve been knocking around our apartment, applying for jobs I’ll never hear back about, getting a bit of cleaning done, and occasionally meeting up with friends to drive away the lonely. This year, I’m homesick for two places and two holidays: the first night of Hanukkah at my parents’ house, to which I did not Skype in because I was too sad, and Christmas Day at The Geek’s parents’, to which I did Skype in because looking at the presents Geek’s mother sent me gave me a way to avoid eye contact when I inevitably felt like crying. Not only do I understand this particular form of Christmas now, I like it enough to miss it.

The third thing is a story I found on the Internet which I’m including because neither you nor I came here to be sad. (At least, I assume so; I've never gotten any comments one way or the other.) An anonymous parent explains that, instead of crushing their son’s dreams by telling him Santa doesn’t exist, they instead taught him how to be a Santa himself.

Oddly enough, this story represents a convergence between Christmas and Judaism: what this parent is teaching their child is, in Jewish law, called tzedakah, the divine commandment of charitable giving. According to this parent, giving anonymously without thought of reward is the core of what it means to be Santa. According to the ancient rabbis who distilled Jewish law from Scriptural commentary, that same anonymous giving is the highest form of tzedakah. (Hat tip to the late George Michael, who was apparently a serious mensch in this regard.) Funny, isn’t it, that the meaning of Christmas is so Jewish.

I hope your Christmases have been merry, your Hanukkahs happy, and all your other holidays joyous and peaceful. Here’s to a better year.