Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Grapes & Their Issues (Operation: Cheer Up A Sick Chana)

It was a dark and rainy night. Tonight, actually. I was sitting on an accordion bus, my eyes limping across the outfits and objects of the people sitting across from me. My nose was red and runny; I was sad and sick. I saw a black man who reminded me of the Shepherd Book character in "Firefly." He was holding a book called 'Grapes and their Issues.'

"Grapes and their issues?" I thought indignantly. "What the hell, man? Who are grapes to complain? I mean, here I sit, having been told to leave my workplace by wellmeaning colleagues, my nose shot to hell, dripping like a leaky faucet, my eyes glazed over, my head feeling dull and foggy- and grapes have issues? I've just waited in the wet for a half an hour, the bus didn't come on time, and I narrowly escaped being drenched in a rainstorm... tell me, I ask, what kinds of issues do grapes have, exactly? It's like those Grapes of Wrath- I mean, whoever heard of wrathful grapes? What kind of ridiculous title for a book is that, anyway?"

I then reread the title. It said: 'Graphs and their Uses.'



(If you enjoyed this post, please post a potential issue that a grape might have in the comments.) 

Monday, January 28, 2013

I Was A Very Strong Woman

There's a book I love called A Ring of Endless Light. I love it because I understand the characters, I value and respect them, and I appreciate the relationships between them.

There's this one scene where Vicky is talking to her grandfather about Zachary. I wrote up the scene here (click for link). 

"The thing is- he needs me," Vicky says, as she talks about Zachary. Zachary's needing her is the siren song that can pull her away from everything else she might love and might hold dear. And Grandfather cautions her that that is not healthy. He doesn't caution her with those words- he doesn't see it in terms of health. As a Christian, he instead puts into perspective based on vanity and the vanity a person has in thinking that they can bear the burdens that are meant for others.

Today I was home sick, so I decided to devote some time to watching TED Talks. I watched one given by Leslie Morgan Steiner entitled "Why Domestic Violence Victims Don't Leave." You can watch it below:

There was something she said that struck me- struck me and made me shiver. I felt resonance because what she said made sense to me. It's something I think, too. (For clarification's sake, not about my husband. But it's an attitude I understand.)

She said "I never once thought of myself as a battered wife. Instead, I 

was a very strong woman in love with a very troubled man. And I 

was the only person on earth who could help Connor face his 


We provide context and narrative to the situations in which we find ourselves. We either internalize or externalize. Leslie didn't want to say, "My husband is doing things that are harmful and dangerous. He is threatening my life. I may love him, but I need to leave him." Instead, she wanted to say, "My husband is a troubled man, but it is my duty to prove my fidelity to him. I will stand by him, through thick and thin. I will be there for him, because I am the only one who has the key to him- the only one who will be able to help him heal. This is my special task, and I must fulfill it." 

There is an idea that especially those of us who have been rejected, who have felt ourselves to be outcasts, hold ourselves to. The idea is this: We will never reject anyone. We will not leave them behind. We will remain loyal, no matter what. Even if the person isn't showing us proper respect or kindness. Even if the person treats us badly. We will stay, until that person makes us leave. Or, until we find the courage to leave, depending on how bad the situation is. 

We cannot bear to see in ourselves the slightest shadow of the attitudes that hurt us so deeply, so profoundly. Therefore, we leap away from these choices. We need to be better people, in our minds, to ourselves, than the people who hurt us. But because of this, we limit our options. The only role that we can play is that of savior, and we must put up with hurtful or harmful behavior because to challenge it is to reject others, which is something we must not do. We can't see both sides to the story. The only story that we can be part of is one where in the end, it will all come right. We will be loyal until that loyalty is rewarded. We will be strong. We will be Beauty saving the Beast. We will love our partners back to health, and all will be well.

Except for the times it doesn't work out that way. The times where we need help in realizing that despite denial, that narrative isn't the only way things could work out. The times where we need to be told that it is not strength that keeps us with this person, but a simple inability to conceive of any other options. To us, there is no other choice. Because leaving is admitting failure- and we cannot bear to fail. Leaving is rejecting someone we care about- and we cannot bear to reject them. Leaving hurts us- and we cannot bear the pain. 

Until the time comes when we learn why we cannot bear to stay.

And by then, it's usually too late.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Problem With Contemporary YA Fantasy

Many of you are aware that I read a lot of Young Adult Fiction & Fantasy. I read it because I like it, and also because I like to know what my students are reading. I've read many amazing books, but I'm troubled because I feel like the genre as a whole is missing something integral and vital. 

They're missing reality.

Here's what I mean by this. YA fiction & fantasy fall into one of two categories.

Category 1: Adventurous hero or heroine battle demons, angels or other supernatural beings in order to save the world, right a wrong, and on the way, fall in love with one another. Their epic love story is usually star-crossed, and both hero and heroine and friends feel intensely during their battle. 

Category 2: Main protagonist has to deal with life in a really crummy situation- whether it's them or their friend who is dealing with mental health issues, drugs, an eating disorder, cancer and so on. They are a wry, interesting, irascible or spiritual character who pulls the reader in. 

Here's the problem. These two categories don't cross over in a meaningful way. Let me offer an example.

An example of a Category 1 book is Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments trilogy. Clary, Jace and Simon, alongside Isabelle, Alec, Magnus and others battle all sorts of difficult creatures and situations, but all of their feelings and issues revolve around love. Yes, Jace is a little messed up because of his father (who raised him to think that love is a weakness, and that loving would break him), but it's nothing a little love from Clary can't fix. These characters don't have to deal with their issues or emotions in a real way. They don't have real-life reactions to the situations they face (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, other mental health issues) and they don't have to deal with them in real ways (therapy, for instance).

An example of a Category 2 book is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This moving and hilarious book makes cancer funny. It explores the lives of two people battling cancer, one of whom makes it and one of whom doesn't. The friendships read as real, the issues (whether dealing with the cancer, trying to avoid dealing with the cancer, or wanting to find love) read as real. 

What troubles me is that the real life issues that are faced in books like Speak, The Fault in Our Stars, Hush and so on are not addressed in fantasy novels. Now, I can understand why that is. Most fantasy writers like to make completely separate worlds where the issues are fully external (or internal at times, but overcome by a little love). But I think this actually weakens the fantasy world. In a true fantasy world, people love, grieve, and are impacted by the events that occur. People are not just cold-blooded killers who never have to deal with PTSD or deal with phantom limb pain or who have flashbacks after being raped. Making reality converge with fantasy would actually, in my opinion, make the fantasy book stronger

An author who does this really well is Madeline L'Engle. Her book A Wrinkle in Time is a masterpiece because she weaves science fiction together with a real life heroine who is insecure, does not feel pretty and ends up having a real, complicated relationship with Calvin O' Keefe (not just one brimming with sexual tension where the two of them must end up in bed together and that solves all their problems). Susan Cooper also does this well in her series The Dark is Rising. But both of these authors have been largely replaced by contemporary, and to the large part, shoddy, fantasy writing. 

Even Harry Potter, which everyone read and was dazzled by due to its 'realness'- an actual ministry, laws, shady newspaper reporters, a seemingly unloved child- never allowed any of its characters to struggle with an actual diagnosed condition. Harry didn't suffer from depression. He didn't have to see a therapist. He was in the nurse's wing or the hospital pretty frequently, but problems with his mental state? Never. Even after everything he had gone through, all the loss he had suffered. Even after living his whole life with a person whose mission it was to kill him. Tip top mental shape.

If fantasy is, as many authors espouse, their way to enable students and children to interact with the world and find solutions for the monsters that threaten, it isn't enough to equip characters with otherworldly talents, traits or supernatural abilities. These characters should be real in every way, including the toll their actions take on them, including their mental health status and the actions they need to take to be healthy. If YA fantasy wants to aid the battle to help young people feel normal, it needs to focus on more than just gay characters or bullying. It needs to focus on making young people feel like it is okay to seek help when they struggle with their mental states. Otherwise, fantasy just joins the ranks of role models for people that says 'If they could get through all of this and be perfectly fine, no sweat, no therapy, no struggling, just a soulmate who loved them back to health, then I should be able to do it, too.' That message is unhelpful and even dangerous. 

So YA Fantasy authors, be brave. Take the next step. Start making your characters real.

Our kids will thank you for it.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

I saw "Zero Dark Thirty" tonight. The movie was a cerebral experience for me rather than an emotional one. It reminded me a lot of "Munich."

I found the film to be extremely impressive and very powerful. The message that I walked out with was how appreciative I need to be of my country and of my military.

Back when Obama was running his reelection campaign, he was making much of the fact that he gave the kill order on Osama Bin Laden. I, alongside many other Americans, I would wager, didn't really understand why that was such a big deal. Of course you would give the kill order on a man like that. What's the big deal?

But this film illustrates exactly why that was a big deal. According to the film (and assuming this is true), there was no positive confirmation Osama was even in that compound. It could have been someone high up in Al Quaida, but there was no definitive visual or voacal proof that it was Osama himself. If the operation had gone badly, it could have been publicly embarrassing for America. But Obama gave the kill order even though there wasn't that proof.

For me, the film also showed why we need to value our military. I'm sure a lot of us thought, "Well, it's about time" when they finally caught Osama 10 years later. But what we didn't realize is that there were so many leads, and so many tips, and people who needed to track them all down. People who lost loved ones in the process. People who got burnt out. People who didn't eat or sleep without thinking about this mission, this goal. All kinds of intricate people who were involved in the process until we finally got to the place where we could execute this man.

A lot of people are talking about this film in order to discuss torture and whether or not torture ought to be used. I think that misses the point. Yes, that is one aspect of the film. But that is not the film. The film shows the labyrinth that is created, the intricate ways in which the government worked to piece together the final data as to where Osama was living and how to take him down. Something interesting that one of the main characters pointed out was that they could have taken out the compound with a bomb, but instead they sent in SEALs. People had to risk their lives in order to kill this man- it wasn't just drop-a-bomb-and-be-done.

I was thinking, as I was watching the film, that a movie like this needs to be made about molestation. The Nechemya Weberman case especially came to mind. I can imagine a brilliant screenplay that takes the same concept as this film, which is the number of people needed to fulfill a mission, and uses it to talk about molestation. The film could begin with the girl in counseling at her new high school, her therapist treating her for PTSD. Finally, the girl confesses she was molested and runs out of the room. We then see the girl being evaluated by three separate analysts, each of whom grill her in order to make sure she is telling the truth and not lying. We see the girl decide to accuse Weberman. We see Weberman's supporters threaten the family; we see the repercussions as her family members are kicked out of school. We see the fundraiser held in order to defray Weberman's legal expenses. We see the prosecutor in the case, working tirelessly to try to ensure that this girl's story is heard. We hear the audio of the Satmar Rebbe talking about Dinah and low women. We see the girl in the courtroom, on the stand, see her called up, see the jury's faces, see Weberman's face. We hear from bloggers and news reporters who are covering the case and who have very disparate views. The movie closes after the 'Guilty' verdict, with the girl's face, an expression of triumph and relief. But wait- it's not over yet- there's one more scene where we hear the community talking about how it's anti-Semitism that this verdict got passed, we see the Vaad HaTznius still standing there and we realize nothing has truly changed.

If someone were to make a film like this about molestation, then the audience would finally see what it means to accuse someone, take it all the way to trial, and then get the guilty verdict. They would realize how difficult it is- as difficult, in its own way, as hunting down Osama Bin Laden. They would see the price that is paid, the casualties of daring to make the accusation. And they would walk out of the film changed people, in the same way that I am now so much more appreciative of our military. They would see the strength of the victim, not just the way in which she was harmed. That's what we need to give the viewers- the ability to see how complicated these trials are, in the same way the search for this evil man was.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Video Editing Downloadable/ Cloud-Based Software

I'm hoping Techy people can help me.

I want to assign my students to make a video mashup. But: it's not just resplicing some video clips and adding a song in the background (for example, the way the "Scary Mary" trailer is). I want them to be able to cut and paste different clips from different videos together while blanking out the video's sound, adding in snippets of conversation as audio and also a track/ song in the background.

So in terms of layers we have:

1. Video Layer
2. Audio of numerous different people speaking, all taken from different mp4s or mp3s
3. Different background music tracks that play while all this is going

So far, none of the video platforms that I've seen do this- and I've looked at and and Mozilla Popcorn Maker. Does anyone have any leads about something that could do this and that is relatively intuitive to use?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Religion's Role In Conflating Issues & Labels

Disclaimer: This post is not comprised of personal experiences. I am lucky to have a great husband. The examples provided are drawn from life, but not my life.

Those of you who have studied psychology may be familiar with the terms 'black-and-white-thinking', 'all-or-nothing-thinking' or 'splitting.' The hallmark of this type of thinking is when a person can only see events in their life as wholly a virtue or wholly a vice, wholly good or wholly bad. People who have trouble with this type of thinking will often resort to 'You always' or 'You never' statements. Sometimes these statements have more to do with how the person is feeling at the time than the actual situation.

This is a particular challenge of mine. I have realized over time that I often conflate issues with labels. An issue refers to a particular behavior. A label is a judgement one has made about the behavior and a motivation one has ascribed to the action. It admits for no doubt and is generally immovable and unshakable. 

Suppose you have a loving husband and wife. The wife grew up always seeing her father do the dishes. She comes home from work, where she had a terrible day. She sees her husband sitting at his computer and notes that the dishes are not done. In an exasperated voice she says, "You never do the dishes. This shows me you don't care about me. You're irresponsible and you don't love me."

In that scenario, the wife has:

1) Resorted to black-and-white thinking. She claims the husband never does the dishes.
2) Assumed a motivation. Clearly the reason the husband doesn't do the dishes is because he doesn't really care about her.
3) Given him a label. She's labelled him as 'irresponsible.'
4) Come to a conclusion. Her conclusion is that he doesn't love her.

The question, of course, is whether any of these claims are true. What the wife needs to consider is:

1) Is it true he never does the dishes?
2) Why has he not done the dishes? What is his motivation?
3) Labeling is unhelpful.
4) You can't come to a conclusion until you examine the evidence, and you can't do that until you have a discussion with your spouse.

So in an alternate scenario, the wife might come home and say. "I had a bad day at work today and I am feeling very irritated. I notice that you have not done the dishes. Could you please tell me why you haven't done them?" 

At this point, the wife might be surprised by the answer. It could be that the husband truly is irresponsible or inconsiderate and simply didn't do the dishes because he didn't feel like it. But it could also be that he had a very pressing matter that had to be taken care of right then, and he was planning to do the dishes afterwards. Or maybe he was unaware that this was an expectation that she had of him in the first place. 

Only once the wife understands what has led to this behavior/ issue, can he and she together tackle the root of the problem.

All of this seems very straightforward when you lay it out this way, but to someone who struggles with this, it doesn't come naturally. It takes effort and time to learn how to see from this perspective. Some may be able to accomplish it on their own, and others may benefit from having a life coach or therapist to assist them in learning how to see from this angle.

What I have realized lately is that certain aspects of our community (specifically Orthodox Judaism) do not lead to a healthy separation between issues and labels. Indeed, they even encourage us to conflate them.

I attended a Bais Yaakov. It was not a good experience for me. At that school, we were given a very narrow, limited model of what made for a 'good girl.' A good girl wanted to grow up to support her husband in Kollel. She was completely tznius at all times, didn't talk to boys and didn't ask difficult questions about religion. 

At the same time, we were given a very narrow, limited model of a 'good boy.' A good boy was the top boy. You were looking for someone who was an absolutely brilliant Talmid Chacham. He prefers to spend his time in Beis Midrash, coming up with incredible raayos and chiddushim. He never misses minyan. He goes out of his way to learn with chavrusas and to be kovea itim. If he doesn't fit this model, then perhaps second-best is someone who still always davens with a minyan, is a big baal-chesed and otherwise devotes most of his time to community projects. 

Here's the difficulty. Imagine that you marry someone, and that person has a specific difficulty or issue. To give a simple example, suppose the man you married has difficulty getting up on time for Shacharis. He often misses minyan. If you're a typically raised Bais Yaakov girl, the thought that might flash in your mind is the following: He always misses minyan. This shows me that he doesn't really care about Hashem or Judaism. He also doesn't care about me, because it's embarrassing to me to have a husband who misses minyan. If he really loved me, he would get there on time.

Even worse, Bais Yaakov girls are taught that their sechar (heavenly reward) is directly tied up in ensuring that a man fulfills his heavenly duties. So the girl may think that her husband missing minyan is directly related to her and her well-being. She may at first try sweetly, then slightly more irritatedly and finally angrily to get her husband to daven on time. She may not be interested in the root of the issue or behavior, which may be important when it comes to trying to fix it, but instead simply decides to label him.

Let's say the husband is legitimately struggling with his penchant to be late to minyan. Having a wife who is nagging you and who then ultimately decides that you are worthless because your missing minyan is equivalent to not having true love or fear of God may not only be disheartening but crushing. You may respond to it in a variety of ways, many of them not positive. For example, in order to avoid her negativity, you may start lying to your wife and saying you went to minyan on time when you really didn't. Your wife will find out and will feel betrayed/ hurt. Everything may go downhill from there, because you now have a serious breach of trust.

All this because the wife decided to label rather than addressing the issue. The conversation that really needs to be had is, "I see that getting to minyan is a struggle for you. Can we talk about why?" or alternatively, if you know why, the next question might be, "How can I be helpful to you in this struggle? What do you need to succeed?" But not everyone realizes that an issue or a behavior is not necessarily related to the motivation one thinks it is related to, and thus the label one might ascribe. 

Obviously, the partners need to both be invested in working on problematic behaviors or issues. If something your partner is doing is really not compatible with your value system, and if the person is unwilling to change or to work on the behavior, that can lead to problems in the marriage, as marriages in our community are based on shared values. So it might not be acceptable to you to be married to a man who consistently misses minyan and who sees nothing wrong with this, or who is not interested in working on changing his behavior. But that is different from making the assumption that because someone is struggling with a behavior they therefore deserve a certain label. A person can be a 'good boy' or 'good girl' who has love and fear of God but has some behaviors, habits or issues that need to be worked on. The behavior is not always (possibly even not often) indicative of a greater meaning or statement about the person. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Honey Love

All my life, I felt like there were invisible rules about life. These were rules I could not quite make out, and that I was afraid of breaking. If I broke them, knowingly or not, bad things would happen. I would fail at life. I would be seen as socially inept. People would find me or my behavior unattractive. In short, there would be major consequences for breaking the invisible rules.

Lately, I've been questioning the invisible rules. The one I've been thinking most about is the rules of love.

As an English major, I've read a lot about love. I've read about dark, possessive, selfish love, like that of Othello or Heathcliff. I've read Lord Byron's poetry, where he puts the woman who walks in beauty on a pedestal; she is untouchable. I've seen teenagers go gaga about the love between Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. I've seen films and TV shows with love scenes that touch me and thrill me. And what I've always done is compared myself to all of it.

Love, I thought, should be a violent, all-encompassing feeling that leaves me wounded and wanting more. It needs to be a love for the ages, a love that devils my mind. It needs to be a love to match all the love scenes in all the books I've ever read. It needs to be a love that sparkles and rages- a love filled with fire, that encompasses the color of desire and that will hold me up if I fall. It needs to be unbreakable and impossible. It needs to grab me by the neck and almost choke me.

If it's not love like that, I thought dismissively, it isn't love. It isn't worthwhile.

So I went searching for that love. I went looking for the violent, feverish, impossible, thrilling love. I wanted the love where I felt bound so tightly that I could never break away.

And I found it. Or at least, I found pieces of it. It colored me, cut me up and spun me out. I was left as fragile as shattered glass in a mirror, spiderwebs of silver pieces that one touch can dislodge.

I looked for love that moved me and I found it. In the way a child looks at its protector. In a person who does a completely selfless act. In people who want to help others grow. That love touched me, but it was like honey spreading through me, slow. It was golden; it was warm. It wasn't the love I wanted; the love I thought I should want.

When I married, I tied myself to a golden love, not a raging love. I found a love that was playful, kind, nurturing and growth-oriented. It was honeyed. And it was frightening. It wasn't what the invisible rules, as I understood them, said I should look for. I was afraid it wouldn't be right, or that I would miss the raging love too much and it would get in my way. I was also afraid that other people on the outside looking in would see me, my marriage and my life and judge it. I was concerned about their perspective.

Sometimes, I'm still afraid. But more often, I realize there are no shoulds. I do not need to live searching for the love I should want, but rather, for the love that works for me. Who I am as a wife and a person need be bound by no shoulds other than the ones my husband and I create. And when I stop a moment and look at my life through another's eyes, I realize some illuminating things.

For one, people see my husband as very romantic. They see our engagement, with his focus on my love for Belle and books, as being the pinnacle of romance. The way my husband celebrates my anniversary and birthday are also, through other people's eyes, very romantic. Some have even used the word 'fairytale' to describe our story. So if I am concerned about other people's perspectives, I need not be.

For another, the only person who could help me grow properly would be a person who understands my many needs: for quiet spaces at times, for time to write, my love of books, my love of children. My husband knows all my loves and encourages them. He also knows the difference between a need and a preference, so he does not need to be afraid to voice his own.

Also, marriages take work. Love is not stagnant. It does not just come and stay; it needs to be built, maintained, recreated at times.

All these things come to my mind when a friend of mine tells me, "The only thing I want is to marry someone who I am really in love with."

What does that mean? I wonder. What does it mean to be really in love with someone? Per my own rules, it only refers to the raging love, in which case, I would not have qualified. Perhaps part of what at least some of us need to work on is discovering the many meanings of love, meanings beyond the conventional, beyond the typical. Meanings that refer, not to society's idea of the femme fatale, the glamorous woman in stilettos and sexy dresses, but to secret, honey love that tucks blankets around the hidden corners of your soul.

Perhaps I'm becoming a bit Nietzschean - or I'm referring to Plato's Forms. All I know is that the words we have, and the images we associate with them, are not enough. There are no shoulds. There are rarely definitions. And we need to create our own meanings for these words, meanings that go beyond those that our culture or society offer us.