Thursday, November 29, 2012

One Day More

It's incredible what a difference small changes make. This week, I cleaned my room, hung up some artwork that had been lying around my apartment, put up the flower-string lights I bought in San Francisco, finished a paper, and made plans for the first big Shabbat meal I'll host since July.

And it works wonders.

Literally from one day to the next, I feel like as quickly as the crazy came, a huge chunk of it has spontaneously abated. Not all of it, but a massive, huge chunk, and that's more than enough to keep it from being overwhelming.

And I've been singing Les Miserables songs all week.

That's not a surprise, since the movie version of this book/play I've known since forever is coming out and I can't wait to see it. I've been humming the tunes for a month now. But I realized this week that things had generally improved when I realized that the tunes I've been singing have changed.

Isn't that weird? I didn't even realize until after, that I'd stopped singing 'I Dreamed a Dream' and 'Master of the House', songs filled with unbearable despair and hostile treachery, respectively, until yesterday, when I was carrying artwork to a friend's place for a project, and found I was marching in tune and singing 'One Day More' a little too loudly, aka people could hear me.

Now, 'One Day More' isn't exactly the happiest song on the planet either. None of Les Miz's songs are exactly cheerful, but the thing about 'One Day More' is its triumphant mood. Which is weird, because its characters are singing about an event that hasn't happened yet, and in most cases, is certain to actually be negative, bloody, and/or heartbreaking. But they're getting pumped anyway.

If you know the story and what eventually occurs when the event comes, you know how ironic some of these verses are. But if you listen to it, you can't help but, for some reason, think the upcoming battle can turn out any way but well. And damn the consequences. Damn the danger. Yeah, you may sweat and bleed, but you will do it while kicking some serious butt.

And I've been seeing things this way too, at least this week. I know that nothing is set, nothing is certain, but for some reason I'm pumped for it.

"Tomorrow we'll discover what our G-d in Heaven has in store. One more dawn, one more day, one day more."

I can't wait to see this movie. Hugh Jackman! Anne Hathaway! They couldn't have picked the cast better. Let's see if it's any good.

"There is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!"

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Wage

I stumbled across this poem during my weekly trip to Zen Pencils:

My Wage
by Jessie B. Rittenhouse

I bargained with life for a penny,
And life would pay no more,
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store;
For life is a just employer,
He gives you what you ask,
But once you have set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.
I worked for a menial's hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of life,
Life would have paid.

It stuck with me like gum in your hair. Haunted me on the way home from work. I scribbled it down into my sketchbook as a reminder. Once in a while, you come across a quote or a poem that you feel is speaking directly to you, where you are, in the time you're experiencing. I got that feeling when I came across this poem; a poet I'd never heard of was trying to teach me something.

In typical me fashion, I failed to attach it to anything having to do with career or work, even though apparently most people do (at least if Google seach results are to be believed). I attached it to what I always do: a search for meaning, love, community, and peace of mind.

I started thinking about the last three months, during which, let's just say, Life and I have been in negotiations over what my wage is to be. I've had to decide: am I going to bargain to be happy now, or later? Am I going to strive to be merely satisfied? Or genuinely happy? Is 'good enough' good enough? Can I bear to set the wages at a penny?

This duality of satisfaction versus happiness reminds me very much of Jeff Smith's awesome comic-book epic, Bone (if you haven't read it, go read it now). In one scene, the Bone cousins Fone Bone and Smiley are captured by the giant puma Roque Ja, the self-proclaimed "master of the eastern border," who demands that the cousins pick a side in the ongoing war between the valley folk and rat creatures. The cat claims that a side and a leader must be followed in order for one people to gain power. And power, he reasons, is the secret to satisfaction.

"A person can be satisfied and still not be happy," the cousins respond.

"I see the problem," Roque Ja replies, "You believe that a person truly can be happy."

I've always loved this scene, mostly because once you get to know these characters, you realize what courage this exchange requires of the Bone cousins (that's how good this book is. You're actually proud of the characters when they do something right). But it also brings to light a question I've had for a long time. Should I content myself with being satisfied, or should I work hard and keep hoping that in the end, there is even the possibility of being happy?

I'm not naive enough to suppose that being happy is a goal to be reached and a state that will just be achieved. But I do believe in an eventual goal of living truly happy with your decisions, and that's when you live a life that's meaningful, within your moral standards... one you've worked hard for, and thought of something bigger, higher, and better than just you. A life you can look back on and say, this was a good life. I did a good job. And it meant something. For me, this is a life where I feel I've found meaning, and where I've done the very best I can, and where I didn't throw myself away to despair, convenience, or denial, and where if I made mistakes or did something self-destructive, I didn't drag others down with me.

So can I stand to bargain with life for a penny?

My answer is heck no. I will not settle for satisfaction. I will strive to be happy. And it's true that this means a few inconveniences, annoyances, and frustrations right now. I've been writing and rewriting the same paper for the last week and a half, and with its hyper-vague instructions, I could just as well have churned out a single draft of crap. But I'm doing it so that I'll get the good grade at semester's end. I've been exploring new communities and meeting new people, trying out new experiences, and visiting old friends when sometimes all I want to do is confine myself to the bubble of the same six or seven people who live within a three block radius of my apartment. But that's convenience, not taking action.

I guess what I'm saying is, I can find a penny any old day on the subway platform, in a gutter, left behind on the counter at Starbucks. I'm looking for something of greater value. If I've learned anything in the past three months, it's that the lowest common denominator comes too easily. It's anywhere you happen to look. Something that's worthwhile takes some work. Happiness takes work. Someone who is satisfied isn't necessarily happy, and heck, their satisfaction is often fleeting. Someone who is happy, I'd say is pretty darn satisfied.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Megillah Project: Finished!

It's finally finished! The Kohelet project is at long last done, and it feels like a milestone, another chapter finished. Literally, all that's left now of this semester of challenges is time. Three more weeks, and that's it!

Every word of Kohelet was hand-written into this 42-inch-long project, expressing my own past months of questions and searching and plain old not knowing. Now that it's finished, I feel like there's a sense of release, even though none of my questions were actually answered. But that's not to say that there hasn't been growth or progress.

This project was a reaction to the biggest disappointment I've ever suffered. It was a letdown that shook my faith in humanity and even in G-d, and facing it was the most challenging thing I've ever done. I'm not ashamed to admit this, because in stating it out loud, I've also acknowledged it, and faced it head-on. I never denied it was happening, or pushed it off to deal with later. I confronted it face-to-face, came to several decisions, and fought my way through on my own.

And here I am, still confused about a few things, but most definitely past any point where I'm afraid I won't be able to get through it. I did get through it, and I found a lot of new things and had a lot of new experiences along the way. Some were good, some were bad, some were frightening as all heck. But the point is, I had them, and I didn't have to compromise my principles, or change who I am. I'm still me, and I'm still here.

I fought my way through three months of uncertainty and fear, and now I have this project to show for it, one of the most labor-intensive paper-cuts I've ever made. I'm done now. And I never have to look back. And as soon as this semester's over, I can exhale and know that I did the very best I could with the tools I had. Maybe it's a little egotistical, but I'm proud of me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Summer in San Francisco: The Kickoff and Conclusion

Today is a very big day for me, in both the real-world and cosmic sense.

Today is the day Studio G-dcast releases my video.

In August, I spent two weeks in San Francisco, of which six very intense days were filled by Studio G-dcast, the Jewish-Educational fellowship I'd signed on for. For those of you unfamiliar with G-dcast, you can find all the info you need here, but in a nutshell, they're an awesome organization that creates animated short films based on Jewish topics for use in educational settings. Bible stories, holiday tales, etc.

This summer, they flew in twelve of us college-grad school-age artists, some writer-storytellers and the others animators, to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco to work long hours and intense sessions reading up on, writing, recording, animating, and directing our own three-four minute Jewish educational short films. Each group of one writer/one animator was assigned a famous story from the Talmud, a few awesome teachers/staff members to work with, supplies, and work space, and told to get to it.

My amazingly amazing animation partner, Adina and I were assigned one of the more difficult stories to work with. Depressing, not all that exciting in terms of action sequence or dialogue, and yet meaningful and thought-provoking. We were pretty much assigned with that most Jewish of all questions, why, G-d, why? Well, at long last, here it is, the fruit of our labor:

Adina and I wrote the script together, and decided we would animate it using the classic Jewish medium and favorite of mine, papercuts. So I got to work, sketching and cutting like some crazed human weed whacker,

Pic courtesy of the Covenant Foundation, Photo taken by Peter Marcus

And with every finished letter, puppet, or scenery piece, Adina had a new item to computer-animate. We chose voice actors and musicians and recorded with them in a professional studio. And after five utterly-exhausting days, we presented our work-in-progress to an audience of Museum donors and G-dcast supporters. It was brutal. (FYI that pic has been featured in articles and stuff! The top of my head is famous!)

By sheer coincidence, or maybe not, it was also the week my life changed from the distinct "last year" to the challenge of "this year." It was the informal kickoff to what would prove to be the most challenging three months of my life (so far. G-d, that's not a hint. Don't take it as one). I received the first of many emotional blows, the first of a few health scares, the first of too many moments of self-doubt. I left for San Francisco naively optimistic, secure, and sure. I returned stressed to my core, uncertain, and eight pounds lighter due to a stomach thing I'd picked up.

This weekend, with the much-anticipated, finally! release of the video we worked so hard on, I naturally started relating it to where I am now. In the past two days, one of my health scares at long last abated (Thank. You. G-d.), and on that front I can breathe easier. I also (finally) came to a few conclusions in the self-worth department. I regained a small sense of the security I thought lost forever back in August, even though it's in an entirely different form. I've gained back a few of the in-total fifteen pounds I dropped in that most unhealthy few months. I'm not the same person I was before San Francisco, though. I doubt I ever will be. And to me, my own process during this semester only makes the video I worked so hard on all the more poignant.

Just like Moshe Rabbeinu in the video, I've also found myself turning to G-d many times recently and asking, "Master of the Universe... such Torah/effort/time/energy/love/determination/prayer (take your pick)... and yet, such a reward?"Only to feel like I'm being met with an order to be silent, for this is what G-d has decided.

I don't know. To me it feels significant. I feel like, with the official release of this video, some part of the last three months has paid off, even if my own major effort with regard to this project was finished back in San Francisco (Thank you, Adina, for your much longer work time!). For some reason, I feel like this is a major hurdle cleared on my race for security, normalcy, and well, life. All I've got to do now is finish that Kohelet project, hand in my last papers, and finish the semester. Call me superstitious or stupid or unrealistically optimistic, but I can't help but feel, in the deepest depths of my gut, that once this semester's run its course, so will have my rough patch, and I'll be back on top, in my true fighting form.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Chasing Answers: A Prayer

Avinu She BaShamayim (Our Father in Heaven),
Some of us are sleeping in shelters tonight
Others in the comfort of our beds
Three families at least are in unbearable mourning
Countless more are in fear
We prayed for rain, Hashem,
We meant water
We prayed to be united,
We didn't mean under terror
Now, we pray for the hurt to stop for everyone involved
Now, again, we pray for a real, true peace.

Avinu, Malkenu,
I can't imagine what it's like
To live in fear for your life while sirens go off
While mortar and rockets and shells fall
And politicians and fighters promise doom and revenge
I'm absuredly lucky
I'm as blessed as they come
I'm safe and I'm healthy.
I'll try to understand
Try to put myself in their shoes
And pray, pray that they come out okay
Without scars, physical, emotional, or mental
Please watch over them/us/them, please stop this before it gets worse.

Malkenu, Chaneinu,
Help me
And those of us who are lucky
See beyond just the fact that we are lucky
Let us FEEL that we are,
Let us gain the strength and perspective to toss away those stupid hurts
That we just can't seem to shake,
The ones that keep us up at night for the wrong reasons.

Chaneinu, Ma'areinu,
Take them away.
Let us put them behind us, let them stop distracting us
From the fact that this is not real suffering.
Give us the perspective to stop hurting one another
Intentionally or unintentionally,
Give us the tools to think ahead, and make better decisions,
Give us the inability to sit thinking only of ourselves,
Make us demand to be heard,
Make us demand justice, and improvement, and peace, and truth in our words, and an end to pettiness.
Let us unite and see where there is real suffering
And let us end it.

Ki Ein Banu Ma'asim
God, we've done wrong to ourselves and each other
You alone have the power to give sight to the blind,
If there's to be injustice, let us be unable to take it,
Give us an allergy to others' pain.
And if you can't make empathy and action the rule,
Ease the suffering.
Heal the scars, restore the Faith we've lost in each other and the Universe, in You Who is Everywhere.
Because down here, there's nothing we can do,
Arguing doesn't help
Shouting falls on deaf ears
And crying doesn't sway anyone
And the pressure keeps building from stomach to chest to throat to head
We expel what we've swallowed
We dull our pain with whatever's there.
Give us a cure, not a placebo.
Or give us something we CAN do.

Asei imanu tzedakah v'chessed, v'hoshienu.
Give us your charity and kindness, and save us
From ourselves.
I've had enough.
We've had enough.
Haven't You?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Our November Feature Film

Yesterday, I was sitting at work near Battery Park. Due to Sandy's path of rampage, the work day ended at 3 PM, which I couldn't have been more thrilled about since I had a twenty-block walk to my best (working) subway option and may have witnessed a case of assault over the last spot in the overcrowded train car that morning.

Also, the phone and heat weren't working. It's a bizarre sight, seeing the office function on half-attendance, its worker bees running to and fro in gloves and scarves (myself included). And suddenly my coworker and I looked at each other and agreed: October just flew the heck by, didn't it?

September, I think, was one of the longest months of my life, and I don't have the energy to go into why that is. The beginning of October, still in the chug of Chagim, plus nursing a cold that lasted way too long, seemed to grind to a near-halt. And then I got over my cold, handed in my first paper, visited an old friend for Shabbat, and blinked.

Now it's November.

The semester from another planet(!) is more than half over. This week, I handed in my second term paper, and I'm about to start a third. I feel like the tense few seconds after an intense action sequence in a movie, when the protagonist has lost the bad guy tailing him, and emerges from the vehicle to look around and make sure the danger has truly gone.

So cautious. But when I look around, the cop car or assassin's truck or whatever's been chasing the action hero isn't in my line of sight. I wonder for a minute if it's just waiting for the audience to exhale before it jumps onscreen again, but for the moment, it looks like I've got a second to breathe before getting back in the car and rushing to rescue the hostage or deliver the priceless artifact or pick your movie cliche.

Life's a little like the movies that way.

It's the age old question. Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? Wonderfully horrible pun courtesy of Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis:

I couldn't resist. But anyhow...

Do we place such importance on certain life events, behaviors, pleasures, and wishes because we're wired to do it, or do we do the action because that's what we see in the media? Do we hold back what we're thinking because we're told that talking and revealing too much is a sign of weakness? After all, the hero of the story doesn't cry when he's hurt. He rips open his own shoulder and claws the bullet out with his bare fingers. Um, right. When I think of real life injury, I think of when I had to remove a splinter from my (male) friend's finger, only to have him whine and gasp that I was killing him slowly.

Do girls aspire to be thin, pretty, and fashionable because that's what's attractive, or because the girls on TV who are like that get all the guys?

And most of all, are we photoshopping ourselves like they do in magazines? Airbrushing the truth like celebrities on the red carpet? Is the real us too raw, too scary, to get ratings and put butts in the seats? Increasingly, there's an emphasis on TV shows, movies, and books that are successful because they're "real." But those aren't the ones we watch when we want to feel good. Those are the ones we relate to and draw parallels between ourselves and the characters. Often we decide they're too depressing. We're all suckers for a happy ending.

This friend and I were watching 'Moulin Rouge' last week. I had seen the movie loads of times, but it was her first viewing. We're both art majors, so we were fixated on the gorgeous visuals and cinematography (as dizzying and rushed as they are at times). And then, about halfway through the movie (spoilers!) she turned to me and said "Oh no! This is going to end sadly, isn't it?"

I pointed out that they reveal the end of the movie literally within the first ten lines of the opening scene.

Later, we were discussing the movie with another friend. "I always stop the movie halfway through," she said, "I don't like the ending." It's kind of interesting, since one of the plot points of the movie is a heated argument over how a play they're performing should end. The playwright's happy ending is the financier's tragedy, and vice versa.

And so today I'm wondering, are we in our situations for the sake of a happy ending? I'm not talking about living in the moment versus living for the future. I'm talking about when things get tough. When we work on a project and realize it's not going to turn out the way we wanted: do we scrap the project, or, as Tim Gunn always says, do we "make it work?"

For my part, I'm going to keep trying to make this semester work.

And now I'm going to stop typing, because my fingers are freezing and it's time to put gloves back on.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Megillah Project Continued

The paper-cutting phase of the project is done. There are a few little patches of color in the black, white, and gray, and now I've gone on to the text. The labor-intensive, super annoying portion of hand-writing every word of the book of Kohelet into this thing.

In pen.

I know it's been a bit longer than usual between updates, and that's for a very simple reason: for a while, I stopped working on it.

No, I didn't quit. But as I explained before, my inspiration for starting this project with Kohelet, and at this particular moment of time was, well, that I was having a hard time dealing. Going through some stupid crap, for lack of a more eloquent term. So every time I was having a moment of panic, sadness, anger or life-questioning, I would deal with it by sitting down and working on this project.

Thankfully, thank you G-d, those moments have of late been fewer and farther between. There's been some great new developments in my life, a couple of steps forward, more happy experiences that have made me think a lot less of those big scary monsters in life.

But in my determination to finish the project, I attempted to just do it. AKA, to work on it without life-questions, and I found that it either made me think of the things that were giving me a hard time in the first place (as counterproductive as you can get), or I'd slack off after ten minutes. The idea of falling back into moments of sad panic was so frightening that I stopped working on it at all. I didn't (and don't) want to feel like that any longer.

Then, on a good day, during an afternoon I was spending in lively computer conversation, I looked at that big, half-finished piece of work and thought, it's a process. I'm not going to put off the process. This piece, this work, represents a lot more than questioning and frustration to me. It's my process of working through a challenging time. And part of working though anything involves the good days, not only the bad. So I sat down to write, but kept the conversation going at the same time. And in a few hours of laughing and chatting, I had finished three chapters of Kohelet. That's a quarter of the way through the book. And when I stopped for the day, it wasn't because I was frustrated, it was because it was late at night and my back and head hurt from the hours of sitting there bent over a desk.

That's my favorite reason to stop working. Because you feel like you've done all you can for the day. It feels wonderfully productive.

So here's where the project is now:

I'm looking at a new challenge with it, namely the concern of whether I'll even be able to fit the whole text into the space allotted without making it "too busy," but I'll figure that out along the way (suggestions are welcome).

I'm looking forward to getting it done. Like my hard semester, I see an end date for this work, and I can't wait to reach it, and look at how far I've come since my first awful week of grad school.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Cow Creamer Philosophy

There's a short-lived TV show on DVD, by the same guy who made "Pushing Daisies," called "Wonderfalls." I think that when it aired back in 2004, it only lasted four episodes. Needless to say, it's kind of brilliant.

The essential plot of this show is that Jaye Tyler, a 24-year-old retail employee, starts hearing inanimate objects talk to her. They give her vague instructions like "Pick up that quarter," or "Make me a match," and each time she (reluctantly) listens, it sets off a chain of events that ends up helping someone in need. But why do I bring this up?

Jaye's brother Aaron (played by the awesome and crushworthy Lee Pace) is a theologian with several degrees in various religious studies, pursuing a PhD in comparative religion. He's a philosophical genius and hardcore atheist, never confused by any existential problem. Until he realizes his sister has received instructions from a porcelain cow creamer. And, well, watch the video:

I've always found Aaron's existential crisis scenes kind of hilarious, especially when he declares "meaninglessness in a universe with meaning...what does it mean?"When I rewatched the episode today, though, I found it less funny and more relatable.

I'm used to constantly questioning. I think that's a little of what life is about, the never ending search for meaning. I know what it's like to have a serious philosophical quandary and have someone laugh and respond with, "Are you high?"

Is it that weird to want to know what something means?

So one of the reasons I started rewatching Wonderfalls this week is because it's light and funny. But I also chose this specifically because it's about someone I find myself relating to.

Jaye Tyler is a graduate of Brown University, a writer, a philosopher. She's also a massive underachiever and misanthrope. She's lazy, sarcastic, and runs from every challenge, much more the type to stick her fingers in her ears and yell "lalalalalalalalalalala" than to hear a lecture.

Now, I don't really relate to any of these things. The thing I find familiar is that she's post-college, the youngest of three kids, living on her own but still very attached to her family, and very, very confused about what life's going to bring.

This week, I turned 24. For some reason, I've always placed an odd significance on this age. I remember being a little kid and telling my mom that 24 is the perfect year to be a grown-up. You know, get a job, get married, live in a house with a slide instead of a staircase because duh. 

But now, I'm 24. And I don't feel any closer to achieving anything than when I first got my acceptance letter to grad school. I know what I want out of life, which I guess is a pretty big thing. I know what I'm studying to become. I'm also living my life according to a philosophy/religion I find true meaning in. But I've also been having an uncommonly tough time with it this semester. And when I watched the scene with Aaron and the cow creamer, I think I figured out why.

Because I believe that life has meaning. I believe the meaning's out there, I just haven't found it yet, and I'm comfortable with the idea that I may never find it, that it might not be meant for human beings to understand. But that also leads me to believe that MY life has meaning, and that's something I probably AM meant to figure out and understand for myself. And that's where we hit a hitch.

I know what I WANT my life to mean. I know what my skills are, and I'm trying my best to utilize them in order to achieve that meaning. But then again, I'm also a confused post-college intern who can't seem to find what she's looking for. Instead, I've been finding out a lot of things about human behavior that I never wanted to know.

I feel like I've figured out what's wrong, made the doctor's appointment, and now I'm just in the waiting room, looking at my watch and wondering when I'll receive treatment. I feel like anything I get now is just a magazine or a text message to pass the time.

I'm 24 years old, and I've just left some things I really liked having behind and turned to a new, very scary world I'm not sure I like at all. But I can't stick my fingers in my ears and yell "lalalalalalalala." I see people everywhere doing just that. I want to hear the advice. I want to hear the cow creamer tell me what I should do, just to get going to where I know I want to be.


I hope everyone's ok.

I hope you're all safe and dry.

I wish I was helping more. There's not much I feel I can add or say, that others haven't put much better, before. I feel like there's not much left I can say. I wish I wasn't starting every sentence with "I."

The donations have been dropped off. Water has started to recede. There have been fires and floods. Thank G-d, I've seen none of it.

We're so damn lucky.

Sending my thoughts and prayers to those who weren't so much.

Please do your best, be your best. I'll try to be mine.

There's got to be more than this. There's got to be more than just an unfortunate storm.

Let it matter. Let something matter.

Hurricanes. Cleanup. Let's go.