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Friday, March 09, 2007

ונהפוך הוא

*(The title, a famous phrase from the megillah, is pronounced "V'nahafokh Hu", which roughly means "It was reversed.")


I knew I was ready to go. I'd been practicing very seriously (by my standards, anyway) for the better part of a week. I'd been working on the trup*-------
(the tune of each sentence based on its structure)
and the little musical gimmicks and the voices and there were little problems here and there (such as not knowing how to properly voice Mordokhai) but it would all work out. My work was almost finished, and already I was satisfied. (Maybe the Real World isn't so bad after all!)

But why did there need to be a Shabbat in between now and Purim? As I put it when talking to my mother, there's nothing like a Shabbat for magnifying problems. I was only minimally nervous right now, but if I had to go through a typical Shabbat that feeling could multiply a hundred times. I'd be reduced to a caricature of a nervous wreck.

Never mind that, she said- are you going to wear a costume? I wasn't planning on it, I said. My excuse went thusly: Everyone else would be wearing a costume to show it's "v'nahafokh hu" from the norm. So by not wearing a costume, I was doing the reverse of everyone else, or in other words the "v'nahafokh hu" of the "v'nahafokh hu"! All I wanted was a paper-thin excuse, so I didn't worry too much that the negative of a negative isn't really a negative.

I went back over the megillah, this time reading it from start to finish. There were a few little mistakes, but nothing anyone would ever notice. (Such as frequently mixing up the t'lishah g'dolahs and t'lishah k'tanahs, which was ironic since I'm the only person I know who actually differentiates between the two at all.) I saw it was good, and I was eager for the reading to come.

Then my father wanted to listen to my reading, to make sure there were no mistakes. Fine by me. I said I'd just do the trup, nothing fancy- no voices, none of my added tunes, none of the attention to dynamics and tempo. Just to see if there were mistakes. (The rest I wanted to keep as a surprise.)

And only a few p'sukim in, he was already pointing out a mistake. I was mispronouncing a word -mispronouncing a lot of words, as it would turn out- and I'd been practicing it that way for a week. The numerous mistakes my father pointed out, over the course of the megillah, were mostly mistakes that I never would have noticed on my own, because they didn't prevent me from continuing. Mistakes like mispronunciation, doing one kind of trup which seemed to make perfect sense when it was wrong nonetheless, switching to the alternate Eikhah trup at specific points where there was no reason to, and other things like that that I would never have known by myself.

And immediately all I could see was the obstacles in my way.

How could I unlearn what I'd practiced so much?
How could I pay attention during the reading to the potential mistakes coming up, while also paying attention to the appropriate dramatization?
How could I perfect it in only one day?
Why couldn't my father have told me all this a week earlier, when I had a chance to get it right?
I still wasn't satisfied with the Mordokhai voice, was I?
How could I perfect it all
How could I perfect it in only one day?
I still didn't have those t'lishas straight, did I?
What if I wasn't ready by the start of Purim?
What if I messed up?
What if I was corrected every few lines in shul, like my father was doing at home, and I got too frustrated to continue?
Then wouldn't I have even more mistakes?
And then I'd be so busy trying to deal with those mistakes that I wouldn't be able to think about reading it properly
And it would be a disaster, wouldn't it?

Peace of mind is a fragile thing.

It was for the best. I was taking the work for granted by that point; I'd come to believe that passing the trial was all but guaranteed. There are no guarantees, and a person who thinks there are is bound to fail in the end. So I took it more seriously. I sat down with the book and studied. And this wasn't the almost-fun studying of the past few days, when I knew I was on the right path and that if I just kept walking the way I was walking I'd pass cheerfully through the goal without breaking a sweat. No, this was the miserable kind of studying, where one side of my brain said that it was necessary and the other side said it wasn't a comfortable road to be walking on. The kind where I had to force myself to sit down and get it done. I'm not very familiar with that kind of challenge. It was for the best, I think.

By the end of the night, I was tired. But I read it for my father again, this time paying more attention to the myriad ways I could fail, and this time missing most of them. I wasn't ready. But then, who is? Only people who aren't trying. My feelings about the coming day now more grounded in Reality, I went to sleep.


The day began when I woke up from a dream. A nightmare, really. Usually my dreams are very straightforward, giving me exactly what I need to have- either positive or negative. For instance, a positive dream would almost always revolve around a videogame, while a negative one might (just as an example) revolve around losing something important, like (again, this is just a random example) one of my videogame systems. My dreams tend to be not much more abstract than this blog, and in exactly the same ways. (This is -in truth!- how I think normally.)

Following the style of straightforwardness, Shabbats usually start with title="Day of Wrest">nightmares of losing games, computers, music and other everyday activities. This Shabbat too, as I said, began with a nightmare, but this was right before Purim and the meaning was reversed.

I was back in the old elementary school/hell on earth named Orot. Not that I was back there for good- I was just visiting, reminding myself what my life was like once. The rooms were mostly empty, but there were bullies infesting the halls who were bored and would like nothing more than to beat up someone like me. I ran from them into a classroom with a piano in it, so I could remind myself of some more.

I took a piece of sheet music out, of a complete piece I'd written out back then. Before I could start playing, I noticed that there was someone else in the room, leaving from a class. It was a young girl- a bald girl.
"You must get picked on a lot.", I said. Here was someone going through what I did, once.
"I despise this place, and I always will.", we recited together. And she left the room.

So I got to my playing. It was a good piece, I reminded myself as I started. But the room was empty. This too was familiar.

I left the room, and wandered through the hallways -sneaking past some vicious little kids- lost in my own thoughts. Thoughts like, "This is so perfect for my blog- I just put a post on my blog called "Back in School" which was dealing with this metaphorically, and now I'm back in the school literally! What lovely duality!". I like duality.

And so caught up I was in the wording of the potential post, that I was caught off guard when an old teacher of mine (who was my mekhanekh in sixth grade, if I'm not mistaken) showed up and grabbed the notes. And certain that there was a mistake there, he took out a red pen and starting scribbling over what I'd written. He kept scribbling, writing in different notes in place of the originals, until the original tune couldn't be made out at all. And during the whole thing I tried desperately to protest, but I could not. I remembered that this particular teacher (as I put it back when I was stuck with him for a year) had a switch in his brain between "input" and "output". When he was talking or writing, he couldn't hear or see. When he was listening or looking, he couldn't talk or even think. So it was hopeless to try to reason with him. Instead, I tried to grab it back by force, but I couldn't reach it and he just kept scribbling and scribbling...

And then I woke up. For a few seconds, I was just puzzled that I'd think about such ancient history at all, when it had been out of my mind for years. And after a few details of Reality came back to me*-------
  • I never wrote down any music that far back, and the sheet music I'd been holding and trying to play was the famous Canon in D.
  • I'd never written any blog post at all similar to the one I was thinking of.
  • The girl was not based on anyone specific I'd ever met.
  • There were no pianos in the classrooms, and the layout of the building in the dream was entirely fictional.
, I woke up enough to understand what I was doing.

This dream was exactly what I needed. I'd been looking only at the immediate present. In the back of my mind, I was still framing the event as a question between being happy in the present, or being miserable in the present. I needed to see the long and twisty road that I've passed, to better understand what I was choosing to do: Though I once was a good kid living a miserable life, I could become a miserable adult living a good life. I needed to internalize that everything had been reversed. That the restrictions of the past no longer applied. That the future was wide open, depending only on how I chose to write the piece. It was exactly what I needed, as I chose to move forward, to take one final look back at where this whole portion of my journey began.

I sat in bed letting all this sink in, and wondered whether I should go back to sleep given how early it still was. But I was too excited to go back to sleep. So I got up. And as I washed my hands, I looked at my messy face in the mirror, and said to him with a grin: "This is going to be a good day."

It started (after the obligatory hopping around downstairs waiting) with shul- more specifically, waiting in shul for the Torah reading to come up, because everything before that would be (and was) boring. Waiting seems to be the Real World's most dominant design element, doesn't it? But I did my best to ignore it and keep up my enthusiasm.

Finally, the time came for me to read the Torah. And I did a mighty fine job of it, if I do say so myself. I didn't actually get to finish the job, since Roby wanted to do the last two aliyot and Zachor (the maftir). Such is life, and I wasn't going to complain considering I'd gotten to do the first five. In the end, I actually did get to do Zachor, after the davening for people who'd missed it the first time around. That was nice.

Then we went home, and the countdown began.

Over the course of the day, I went several times to the amphitheater/field so that I'd have a place to practice all the voices without any other people nearby who might hear. (By this point I knew more than enough of the megillah by heart to read lines in character without having a book in front of me.)

I especially focused on the character of Mordokhai, because I didn't have a clear idea in my head of who he was. The Persians around him surely saw him as an outsider, an odd old man who inexplicably sat around by the gates every day and didn't do what was socially expected of him. That he got up to the top by the end was a "v'nahafokh hu" of miraculous proportions, and the congregation/audience I'm reading to should surely get a sense of how much of an outsider he was to begin with for that to pay off properly in the end.

But then, he was a wise man who'd been a very important person back in Jerusalem. He was wise enough to know exactly what to do when the going got tough. And he only started coming to the gates (by a literal reading of the text) when his niece Ester was brought to the palace, showing what a strong loyalty he had to family- a quality anyone could admire. And he must have had complete self-confidence to go against the king's command in public. How could I fit these respectable qualities in with my artistic inclination to make him hard to like?

But then, in the entire megillah he only has a voice in three p'sukim- his introduction and two lines of dialogue. This is a character who is almost never heard. So would anyone even notice what he sounds like? But I couldn't think like that!- Mordokhai is the hero of the story, whether he's heard or not. He needs a suitable voice.

Those three p'sukim were the hardest three p'sukim to decide on. I completely changed the voice I was using no less than four times that day. By the end, I didn't know who Mordokhai was anymore, but I'd come to accept that. All that was really needed was for him to stand out from the other characters. If I got another comment this year, as in years past, that Mordokhai sounded too much like the evil Haman, then there was something seriously wrong with my performance. So I finally managed to produce a voice which sounded different enough from the other characters, though I had no guarantees that I could reproduce said voice, seeing as how it was not a memorable and/or particularly fitting one.

The day was not enjoyable, but it had a purpose- something which I could appreciate as well.

Shabbat ended, which for once didn't seem particularly strange. I quickly got ready to leave, though as my father pointed out: "You know,.. You know, we don't really need to rush to get there. It's not like they'll start without us!" Nonetheless, we left and got there as the people were just starting to show up. It was a lot of people, but I didn't want for it to seem like a lot of people, because certain people who I would have wanted to be there were missing while many others I didn't even recognize were there. (The situation seemed familiar somehow.. Ah yes, the empty room with the concert.)

This reading would be almost entirely within my comfort zone. Using not only voices for characters, but musical changes for different functions in the story; using a subtle reference no one would notice from one part of the story to another; subverting the standard tunes into something more complex they were not meant as;- What does this remind me of? Why, it's just a blog post, in megillah form! Mixed with constant progression, like a piano piece, though with a touch more improvisation than usual -which is fine since I'm comfortable with improvisation.

None of this was going through my head as I stood there. In fact, my thoughts were more along the lines of:


Yeah, I know, not particularly deep. I let it out on ridiculously (and knowingly so) phony shivers as the crowd (I mean- small bunch of people!) continued to pour in. It wasn't the people that scared me, really- I've done concerts before. No, it was how much weight I myself had put onto this event. This wasn't just a megillah reading- it was the megillah reading!

I started with a very shaky voice, practically screaming the words out of fear. At least everyone heard me!

But then I got more comfortable with it, and calmed down. And I just read through it, and had fun with it. And it was fun.

And so it came to be that it was reversed; that I, Mordechai Ariel, with my messy hair and lack of socially ordained costume, stood in the middle of the congregation -in which I am an outsider- for this event. And from having little to no contact with other members of the congregation, I went to actively showing off in my own self-indulgent way and being not only tolerated, but respected for it.

Was it free of mistakes? No. There was one part where my father claimed I'd skipped a word-- after I'd already passed a few lines. So I needed to quickly redo that section, which was awkward. And I completely messed up the brakhah at the end, due to a series of circumstances which I'd also like to blame on my father, out of convenience, though it wasn't really in any way his fault. And then there were assorted mistakes in the trup throughout, which (sadly) I can't think of a way to blame on my father.

But overall, it was a success.

Oh, and Mordokhai? I wasn't really thinking about it too much. I just improvised Mordokhai, with a random assortment of voice ideas I'd tried (and failed) to use while practicing, and it worked. It wasn't exactly a masterpiece of voice acting, and I doubt it made much of an impression, but I got no complaints and/or comments that it sounded like the other voices, and that's worth something. After doing it, I couldn't remember what I'd done exactly, so next year (since I would like to make this an annual project from now on) I'll have to struggle with him again.

Different people said they especially liked different voices, which made me very proud. If everyone had leaned toward one voice, I might have thought the rest were failures, but when each person is most entertained by a different voice, then they must all be successes in their own rights. It made me very proud indeed.


I'd just decided to be an adult of some sort, and already I had to make a compromise. Let it never be said that God lacks a sense of humor, twisted though it may be. It had been brought to my attention shortly after my reading that out of our entire congregation, increasing in size with each year, there were only two people who were willing and able to read the megillah. That was me and Jay. (I wonder what would have happened had this been an "off" year for me. But I suppose it all does fit together.) So either I reread the megillah in the morning, or I'd be forcing Jay to read it three times for the shul, one of them right after another. (We have two readings at night and two in the morning.) I wouldn't do that.

So I agreed to do it again on Sunday morning, provided I wasn't going to be doing voices again. I wasn't going to do the whole performance again that year. Once is light entertainment, twice is a chore to sit through. If someone missed it, they should have to wait 'til next year. Besides, wouldn't everyone prefer in the morning (considering they'd already heard the megillah once) for it to be as quick as possible so as to let them get on with their day? So I was willing to reread, but not happy, because if someone had missed that earlier reading they'd think this was all I was capable of. Anyway, this all meant I had to go to sleep early in order to be wide awake for it.

In the morning, I read through very straightforwardly and (this is crucial) quickly. There was no pressure, no effort, no reward. I got the brakhot right this time, so that's something. But I didn't play any of my little tricks, or voices, or even pay any attention to tempo farther than "Let's get through this as quickly as possible without making the words unclear.". It was barely harder than the Torah reading.

It disheartened me to see that some people who I would have wanted to hear the proper reading were present this morning but not in the night. I needed to explain to them (perhaps a bit strongly) that this was only the barest outline of what I'd done yesterday; that this was just a reading while yesterday was a performance. Hopefully they'll show up next year. The Real World has a lot of waiting.

I spent the next hours upstairs in our house, playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess while my parents' friends came to the door with mishlo'akh manot. Not because they had anything good to give, but just because it was part of the day's obligations to give them.

There was one point in the game where I was stuck, where I reached a maze of sorts and it wasn't clear to me where I should go next. But I kept going anyway, and found my way eventually. Because it's a well-designed game. I pressed forward all the way to the very satisfying conclusion of the entire game, and beat it. It was quite rewarding.

Meanwhile, back in the Real World, the reversal reversed and everything was back as it was before. And maybe that's not really a reversal. We went for the Purim meal to see old friends of my parents', where I sat with the adults because I'm technically "old enough to drink". So I sat there, as they traded gossip, and endless anecdotes from their jobs, and comments on politics, and all sorts of other adult topics which couldn't have interested me less. I left early and walked home.

It was later pointed out that I'd missed the lunar eclipse. I normally would have been awake to see it, since my regular day ends at 2:00 AM, but because I was thinking only about practical decisions and not such indulgences, I'd forgotten all about. Even if I had remembered, I couldn't have had it both ways. It's so elegant how it all fits together, isn't it? It was all so clear in retrospect. There was a pretty picture, painted prominently on the sky itself! And because I chose to be an adult, who would not care about such things,.. Because I chose a life of misery over a life of happiness,.. I didn't get to appreciate it. I didn't even get to see it! I didn't even get to acknowledge the existence of a beautiful image, except in a sense of "Look what I lost."! I brought this upon myself. And maybe it's not just a sense of humor God has, so much as a lack of human restraint in giving us what we deserve.

Already by the end of the day, I was feeling the first traces of a profound and overly familiar sadness. Why did the satisfaction of a success fade so quickly? Was this all I'd ever get from the Real World? And should I see the trial as continuing, or did I misunderstand the trial in the first place?! Why is it that at every landmark I make for myself, I am rewarded with confusion?

Here's where I stand. In agreeing to become an adult, I proved myself a traitor to childkind- or maybe just a natural ex-member. On the other hand, it seems that a lack of direction and constant confusion are parts of the package deal that is adulthood. And I refuse to accept a life so poorly designed!

So I guess I'm just Mory, no particular age group, and I'll improvise the rest as I get to it.



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