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Tuesday, December 08, 2009


After December 08, 2009


The story of Illinois is written in nine parts, covering the time period between November 23 and December 07.

Many Excuses

I want to get new inspiration for my games.
I need to get away from all my usual distractions and habits.
This will be just like old times.
I planned this a long time ago,
and it seemed to make sense at the time.
I don't know why I'm going, but it feels right.
I need to stop planning everything out, and just live for a little bit.
I ought to get Variations On V.O.V. finished already.
I haven't seen my grandparents in a while.
It'll be nice to be in a country where everyone speaks English.
The weather's too hot here.
I'd like a real winter, with rain and snow.
In America, I'll be able to buy new games.
This is just a crazy random occurrence,
for which I have neither explanation nor enthusiasm.

I didn't want to miss what might be my last chance to spend some time in my grandparents' house. The truth is, it was always about the house.

"Don't Miss" tour uninterrupted

The driveway is a circle going around a tree, and the house next to it is roughly a right angle. The side door is to the north, and straight ahead to the east is the main entrance. Now, truthfully it's usually the side door we use, which leads to the laundry room and the kitchen and a guest room where my parents always stayed on our visits, none of those small rooms being much to look at. But the main entrance is a different matter.

The two large doors open to a narrow hallway, one stair down and to the east of which is the living room, a big square room with much furniture (including an elegant wood-and-glass coffee table) which despite the name doesn't look lived in at all. At the end of the living room (still east) is a window the length of the room (though in several panes), from which you can see down and to the east into the patio. Down and to the east of that is the rest of the backyard, where squirrels try to steal food from birds on the many trees and deer pass by every morning wearing tracking collars. At the edge of the backyard (still east) is a sudden cliff. Down that cliff and to the east is Lake Michigan, which goes on and on as far as the eye can see. That's what you'd see straight in front of you, upon entering my grandparents' house.

(I am writing these words into a small notepad with a pen, both of which I brought with me from Israel. I'm hunched over the side of the coffee table, my head a few inches from the paper and my right leg under the table. The lake is a beautiful shade of teal today, and there are just a few leaves still on the trees.)

The location of the house, I've realized, accounts for more of the appeal than I'd realized. Almost all the windows face east, where no matter how hard you look you won't see a hint of civilization. It's like this is the only house in the world.

Most of the rooms are modestly sized, at least by the extravagant standards of America. There are narrow hallways and staircases, a smallish kitchen and dining room, and one tiny bathroom where all the walls are mirrors. It's not like those houses where it takes longer to get from one room to the next than it ought to, just because the owners like seeing lots of empty space. But there is a big exception to this rule, and that's the basement. The basement is downright enormous.

There's a pool table there, which was regularly in use when my cousins and their cousins were over for Shabbat. (I've improved tremendously, though perhaps that's not saying much.) And that's just a little corner of the room. There are three brown poles holding up the ceiling, of the sort that just beg you to run around them until you get dizzy. One of the poles is in a very inconvenient spot, where it prevents any pool shots of a particular angle. The room also has two ancient arcade machines that don't work anymore, and an ancient TV connected to a working Nintendo 64 which has only one game (Mario Kart 64). Random pieces of furniture are scattered through the room, some of which are meant to be there and the rest moved there from upstairs on the real estate agent's recommendation in order to make those rooms seem bigger. And by the north wall is the piano, which (I imagine) hasn't been touched since last I was here.

My grandparents were afraid they'd have to tune it, but to my ears it sounded great. It has a very timid sound to it, and the more bombastic things I play in the bass sound a bit false on it! On the other hand, all dissonance is unusually palatable on it, and the more new-age stuff sounds really cool and ethereal. The third piece I ever composed, I made specifically for this piano.

Right over the TV but one floor up is my room. I had my choice of room, and there are nicer ones, but there was never any question that I was sleeping there. The room actually has two beds, two desks, two closets, etc., but there's a divider that closes to split it into two separate rooms. Way back when we were little kids, Benjy would get the north side and I'd get the south side. Now the north side has a laptop computer in it, but that's not my side. Mine is the side with the 8-Track player. The drawers have photos my Uncle Perry took, developed downstairs in what used to be a dark room but is now a bathroom. The shelves I remember being filled with books, but now they're all empty. (The real estate agent's recommendation.) And as it turns out, by the wall there's a pad of the most perfectly-sized paper for what I've planned, which has just been sitting there unused for years.

The bedrooms are right to the south of the main entrance, but they're hidden from view behind a wall, which I think is pretty clever design. You only see the hallway by turning around the corner. If you go down that hallway in the other direction, it leads to the kitchen and the dining room and the den.

I'm not spending much time in the den this trip, because it's the room with the TV, but when everyone was over they were spending most of their time there for the same reason. (This actually worked out pretty nicely; I didn't particularly want to see them.) There's a fireplace there, which I might not have ever noticed before even though it's very prominent because I don't notice much of anything unless I'm looking. The wall the fireplace is on is covered in hand-cut stones, which does seem like the sort of thing that would go around a fireplace, no? My grandfather pointed out the quality of the "miter work" done there, and I don't even know what that means but apparently that was the first thing he noticed when he first saw the house back in the 1950s and it greatly impressed him. "That's fine craftsmanship!", he told me. "They don't make 'em like that anymore."

At the corner of the den is a door that leads out to the backyard. Right outside that is my grandfather's grill, which has enough of an awning over it that he wouldn't get wet in the rain, but it still gets awfully cold out there. The backyard technically goes all the way around to the front of the house on both sides, with a forest to the north too thick (and on terrain too uneven) to walk through. In the northeast corner of the yard is a path through the trees which is steep and narrow and goes on for longer than you'd think, passing a small stream to end up at the beach. The beach is usually boring, but that path is awesome. At every step I see how far it goes down to my left and my right, and it seems like there are lots of interesting spots to sit in down there, but of course it's much too dangerous to go to any of them because the ground is slippery and it's all really high up. So I look, and try to picture what the area would look like from there.

I was waiting for more than a week for snow. The forecasters said there'd be snow for Thanksgiving, but there wasn't. Each morning I looked out my window to the east and was disappointed anew. But then one morning I looked out and everything was white. I took a shower and had breakfast before going out, which was a mistake. By the time I got out there it was already drying up. I quickly but carefully went down the path to the lake, because I'd never seen a snow-covered beach before. And what a sight it was! The waves to the left, the snow to the right. The snow ended abruptly at the random curves where waves hit, so there was a clear division between sand and snow. And that went on ahead off into the distance, where there was smoke coming up from the ground for some reason I couldn't discern. Up above the sun just barely shone through the thick clouds. I stood there and looked for a while, trying to burn the image into my head.


One day I wandered through the den and found a largish group of my cousins and their cousins watching the Get Smart movie on TV. "Is it any good?" "No." was the unanimous response. "Then why are you watching it?" And my aunt responded: "Because it's on, and we're here."

On any other trip, that would be me. But not this time. I made a promise to myself before I came. I promised that I wasn't going to get pulled into the same patterns as before. No distractions this time. I have a big piece of paper, and I have a pencil. That ought to be enough to keep me busy for the short time I have here.

I know that if I were ever to turn on the TV, I wouldn't be turning it off. That would be my activity for the remainder of the day, regardless of what's actually on TV, just because it's easy and visually stimulating. I know this from previous experiences with TV, and I guess it's not too hard for me to deal with this problem because it's been three years since I've turned on a TV anyway. There's no real habit to break, I just need to prevent myself from building that habit to begin with.

So when my grandparents are watching TV, I go somewhere else. Usually downstairs, or to my room. The living room is a bit of a problem because it's right next to the den so I hear every word of whatever they're watching. (Angles and Circles I draw in the living room, but I've got a few other things to work on.)

Sometimes I slip. Once they were in the middle of watching Mythbusters, which is a show I like, and I said to myself "What's the harm in watching half an episode?" so I did. And sometimes it's late and I really should be getting to sleep, but my grandparents are watching the news so I stick around and watch. I don't even like watching the news. Lately all they've been talking about is two nobodys who went to a party. Seriously, this is the quality of American news. But it doesn't matter what's on. It's TV, it's there to be watched.

There was a Mythbusters marathon around Thanksgiving, which my cousins were watching. I stayed away from that altogether, because I can't make the excuse of "just one episode". And once they were watching The Office, and I've watched every episode of The Office but I resisted the urge to rewatch. And you have no idea how tempting it was to turn on the TV on Tuesday night to see the latest V, but if V then why not Fringe and Flashforward and The Simpsons and House and How I Met Your Mother... my life would suddenly revolve around TV schedules. I've come here for only two weeks. That's much less time than I thought I'd get. I can't waste it like that, as much as I'd like to.

So for the most part I've managed to avoid TV. If you added up all the TV I've watched here so far (including the news, and wandering through the room as someone else is watching), I'm sure it wouldn't exceed an hour. But like I said, watching TV on an actual TV isn't really a habit for me. I download all my shows. It's where I do have recent habits where I've got real problems, and it's so much more pleasant to focus on the TV, which I've been doing a good job with, than it is to focus on them.

When I left Israel, I promised myself that there would be no distractions. That means no TV, but it also means no comics, no web-browsing, and above all no piano improvisation. If I'm going to finish the sketch for Angles and Circles in two weeks, I can't afford to indulge in any of those. And I've slipped up plenty.

Not comics, thankfully. At home I'm always checking the scanners' forums waiting for the new comics to be scanned. But I haven't read any comic books here, because that requires specialized software. It would take me all of five minutes to install the program on the decade-old laptop in my room (or fifteen minutes, if it's being uncooperative), but I can't justify taking that first step. There's no possible use for the program other than reading comics.

There's certainly more to do with a computer, though, even one with Windows ME that keeps crashing for no apparent reason. So that I can't stay away from. The TV's in the den, and I can stay out of the room entirely. But I can't stay out of my own room, and the computer's much too useful to move away. One of my notepads is for the blog: in the front I write notes for the trip, and in the back I summarize every blog post I've ever written. That's something I've been meaning to do for months, and this is the perfect opportunity for it. This is actual work to do, and it requires me to be on the internet. And as long as I'm already in the browser I might as well check my mail, and as long as I'm doing all that why not also check if anyone's been reading my blog? And as long as I've already got three tabs open why not a fourth? And a fifth? And if there's a link on that fifth page, why not check it out and come right back? And if there turns out to be an interesting link on that page.…

Internet, sometimes I hate you.

So I haven't read any comics, but I've spent plenty of time reading about comics. Just review upon review upon review of comics that I won't get to read until I'm back. I don't know why I find reviews so entertaining. And I haven't played any games, but I've read plenty of blogs about games. And I've read Twitter pages and entertainment news sites. And this is after all the restrictions I placed on myself: no forums, none of the blogs I read regularly, no writing on my blog, no comic piracy sites. But when I come up with a perfectly valid excuse like "I haven't checked my mail in a few hours, maybe someone wrote me.", it's hard to see that there's a problem until it's hours later and I've gotten nothing done.

But that's not nearly as bad as music. I have a real problem with music. A week before I came, it occurred to me that if I want to be a gamist I'll have to be a musician less, and that this could be a good opportunity to try that. All I needed to do was promise myself to never touch a piano for two weeks. I can do that, can't I? I wrote up a letter to my grandfather, asking if he'd be offended if I didn't ever play on their piano. And then I erased what I'd written. If I don't let myself play piano, I can't get myself to finish Variations on V.O.V. while I'm there! And besides, other people like hearing my music. What would I do if they asked me to play, just say "Well, I've decided to abstain from playing piano, on the grounds that I'm too much a natural at it."? I would sound crazy and they might be disappointed. Actually, that's not proving to be much of an issue, since no one seems to care too much if I play or not. People say "That was really nice.", but only from listening upstairs. They never come down to hear me better.

But I'm not supposed to care if people don't hear my music, I'm supposed to be working on games. And because I decided a week before coming that I shouldn't prevent myself from playing, playing is almost all I do here. I pace around a few steps trying to figure out how to do something in Angles and Circles, then decide I don't know yet and run down to the piano so that I can play for a few hours. If I had promised myself not to play, I'd be a gamist now like I'm supposed to be. I'd already be done with Angles and Circles, I'd be halfway through the script for Next Door, I might have even come up with a bunch of new ideas, or started on the design document for Through the Wind. I'll never know, because by not restricting my music I guaranteed that music would come first and games second.

And now I'm seeing that that decision might have repercussions later. I hope this CD thing doesn't pull me too far off course.

Back to Nonazang

If you get so lost that you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and then go 13 miles past that, you will reach Nonazang. It's the most empty place imaginable, in which nothing ever happened and nothing ever will. Be sure to bring some paper with you.

On the first day I got here, I was messing around on the piano when my grandfather came in. I played some of my latest music for him, and he asked if I remembered what I'd played at my bar mitzvah. As an answer I halfheartedly played the theme from the very first piano piece I ever composed (which my piano teacher at the time named Celebration), but told him that I'd long since forgotten the majority of the piece because I was embarrassed by it. It was just a bad imitation of Bach, after all. He told me he had a videotape of my bar mitzvah. Would I like to see it? Heck yes.

The past shows how far you've come. You can look at it and laugh, and say "I was like that once?", and understand how much better you are now.

We hurried into my grandfather's study, a room that always smells of pipe tobacco no matter how long the window is left open. The desk in the corner surrounds a chair on three sides, one of those sides holding an old computer. Across from that is an antique chess board, which hasn't been played with in so long that the pieces have cobwebs between them. Between the door and the big bookshelf (filled mainly with political thrillers) is a massage chair; I've never really understood the appeal of those. And in the middle of the room, across from a couch, is a small TV and a radio which is usually on playing classical music. Under the VCR, my grandfather pulled open drawers filled with videos until we got to the very last drawer and found the one marked "Mory's Bar Mitzvah 2001".

It was a long recital. I'd only remembered playing my own piece, I didn't remember playing all the rest. It was all the pieces I'd learned in my piano lessons, apparently. And it wasn't what I expected. Sure, I had little control over dynamics. Sure, I sped up and slowed down at random points. Sure, at some points I got so stuck and confused that I needed to pause for ten seconds, go back and try again. But I knew what I was doing. It was clear to me, as it must have been clear to everyone in that room, that I did in fact understand what I was playing. It wasn't just notes, it was questions and answers and agreements and rebuttals and gentle happiness and bitter sadness and little me was swinging around with his whole body like he was just surrendering himself to the music and didn't notice or care how many people were watching. The kind of understanding I displayed in that video is the kind that you can't be taught, you just learn for yourself. And along with that, it was unbelievably amateurish. But somehow I didn't care. I've been taught quite a lot since then, but little me was my equal in all the ways that matter.

And then my own composition. It's a good piece.

I can certainly see why I stopped playing it. The left hand often just plays octaves, it repeats itself without changing anything, the structure is so disjointed it might as well be two separate pieces. But I'll be damned if I didn't find it fun to listen to. There's an energy there, an enthusiasm for doing something new and not having a rulebook in front of me but just feeling it out as I go. To call it a bad imitation of Bach would be grossly inaccurate, for many reasons. First off, it doesn't really follow classical music theory. Secondly, there's a point where it reaches a natural conclusion and then starts a totally different theme, in a style that's absolutely nothing like Bach. It sounds classical (rather than baroque), and then there's something that sounds like some sort of New Age chorus where it's just fun to play and who cares about subtlety. And then when I got tired of that second theme, I slowly switched back to the first one and gave that a second ending. It's nuts, sure. But it's unpredictable and fun. I was an idiot to forget it.

A few days later, I went to my grandfather's study again and put the tape back in. I ran back and forth between the study and the piano, and piece by piece I relearned my old composition.

It's a problematic piece from many angles. I saw that at once when I played through the whole thing. I don't know if I'd necessarily want to play it for anyone else. For a few seconds I considered rewriting it. But only for a few seconds. It is what it is and the lack of maturity is just a part of its quirky charm. And I don't need to play it for anyone other than myself.

I must have started that composition in sixth grade. That was a time where it felt like nothing had ever happened to me, and nothing ever would. So I needed to entertain myself, and that's how this whole composition habit started. It seems like a whole different world. Nowadays, I'm normally in the luxurious position of being able to get whatever kind of entertainment I want, whenever I want it. So there's no longer much need to entertain myself.

That's what this trip changes. Without my big sheet of paper, my life here would be pointless. So I need to find the point for myself.

Let me be clear: there is nothing on the paper except scribbles. There are angles, and there are circles, and that's about it. I think most people would not be impressed. But at the same time I have no doubt that if I were to show it to sixth-grade me, he'd approve. It would remind him of all the random lines he'd drawn on papers in school, to distract himself from the mind-numbing tedium. Except, those were small-scale. This here is the dream. A big world of static shapes in some sort of epic struggle. There's an uncertainty to drawing this game, but there's also a specific kind of joy I vaguely remember from way back. There's no rulebook for what I'm doing, just intuition.

So naturally it's imperfect. Some sections of the game world are going to be much bigger than others. Lots of ideas are getting repeated without adding much of a different spin each time. But I think that's going to be part of the quirky charm of it. Like it or not, this is a world which could only come out of this particular time and place. Because in this increasingly empty house, whose prime (I suspect) was decades ago, I'm tapping into a very specific energy. I look out the quiet living room through that window that says there's nothing else on Earth, and when I look back down at the paper I know exactly where to go next.

If you get so lost that you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and then go 13 miles past that, you will reach Nonazang. It's the most empty place imaginable, in which nothing ever happened and nothing ever will. Be sure to bring some paper with you. You may impress yourself.

IAM not

I have a first cousin twice removed who I call Uncle Pep. (We call him an "uncle" because he grew up like he was my grandfather's brother.) He's 83 years old, which is kind of hard to believe because he's always out doing things. He's the sort of person who can adapt to any situation and just run with it, and that's served him very well in his many fields of business. So he's accumulated a lot of money over the years, much of which he donated to Columbia College in Chicago. He's a member of the board there.

A few years ago he was in Israel as part of an effort to help the Bnei Menashe in India move to Israel. (It's a long story.) The head of Columbia College's film department, a guy named Bruis, came with him because he was filming a documentary about the work Uncle Pep was doing. I met him then, so I knew about Columbia College and that it had a videogame program.

When Uncle Pep asked if I'd like a tour of the place, I said yes. I didn't have any intention of learning there, but I was certainly curious to see it.

He drove me into Chicago on Sunday. He's blind in one eye, and the other is weak, but he's still capable of driving. (He said he watches the white lines on the ground.) As we drove in, he told me about the logical numbering of the streets relative to the center of town, and I said it seemed like making the order of things so rigid and precise would limit the place's character.

But I was wrong- Chicago has tons of character. Massive skyscrapers are all over the place, so that even though the roads are very large they feel a bit tiny by comparison. Lots of radically different kinds of architecture are standing next to each other, so that the overall impression is one of utter anarchy, but if you look at any particular building chances are you'll be very impressed. Uncle Pep pointed out all the points of interest as we passed them.

At the school, we first looked in at what the art students had on display. They'd put up an exhibit about religion, and it didn't surprise me to find that most of them were mocking religion rather than supporting it. (It's a cliché for college students to say that religion is a comfortable lie, but at least they were finding new and interesting ways to say it.) There was one piece I liked, with lots of little white sheep figures laid around on the floor and bombs dangling from strings.

Then we went to the film department, where whoever we came across immediately threw down whatever they were doing as soon as Uncle Pep entered the room. He was being treated like royalty, and it made me a bit uncomfortable. It turned out that there had been a misunderstanding, and they'd gotten a student ready to show me the film department, which I'm sure is very impressive but wasn't what I came for. So they called the game division, and they quickly got someone who knows the place well and would be willing to show me around.

They call it IAM, which is short for Interactive Arts and Media. I find that name so funny, because music is an "interactive art or medium" last time I checked and that's a whole different branch of the school. The game students could learn something from them, I'm sure. Well, it's unreasonable to expect everyone to be as radical as me.

The guy showing me around (I've forgotten what his name was.) described the format of the program. The game designers who plan out everything beforehand are kept separate from the game designers who prototype and figure it out as they go along. I told him that that's strange to me, because my first game was all planned out and my second I needed to figure out as I programmed. Different kinds of games need different kinds of design. But that's how it's divided.

They've got all sorts of state-of-the-art facilities, most of which didn't impress me. There's a recording booth for voice acting, there's a motion capture studio (which is shared with the film department), there's lots of rooms filled with huge screens and drawing tablets, etc. But there were two things that did impress me. First, they have a room where they make hardware. So if a design student wants a specialized controller, he can make it. And in that room is a 3D printer, which is just one of the tools they use for doing that. ("3D printer" as in it prints out 3D objects.)

The other thing that impressed me was in a smaller room: eye-tracking technology. You look at the screen, and it sees exactly what point on the screen you're looking at. Now, my first instinct is to use that to focus the camera, so that it's like you're looking through a window into another world. (I wonder if it's precise enough for that. It probably is.) But that's not what they're using it for at all. They're using it so that they can analyze the players of the game later and try to figure out what they were thinking. That's really clever; I would never have thought of using it like that. They're doing this for the American government, actually. Long story, but it's really cool.

After the whole tour of the facilities, and his description of how they work (which surprisingly made sense), he asked if I had any questions. I did, but I wasn't sure how to phrase it. I wanted to know how they can cram all of gamism into one curriculum. How to ask that.. I asked him if it's one teacher grading all the projects, whether it's a text adventure or a music game or an action game or an RPG. He said no, the music game would be graded by their sound guy (an accomplished composer, apparently), and the action game would be graded by someone with experience making action games, and they don't have anyone who does adventures but there's someone they're trying to hire. I asked him who grades the projects that are weird hybrids of lots of different kinds of games, and he said they're always looking for someone like that but a person who's an expert in everything doesn't exactly exist.

I walked away from that building impressed that they do, to some extent, know what they're doing. People will come out of this program and go straight into the game industry, and understand how to work in teams and how to do all sorts of technical work for games and maybe even how to design the kinds of games that they want to make. So this program is something to be respected.

We went back to the film building to say hi to Bruis, who hadn't been there earlier. We went into his office, and he and I chatted about games and where they're headed. He asked me what kinds of games I make, and I told him how the first one was just a character and the second was a strategy game and the third is a movement game and the fourth will be an exploration game and I want to just keep jumping from one art form to the next. And he seemed very interested, not just the kind of faux-interest that you do to be polite. He said that it sounded like I was thinking "as much about the experience as about the game". I still don't understand what he meant by that. But anyway, we talked about independent games and how with the rise of the internet those are becoming more realistic, if only as a second job after an ordinary one to pay the bills. I name-dropped a whole bunch of indie games like The Path and Small Worlds, and he said he'd heard of them though he'd never played them. I'm not entirely sure why he seemed to know so much about games. I guess it's because there's such a crossover between film and games at Columbia College.

Then he was talking with Uncle Pep about some new building they're building, and the financial aspect of that. And then I asked him my final question: "Considering that I'm kind of on the side of what the game industry is doing, would I get anything out of learning here?" He was surprised by the question and had to think about it - this really was just a friendly chat and not a sales pitch. He said to me that maybe I wouldn't get anything out of it, and he'd rather be honest than have someone come to the school and then realize they don't want to be there. He's a cool guy, that Bruis. When we got up to leave, he realized that we'd been talking for way too long and he was late for something or other.

Uncle Pep and I drove to his house, so that we could pick up Aunt Paula for dinner. Aunt Paula has Parkinson's - she used to be in the middle of writing a book, but now she just thinks she'll finish her book soon and can't really work on it. When I saw her she was shaking around a lot but was very coherent in conversation. As she was getting ready to go, I noticed the upright piano in the corner and asked if I could play.

I improvised for a while, and then Uncle Pep asked if I'd play something I'd actually composed, so I did. It's an awful piano, horribly out of tune, but I did what I could with it. Aunt Paula good-naturedly asked if I'd shown them how I play at Columbia College. Uncle Pep said that he'd like it if for his 84th birthday I'd record a CD for him. He said to me, I just need to find out where there's a good, professional recording studio in Israel, and how much it costs, and he'll send the money. I told him it sounded like I'd be getting the better end of that deal, but he laughed. He said to call the CD "Happy 84th Birthday, Uncle Pep".

I do have what to play for a CD.. first the innocent piece, then the one that keeps wandering, then the classical one, then the new one, then "Dots and Curves", then…

My American Brethren

It's a half-hour walk from the house to the Chabad orthodox shul. The first Shabbat here, I walked there with my uncle and his sons (who were here for Thanksgiving) and their uncle and his children (who were here to see their cousins, I think). I mostly stood apart from the others, because the sidewalks were too narrow for more than two people side-by-side, but I hovered near them in case there were ever an opening in the conversation. I especially tried to stay close to the girl, because she's been to our house in Israel so I thought this might be a girl who's more likely than most to talk to me in a simple conversation.

When we got to the shul, we were welcomed by the rabbi (who knew my father) and sat down in the back. (As it's an Orthodox shul, the women sit separately.) I noticed that there were very few young people in the room. That's not a good sign, though I shouldn't be judging- I never go to shul back at home myself. It's just not a good sign because it means this congregation is ultimately temporary. There were a few unfamiliar tunes in the prayers, but it was still quite a relief after the previous night. These here were my people. Not like those other ones.

After the Torah reading (for which I was called up), the rabbi gave a ten-minute speech which was entirely focused on one word: "akhai", "my brothers". This word was used by Ya'akov to address total strangers. The rabbi is a good speaker and by the end of it I was thinking: "You know, he's right. I've been treating people like they're alien to me, when these are my people. My family, even. I should be treating these people like siblings." And then I considered how I dealt with actual siblings like Miriam, and I no longer had a problem with considering myself separate from others.

As we walked back, I listened to what my female cousin-squared was saying, and I was ashamed for having been attracted to her. She accepted social norms so willingly! She was casually talking about how men and women are totally different from each other, and in the casual kind of tone that isn't looking for any argument. She was putting up arbitrary divisions between people, without even leaving room to consider how similar we all are. How can I talk to a person like that? We're barely the same species!

When I first heard that I'd be spending Thanksgiving with my cousins, it sounded like a good idea. I don't know why. I've never been close with my cousins. The only thing they seem to be particularly interested in is sports, in which I have no interest at all. Otherwise, all their conversations are of the fluffy sort that add nothing to a day but just fill the time. I sat at that dinner table, filled with foods which to me seemed wholly unappetizing, listening to them chatter endlessly about things I had nothing to say about. (Couldn't they talk about games, or something?) And when someone noticed that I'd been silent the entire time, she thought to start a conversation I could join in on. Awfully considerate. She asked, "How's Miriam doing?".

That's all anyone ever asks. "How's Miriam doing?". My sister has just joined the army, and everyone thinks that's oh-so-interesting. And since she's my sister, everyone expects that I'd find it interesting too. But she's not much of a sister. I've never succeeded (and not for lack of trying) in getting her interested in anything that interests me, so why should I be interested in her? We're related, but that's just a technicality.

So the truth is, my grandparents know more about Miriam's current activities than I do. They care to hear it. I don't. But it's always Miriam people ask about. They never want to know about the games I'm working on, or the music I compose, or even the play I'm playing two roles in. They just want the latest gossip about family. So on Thanksgiving, I quietly excused myself from the table and went down to the piano to play. That's true of every other meal involving large groups of people as well, though not the ones on Shabbat of course. Then I excused myself from the table and went back to reading the novel I'd bought (Peter and Max, by Bill Willingham). If only someone would ask me about that.

My uncle is an Orthodox rabbi. When he came back in the second week for the bar mitzvah, we had more time to talk. I like talking to him, because he lets me talk, but afterwards I always feel like I've been tricked because I realize that he's normal, didn't care at all about anything I said, and was only listening to humor me. At least, that's what I imagine. Who knows what goes on in a normal head. There's no reason to ask, because I couldn't trust the answer. He'd just say whatever's diplomatic.

On the first Friday night, we went to my grandparents' shul which is right next to the street they live on. It's a conservative shul so I knew there'd be mixed seating, but otherwise I expected an ordinary Friday night service. I like the changes conservative Judaism has made toward gender equality. That said, having both genders sit together is surely distracting. Not necessarily in a way I'd mind being distracted, but in a way I know I should mind being distracted in while I'm supposed to be thinking about God. But I was prepared for that. What we didn't know was that the cantor's daughter was having a bat mitzvah that week. That changed the nature of the service.

The layout of the room was a bit shocking to me. It wasn't a room where all the members of the congregation were equals before God, it was a room with a stage in the front that the audience was facing. The cantor and his daughter were facing the audience. This wasn't praying, it was a performance. And as a performance, of course there was a microphone. The rest, I think I might have been okay with. But they were using a microphone on Shabbat, with speakers dangling from the ceiling, and suddenly I just really wanted to get out of there and away from this Shabbat-breaking. I was ashamed to even be sitting in the same room. What made matters worse was that every word was so unbearably slow, like the congregation was struggling to get Hebrew words out of their mouths.

I let my uncle know that I was very uncomfortable to be there. He suggested that we should leave, but a few of us at a time. If we were all seen walking out at the same time, it would be more awkward. I thought that sounded a bit backwards, but any way of getting out of there was fine by me. We went home and prayed by ourselves.

It bothers me that all the doors of the house are connected by an electronic security system. It means any time you open a door, you're breaking Shabbat. But I guess in a luxurious house like this, you really do need it. I always waited for other people to open the doors, so that I wouldn't have to. On the second Shabbat, when it was just me, my uncle, and my grandparents in the house, my uncle decided it was too cold outside to walk to the Chabad shul so I opted to go by myself. I waited for my grandparents to leave the house for their shul (disabling the security system), and then I walked for a half hour to the shul.

The previous week the rabbi had called me up to the Torah; this week he asked if I'd read the haftarah. I said no, it's been a long time since I've done that trup.

It was a nice service. It went fast.

I stayed for lunch, because there wasn't any lunch waiting at home. There was some chicken, so I took it and sat down next to other people and hoped that someone would ask me who I was so that I could say that I live in Israel and I'm here for a house and I'm working on a game and I play piano and I'm starring in a play and I've got strange ideas about art but no one spoke to me. Well, okay. "No one" isn't accurate. The rabbi's wife came over to say that I should say "Hi." to my parents for her. Very important message.

Why can't people be more social? If someone I didn't recognize sat next to me, I'd.. um, I'd... Hrmph. Why can't people be more social, is all I'm asking.

When I went home, no one answered the door so I had to open it myself. Rats.

That night was the bar mitzvah celebration for second cousins of mine. Or "b'nai mitzvah", as they called it. They're twins, a boy and a girl. Reform.

I never thought it was a good idea to go. Warning bells started going off when I heard they wouldn't even have kosher food there, but were going to order some sort of kosher TV dinners specifically because we were coming. I mainly went because I felt like I needed to make it up to my grandfather. That was a huge mistake.

I walked in in my Shabbat clothes: plain white dress shirt, plain black pants. As soon as I saw the crowd, I knew I'd look like I'd come from a different planet. Which of course I had. It was a huge crowd, with lots of preteen girls in skimpy but expensive-looking outfits and boys in brightly colored suits. There wasn't another person in the entire room dressed in a simple white shirt like me. There was a big stage, more raised than in the conservative shul, and there was an upright piano accompanying everything. They'd started the mock-service before Shabbat ended, so my uncle and I got there late. When we came in, the cantor was singing some half-English half-Hebrew song which apparently everyone there but me was familiar with, because they were all clapping along though I'm sure they didn't understand the words. It was just a game of clapping along to the rhythm. They were all pretty good at it, like they'd had lots of practice. I was surprised that during such a meaningless series of kitschy songs, all those half-naked preteen girls were sitting quietly and patiently. For my part, I was squirming in my seat.

The "service" was almost entirely devoid of meaning, and yet it dragged on for hours. Each song had to be a whole production, where the words were repeating over and over again long past the point where anyone was going to hear the words as anything more than a random collection of sounds to hang music on. The prayers were speaking of Shabbat, which had already ended. The "rabbi" endlessly lectured -with the grinning condescension you'd expect of a preschool teacher- about how "traditions" were being passed on, but always speaking in vague generalities since of course there weren't any actual traditions on display here. Almost no one in the room had kept the Shabbat. Almost no one in the room was eating kosher food. Almost no one in the room would be going on to pray to God past that particular night. But ah, "tradition". How warm and fuzzy the word is.

The two kids read from a Torah. I doubt it was a proper, kosher Torah because why should they bother paying for a real Torah when no one really cares one way or the other about its validity? But still, it was a Torah. They'd learned something which vaguely resembled the trup, though they weren't even splitting the sentences right. And I have little faith that they understood what they were saying, given that they were horribly mispronouncing most of the words. They didn't read the actual Torah portion of the day, they just skimmed through it, but they read so slowly that it took forever anyway.

Afterwards, they each gave a little speech about the Torah portion, and that genuinely impressed me. Not the quality of the speeches, but it impressed me that they understood enough of the story to be able to give a speech about it. Even if that speech was "Ya'akov was wrong, because he shouldn't have liked one of his sons more than the others.".

The rest of the evening was all the rabbi and the cantor doing what must be their usual schtick, and trying to get every last minute they could squeeze out of it.

Later I realized why all those preteen girls had been so patient through all this superficial silliness. It was because they were waiting for the real party. [shudder]

As my uncle and I drove toward the hotel (a Hyatt) where the party was, we talked about reform Judaism. He said that if these people didn't have this, they'd have nothing. And I said that they already have nothing, they just don't realize it. The whole service was the illusion of religion. They took superficial elements from the actual prayers, disconnected them from their meaning, and put them on a stage as though that's Judaism. Maybe I'd prefer if they had no connection to Judaism, but understood that they had no connection to Judaism. Better than this flimsy lie, where if no one in the room even believed God exists it wouldn't make a difference.

The party, my grandparents inform me, was typical of the parties around here. But I had never been to such a party before, and God willing I hope I'm never at such a party again.

Even as we walked close to the hall, already the obnoxious techno music was so loud that I wanted to hide in a corner. And so I did. There was a big crowd, and that makes me uncomfortable in itself. But the music is what really put it over the top into sensory overload. I was scared to even look into the hall, let alone walk in. I watched my grandparents from a distance as they got drinks, so that if they went anywhere I could go with them. I didn't take off my black coat, partly because of feeling like I was dressed wrong earlier and partly because it was just a comfort to be dressed in my coat and at that moment I'd take any small comfort I could get.

Eventually someone recommended that I sit in the hotel lobby until we went in, and I was only too happy to get away. I sat there on a couch for maybe twenty minutes, feeling no need to move a muscle but just needing to relax. Then my grandfather came to let me know we'd be eating soon.

Inside the noise was so loud that I was literally concerned for the well-being of my ears. The techno music seemed even more obnoxious at that volume, which was such that no one could hear anyone else talking. And there was a DJ running the event, whose talking was even louder than the music. There was a big screen displaying obnoxious music videos to go along with the obnoxious music, with its constant thumping like someone hitting you in the head with a mallet. There was some sort of dancing going on; it was so crowded there I could barely to stand to look in that general direction. I sat at the table, desperately covering my ears, waiting for whatever no-doubt inedible food they'd serve us. Eventually someone suggested that I go back to the lobby, and I ran out.

There was a grand piano in the lobby, a badly-tuned Yamaha. A distant relative of some sort pointed it out to me, and assured me that no one would mind if I played on it. So I ran over and sat down. I started playing, and I never looked back. I forgot what I'd played three seconds after playing it, already at something new. And though my instinct (being let loose like that) was to play as loudly as I could, I restrained myself so that I could feel like I had the upper hand.

At one point two black guys who were staying in the hotel passed by and seemed to be enjoying my music. I stopped, embarrassed, but they said to go on. Whenever I did anything, they jumped back in shock as though they'd never heard any actual music before. Bizarre. They asked me if I knew any Michael Jackson songs. I said no, and they left. My grandfather told me later that they probably thought I was the professional entertainment. (In that coat, no one could possibly think I was a professional. Like I said, bizarre.)

But I wasn't playing for them, I was playing for me. I needed this, my one and only opening to do or say anything in that entire night. I could clean my head of that endless repetition and mindless thumping and inane lyrics sung by digitally-altered nasal voices.

But then I needed to go back in.

The DJ played a game with the kids, where he'd start some horrific pop song like "I'm A Barbie Girl", then stop and have the kids keep singing from where he left off. So to get points, these preteen girls were all singing this crap at the top of their lungs. I'm not sure which was louder, them or the recording, but I know that I never again want to be in a position to answer that question.

The DJ played 80s music for the adults, and gave moronic instructions like "Pretend you're playing an air guitar!" while all these supposedly sane adults stood on stage and followed his every word.

At one point a friend of the family, who used to be a hotel concierge, noticed me covering my ears and went out to get help. I only know this (I was mostly oblivious of anything going on under this constant pressure) because he came back with ear plugs. They were a tremendous help, I will admit.

The screen sometimes showed the crowd, but only under such heavy digital filters that you could barely make out what was going on.

The kosher food was salad and fish, neither of which I eat. It was probably very expensive for the hosts to get.

There was not a single thing in the entire party which was remotely Jewish, even by bogus reform standards.

My grandfather was kind enough to drive me home early. I had leftover pizza for dinner. It was good.

My grandfather and I often have trouble communicating. I say something, he misinterprets, I need to rephrase, he misinterprets again, then he finally understands and wonders why I'd said it to begin with. Or sometimes it's the same pattern, but with him talking and me misunderstanding. One time we were talking at each other like that and my grandmother looked dubious about whether there was a point. "We understand each other.", my grandfather assured her. "No we don't.", I corrected him. "We never understand each other. It's like we're talking in two different languages."

And that's the truth. My grandfather is pragmatic, I only care about emotions. My grandfather says I should have common sense, and I want him to boil that down into clear and consistent rules. And my grandfather thinks family is important.

a quiet day

There was a baby naming ceremony at a relative's house. Most of the people there would be people I wouldn't know, and it would be noisy and dull. I asked my grandmother for clarification as to what exactly I'd be doing there, whether there would ever be a quiet point where we could talk to individual people outside of a big crowd. I went back to the living room. A few minutes later, I came back. "I've been thinking about this, and I really don't see what I'd get out of going." She said to go talk to my grandfather. I said to my grandfather that I got really uncomfortable around crowds, and I'd prefer not to go. He told me he was very disappointed, and I went back to the living room.

I couldn't focus on anything with that hanging over my head. So a few minutes later, I went to my grandparents' room to confront my grandfather. I said to him, "I don't understand why you don't see where I'm coming from here. I won't exactly be having any meaningful conversations with people when my brain's shutting down because of the crowd. If it were a one-on-one conversation with someone, that's one thing. But being in a big crowd where I won't even notice that they're there because all I'll see is the crowd, that's something else.". "C'mere." He hugged me and said I could stay home. A few minutes later, he asked me if I'd go to the bar mitzvah party. I hadn't planned on going, but I said yes.

So they left the house. An hour or so later, my cousins all left as well. So I had the house all to myself.

First I worked on the game. It's turning out more interesting than I planned.

Then I read my book a little. Excellent storytelling.

Then I played piano, working on Variations on V.O.V. in particular.

Then I summarized a little bit more of my blog.

Then I took out the play, knowing that I'd never get such a perfect opportunity.

I stood by mirrors and practiced the voices and kinds of movement for the characters, being as loud as I was supposed to be on stage. And then I moved back into the living room, and started playing scenes. I paused for the other characters' absent lines, so that I'd have to think about how I was moving around and reacting as they spoke. And I kept in motion the whole time, trying to find the emotional gist of every line (and often being surprised by what I found).

I worked on the play for many hours. I kept moving through the house, from the living room to the den to the basement to the mirror bathroom and back to the living room. I memorized all of my lines for Act 1, I got more comfortable with the voice of Ambrose, I learned things about what the characters are going through. And then I stopped trying, really, and just played around with my voice to see what weird things I could do with it.

(All at the top of my lungs, of course.)

As I was in the middle of this, a couple walked through the backyard to see what the property was like. I stopped being quite so loud for a few minutes. From my comfortable seat in one of the living room's swivel chairs, I waved hello in a friendly manner. They passed by in the direction of the beach path, and I went back to my silliness.

Progress report

Here's a list of what I've accomplished here:
  • I've drawn more than half of the Angles and Circles sketch. The middle, the top, the bottom, and the entire left side are all done. (Not "done" in the sense that I won't have to rework them when I put it all in the computer, but "done" in the sense that I'm happy with them conceptually.) I haven't figured out what to do with the right side of the world yet. The parts I've finished incorporate all the random ideas I had, but use those ideas in ways I hadn't thought of originally. I'm very happy with where I've gotten.
  • I've planned out the first thirty seconds or so of Next Door. I know, that's not much, but it's a start.
  • I've "finished" Variations on V.O.V., in the sense that I can now play the whole thing to its end. I started writing out the notes, but then I stopped and decided I'd do it on the computer later. So the harmony for the last two variations isn't in its final form. I've come up with an initial theme for the second movement which I sort of like; I may or may not use it in the end.
  • I've memorized my lines for Acts 1 and 3 of The Matchmaker. (There are four acts.)
  • I've summarized every post on this blog, with the obvious exception of these posts I'm writing.
That's all.

Get Out

I liked to run around outside sometimes. On my first night there was a thick fog, so I ran out and sat by a tree looking out to the lake and just soaked in the otherworldliness of it all.

One day I came in from wandering around outside, and my grandfather was on the phone with his real estate agent. Someone was interested in the house, and would come by to check it out the next day. We needed to be gone when they came, and the house needed to look empty.

The kitchen was small and cramped. When we sat down at the table, facing the wall, there wasn't quite enough room for all three of us to sit comfortably. There was a skylight on the ceiling that I'd never even noticed until it was pointed out, but which had been adding light in the daytime. The walls were hand-painted with orange stone shapes, which had a lot of texture to them and actually stuck out from the wall a little. That must have taken forever to do.

In the time I'd been there, I'd gotten my room quite messy. That's how a room ought to be. A plain white piece of paper isn't complete. It needs to be scribbled on, or there was never a reason for that paper to exist. A messy and imperfect room feels alive, in a way that a clean and orderly room doesn't. It only took me a minute to make my room look like no one had been there so that the prospective buyers could walk through.

The den was many shades of brown (in mahogany panels) with a bit of white, and it had brown and blue furniture. The hallway was off-white in painted stripe patterns. The mirror bathroom's mirrors had a slightly greenish tint. The bedroom I stayed in had beige wood panels. The bedroom next to it was a deep brown, with little bits of blue all over. The living room was painted light blue. The dining room was yellow. The bathroom next to my bedroom was pink and blue and gray.

I said to my grandfather it didn't make any sense to me that someone else would be showing their house to people. What could a real estate agent know about the house? My grandfather could show all the ingenious little modifications he'd made to the house over the years. He could explain how he's wired the whole house up so that speakers in every room can connect to the stereo. He could show them the hidden drawers he put in and the shelf hanging from the ceiling for the microwave and all that. But he'd never even meet these people, it would all get done through the real estate agent. He wouldn't even know whether the new people appreciate this house at all. And that drove me crazy. "Don't you want to meet them? Don't you want to know what happens to the house after you sell it?" Ever the pragmatist, my grandfather replied: "What difference does it make to me what happens after I've sold it? What practical use does that information have?" And we went back and forth, with me insisting that he must be at least curious who these people are, and him insisting that there's no logical reason why he should be curious.

The house was built in 1955, designed by an architect named Mandel. It wasn't a perfect house. It was a lovingly-designed house, whose every room had lots of character. It was once affordable; now it was being sold for several million dollars. But that price was more for the property than for the house.

We left the house without anywhere pressing to be. We settled on the library, and stayed there for two hours.

Along with the house, whoever bought the property would also get the design for a new house, designed for the property by a reputable architect named Pickell. My grandfather specifically hired a real estate agent who'd worked with this architect (and his team), to add a greater incentive for the buyer (who would know this architect's reputation). So whoever decided to pay the multimillion dollar price could then pay millions more to tear down the house and build this new one. As my grandfather sees it: "I tell you, if you're paying that kind of money, you can do whatever you want with the house." I looked up this architect's work on the internet. His rooms are all white and empty and so perfect that you'd feel bad moving a single chair by an inch for fear of messing up the balance of the room. His design is bigger than the house now, with everything more precisely calculated for optimal efficiency in living. He's really good. But he's no Mandel.

As we were gone, a family checked out the house and were apparently willing to buy. They especially expressed an interest in the Pickell design. There was also another couple interested in buying, who hadn't said what their intentions were. It would all come down to money in the end, and then whoever got the house would do whatever they liked.

My grandfather tried to explain why he doesn't personally like Pickell's work: "To me, there's a difference between a house and a home."

I'm not sure if I agree with that. My grandparent's house was never my home, but it was never just a house to me.



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