My Dad, Epic Pumpkin Carver

From the title you might think my dad does those kinds of crazy intricate designs in negative space using the relative thickness of the rind. He doesn’t do that. Instead, he gets pumpkins he thinks have “character” and gives them kooky faces.

Here are this year’s pumpkins: the normal one is my brother’s.

I helped scoop all the glop out of all of them, down to the rind. They look more like gourds than pumpkins on the inside, with lots of seeds so tightly clumped together that you have to cut them out with a knife. The white one even has eerily green flesh.

This is the fun part. Most people would probably put a squashed face on the side of the green pumpkin, right? Not my dad. He put the face on the top, using the stem as the nose. Here he is carving:

And here’s the finished product.

The back kept falling off, so I put some toothpicks through it so it’d stay in place. We can just put the candle through one of the eye holes tomorrow.

Now onto the white one! Weird pumpkins are always way harder to carve since their rinds are so much tougher, so we don’t have a ton of pumpkins. This white one in particular was really hard to carve. But we made it eventually:

And this is the way in which my dad is the best pumpkin carver I know. Not because he makes the fanciest designs, but because his pumpkins are all memorable and weird. Our Halloween is never gory or gauche; it’s simple and classy. We don’t put gravestones or severed heads in the yard. We have a figure in a silk gown peeking out through window curtains, we have a dragon skull on the front step, we have a candelabra on the piano and a real metal sword on the wall. There are no obnoxiously large fake spiders waiting to scare trick-or-treaters, only my dad in a long fancy cloak sitting by the door and reading Edgar Allen Poe’s collected works while haunting piano music plays in the background.

That’s his aesthetic, and the pumpkins are meant to fit that.

The Importance of Support

Being Jewish was always something I felt like I was in the abstract. I had a different culture than most people, I celebrated different holidays, I had a different native country, my family spoke a different language. I was different, sure, but not in any way that mattered.

Otherwise, I’m just like every other American. I celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks. I stay up late on New Year’s Eve watching the ball drop on TV. Unlike many Jews, I even celebrate Christmas: my dad grew up Christian, so we decided to maintain the tradition from his side of the family. Being Jewish never got in the way of these things.

When I told people I was Jewish, I was sometimes met with confusion, but rarely with hate. In fact, it happened so infrequently that I can recall each individual instance.

This is why I was so shaken when I heard about the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. I didn’t understand how this man could look at a bunch of people who celebrated our holidays like he celebrated Christmas, who had a native culture and history like other Americans might be Irish or Norse, but who were also American citizens just like anyone else, and decide we must be eradicated off the face of the earth.

How do you look at my family on Rosh Hashannah, smiling and laughing and passing around a brisket like many families would pass around a honey ham on Christmas, and decide that “all Jews must die”?

I don’t think I can hope to know, but I was scared nonetheless.

I personally am relatively safe. I go to a different synagogue which doesn’t happen to be in a Jewish neighborhood, and I only go on high holidays when they have a decent amount of security. Everyone I know personally, even those who go to the Tree of Life, is okay. But though that diminishes the fear for the personal safety of those I know, it doesn’t do anything about the more general fear I have for my people.

If you’re a member of a majority culture, you may not understand the strong bond between members of a minority one. Try to think of it as if all Jews are members of the same extended family. (Technically speaking, with Jews in particular this is actually true; you can only become Jewish by marriage or by being the child of a Jewish family, so all Jews are in some sense related.) So, though nobody I knew personally was killed or injured, many members of my extended family were. And that feels pretty awful.

There is a light in the fog, though. It’s the reason I decided to write this essay, as opposed to many others I could have written around a similar topic. And that light is the fact that a lot of people, all of them goyim, have been asking me questions like these.

“Jen… are you okay? I mean I know you weren’t in it but… anyone you knew?”

“Hey, you okay? Cole mentioned you live near Pittsburgh.”

“Is your family safe?”

I’ve never had so many people asking after me before. It was really nice to know that so many people cared. It helped me to realize that, in the words of my skating coach, “Those who hate are a small percentage of the country. The people who love are so many more in number and power and we will always win in the end.” Just because one man thinks that I shouldn’t exist doesn’t mean that everyone thinks that.

This is the importance of support. And it’s not just about mass shootings that make national news; it’s about every crisis, big and small. If you ask one simple question, “are you okay”, you can lift one straw off someone’s breaking back. You can make their day that much more bearable. If you ever question whether or not to reach out to someone going through hardship, do it. Reach out.

It really does help.

Landing Pages: Critique, Compare, and Contrast

Hey guys! Today, I covered the design, usability, and copy of two different websites. I did a bit of a compare-and-contrast between the two, talking about my first impressions of each page, what I found annoying about the designs, and what could be done to improve these issues.

Here are the websites I covered, so you can poke around if you want:

Rubber Duck Debugging: What It Is and What It’s For

Debugging in general is the act of fixing errors (called “bugs”) in computer code. Rubber duck debugging is the act of debugging by explaining your code to a rubber duck.

That’s a simple enough explanation, but why would you want to do that?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself”? The concept is that if you truly understand something, you can explain it to someone who knows nothing about it.

This isn’t just a test of understanding for concepts you already know are sound. You can use the power of explanation to find problems with concepts you came up with yourself. If you explain your logic to someone who knows nothing about it, you’ll be forced to start over from the logical beginning and explain in simple terms.

When you’re the one who created the logic, you can sometimes accidentally accept unreasonable assumptions without knowing it. If you then have to explain the logic, though, you’ll need to spell out your assumptions. And if those assumptions aren’t reasonable, you’ll know it right away.

The best part of this is that it doesn’t require a human. Your brain is good enough at personifying inanimate objects that explaining a concept to another human who simply isn’t replying is functionally interchangeable with explaining it to a rubber duck. So, a lot of programmers explain concepts to rubber ducks (or stuffed rabbits, in my case) instead of inconveniencing fellow humans.

So. What is rubber duck debugging? It’s using your brain’s powers of explanation and personification to fix logic problems.

Rubber duck debugging is hardly the exclusive domain of programmers. Anybody who can use language can explain something to a rubber duck (I don’t even have to say “anybody who can speak”, because I’m sure rubber ducks understand sign language). Writers do it to fix problems with their story plot, for example.

So if you’re ever working on a tricky problem, try stepping back and explaining it to a rubber duck.

The Value of “Just” Showing Up

My siblings are pairs skaters. Every day, they wake up at 5am to skate for three hours. Sometimes, after returning home to do school and work, they return to the ice rink to skate again. Even when they don’t skate twice a day, they frequently do an off-ice workout in the afternoon. They’re devoted. They’re serious.

Still, they’re hardly the best team out there. They are now at the third-highest level, and will stop being competitive before advancing, because they started late. Unlike many skaters, who devote all their time to the sport, my siblings have significant academic commitments which they refuse to sacrifice to spend more time on the ice.

And yet, they get to Nationals. Recently, even, a few internationals. They didn’t expect it, but it happened. How?

They “just” showed up.

Putting in the effort every single day to keep up with the blistering pace of competitive figure skating is hard. The age brackets for the levels work such that if you’re not putting in as much effort as my siblings are, you just plain don’t get to be competitive. Sorry, have a nice day! The requirements for pairs are even harder, because not just one, but two skaters have to be devoted enough to put that much time in. Not only that, both of them need to be good at doing jumps – if you’ve ever watched the Olympics on TV, you know jumping is hard.

My siblings get national and international assignments, because they are one of less than twelve pairs teams at their level in the country. They show up. There’s no “just” about it.

They say it’s not enough to just show up. But is that really true? To “just” show up, you need to have the necessary skills to get in the door, you need to be reliable and consistent, you need to be able to put in the work every day. That’s valuable. That’s important. And those are skills a lot of people don’t have.

When people hunt for jobs, the focus is on the job-specific skills: what programming languages do they know, how proficient are they with Excel, do they have the appropriate certifications, etc. And those are important. But many job-seekers act as if those things are all that matters.

In reality, being reliable and dependable is just as important. There are tons of people who have the job-specific skills, but who aren’t reliable. They get tired, they get bored, they see a shiny object, they would rather be doing something else. They don’t show up. If you “just” show up, you can be better than them.

Show up.

The Painter On His Way to Paint

For this piece, I copied this Van Gogh painting for the most part. However, I decided that I would add in Van Gogh himself, on his way to paint the piece.

To properly represent both Van Gogh’s painting and likeness, I wanted to do a copy not only in subject matter but in art style and technique. As such, I painted this in oils using a palette knife (like the one on the right in this pic). In total, I only used two tools for this: a palette knife, and the small paintbrush I used to sign it.

I worked back-to-front: I painted the sky first, followed by the distant landscape, then worked forward until I finished with Van Gogh himself. Since things in the back are overlapped by things in the front, I painted the things in the back first and painted the closer things over top of them.

Painting Van Gogh in there was hard, but not for the reasons you might think. I’m very solid at figure drawing, so drawing a human was pretty easy. The problem arose from trying to paint Van Gogh in his own style, when he wasn’t a central part of the piece. He did self-portraits (actually he did tons), but he painted himself as the center of those pieces. Here, I was trying to paint him small, as almost an afterthought.

As such, I tried to copy Van Gogh’s style of drawing figures, with not a lot of success. At first I did him in the style of his self-portraits, but it was too detailed and realistic. I was very happy with this first version artistically, but it didn’t fit so I scrubbed it out. I tried to get some vibrant highlights and shadows in the second version, but that still didn’t quite fit stylistically. Finally, I just blocked in some color and gave it an immensely simple white outline where the light was coming from. That seemed to do it, so that’s the finished version.

This painting is for sale! Get it now for $250 plus shipping. If you’re interested, contact me!

Why My Rabbi Asked, “Who Here is an Atheist?”

One morning in autumn many years ago, I was sitting in synagogue with my family. My granddad used to drag us there when he came over for the high holidays. Most of the service was spent on ritual prayers and readings in Hebrew, so I wasn’t paying much attention.

That is, until my rabbi asked a very odd question. “Who here is an atheist? Please raise your hands.”

I blinked in confusion as I watched the hands go up around me. From my vantage point (standing on top of the chair so I could see when the rabbi blew the shofar, which was always my favorite part of every service), I could see that maybe three-quarters of the synagogue had put their hands up.

Seeing the hands of my family raised around me as an indication that it was socially acceptable to do so, I put mine up as well. None of us had ever really believed the God stuff, after all, but I’d always thought we were a minority in this respect. Evidently not.

The rabbi nodded. Though his speech has eroded in my memory, it went something like this. “Faith is a tool to be used towards the goal of doing good deeds. If you wish to use that tool, you may; though I see many of you are not in need of it. But all of us must remember that it is just a tool. If you have all the faith and love for God in the world, but you are cruel to your fellow man, you are not a good Jew. You cannot fall into the Christian trap of worshipping the tool in absence of its purpose; you would not praise a hammer except for its ability to pound in nails.”

I came away from this with the realization cemented in my mind that Judaism is not fundamentally a religion. It is fundamentally an ethnicity and a culture.

If Judaism were primarily a religion, it would have some pretty major problems. For one, Jews aren’t allowed to proselytize: that thing that Christians do where they try to convert you to Christianity, we can’t do that. Nowhere in our holy books does it say that you’ll go to Hell if you’re not a Jew. And the reason for that is another reason that Judaism wouldn’t work well as a major religion: converting to Judaism is really hard. The two main ways of converting are marrying a Jew and being adopted by a Jewish family.

If you look at Judaism as a culture and ethnicity that simply arose from a religion, though, these things make sense. The quality of “Jewish-ness” is within my family, within my bloodline, and unless I choose to marry or adopt you (either of which would add you to my family), I can’t convert you.

Further, all Jews have what’s called right of return. Since I have it, I would be able to immigrate to Israel and gain Israeli citizenship if I wanted to, because it is my homeland, albeit indirectly. This right couldn’t exist if Judaism were much of anything besides an ethnicity.

Because Judaism isn’t primarily a religion, being a good Jew is the same thing as being a good person in general: be kind, don’t break just laws, have good morals, etc. Again, this makes pretty intuitive sense: we can’t be judged against our faith, so the only thing we can be judged against is our morality.

By contrast, when you have an actual religion (I’m going to use Christianity as an example, but I’m not picking on Christians; many religions work this way), there tends to be a problem with morality. A good Christian is someone who puts their love of God first. But sometimes, people tack “to the exclusion of all else” onto the end of that sentence, and the religious leaders don’t seem to mind. Actually, frequently the people who think that way are the religious leaders.

As a result, you have a lot of Christians (some of whom I’ve met) who say they follow Christ, but who seem to have completely missed the whole “love thy neighbor” thing. They were praised for their faith instead of for being a good person.

But, as my rabbi said, you shouldn’t praise the tool in absence of its purpose. Don’t praise faith in absence of its ability to help you be kind.

Explain Your Culture

I answered a lot of questions about culture growing up. As an American Jew, my culture was a minority, so nobody really knew about it. They didn’t know what I believed, what foods I ate on what holidays, what purpose those foods or those holidays had within the culture, etc.

Like many people in minority cultures, I was always happy to answer these questions. My family has had several non-Jews over for our holidays over the years, and when our goyish (informal term for non-Jewish) guests inevitably ask questions about the rituals or foods, we tell them. Once time I brought in kosher macaroons to work for Rosh Hashanah and I got to explain both the holiday and the concept of kosher.

These are highly informal and easy explanations. Our goal isn’t to proselytize—Jews aren’t allowed to proselytize anyway, but even if it was allowed, that’s not our goal so we wouldn’t do it—our goal is simply to educate. For example:

“This little funny hat is called a yarmulka, and men are supposed to wear it to bring them closer to God. Women don’t need to wear them because the ability to give birth brings us closer to God.”

“We prepare these foods because they’re culturally significant, or just because we like them. But we need to make sure that if we make something just because we like it, that it follows our dietary rules for holidays. Those rules are called kosher.”

“Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year. Our holidays run on a lunar calendar, not a solar one, so they shift around on the Christian calendar. And the current Jewish year is 5779, because our years don’t start from the birth of Jesus, they start from the birth of the Jewish race.”

Christians in America have it completely the opposite way. They can practically assume that their culture is ubiquitous, which has a lot of implications.

If your culture is ubiquitous, you never have to explain your holidays. You can just presume that people know about them. You can talk in depth about highly specific issues with just about anyone, because you can presume they have the necessary cultural background. Every business closes its offices in observation of your holidays.

To help my American Christian pals understand what it’s like to not be a cultural majority, consider this.

Imagine you had to ask your boss for time off to celebrate Christmas, which he has never heard of. Imagine driving over an hour to get to the only church in your area, when at the same time there are three different synagogues within a two-mile radius of your house. Imagine your entire culture decides to make Labor Day into a huge celebration, because you’re all sick of not doing anything while the rest of the country celebrates Rosh Hashanah. (This is exactly what happened with Chanukah. It’s actually a very minor holiday that American Jews made into a much bigger deal because they wanted something to do at Christmastime.)

Unless you decide to move to a non-European country, you’re probably not going to experience any of this personally, but that’s fine. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right about being a member of either a majority or minority culture.

There is, however, one thing that members of majority cultures could learn from members of minority cultures: an attitude of explanation.

Growing up Jewish, I never really understood Christianity. Not for any lack of Christians around me, for a lack of Christians around me who were willing to answer questions. People in majority cultures aren’t used to answering simple questions about their culture; if I asked who Jesus was, people would look at me like I’d just said I’d never heard of toilet paper. In their eyes, I’ve just said I don’t know about something they thought was both ubiquitous and completely impossible to live without. By contrast, however, I’ve had a ton of people ask me who Moses is.

Similarly basic question, different culture.

But if every member of a majority culture has this attitude, then the small percentage of the population that wasn’t raised with that culture is left out of the loop. They didn’t learn about the culture growing up, and they never will.

So, the best thing to do if you’re a member of a majority culture is to be willing to answer questions. Even questions that seem like they ought to be obvious.

The (Perceived) Problem with Long-Distance Relationships

Is love an emotion or a choice?

If you’re like many people, you’ll say that it’s an emotion. It’s the floaty, bubbly feeling you get around someone. It’s the perfection of every little thing they do. It’s the pointlessness of the rest of the universe when you’re together. To quote Dean Martin, when the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine, that’s amore.

What if I told you you’re wrong? And what if I told you that this definition of love is the biggest cause of failed relationships?

Hear me out.

Relationships are hard. Lots of people say that. And on a surface level, if you’ve been in a relationship, you understand the truth of the statement intuitively. But let’s look deeper. If love is an emotion, how can relationships be hard? Deciding to keep working on a project even though it’s complicated and difficult is hard. Deciding to not give up on your little sister even though she’s being an entitled brat is hard. Deciding to apologize to your lover after a fight is hard.

Being happy isn’t hard. Being sad isn’t hard. Being angry isn’t hard. And being in love isn’t hard.

What’s hard is maintaining a relationship.

Thus, there have to be multiple components to love. One part is of course the feeling awesome at the beginning, but another is what many people call commitment: the choice to be together, to care about each other, to support each other through thick and thin and such. From experience, the latter is much more important. Your brain acclimates to anything after a while, even the company of The Perfect Person™, and eventually the emotion will fade. Your commitment will not. Do you honestly think that those couples who’ve been together for 70+ years are still love-drunk?

What does this have to do with failed relationships, long distance ones especially?

If you think that love is an emotion, you’ll just quit when you acclimate to their presence and the emotion leaves. You’ll think you don’t love them anymore. In reality, you’re simply no longer infatuated – that’s the term I’ve come to realize refers to that initial state of love-drunkenness. You’re perfectly capable of continuing to love that person if you simply commit.

Since distance can prolong infatuation by virtue of not seeing the person very often, long-distance couples who move in together are most susceptible to this problem.

If, on the other hand, you know that love is a choice, you won’t need to worry about what happens when the world stops shining. It’ll keep on turning nonetheless. Your love will go on. You’ll actually be able to work through the logistics of a real relationship as opposed to simply drifting through it because nothing except that person’s presence matters.

It’s not like once the infatuation wears off, you have no feelings for this person anymore – you’re still affectionate and loving – but you no longer feel like the only sustenance you need is their company. You start to decide that no, that habit isn’t endearing, it’s annoying. You start to notice stuff they do that isn’t perfect. And over time they see those things in you, too. But if you’re committed, you both work around the things that you can’t change, and you work on fixing the things you can, and ideally you both become better people in the process.

That is what relationships are about. That is the difference between love and mere infatuation.

Do People Want To Learn?

I’ve written before about how the public school system doesn’t teach the right things. But there’s a bigger problem underlying the whole rotten mess of concrete and bureaucracy that is the modern public school system. There’s one single assumption that underlies the whole thing, and that one assumption is untrue.

That false assumption? “People don’t naturally want to learn.”

If you believe people don’t naturally want to learn, then what about babies and toddlers? Nobody formally teaches little kids to sit and crawl and walk and talk, but everybody knows that all little children learn these things. It’s really obvious that little children are wired to learn and to learn voraciously. Just look at any two-year-old who annoys the grownups by asking so many questions.

So if the concept of “people don’t want to learn” doesn’t happen until later, when exactly does it happen? If you look at kids, it seems to happen right around school age. Children who a year ago would be annoying with their extreme curiosity mellow out, then proceed to sink further into “I hate learning”.

Still, the same exact children who don’t want to learn in school continue to learn voraciously about things that interest them. It may be things adults don’t approve of, like cartoon characters, or video game stats, or how to bypass the screen time lockouts on their phones. But this is still learning, and it’s still curiosity. It’s learning in absence of being forced to learn, which is why it continues to be fun. So evidently, people can and do learn things that they’re motivated to learn and interested in learning, at all ages.

“But people don’t learn the things they need to learn!” you may exclaim. Let me ask you, what exactly is it that we teach in school that people need to learn? And how do we know that they’re not going to learn those things naturally, outside of school?

What do people need to learn? Reading. Writing. Basic arithmetic. How to exist as an adult. But everyone learns these things of necessity; you can’t function in the world without them. You don’t need school to teach that. And after they have the minimum knowledge they need to function in the world, individuals follow their specific interests to logical conclusions.

Still, what about all those other things that we teach in schools? Spanish, differential equations, mitochondria, whatever? What about how to get into college?

Interestingly, there is a strong and growing subculture of people who raise their kids with no enforced education. And the research shows that these kids can get into college and have successful careers at rates equal to or even greater than that of the publicly or privately schooled population. (Sources: Smithsonian, KQED)

So if just letting kids do what they want is so great, why do we all think instinctively that it shouldn’t work?

John Holt wrote this in his book How Children Learn. “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. […] What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children as we ourselves were not trusted.”

We don’t think unschooling should work even though it does because the societal wisdom about children, which we all have somewhere in our brains, is wrong. We were taught not to trust how children naturally learn. But we were taught by the very system that profits off not allowing children to learn naturally; we were taught propaganda.

If you don’t need to force people to learn, then, is there no place for teachers, classes, students?

No. There is still a place for that. Just look at all the non-mandatory classes that people take over their lives. People take classes in music and art and tech and science and history and every other thing. Classes can be a very effective way to learn… if the people in them want to learn.

When I was getting started as an artist, I experimented with a number of media through taking classes. When I signed up for them, they were explicitly “for adults”. Not because they had any risqué content, just because they didn’t have anybody to be the schoolteacher, the authority figure. They were meant for adults because they trusted adults. They didn’t trust children.

With some combination of my mom’s persuasive skills and my dashing charm (just kidding, I was like twelve; it was 100% my mom’s persuasive skills) I got into these classes “for adults”. One of them was a wildlife drawing class.

It was a ton of fun and a great experience. I’d been out of school for a while at that point, so I didn’t think it was strange that the teacher just walked around giving advice and making critiques, telling us to help ourselves to complimentary cookies and soda while we drew. I made a few friends in that class, most of whom were many times my age.

A few years later, I took a ceramics class. This one was explicitly “for teenagers”; I think the age range was 15-18 or 13-18 or something like that. The kind of thing that’s meant as an extracurricular for high schoolers.

It was a weird experience. Besides the complete lack of age diversity, there were a ton of really weird rules and expectations. No more than one person was allowed to leave the studio at one time to use the bathroom. I wasn’t particularly annoyed since it didn’t inconvenience me, I was just baffled. It was so unnecessary.

Not only was the class setup weird, but the teacher was also weird. They (I don’t remember their gender) were really distant and not friendly at all, and they seemed to expect this kind of deference. You know those pompous customers you get working retail, where they just expect you to hand them the universe on a silver platter? This teacher acted a bit like that.

I talked to my mom about it on the ride home, and she informed me that it wasn’t that the class or the teacher was weird. It was because it was a class for teenagers.

With classes for adults, you can be sure that 100% of the people there are there because they want to be. Nobody forces an adult to take an art class. If the student has learned what they wanted to learn, the objective of the class has been achieved. But with classes for teenagers, it’s a completely different story. The teacher can’t be sure that the student wants to be there, or wants to learn. Further, they don’t have to answer to the student; the real master for a teacher of teens is those teens’ parents.  The teacher tries their best to make the class interesting and fun, but they have to control what the kids do so that the parents are pleased, and generally act like a schoolteacher, which severely limits their ability to do that.

There is still a place for classes and teachers. These are valuable things. But the public school environment, where the students don’t want to learn and the teachers don’t want to teach and literally nobody wants to be there at all, that is not useful.

So where do we go from here? How does the establishment change?

I propose using the funds that are currently being funneled into the public school system and use it to fund optional classes, held at public libraries. After the “school subjects” are made optional, we can decide to make things mandatory which are important for everyone to know regardless of their interests; things which are necessary for functioning in modern society. Teaching basic technology, psychology, and economics would be a good start: after all, there’s an awful lot of people, tech, and money in the world right now. It also makes significant sense to teach people stuff like basic self-care and first aid, what laws there are, how to pay taxes, how to get insurance, etc etc. These mandatory things, then, can fill the psychological void left by the public school system (appeasing all the grownups who love telling kids what to do), as well as filling the physical void of the empty school buildings.

What do you think? If you’ve got ideas for how the system could be changed, or reasons why it shouldn’t be, stick them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.