October books

A genetically engineered apocalypse, a half dragon half human child, and necromancy. Perfect Halloween reading.

Oryx and Crake ★★★
This book left me reeling.  There were eerie similarities to the world surrounding me, one of which was the decaying nature of autumn, but I think the most compelling aspect of this book was the uncertainty.  On the one hand, we have god-like orchestration of plants and animals through genetic engineering, but the human motivations are left ambiguous.  The contrast between scientific precision and human enigmaty [1] was the major contributor to my stupor, but another culprit was the discouraging resemblance between the fictional society and our contemporary one, which raised apprehension about our own future.

Seraphina ★★
A curious YA novel about a dragon-human hybrid girl who has a strange way of walking around inside her own head.  While plot elements like murder, deception, and love abound, the core of this book addresses two main topics: prejudice and the balance between emotion and reason.  These subjects are addressed in the context of fantasy, however, and it is left to the reader to interpret them (or not) to apply to reality.

Clariel ★★
This YA book just came out on October 14.  I identified with Clariel immediately; she was a wilderness girl recently brought to a big city for her mother's work, and complained about the lack of trees.  I love the wilderness but commute weekly into New York, and have been known to complain extensively about the condition of trees in various cities.  Reading her complaints was like reading a transcript of my own diatribes.  And then her incessant whining got tedious.  And then she was stupid.  It is an interesting addition to the Abhorsen series, but probably my least favorite—I'll read the original three over again on occasion, but once is enough for this one.  It was also hard to tell when this happened relative to the other books—the resolution of this question was interesting, but I wish it was in the content of the novel itself instead of the author's note at the very end.

Next up: the newly released The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

[1] Yes, I did "make this up," but it's a word that should really exist.  The only word that means the quality of being enigmatic according to the OED is the obscure enigmaticalness from 1684, which was probably "made up" then as well.  Enigmaticness could also work, and is parallel to words like frantic and franticness, or enigmaticity could do, but I like brevity and enigmaty was the first thing that came to mind.


meaningful service

Within my church community, we frequently emphasize service as a good thing that we should seek perform for others.  As such, we often organize service activities, in which we come together as a community to perform larger scale service that we might not otherwise be able to do as individuals. While I think this is a great idea, I think that there's one major aspect that can often be improved.  More on that soon.

There are roughly four objectives in performing service:
  • Help  This is the most important objective: to fill the needs of others.  Needs can range from the physical, like hunger, to social needs, like loneliness.
  • Feed the Fire  Individuals need to feel compassion for others; part of the goal of service is to kindle that desire in individuals so that they will be better people in their daily lives.
  • Community building  Whether individuals are working side by side in an activity or one person is helping another, service forges connections within a community.
  • Be an example  Here, the goal is to inspire people outside our community, either by welcoming them to join us or reminding them to do good independently.

The last objective is difficult in many contexts because it often gets conflated with getting good press, which is not the goal.  If we want to take pictures for our own memories, that's fine, but taking picture for the explicit purpose of handing them to a reporter seems disingenuous.  When we're trying to be an example, we should always be inclusive, which is to say, we should never isolate the people we are talking to. We should try to make them feel like they were there with us so that next time maybe they will be.

What I really want to talk about is the first objective: actually helping people.  We have a responsibility to be effective in our choices of service.  We need to ask ourselves: what are real needs? and not what is easy to do in the hour we have on Wednesday night with the youth?  Certainly we aren't always ready to ask these questions—there are weeks when easy is all I can handle.  When we have extra time and energy, however, this is where we should put the effort.

What are common service projects?
  • tie the ends of felt quilts
  • local disaster relief (e.g. hurricane cleanup)
  • writing letters to missionaries
  • yard work / housecleaning for members
  • visiting with seniors or disabled individuals
  • baking things for people
  • making sanitation or relief kits

Take an honest look at the list.  Which of these have you done?  What has been your mindset for each one?  What mindset has the activity encouraged?  The winners for impact are local disaster relief and visiting with seniors or disabled individuals; not coincidentally, they almost always are accompanied with a sincere charitable mindset.  Other tasks are more about the secondary objectives.  When writing generic one-time letters to missionaries that you don't really know, who is really benefiting?  What about tying the ends of piece of felt that's just as effective as a blanket without your effort? Often it's more about performing the service than the actual impact of the service itself.

What else can we do that's effective?
  • We can  develop long lasting relationships with lonely or outlier individuals. These are not just one-time visits.  My brother used to go play chess with a retired man in our neighborhood; I don't think either of them even thought of it as service, but it brought effortless joy to both sides.  This could be a simple as going to watch a fun TV show with someone.
  • Fundraising  I think we shrink away from fundraising too much; there are a lot of fun, creative ways to fundraise, especially if we reach outside the church community.  Dessert auctions, hunger banquets, craft bazaars, yard sales, by-donation dancing lessons—the possibilities are endless.  If the proceeds go to an effective charity, this seems like a great option.
  • Tutoring or reading to underprivileged kids.  I was a reading buddy at an old workplace which was walking distance from an elementary school with lots of low-income ESL students. A group of us would go over and read to the kids and play word games like hangman.  It was fun, easy, and effective.  Some kids just aren't getting enough individual attention to learn as best they can, and you can help.

What's the take home message?  We need to think about the people we're trying to serve first: what are real needs that exist in the world?  Maybe we need to do more research, or maybe we just need to think outside of our usual sphere of influence.  Regardless, we need to stop worrying as much about the secondary objectives.  You should know that something is wrong when you have the idea for a service project and then ask: so who could we give this quilt to?  All of the objectives I've listed are good; it's just a question of good vs. better.  


hanging the unhangable

I have a collection of Russian lacquer boxes that depict fairy tales (in the Kholuy style, for those that care).  I originally saw these in a hotel while traveling in my family state-side.  For whatever reason, I became obsessed.  I love miniatures, boxes, and art generally, so I suppose it's not terribly surprising.  I found a the Tradestone Gallery sometime in college and honed my bartering skills as I purchases boxes over time. I've since become less fixated on acquiring boxes, but I still love the ones that I have.

For the past four years, however, they've remained in boxes because there hasn't been a good way to display them; we don't have much in the way of surface space.  I've considered various was of hanging them on the wall, but it is a difficult task to do so while not harming the boxes.  I've mused about using strong magnets to photo ledges, but nothing seemed to be both economically reasonable and aesthetically pleasing.

Finally, I stumbled upon tool hooks, which are cheap, stable, and don't get too much in the way of the boxes. This weekend, I picked up one for each box and mounted them on the wall.  NWC is worried about them rotating, and so I'm thinking of gluing them in place where they intersect the wall.

Aside from one wrong hole (the screw wouldn't go in), I think it went very well.