my worst chanukkah

A memory. A holiday dinner. A Jewish thing on the edge of the country with a family I can’t seem to like. I am here with the eldest son, my employer, a shallow, suburban creature who, when he speaks in glowing colours about his ex-girlfriend, repeats how she stayed a size zero, because she knew he likes girls small. He is certain that everyone loves him, that he can read anyone. “Just part of being a businessman,” he says. He makes me increasingly uncomfortable. The more I learn about the relationship, the more it sounds toxic and mutually abusive. She left him right before they were to be married, cheated then fled, leaving behind the only life she’d ever known. Even though I am new to this group, still tentative, and her actions seem extreme, it never occurs to me to think she made the wrong decision. I know, rather, at the edge of my own understanding, deep and dark, that I should follow her. Distance myself from these people and this place.

The younger brother works for a large American multinational. Clever, he works on their kernel team, a job for life, specialized in a way that feels nearly impossible for a human to endure. On the surface, he seems fine, but he, too, is unkind to his partner, a woman who seems to love him very deeply. I don’t know her well, but it seems she might do well to step away, much like the aforementioned ex-girlfriend. They fight often behind closed doors, voices rising. He doesn’t know how to connect, so he tries tricks from the dog training manual. Coldness, harshness, attempts at alpha supremacy.

The dinner is awkward, with coils of tension wrapped tight like springs, ready to suddenly unwind and blind someone. I learn that the brothers may have inherited their uncomfortable emotional outbursts from their parents, who humble-brag about volunteer hours spent working to “save” battered women, but then damn my mother for being one when I bring up my childhood while thanking them for their hard work. “How dare she keep children in that situation! I’m so sorry for you, she must be a horrible person.” I am shocked and say so. I am told that they will accept my apology for being a rude guest, as it must not be my fault, given that I was raised by such a contemptible mother. I do not apologize. The subject is changed.

The only person there I feel I can speak to is his grandmother, as her prejudices are expected and I know how to deflect them. She is an antique, however, and detached from her era. Her conversation meanders, jumping from year to year, as her focus wavers. I’ve never met anyone quite like her, but his grandmother still feels like she’s been standardized, traits pulled from a pamphlet about age and fading bodies. “The slightly racist old lady: Option III”. Her make-up is a billboard advertising her deteriorating motor skills, eye-liner applied as if with a crayon, lipstick approaching an event horizon, and her wig, a klaxon blaring, crooked and slightly terrifying. I wonder what she was like before, as she seems nice, as if what I was looking at wasn’t representative, but sunlight filtered through too many years.

During dessert, when an aunt and uncle started singing and I start bringing dishes into the kitchen, someone decides to tease me for being “such a good little woman”. It is made very clear that the man who brought me told his family that he was bringing his girlfriend to dinner. Shock again, but this time I stay quiet, lacking a script. There is a chance that I will be fired if I contradict this.

My own relatives don’t keep close, but nor do they pretend to. There are no public facades, flawless or otherwise, no pretense to an external whole. Perhaps I am missing out, not having a family structure, but this, I think, surely must be worse.

I want to leave so badly, be anywhere else. Shrinking into myself, I look around the table, quiet and concerned. No one else seems to think the bickering is abnormal or the shouting downstairs is out of place. They are acclimated to their fractured, strange reflections of familial bonds, unhealthy though they are, and blind to their own internal misfires. How do they manage to be so stubbornly insular in such an interconnected world? I do not ask. It does not seem the place.

Later, as I am driven home, I am admonished for upsetting his parents.

my only christmas tradition: rare exports and the official safety instructions

“Just before the first snow of winter falls, professional hunters begin their work. The long process of tracking, hunting and transforming this king of the forest into a finished product is a time consuming process, but the final outcome is a reason to celebrate.”

Rare Exports Inc. (2003) from Woodpecker Film.

“Not meant for the public eye, this film reveals the dark reality of what’s wrong with company’s product. With its primitive instincts triggered by bad behaviour of people around it, the seemingly tame Father Christmas will forget the intensive training and turn into a brutal beast. You better watch out, you better not cry, there’s no room for mistakes.”

Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions (2005) from Woodpecker Film.

Carsten Höller: the deers of perception

What could be more festive than spending a night locked in an art gallery with a dozen reindeer and a fridge full of psychedelic drugs?

A pen running the length of the Hamburger Bahnhof, now the city’s contemparary art museum, contains 12 reindeer, 24 canaries, eight mice and two flies. Giant toadstool sculptures are planted on a mushroom clock that the reindeer can turn with their antlers, and at the centre is a mushroom-shaped “floating hotel” – a bed on a platform complete with minibar, yours for €1,000 a night. (There’s also a raffle giving away free places.) […]

The urine is collected by handlers and stored in fridges by the walls, which also hold both dried and fresh fly agaric mushrooms. By day they’re locked, but at night the fridges are opened, allowing people staying over to sample the contents. However, because only half the reindeer are fed the mushrooms, it’s impossible to know which bottles, if any, contain hallucinogenic urine. […]

One side of the hall is the “test”, the other the “control”. Reindeer on the test side are fed the mushrooms. (“At least in principle,” says Höller, helpfully.) On each side, the reindeer urine is spread on the food of the other animals. From observation posts, visitors watch the behaviour of the canaries, mice and houseflies for signs of intoxication and form their own conclusions. […]

Dorothée Brill, the museum’s lead curator, says: “As far as we can tell, nobody’s done anything they shouldn’t have.” Staff at the restaurant, however, report that some guests “drink the minibar dry”.

chanukkah, illuminating my bedroom window

the first menorah candle of 2010
the first menorah candle of 2010

Chanukkah lights are not for the “lighting of the house within”, but rather for the “illumination of the house without”, so it’s traditional to put them in a window where they can be easily seen. This one is in my bedroom window, in a silver candlestick Silva gave me for my twenty-first birthday.

like hearing that pitter pat after a dead line of silence

Happy Holidays!
Enjoy yourselves, whatever it is you’re doing!

I have to admit that this December wasn’t looking very good. Bad luck was piling on bad luck, until I felt like I had somehow started an invisible count-down to an early grave. It seems, however, that everything was just clearing out of the way, leaving space to celebrate new, better foundations. There has been a bright side to every disaster. Because I was let go, I’m able to spend the holidays with Tony, who’s been saving up his use-it-or-lose-it Microserf vacation, and go with him to San Diego to see our friends, Mutaytor, perform with Rabbit In The Moon on New Years Eve at Evolve. Because my life crashed down all at once, I have been surrounded by love and care and support beyond my wildest dreams. I’m currently wearing a little silver frog ring and a pair of swooningly soft groverskin socks from Karen, for example, who sent me such a beautiful treasure package that I came down with a mild case of the weeps as I was carefully opening all the enchanting layers of ravishing colour and glee.

Thank you, my loves, my friends, my acquaintances, and you strangers. Thank you for everything!

gift guide: make yourself feel better by making other people feel better

The most essential component to any gift is the giving, so with this in mind, I’ve researched a number of trust-worthy charities in a number of categories. (Feel free to check up on them or find your own at, “your guide to intelligent giving”.) Many so-called charities come with nasty strings attached. They scoop the largest amount of the take for overhead and/or push religion on people, denying help based on faith, race, sexual orientation, gender, or even, as the Salvation Army has recently been caught doing, base nationalism.

These following organizations are, to the best of my knowledge, free of such traps. They encourage, educate, and work towards a more sustainable future.


  • Amensty International: Free prisoners of conscience, abolish the death penalty, stop violence against women and ensure the human rights of all people. Kapow!
  • Oxfam International: A confederation of 14 like-minded organizations working together to bring about lasting change, Oxfam offers direct action with their catalog of Unwrapped Gifts, presents like water jugs, school books, education, and goats, to benefit those living in poverty.
  • Kiva: The world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend to unique entrepreneurs around the globe. Working with the knowledge that your dollar goes significantly farther elsewhere in the world, browse the entrepreneurs’ profiles and choose someone to lend to. If you make your money back, lend it again! Only drawback: You, the lender, are not paid any interest, but the lendees do pay interest. This goes to the “local partners.”
  • Seva: Seva Canada’s mission is to restore sight and prevent blindness in the developing world, helping communities develop their own capacity to deliver affordable eye care services. Seva provides funding and expertise to partners in 7 countries and regions: Nepal, Tibet, India, Tanzania and eastern Africa, Guatemala, Cambodia and Egypt. Seva is creating sight programs that are locally managed, high volume, low cost, directed to those most in need, accessible to women and girls, and sustainable.
  • International Foundation for Education & Self-Help: Through self-help programs, IFESH specializes in education systems, health, community development and conflict mitigation. The work of IFESH supports the efforts of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals, particularly the eradication of poverty and hunger, achieving universal education, combating HIV/AIDS, promoting gender equality and maternal health.
  • Plan International: Sponsor a child! Tony’s got one named Ruth. We put her letters on the fridge. Founded over 70 years ago, Plan is one of the oldest and largest children’s development organisations in the world. We work in 48 developing countries across Africa, Asia and the Americas to promote child rights and lift millions of children out of poverty. Plan is independent, with no religious, political or governmental affiliations.
  • The Nature Conservancy: The leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people, they offer gifts like Adopt-An-Acre programs, which include coral reefs as well as the usual rainforests, tree planting, carbon offsets, and donations to particular wildlife and habitats. They also have a shop where 10% of all purchases go to supporting the Conservancy, but I’d go for the acres of land, myself.
  • World Wildlife Federation: Adopt an animal! Save the world and get something cute! With every symbolic adoption of one of the seventeen species, you receive a small kit that includes a plush version of the animal, a personalized adoption certificate, and a report detailing the work that your symbolic adoption will support. To spice up the usual OH NOES SAVE THEMS species, pandas, tigers, polar bears, they’re also offering zomg-cute! animals like meercats and black footed ferrets, and, for those better hearted humans who do not care if the animal they save is adorable, cod.
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation: An international non-profit advocacy and legal organization dedicated to the right to freedom of speech in the context of the digital age, they are principled, effective civil liberties watchdogs and I love them very much. Among their many, many attributes, they defend individuals and new technologies from baseless or misdirected legal threats, provide guidance to the government and courts, organize political action, and monitor and challenge potential legislation that would infringe on personal liberties and fair use. Become a member, directly donate, buy stock or nifty swag. They’re pretty darned clever with how they spend their money, so every penny counts.
  • Wikipedia: Jimmy Wales is a bit sleazy, but Wikipedia’s bigger than him these days, and if you’re even a little web savvy, you probably use it almost every day. They’re trying to give free access to the sum of all human knowledge. As projects go, that’s pretty spectacular, especially as a non-profit, as it’s only donations which keep Wikipedia alive.
  • Wikileaks: Similar, but not. Wikileaks is an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. It combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface, and provides an incredible service for human rights campaigners, investigative journalists, technologists and the general public.
  • The Salk Institute for Biological Studies: Founded by the developer of the polio vaccine, the Salk Institute is doing the basic lab research necessary to find cures for a whole host of human diseases. The major areas of study are: Molecular Biology and Genetics; Neurosciences; and Plant Biology. Knowledge acquired in Salk laboratories provides new understanding and potential new therapies and treatments for a range of diseases — from cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease, to cardiovascular disorders, anomalies of the brain and birth defects. Studies in plant biology at the Salk may one day help improve the quality and quantity of the world’s food supply.
  • Doctors Without Borders: An international medical humanitarian organization working to assist people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, DWB provides aid in nearly 60 countries. In 1999, they received the Nobel Peace Prize. The organization is committed to bringing quality medical care to people caught in crisis regardless of race, religion, or political affiliation.
  • gift guide: I have both wagered life and land, Your love and good-will for to have.

    By almost any argument, living in an apartment is good for the environment. By compacting our living space, we’re using less resources, reducing our footprint, and discouraging car culture. Sure. Okay. But where’s the garden? No matter how nice our pad, public parks and apartment complex courtyards don’t measure up to having a back yard, which is where this next bit of gift guide list comes in, presenting indoor garden alternatives to augment our kitchen potted plants and tiny windowsill flower boxes.


  • Air Plants: Like fresh air but don’t have the knack of keeping plants alive? These weird, bizarrely wonderful plants grow on anything, in any direction, even upside down, and require little to no watering. I first encountered them at Paxton Gate, where dignified arrangements of them were hanging flat on the walls on square planks of wood. Distinctly odd, that, and terrific. Etsy is an excellent place to find a whole spectrum of terrariums with air plants inside. Steampunk vases exist, as do sleekly modern vases, vases in the shape of cute teapots, faux jellyfish, and miniature arrangements.
  • Wooly Pockets: First spotted over on Apartment Therapy in June, these vertical garden eco-planters have been spreading to design sites everywhere. Created by the same couple responsible for the SmogShoppe, the greenest event space in California, they’re lightweight, made from recycled bottles, suitable for indoor as well as outdoor use, and positively elegant, as both an object and a solution. The only drawback is that they’re a little pricey. Pockets start at $39 and go up from there.

    Which brings me to..

  • DIY Windowfarms: Vertical, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, high-yield edible window gardens built using low-impact or recycled local materials that generally cost about $30 to start. They’re not as chic as the Woolly Pockets, but for a similar thing, they have a higher yield for far, far cheaper. Instructions on how to make your own are available on their site as free PDFs and starter kits will be available for purchase soon. (If you live in NYC and are feeling especially short on time, you can commission a team of windowfarm experts to come make you one.)