Monday, April 26, 2010

Wanted for Multiple Planticide

By Susan Esther Barnes

There were no early warning signs when I was a child. I was not caught lighting bushes on fire or throwing potted ivy into the swimming pool. True, from time to time I could be seen stabbing toothpicks into an avocado seed, but that was ostensibly for the purpose of growing a plant out of it.

My first apartment was completely devoid of all plant life, other than the mold on the dirty dishes in the sink. This did not inspire me to visit a nursery, but it did result in a promise to myself that my future residences would contain a dishwashing machine. Who, then, could have predicted my future would include the horror of multiple planticide?

My crime spree started after the death of my paternal grandmother, may her memory be a blessing. She had a fine collection of african violets, which some fair-minded person decided should be divided among her survivors. The two or three plants assigned to me didn’t last long.

My misguided career in attempted plant care may have ended there, but for my misfortune in marrying a man who had multiple plants, both live and plastic. Neither of us ever touched the things, which thrived under the care of the housekeeper, who only came once a week, making it look easy.

Alas, I did not heed the warning sign when I decided to buy a new houseplant and then stopped for groceries on my way home. It did not occur to me that the admonition not to leave pets or small children locked in a hot car might apply to plants as well. I can still see the bewilderment on the housekeeper’s face as he timidly asked, “Why did you buy a plant with so many brown leaves?”

Buoyed by the housekeeper’s success, and perhaps unconsciously hearkening back to a simpler time when I harbored mold in the sink, when my marriage ended and I found myself once again in my own tiny apartment (with a dishwasher!), I concluded I could likely nourish some plants of my own.

Imagine my shock when, some months later, I stepped through my front door to find plant bits and dirt strewn across my living room floor. What planticidal maniac (and possible soulmate?) could have broken into my apartment and, in a fit of anti-herbacious rage, proceeded to tear my poor houseplant limb from limb?

I considered fleeing in case the intruder were still nearby, but instead I summoned enough courage to investigate the scene of the crime. The victim had been a succulent, with multiple “arms” meeting in the dirt in the center of the pot. Apparently, overwatering had caused the bottoms of the arms to rot where they met the soil, until eventually the weight of the arms caused the lower parts to break off suddenly, thereby turning each arm into a separate catapult, launching the dirt and rotted plant parts in all directions. It is now remembered fondly as the Amazing Exploding Plant.

After I remarried and we moved into our new home, my husband and I were given four or five houseplants as housewarming gifts. Some succumbed quickly, while others struggled in a gamely fashion for some time, but within a year the only survivor was the orchid. After the flowers died the leaves still looked green, I went to the nearby nursery for advice. “How is this plant the sole survivor,” I wondered, “Aren’t orchids hard to care for?”

The nice man behind the counter assured me, “Oh, no! Keep doing what you’ve been doing, and it will bloom again next year. Orchids love neglect!” I followed his advice, and the orchid is once again in full bloom, lording a glorious row of gorgeous flowers over a half-dead victory rose, a hibiscus stump, and three pots of scraggly herb sprouts.

And that is the trouble that keeps us addicts and serial killers coming back for more. Despite the horror and the suffering, it is these moments of ecstasy that we keep trying so desperately to recreate. “If I just get one more plant,” I tell myself, “maybe this time it will bloom and thrive.” And so the planticide continues. Pray for them.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ethics in a Virtual World

By Susan Esther Barnes

My husband was playing an online video game when an ethical dilemma arose. He was in a raid of 25 people, some of whom were strangers, and some of whom were in the same guild as him. (A guild is a group of people who play together regularly, and may have their own set of rules regarding behavior, how loot is distributed, etc). The raid members, working together, killed a monster, which dropped a rare axe that is one of the best weapons currently available in the game. The game allows the players two hours to decide who gets the item. Once those two hours are up, the person who has the item cannot give it or sell it to someone else, even if they want to.

Before the raid started, the players had agreed they would distribute loot using a common system, called “need before greed.” In this system, anyone who could use the item for their own personal use (as opposed to selling it for cash) would use the game’s random number generator to “roll” a number from 1 to 100. The person who gets the highest number wins the item.

This particular axe would have been a big upgrade for my husband’s character. Winning the item would have given his guild a better chance of killing a difficult monster they had been working on over the last few weeks. So my husband rolled for the item, and out of all the people trying to get it, his number was the third highest. The person who rolled the highest number, who I’ll call person A, won the item. No fuss, no muss.

The dilemma arose when person A, upon looking at the item a second time, contemplated the fact that he already had a pretty good weapon, so the axe was only a minor upgrade for him. Further, he is in the same guild as my husband, realized the item would be a much bigger upgrade for my husband, and determined that if my husband had the weapon, it would greatly increase their guild’s chances of killing the monster they had been trying to kill. As a result, he tried to give the weapon to my husband, while sending him a private message that said, “Shh, don’t say anything.”

My husband, who badly wanted the weapon and understood the benefit to the guild if he were to have it, was worried about person B, who was not in the guild and who had rolled the second highest number. Clearly, person A was also concerned about the reaction of person B, or there would have been no need for secrecy. Normally, if the person with the highest number decided they didn’t want the item, it would go to the person with the second highest roll.

A conversation ensued between person A, my husband, and the raid leader, who was also in the same guild as my husband and person A. The raid leader’s opinion was that person A had won the item, and therefore it was up to person A to decide whether to use it or to give it away to anyone he wanted. He thought this would not violate the “need before greed” agreement, since he was giving it away for free rather than selling it.

Although the raid leader’s argument sounded logical, and went along with what my husband wanted to hear, the fact remained that both person A and the raid leader encouraged my husband to keep quiet about it, and not to use the axe until later, when person B wasn’t around. If nothing else signaled that this plan wasn’t on the up-and-up, the secrecy was certainly a sign.

Looking at the situation from person B’s perspective, person A, the raid leader and my husband are all in the same guild. As a result, it doesn’t take a particularly paranoid mindset to think they may all be in cahoots together to get the best loot for their members. How does person B know whether person A rolled for the item with no intention of keeping it, but only to give my husband a better chance at getting it? Even if my husband didn’t use the item right away, if person B saw him with it later, and never saw person A with it, might he figure out what happened and feel cheated?

On the other hand, what obligation does my husband have to his guild to do whatever he can within the letter of the agreed-upon rules to get the best gear possible to give them the best possible chance to reach their goals?

The question arises, does it really matter? We are talking about a video game. The weapon in question is just pixels on a screen. In time, there will be new additions to the game, with new and better weapons. Eventually, everyone involved will move on to other games or other things. In the long view, why not just take the axe? What’s the difference?

It matters because, even though the game isn’t “real” and the axe isn’t “real” and even my husband’s character is just pretend, the feelings of the human beings playing the game are real. If person B feels cheated and angry, his real blood pressure in his real body will go up. His real world view about how people treat each other will change. And the guilt my husband would feel would be real. How he thinks about himself in the real world would change as well. What kind of person you are, your ethics and your values, are reflected in the virtual world, and have real world consequences.

Frankly, this is one of the things I like about online video games. It is in times like this that we get the chance to discover our own true nature, in a way we rarely get to in the real world. How often in the real world have you walked down the street and found a wallet full of money and had to decide what to do?

In this case, my husband asked me what I would do if I were him. I told him I know what I hope I would do, but it’s impossible for me to say for sure, because unless you’re the person experiencing it, you can’t really know how it feels. We all hope we would do the right thing, but until it actually happens to you, you can’t say for sure. Games give us a chance to discover our true selves by presenting us with ethical dilemmas and forcing us to make decisions that matter.

So what did he do? What would you do?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

It's Better to Have Loved and Lost...

By Susan Esther Barnes

It was sudden and unexpected. There were no lingering goodbyes, no time to savor our last moments together. It just happened. One day, much like every other day of my life, I was eating treyf (non-kosher food), and the next day, with no advance planning or noticeable forethought, I was not.

Though I admit I had dalliances with sausages and peppers, with ham and with shrimp, and a certain relationship with pepperoni pizza, my true love, it turns out in hindsight, was bacon. Bacon and lettuce sandwiches (no tomato, thank you), bacon on salad, and just plain bacon. This is the only thing I truly miss, the thing I wistfully think about; imagining its aroma, the texture of it on my tongue, the feel of it giving inexorably between my teeth as the flavor fills my senses.

It made me wonder, would it have been better to grow up in a kosher home, to have smelled bacon, perhaps at a friend’s house or in a restaurant, but never to have tasted it? Would it have been preferable to feel repulsed at even the thought of lifting a pork product toward my mouth?

Although I will never truly know what it would have been like, I don’t think it would be better. I like it this way. I like how this morning, when Rabbi Lezak mentioned kashrut (the set of Jewish dietary laws), I thought about my lost love, my bacon. I like that I thought about how I miss it, and what, if I abandoned kashrut, that first bite would taste like.

I like that, knowing fully what I am giving up, I know that by following this law I am in a covenant with God. I like that my next thought was, “I loved my bacon, but I love my relationship with God more.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Delivering a Fresh Batch of Hope

By Susan Esther Barnes

I actually wrote the following story over a month ago, but I didn't want to post it until after it was published in our synagogue's newsletter. All I did was take out a few names in the interests of privacy.

These days, teenagers lead busy, complicated lives. What with homework to finish, social and athletic activities to participate in, and numerous text messages to send, it seems they have time for little else. Why is it, then, that every Tuesday night Monica can be found baking cookies she won’t even get to eat?

Monica and her mother, Jessica, have always enjoyed spending time together in the kitchen. When Monica was preparing for her bat mitzvah last year, she was able to use her cooking skills when her class made a meal for the men staying at our synagogue as part of the temporary rotating winter shelter. “The best part was hanging out with the guys after they ate,” Monica exclaims, “I learned a lot of things from them that I wouldn’t have assumed. One of them even spoke Hebrew!”

Monica’s Torah portion, T’zav, was about making sacrifices, so for her mitzvah project she decided to sacrifice some of her time and energy each week by baking cookies for the men she had met at the homeless shelter. Now that it’s more than a year later and her obligation to do a mitzvah project is long past, Monica has faithfully continued to bake for the men every week again this winter.

“She does it all,” says Jessica, “All I do is drive her there to drop it off.” Asked why they do this every week, she says, “Everyone wants to do good stuff, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to do. At the synagogue they make it easy to do things for other people.”

Jessica also finds meaning in a term Rabbis Lezak and Kushner use, “hiddur mitzvah,” or “beautiful mitzvah,” which is about not only doing a mitzvah but doing it in a beautiful way. As Rabbi Kushner explains, “It is the difference between doing kiddush with a paper cup or doing kiddush with a cup a child made or someone gave to you.”

As Jessica describes it, “For me giving is purposeful and fulfilling. If someone took the time to help me and my family, it would give us a tiny bit of hope. You can’t live in your own head, in your own bubble. You can’t wait for someone else to do it.” And so, week after week, Jessica drives Monica to the synagogue to do a hiddur mitzvah; to drop off a freshly baked batch of hope.