Geela

I first met Geela Naiman in the early 1980s. There was an SF fan gathering at my house. Sherry Nehmer, an editor at Analog, was the featured speaker. Near the end of Nehmer’s talk, a friend of hers arrived to drive her home. That friend was Geela, though I didn’t hear her name at the time.

After he rose to fan prominence, I joked about Geela’s name: We had to keep Geela Naiman from ever meeting her anti-matter duplicate, Neil Gaiman. According to a Star Trek episode, if they ever met the universe would be destroyed. Since the universe still exists, I guess we dodged a bullet.

A few years later, in 1987, I was working on my thesis experiment at Fermilab near Chicago. One of my fellow grad students was Walter. After I moved to Nyack to perform the data analysis of my experiments, I met more of Walter’s friends and became a part of that circle: Geela, John, Deborah, and Jon. Typically we played D&D together and visited Ren Faires.

John and Geela got married. They held two wedding ceremonies, one for their family and friends in the NY/NJ area, and another for those in the Chicago area. I was one of the few who attended both ceremonies.

As an outgrowth of our D&D games, I suggested that we join a LARP. Here we are:

bronze-rose
This is the Bronze Rose adventuring group at what was then NERO-NJ, circa 1991-1992. (NERO-NJ later became LAIRE, the Live-Action Interactive Role-playing Explorers.) Clockwise from the left, here are Janet, Jon, Paul, Bill, Geela, and John.

Geela played a Halfling Rogue, Periwinkle Pipe. For her role, Geela wore a gray hooded cloak and sneakers that she covered with fur. The fun thing about adventuring with Geela is that she didn’t need any special “rogue skills” for the game. When she walked through the woods dressed in her costume, you really couldn’t see her, even when she was part of our party and we knew where she was!

After a few years, the Bronze Rose group faded and they stopped coming to LAIRE.

Geela entered a more difficult time in her life. She’d had bouts of mental illness before, and they finally reached a point where she had to go on full disability. She occasionally stayed in hospitals during that time. John stood by her and did what he could.

Eventually Geela and John got divorced. It was not only mutual, it was better for both of them. In the years afterward, they’d describe themselves as “happily divorced” and say they were a much better couple now than they had been when they were married.

I hosted my 40th birthday party in 1999. It was a LARP party. Geela came dressed as her character from LAIRE, but in a more colorful outfit suitable for celebration. Here she is, dancing during a Bardic Circle we held:

dancing5

A couple of weeks after that party, Geela invited me over to her place. John was there, but he left early and I was a bit surprised. Later, I achieved understanding when Geela made a pass at me. I joyfully intercepted.

We dated for a year or so. During that time she attended some Wiccan events with me. She liked the people and the mood, but there were elements of the rituals that bothered her; for example, everyone saluting the Quarters in unison. I accepted that Wicca was not for her. It surprised me in 2002 when she attended Free Spirit Gathering, but in short rations: she stayed with Sherry Nehmer (who lived nearby) overnight, and only attended the bonfire once. For her, the wild moment of the event was when Vann painted a few simple vines her arm.

She was the one who ended our relationship. She was growing closer to her family and community, and they were Orthodox Jews. They’d never accept her dating a Wiccan. Even if I’d been willing (and I was not) to pretend to be Orthodox in their presence, for years she’d told them stories about her friend Bill the Wiccan. A switch on my part would simply not be believable.

We remained friends, though.

With her LARP experience, I thought Geela would enjoy attending Mystic Realms. She attended an event and enjoyed it, though not enough to come back. What I remember most about her visit is her leaving early and getting into difficulty. She was in the parking lot and getting her car out, when she suddenly felt weak and disoriented. I went to her, and we raided the kitchen to get her something to eat. Presently she felt better and was able to drive home.

At a later visit to my place, she commented that what she experienced at MR was one of the symptoms of her mental illness. She said it most often occurred when she was in a supermarket. She’d be a food aisle and trying to make choices, and then gray out or feel disassociated.

I commented, “To a diabetic everything seems like diabetes, but what happened at MR and at the supermarket sounds an awful lot like low blood sugar. May I use my kit to measure it?” She consented, and I got a reading of 50. For comparison, 80 is normal for most people who haven’t eaten, and we had eaten a little while before. I strongly advised her to see a doctor.

She did. The doctor took her blood sugar, saw the reading, then immediately walked out of the office. He came back with a muffin and told her “Eat this now!” She was diagnosed with hypoglycemia and was given medication for it.

I was glad I was able to help her, but I was also furious. Geela had real mental problems, and I don’t mean to diminish them. But she was also being treated as if her physical problem of low blood sugar was a psychological disorder. She was in a hospital and being treated by doctors. Why didn’t they recognize the symptoms when Geela described them? Were they so focused on mental illness that they couldn’t recognize the obvious?

Let’s shift the focus back to Geela and her love of Judaism.

I’d invite Geela every year to my Passover seder. She came to my first one in 1994, but since then she attended the one given by her family. For some reason, she was available just once in the early 2000s. She came, and my seders forever changed.

My seders are based on the practices of my family that I learned in the 60s. Geela brought ideas with her that I’d never learned: Miriam’s Cup (an acknowledgement of women in Judaism), the orange on the seder tray (an acknowledgement of gays and lesbians in Judaism). But what made the greatest impression is what we later called the “Rocky Horror Plagues.” My family had solemnly listed the ten plagues and left it at that. Geela brought with her a “ten plagues kit” with props for us to play with and scripts for us to read.

Since then, I’ve had my own kit that I bring to each Passover. For a while the hosts of my seders could look forward to cleaning up plastic locusts for a few days after each ceremony. I’ve since graduated to ten-plagues finger puppets. None of that would have happened without Geela.

Going into the 2010s, I saw Geela less frequently. We’d make plans to visit, but most of the time she had to cancel due to illness, mental or physical. I got the impression that life was getting harder for her. The last time I saw her was when she and John paid me a visit during my medical convalescence.

Last Sunday, John wrote me to let me know that Geela passed away on the evening of Saturday, September 14, 2019. She will be buried in Israel on Tuesday, September 17.

So it goes.

Postscript:

One of my students learned a few years ago that they were technically Jewish through matrilineal descent, even though none of their family in that line practiced Judaism. That student had become more interested in their Jewish heritage.

On the night Geela passed away, there was a Wiccan gathering at my place. The discussion had turned to hamsas. I had a hamsa sitting on a cabinet. It had been a gift from my mother. It was pretty, with a ying-yang symbol in the palm and several pieces of colored glass around the base of the palm. It had a Hebrew inscription, which I did not know how to read. On the back was printed “Made in Israel.”

I picked it up. I told the student, “I’ve had this for years, and I’ve never used it or carried it. If you’d like to have it, to connect you with Judaism or for any other reason, please take it.” They did.

I think Geela would have been pleased. I am saddened that my student will never get a chance to meet Geela and share their heritage with each other.

The Four Doctors

This is a follow-up to my post The Three Doctors. Again, it’s not a Doctor Who post.

I’ve got a PhD in particle physics, am a doctor by courtesy with Universal Life Church, and also a doctor by courtesy with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Why would I want another?

The issue is being able to perform weddings. The ULC is widely known, and is not regarded as a “real” church. I’ve performed weddings with my ULC credentials, and it hasn’t been a problem. But there’s one region nearby where those credentials would not be recognized: New York City.

I don’t know any Wiccans in New York City, at least not personally, nor anyone else who might choose me as an officiant for a NYC wedding. (There’s one exception, but I’ve already officiated at his wedding in a ceremony outside NYC.) I don’t anticipate ever needing to do so.

Still, I wanted to have that option. It’s a minor matter, but I’d like to make my ministry credentials as complete as I can.

So I got my fourth “doctorate”, this time with American Marriage Ministries:

AMM certificates

The ULC and AMM are similar in that they both offer free ordinations on-line. Neither is more valid in places like Tennessee that don’t recognize ministerial credentials from on-line sources. The difference is that AMM focuses on marriages; their ordination packet contains lots of useful information on counseling couples and performing ceremonies.

More importantly for me, they include any special instructions needed to have their ordinations recognized in places with special regulations, such as NYC. I followed their directions, jumped through the hoops, and received the following in the mail today. There is a subtle error on the certificate issued by the Office of the County Clerk in the City of New York. See if you can spot it.

NYC Certificate of Marriage Officiant Registration blurred

Oh well. But it’s still official: If you want to get married at the top of the Empire State Building, I can officiate.

This means that my full alphabet soup of titles is now:

Doctor Doctor Doctor Doctor William Glenn Seligman, B.S., M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D., D.ULC, D.FSM, D.AMM, PBK

Despite all this, my cat treats me in the same way. I suppose I have to expect the same from everyone else.

The Witches of Drustvar

I’ve played in World of Warcraft (WoW) since before its formal beginning; that is, I played in WoW beta test in 2004.

When you start either a Human or a Dwarf character in WoW, you quickly learn about flying between the Human capital of Stormwind and the Dwarf capital of Ironforge. Your character flies on the back of a gryphon from one city to another. You get to see the landscape as you travel above zones that, at the start of your character’s adventures in the game, are too dangerous for you to enter. One of those zones is the Burning Steppes, and within the Burning Steppes is a site called the Altar of Storms.

In the first WoW beta test, as I flew over the Altar of Storms, I saw a giant pentacle inscribed on the ground. As a Wiccan, I couldn’t help but be curious. During the beta test I never got to a high enough level to visit the location.

The full World of Warcraft was released in November 2004. When I took the gryphon between Stormwind and Ironforge, I saw the pentacle in the Altar of Storms was gone. It was replaced by a more abstract design. I never knew the reason for the change. Did anyone complain? I don’t know.

That was the only connection between World of Warcraft and Wicca over the years I played the game… until now.

In August 2018 Blizzard Entertainment released the latest expansion to World of Warcraft, Battle For Azeroth. One of the new zones added to the game is Drustvar. In Drustvar, there are witches.

The entire zone has general autumnal/Halloween feel to it, and these witches follow suit. They are entirely evil. They form an organization called the Heartsbane Coven. Their goal is to terrorize the people of Drustvar through curses and magic. They generally take one of two forms: a classic bent-over Halloween witch (vaguely resembling Laurie Cabot on a bad hair day), or an ethereal beautiful-but-deadly creature.

When your character interacts with these witches, they will always attack and try to kill your avatar. They say phrases like “The Coven will slay you all!” The non-player characters (NPCs) in Drustvar, like the NPCs throughout World of Warcraft, have random phrases they say when you click on them; in Drustvar, these phrases include “Death to the coven!” or “Death to all witches!”

I’m part of a community of gamers who play WoW. I was warned by one of them about Drustvar before I sent my character there. In context of the game, a player has no choice but to send their character to Drustvar and encounter these witches, since there are some long-term goals that can only be realized by doing so.

You can guess that, as a Wiccan and a Witch, this bothers me.

It’s not as if the designers of WoW are isolated from the world in some way. There are tons of pop culture references throughout the game. I wouldn’t expect them to know about Wicca explicitly, but they’d certainly know about Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In today’s media culture, it’s hard to avoid knowing that Witchcraft is a “thing” and that some people take it seriously.

If the WoW designers knew this, they ignored it. They went full-on “Satanic panic”. They reinforced that message with frequent anti-witch sentiments when you click your mouse on a character in Drustvar.

There nothing much that can be done. I’m certainly not the only Wiccan who plays World of Warcraft (there’s at least a couple in my gaming community), but I get the impression that our reaction is to put up with it.

I’m also aware that there many other similar issues associated with marginalized groups that deserve more attention than a computer game: gender discrimination, racial inequality, LGBTQ+ acceptance, believing assault survivors, and so on. The Witches of Drustvar are meaningless compared to the real-world violence and discrimination experienced by millions in this country and throughout the nations that play World of Warcraft.

So I can whine, but that’s it. It’s less than a first-world problem. Is there such a thing as a zeroth-world problem?

In case you’re wondering, I have not yet sent my Orc character through the zone of Nazmir to encounter the loa Bwonsamdi. I understand he gets fairer treatment than the witches do. Perhaps he deserves it!

A Witch Does Passover – 2018

The seder on Friday night was grand. It had all the usual elements: Good food, good people, and everyone wincing at the sound of my singing voice. (I can’t sing, but I never let that stop me.)

One major topic of conversation at this seder focused on the Wicked Son: why do people make a forced distinction between themselves and the rest of the world.

My usual notes:

– There’s always a debate on how well-cooked people like their roasts. I’d prefer an internal temperature of 140 degrees; rare-meat lovers would prefer 125. We settled on 135 so everyone could complain.

– The supermarket butcher told me, “You don’t have to order the roast in advance; we’ll have it.” He was well-meaning, but he didn’t consider that I might come in to get the roast just after the start of the butchers’ lunch hour. I had to hang around the supermarket for 45 minutes on shopping day. Always ask them to prepare the order in advance.

– I’d planned the seder to server 9 people, though only 7 could make it. There were barely enough latkes for 7. For the next large seder, get two boxes of potato pancake mix, perhaps using three envelopes.

– While we’re on the subject of latkes: Don’t forget that the latkes will get darker when I heat them up in the oven. They don’t have to come out of the frying pan fully brown.

– There weren’t as many matzoh balls from one box of the matzoh-ball mix as I would have wanted. Next time consider getting two boxes of mix, again perhaps using three envelopes.

– Make sure the oven is turned on when you bake the apple kugel. We had to hang around for additional half-hour after I noticed that it wasn’t heating. We spent the extra time and chatted with each other, so the time wasn’t wasted, but it did make for very late evening.

– “Behold this matzoh. It’s a symbol of our land. You can eat it at a seder. You can hold it in your hand. Amen.”

The Colors of the Kaballah

I’ve just finished my first color design project for my Shapeways shop, Kickin’ Wiccan. It proved to be challenging in ways I did not expect.

My goal was to create a full-color three-dimensional model of the Tree of Life. For anyone not familiar with the Tree of Life, it’s the best-known design from the Jewish mystical interpretation of the Bible, the Kaballah (or Qabala, depending on how you Anglicize the Hebrew spelling). The Tree of Life has a basic shape that’s easy to build in a 3D program from simple spheres and cylinders:

3D Tree of Life (uncolored)

That’s not the full story. Each element of the Tree of Life, both the spheres and the paths that connect them, have strictly-defined colors according the Kaballah. Here’s the same model with those colors, as best as I could apply them:

3D Tree of Life (Queen Scale)

Why “as best as I could apply them?” Because the descriptions of the colors of the Tree of Life are far from simple. In my 3D modeling program Cheetah3D, I set the colors with the same hexadecimal codes used for web graphics. I can look up those codes for basic colors; e.g., the code for emerald is “#50c878”. It’s not as easy to look up the color “Purple tinged blue”.

You may notice that the path in the lower right of the picture looks mottled. That’s because its color description is “buff flecked silver-white”. There’s no simple web code for that! So I had to learn about how to apply textures to shapes in Cheetah3D. And I had to learn how to use my 2D graphics tools, Pixelmator and Graphic, to design those textures.

Why “textures” in the plural? Because the colors shown in the above Tree of Life are not the only ones. There are four “color scales” of the Tree of Life, corresponding to the four Kaballistic worlds: the King scale, the Queen scale, the Prince scale, and the Princess scale. The most commonly-used one is the Queen scale, but Kaballah experts use all four. I couldn’t consider the project done until I could make all four color scales available in my Shapeways shop. Here are the other three scales: King, Prince, and Princess.

3D Tree of Life (King Scale)
3D Tree of Life (Prince Scale)
3D Tree of Life (Princess Scale)

These scales posed additional challenges. For one thing, the text description of the colors in the Kaballah grow even more exotic: “Reddish gray inclined to mauve”; “Livid indigo brown-black-beetle”. Perhaps a trained colorist can make sense of these descriptions. I had to make choices and go with the best approximations I could see with my limited color training.

The textures grow more complex as well: “White, flecked red, blue, yellow”; “Bright rose or cerise, rayed pale green”. I’m not sure who wrote the colors from their divine visions (tradition says it was the biblical Moses, history says it was a 14th-century fellow named Moses de Leon), but I don’t think they considered the practical challenge of how to draw them.

The textures I’ve created are broad, almost cartoonish. That’s because there’s another issue I had to deal with: using Shapeways’ 3D-printed color sandstone as a medium. The fact that one can 3D-print in color is amazing, and the gamut of available colors is huge. However, the sandstone powder absorbs the color ink, so the effective texture resolution is 50 dots-per-inch. That’s why the texture shapes are so broad. I’d prefer to use tiny dots for flecks and thin lines for rays, but they would not be visible in the actual print.

How did it come out? Here’s the picture from my Shapeways shop:
3D full-color sandstone model from Shapeways
Here’s my computer model again. Compare the colors.
3D Tree of Life (Queen Scale)
Close, but not identical. The method I use to specify the colors in my 3D model (RGB, for red-green-blue) is different from the color mechanism used by Shapeways’ 3D sandstone printer (CMYK, for cyan-magenta-yellow-black). The conversion from one format to another can cause color shifts. Also, colors that are close in tone (e.g., the “buff flecked silver-white” path on the lower right) may not be readily distinguishable, especially if they’re shades of brown. To be fair, there are other issues as well: the lighting of the sculpture, both in the 3D software and in the room I took the picture; the color response of the camera in my phone.

Then there’s the complexity of keeping track of 32 colors or textures on four different models, 128 surfaces in all. Even during the course of typing this blog post, I discovered errors and had to correct them. If you’re a master Kaballist, you may be able to spot the mistakes that I had not fixed at the time I made the pictures above. Professional computer modelers do this as a matter of course, but I must resort to guides on the web, with frequent consultations of The Golden Dawn.

These are complex issues. There are people whose entire careers are based on color-matching in different media. Devotees of the Kaballah like precision, and so I’ve tried to be precise, knowing there are limits to my precision. At this point, I have to settle. I’ve done the best I can do with my current set of skills, the tools at hand, and the medium I chose.

Ten years ago, these tools did not exist; ten years from now they may progress to the point where I can come closer to what the visionaries say they should be. I hope the desire of students of the Kaballah for 3D models of an important image will outweigh the deviations from the ideal. Besides, they can feel superior in knowing that the color of the topmost sphere in the Beriyah world should be “white brilliance” and not merely white.

The Three Doctors

No, this isn’t a Doctor Who post!

I’ve performed seven weddings so far. My rate for starting successful marriages is: Three couples are still together, two marriages ended because one of the partners passed on, and two divorces. That’s roughly the national average. Note that, in order to maintain my average, Deborah Lipp is forbidden to die.

My spiritual qualification for performing weddings is that I’m a High Priest of the Wicca, in the Gardnerian Tradition. My legal qualification is that I’m ordained in the Universal Life Church (ULC).

I’m far from the only Wiccan to use the ULC as a religious organization for performing weddings. Pagans and Wiccans have been doing this for decades. Isaac Bonewits joined the ULC in the 60s.

This has been a matter of necessity, rather than a matter of choice. The resources for jumping through the hoops to get legal recognition for a religious organization are beyond the means of most pagans, especially since many pagan groups (including Wiccans) are “living-room worshipers” with few members in the “congregation.”

I happened to mention this to Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, a major figure in the Neopagan religious movement. He was not sympathetic about the difficulties in obtaining ordination in a legally-recognized religious group. He pointed out that everyone knows what the ULC is. He asked me if I thought that ULC religious credentials proved that you were qualified to offer spiritual and religious guidance. I told him the truth: no, no one does. The current qualification for being ordained by the ULC is to hit a button on their web site.

He asked me where I thought my spiritual and religious qualifications came from. I thought a moment. I answered that I’d spent years offering spiritual instruction as a teacher of my Wiccan group, Acorn Garden, and in Hermes Council. As part of my religious training I had to do service offering help and outreach, and I’d chosen the Bergen County Rape Crisis Center; I did volunteer work for them for two years.

He then asked, if I felt that these qualified me to represent myself publicly as an officer in a religion, why don’t I get myself ordained by a recognized religion instead of what’s widely regarded as a tax dodge? Why not be serious about my religious credentials? Why not prove that I’m capable of pastoral counseling?

I answered that I didn’t know how to go about doing this. He pointed out two pagan organizations that offer serious ordination: the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and the Church of All Worlds (CAW).

Oberon was right, of course. I looked into both groups. The basic requirement for joining CoG is be vouched for by two existing CoG members. I don’t know anyone from CoG in my general circle of pagan friends.

CAW has just resurrected itself after being dormant for a few years. I looked at their web site, and while there is a path to ordination, it appears that part of the process is that I’d have to identify my Wiccan group Acorn Garden as a CAW Nest. I’m not prepared to go that far. Probably it’s just pride; it’s not as if there’s an important practical different between the theologies of Wicca and CAW, and even their religious practices would seem almost the same to someone who wasn’t a pagan.

That raises an issue that I did not discuss with Oberon: with either CoG or CAW, I’d be working to get ordained by their institution, only to drop the association as soon as I had the ordination certificate in my hot little hands to run off and practice Gardnerian Wicca. That seems disingenuous to me. I’d be using them to achieve a legal goal, instead of what the ordination’s purpose is supposed to be: a commitment to provide counseling within the context of that tradition.

At this point, getting myself seriously ordained is on my bucket list, but it’s not high on my list of priorities. I don’t see a path that allows me to do this and still be truthful and honest to both myself and the organization that’s granting me the ordination.

Now I’m going to set aside the “serious” part: Why did I title this post “The Three Doctors”?

When you join the ULC, you are permitted to designate yourself with any title you feel is appropriate: Minister, Reverend, Holiness, etc. I picked “Doctor.”

Of course, I already have a Ph.D. in particle physics (awarded by a respected and accredited institution, Columbia University, which goes back to what Oberon said; sigh). I was already Doctor Seligman, though I don’t normally use that honorific. Combining the ordination with my scholarly credentials made me Doctor Doctor Seligman.

This is not without its pitfalls. When I fill out a marriage license, I put my religious title of “Doctor” on a form. One of the marriages I performed was for a couple who needed to be legally married by a deadline in order for the wife to be covered by her husband’s insurance. After they submitted the marriage license to the county clerk’s office, it was held up because the clerk didn’t understand the honorific “Doctor” on a marriage license, and the couple missed the deadline.

I apologized to them for what had happened, but they didn’t blame me. They pointed out that if they’d been Baptists, “Doctor” would have appeared on the license anyway. The problem was the clerk’s ignorance, not my choice of title.

As I’ve said, serious ordination eludes me. But non-serious ones are still available: May you be touched by his Noodly Appendage

Again, I can choose my title as an ordained member of this religion. Again, I choose the title “Doctor.” I am therefore:

Doctor Doctor Doctor William Glenn Seligman, B.S., M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D., D.ULC, D.FSM, PBK

Please just call me Bill. There is no need to bow.

Gratitude, with fireworks

Last night, the Fourth of July, I went to a friend’s house in Ridgewood NJ. Aside from the pleasant company of the hosts and their guests, their home is only a couple of blocks away from the town’s annual fireworks display. When it got dark, we walked to a parking lot and watched the fireworks as they were launched from a field across the steet.

I’ve seen the Ridgewood fireworks before, and they’re always grand. This year was the best they’ve ever done. It was the perfect blend of color, design, and style. The technology of fireworks has improved considerably over the years; when I was a kid there were certainly no fireworks that could explode in the shape of a smiley face!

As I watched the fiery trails arc across the sky and transform into expanding globes of alternating colors, my main feeling was one of gratitude.

– I was grateful that, despite all my vision problems of recent years, I could still enjoy the sight of fireworks.

– I was grateful that I had a “zero-gravity” chair that I could use to get the best view… and even more grateful that, despite weakness imposed by cancer and problems with my feet, I was now well enough to carry that chair from my car to the parking lot.

– I was grateful that I knew why there was a delay between seeing the explosion and hearing it, and that I could use that knowledge to estimate how far the fireworks were above us (about 200 feet, if you’re curious).

– I was grateful that, as we were waiting for the fireworks, I could see the first-quarter moon, Mars, Saturn, Spica, and Arcturus, and identify them for what they were.

– I was grateful for a life that let me have the luxury to travel to that spot, in that time, to watch the year-long effort of the people who crafted those fireworks for the pleasure of other people enjoying themselves.

The people around me were going “oooh” and “ahhh.” I “oooh”ed and “ahhh”ed with them. I don’t know what they felt at that moment. For me, and from me, a thanks to all those who made that moment possible.