Zen, and the Art of…

… Making Stuff

I was going to write this post anyway, as a short fluffy brag-piece (with some shameless promotion thrown in — after all, I’m “in the business” now). But then, just before beginning, I had the good fortune to read Iggy O’s latest post, Two Ways to Play & Virtual Worlds. Iggy, it would appear, has led a model life (pun most certainly intended!).

When I built a kit then, the banality […] fell away. I was lost completely in a task, one requiring the type of focus that a Zen Master would recognize. Yet immersion in the task was only part of the fun for me.

When I was a kid, I assembled plastic models, too. But I never got farther than gluing them together and sticking on the decals, not even to paint them. Probably just as well; free-hand art and I live on different planets. Give me the right tools, however…

In junior high, I had to take a “shop class”, a.k.a. Industrial Arts. Fate would have it, I chose Drafting… and I’ve supported myself through most of my life since by doing just that. Most of it has been using a computer and AutoCAD, but drafting is still drafting, in the final analysis. It also turns out that, instead of machine parts or circuit diagrams, I fell into the branch of engineering which assists architects in making buildings habitable, and not mere pretty but empty shells.

Decades later, I find myself in virtual worlds — first SL, then OSGrid and now InWorldz — and there at my disposal are tools to create things out of geometry, something I have some experience doing. There’s not much call in virtuality for the kind of systems I’ve spent my career designing to put in buildings (none at all, in fact), but there are the buildings themselves. Add to that: I found a partner (not just in business, either :) ) who also has a passion for building, and an excellent eye for decoration. Our relationship began with and grew around collaborative builds, and when we expanded our virtual presence to InWorldz, we decided to see if any of our stuff would sell.

Using InWorldz’ Classifieds listing (the only reliable search there, for now, but they’re free) I took a tour of other prefab sellers — to see what was out there, how we compared in quality, and to get an idea of price range. As you might expect in a virtual world so young, with SL outfits still just finding out about it, the competition was slim, the prices were all over the map, and the quality ranged from excellent to pure dreck. One thing I found on the high end of the quality (and price) scale was a small chapel, very prettily decked out and perfect for holding a small wedding, if you’re into that particular form of roleplay.

The problem — if you’ll allow me to call it that — with the chapel was: It was unabashedly Christian. I’m not. I’m a Jew. I’ve already noticed in SL that there is an overwhelming number of churches (as architecture, whether or not they’re used for worship), and very few synagogues, excepting the Second Life Synagogue and a couple of other builds in the same area. I resolved then and there that InWorldz would have at least one.

Modeling is rules-bound (fail to follow the instructions or mask before painting and you are usually doomed), so it predicates ludic play. Building models also involves the spontaneous and imaginative activities of paideia, when I scratch-build a part that the maker omitted, […] and decide on modifications…

[see Iggy’s post for ludus and paideia]

Houses of worship, no matter which flavor of worship they’re intended for, have rules, too. There are objects that characterize the practice of a religion, independent of the liturgy or the iconography (or lack thereof). In synagogues, there are two of those which are absolutely paramount: the Ark, where the scrolls of Torah are kept, and the bimah, from which they are read. Tradition also has it that the bimah should be raised at least three steps above the main floor. Using those rules and my memory of an old synagogue I used to attend, I guessed at an adequate width for the building and began:

You will find, if you spend a little time reading the forums about SL, frequent discussion about the scale of buildings and how avatar size and camera placement dictates that everything be bigger than it “should” be. I personally think there’s a bit too much tsuris about it, and my technique for keeping it close to real is to build it around me and test as I go. However, I did learn one important related lesson during this project: “bounding boxes” — that is, your avatar is bigger than you think. Put two pieces of furniture at a distance you judge by eye is adequate, and then try to get between them… You may find yourself spit out from the space like a watermelon seed because your invisible bounding box overlaps the prims you’re trying to stand between. There may not be physics in InWorldz yet, but in some cases, the Pauli Exclusion Principle does apply.

Once I had the bimah far enough from the Ark that I could fit between them, the next most important feature to consider was seating for the congregation. The rabbi of the synagogue I attend now likes the chairs arranged in arcs, so that everyone’s focused on the bimah. I adopted that to curved pews… once again, using my own avatar to test the spacing between them (there’s also a lectern from which the rest of the service can be led):

The old schul I used as inspiration had a balcony, so mine had to have one as well.  Mind you, I’m Reform, so that is emphatically not a “women’s balcony”.  It’s overflow seating for the High Holidays and bar/bat mitzvahs, of course!

By the way… if you’re engaging in a build which includes furniture, especially when that furniture has a specific formal arrangement, it’s a lot easier if you leave the walls for later.

The hardest part was the roof.  Of course, I couldn’t just make a rectangular floor plan with a simple two-leaf pitched roof, noooo…. I had to make the bimah end half of an irregular (but symmetrical) octagon.  At first I tried to place the roof pieces in situ, and I fought and fought with each one, switching back and forth between World and Local coordinate axes, trying to get them aligned, to no avail and to much frustration.  Finally, I had a flash of inspiration (while away from the computer, go figure…), that I may write a tutorial about soon — meanwhile, think “turntable” and maybe you’ll get it.

Textures… ah, yes.  A brick building was my inspiration, and among the textures in my file was that worn, pinkish brick wall.  Once I applied it, it reminded me very strongly of tiny country towns in the part of Texas I now live in, with many of their main buildings more than 100 years old… so I went with it, and textured the trim as “native” sandstone, another common building material in these parts (so common, in fact, that you can’t walk far without seeing outcroppings poking above the grass).  As for the furniture, I have one word: Madville.  I love her work, and the inlaid wood series was just the thing.

Here’s the (almost) finished work:

The other amenities I added are: a rack for tallitot (plural of tallis, the prayer shawl) with bins at the side for kipot (plural of kipah, which you may know by the Yiddish word yarmulke), and a table for prayer books.  They’re both to the right of the door in that second photo.

Oh, yes… one other essential item all synagogues must have: a ner tamid, or “eternal light” above the Ark.

Subtle, simple, soft glow in a brass bowl, floating without suspension or support as only objects in virtual worlds can do.

What this synagogue doesn’t have yet includes: Torah scrolls, books, better-defined stained glass, sit poses in the pews… a name… or a congregation.  It’s complete enough that I moved it from the building platform up to the “sales floor” where Alisa and I display our work — and I threw a mental dart and chose a price for it, even though you can’t actually buy it yet.

I also made a second sign, above the one you’ll eventually be able to click to buy a copy.  The sign reads:

I don’t really want to sell the first copy of the synagogue.  I want a minimum of ten Jewish avatars — “Grid Yids”, as my landsmann Crap Mariner calls them — to come to me and say “We’re a serious congregation.”  I’ll say, “You got land?” and if the answer is yes, they get their synagogue.  Free, with my blessings.


“Zen and the Art of Making Stuff”: ludus and paideia, scratch-building every piece but according to basic rules.  Yes, the hours melt away while you’re in The Building Zone.  Look away from the screen at some point and find it’s past midnight.  Look back at the screen and find pride in accomplishment, and that singular satisfaction only the self-taught, learn-by-doing folks know.  So what if it is “the hard way”?  That just makes it easier to remember.

Does a synagogue have Buddha nature?




Let there be Lights!

Hag semeach ~ It’s Hanukkah!

Maybe you’ve heard the story about the miracle of the lamp oil? Here’s an excellent summary of the whole deal, but – just to re-cap: As was common in ancient times, certain rulers got so full of themselves that they insisted their subjects worship them as gods. One such was Antiochus IV “Epiphanes”, who ruled one of the fragments of the Hellenistic empire founded by Alexander, and which happened to include Judea. In short, he caused the Temple in Jerusalem to be defiled with unclean deeds and things, including a statue of himself as Zeus, and forbade the practice of Judaism. An uprising followed, by traditionalist Jews collectively called Maccabees. Antiochus was busy elsewhere, fighting the Parthians, and the general he sent to put down the rebellion lost. The Temple was cleansed and restored, and proper worship could resume according to the commandments in Torah.

One of those commandments has to do with the menorah. You’ll find it in the descriptions of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:31-40), which was the portable temple carried by Moses’ people before they crossed the Jordan, to house the Ark. Although, according to that Wikipedia article, the fate of the original menorah is unknown, possibly the Maccabees had a new one made as part of the Temple restoration. That’s the “lamp” for which consecrated oil was needed.

Did you know that the Books of Maccabees which appear in the Roman and Orthodox Christian versions of the “Old Testament” are not part of the Jewish Bible? Back when I was studying to become a Jew, my rabbi explained why: the descendants of the Maccabees, whose dynasty was eventually called Hasmonean, did not preserve the tradition and became as Hellenistic as their former enemies.

The 8-day miracle? That’s what we call midrash — an allegory. Another fancy word for it is apochryphal. It’s most likely derived from the Megillat Antiochus, which is at least 400 years younger than the events it alleges to recount, and may have been written as much as 300 years later than that! One suspects that the ritual of lighting candles, and the Hanukkah menorah itself, comes from that bit of apocrypha, too.

So why is the holiday 8 days long? “Because Sukkot is,” said my rabbi. The Maccabean decree was for a feast of thanksgiving, and the pre-Hebraic harvest festival which became codified as Sukkot was the obvious example to follow. And why is it in what we now call December? First of all, one does not restore a holy place to its ritual cleanliness merely by scrubbing it. These things take time, especially if you’ve commissioned, among other things, a new menorah of (literally) Biblical proportions. Much more importantly, however — the Hebrew date of 25 Kislev was chosen deliberately to coincide with the Winter Solstice.

There are deep psychological reasons why every civilization of every age has a festival during the darkest part of the year, no matter how they justify it terms of religion, “pagan” or otherwise. It goes back tens of thousands of years, maybe even before anyone thought of gods… but the smart ones, even then, watched the sky and counted days and figured out when the sun would start rising earlier and setting later again. Placing our Festival of Lights at the same time gave us an officially-sanctioned Jewish reason to celebrate the same thing in our own way, without being seduced into idolatry.

Hanukkah is not “the Jewish Christmas”. It is older than that event by at least 164 years. And it has nothing to do with a day’s worth of oil lasting for eight. It commemorates, as do Passover and Purim, a victory over religious tyranny… and it sheds needed Light into the Darkness.