daily kaddish: uff da


Tonight’s Kaddish (2010.11.28_uffDa) was humbling. I tagged it “uff da,” which is the Scandinavian version of “oy vey.”

In the course of schlepping to shul (certainly it must feel that way some days) to say Kaddish day in and day out for a year and a day, I figure there must be days that it’s just a nuisance. Your heart isn’t in it, you’re tired, you’re preoccupied with a matter at work, and you’d love nothing more to skip it. But you go anyway, you greet people without really noticing them, you mumble through Kaddish, and you leave in the same crappy mood as you arrived. You haven’t heard what you’ve said; you have just said it and moved on.

Tonight’s Kaddish was like that.

I had a frustrating afternoon. I’m trying to program a recursive algorithm, part of meeting a deadline a few days from now, and although I can see the pattern, I can’t seem to untangle how to write the code. Recursion is an elegant mathematical concept, and it just about makes my day when I realize that a problem at hand could be solved recursively. It’s magical how recursion works:

  • know how to solve it for 1?
  • given some number n, know how to solve it as a function of the same problem for n–1?
  • great! write it as the function of n–1, and then recurse down to 1.

It’s as if you can do something you don’t know how to do, just by knowing how to translate it into the next smaller problem—because then you can translate the next smaller problem into the problem smaller than that, and so on, until you’re down to the problem with size 1, which you know how to do.

But… I’m stuck. I can’t quite see it yet. The pattern of operations is intuitively obvious, but the algorithm for actually stepping through it is still fuzzy, so when I try to write the code, I just get myself all confused. After four hours of banging my head against it, I feel like I shouldn’t be working as a programmer. I don’t know what I’m doing! I can’t meet my deadline! I have no business being in this business.

In that mood, I took a Kaddish-and-dinner break. I did a perfunctory warm-up, started ProTools rolling, and then played a perfectly boring Kaddish. I mumbled through it, eager to be done. It sounds boring, I missed a bunch of notes, and the last several lines have all kinds of water rattling around in my horn, because I was too preoccupied to remember to dump my horn out thoroughly before starting.

In a few minutes, I’m going to get back to work, and I’m going to solve that problem tonight if it kills us both. And as I do, I’ll regain some perspective—I’ll remember that another way of looking at this is that if I’m not used to sucking at algorithms, it’s because normally I don’t.

But right now, I’m still grumpy, and I’m even more grumpy that my crappy mood destroyed the Kaddish. That moment to observe a daily musical ritual could have been a break, an opportunity to rinse off my brain, but my inattention to it meant that instead it was just one more thing that I did poorly today.

Sometimes observing a ritual is nothing but going through the motions.


By erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

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