On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

On bowerbirds, process, and happiness.

We recently read Donika Kelly’s “Bower” in jail. 

I love this poem.  There’s a undercurrent of darkness as the bird constructs his pleasure dome. “Here, the iron smell of blood.”  But he is undeterred.  “And there, the bowerbird.  Watch as he manicures his lawn.”

This bowerbird has themed his edifice around sparkling bits of blue.  Bower birds incorporate all manner of found objects: berries, beetles (which must be repeatedly returned to their places as they attempt to crawl away), plastic scraps.  A bowerbird has a clear vision, a dream of which colors will go where, and scours the forest to find the treasures he needs.

Will high-contrast white in front of the brown bower bedazzle guests? Our artist can only hope. Image by davidfntau on Flickr.

Female bowerbirds raise children alone, so she doesn’t need a helpful partner..  Instead, she’ll choose someone who can show her a good time.  And her pleasure will be enhanced by a beautiful dome, a splendid arch beneath which several seconds of intercourse can transpire.

A mother-to-be typically visit several bowers before choosing her favorite.  During each inspection, the male will hop and flutter during her evaluation … and then slump, dejected, if she flies away.

Kelly closes her poem with the experience of a crestfallen artist: “And then, / how the female finds him, / lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

I especially love the wry irony of that final sentence.  We create art hoping to be fawned over; it’d feel nice to know that readers enjoyed a poem so much that they responded with a flush of desire for the author. 

But this is rare.  No piece of writing will appeal to all readers; an author is lucky if it appeals to any.  The same holds true for painting, music, and bowers.  A bowerbird hopes that his magnificent edifice will soon be the site of his acrobatic, if brief, bouts of copulation.  But his life will miserable if he can’t also take pleasure in the sheer act of creation. 

Female tropical birds are free to select whichever male they want.  Their flirtations are unlikely to be turned down.  And because each intimate encounter is vanishingly brief, a single male might service every female in an area.  The other males, having assembled less glorious bowers, will die without ever experiencing erotic delights.

And so a bowerbird needs to enjoy his own arch.  To endure, to thole, even if no one wants to fool around with him.  Even if no one looks.  He needs to feel pleasure as he assembles those beautiful hues.  Every visiting female might quickly fly away, but all that blue will have served a purpose.

I love the poem “Bower,” but I also hope that Kelly enjoyed writing her poem enough that my opinion doesn’t matter.

After reading “Bower,” our class got sidetracked into a wide-ranging conversation about birds.  At first, we did talk about bowerbirds.  Most of the guys had no idea that birds like that existed – that an animal might make art – but one guy had seen a television show about them years ago, and the program made such a deep impression on him that he still remembered much of it.  “They really do,” he said.  “I’ve seen it.  And they showed the people nearby, somebody who was eating breakfast cereal with like a plastic spoon, and this bird flew right over and took it.  Later they found bits of it all broken up, in this weird ring around the bird’s nest.”

And then this man started talking about crows.

He gesticulated profusely as he talked, which was rather distracting.  One of his hands had about 1.3 fingers; his ring finger was missing entirely, and the others, including his thumb, ended after the first knuckle.  I wouldn’t have felt so puzzled – stuff happens, after all – except that one of his stories involved chasing somebody with a steak knife, and this was the hand he brandished.

Many of the people in jail have suffered severe physical injuries.  When we were discussing personality manipulation and mind control, someone told me that he’d been hit by a truck and that everything in his life had felt flat and emotionless ever since.  He showed me the thick scar at the top of his head: “When it happened, I guess I was out for almost a week, and it took another month before I really remembered my name.  Even then, for that first year I felt like I was back in eighth grade again.”  He was twenty-something when it happened.

Another time, I asked a man if he wanted to read the next poem and he said he couldn’t, that he was disabled, then thumped his leg onto the table.  He had a rounded stump where most people’s foot would be.  I didn’t quite see the connection between his injury and the poem, and it’s not as though we ever force people to read.  We have a lot of guys with dyslexia, and I go in with the goal of making their Fridays a little more pleasant; no reason for somebody to suffer unnecessarily.

“I was working in a saw mill,” he said.  “Planer caught me and, zzooomp.  Didn’t even feel anything, at first.”

He got a legal settlement – a few guys muttered that they’d trade a foot for that kind of money – but his pain script led to more opiates and eventually the money was gone and he was in jail and the only help he was getting was from a PD.

But, right, back to the man gesticulating wildly as he talked about birds.  “Real smart animals,” he said.  “Especially crows.”

I nodded.  Crows can use tools – they’ll craft hooks out of wire, cut twigs into the length they need for various tasks.  Their brains are structured differently from primates’, which lets them cram just as many neurons into a much smaller volume

Photo by Natalie Uomini on Flickr.

The guy went on: “See, I was living in a tent, and cops kept coming by, harassing me.  Cause there’d always be all this trash on the ground.  They’d say, ‘look, we know that you’re sleeping here, but you can’t just leave all this shit everywhere.’  And they’d make me clean it up.  I’d do it, but then a day or two later, there’d be trash scattered everywhere again.  I thought it must be some homeless guys or something that was doing it.”

“But it turned out these crows – they knew I was drinking, that I’d never be up before about noon – and they were raiding the dumpster out behind McDonalds.  I only found out because I actually woke up one morning to piss.  And I looked up and these crows in the tree above me, they carried tied-off garbage bags way up into that tree and were tearing them apart, looking for things to eat.  And that’s how all that trash was getting everywhere.  I’d thought it was homeless guys, and it was crows!”

Male bowerbirds can afford to be such terrible parents because they live in tropical forests where there’s an abundance of food to eat.  Crows, though, need ingenuity to survive.  Sometimes they pick apart the leavings of hairless apes below.

Because crows raise their young in much harsher environs than bowerbirds, males contribute more than just DNA.  While a mother roosts, the father will gather food.  And so he’ll try to impress a potential mate, beforehand, with his gathering prowess.  He won’t build, paint, or compose poetry, but he’ll scour the land below for tasty treats and shiny things, then leave these gifts at his beloved’s feet.

As with bowerbirds, some crows are helpful without reaping the benefits of a dalliance.  When a female crow begins to build a nest, five other crows might bring sticks and twigs.  These five won’t all be rewarded with the chance to sire her young.

With luck, the crows enjoy the sheer act of helping. 

Neither birds nor humans will be lauded for everything we do.  If we measure success based solely upon the rewards we reap, many of our lives will feel bleak.  In a world full of pyramids – bowerbird mating, corporate finance, the attention economy of social media – not everyone can be at the top.

No matter the outcome, we can all feel fulfilled if we focus on the process of what we’re doing. 

Admittedly, it’s hard to find the zen in a lot of the shitty jobs out there in the world.  But I did enjoy typing this essay.  And I will try to enjoy the irritating parts of parenting today.  Someday, my children will learn to ask for cereal politely.

On octopus art.

On octopus art.

When we were in college, my roommate and I spent a train ride debating the merits of Andy Warhol’s art (she was a fan, I was not).  In the end, we not only failed to change each other’s opinions, but realized that we didn’t even agree what art was.  She double majored in Biomedical Engineering and Art Theory & Practice, and her view was much more expansive than my own.

In retrospect, I can admit that she was right.  My view of art was narrow-minded.  If I had to proffer a definition of “art” today, I might go with something like:

Art is an intentionally-created module that is designed to reshape the audience’s neural architecture.

By this standard, the big images of soup qualify.  So do the happenings.

Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 1962. Image by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

I recently read a book that analyzed board games using the tools of art criticism and narratology.  Obviously, I now think that board games can be art.  They’re carefully designed; their creators often seem to have a goal for how each game should make players feel; the combined effects of text, visual components, and even rules can all work toward conveying those feelings.

One drawback to my newfound open-mindedness, though, is that I could probably be convinced that almost any designed object qualifies as art.

For a piece of art to “fail” to change your neural architecture, it would have to be mnemonically invisible – immediately after seeing it, you could look at it again and it would be as though it were the first time.  You’d never be able to recall its content or meaning.

Actually, I have read some esoteric, convoluted poetry like that.  Words that skimmed over my mind as though each synapse were coated with teflon. 

I wasn’t keen on the experience.  Minutes had passed, but, because I couldn’t remember anything that I’d read, I’d accomplished nothing.  I don’t need to actually understand a poem, I just want for it to make me feel somehow different after I’ve read it.  Like Will Alexander’s “The Optic Wraith,” which triggers a mysterious sense of unease even though its meaning squirms away from me:

The Optic Wraith

Her eyes

like a swarm of dense volcano spiders

woven from cold inferno spools

contradictory

consuming

clinging to my palette

like the code from a bleak inventive ruse

now

my understanding of her scent

is condoned as general waking insomnia

as void

as a cataleptic prairie

frayed at the core

by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes

As Alexander’s words lure me along, I lose my grasp.  But although I might not recall any specific lines, if you asked me at the end of its six pages, “So, what did you feel?”, I’d certainly know that something inside my brain was different from who I’d been five minutes before.

When I was in college, I felt strongly that art needed to be beautiful.  I was wrong.  But I still believe that art works better when it’s aesthetically pleasing, because this allows it to more readily infiltrate someone’s mind.  If two paintings are both intended to convey the same ideas, but one is more pleasurable to look at, then we can assume that it will be looked at more, and thereby convey the idea more.  A charming form helps the piece achieve its function of spreading the creator’s intended message.

And, in terms of judging the quality of art, I obviously still think that the quality of message is important.

For instance, a chair.  Every chair you’ve ever sat in was designed by somebody.  If you wanted to argue that the chair is a piece of art, I suppose I’d agree with you.  And maybe it’s a very good chair: comfortable to sit in, perfectly balanced, pleasing to see when the rising sun illuminates it in the morning.  But that doesn’t mean it’s good art.

Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs,” 1965. Photo by Kenneth Lu on Flickr.

Indeed, a chair that is bad at being a chair is more likely to be a good artwork.  A chair that’s too small or too large, conveying the discomfort of trying to make your way in a world that is primarily concerned with the comfort of bodies unlike your own.  Or a gigantic bronze throne that affords you the chance to perch in Baphomet’s lap; it would be an unpleasant place to sit, but perhaps you’d reflect more on Lucifer’s ethic of “speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.

When we humans make art, we try to engage the emotions of our audience.  Emotionally-charged situations are more memorable; while feeling awe, or anger, or joy, human minds are most likely to change.

And human art is almost always made for a human audience.  Our brains evolved both from and for gossip; our prodigious intellect began as a tool to track convoluted social relationships.  We’re driven to seek narrative explanations, both because a coherent story makes gossip easier to understand, and because our consciousness spins stories to rationalize our actions after we perform them.

If we considered the world’s most intelligent animal species – like humans, dolphins, crows, elephants, chimpanzees – most have evolved to gossip.  Large brains gave our ancestors a selective advantage because they were able to track and manipulate their societies complex social relationships in a way that bolstered survival and breeding opportunities.  Indeed, the average elephant probably has more emotional intelligence than the average human, judging from neuron counts in the relevant areas of each species’ brains.

Elephants at a sanctuary. Image by Gilda on Flickr.

And so, if an elephant were given the freedom to paint (without a trainer tugging on her ears!), I imagine that she’d create art with the intention that another elephant would be the audience.  When a chimpanzee starts drumming, any aesthetic message is probably intended for other chimpanzees.

But what about octopus art?

Octopuses and humans haven’t had any ancestors in common for half a billion years.  Octopuses are extremely intelligent, but their intelligence arose through a very different pathway from most other animals.  Unlike the world’s brilliant birds and mammals, octopuses do not gossip.

Octopuses tend to be antisocial unless it’s mating season (or they’ve been dosed with ecstasy / MDMA).  Most of the time, they just use their prodigious intellect to solve puzzles, like how best to escape cages, or find food, or keep from being killed.

Octopus hiding in two shells. Image by Nick Hobgood on Wikipedia.

Humans have something termed “theory of mind”: we think a lot about what others are thinking.  Many types of animals do this.  For instance, if a crow knows that another crow watched it hide food, it will then come back and move the food to a new hiding spot as soon as the second crow isn’t looking.

When we make art, we’re indirectly demonstrating a theory of mind – if we want an audience to appreciate the things we make, we have to anticipate what they’ll think.

Octopuses also seem to have a “theory of mind,” but they’re not deeply invested in the thoughts of other octopuses.  They care more about the thoughts of animals that might eat them.  And they know how to be deceptive; that’s why an octopus might collect coconut shells and use one to cover itself as it slinks across the ocean floor.

A coconut octopus. Image by Christian Gloor on Wikimedia.

Human art is for humans, and bird art for birds, but octopus art is probably intended for a non-octopus audience.  Which might require even more intelligence to create; it’s easy for me to write something that a reader like me would enjoy.  Whereas an octopus artist would be empathizing with creatures radically different from itself.

If octopuses weren’t stuck with such short lifespans, living in the nightmarishly dangerous ocean depths, I bet their outward focus would lead them to become better people than we are.  The more we struggle to empathize with others different from ourselves, the better our world will be.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

On reading poems from Donika Kelly’s ‘Bestiary’ in jail.

This post briefly touches on sexual assault and child abuse.

Many of the men in jail have struggled with interpersonal relationships.

After reading Bruce Weigl’s “The Impossible,” a poem about being sexually assaulted as a child, somebody stayed after class to ask if there were resources to help somebody recover from that sort of experience.  The next week, he brought a two-page account of his own abuse.

After reading Ai’s “Child Beater,” many men proffered their own horror stories.  Sometimes they offered excuses for their parents: “My mom, she had me when she was thirteen, I guess what you’d call it now would be ‘statutory rape.’  So she didn’t know what to do with us.  But there were plenty of times, I’d be mouthing off, she’d tie my arms to rafters in the basement with an extension cord, and … “

Seriously, you don’t need to hear the rest of that story.  Nor the conversation (we’ve read “Child Beater” about once a year) when the men discussed which objects they’d been hit with.  They appraised concussions and trauma with the nuance of oenophiles.

Consider this gorgeous poem by Mouse:

 

THAT CAT

– Mouse

 

We had this cat

Small gray and frantic

Always knocking over my mother’s lamps

 

Me and my sister can’t sit on my mother’s furniture

But that cat can

My mother would whoop my ass for her lamps

Knocked over and broken

 

One day my mom bought me a dollar sign belt

Made of leather and metal

I put that belt to use every time I

Got my own ass whooped

 

We humans evolved to hunt.  By nature, we are a rather violent species.  But these cycles – people’s crummy childhoods; institutional violence during schooling and incarceration – amplify aggression.  Our world “nurtures” many into malice.

If you ask people in jail why they’re in, almost everybody will say that they were busted for drugs or alcohol.  But if you look at bookings, or hear from somebody what sort of case he’s fighting, about half the time it’s domestic violence.

So we’ve been reading poems from Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, a charming volume that uses abundant animal imagery to elucidate human relationships.  The men need a safe space to discuss love and romance.  Obviously, a dingy classroom inside a jail is not the ideal place, but this is what we’ve got.

image (5)

Kelly’s “Bower” opens with:

 

Consider the bowerbird and his obsession

of blue,

 

… then catalogs some of the strange objects that a male bowerbird might use to construct his pleasure dome.  They are artists, meticulously arraying flowers, berries, beetles, even colorful bits of plastic, striving to create an arch sufficiently beautiful that a visiting female will feel inclined to mate.

Among tropical birds with female mate choice, most males will remain celibate.  They try to woo each visitor, but fail.  Usually one single male – he of the most impressive aerial gymnastics (among manakins) or he of the most impressive bower – will be chosen by every female in an area.  Because the males don’t actually raise their young (their contribution ends after the ten or twenty seconds needed to copulate), any given male will have more than enough time for everyone who wants him.

Every male bowerbird devotes his life to the craft, but most of their creations will be deemed insufficiently beautiful.

 

And

how the female finds him,

lacking.  All that blue for nothing.

best

I love the irony of this ending.  This bird’s bower has failed.  The bits of blue that he collected were not sufficient to rouse anyone’s interest in him as a mate.

But life will generally seem pointless if we focus only on goals.  Most bowerbirds won’t mate; Sisyphus will never get that boulder up; you and I will die.    This poem is heartbreaking unless we imagine that the bowerbird takes some pleasure in the very act of creation.

(The natural world is not known for its kindness, but in this case it probably is – because every male bowerbird feels compelled to build these structures, it’s likely that their artistic endeavors feed their brains with dopamine.)

Indeed, most poems that we humans write will go unread.  Even for published poets, it’s probably rare that their words woo a future mate.  But even if Kelly’s own creation did not bring her love (and, based on what little I know about the publishing industry, it almost certainly did not bring her great fortune), it’s clear that all that effort was not for naught.

She made something beautiful.  Sometimes, that alone has to be enough.

At another class, we read Kelly’s “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me.”

Thanks to the internet, many people learn about sexuality from pornography.  One flaw with this “education” is that even when the female actors mime pleasure, they do so while gazing outward.

 

Kelly writes:

 

Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.

 

In generic heterosexual pornography, there is a distance.  There is no “relationship” shown between the actors – they’re not even looking at one another.  Instead, the female actor is expected to gaze at a camera, and the (likely male) consumer is gazing at a computer or telephone screen to make some simulacrum of eye contact.

 

Each body is a body on display,

and one I am meant to see and desire.

 

Generic heterosexual pornography seems to objectify the actors much more than gay pornography because the focus is on a performer’s body more than the romantic acts depicted.  Because so much of this pornography is consumed by a homophobic audience, male bodies are depicted minimally – usually only a single organ within the frame – which prevents couples from being shown.

The pleasure offered isn’t quite voyeurism, pretending to watch another pair make love.  It’s fantasy, the chance to imagine being the bearer of the male genitalia.  But this fantasy, independent a fantasy of conversation and mutual seduction, makes others’ bodies seem a thing to be used, not a carriage for the partner’s personality.

 

I am learning

 

what to do with my face,

and I come on anything I like.

 

To desire, and to be desired, need not be degrading for anyone involved.  This is a hard lesson to square with the sort of “sex education” that I received in school, which was sufficiently Christian that sex was presented as both desirable and bad.  If a person thinks that he or she is wicked for wanting, it’ll be hard to discuss what each person wants.

There’s no way to pretend “I’m a good person who just got carried away!” if you make a sober, premeditated, consensual decision to do something bad.

Of course, sexuality isn’t bad.  But many people still posture as thought it is.  When these people feel (totally natural!) desire, they’re forced to create dangerous situations that might excuse their subsequent behavior.

Which, because of those excuse-enabling contortions, often winds up being bad.

image (6)

On literature as a weapon for social change.

On literature as a weapon for social change.

Every work of art is akin to a virus intended to change the architecture of the mind.  This is Richard Dawkins’s original concept of the meme: a unit of culture that, over time, will pass through a culling process like natural selection.  The evolutionary victors are the works best able to change our brains.

mementoAt the most basic level, this is obvious.  After all, good art is memorable, and in order to remember that we have seen a painting, heard a song, or read a book, the network of connections among our synapses must be different after experiencing the art than before.  Unless a changed self exists after experiencing the work, we will always feel ourselves Memento-style to be encountering it for the first time.

But, honestly, that whole preceding paragraph is just the idea “good art sticks with you” gussied up in some scientific language.

Art can change us in ways more meaningful than simply remembering that we have encountered it before.  A piece I always loved at the San Francisco MoMA is Gerhard Richter’s Two Candles.  There is a slight strangeness tied up in contemporary photorealistic painting – we can print actual photographs on a canvas that size, so why put forth the effort to paint it? – but each time I stood in front of Richter’s work it seemed a triumph of the human spirit.  Seen in person, it feels incredible how much warmth and motion is captured in the piece.  The painting helped me not give up on arduous tasks in my own life.

And I think that books – composed in the very language of thought – have a still greater potential to alter our minds.  In his memoirs, D. Watkins relates his own transformation after he encountered the writing of bell hooks.  For me, reading The Idiot shortly after I began freshman year of college taught me to be a nicer person.  Until The Idiot, I was a jerk.

reading-a-naked-singularity
The author, reading.

My favorite authors – Dostoyevsky, Bolaño, Doctorow – all sought to create works of lasting beauty and change the way their readers lived.  Honestly, this is why these authors are my favorites.  Why bother choosing between style and substance if you can have both?

A Naked Singularity demonstrates that Sergio De La Pava aims to join these authors’ ranks.  The book is magnificent – the first 400 or more pages are among the best writing out there – and deeply meaningful.  De La Pava is deeply pained by injustice in our world.  Just reading his novel made me feel proud that we share a planet.  If you haven’t read A Naked Singularity yet, please, click the link & buy a copy, or browse away from here to your local library’s catalog and reserve it.  You’ll thank yourself later.

Would that every artwork were a weapon.

would-that-every-artwork-were-a-weapon
Books not bombs. Handwritten words from Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity.

On the worst I have ever smelled.

On the worst I have ever smelled.

A Frank in a SwampA recent graduate from our local track & cross country teams is an artist, just now begun his freshman year studying photography in Vermont.  Despite being the fifth fastest 800-meter runner in our moderately-sized state, Peter often did his recovery runs with me.  A very biphasic runner: extremely fast on his workout days, slower than his teammates on his jogging days.

I’m not certain what it is about running that enriches for math & science people, but artists are often underrepresented on our teams.  Naturally, this meant that I would chitter nonstop about art on our jogs together.  On one uliginous 89-degree day, air flickering opaque as it threatened to condense (or perhaps that was merely my eyesight flickering due to incipient heatstroke), we ran to the husk of a defunct grocery store so I could show him my favorite graffiti in town.

Bloomington has some decent graffiti, especially considering the town’s small size.  It can’t compare to the Mission district of SF, or to any of the hotspots in Miami, but alongside the anarchy symbols and ACABs and YOLOs and whatnot we get some good work.

My recent favorite, the piece that Peter & I stood and drippingly admired for two minutes before turning around and hoofing it back to the high school, is shown below, poorly stitched together using the automated algorithm on Photoshop after I snapped a few pictures with my brother’s phone.  I believe credit is due to “II PAS,” wherever you are.  Strong work: beautiful interplay between the cement’s topology and the schematized depiction of aging.

Paint by IL PAS.
Paint by II PAS.

A few months before I showed him that graffiti, we arranged for Peter to take an author photograph of me.  Midway through a run, I noticed a small pond with a decrepit stairwell descending into the water.  It looked straight out of a fantasy novel.  Sunlight iridescent across the surface of the pond.  Dried plaits of algae dangling over the limestone steps.

My imagination leapt immediately to the bombastic: me emerging from the water, dripping, notebook and pencil in hand, beginning to ascend the stairs.  On a bright day my skin would gleam, each bead of water articulate as it fell.

Peter decided we’d do the picture in the middle of the night.

And the nearby retirement community had turned on a pump: that “staircase” was apparently a waterfall.  We still attempted a few shots with me walking up or down the waterfall, but soon progressed to a more Swamp Thing aesthetic.   I was told, “Okay, duck under, then wait a second before you come up.”

I didn’t mind.  Given that my brother and I have spent several hundred hours playing the Creature from the Black Lagoon pinball machine, I’m rather enamored of swamp monsters.

But the oleaginous, unfiltered liquid of a PLEASE NO SWIMMING retirement home water feature is not conducive to good health.  The risk to my garb was fine — I was wearing a long green furry bathrobe evocative of a skinned Muppet, a castoff that even Goodwill had shunted to a discount rack — but it’s surprisingly difficult to spring menacingly from a pond while enswathed in many pounds of sodden fabric and an unfortunate quantity of slime.

Also: while splashing through the pond, I tripped on and then excavated a disquietingly large trash can.  It was nearly empty, which may have explained some of the rubbish I was flailing theatrically amidst.

Maloderous glop clung to my clothes.  Dried cattails pierced my hands.  Sludge got into my eyes and up my nose.  My skin stained brackish.  And dreadlocks are not known for ease of cleaning.  For the next two weeks, each time my hair got wet it dripped grey.

A few days later, I found a spray mister of lavendar essential oil while dumpstering (college students pitch such treasures!), but even with compulsive thrice-daily misting until that bottle emptied, I still smelled unmistakably of pond for the entire month.

Peter was happy with some of the photographs, though.

Peter's favorite photograph from our rank shoot. See more of his art here. https://www.snapwi.re/user/petervoskuil
Peter’s favorite photograph from our rank shoot. See more of his art here.

On family (my own) and music videos.

389018_895251017894_1677942873_n
2011?

I had planned to post something serious today.  Maybe a piece on Freeman Dyson’s writing about amnesty; I wrote & scheduled it a few weeks ago but have been bumping it since.  Or an essay about the evolution of skin color that I’ve been taking notes for ever since reading early press coverage about the new human genomics data.

But, honestly, I don’t feel like writing anything serious today.  I assume most people who follow the news felt rather weary by the end of last week.  And it’s Father’s Day as I’m typing.  So I’m’a write something cutesy about my family instead.

I come from a family of math & science people who would rather make art.  My mother has a master’s degree in microbiology; now she does garden design.  My father is an infectious disease doctor who put together the first exhibition of his paintings last year.

And their kids?

My brother double majored in mathematics & economics, I have degrees in chemistry & biochemistry, my sister just completed her residency in internal medicine & pediatrics.  All math and science people… and closet (well, not so closeted in my case anymore) artists.  For today’s post I thought I’d slap up three music videos, one that each of us appears in.

My brother’s video comes from a collaboration between him and my former housemate — he makes the music, she makes the visuals, they animate together.  This piece is their take on the Infinite Jest / memetic-evolution-creates-art-that’s-too-compelling trope.  And I’m a sucker for self-referential art — Marshall, on the TV screen, is watching one of their earlier pieces.

I guess his acting is rather subdued here.  But don’t worry!  The videos that my sister and I appear in are action packed!  Packed with action-packed action!

And, right, feel free to check out my brother’s other offerings at Blackbox Singles.  They (the videos) became steadily fancier as they (my brother & former housemate) learned more about that ornery animation software.

Oh, wait.  It seems that my video isn’t very action-packed after all.  Rather slow and pathetic, really.  It was written for our family’s holiday record, the cd we send out to friends and relatives in lieu of a photograph of ourselves fake smiling in front of mall Santa.  And I suppose this video serves as a decent example of the idea that restrictions breed creativity: I like the slow-motion dancing, but my brother told me he’d incorporated that effect only because he realized we hadn’t done enough filming to fill up three and a half minutes.  Whoops.

My sister’s video has dramatically more action — maybe she loses a few points for the backing music being caged from Taylor Swift (although the lyrics are obviously reworked), but, still, her exuberance should make my brother & me feel ashamed of our slothful languor.

Of course, she was a Division I athlete in college, whereas I was a too-many-classes-taking pedantic scrawnmonster.  That’s my excuse.  I’m not sure what my brother’s excuse could be — he & his double’s partner placed third in the state in tennis.