New favorite Van Gogh

I went to the Clark Art Institute yesterday with my Green Cities class, to see the Van Gogh exhibit and explore the grounds. It was extremely crowded, because it was the last day of the exhibit, and that was frustrating. I learned an important thing about myself: as far as I'm concerned, it's not worth the incredibly moving experience of seeing amazing art in person to then deal with the whiplash of frustration when someone walks directly in front of that art and plants themselves in the way to get a closer look at a different fucking painting.

Still, I'm pretty excited to have discovered a new favorite Van Gogh painting, one I'd never seen before: Pine Trees at Sunset. I've attached a picture here, but another discovery I made in the context of this trip is that internet pictures of Van Gogh pieces are categorically untrustworthy. None of them capture just how blue the trees were, but apparently one of the most common images of this painting is one in which they're, like, color-corrected to yellow. The sky is all a kind of brown-orange, too. It's awful. I didn't attach that one.

(On reflection, I wonder if those were accurate pictures taken of the painting before a restoration at some point. Either way, the blue trees in the real painting are beautiful, and the brown/yellow trees in that image are boring and sad.)

This painting is normally in the Netherlands, so I will probably never get another chance to spend time in a room with it, which is a shame because it nearly brought me to tears and I would love to see it without visual obstructions or auditory gunk (which is what I'm calling the non-quiet conversations I overheard about how Van Gogh's work isn't really any good if you get close enough to see all the brushstrokes).

Yesterday was a strange mix of incredible and frustrating experiences. I'm really glad I went; I just wish that basically no one else had had the same idea that day.

Humans Need Not Apply

Today's my first day on campus at Hampshire College. Better make a good impression! Hi everybody! I'm Watson, and I'm afraid of the political and economic ramifications of the impending end of human employability!

Dear anyone I direct to my blog today: I scheduled a week of posts with YouTube videos in them so I could focus on moving and also like eleven other things I need to be finishing.

Day 4 of 5 scheduled videos to relieve pressure of obligations

One of those TMBG songs with an unexpected amount of blood

I wanted to pick a song from "The Else," They Might Be Giants's 2007 album, which I've been listening to almost nonstop lately. At first I wasn't that into it, but it has very quickly become my favorite TMBG album. Almost every other one of their albums has songs on it that I frequently skip, or at least get bored during. I can listen to "The Else" on loop for hours.

Because of that, I wasn't sure which song to pick. My first thought was "The Cap'm," but I decided to just go for one that had a video.

Day 3 of 5 scheduled videos to relieve pressure of obligations

John Oliver on Transgender Rights

I could put almost any of John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" videos here and be okay with that call for what to schedule. I picked this one because I was really impressed with (and relieved by) how many things he got right, and how few things he got blatantly wrong. To be honest, when this segment started I was thinking "Shit, I really liked him. That's about to be over." 

Day 2 of 5 scheduled videos to relieve pressure of obligations

Magic chair production

This is one of my favorite relaxing videos: since he digs the cast for the stool out of sand, it'll be wrecked by the tide, so the whole workspace is totally temporary and ephemeral but he gets something really cool out of it. It makes me think of the magical feeling of craftsmanship: he goes through this ritual, and at the end he gets to pour some molten metal down, then just wait, and reach into the earth and pull out a completed stool, all at once. Especially watching it in fast forward, it's a very clean, condensed narrative of the experience of artistic creation.

Day 1 of 5 scheduled videos to relieve pressure of obligations

Video of a guy turning a jawbreaker on a lathe

I'm thinking I might just schedule blog posts of videos I like for every day of next week, so that I don't have to worry about my blog but also don't have to feel like a failure for taking a week off. (Cuz college move in is next week and the week leading up to classes is, like, shockingly packed with activities.)

My friend Jon showed me this video briefly on Wednesday night, and I watched the whole thing earlier today, in between not doing work and not doing work.

Sense8: impressions

I just finished watching Season 1 of Sense8, and I'm glad I got around to it -- I really enjoyed it.

I haven't spent a lot of time with the philosophy and metaphysics of the series, so I may ultimately change my mind. (I'm particularly aware of that possibility with a film by the Wachowskis, because of The Matrix, which has more narrative holes than narrative.)

But I am absolutely in love with the relationship that the series has to its medium. It's like they built the metaphysics of this universe backwards from the question "What can we do with a camera?" It's a really, amazingly, brilliantly film-based series.

(Spoilers hereafter)

In the last handful of episodes, I started to realize that the mechanics also justify the series's action-movie-style events. The standard-issue action hero seems to have several careers' worth of professional experience, including more than one kind of martial skillset, plus the backstory of a normal, well-adjusted person, and a perspective and goals within the realm of sympathy for a standard human adult.

In Sense8, this wild inconsistency of persona vanishes in what becomes eight separate narratives about individuals with their own coherent pathos, plus seven other people's worth of skill sets and temperaments. 

When Wolfgang couldn't lie to get himself another couple inches to reach his gun, Leto -- a professional actor -- took over. When Whispers played chicken with Will's sense of moral obligation to human life, Will let Wolfgang take the wheel (figuratively and literally), granting him a moment of plausible utter disregard for human life without destroying Will's character.

I've only watched through once, but I was paying careful attention when I did, and I noticed a lot of places with blurry material continuity -- like, sensates who are not physically present picking up and handling things when they aren't embodying the present character in the scene. But I don't remember ever seeing a moment where it was consequential -- like, in Episode 12, Kala makes a bomb for Wolfgang and prepares a shot for Will, when she isn't present. The two men just sit there, but Kala noticeably doesn't help by manipulating materials until after they're in a position where they can do it themselves. 

Which is a long way of saying I'm really impressed with the attention to detail they give to their visual abstraction of the sensates' abilities.

Sense8 reminded me most vividly of two other peices of media: Inception, which also used an elaborate metaphysics to explore filmmaking, and the short story "'Run,' Bakri Says," available for free in audio and text at that link, published by Escape Pod in 2012. That story uses a metaphysical conceit to explore the mechanics of video games.

I'm excited for season 2, which I heard got picked up, and I'm excited to start digging into commentary by other people on the show. 

Status update: They Might Be Giants discography

I listened all the way through Join Us for the first time today, and I thought I was pretty close to finishing TMBG's adult discography, so I checked out how I was doing. I did not realize how many songs they have exclusively on their EPs.

For example: today, via YouTube, I heard Mrs Train for the first time. It was originally released on The Else, which is an EP that came out at the same time as John Henry, an album I think I last listened all the way through in 2013.

Also: apparently the song She Was A Hotel Detective from The Else is a completely different song than (She Was A) Hotel Detective from their first, eponymous album, according to Wikipedia.

I have mixed feelings about all this new information. On the one hand, I'm thrilled to have discovered so much more TMBG to explore and experience. But on the other, there's an accomplishment of personal significance that I thought I Was on the cusp of achieving, but which is now probably more than a year away.

Maybe I'll manage to see them in concert again before I get through it all.

Pitch Perfect 2

OMG I completely forgot about Pitch Perfect 2 and it comes out like Next Week! I just googled it to double check and I see it's got 4/5 stars right now and the top reviews on Google had good blurbs but I'm not going to dig into it because I want to maintain the maximum amount of un-expectation I can have.

I will report back in great detail next week. Or, more likely, the Monday of the week after next.

We didn't win the video contest. :(

Earlier this year my friend Ash and I made a music video for They Might Be Giants's new single Erase, to enter into a contest. The winners were announced today, and we weren't among them. I'm a little sad that we didn't win, but I was aware that it was a possibility. And the winning videos are all really good! I'm not the least bit upset to have lost to them, if I had to lose at all, and I'm still really proud of the video regardless. And also here it is.

Erase by They Might Be Giants (Ash Lane & T.X. Watson) from T.X. Watson on Vimeo.

In at least one previous contest the finalists were also shared in a playlist, but that appears to have not happened this time, so I don't know how far our video made it.

The winners of the contest are below the fold.

They Might Be Giants - Erase - by Jordan Wippell (official TMBG contest winner)

They Might Be Giants - Erase - by Paul Guyet & Christina Bryant (official TMBG contest winner)

They Might Be Giants - Erase - by Victor Fitzsimons (official TMBG contest winner)

New Feminist Frequency: The Scythian

The new episode of Feminist Frequency, "The Scythian," came out today. It's about the protagonist of a game called Sword & Sorcery, and it contains spoilers but not till the end, and they're very clearly offset so there's plenty of time to pause and avoid them.

If my past experience is any guide, a new Anita Sarkeesian video means there's about to be a new flare-up of weirdly obsessive and intense misogyny everywhere on the internet. (Not that it's not everywhere already -- it's just that I, as a non-woman, non-gamer, am generally not a major target of it, so it's possible for me to not be exposed to it sometimes.)

Idea Channel: Gender

The new Idea Channel is about gender! And the Sims! And it's part of a collaborative series of videos about gender!

I'm too tired to have anything complex to say about this, so I'm just going to say that I think a lot of the points in the video are valid and interesting, and that it's important to be able to engage in good faith with various, even contradictory, conceptions of what gender is and what gender means, in order to engage with it in all the ways that matter to people experiencing gender or not.

I'm also too tired to watch the other videos right now. So that's something to look forward to.

finger find the button marked erase

They Might Be Giants are holding a music video contest for their recently released single, Erase. I'm thinking about entering it, and because of that I've been listening to it a whole bunch.

I asked a friend if they wanted to help me, and ironically TMBG's YouTube account was suspended for a couple hours at exactly the chunk of time they tried to watch the video.

Coming up with music video ideas is hard! I had one -- a stop motion video made of newspaper clippings of a sailor throwing all his ex husband's old stuff into the ocean -- but that would be just, like, absurdly outside my skill set.

Updates will come if I decide to do it.

Pieces of media I finished consuming today

I finished three longish narrative pieces of media today, all of which were very good. The first was the podcast Serial. I had only heard of it because Mike Rugnetta of Idea Channel said at the end of the last two episodes that an episode on Serial was upcoming, so viewers should get started on listening to the 12 hours of material in the podcast.

Serial is a 12-episode series about the circumstances surrounding the conviction of Adnan Syed for murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1999. I'm probably going to blog about this again after the Idea Channel episode, so I'll hold spoilers until that point. (If anyone so obsessively reads my blog that you can't bear to miss a day, new Idea Channel episodes appear to come out on Wednesdays.)

The second thing was Episode 29 of Hello, Internet, the podcast hosted by CGP Grey and Brady Haran, two professional YouTube content creators. (When I say 'hosted' -- the format of the show is Grey and Brady talking about pretty much whatever they feel like for two hours every couple weeks.)

I had wanted to finish Serial in time for the Idea Channel episode, so I put off listening to the new Hello Internet until I had finished that -- and I'm glad I did, because they spend a fairly large chunk of the end of the episode talking about it. (Apparently they had mentioned it at the end of the previous episode, but I had forgotten, or not recognized it as being of any significance.)

They also talked about texting etiquette, including discussing what someone (it was me) brought up in the Reddit thread for the episode -- the idea of semi-synchronous communication. (I'm not bragging you're bragging shut up)

The third thing actually had nothing to do with Serial, which was unusual for stuff-that-happened-today. It was the short story Lawful Interception by Cory Doctorow, which I started reading yesterday and finished about a half an hour ago.

It takes place in the same setting, and stars the same protagonist, as Little Brother and Homeland, Doctorow's Young Adult novels about technological resistance to the totalitarian elements of the United States government.

There are no other things I finished today! (yaaaayyyyy.....) I'm going to go work on a short story then sleep.

Over The Garden Wall -- a procrastination

This entry is coming to you at just shy of midnight because I'm starting writing it at 11:30, and I'm starting writing at 11:30 because I just binge-watched the 10 episodes of Over the Garden Wall[1. Which, every time I have typed, I have almost spelled "Guardian," because that just seems more like a word that belongs in media titles right now I guess?] -- and, honestly, I'm a little disappointed. Not in the show -- which was great -- but in the fact that I have basically nothing I want to say about it. Not before I've had some time to think about it, anyway. I was told that I should try to watch it the first time through without any kind of analytic effort, so that might have something to do with it. I'm not sure if it's (VAGUE THEMATIC SPOILER) something to do with Wirt's romantic life, and some heart-wrenchingly familiar teenage experiences, or if it's just because I'm fried from finals. (Definitely didn't have an essay I should have been writing during the two hours I spent watching this series. Nope. Nuh-uh.)

So unfortunately, having invested a couple hours into something I expected to turn out a decent blog post, I'm left with this vague and slithery mess. But it's almost midnight and I don't have another skip day until February. So, here's 250 words on the fact that I don't have anything interesting to say about Over the Garden Wall.[2. Which I am now misspelling as 'guardan' because my brain is dead.]

Request for Agents of SHIELD content (repost from my Tumblr)

I fell asleep this afternoon instead of blogging, so I don't have anything right now. Instead, here's a thing I wrote for Tumblr. Agents of SHIELD spoilers below the fold.

So I caught up on Agents of SHIELD today

Any psych majors out there want to write a meta titled “Dysfunctional Attachment in ‘Agents of SHIELD?’” Things to consider: (tons of spoilers, obv.)

  • Reference to borderline personality disorder in Bakshi’s interrogation
  • Ward & Garrett; Ward & Skye
  • Fitz & Simmons (Lots of material there)
  • Skye’s father (Might have to wait till the end of the season to get all the material for that one)
  • Loyalty to individuals vs. convictions vs. institutions: commitment to SHIELD and HYDRA
  • Bobbi & Lance
  • May’s relationship to Coulson, and motives for it
  • Coulson’s commitment to SHIELD (“We’re the good guys”)
  • Nick Fury
  • Probably the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too, tbh

This would be a ton of work to do right and I don’t want to do it so I’m hoping this gets stuck in the head of someone with more free time than me

Re-watching Malcolm in the Middle

Malcolm in the Middle is up on Netflix. I think it's been there for a couple months, but I only just got around to watching episodes again -- which I've been meaning to do for a long time. When I was a kid, it was one of my favorite shows. I'm glad that so much of it seems to have held up. They really nail the atmosphere of constant, random, capricious disorder at home and at school. I'm on episode 4 of season 1 now -- the one where Malcolm beats up a 7 year old kid, then has a crisis of self-worth because nobody will take his guilt seriously.

I'm not sure whether I'm going to keep watching it, because I'm not sure whether there are more points in the "This is a great show that I enjoy watching" column or the "This reminds me of way too many parts of my own childhood" column.

I may write something later about this, addressing the obvious connections between the media I watched growing up and the way my sense of ethics developed. For now, I'll just say I think it was probably good for me to watch a TV show that had the words "Life is unfair" in the theme song, then went on to prove it for a half an hour.

Also, I forgot that the theme song was by They Might Be Giants -- and I just didn't know in the first place that the rest of the music was them, too.

Repetition of phrases in music and literature

So I've been listening to a bunch of OK GO in the past couple weeks, and one of the things I really like about their songs is the repetitiveness -- more than pretty much any other music I listen to, OK GO songs repeat the same moments and phrases throughout songs, often in slightly different ways or after different kinds of build-up. Importantly, they're not like those artists who just sing the chorus twice whenever they sing it, or get to the end and repeat two lines over and over again until the music fades out. OK GO seem like they're finding the climactic moments in their songs and rebuilding the songs to hit that point as many times as they can, without sacrificing meaning. They justify the moments, every time. If the goal of a piece of art is to achieve a heightened emotional state, then art that takes place across a space of time has a problem: building to a climax means the work comes in a shell; the long bit before, and the long bit after, the climax isn't really the art, it's context.

Note: At this point in the train of thought, I'm not thinking about music anymore, I'm thinking about writing. Although I am still listening to OK GO.

In American literature, the answer to this problem tends to be "Fine, just cut all that other stuff off." Edgar Allan Poe argued that the short story was the ideal format for story, exactly for this reason. American poetry is noticeably short and informal more often than not.

Maybe pop music is an example of this, two-to-three minute long chunks of sound that focus intensely on a particular moment, but I'm not totally sure about that. I can't think of any examples off the top of my head (because I hate songs that do this and so never listen to them) but I've heard dozens of songs in my life that build all the way through to one moment of perfect, climactic engagement, but take two thirds of the song getting there and never return to it.

There are a lot of ways to answer this problem. Poe's answer, obviously, is that if the song takes a minute getting to the point then meanders for a minute after it, it's probably about two minutes too long. (That is, if Poe's philosophy of writing translates to 21st century pop music, which I can't say with confidence it would.)

OK GO seems to me to bring an alternate approach to the conversation: take that climactic moment, and drop it back in several times in the beginning, and throw it in a few more times at the end, and make it work. That means the narrative of the song is at least a little non-linear: the moment of climax is happening the whole way through.

I spent some time trying to figure out what that would look like in literature. My first thought was action novels -- beat-for-beat action-packed thrillers -- but that was an unsatisfying answer.

Then I remembered Fight Club, and Chuck Palahniuk's "chorus lines" -- phrases that repeat throughout the book, accumulating meaning and significance and resonating backwards through the story as their context comes together. "I am Jack's raging bile duct." "Paraffin has never worked for me."

Of course, those repetitions don't need to be ominous and increasingly disturbing throughout the narrative the way they are in all of Palahniuk's books.[1. For the record: I've only read two, "Fight Club" and "Survivor."] Comedy is a fantastic place to look for this kind of thing, because not only do running jokes pretty much always make a story funnier, but in a good piece of comedic fiction, I think, the humor tends to agree: it all represents a coherent thrust of a worldview. In Terry Pratchett, a fair amount of the jokes say "If it's working, that's as good as true." In Douglas Adams, it's "Literally every part of this is a bad idea pursued for flawed motives and will have disastrous consequences."

None of those works are non-linear, though, in the way I initially suggested. (With the possible exception of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, but I won't say anything more about that except go read it right now.)

The non-linearity comes from the way that the repetitions reflect the outcomes they foreshadow. It's like dramatic irony -- the kind where the audience knows something the characters don't -- but the audience doesn't know, either. We're being told, but we don't, as a consequence of having been told, know the thing the author's telling us.

That makes the second-readings of these books amazing, for one thing. But for another, we start to pick up on the feeling of that climax far, far before it actually takes place. These chorus lines and running gags, placed at thoughtful and appropriate places throughout the books, light up matching moments so that we can start appreciating and enjoying those thematically vivid beats long before we fully understand how they all come together.

Why listening to music is like sweating (and depression has metaphorically auto-immune disease-like symptoms)

This is a partially formed thought, and I'm going to do my best right now to get it down somewhat clearly but I want to emphasize that I'm still working through this metaphor. I think that one of the major functions of art, and maybe music in particular, is to serve as an emotional regulator.

Like -- I know that art makes people feel emotions. That's pretty close to being something everyone agrees about in a field with basically no common definitions. And I know that everybody or nearly everybody makes decisions about what art to consume based on how they want to feel. I think it could be useful to understand that function as an emotional regulation mechanism, the way sweating is a physiological regulation mechanism.

I've been thinking about this because I recently saw a post on Tumblr, suggesting having a set of personal playlists set up in advance, for a bunch of different purposes: getting pumped up, calming down, focusing, etc., and I started to think about the fact that a lot of my own musical choices seem, to some extent, counter-productive.

Like, I listened to the Smiths a lot in high school. That was probably a bad idea altogether, but in particular one of the lines that still haunts me gets stuck in my head all the time is:

"I know I'm unlovable, / You don't have to tell me, because / Message received, loud and clear, loud and clear."

I can't remember what song that's from and I'm not going to look it up.

Here are some other chunks of songs that get stuck in my head all the time:

"I fell off the sidelines, long ago / I have no occupation, I'm just wasted for the weekend scene / so don't ask me out, don't make me try / 'Cause I'm just gonna let you, / I'm just gonna let you down"

"Betty, it's so hard to relate / to the whole human race, / I don't know where to begin, / I don't know where to begin / If we could both find a way / to do the things that we say, / we might not sit in our rooms / and waste our daydreams away."

I don't think sad songs, or depressing or nihilistic songs, are necessarily bad. I mean, they make up a lot of my favorite music. But they definitely help reinforce and reproduce a kind of headspace that isn't always necessarily healthy.

If music is a semi-conscious self-regulatory system, then there can be a kind of self-destructive behavior in listening to depressing songs when you're already depressed. Not all the time -- there's a lot of good that can come from it. Knowing other people have been through or are going through what you're going through makes a huge difference. So does acquiring a language with which to think about your experience, and being validated in the realness and legitimacy of your feelings.

But it's also possible to use those same tools to keep yourself in a place that you are actually capable of working your way out of. In a way I'm having trouble articulating, it's like your musical tastes can manifest as an auto-immune disease against your emotional well-being.

I've written before about being kind of no good at music -- I was always too embarrassed to admit to liking anything musical in high school, for fear of being accused of being a hipster or a goth or an emo or too mainstream or too fringe or just liking things because my friends like them or just liking things for attention. (Basically I was terrified of people noticing me because I couldn't imagine it being a good thing.)

One of the consequences of that, I think, is that I have no intuitive sense of how to use music as a system of emotional self-regulation. Sometimes I decide I want to listen to music, and I put on an album, and I end up making myself sick with worry and anxiety and fear. I remind myself of all those feelings of being unlovable, useless, unconscionably unmotivated and small.

And I've tried to build playlists to get me out of that space, but every time I do I just seem to discover that even bigger segments of the music I like have incredibly sad and upsetting themes that I just hadn't noticed in contrast to the even sadder, more upsetting music I listen to when I'm not trying to cheer myself up.

So, I don't have any music to get pumped up or calmed down, and I just use a sound generating app to block out the rest of the world when I need to focus. (It's got like six different kinds of rain tracks, city noises, wind chimes and an oscillating fan playing. I paid for the Plus version of the app.)

An open letter to the writers of Arrow

[warning]SPOILERS for "Arrow," season 3 episode 1.[/warning] Dear writers of Arrow:

Y'all are assholes.

You couldn't let it go for just one whole episode? Seriously? You couldn't let just one episode go by before Oliver nuked his personal life with Vigilante Angst, and you had to do it by (1.) finally getting Oliver and Felicity together, (2.) literally blowing up their first date, and (3.) ending their relationship, on that basis, later in the same damn episode?

And. Also. Introducing a new potential love interest for Felicity, and bringing back her last one, at the same time. (BTW I swear to god if Felicity switches from being primarily a character on Arrow to being just on The Flash, I am going to -- like, definitely start watching The Flash, but be pretty annoyed about it.)

I expect this sort of bullshit from the Supernatural writers. And, frankly, I guess I had no good reason to expect better from you.

But still.

I'm pissed.

Sincerely,

T.X. Watson