All Things Bright and Beautiful

Perhaps I have not mentioned my secret passion before now in this external monologue. It is a fancy I've cultivated slowly, quietly - but in private corners my mind is ablaze with the brilliance of precious gems.

They captivate me. Embarassingly, it is a predictable and stereotypically feminine (and vain) thing to be in the thrall of what are essentially shiny rocks. But I can't help myself! I simply cannot learn enough about them - their formation, chemical composition, crystalline structure, history, origin, varieties, cuts, evaluation of their value, the various treatments they may be subjected to, their synthetic impostors, everything.

I'm not kidding. I would seriously consider becoming a graduate gemologist as an alternate career path. So serious, in fact, that I've familiarized myself with the requirements for earning the appropriate certifications.

Unfortunately, gem connisseurship is an expensive and exclusive habit. Once again, my champagne tastes and my Mac-and-Cheese budget are in stark opposition. But that doesn't stop me from looking, now, does it?

Predictably, I was immediately attracted to two of the rarest, most expensive gems on the market - Alexandrite and Tanzanite. Both are relatively recent discoveries.

Alexandrite was discovered in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1834 and is named after the czar Alexander II. It is notable in that it changes color based on the type of light it is exposed to. In daylight, it is green, but in incandescent light, it turns red or purplish-red. Excellent Alexandrites are "emeralds by day, rubies by night"! That picture at the top is of ONE Alexandrite, under different lighting conditions. Of course, I desperately want one. I could buy a car for the cost of an "okay" unset Alexandrite under 2 carats.

Tanzanite, named after its country of origin, Tanzania, was discovered only in 1967. It's amazing color could be described as a rich, deep sapphire blue with an incandescent purple cast. Really, you should just go look at it - it's incredible. It's also incredibly expensive.

I'm just completely amazed that this stuff comes out of the ground. I can't quite get my brain around that.


Where Everybody Knows Your Name

So, now that the semester is over and I can actually relax a bit, I got the urge to play some piano. But sheet music is kinda like clothing - it's always more fun to learn something new than to re-do a song you've played a million times. So I got a wild hair and downloaded the "Cheers" theme song. It's suprisingly easy to play, which is quite satisfying. Even with my rusty and much-neglected piano skills, it's almost smooth, and I just got it yesterday. The drawback is, playing it makes me want to drink beer.

I also got a call from the "Make a Wish" foundation this morning. I totally hate that. I mean, I'm unemployed. I have NO MONEY. Yes, I feel terrible that these children are terminally ill, and won't live to see Christmas, and I'm a heartless jerkface for not helping make their dreams become a reality while they're still here. I'd help if I had money! I know these people are just doing their jobs, but if I know I can't afford to donate, and I ask them not to send me an information packet, that's actually saving money for their corporation! I could just be a dweeb and tell them to send me the stuff and promptly toss it in the trash - I'm sure that's not uncommon. But then they're wasting valuable dollars on printing and shipping and such. Send that stuff to people who can actually help. But please, leave me alone about it!...No! I told you, I don't have fifteen bucks! Go away! Sheesh!

I also got a hankering to watch "The Ultimate Showdown (of Ultimate Destiny)" again this morning. It's a little flash animation with a decent song to it. If you haven't seen it, you must have been living under a rock for the past year. It's crammed full of pop-culture references (from the 80s, 90s and today!) and is worth two or three minutes of your time. Watching that got me interested in the band who wrote the song, one Lemon Demon. I checked out their site, and they seem to be a lot like They Might Be Giants, but of course, not as famous. I looked through their stuff, and listened to a lot of it, but the only other song they've made (that I've found) that I really think is worth a listen is "Word Disassociation", which is quite creative. Their other stuff is okay, but is sadly lacking the innovation, cleverness, and musical sophistication of the other two pieces. Making good music, even good "joke" music, is hard, and I have a great deal of respect for people who can just create enjoyable stuff. I certainly can't.

Which brings me to a point about creativity and composition. I think the creation of art, either composing music or drawing/painting/sculpting etc., is fundamentally different than the performing of it. This really works better with music, because the person who writes the music doesn't have to be able to sing it, but graphic artists really have to do double-duty here. Allow me to explain. All these things can be taught - drawing, singing, composing music, everything. But it takes a special something, something innate, to do it well. I guess that's what we call "talent". It can't be learned. It is possible for me to learn to draw. But in the learning, I've already missed something. Some people just draw innately, they can't contain it. Doodles spill out of their hands, onto napkins, scraps of paper, exposed skin, everywhere. They don't have to sit down and say to themselves "Okay, now I'm going to draw." It just happens. They can take lessons, and learn different techniques and styles to hone their craft, but they have an inner sense of art, an unspoken understanding of it that makes them by default a better artist than I could ever learn to be.

The same is true with musical composition. I've observed this phenomenon in my father. He creates music, all the time. Songs just pour out of him, like he's merely some vessel or conduit, tapped into a universal creative artery. Of course, it's his talent, his experience, his style and preferences that are expressed - he's not just a medium. But it seems like he simply has music in his head, and he has to get it out to make room for even more music that is constantly bubbling up inside him. Not all of it's great, mind you. But I guess he produces such a volume of it that, statistically, some of it is bound to be good. I firmly believe that my father would create music anywhere, under any circumstances, in any time period - he wouldn't have a choice. On the other hand, when I sit down to write music, it is a slow, painful, stilted process. Now, I'm an innate singer, no one taught me that. And I've spent many, many years of my life studying all kinds of music, learning music theory, and performing in hundreds of different styles. Academically, I probably know more about music than my dad does. On paper, it looks like I should be a better composer. But I'm not. I just don't have the spark.

Not that I mind, really. Composing music is difficult for me, so I don't enjoy it. So I don't do it, so I don't develop experience and confidence in doing it, so I never become better. And perhaps that's what makes the difference in the end. We are all drawn most strongly to the creative outlet that fits us best. I like to sing. Some people like to paint. Other people like to make up crazy songs about sea anenomes. Different strokes for different folks (and so on, and so forth, and doobie, doobie, doobie...)

Bottom line: Find what makes you happy and do it. If you like Lego, or cooking, or designing modifications for the Starship Enterprise, that's no less noble than any other creative hobby. I'm not singing a lot of masterpieces over here. It's whatever's rolling around in my head, be it "Ave Maria" or "Found a Peanut". Just go do something, because I'm done with the post!



Well, it's the new fad now to be on about Net Neutrality. Really, that's downplaying it somewhat. I was reading up on it (at savetheinternet.com, which I linked to from PvP, a very funny comic put out by fellow UNT alum Scott Kurtz), and it seems like a pretty important thing. For the lazy ones (you know who you are) the short version is this:

Last year, a law was passed that allowed cable and phone companies to do away with previous legislation that forced them to keep their networks open to competitors. This gave them (your ISP) the power to do away with net neutrality, too. The only thing right now that is keeping your internet performing like it always has is a temporary ruling from the FCC.

The net neutrality movement is an effort to make that temporary FCC ruling a law. If the proposed legislation to protect net neutrality doesn't pass, the temporary FCC ruling will expire. At that point, your ISP will have the legal right, and certainly the financial incentive, to regulate your web content. From the ISPs' perspective, it's brilliant. All websites will be rank-ordered. Websites they own, as well as websites which pay them "access fees" will be given preferential treatment - mostly in the form of faster load times. Not that your internet will get any faster, just that 'non-preferred' sites will be artificially made slower. Some 'non-preferred' sites may not be accessible at all. For example, if SBC wants to promote Yahoo! (a website they own) over Google (a website they don't own), and your ISP is an SBC subsidiary, it may become, ah, inconvenient for you to get to Google. Of course, Yahoo! will always be right there, ready to help with your searching needs. The only trouble is, Yahoo! is a completely inferior search engine. Getting to places like this blog may become completely impossible. If Blogger starts asking me to pay a fee to use their service, so that they can pay "access fees" to various ISPs to avoid 'non-preferential' treatment, I may just have to buy a typewriter or something. Learn skywriting, maybe? Who knows.

Anyway, while I'm usually in favor of a more "laissez-faire" style government when it comes to art, religion and the internet, what we're talking about here is regulation for non-regulation. And that's something I can get behind. Or in front of. Whatever. If you, too want to do something that is free, painless, and will at least make you feel better about yourself, go to that save the internet site I linked to up there and sign the petition. It's a little form, it'll take you about 30 seconds. You can click the "spam-free" option, too, which is always nice. It automatically generates a letter to your senators (based on your ZIP code), letting them know you support net neutrality. You can also edit the letter, which is also a good thing. That way, you know what you're signing your name to. I embellished mine a bit. It was fun!

While you are there, I encourage you to watch the "Ask a Ninja" movie on the subject. It's a bit odd, as you might expect, but they mention something about access to certain websites being blocked by "a wall made out of the shredded remains of the first amendment..." I liked it. It's also pretty funny, and talks about the tri-colored hats worn by Hotdog on a Stick employees. Tee-hee, those are some funny hats!

If your name is Sarah, you should nag your husband into writing a little something on this topic for the newspaper, as he is a journalist. If your name is Phil, you should write a little something on this topic for the newspaper. After all, you're a journalist. This is what you do, right? We can't let the man keep us down!

In other news, I went to Scarborough Faire this weekend with some friends. It was fun. It was hot. It was a lesson in capitalism. They charge you $20 to get in (my friend graciously bought my ticket, which was very cool), and then they skin you for food and drink. Essentially, the people who run the fair pay minimum wage to a skeleton staff (who must provide their own costumes). Then, they charge vendors to rent booth space. Performers don't have to pay, but they're not getting paid, either. That's why the performers beg for donations at the end of every show. The people running the fair make a mint off of entry fees, vendor's rent, and food and drink sales. Beer is $4. FOUR DOLLARS!!! And we're not talking about good beer, here, this is what they charge for Butt Lite and Michelob Ultra-Nasty. It's a genius enterprise.

At any rate, I had a good time. I saw some people wearing really cool costumes. I also saw some people who shouldn't have been wearing their really cool costumes... I swear some of those corsets must've been reinforced with titanium. Excuse me while I climb up on my soapbox...

Okay. If, after donning your corset, your cleavage oozes up and slightly out over the top of the fabric, much like the crown of well-made muffins or cupcakes, this is a bad thing. It's bad for many reasons. My friends and I have coined the phrase "dunlap" syndrome to describe this, similar to when one's belly protrudes over one's belt, but this happens a bit higher up. It's not sexy. Also, corsets and the costumes that accompany them are expensive. If you've just spent several hundred dollars on an elaborate period costume, you want people to admire it. But if you've got "dunlap" boobs, no one is looking at your costume. They're looking at your boobs. And they're not thinking nice things. Do yourself a favor and buy something that fits you. Or maybe consider losing some of that 400 lbs you've got hanging around.

Also, women of all shapes, sizes, and levels of costume-appropriateness seemed to be fond of sticking smallish items in the bustline of their corsets. Usually, this is a small flower or dagger (for the more dangerous ones) strategically nestled where it may draw attention. That's fine. However, the choice of item is important. Food is usually not a good idea. Nobody wants to see that hot dog you're saving for later stuffed down your shirt. Things that accentuate "saggage", such as a playing card placed sideways between one's copious bosoms, are less than enchanting. Finally, it is not a shelf. Wearing a corset does not suddenly turn them into "cargo boobs". Pick ONE item. Just one. Not ten. It is not a utility belt.

And, before I leave the soapbox, a word about tails. They're freaky. If you are wearing a tail because you are a furry, or because you believe you are partly a woodland creature, you're already freaky and you deserve the social ostracization you will no doubt recieve. If you are wearing a tail because you think it's "cute", let me explain. There is NOTHING cute about wearing the butt of a dead fox or raccoon tied around your waist or snapped onto the back of your pants. The words "animal cruelty" spring to mind. Besides, people might think you're a furry...

Okay, soapbox time is over. I had lots of fun, I got my hair braided, I toured what could be referred to as a human zoo. It's not a bad way to spend a Saturday!


...it's ALIIIVE!!

As you can tell from my last couple of posts, I've been living and breathing my thesis project for a while now. It's what's going on in my life, so it's what I write about. I know it's probably much more facinating to me than it is to everyone else on the planet. Tough cookies. I'm stoked because I finally feel like my thesis is coming together. I can't really claim credit for it, though; it seems like I just got lucky. I blindly stumbled upon some literature, that led to some other literature, that led to some other literature...anyway, I found some helpful stuff. I finished my thesis proposal (I got an A minus for not having proposed statistics), which of course isn't really finished, but it's a start. I am privately pleased that I got to use "obfuscate" in my paper. I gave myself super word-nerd points for that! Glee!

I was also having some trouble with my instrument. There are two instruments that are very similar. One is expensive. One is free. Guess which one I like best? Anyway, I was having a hard time determining if the free instrument, the IPIP, would be appropriate for my study. I won't bore you with the details here, but I emailed "the IPIP guy", who put me in touch with "the IPIP consultant guy", a Dr. John Johnson (no joke) from Penn State. Dr. Johnson was "tickled" about my project and wants me to keep him informed on it. He seemed pretty excited about the whole idea. Even better, though, was that he sent me A TON of information on the IPIP, info I really needed and, now that I have it, will make my project much easier. So, yay.

Now my next step is to find some computer science slave labor. If you happen to know of anyone who is willing to do a bit of work to support gamer research, and they're handy with the international cyberweb, please send them my way!

On a completely different note, the pumpkins I planted a while back are beginning to overrun my balcony. They've spilled over the sides of the planter. Some have climbed up the railing and are waving jocundly at passers-by. They have completely engulfed the ornamental dragonfly garden-stake. It may be months before I see his cheerful metal form again. A few days ago, the pumpkins started producing flowers, which is very good. Pumpkin flowers look sort of like hibiscus, but the blooms only last one day and they're bright orange. Pumpkin orange, you might say. Anyway, it's cool. My strawberries aren't faring so well, but, you can't win 'em all. I'll be pretty impressed if I manage to produce pumpkins this year, so the strawberries are just bonus.

Well, now I must extricate myself from the company of my long-time associate, Procrastination. I have a Japanese final tomorrow at 10.30, so my studying must begin in earnest.



Wow, it's been almost a month since my last post. Have you ever sat down to work on something, and then when you look up, it's like, 3 weeks later? It's been like that.

So much has happened, and there's so much I've wanted to write about but haven't had the time, I'm not sure where to begin. I suppose I should start with filling in on events.

Since last post:

I have had an epiphany about my thesis. Guess what? I'm not supposed to already know how to do this. It's not like I just missed that day in high school English or something, or that I learned it for a test and then promptly forgot. These people have asked me to do something, and they do not expect me to already know how to do it. In fact, they know I don't know. They are giddy with anticipation of my mistakes. Not (necessarily) so they can ridicule me, but because writing a thesis is a process. That's been like a mantra - "It's a process." I kept repeating it, but I didn't truly understand it until recently.

I cannot express to you the magnitude of this revelation. It seems like a small thing, but it really isn't. It was an "Ohhhh, stars above...!" moment (thank you Kung-Pow:Enter the Fist).
At any rate, I am experiencing considerably less anxiety about my thesis. Mind you, that still leaves a whole lot of anxiety, but by comparison, the amount has been drastically reduced.

I also felt a bit like an idiot for spending the last 20 years of my life in school and not catching onto that concept a little more quickly. Really, I learn neuroscience. You'd think I'd be able to grasp this "process" thing.

I have also determined that the GRE is absolutely useless and misleading as an assessment/preparation tool for graduate school. You know what they should do? They should tell people to study for the GRE, and then give them a stress-management test. If you fail the stress management test, they should pat you on the back and reccommend an alternate career path. It'd be simpler, healthier, and cheaper all around.

That's the other thing I realized; getting a bachelor's degree does not in any way prepare you for grad school. I would have been more prepared for grad school if I'd taken a few years off, gotten married, maybe had some kids. Grad school is about learning from life. It's coming up with solutions to problems that don't have any "right" answers. It's like, at first, in kindergarten, they use life to teach you about academics ("If I have 3 apples, and you have 2 apples, how many apples do we have? See, that's math!") Later on in one's educational career, the focus shifts increasingly towards academics, until by college, you're learning academic stuff just for the sake of academics. (Do I really need to know what "proximodistal development" is? Will it impact my day-to-day living? Of course not. But, as an aside, proximodistal development is developing from the inside-out, like a fetus. Torso first, arms and legs later. Now, don't you feel enlightened?) Then, in graduate school, they pull a complete 180 on you. Now, they want you to use academics to learn about life. There's the familiar information regurgitation, but that's not what you're learning. You already know that crap. You are learning how to think about the whys and hows that don't have set answers. And you're learning to do it in a pressure cooker.

Also, my aunt died. That was a bit of a shocker. I'm not really ready to write about this yet, because I am by necessity too focused on the fact that I missed a whole week right at the end of the semester. It really couldn't have happened at a worse time. I know that sounds callous, but really it isn't. I'm grieving, I'm processing, but I also have to get through this last week of school, or it may as well have been me in that casket. The point of life is to live it, and I'm living with some looming deadlines at the moment. More looming, it would seem, than that final deadline.

But what happened to my Aunt Susie, that she should die so unexpectedly, and at such a young age (only 59)? She had some health problems, sure, but nobody was thinking she'd just drop off like that. Apparently, she'd had a few nasty falls that, unbeknownst to anyone, were causing bleeding in her brain. This bleeding seems to have been going on for some time. Then, one Thursday evening in late April, she was standing in her living room, talking with her husband (about a bill, of all things), and she just kind of went rigid and fell over. In my mind, it was like in the cartoons, with someone yelling "Tim-ber!" in the background. Doctors speculate that she was more or less brain-dead before she hit the floor. She was completely unresponsive (no reflexes, etc.), but still breathing on her own at this point. She was Care-Flighted to a trauma hospital in Houston, the family was called, the process was started.

My mother called and told me first, but she was on a cell phone in a car, so I couldn't quite catch everything. I called my youngest aunt, Rhonda, for more details. This was around 9.30pm. I talked to my aunt for quite some time, my father called, everyone was trying to figure out what was going on. Is it serious? Is she going to be okay? Was it an overdose? These were the types of questions we were asking. Later that evening, my Aunt Rhonda called me crying, (she always takes charge first and gets emotional when there's no more to be busy with) she was alone (Uncle Jesse works nights) and just wanted to talk. We talked for a bit, and decided I should come down, to help her the next day. She was planning to leave for Houston the next afternoon, but there was a lot a preparation she needed to do, and I could help with that. So I got in my car at 11pm on Thursday night and drove to Austin in torrential rain. I had one change of clothes, a bedroll, and a toothbrush.
I slept for three hours on the couch, and got up at 7 when my cousins, Andre and Tessa got up for school. Throughout the morning, it became increasingly clear that my Aunt Susie was not going to make it. She was being kept alive on life support basically so that family who wanted to see her "one last time" could get to Houston. Rather than drive back to Denton and then turn around a day later and drive to Houston for the inevitable funeral, I decided to travel down to Houston with Aunt Rhonda and her family. I mean, I was already halfway there, anyway. I borrowed some tshirts from Tessa (who is 8) and bought a pack of skivvies.
Friday afternoon, my Aunt Susie was taken off life support, and died shortly thereafter. I did not witness this. There was some confusion about the necessity of an autopsy, since the death was technically injury-related. This delayed the funeral planning. Family descended upon Kay (Susie's daughter)'s house. Fortunately, Kay has a beautiful and spacious home.

For a few days, some people went back and forth between Kay's and Aunt Susie's house, sorting through things. My Aunt Rhonda found a birthday card, stamped, sealed, and addressed to her. (Her birthday is April 27th.) On it was a post-it note that read, in Aunt Susie's handwriting, "Mail Monday."

A visitation-type thing was held on Monday, where the body could be viewed briefly. This was against my late aunt's wishes, but some family members requested it for closure purposes. I went to the "early showing", mostly out of morbid curiousity (literally!). It was my first viewing of a dead body. It freaked me out. It was strongly reminiscent of my visit to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London. I was struck by her hands - her nails were painted (I assume to cover up any discoloration), but I don't recall her nails ever being painted before. Certainly not that color. Also, she wasn't wearing any rings! Aunt Susie always wore lots of these ridiculous, huge rings - usually 2 or 3 per hand. It was quite strange and not-Aunt-Susie-like to see her without them. And she was wearing too much makeup, but I hear that's common for these occassions. She was wearing an outfit she'd bought earlier in the week, but never gotten a chance to wear. It was cute on her. Her hair looked great.

I have not yet decided whether dead-body viewing is a requirement for my grieving process. All I can say about it really is that it was strange. I did not cry, but my sister Rachel bawled on my shoulder out on the front porch of the funeral home for half an hour. Then they closed the casket, and the regular visitation began.

The funeral was held on Tuesday at 10Am. I cried during the service, but not at the gravesite. There is so much talent in my family, and it was showcased on this occassion. Aunt Susie's children (Kay and Todd), and 3 of her grandchildren read anectdotes, stories, and thoughts that they had written for the occassion. It was quite touching. Other cousins, the brother-sister musical duo Jen and Eric, sang. Todd (an artist) and others compiled a multi-media presentation - picutres, music, and love notes Aunt Susie had written to my Uncle Bob. The whole thing was pretty amazing.

Later, I went to my Aunt Susie's house, to help move some stuff. She had written a little love note to my uncle in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. It was still there.