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Culture Corner: Premiere of a New Conceptual Work of Music: “Sacred and Profane Love”
In the last two years or so, I composed and recorded a thematic work of music, “Sacred and Profane Love.” The piece is eighteen minutes long with shifting musical structures centered on rock and pop stylizations. Several extraordinary vocalists perform on the recording, each of whom has improved the melodies of the original score. Without these artists, the finished product could not have expressed my intention as a composer. Gretchen Farrar magnificently handles the largest role, and my cousin, Matt Murphy, sings the other lead with his typical brilliance. The quality of the work was dynamically enhanced by their complex emotional idealizations and interpretations of contrasting musings on “sacred” and “profane” love.
Bill Millard’s vocals as “Greek Chorus” and “Omniscient” provide one of the invaluable revelatory keys towards unlocking the philosophical intentions of the song. I’m awed by each of his performances. Peter Weidman wonderfully took on that exact same role (Chorus and Omniscient) and sang the only section of the score that directly addressed the listener while simultaneously singing to “specters” of both principals. He later returns to present a mysterious pause in the central mythic tale, a dreamy, brief retelling of the story of Jacob’s Ladder from the Torah. Bill, Peter, and I performed in a rock band decades ago, and we enjoyed this magical reunion, even with Pete singing virtually from Pennsylvania.
The lyrics proved to be difficult to craft with many early attempts discarded. As they stand now, the listener hears a mix of my own lyrical phrases bundled with targeted quotes or allusions and nods to works by Dante, Shakespeare, Ovid, James Joyce, and many others. The music and lyrics gently allude to a multitude of rock and pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s as well. There is only one very close borrowing of chords and texture that I perform from a song composed by David Bowie, “Heroes.” Bill sang that song with our band in 1980, so naturally he takes on the Bowie homage in the new piece.
I was very fortunate that Gretchen Farrar, a beautiful and versatile opera singer, readily agreed to the time commitment required to learn and record the lead vocal. It is simply an honor that she appears on this recording and she “kills” it—and completes it. Some of the varying emotional qualities of the character of “profane love” are abstractions of my own ideas and struggles as well as at times an extreme representation of my cousin Matthew Murphy’s suave “gentleman adventurer” personality, in the best sense of the notion (aunt Claudia, I did not say “sophisticated rogue”!). Matt is without doubt the greatest and most talented rock and roll vocalist I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with since I started strumming a guitar at age fourteen in the mid-1970s.
The composition is dedicated to Merle Langs, my aunt, an extraordinary musician and composer who taught piano to countless young students for over half a century, and continues to do so to this day. Sincere, heartfelt gratitude goes out to the following individuals for their encouragement and continued artistic inspiration: Brett Gingold, musician, sculptor, and painter; Izzi Ramkissoon, musician, educator, and composer; and the late Roland Kohloff, timpanist extraordinaire of the New York Philharmonic orchestra.
“Sacred and Profane Love” Lyrics:
Gretchen (Sacred Love):
You give me life
Mais tu es ma mort
Love has been our wine
Flowing like the river of heaven
Remember me as you walk by,
As you are now so was I,
As I am now,
Prepare yourself to follow me down.
Render to me what in love’s my due
Lover, do unto me as I do unto you
Dark is your soul tonight
Should I be a Beatrice would you see the light?
I was once as you are
Will you be as I am now?
Was I blind and can you not see?
What becomes of one, if not two, three—how much ‘til you let it be?
Matt (profane love):
Your name’s a summons to my foolish blood
There’s no word tender enough, to be your name.
Drunken Joyce Beckett sits in a pub.
As I obliterate all memory of your love
To be your name.
Down to the river goes I,
Drowning in Guinness, O’Hara’s, and rye
Beamish, Egans, Teeling—aye.
River Jordan, Sea of Galilee
Easier to walk across
Than to swim to thee,
You can raise the Dead Sea
But you can’t raise me.
I’m drunken Dylan Thomas on a White Horse.
Thinks he’s so clever
Exactly what’s the cost?
Ah my man, ah, you men—ah, men—amen
Apollo’s first love was Daphne of old
Cupid’s arrow striking hard and bold.
Tavern drunk Apollo that is you
Opium smoke hazing cloudy and blue.
Halfway through the journey of my life
I found myself in a gloomy wood.
Chanced upon a stranger
He sang to me,
“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
And, as one handling skillfully the harp,
Attendant on skillful songstress’ voice
Like the accordant twinkling of two eyes,
Beamy circlets, dancing to the sounds.
Hear me, my love,
My eyes they speak
Clearer than thought or word
What is that rain knows or dew feels in the morning calm
But of what I say
Never a man betray a true cause
I’ll kill the king
I’ll nail him to the cross
Notes from the underground
The Molotov cocktail blows up in your hand.
Bill (Greek Chorus and Omniscient):
And I—I must step back
And–and you—you came in a harsh dream—
The undiscovered dream,
Aye—that’s the rub
Perchance a-towered sharpshooter’s nest
As my arms grasp and grope
Towards your love!
And I—will I step back?
To allow my Queen
To pass me by blind
Throw off the misty cloak, courtier
You have nothing to lose save muddy boots.
Sheath your dagger
The king’s lost his head
You’ve got no excuse—you’ve nothing to lose!
Peter with Bernie (both Greek Chorus and Omniscient):
I was once as you are
Will you be as I am now?
Peasants and Lords create the fruit of the vine.
But there’s no prayer for the thoughts
Running through my mind!
Remember me as you walk by,
As you are now so was I—
As I am now,
Prepare yourself to be
Follow me down, follow me down
Turn thee, and list’
These eyes are thy only Paradise
A memory that became you
Drunk I remember my blues
Where are your gibes now you merciless jester?
I watched the angel fall from the sky
As birds oe’r Dottie’s rainbow high
Clever boy never know when yer sinking
Come walk with me a while
Row a boat Sunday-park style
Ah, you men—amen
Robin Hood choked on his cigarette
The hookah opium resin left
From that I dreamed and behold a ladder
Set up on the earth its top reached to heaven
And there—there—you angels were ascending and descending on it…
I look at you all there
Darling mystery of mine
My heart breaks it beats
Your world is spinning
Round, round, round
I look at you all there—here, everywhere
At long last
I grasp you
I feel you
I grasp you—I grasp you
O comfortable friar! where is my lord?
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.
He’s Drunken Joyce Beckett in a pub
Tryin’ to obliterate memory of her love
To be her name.
Down to the river there he goes
Drowning in Guinness, ‘pill his lows
To be her name
The River Jordan, Sea of Galilee
Easier to walk across
Than to swim to thee,
Doesn’t believe that she can raise the Dead
No Lazarus he
Won’t be easily led.
I was once as you are
And you will be as I am now
I was once as you are
And you will be as I am now
Como el manzano entre los árboles del bosque,
Así es mi amado entre los hijos.
Me senté bajo su sombra con gran alegría,
Su fruto era dulce a mi paladar.
Translation (from the Biblical “Song of Songs”):
As the apple tree among the trees of the forest,
So is my beloved among children.
I sat under its shadow with great joy,
Its fruit was sweet to my palate.
Bill with Matt:
You will never be lovelier than you are now
We will never be here again…
Ah, my man,
Sacred and Profane Love can be heard online at https://soundcloud.com/bernie-langs/sacred-and-profane-love.
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New York Rhymes: TONES
Poetry: Dr. Konstantina Theofanopoulou (instagram: @newyork_rhymes)
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Natural Expressions: Art
Susan Stair, art teacher at the Child and Family Center at The Rockefeller University, would like to announce two events. One event, Tree Power, will take place on Sunday, October 3 from 2-4 p.m. in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem in the Southeast corner by the basketball courts. Stair is the artist in charge of this free event, which is open to both individuals and families. In the event of rain, Tree Power will take place on Sunday, October 10 from 2-4 p.m. The second event is a year-long art installation, Ascending the Mountain, that will be up in Marcus Garvey Park until July of 2022. Ascending the Mountain addresses trees using clay and mosaics and is funded by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as well as the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. More about Susan Stair and her art can be found on her website.
Email Megan E. Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events. Digital and online events/releases are welcome!
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A Note from the Editorial Board
Dear Readers and Contributors,
Natural Selections will be going on hiatus until 2022. If you’re interested in joining our Editorial Board or contributing content to Natural Selections upon our return, please fill out this form or contact us at email@example.com. We are already looking forward to our return and would like to encourage our contributors to keep writing!
The Editorial Board
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Life on a Roll: Rome—the Eternal City
Rome is often referred to as the “Eternal City”—the term was supposedly coined in the first century B.C. by the Roman poet Tibullus. This is because ancient Romans believed that no matter what happened to the world, or how many empires rose or fell, that Rome would go on forever. While walking through the Roman Forum and the Thermae, I felt an indescribable awe thinking that people really built these structures two thousand years ago. If they successfully impress people today after nearly two millennia, I can only imagine how visitors reacted back then.
In the evening, hanging out around the Trevi Fountain is a fun activity where you often see people toss coins. The legend says, tossing one coin into the fountain means you’ll return to Rome, tossing two coins means you’ll return and fall in love, and tossing three coins means you’ll return, find love, and marry. How many did I toss?
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Dr. Sidney Strickland on the Changing of the Guard
On July 9, 2021, Dr. Sidney Strickland made the announcement that he will step down as the Dean of Graduate and Postgraduate Studies in the next few months. Since many members of our community were surprised to learn of this changing of the guard, I decided to meet with Dr. Strickland virtually to ask a few questions and reminisce about his incredible twenty-one-year tenure:
I think a lot of people were surprised when you announced that you were stepping down. Can you please talk about what made you decide to end your tenure as the Dean after so many years?
I just think it’s good for the program to have some turnover, and probably more often than every twenty-one years. New people come in, they have new ideas, new approaches—it’s stimulating! And I think I’ve really loved doing the job, I’ve enjoyed it tremendously, but there is also the fact that I would like to spend a little more time concentrating on the lab. So those factors combined just made me think it was time. There was no push, I was still enjoying it, but when you do something for a long time, there is certain inertia that sets in, and you want to avoid that.
It’s been a very long tenure for you, and looking back on it, are there any periods of time or specific events that really stand out to you?
Not really. But I think we have made a lot of progress in creating an institutional safety net for the students. I’ve been involved with the graduate program going back to 1973, and it’s always been a fantastic place to be for graduate students. Almost invariably the PIs are good mentors, they care about their students, they are doing superb science, and it works well. But what didn’t exist in the early days or fifty years ago, was a kind of institutional security. Students can have problems for all reasons—it’s not just scientific. It’s health, it’s family matters, it’s whatever interferes with people’s lives, all these issues. So, I think we instituted a way for the students to feel like they have somebody at the institutional level, not their PI level, to help them through hard times. And I think it was very important because in the very old days that didn’t exist, so people could get a little bit lost and not know what to do.
I agree. As a student myself, I can really appreciate that support that we get from the Dean’s Office. And speaking of other notable experiences, was there something that you really enjoyed about being the Dean? What was your favorite part of the job?
Definitely my favorite part is interacting with the students. I know them all, as you know, and I have become friends with some of them. Some of those friendships have endured for a long, long time. Some of the students that came in on my watch have become very accomplished. There is Vanessa Ruta, I was the Dean when she was a student. She and I became very friendly even when she was a student, and I recognized her incredible talents. There was also Paul Cohen, Kivanç Birsoy, and Agata Smogorzewska. So, it’s basically been interacting with the students. I have learned from them scientifically and also just about other things. If they are international, I learned about their home countries (I find that tremendously interesting), their life, their hobbies, all that sort of stuff, so it’s definitely been interacting with the students. I really love that. And I actually don’t want to give that up—I want to try to do some teaching and still have some interaction with the student population.
I am sure that students will appreciate your continued involvement. On the other hand, was there anything that was really challenging for you?
There is nothing that stands out. There are issues that come up that are difficult, every year there are really difficult issues. But the great thing about Rockefeller is that it’s so small, you can deal with everything on an individualized basis. People would warn me at the very beginning when I started. Let’s suppose that the student really wanted to do something out of the ordinary, and they would ask me if they could do it, and people would say, “Well, if you do it for that person, you will have to do it for everyone.” But it turns out, if you have 200 students, that’s really not true. If a student wants to go to an extra meeting because it’s right in line with their thesis work and would be incredibly valuable, we can give them a leeway to go to that meeting with the Dean’s Office support. But not everybody is going to be lined up to do it or want to do it. So, I think it’s made it a lot easier to deal with the challenging things, the fact that we can be so individualized. You know, you can’t do that if you have 20,000 graduate students. But you have 200, you can do that. So, I would say, the challenging moments were challenging, but I think we can usually work through them fairly successfully.
And I don’t know if you have given this any thought, but do you know who you would prefer to see as your successor? Not necessarily a specific person, but what kind of qualities should that person possess to be able to do the job just as well?
I think it’s pretty obvious—you want somebody who is interested in the welfare of the students, who is supportive. And this really betrays my own prejudices: I do love the flexibility of the program; students can do what they want. For me, it would be too bad to get someone in who is extremely bureaucratic, rule-bound, and wanted to set up a very different structure. I am not saying that wouldn’t be good, but it’s not what’s giving the program a special flavor. I would hope that person would celebrate our flexibility and the independence that we give students and try to keep that going.
I truly hope so too! Is there anything that you think your successor should try and change?
It’s pretty difficult—since I have been doing it for twenty-one years, if there was something that we should change, I should have changed it. I’m sure there are things—I’m not sure what exactly they will be. But someone with a new approach will look at it and say, “We can do it a lot better.” And I anticipate that, I welcome that. One of the reasons you want to get turnover is that someone will come in with a fresh view.
Do you have any scoop on how the search is going?
It’s just in its early stages, so I don’t really have any scoop. I don’t really know what they’re thinking. I have interviewed with a search firm, to give them my take on the situation. It’s a great job because the administration has always been extremely supportive of the graduate program. Jim Lapple, who is our Chief Financial Officer, has always been willing to give us extra funds to do something special, if we make a case for it. If we tell him that something could be really important for the students, that we want to do it, that it’s going to be expensive, Jim has never hesitated. All the rest of the administration, all the way up and down the line, has been supportive. So, it’s a great job because you have a tremendously talented group of students, you have a lot of resources to do special things, a beautiful campus, and a good working relationship with the faculty and with the administration. So, I think they will be able to attract somebody really good.
You mentioned earlier that you wanted to focus more on your lab. Is there anything else that you are looking forward to now that you have this newly found freedom?
I’m sure everybody knows that my great hobby is music. So, I don’t expect to become a lead guitarist for a rock band, but I wouldn’t mind spending a little more time on my guitar skills. Other than that, just working with the lab because that is something that I still tremendously enjoy. After all these years, I still love trying to figure out what goes right and what goes wrong in the body or in biology, I might say.
Is there anything else that you would like to leave our readers with?
No, just tell them that I’m looking forward to the student retreat.
Are you coming?
Oh definitely! I’ll be there.
Edited for clarity.
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Culture Corner: Four Music Festivals, Four Very Different Documentaries
There are four superlative film documentaries, two released in 1970 and two this year, chronicling music festivals that reflect era-defining moments in the cultural and social history of this country. Opinions stretch far and wide as to what lessons can be learned from each of these movies and whether each film is indicative of a deeply rooted, underlying psyche of what it means to be American. The documentaries inspire their viewers to delve deep into ideas about the music itself, specifically the theory of whether or not the art is selfishly shaped and advertised in a destructive package created for the consumerist corporate exploitation of young people, which subsequently “trickles down” to the broader population through many mediums.
The original Woodstock Festival was held over three days in mid-August 1969 on a farm located in Bethel, New York. Film director Michael Wadleigh released a movie about the “celebration,” Woodstock, in March 1970, featuring three hours of footage of the extravaganza attended by over 400,000 people, spotlighting selected extraordinary performances by major rock, folk, and soul acts of the decade. There are interviews with attendees, festival workers, views of drug-taking and river-bathing young people, as well appearances by local shop owners and residents of the small town deluged by crowds of counterculture, young “hippies.”
The greatest moments of the 1969 Woodstock festival are the ethereal performances of Santana, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby Stills and Nash, Ten Years After, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, and the soulful, peace-loving, rocking extravaganza of Sly and the Family Stone. The peak of the three days may be the performance of Sly and the Family Stone, a huge, racially integrated band with horns, pianos, guitars, and percussionists, as they undergo the call and crowd response of “Want to Take You Higher!”.
Directors Albert and David Maysles, masters of documentary storytelling, followed the 1969 American tour of The Rolling Stones with cameras and crew in hand and presented their footage as Gimme Shelter released in December 1970. Viewers are treated to entire songs played by the Stones at Madison Square Garden with additional scenes of them mixing songs such as “Wild Horses” at the famed Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama. The viewer is also privy to the planning of a Woodstock-like festival near San Francisco by lawyers and music managers as they search out a venue where hundreds of thousands will gather for the event. What we really are bearing witness to in these shots are the calm drawing up of blueprints for impending disaster.
The top-bill act at Altamont Speedway on December 9, 1969, was The Rolling Stones. The festival, once marketed as California’s opportunity to display to the country its moment of peace and love, devolved over the day of music into mayhem. The security force to “police” the crowd was the notoriously violent biker group, the Hell’s Angels, who almost immediately set out to beat up out-of-control drug-taking audience members. The violence culminated in the stabbing death by an Angel of a young man waving a (possibly unloaded) gun during the song “Under My Thumb” as the Stones played through the night to an out-of-control crush of festivalgoers. Amazingly, in the darkness and through hundreds of people in the crowd near the stage, the Maysles accidently captured the very moment of the killing. The footage in Gimme Shelter would later be used to acquit the biker of murder in court, since the outline of the waved gun is on view for about two seconds against a white background in the night in a moment of disturbing blurred fury.
For decades, Altamont was considered the moment that the peace and love movement of the 1960s came to a dead stop, exposing how tenuous and unrealistic the idealism of an entire generation had been all along. Pundits, from music and cultural critics to editorializing observers of history, held The Rolling Stones responsible for the tragedy of what occurred and their sound as representative of the worst instincts of a society’s darker personality, which could not help but lead to violence and the metaphoric death of the extended 1967 “Summer of Love.” I say emphatically to all such accusations, “rubbish.”
In 2021, two new music festival documentaries, mirroring in some ways the juxtaposition that occurred in 1969 between Woodstock and Altamont, were released, also a contrast between good vibrations as opposed to unhinged violence. The musician Questlove recently released his film, Summer of Soul, on the Hulu streaming service and in theaters. The film documents six afternoon concerts held in Manhattan’s uptown area of Harlem, also in 1969, that never received press or attention over the years despite appearances by numerous performers who were at the top of the music charts and their fame at the time, including some who had also appeared at the Woodstock festival.
Sly and the Family Stone, as at Woodstock, delivered the greatest performances in Summer of Soul. Early in the documentary, we’re treated to their hit, “Everyday People,” and towards the film’s end, we listen to the very song they played at Woodstock, with the same crying out of “Wanna take you higher – HIGHER.” It is a congregational bliss of soul and boundless love, captured in both Bethel and in Harlem. Other great moments in Questlove’s film include music by Stevie Wonder, The 5th Dimension, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Staple Singers, and the legendary Nina Simone and Max Roach.
In addition to the extraordinary and delightful music of the film, through interviews and the many shots of the crowd, the festival comes across as more honestly “feel good” and peaceful without the pretensions of other concerts at the time. As the film pans across the crowd over the six days, there isn’t one individual obviously drunk or high or behaving in the embarrassing uncontrolled manner on prominent view at the more famous 1969 gatherings. At the Harlem Festival we see old and young African Americans, many together as families, enjoying a day in the park, grooving to the vibe of the sublime music while connecting emotionally and spiritually with the performers. Also in the crowd is a mix of Harlem’s Spanish population and white men and women calmly laughing, dancing, and smiling in joy as they take in the music. The fact that no television network or film studio chose to air the footage of the festival for decades, depriving us all of viewing the concerts, becomes an essential focus of the movie. As a glaring example of overt racism, many of the performers and attendees interviewed by Questlove for Summer of Soul examine how the Harlem festival speaks to the harsh climate for people of color in the U.S. at the time and ponder why so many related problems unbelievably and terribly persist to this day.
Woodstock ’99 was released in July 2021 on the HBO Max network and is the story of how the music and performers at the Woodstock 1999 festival incited horrific violence, with attendees egged on by the aggressive, screamed speeches and singing by several bands amid a pounding, deafening “call to battle” of guitars and drums. If Altamont was a nightmare from which America woke up to realize that their youthful utopia had all along been a grotesque dream and a sham, Woodstock ’99 unveils the cemented foundation on which a tower of blind, violently conceived ignorance remains unshakably solid in our culture. It’s rare that a societal documentary can sicken its audience more than any fictional horror flick. The festival was billed as a reprise of the original Woodstock’s peace and love purpose, but the mostly young, white men weren’t having any of that from the moment they hit the boiling hot venue on those July days in 1999 in Rome, New York. Several attendees died of heatstroke, women ended up being savagely groped by crowds of young men, and a few women were raped by crazed twenty-somethings feeding on music of unashamed and unabashedly pure hatred.
On the last evening of the festival, concertgoers took the candles distributed for a nighttime vigil against gun violence to set alight anything flammable they could find for massive bonfires, as they tore down metal towers holding equipment for the show. At one of the worst moments of out-of-control rioting in the documentary, the band The Red Hot Chili Peppers was quietly asked by the promoters to calm the crowd, but instead vocalist Anthony Kiedis chose to literally “fan the flames” by leading an improvised, manic version of Jimi Hendrix’s song “Fire.”
Much of what is commonly believed about the original Woodstock is a mythologized retelling of what actually happened, a point brought up again and again by commentators in HBO’s Woodstock ’99 documentary as they deconstruct what went so wrong at the later remake. However, it is undeniable that the performers and singers in 1969 did grab hold of peaceful feelings abounding in the air. Viewing the late 1960s crowds at Woodstock and the attendees at Altamont, perhaps it’s simply a matter of East Coast versus West Coast lifestyle and attitude. Some of the hippies at Bethel were high or drunk, but there was no expression of repressed frustration boiling over. At Altamont, the Californians on display are often so inebriated or zonked out that they stumble like zombies around the grounds, inciting anger and annoyance by those they smash into. The Hell’s Angels absurdly and horrifically took this behavior as an opportunity to beat concertgoers as they pleased. When The Rolling Stones hit the stage that night, an entire day of fighting culminated in violence taking place directly upfront near the band and in view of the Maysles’ many cameras. Altamont didn’t end the 1960s, it was where the bummer, bad trip of an indulgent drug culture met the fists of lunatics whose lives centered around motorcycles and beer.
The underlying causes of the vile behavior we witness in the documentary, Woodstock ’99, remain alive to this day, a legacy of unnecessary hatred exploding in actual destruction. One could postulate that the young men at the concerts, constantly described in the documentary as “morons,” “idiots,” and “numbskulls,” grew up to storm the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Most of what we listen to by the bands in the movie is a disgrace to the very name of “music” as several performers yell and scream abusive and obscene “disgust of life” tirades. It resembles a call to arms to a brotherhood centered on vague, simplistic principals that expressing uncontrolled rage is legitimate and necessary. Young people at times plummet towards hopelessness when taught to believe that they are viewed in American society as a dumb-luck group with no chance from birth for happiness or meaningful employment. Woodstock ‘99 shoulders the historic shame of Altamont with none of its remorse, regrets, or lessons learned. Bands such as Korn, Limp Bizkit and their low-grade, imbecilic vocalist, Fred Durst, and the right-wing, shamelessly untalented Kid Rock, encouraged their fans to embrace destruction of the “system” that has designated them “useless.”
Music promoters, many bands, and numerous corporate concert sponsors have hung on to the selling point that spending one’s life with adolescent desires and attitudes is the best approach to combat aging. In actuality, that is nothing but a lazy, ignorant, and childish philosophy. Woodstock ’99 couldn’t pretend to be revolutionary with its simple-minded credo of “I’ll do whatever I want, whenever and wherever I want, and no one can stop me.” Societal encouragement, from music to the airbrushed, “ideal” youthful beauty displayed in magazines and commercials to film and TV shows, are all promoting a youth culture attitude allowing us to only select in our lives from the rankest, lowest-hanging spoiled sustenance. One must see it for what it really is when exposed to the bright light of truth: banal, absurd posturing in defense of never becoming an adult who must handle a multitude of difficult choices, responsibilities, and perhaps most frightening of all, transitioning to emotional growth that allows deeper understanding and enrichment of life and love. Viewing Woodstock ’99, one discovers how such senseless, superficial beliefs continue to pervade the minds of so many people, with no end in sight for the future. Until we embrace and enjoy the notion that growing up and growing older carries us to our best selves and the most fulfilled life, the mindset of uncontrolled lifelong adolescent frustrations will remain a clear and present danger to discovering a plane of “higher” physical, philosophical, and mental health in America. Sly and the Family Stone express it beautifully at the original Woodstock and the Harlem Summer Festival: Wanna take you higher – HIGHER!
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Spread Like Wildfire
Have you ever heard the phrase “spread like wildfire”? It refers to something that quickly affects or becomes known by an increasing number of people. There has been a growing number of wildfires around the world in the last few years. It made me wonder what is causing all these fires. It seems that more people are being affected by them, but how many of us know how they happen?
The definition of a wildfire is an unintended or out of control fire in an area of vegetation. Other names are forest fires, brush fires, or wildland fires. They occur in climates that have enough moisture to allow an ample number of trees and plants to grow, but also have a sufficiently hot and arid season for the vegetation to dry and become flammable. Wildfires tend to occur during those dry periods, usually the summer and fall, and during droughts. They are said to have fronts, where the flames meet unburned material. Fronts can move as fast as 6.7 mph among trees and 14 mph in grassy areas. Sometimes air currents carry embers, also known as firebrands, past the front and start a fire in a new area, known as jumping.
Wildfires are categorized by the different fuels they consume. The most common type is the surface fire, which moves along the ground fueled by dry leaves, fallen twigs, branches, dead trees, and dead low-lying bushes. Surface fires move slowly but can be accelerated by wind. Ground fires burn below the surface, fueled by roots and buried organic material such as peat. Usually caused by lightning, these fires tend to smolder and can last for months. Canopy fires move along the treetops and are spread by wind or vines among the trees.
Sometimes wildfires occur naturally and can be beneficial. There is evidence in the fossil record of forest fires going back millions of years since plants started to cover the land. These fires are mostly caused by lightning, and sometimes by volcanic eruptions. These fires lead to the formation of complex early seral forest habitats, or an early-stage forest before the establishment of a tree canopy. These types of habitats often have more species diversity than older forests. Some plants and trees need fire to germinate, and some animal species are dependent on those plants. The fire also helps to return nutrients to the soil. The United States’ National Parks Service will carefully monitor, but usually allow, a naturally occurring fire burn out on its own as long as there is a good barrier between the fire and occupied areas.
However, within the last few decades it’s been shown that most wildfires are caused by human activity. A study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that 84% of wildfires between 1992 and 2012 were caused by people. Discarded cigarettes or matches, unattended campfires, intentional burns such as brush or crop fires, sparks from equipment such as lawn mowers or tractors, railroads, and power lines, and even arson are the causes of most wildfires today. Warming temperatures have caused more drought conditions, which has also increased the number of wildfires. The increase in dry vegetation has also led to a rise in lightning ignited wildfires. While wildfires used to occur mostly in the late summer and fall, fires caused by people can occur at any time. The fire season now averages two and a half months longer than it did in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Wildfires destroy a significant amount of property and environment and have effects on the climate and human health. These fires emit carbon monoxide and dioxide, nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, benzene, poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds that can increase the ozone concentration. These chemicals have been shown to reach as high as the lower stratosphere, about 30,000 feet. Wildfires contribute as much as 25% of the global carbon emissions. The loss of plants then reduces the amount of carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. Chemicals released by wildfires can also be carried in the air across miles and affect people in other areas. Smoke from wildfires contains particulate matter under 0.2 µm. These particles and carbon monoxide can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems in people exposed to them, particularly firefighters. In addition, the lack of plants and roots after a fire allows for more water runoff, and that water can pick up these chemicals and contaminate local water supplies. The open land after a fire can also allow invasive species to take over. It is evident from media reports that wildfires also lead to massive loss of residential and commercial properties, as well as human and animal lives.
Up through the early twentieth century, wildfires were detected using lookout towers. Sentries would then report the fires using telephones and even carrier pigeons. Today lookout towers are only one detection tool. There are public hotlines, ground and aerial patrols, satellite images, and drones. Since aerial photography can be of limited use due to cloud cover and low image resolution, some forests have cameras and detectors attached to trees. The detectors measure temperature, humidity, and smoke.
Wildfires are fought with water and fire retardants. These are dropped by planes and helicopters. Fire retardants are water-based solutions of ammonium phosphates and ammonium sulfates. The nitrogen and phosphate content can act as a fertilizer, helping to bring plants back to fire-ravaged areas. However, there is some question as to how the retardants affect drinking water supplies. Firefighters will sometimes create a break or fire line, to stop the fire’s spread. They will chop down trees, dig ditches, or create a line of a controlled burn to build a line with no fuel for the fire.
Current prevention strategies involve forest management, construction codes, and public education. Forests can be managed by thinning of dead and overcrowded trees, including some commercial logging. Building codes require use of fire-retardant material in buildings, selection of fire-resistant plants for landscaping, and a buffer zone between occupied areas and wild lands. The most effective means of reducing forest fires is educating people about using caution when in the great outdoors. This consists of such things as reminding people to properly dispose of cigarettes, put out a campfire, keep their yards free of debris, and listen to evacuation orders. The most famous symbol of forest fire education is Smokey the Bear, who first appeared in 1944 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fire prevention campaign. The character is now considered a cultural icon.
As of this writing, there are currently 108 fires in fifteen states. Most of these fires are in the western half of the country, including Alaska. The Dixie fire in northern California is one of eleven in that state. It has destroyed the historical gold rush town of Greenville and has spread almost 700 square miles. New York State has sent forest rangers to help fight the western wildfires. Around the world there are currently wildfires in Canada, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Russia, Israel, Mongolia, and Brazil.
Global warming has increased the number of wildfires, and the fires themselves add to climate change. Hopefully increasing awareness of the causes and effects will spur people, and governments, to do more to reduce the economic and environmental losses.
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Leena Sen, research assistant in the Funabiki Laboratory at The Rockefeller University, would like to share her digital and canvas artwork with the community. Sen’s work is predominantly portraits, but she has forayed into abstract work at times. Her artwork can be viewed on her Instagram page @hungriboiart.
Collette Ryder, Director of the Office of Sponsored Programs Administration at The Rockefeller University and choir member with the New York Choral Society, would like to announce the upcoming 2021-2022 season of performances with NY Choral. The 2021-2022 season will be in a hybrid (virtual and in-person format) with performances in October through May. The October event will be held virtually on October 13 and will feature an a cappella choral performance of “Earth Song,” composed by Frank Ticheli. For more information, please see the full season announcement on the NY Choral website or email Ryder with any questions.
Nick Didkovsky, Bioinformatics Group Supervisor in the Heintz Laboratory at The Rockefeller University, announces the record release of CHORD IV, the fourth album by CHORD. Didkovsky acted as producer and played electric guitar alongside Tom Marsan for CHORD IV, together creating a heavy, deep-listening experience described by Peter Thelen of Exposé as “…a brutal cascade of sonic artifacts that immerse the listener in a beautiful sea of noisy guitar textures dripping down the walls… slow moving ambient slabs of free-metal.” CHORD IV can be listened to online on CHORD’s bandcamp page and is available for purchase for $5.
Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office would like to share the premier of his song “Ave Marianna, Ave Ava.” This song was composed by Langs in honor of the opera singer, Ava Chenok, who performs alongside Langs in this piece. Langs also contributed instrumental performances and additional vocals to this rock opera style piece. “Ave Marianna, Ave Ava” can be heard online on Langs’ SoundCloud page.
Email Megan E. Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org to submit your art/music/performance/sporting/other event for next month’s “Natural Expressions” and follow @NatSelections on Twitter for more events.
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Life on a Roll: In Bloom
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3 Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and The Conversation: 1970s Cinema Mirrors the Ascendancy of America’s Conspiracy Obsession
Turner: Listen. I work for the CIA. I’m not a spy. I just read books. We read everything that’s published in the world and we– we feed the plots– dirty tricks, codes into a computer, and the computer…checks against actual CIA plans and operations. I look for leaks, new ideas. We read adventures and novels and…journals. I– I can– Who’d invent a job like that? I– Listen!- People are trying to kill me!
Turner: I don’t know, but there’s a reason…
—-Dialogue from 3 Days of the Condor between Turner (Robert Redford) rand Kathy (Faye Dunaway)
Several groundbreaking American political espionage films emerged in the post-Senator McCarthy Communist “witch hunt” era of the 1950s portraying complex Cold War spy dramas. Seven Days in May (1964) follows the story of a decorated, crowd-pleasing military general secretly planning a coup d’etat to replace who he believes to be a spineless, weak-willed American President. Two other disturbing films at the time centered on brainwashing techniques of agents and assassins, The Ipcress File (1965) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Stepping back to the genre’s origins, Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic genius as a filmmaker took off with his unique brand of suspenseful stories centered on the travails of a “wrong man (or woman)” mistakenly caught up in a web of nefarious intelligence operations. As early as the 1930s, Hitchcock presented movies such as the playfully tense The Lady Vanishes and the uniquely clever The 39 Steps. He would peak in this format in 1959 with Cary Grant’s portrayal of a suave, yet hapless advertising executive mistaken by enemies of America for a dangerously elusive spy in North by Northwest. Hitchcock was intensely interested in film as a study in the emotions of his endearing characters, with the central plotlines (dubbed by him as “The MacGuffin”) serving as backdrop for the maturation of his leading actors/actresses. In the 1960s, Hitchcock set films such as Torn Curtain and Topaz within a confining, humorless, danger-filled Cold War world, but neither effort came close to the high quality of his earlier work.
Several well-scripted films of the 1970s solidified this niche of intense focus on underhanded intelligence missions and programs, as accomplished directors presented ultra-serious stories abandoning traditional film fantasy for the civic-minded purpose of “educating” the audience in what they perceived as a new world order of political conspiracies. Moviegoers were served up suspenseful plot devices under the guise of tutorials about nation states that had evolved into pervasive ideological and economic protectorates eager to defend their fiefdoms at any cost. These campaigns fought out by political superpowers, as per the new wave of movies, were usually undertaken within the confines of a clandestine battleground and out of view of the general populace, whose role had receded to one of acceptable and necessary “collateral damage.” Although movies of this kind presented themselves as warnings of political and security agency overreach, the lesson taken home by audiences internationally helped create an underlying culture of paranoia and distrust of both business and government. The film industry discovered they could manipulate America’s surprisingly strong psychological need for baseless, unsound, unscientific explanation of reality using stories featuring maze-like alliances and betrayals unfolding within a place of graphic, choreographed violence.
Three movies in the 1970s are representative of the cool cinéma vérité, journalistic-like, exposé-stylized fictions depicting duplicitous schemes that ensnare Americans “in the know” as well as clueless bystanders, who stand in for the audience themselves. These dangers take many shapes and forms as they ruthlessly overpower and destroy all but the savviest individuals. American directors presented a world of hidden agendas, cloaked listening devices, and “Big Brother”-style around the clock video surveillance. The dire political yarn has dramatically shifted from Hitchcock’s heroic foibles of an everyman snared into unintended adventure, to films “exposing” the technical playbooks of governmental agencies supposedly held tightly under wraps and out of view of the sheep-like, docile public.
3 Days of the Condor (1975), The Parallax View (1974), and The Conversation (1974) put their characters in mortal danger, trapped by an ever-widening net of mistrust and double crossings. Alan J. Pakula directed Warren Beatty as a television journalist chasing down the truth of the killing of a presidential candidate in The Parallax View. Beatty desperately seeks to discover what is behind the politically motivated murder, and his reckless obsession culminates in the film’s horrific climax where his noble character is duped by an organized group of savvy villains, and he is caught with a rifle in his hands to be blamed for the assassination of another politician. Beatty, in that horrific moment of revelation to both audience and character, is left no opportunity to explain his side, as we watch in surprise his unjust murder. The bleak finale of Parallax serves as a knockout punch to a film already overloaded with angst. The brave reporter will be registered in the historical record of this fictional world as a crazed fanatic in the mold of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Francis Ford Coppola directed The Conversation and Sydney Pollack 3 Days of the Condor, both dramas aimed at giving their audiences a rare view from “the inside” of intelligence agencies and corporate surveillance services. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul in The Conversation, a talented expert in the techniques of for-hire, surreptitious spying. Caul proudly figures out the near-impossible logistics of secretly taping a one-time conversation between a man and woman as they stroll around a park in San Francisco. Strategically placed microphones record each word as the couple glides in constant motion. Later in the movie, Caul becomes plagued by the unsettling intuition that he has been duped into acting as an accessory to a capital crime, and to his horror, discovers that the conversation was in fact a prelude to bloody murder. In the chilling closing sequence, Caul, the smartest man in the room in terms of hidden surveillance, is taunted by the sophisticated murderers that he himself will forever be under their watch, as we witness him tearing apart his living space down to the studs of the walls in a desperate attempt to locate the professionally concealed listening devices.
The mother and greatest of all paranoid spy movies of the 1970s is 3 Days of the Condor starring Robert Redford as a CIA wonk, Turner, targeted for elimination for reasons unknown to him.Turner’s job in intelligence is to read as broadly and voluminously as possible to intuit patterns indicative of activities that might threaten the interests of the United States. The film begins with a vague discussion between Turner and his superiors on whether or not his latest hypothesis has any “teeth” to it. Soon after, he leaves the office to buy morning snacks for his co-workers and returns to discover the bloody mess of death, which the audience has witnessed in his absence. A team of trained assassins gained entrance to the fronted CIA office space and, under the leadership of a cool-headed, patrician-aged killer with a foreign accent (portrayed with an odd elegance by the late Max von Sydow), shot the lot of them. This “man on the run” story entails dramatic twists and turns as Turner attempts to figure out who is behind the murders and why the perpetrators are still out to kill him. The interesting thing about Condor is the total lack of morality and decency within his own agency’s ranks and other players, outside of Turner’s and that of Kathy (Faye Dunaway), the woman enlisted at first against her will to help him. Towards the end of the film, Turner stands face to face in the night within the home of the agency’s higher-up, Atwood, who has been pulling the strings, having woken him up to confront him:
Turner: It was your network I turned up. Doing what? Doing what!!? What does operations care about a bunch of goddamn books? A book in Dutch! A book out of Venezuela!
Turner: Mystery stories in Arabic! What the hell is so important about [he stops dead still, then quietly notes] …Oil…fields. Oil. This whole damn thing was about oil…
Agency assassin von Sydow walks in at that very moment, but instead of shooting Turner as expected, eliminates the puppet master Atwood, since the coverup of the first round of elimination has gone recklessly too far. The danger exposed by the CIA analyst, Turner, in all its cloaked secrecy is not about nuclear codes or the plans for dangerous weapons, but the chase for what it is that makes governments behave like corporations, choosing to pull out all the stops if their consumer markets are threatened. Business is business in Condor, and heads receive bullets not from the gun of a crazed Oswald-type, but by expert “silencers” sanctioned by the CIA. This brand of storyline was unprecedented prior to the mid-1970s. As the movie draws to a close, Turner heads into the offices of The New York Times to expose the entire story. Though more hopeful than The Parallax View and The Conversation, it still leaves its audience with the message that this sort of intelligence agency behavior will continue to be carried out daily, ad infinitum into the foreseeable future. Whether or not Condor has presented an accurate depiction of CIA and other clandestine behavior is not considered as important to either the audience or the filmmaker. Ubiquitous conspiracies are now fed to the public on Facebook, Twitter, and various news outlets without the slightest attempt at fact-checking. A fatigued, battered public is far too often willing to believe anything it reads or hears, especially when presented in as few words or images as possible for the briefest of attention spans and displayed at the highest volume of feigned, overdramatic urgency. The tendency to believe a news bite false report in place of readily available facts and mundane truths is reminiscent of a sequence in the Marx Brothers movie comedy Duck Soup (1933). In an exchange between Chico Marx as Chicolini and Margaret Dumant as Mrs. Teasdale, Chicolini’s insistent that Teasdale is mistaken in what she absolutely knows as fact:
Teasdale: Your Excellency, I thought you left.
Chicolini: Oh no. I no leave.
Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes.
Chicolini: Well, who ya gonna believe me or your own eyes?
Duck Soup teaches a valuable lesson to those ignoring the truth in the face “alternative facts” and lies, and the barrage of misrepresentations is screamed at us with underhanded aplomb by a bevy of modern-day, humorless villains far less clever but no less dangerous than those presented in the cinematic fictions of Pakula, Coppola, and Pollack.
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Natural Expressions: Music
This summer, Bernie Langs of The Rockefeller University Development Office is celebrating the seventh anniversary of the release of his music video, “Everything is Broken,” directed by his daughter, Jordan Langs. The video features Bernie Langs’ performance of the 1989 Bob Dylan song by the same name and includes footage of the Meadowlands wreckage in New Jersey. Check out “Everything is Broken” on Langs’ YouTube page.
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Life on a Roll: The Cloisters Museum
The Met Cloisters, an offshoot of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is located in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights. The museum boasts a first rate collection of European medieval art and architecture as well as outdoor garden spaces with fabulous views of the Hudson River and beyond. The Cloisters is rarely crowded and offers a place for meditative enjoyment of art in a quiet and engaging atmosphere.
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2021 Virtual Pride Celebration
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Graduating Class of 2021
Megan E. Kelley
Natural Selections would like to honor and celebrate the 2021 graduating class from The Rockefeller University. On Thursday, June 10 at 2:30 p.m., Rockefeller will hold its second virtual convocation and confer doctorate degrees upon thirty-three graduate students. To the future doctors, congratulations! Your years of hard work and perseverance are an inspiration. We wish you all the best in the next phases of your careers and lives.
Rohiverth Guarecuco Jr.
Solomon N Levin
Tiên Minh Thủy Phan-Everson
Rohan R. Soman
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Sisters with Transistors
Women have often been overlooked in the history of electronic music. Their mastery of new technology and alien sounds enabled them to innovate outside of traditional male-dominated structures, but even collaborations with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Karl Stockhausen, MGM Studios, and Coca-Cola failed to cement their pioneer status.
Sisters with Transistors, a documentary film directed by Lisa Rovner, presents a remedial history chronicling the defining female figures of electronic music. The eighty-four-minute film is divided into roughly ten sections of public-domain, concert, interview, and even experimental cinema footage documenting each composer. The archival collage, like the creative history it depicts, is initially disjunct but coheres later on; artist Laurie Anderson narrates but the musical soundtrack is the real throughline.
To create their new musical vocabulary, these composers used an array of existing technology and also developed their own. Clara Rockmore popularized the theremin (an electronic instrument controlled by hand movements in air rather than physical contact). Suzanne Ciani fell in love with Buchla modular synthesizers. Éliane Radigue used the ARP 2500 to create airplane-inspired soundscapes. Daphne Oram collected tape machines from World War II and basic lab equipment to establish first a BBC electronic music division and then her own studio. When available tools were insufficient, Wendy Carlos helped advance the Moog keyboard, Bebe Barron built her own circuitry, and Laurie Spiegel programmed compositional software for Macs.
Electronic music lends itself to interdisciplinary collaboration, and Maryanne Amacher reached beyond art and technology to integrate scientific research into her compositions. Conscious that the mammalian ear introduces distortions—phantom tones—which modify acoustic input, Amacher “established practical and conceptual groundwork that centered auditory processes in composition.” These women were doing the basic science of composing: there was no guaranteed profit or application from their efforts. In fact, electronic music was unpopular with both labor unions and the public alike. But the aesthetic influence of World Wars and space exploration eventually required new sounds. The MGM sci-fi Forbidden Planet (1956) featured Bebe Barron’s music as the first all-electronic film score; the film’s dying monster was the sound of a “dying” circuit. Seven years later, Delia Derbyshire—an Oxford mathematician turned composer—created the original Doctor Who theme song and shifted English public opinion on electronic music. Suzanne Ciani became the first woman to score a major Hollywood movie in 1981, and electronic music transitioned into public consciousness and pop music with the help of Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach album.
These composers went beyond tinkering with radios: their work made social demands. They challenged traditional structures and founded influential departments. Oliveros explicitly correlated her electronic music with societal responsibilities during the Vietnam and Cold War eras, and her theoretical writings are still instructive today. She insisted that deep listening is radical attentiveness that gathers meaning, interprets, and ultimately shapes culture by deciding on action. These composers did exactly that, changing our soundscapes and cultural practices; Sisters with Transistors turns up their sound.
Sisters with Transistors had its U.S. premiere through Metrograph online 23 April 2021 and at the time of writing was only available through 06 May 2021. https://sisterswithtransistors.com/
1 Hudspeth, A. ‘Integrating the active process of hair cells with cochlear function’, Nat Rev Neurosci, 15 [online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3786 (Accessed 02 May 2021)
2 Cimini, A. and Dietz, B. (eds.) (2020). Maryanne Amacher: Selected Writings and Interviews. Brooklyn, NY: Blank Forms Editions
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Pets of Tri-I: Boba the axolotl
A few weeks ago, a new resident moved into my apartment. We are already a full house: four humans, one cat, 500ish worms, and possibly some undetected mice or roaches residing in the walls. So, when a perky little axolotl dropped their bags in our doorway, I was a bit concerned with how they’d fit in. Luckily, I had nothing to be worried about. “Boba” is a delightful but unobtrusive housemate, and they even set their tank up right in front of the door to greet us all when we get home! This month, I finally made some time to get to know Boba better and also learned some things about axolotl biology. Boba’s answers were translated by César Vargas and Marley Kern.
Audrey Goldfarb: What does it mean to be “neotenic”?
Boba: I am a baby. Basically, I am forever a baby salamander, never a grown-up salamander. So, I’ll never go through metamorphosis like my frog and salamander cousins.
AG: What is the most juvenile thing about you?
B: My humans say I’m picky because I like my worms cut up into little pieces and they have to wash them for me. I spit my food out when I don’t want it.
AG: Conversely, are you especially mature in any way?
B: No…not really
AG: If you could, what would you want to be when you grow up?
B: Well, I don’t really grow up, I just get bigger! But when I’m big I wanna be a worm biologist so I can study worms and figure out which is the tastiest!
AG: What are your hobbies?
B: Going with the flow and hanging out in the floating garden in my tank.
AG: Do your humans give you treats?
B: Not yet, they said when I’m bigger they’ll let me try new foods.
AG: Do your humans give you words of affirmation?
B: Mmmmhmmm! They tell me how cute and cool I am. I like it when they talk to me.
AG: What is an issue you’re passionate about?
B: Composting! It’s where the humans keep my worm dinners! They say it’s good for other stuff too, but I don’t know what else it would do.
AG: Do you have any hot takes?
B: I think fish are overrated, much better as snacks than pets. Also, I don’t get why there’s a big deal about my extinction, like I’m obviously alive, why do they say I’m going extinct?
AG: Would you consider donating your body to science?
B: Yup! I can grow my body parts back anyway, so I can donate an arm and a leg if science asks me!
AG: Do you get lonely?
B: Not too lonely, I’m watching the fluffy pet that runs around outside my tank.
AG: Your tank is in a perfect spot to see everyone coming and going throughout the day. Do you find human behavior entertaining?
B: Yeah! They look so funny on two legs, like, why do they do that? I like four legs much better. Sometimes their coming and going also interrupts my naps, but I know they are busy humans.
AG: Describe your perfect Saturday.
B: Take a walk around the tank, find a good spot to float, and nap the day away dreaming about worms.
AG: What is your favorite thing about your humans?
B: They take good care of me and give me yummy worms!
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