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Ann Arbor Art Commission Update, May 2015

Hi, everyone.

I have some exciting updates on public art projects in Ann Arbor.

Not in Ann Arbor, but still urban public art by Fra.Biancoshock.

Not in Ann Arbor, alas, but still urban public art by Fra.Biancoshock. It makes me happy for some reason…

But first, I’d like to ask those of you who are artists in the Ann Arbor AREA (hi Ypsi) to sign up with the Arts Alliance. They’ve been doing a great job of facilitating public art in Ann Arbor, and it’s a good organization to promote your art and find out about requests for proposals:

Okay, now that you’ve done that, fellow artists, on to the news!

Last time we got together, I went over some of the projects in the pipeline.

Here’s where they are now:

  1. The Coleman Jewett memorial has been fully funded, largely through private donations. We’ll have a date for installation sometime soon, and the city is now looking into the specifics. The memorial will be two bronze Adirondack chairs installed at the Farmer’s Market in Kerrytown.
  2. Canoe Imagine Art went to public vote, and the selections have been announced. I’m happy to be able to include some pictures this time around so you can see how great the final choices are. What’s fantastic about these is that Ann Arbor Parks & Rec has the option to keep them (except for 1) in perpetuity. These will be installed in June of 2015.This first one is the one selected by the public. I happen to know it’s also fairly complex to install, so mad props to the city for sorting out the engineering behind the scenes. This is the one I’m most excited about. Go public!TurbineTitle: Turbine
    Artist Team: Missouri Western State University: Heather Andrews (Student), Jake Proffit (Student), J. Neil Lawley (Faculty) and Dustin Lafromboise (Construction Professional)
    Artists’ Description: The name is in reference to the movement and occasional turbulence of the river and the history of hydroelectricity generated by the river.
    Location: Broadway Park

    The following were selected by the jury.

    Canoe Fan is the installation that the city only has for a certain period of time.

    Canoe Fan in progress.

    Canoe Fan in progress.

    Title: Canoe Fan
    Artist: Victoria Fuller
    Artist’s Description: Aluminum canoes create a half circle fan form that calls to mind the sun on the horizon, a woman’s hand held fan, a Native American headdress, or the spread of peacock tail feathers.
    Location: Gallup Park

    VueTitle: Canoe-vue
    Artist: Jeff Zischke
    Artist’s Description: Two vertical half canoe sculptures to be placed near the Huron River with a built-in seat to accommodate one or two people.
    Location: Island Park

    Title: Tulip
    Artist: Ray Katz
    Artist’s Description: Tulip will be constructed from ten canoes standing vertically meeting at one point in the center.
    Location: Bandemer Park

  3. PowerArt! public selections were made, and will start being installed in the month of May 2015 in downtown Ann Arbor. These will wrap power boxes, and the location is included. I was on the jury for this, and have some comments about the sentiment and process that went into some of them. There are potentially two more phases for this project, so please consider submitting for the next round; there was a $1500 stipend to the artists whose works were selected this time.

    The following two were selected by the public.

    Amusement Park
    Title: Amusement Park
    Artist: Carolyn Barritt
    Location: Washington & Division

    Title: Enchanted Forest
    Artist: Laila Kujala
    Location: Miller & Ashley

    The following were selected by the jury.

    The jury unanimously liked Show Horse 1.

    Show Horse 1
    Title: Show Horse 1
    Artist: K.A. Letts
    Location: Catherine & Fifth

    Tropicali is my personal favorite, and I believe it will be installed on a power box that I used to look at quite often from my apartment on S. Forest in University Towers as an undergraduate.

    Title: Tropicali
    Artist: Mike McAteer
    Location: South University & Washtenaw

    The jury is curious to see how the public will react to A Fly Stopped By.

    Title: A Fly Stopped By
    Artist: Danny Mooney
    Location: South University & Forest

    I wish I could remember more of the discussion around Traffic Light 1, but we all were fans.

    Traffic Light
    Title: Traffic Light 1
    Artist: Thomas Rosenbaum
    Location: Liberty & Main

    And still it will be wonderful was somewhat controversial, but we felt it was thought provoking and offered dynamism as you moved around the box to view it.

    Title: And it will still be wonderful
    Artist: Sophia Zhou
    Location: Liberty & Thompson

    And David Zinn wins for most completely thought-out rendering with Selfie Monster.

    Title: Selfie Monster
    Artist: David Zinn
    Location: Liberty & First

Finally, Art in the Sky is under way, and I encourage you to submit a design for the water tower that I see every day when I go to and from work, when I run through County Farm Park… make it interesting!

Read more and submit a design! ($500 to the winner!)

I hope you enjoy — there is more to come.

Civic Engagement

Every other Monday, I usually watch Ann Arbor City Council meet while tweeting commentary under the hashtag #A2Council. It’s kind of like Pokemon, but without the fun names. For those of you who are annoyed by it, my apologies. Tonight’s an off week, so I thought I’d write about other ways to engage the city besides throwing tomatoes. City-of-Ann-Arbor-color-medium

I recently attended a local “unconference” for people who want to make a difference in their community. There were a number of different tracks, and I chose to participate in the civics track. I heard a lot of great ideas, one of which I’d like to highlight, and two other things outside the conference that I’d like to share.

  • If you care about civics in Ann Arbor, please consider making a donation to CivCity, the next project of Mary Morgan, one of the founders of the Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle has been an indispensable tool when it comes to researching decisions made by city council and the various commissions in the city. Ultimately, I’d like to see the city be able to offer the kind of transparency the Chronicle brought, but in the meantime, CivCity is a great followup.
  • Did you know Ann Arbor has an online forum to solicit input from the public about different topics? No? Welcome to the club of almost everyone in the city! Okay, maybe it’s just my usual club of me by myself, but in case you’re like me, it’s called A2 Open City Hall. Currently, they’re soliciting feedback regarding dog parks. Nobody has responded. You could be the first.
  • You can participate in your city government! If you’re not ready to run for mayor or city council, there are boards and commissions you can participate in. The hardest part for me was figuring out how to get onto one. I shall lead you to the elephants’ graveyard.
  1. Decide you really want to devote an hour or two a month to civics. Don’t be a flake.
  2. See what vacancies are available on various boards and commissions:
  3. If none of those interest you, please review this list of boards and commissions, and write down the ones you might be interested in:
  4. Fill out this application (maybe someday it will be online), and include different boards and commissions you might be interested in:
  5. Return or mail it to:
    Mayor’s Office
    City Hall – 3rd Floor
    301 E. Huron St.
    PO Box 8647
    Ann Arbor, MI 48107-8647
  6. Wait.
  7. Eventually, you’ll receive a notice in the mail if you’ve been confirmed to be on a board. Or, you can watch City Council live and hear your name and confirmation when and if it happens. Don’t blink.

You can read more here about boards and commissions:

Ann Arbor Public Art Commission Update – January 2015

Does Ann Arbor still have a public art commission?

Yes, and we’re:

  • Seeing the completion of projects started before the public art fund was de-funded
  • Advising city staff on projects that may have a public art component
  • Determining how the commission moves forward

A quick recap: I was appointed about a year ago, during the same city council meeting where public art was de-funded—having an Irish sense of humor has proven useful.

The one remaining big project from the old budget is the Stadium bridges project. There have been a couple of planning issues regarding lighting and foundations, but the plan is still for a late 2015 installation. If the art piece had been considered and chosen prior to construction, foundation and electrical work could have been done during construction. This is the idea behind “baked-in” funding for art.

There are three other projects the commission is involved with, and a new one for an elevated water tank on Manchester Road in Ann Arbor.

  1. The Jewett memorial is a set of bronze adirondack chairs to be installed at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market commemorating Coleman Jewett, who was an admired local educator, and a fixture at the farmer’s market for years selling his chairs. This project is largely funded by private donations and grants, with commissioner Marsha Chamberlin acting as program manager. The project is nearly completely funded—”everything but the plaque”, and the city will be considering next steps soon.

    If you’d like to help complete funding, you can make a donation via the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation:

  2. Canoe Imagine Art, which is being managed by the Arts Alliance. Three pieces have already been chosen, with one more to be chosen by the public from 3 finalists this February — I’ll be sure to share a link when I have one. The plan is for a public celebration in July 2015 to coincide with Huron River Days. The project differs from its initial conception in that the installations will be in Ann Arbor parks instead of scattered around downtown, and the parks will decide where they go. The city also reserves the right to keep them up. Commissioner John Kotarski was one of the jurors, and I concur with his delight in the quality of proposal submitted by artists. Most are interactive in some way, and will make a great addition to the parks.
  3. I’ve been selected to be a juror for another project managed by the Arts Alliance, “PowerArt!“. The first of three phases involves wrapping 8 traffic boxes around downtown Ann Arbor with canvases that display the work of local artists. The jury will select 6 submissions, and the public will select the remaining 2. Again, when I have a link, I’ll share it. The jury will take place in February, and the celebration will be in May 2015, followed by two months of community response before moving on to the next phases.

The Manchester Elevated tank is up for repainting, which came up back in 2012 as a potential project in 2013.

This is the first example of “baked-in” art, where the city identifies a project that may lend itself to public art prior to engaging the commission. The plan is very similar to the water tower on Plymouth road, where there will be a public request for designs, a jury will choose finalists whose submissions will be put to a public vote, with the winner being recognized. The commission had questions about the pros and cons of various materials (paint vs. vinyl), and made project suggestions that largely mirrored the previously successful project on Plymouth road. The project manager for the job will be handling the logistics behind managing design submissions, etc.

Thoughts of Ishikawa / 石川市の考え

An old pile of photos, sitting on the corner of the desk, waiting to be scanned…

You know it well.

Last weekend, I finally went through my own version of that pile. Some of the photos were taken in a small city called Ishikawa, the first place we lived in the central part of Okinawa, Japan. The city has since merged with other local municipalities into a larger city called Uruma, so it only exists in our memories. I remember the day my Dad told us we were moving to Japan: wow! Images of toys my friends had received as gifts from afar when their fathers were overseas sprang to mind: Hello Kitty! Transformers! Gundam! I thought about my aunt’s car, a Toyota… I thought about Godzilla.


I remember being concerned as to whether or not there would be a Taco Bell. (No.) I thought about my friend Sherman, who was half Okinawan, and whose mother woke us up every morning chanting to Buddha at the family altar after I spent the night. I thought about the Karate Kid 2… would I see all those amazing things? Typhoons? Sliding doors? Tatami?

Our flight there seemingly took forever, and not because it was halfway around the world. We were flying Military Airlift Command (MAC) on the Flying Tigers, so our flight went from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to Anchorage, and then finally to Kadena Air Base. I didn’t know for a couple more years that there were direct flights to Japan, and that the military basically considered us cargo.

We were very tired when we arrived, blinking into the very hot morning.

Amazing what you find when you search for "Karate Kid II Okinawa" — I don't remember this part of the film.

Amazing what you find when you search for “Karate Kid II Okinawa” — I don’t remember this part of the film.

We thought we’d be living in a hotel for awhile, so I unpacked and organized all the clothes and books I’d stuffed into my suitcase and several carryons. (For the record, I thought I’d finish almost all of Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber series on the flight over… the flight was long, but not that long.) A few days later, my father told us we’d be moving to “Riverstone”. (I was on book two of the series.)

Riverstone? That sounds… very American.

I didn’t need to worry. We looked at a few houses in “Riverstone”, far from any military installation, and chose the one on the hill overlooking a bay with the least amount of dead roaches in it. Of course, what we didn’t know was that they just hadn’t fumigated the place yet, and seeing it a few days later was disturbing: it was impossible to avoid stepping on a dead roach while walking around; it was like some avant-garde artist had decided to weave a floor from dead roach carcasses. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

There’s an opportunity for a Björk video, there.

Mercifully, the dead roaches were gone when we moved in, probably just swept out the door and onto the hill we lived on. Of course, at least one survived, and I had an epic, unconscious fight the first night we were in the house: I won, and found its massive carcass under the bed. It did not pass on its poison-resistant genes. Bleah.

The view from our front yard onto the bay.

The view from our front yard. Friends lived in the house on the right, and I think the house on the left was a kindergarten of sorts, although I don’t ever remember seeing any children. And there probably weren’t environmental laws for whatever that plant is out there across the bay.

As time passed, I learned to read and write Japanese, and learned that Ishikawa meant “stone river”, and finally, “Riverstone” made sense.

Okinawa didn’t seem to have zoning laws where we lived; we were surrounded by a mixture of houses, stores, a beach, sugarcane fields, the occasional vending machine conveniently located in the middle of a field, and tombs. Our neighbors were a mixture of Okinawans, American-Okinawan households, and a few Americans. Halloween wasn’t really celebrated, but the neighbors were willing to go along with it: I got rice crackers and seaweed.

The road to town got a little wider while we lived there.

The road to town got a little wider while we lived there.

The bus ride to school would take over an hour on occasion, and the route varied, depending on where families ended up living. Since there were Americans scattered in different places in town, they’d have the kids pile up in one place as best they could, but on occasion we’d stop next to a sugar cane field, and someone would hop on or off the bus. I spent a lot of time reading… and the extra hour in the morning was the perfect time to get last-minute homework done.

Games with the neighbor kids were a learning opportunity: it’s funny how a game of tag can quickly teach you the words for “wait!”, “sorry!”, “run!”, “just kidding!”, and “sorry for running in front of your car grandma!” in a foreign language. And of course, I learned the coarse words of swearing and economics before anything else. You need to know what people are yelling at you, and how to buy candy, right?

Happily doing my own thing, always.

Happily doing my own thing, pretending to run my own apothecary in the backyard.

Living in the country that was the source of Nintendo games was thrilling, and honestly, expedited my acquisition of Japanese as a second language. How else are you going to read the magazines and cheat books?

We had weak air conditioning, and electricity was so pricey we had a flock of well-used fans scattered about the house. We had a barely functioning phone we rarely used—0989655135, and it always sounded like you were on the other side of the world no matter where you were—and heat came in the form of a kerosene room heater we moved around the house when necessary. Our house was built from concrete, which made it seem almost impermeable to the typhoons that would swirl outside—except for the hole in the ceiling in the bathroom, which was open to the world, and made it easy for all sorts of bugs and lizards to get into the house. While there’s no footage of me shrieking out of the bathroom after wrapping myself in a towel that included a gigantic, squirming roach, none of us will ever forget it.

Following our street up the hill, you'd soon be met by rows of silent tombs.

Following our street up the hill, you’d soon be met by rows of silent tombs.

On the way to school and home, I walked by myself past tombs, sometimes in terrible downpours, and sometimes in the dark. There are moments in Miyazaki films where one feels a sense of haunted wonder—it’s the closest thing I can describe to what it was like. There’s a summer festival called Obon, like a Japanese version of the Day of the Dead, and just prior, families return to the family tomb to clean it in preparation. Whole tombs would emerge from what I thought were hills covered in grass! Offerings would be left, and the tombs would be decorated. It truly felt foreign.

It made me question.

Okinawan Tombs, (c) Hideki Yoshida

Okinawan Tombs, (c) Hideki Yoshida

Shortly after moving there, and just before the school year started, I witnessed my first Obon performance. Okinawa’s Obon festival is slightly different from the mainland’s, and happens later in the summer. It was after dark, and I was in a neighbor’s yard, examining some weird plants, and I started my way towards home. I noticed a light coming from down the road, reflecting off the surrounding walls and earth. I crouched in some bushes as it approached, bearing a small parade of dancing people carrying lights and signs. I watched as they moved into the courtyard of a large mansion down the road. Suddenly, as though by magic, all the lights went on in the building, as though the revelers brought the house to life. I couldn’t believe it!

I sat, mesmerized, feeling far from anything I’d ever known, but welcome in this far-off land.

A not uncommon site overhead.

Blue skies, crazy power lines, heavy military aircraft: just another day.

A Tale of Two Scarves

There’s a bunch of meaningful stuff I’d like to write about, but this seems short. Also, fashion.

Two weeks ago, I misplaced a scarf. It’s a wool blue tartan scarf, from Scotland, made by BEGG.  BEGG was founded in 1869 by Alexander Begg, and is currently located in the seaside town of Ayr, Scotland. They make beautiful scarves. I’d link to one of their several websites, but the useful one is under construction, and the other ones are outdated and require Flash. I.e., these guys are so good they don’t even care about their website. Wish I could say the same.

Oct. 2013 update: Begg & Co. contacted me – I thought this was a soliloquy! – to tell me about their brand new website, where you can browse and purchase their fantastic fashion! As a previous User Experience lead, I’m happy to say that they’ve done a great job with the usability of their online store.

Check them out!

This scarf was given to me by my sister. It’s beautiful. It feels wonderful to wear, and it’s visually stimulating. I was really distressed to have misplaced it. I’d been wearing it most of the day, and remember playing with the ends during a meeting at the end of the day. The time between that moment and the realization it was no longer on me when I arrived home amounted to less than an hour.

Did I take it off? Did it fall off somewhere? How would I miss that? Am I really beginning to forget things so easily? I’m not that old. I went back to work to search the parking lot and our office, and ultimately sent out a few messages to coworkers and building mates. And then I did my best to embrace my inner Buddhist: it’s only stuff. I was sad.

After celebrating my birthday over the weekend, I went to the office on Monday and discovered a gift on my chair. My friend (and coworker) Zoe and her wife Rachel surprised me with a fantastic blue scarf! It wasn’t exactly the same, but it’s sleek, it’s modern, it’s me. And it meant a lot that they’d thought of me and my predicament. Suddenly losing the scarf didn’t seem so bad.

Check out my new scarf, yes.

Today I happily wore my new scarf to the office. I didn’t get a chance to model it for Zoe—she’s a busy person, on the go, making things happen—but it went well with everything else I was wearing, and seemed to fit right into place where the old one had left off. It turns out there was another surprise to be had: at the very end of the day, after a strategic meeting that left me feeling slightly drained, Zoe’s boss walked in holding my original scarf in his hands.

I couldn’t believe it: I had searched all over the office, under things, in closets, even going through garbage cans in case I’d thrown it out instead of the actual garbage I’d had in my hands—you’ve done it, you know it. I hugged him; apparently, this is my week for spontaneously hugging the sales people: watch out!

It had slipped off my neck and into the cushions of a chair.

Two Scarves

Guess who has TWO awesome scarves now?

The Rock Reach House


I’m not from Michigan… I think I’m from California. I remember my first impressions the day I stepped off the plane in Kalamazoo, Michigan, after a flight from Orange County airport in California: these people are very pale. I had a full head of sun-bleached hair, and every visible inch of me was covered in freckles. I’ll be back in California before too long, or so I thought. I certainly didn’t think I’d be in Michigan 20 years later…

Ah, winter. I don't quite loathe you just yet in this photo.

Ah, winter. I don’t quite loathe you just yet in this photo.

That first year I experienced real snow (snow days!) and winter. I’d lived briefly in Virginia as a toddler and remember the snow, but it was still novel. The novelty finally wore off in the early 2000s, and I had to find a way to cope.

You see, I like having seasons: in each season, we do different things, and so you appreciate each of them as they pass in contrast with each other. The long winter makes you appreciate spring that much more, and as the days grow longer and warmer, summer keeps us active outside until the late hours. At the peak of summer, the sun is out until 10:30 at night.

And then the warmth begins to seem a bit fatiguing when fall settles in, bringing perfect sleeping weather, fires, the start of a new scholastic year, and a return of the nose to the grindstone. And then there’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, the winter holidays, and finally the new year!

And then after a month or so, it’s bleak. Whatever St. Valentine’s Day, YOU ARE COLD.

Some northerners depart the tundra for warmer climes for a week or two if they can. The closer you can place it to the end of the bleakness, the better, because when you return it seems like things are getting better, and you might just make it to another spring.

This year, we returned to the land of my pre-teens, the high desert in southern California: Palm Springs, Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms. We decided to make the Rock Reach House in Yucca Valley our home for the duration of our stay.

Lay of the land.

Lay of the land.

Dwell April 2010The April 2010 issue of Dwell magazine featured an article on pre-fab housing, and I was immediately envious of the fantastic home set in the desert. After searching around, I discovered it was available to rent on VRBO! The owners were genius: build an awesome home, and then rent it out while not in use! Three years later, I finally had the opportunity to stay in it.

The Setting

I am on the moon.Simply put: “The Flintstones”.

IMG_3100Specifically, it’s a basin-and-range desert, which is defined by abrupt changes in elevation, alternating between mountain chains that have flat, narrow valleys running through them. Historically, it’s been a sparsely populated area of the country, but the last twenty years have seen a large influx of people, a combination of retirees looking for warm weather and people looking for more affordable housing options. While there’s plenty of infrastructure, it’s not uncommon to find yourself turning off a paved road and driving through sand for a few miles to get somewhere.

IMG_3104“It looks like the moon.”—someone who hasn’t ever been to the moon.


IMG_3105The house is on 2.5 acres, and the features are spread out to enjoy.


  • A separate car port down the walk that has solar panels on it used to power the house
  • A soak tub for use on hot days
  • An outdoor patio with a big fireplace
  • A hottub up the hill from the house, with amazing views of the surrounding area and the stars at night
  • A grill

The setting, while looking somewhat alien and hostile, is very restful. With rare exception, it’s very quiet and still. There are several grocery stores (and one small local health food store), so lay in some supplies and head up the hill.

The owners have thought of everything! There are flashlights where you might need them, switches to turn lights on at the start of a path, and more switches to turn them off at the end in case you want to view the stars. The landscaping is thoughtfully lit up at night, if you choose, and there are many places to hike and sit around the property. On top of it all, the house is very environmentally conscious and “green”, without ever really feeling like you’ve given anything up.

The walk up to the house.

The walk up to the house.

Outdoor fireplace

Outdoor fireplace


Carport with our trusty Chevy Captiva—a Saturn Vue before they killed Saturn—the perfect vehicle for this trip.



The blue chair is on a platform with a cool water soaking tub for especially hot days.

The blue chair is on a platform with a cool water soaking tub for especially hot days.

View from the hot tub of: the house, the car port, and the neighbor across the way.

View from the hot tub of: the house, the car port, and the neighbor across the way.

Hot tub!  It was amazing to sit and look up at the stars at night. Thousands and thousands of stars, stitching drawings together in the night sky.

Hot tub!
It was amazing to sit and look up at the stars at night. Thousands and thousands of stars, stitching drawings together in the night sky.


Relaxing in the living room

Relaxing in the living room.

The inside of the house is very sleek, with concrete floors, modern furnishings, all the modern amenities, including Internet access. The floor plan was open: a living room, dining room and kitchen on one wall occupied half of the house, and the rest was divided into two large, equally sized bedrooms with a single bathroom in between.

Awesome tree trunk slab table in the living room.

Awesome tree trunk slab table in the living room.

I loved the ventilation hood in the kitchen: to turn on the fan and light, you simply pulled it forward. Elegant, streamlined and easy-to-use!

It's like being at home, but with all new appliances!

It’s like being at home, but with all new appliances!

Shallow, undermount sink on a vertrazzo counter. Mostly taking the pic for the counter, which is made from recycled glass.

Shallow, undermount sink on a vertrazzo counter. Mostly taking the pic for the counter, which is made from recycled glass.

While there was plenty of beautiful wood, so many of the surfaces were made of nice wood that you need a coaster to set anything down, which made it feel a little less like home, and more like a museum—those were the moments where the fantasy sort of breaks down and you realize you’re in someone else’s home.

In the morning, we’d wake to sun coming in the windows, a warm concrete floor and blue sky as far as the eye could see, and forget all about the coasters.

Getting There

IMG_3145It’s about three hours from the greater LA area, and an hour from Palm Springs. If you can fly into Palm Springs, it’s probably the best way. The PS airport is small, but nice, featuring outdoor walkways between gates, encased by glass. I remember it was just open to the world as a kid.

The road to the house in Yucca Valley.

The road to the house in Yucca Valley.

Rent a small SUV if you can. You’ll be driving through the San Gorgonio pass, which is really windy, and then up through a twisty mountain pass near Morongo Valley, and then up a big hill into Yucca Valley. You go from about sea level to 3000 feet in 30 minutes or so. Once in Yucca Valley, you take Old Woman Springs Road up another thousand feet in elevation, turn left, and start offroading. After a few miles, lots of hills, twists and turns, you’re there!

See the curve in the middle of the photo? That was fun to navigate twice a day…

See the curve in the middle of the photo? That was fun to navigate twice a day…

It doesn't look so bad from here.

It doesn’t look so bad from here.

If you decide to rent, the owners will send you a great writeup explaining everything about the place, and how to get there. And they note that GPS systems may have trouble finding the address, so it’s best you pay attention to the directions and map they provide. I recommend getting there by the light of day if you can, although it’s not impossible to do it at night: we did.

You may see a few characters along the way…

IMG_3219 IMG_3216

23andme—Who am I?

Just the facts, please.

Just the facts, please.

Who am I?

We probably all ask that on occasion. Family stories, assumptions people have made and some frustrating things I assume are genetic have had me asking it more often lately.

Shortly after the start of the year, a friend of mine shared some results on Facebook from a site called, which has a goal to sequence the human genome through lots of people choosing to submit theirs. The benefit to you is you can:

  • See what diseases for which you’re a potential carrier
  • See your ancestry
  • Meet genetic relatives you may not know you have
  • Learn more about yourself as they continue to learn more about all of us

My friend was surprised to discover some unexpected ancestry, so I checked it out.  After reading this cool article and seeing it cost $99—down from $999—I signed up! I wanted to know if it was true that I have French ancestry, however little, and if I carry the genes for lung cancer. When I was a kid, Mom ominously told me I could smoke if I wanted to, but to know that all the men in my father’s family die from lung cancer when they do so. She also told me my eyes would get stuck if I crossed them, and we know how that turned out.

What did I find? Well, I’m not entirely sure I’m French, although I have a lot of “nonspecific European” DNA. I’m not genetically Japanese, so there’s something to be said for environment influencing who we are. I’m more of a neanderthal than I thought, and…

Mom? Dad?

Are you sitting down? I have something I have to tell you.

I’m black.

What?! No, really.

More on that later…

The consent form that I had to sign made me hesitate, and as someone who understands the security implications and sells two-factor authentication, I’m here to tell you it’s a big concern that my genetic information is protected by only a username and password.

Despite that, I decided to share my results for research purposes.

It took about 2.5 months from the moment I ordered to when my results came in.

My timeline:

  • Sunday, January 13 – order kit
  • Tuesday, January 15 – kit is shipped
  • Friday, January 18 – kit arrives
  • Saturday, January 19I process the kit, more on that below
  • Monday, January 21 – I mail the kit back
  • Saturday, February 2 – kit arrives in LA, about two weeks later
  • Wednesday, February 6 – kit processing, with an estimate of 6-8 weeks
  • Tuesday, March 26 – my initial results, more on those below
  • Wednesday, March 27 – the rest of them

From start to finish: 10.5 weeks.

So I was excited about it, okay?

Processing the Kit

The kit shows up in a small, nicely designed box. You open it up to discover a lot of red-on-white lettering on how to go about using it correctly to get a sample. (I would love to see all the mistakes they receive at the lab, because you know people still manage to get it wrong.) It has a smaller plastic container nestled inside, which in turn contains the sample tube and a plastic bag to put it in, which then goes in the box for return.

The 23andme box.

The 23andme box.

Inside the box—I guess I should register.

Inside the box—I guess I should register.

Registering the Kit

This is where things began to concern me. First you enter in your barcode, you read the terms of service, and then the consent form comes up…

Okay, type in the barcode from the tube and an annoying CAPTCHA...

Okay, type in the barcode from the tube and an annoying CAPTCHA…

Need my name, okay, relative finder? Ancestry? Interesting.

Need my name, okay, relative finder? Ancestry? Interesting.

There are an awful lot of words here, some of them are kind of scary.

There are an awful lot of words here, some of them are kind of scary.

You can read the consent document in full here, but here are some of the more concerning parts:

  • If we are required to do so by law, 23andMe may release the individual-level information.”
  • “Your genetic data, survey responses, and/or personally identifying information may be stolen in the event of a security breach. In the event of such a breach, if your data are associated with your identity they may be made public or released to insurance companies, which could have a negative effect on your ability to obtain insurance coverage. Although 23andMe cannot provide a 100% guarantee that your data will be safe, 23andMe has strong policies and procedures in place to minimize the possibility of a breach.” [Uh-huh. I saw a movie once, where it was paramount to avoid a breach. Guess what happened? DOOMED.]
I think this means they might go look at my saliva more than just one time.

I think this means they might go look at my saliva more than just one time.

They need my sex and birth date to process the sample? Can't they figure out my sex at least?

They need my sex and birth date to process the sample? Can’t they figure out my sex at least?

Setting up the account using email as an index…

Setting up the account using email as an index…

I'd already set up an account on their site, so it matched my accounts.

I’d already set up an account on their site, so it matched my accounts.

Taking a Sample

After all that reading, it was time to make some spit! Aside from being concerned about my future ability to obtain insurance, generating enough spit was probably the most difficult part of the process.

It took more effort than you might expect.

It took more effort than you might expect.

Here's the biohazard bag to put the tube into.

Here’s the biohazard bag to put the tube into.

Sealed for freshness—and to keep it dry.

Sealed for freshness—and to keep it dry.

Ready for shipping!

Ready for shipping!

My Results

When I was notified that my sample was being processed, it said it would take 6-8 weeks, so I figured I’d hear back sometime between March 20 and April 3. I was so anxious to find out, I checked in once a week to see, and then everyday after March 20th. Of course, the day I finally got over it and decided to just wait to hear from them was the day I was notified that my results were in!

There they are, in all their color-coded country-of-origin glory.

There they are, in all their color-coded country-of-origin glory.

They came in two parts, and the first was pretty much everything but genetic ancestry information, including:

  • health risks
  • drug sensitivities
  • inherited conditions
  • genetic traits
  • haplogroups for my mother and father
  • neanderthal ancestry

Most of the information they have about you is provided immediately, but they hold some things back, e.g. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and ask you to agree to see your results before showing you.

So what did I learn?

Always an overachiever.

99th percentile, of course. Always an overachiever. But I could never rock long hair.


Physically, I’m more like the guy on the left in the image above. That said, all the men in my family are able to speak to each other by grunting, so maybe there’s something to it.  And on occasion, a few people have seen a side to me that probably makes them wonder what kind of animal hybrid I am. Joking aside, it’s currently theorized that neanderthal language was highly musical, pre-dating the separation of music and language into different modes of cognition (Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, 2006)


What else?

  • I never thought about it, but I have slightly increased odds for: type 2 diabetes, venous thromboembolism (like all non type-O blood types), and esophageal cancer.
  • Higher odds of developing melanoma (not surprising!) based on one set of genes, but a protective genotype and therefore lower (cool!) in another which also results in a large number of moles as a kid that eventually disappear (nice to know).
  • Really surprised by three times the odds of developing a particular type of glaucoma—I’m glad I’ve been getting tested for it.
  • Lower risks for prostate cancer, macular degeneration (you can stop worrying now, Mom), pancreatic cancer, testicular cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s…
  • Typical risks for assorted other things, just like most of you!

In the drug response department, apparently I’m more sensitive to caffeine than most people are: something we figured out empirically is now confirmed genetically! Probably wasn’t such a great idea to subsist on Mountain Dew throughout high school…

I don’t have any forty or so inherited conditions they can test for, although I’m a carrier for hemochromatosis (high iron levels).

They also said I probably have red hair, blue eyes, don’t flush red when I drink, I don’t think brussels sprouts taste foul, am resistant to norovirus (hello, cruising vacation!) and am a likely sprinter, among myriad other things.

A sampling of the things you might learn about yourself.

A sampling of the things you might learn about yourself.

The next day, my ancestry information came in! 100% me!


No way.  But my skin is so white, it’s pink. Sometimes, I’m lucky and I freckle.  I’ve spent too much time identifying as a soulless ginger that you can’t just come along and tell me I might have a little soul in me.

I found out that I’m :

  • 0.1% Sub-Saharan African—meaning 1 out of a thousand—which doesn’t sound like much. Who knows how long that bit of DNA has been hanging out on the chromosome, but it’s essentially the equivalent of having a completely Sub-Saharan African ancestor who was born in the 1750s.  Based on the chart, I think this is on my Dad’s side of the family.
  • 1.6% Scandinavian, meaning the equivalent of a completely Scandinavian person born sometime in the 1830s managed to create a branch in the family tree, a great-great-great-great grandparent. I can thank my Mom for my innate sympathy for the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show. BORK BORK BORK.
  • 31.6% British and Irish: no surprise there.
  • The rest of it, “standard European”, although poking around a bit elsewhere on the site found people with French and Polish backgrounds. The French isn’t a surprise, but the Polish? Who knew?

Regarding being “black”: I don’t mean to be glib and do a disservice to the history of an oppressed racial minority. However, under the ridiculous “one drop” Jim Crow laws, I would have been considered “black”, which may seem just as ludicrous as those laws actually were. They never would have known, of course, but there it is. And we all agree that those laws were bad, right?  Just like we’re going to look back one day and agree that anti-gay laws are also bad, right?

I wonder how those genes manifest themselves, if at all. I have lots of ideas, and perhaps at some point they’ll be able to tell me exactly what I can credit to them. In the meantime, it should give everyone pause when it comes to judging and stereotyping people: you never know what’s on the inside. I think it’s pretty cool to find out, though.

Another way of looking at things.

Another way of looking at things.

They also give you a view of the data based on genetics you share with other people who self-identify as being from or of a particular nationality or country. Information about “old world” countries is a bit more revealing than “new world” countries. For example, I share genetics with people who are from the UK, Ireland and France, all things I expected. The Polish ancestry was a surprise, but are via genetics I share with someone who has two parents who are both from Poland.

Trinidad and Tobago? I don’t think I have ancestors from there, but it’s more likely that someone from there and I have a common ancestor from elsewhere.

My expectation is that the results will continue to be refined as more people submit their DNA for testing and the site acquires more data.

I’ve discovered I have at least some second cousins on the site, and a number of people are coming out of the woodwork who want to share genetic information. I haven’t taken that step just yet, although I still would recommend that you sign up if you can afford the $100!

Maybe we’ll find out we’re related.

Seeing Red

Pink and red aren’t exactly complementary, and few people can pull it off. I haven’t tried, myself. I’m not even sure why they’ve been chosen. I haven’t looked it up, either, because I don’t really care about that aspect. I didn’t change my profile picture, because if you know me, you should know that I’m gay, and I think two consenting adults should be allowed to be married in the US, regardless of their genitalia. I’m kind of on the in with this one. Implicit, not explicit, so to speak.

I’m also well aware that changing your Facebook photo isn’t going to change how the Supreme Court rules, but despite that, it’s nice to know that for all the years of:

  • Getting picked on as a kid for innate behavior, largely out of my control
  • Wondering, as a child,  if I was simply doomed to die, since gay men got sick and did so when I was growing up, and the growing suspicion I might be One of Them
  • Worrying that I’d never find someone to love, and even if I did, if my family would disown me

… there are now people who think I should be allowed to get married, legally. That finally, I’m considered fully (mostly?) human, after praying as a little boy for a higher power to change me into something acceptable.

My prayers were answered, just not in the way I’d ever anticipated: it’s inspiring to see the sea of support. It makes up—a little—for all those years of nagging doubt despite my best efforts otherwise.

However, I also wonder if we live in an echo chamber when it comes to the people with whom we associate, because I wasn’t seeing a negative response. I’m guessing Facebook’s algorithms work to screen these kinds of things as a side effect of how interests intersect otherwise. Or maybe people are just being quiet, figuring their stance is just as implicit as mine.

So I went looking, and found a few things. I found that some people, while they disagree, aren’t taking a political stance on Facebook. Thanks: I appreciate it.  I think it’s important to have people in your life with whom you disagree, and people who understand that idea are worth having around, even if you do disagree. Sometimes you can learn things.

Is this for or against gay marriage? I know some gay Christians who agree that God is love, and a plus can be used to add any two things together.

Is this for or against gay marriage? I know some gay Christians who agree that God is love, and a plus can be used to add any two things together. Vague messaging, needs better marketing. Does the Red Cross know about this?

A literal interpretation of Genesis? You may want to consider studying the bible—that means its origins, not just reading it.

A literal interpretation of Genesis? You may want to consider studying the Bible—that means its origins, not just reading it. If you want literal, there was only one rule in Eden: 2:17. Also, the honey badger would disagree with 1:28 and dominion over all the animals.

But there is a line: I don’t want to be friends with people who explicitly make it a stance to deny me my humanity. It triggers a fight-or-flight response—this is survival—and I’ve spent my life doing well by others, my community, and largely living by the tenets, morals and principles set by my family and church growing up. I’m not going to consciously allow myself to be stomped on by the fallibility of man. I’ll listen to an argument, and we may even do business, but we’re not going to be friends.

If you don’t like gay marriage, here are some tips:

  1. Don’t have one.
  2. Don’t go to one if you’re invited.

However, please understand: there is a separation between church and state, and eventually this particular institution will be realized within that context.

And to those of you who support us, thank you. It means more than you may realize.


No llores por mi, Argentina: Habemus Papam

When I was a first-grader in Catholic school, we got a primer on the Pope. John Paul II was installed when I was three years old, so I don’t remember the process, but as a six-year-old, I did think it was really cool that white smoke would billow when God chose a new Pope: it seemed like magic, and magic was cool. I also remember thinking that maybe I wouldn’t have to go to church between popes.


I never tested that theory, because the next Pope didn’t come along for another 25 years, by which point:

  1. I understood white smoke was a chemical reaction based on people casting votes.
  2. I was no longer a practicing Catholic.

I have to congratulate my cousin Adrienne on being the second family member to have a Pope elected on her birthday. The first was my sister Kris, back in 2005, and I predicted it well in advance, much to her surprise. You’ve been POPED.

I can’t say I have much feeling one way or another, aside from raising an eye at his comment that “gay marriage is a machination of the Father of Lies.

In response, I’d like to point out:

Eventually attitudes will change, and at the very least, it doesn’t appear that Petrus Romanus has appeared.

If they don’t change, well, it won’t matter in a half-billion years when everything crisps up anyway.

Facebook Withdrawal

Last year, I gave up Facebook for Lent—I’m not a practicing Catholic, but it has a few handy practices—and decided to keep a diary about the process.154668_340.jpg

After two days, I realized I didn’t care enough to continue writing things down. Basically, the first few days were the hardest, like… breaking any habit. Interestingly enough, a paper I read on social interaction design commented that it takes 3 days to come off social media habits. While I couldn’t find a cite for it, it does seem to hold true for me. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and their ilk are desire engines. Effectively, despite all your rage, you’re still just a rat in a cage. It’s no longer enough to dazzle people to get attention; instead, sites and products must instill habit, and they do. Fortunately, there are ways to break habits by recognizing exactly what it is they reward.

At the end of the year, I decided to do it again for a couple of weeks because of several days of reactive behavior:

Critical thinking had died.

I’m back—who cares, really—and here are some observations about things on Facebook:

  • Arguing about gun control and posting crappy images, one way or another, immedately after Sandy Hook seems really, really tactless if you go review it all now.
  • The next time some free social media service changes their Terms of Service, give them a few days before you react… chances are they’re just not thinking particularly clearly. They’re not geniuses, they’re just people like you and me.
  • Google something before posting it as truth, especially if it seems pretty fantastic.

Some observations about Facebook withdrawal:

  • People check in via texts and messages when they notice you’re gone; that’s nice.
  • It takes a bit to shake firing up Facebook when you get bored or frustrated.
  • I use Facebook to keep on top of current events; moreso than news websites: regular news websites have their own (entertainment) agenda and can be slower than Facebook.
  • Facebook messages, while sometimes spotty, can be more reliable than regular email.
  • I missed seeing my family.

Some positive things:

  • I occupied myself, e.g. finishing all those online articles I meant to read later.
  • I felt like time slowed a bit, because life was more quiet.
  • Created more, consumed less.

I recommend the experience. Another friend is doing it for a year, which is pretty impressive. I’ll miss him, but I’ll just have to find him in person to see how life is going. Personally, I’m going to limit myself, but I’m not quite sure how, yet. I like being connected to people, so how often? Once a day? Once a week? What do other people do?