The Casual Blog

The growing eagle family, and the consciousness of other animals

Papa eagle at the nest

On Thursday afternoon I went up to Shelley Lake with my camera equipment to check on the nesting eagles.  The walk to the nest is close to a mile along a paved path on the east side of the lake. It was clear and mild, though breezy.  When I got there, papa eagle was perched in the pine tree beside the nest. A fellow eagle watcher said there were two chicks in the nest, and mama was off hunting.  Forty-five minutes later, she flew in with some food in her talons and disappeared in the nest. When she emerged, she spent a few minutes perched with her mate, and then flew off.  

Of course, I was excited to see the birds, but there was also something calming about being near them.  The wind sometimes blew the pine branches in front of them, or blew them aside for one second, just enough for a picture.

Speaking of animals, I’ve been reading two good books — Mama’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal and Beyond Words, by Carl Safina.  Both books explore animal social organizations and thought processes. Dr. de Waal’s primary subjects are chimpanzees and other primates. De Waal explains that when he was a young scientist, the orthodox view in academia was that animals did not have emotions.  He’s devoted his career to testing this view, and has succeeded in thoroughly debunking it.  In exploring non-human animal emotions, he shows us more about our own minds.

Dr. Safina focuses on elephants, wolves, and killer whales, and closely observes a few of their social organizations and personalities.  The stories are moving, and raise absorbing questions about the consciousness of these animals. Some of the human behaviors, including killing elephants for their tusks and killing other creatures merely for pleasure, raise uncomfortable questions about human morality.

 

Notre Dame, Our Planet, and some very small scenes

Like millions of others, I was shocked and saddened by the devastating fire yesterday Notre Dame Cathedral    I lived in Paris for a few months right after college, and visited the church many times. I loved the beauty and majesty, but there were other, quieter aspects that also moved me.  I liked to think about the anonymous builders who carved and laid the gray stones starting in 1160.  It was built to last!  It showed the strength of human creativity and of what communities could achieve together.  

It will take some time to mourn and process the terrible damage to this historic treasure.  For now, I find it helpful to remember that communities can be amazingly resilient, and they are capable of remarkable feats of restoration.  There are many examples in Europe of unique buildings destroyed in WWII that have been miraculously recreated. It may be that this loss will inspire another such effort, and demonstrate again the power of communities.

We’ve started watching the new nature series on Netflix, Our Planet, which I highly recommend.  Narrated by the legendary David Attenborough (now 92!), it sets a new standard for beautiful nature photography, including footage of rare and wonderful animals and habitats.  But, as the Times critic pointed out, it departs from the usual conventions of nature documentaries by being both richer in its ecological vision and more frank in its damage assessments.  It recognizes that the smallest life forms are inextricably linked to the largest, and all are part of a dense interconnected web that humans and other animals depend on.  

The series faces up to the harsh reality that humans have already wreaked enormous damage on the planet, and are continuing to do so. In the series, and also in public statements, Attenborough and producer Alastair Fothergill have communicated that as dire as the situation is, there’s still hope, and a lot of nature that we can still save.

Last weekend I went to Durham for a workshop led by Mike Moats on macro (that is, close-up) photography.  Mike gave our group a lot of tips and ideas, and brought along groups of little objects for us to shoot. I’m generally much more interested in using my camera to explore the natural world, and I approached these subjects with low expectations.  But back home after I sorted and processed the images (using Lightroom, Photoshop, and Topaz Studio), I found there were several I kind of liked, which I’m sharing here.

 

At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

This week Sally and I went back to the Full Frame Film Festival in downtown Durham, and watched 15 or so documentary films.  As in prior years, it was an amazing, enriching experience, like a quick trip around the world. Full Frame is one of the best, or perhaps the best, documentary festival in the country, pulling in filmmakers and fans from far and wide, and we’re fortunate that it’s so convenient for us.  

As usual, we saw a few Raleigh friends there, but we’re always surprised not to see more.  Part of the reason may be lack of knowledge.  It isn’t entirely clear from Full Frame’s publicity what it is.  From the Festival’s point of view, this doesn’t seem to be a problem, since they seem to sell out most of their showings. But for those missing this amazing experience, it’s worth knowing a few things.

For example, the 70 or so films shown are selected from many hundreds.  They are all, in effect, contest winners. There are many subjects and styles.  Production values (filming, animation, music) are typically high. More than with typical movie going, it requires a slight leap of faith to buy tickets, since most of the films are new and almost unknown.  But we’ve learned through experience that the programming committee knows what it’s doing, and we can trust that almost everything they show will be invigorating.

Another fun aspect of Full Frame is the people.  For many of the films, the filmmakers and subjects come to the screenings and answer questions afterwards, and hang around to talk after that.  And the audience members are a varied, interesting lot. While waiting for the next movie, many people like to talk about what they’ve been seeing, what they’re about to see, and their lives.  We’ve had many uncommonly enjoyable chats.

Anyhow, we love it.  As usual, we booked a room in the downtown Marriott, which is physically connected to the Convention Center where most of the films are shown.  We only went outside to eat or wait in line for the screenings in Fletcher (the largest hall). It took a certain amount of commitment to do five screenings on Friday and Saturday, starting around 10:00 A.M. and ending around midnight.  And it was emotionally challenging, with some of the subject matter evoking strong feelings of regret and loss. But there were also moments of humor and a lot of rays of hope — examples of love, compassion, and organizing to do something about serious problems.  

Here are a few notes on my favorites.

F/11 and Be There.  This was a film about Burk Uzzle, a photographer who worked for Life Magazine and went on to a distinguished career in art photography and portraiture.  He had a lot of interesting things to say and show about photography, including the primacy of emotional content and the connections to making music. He’s still going strong at age 80, and answered questions at the screening.  

Meeting Gorbachev.  This is a bio documentary by Werner Herzog about Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev had a lot of intelligence and humor, and said some very timely things about stopping nuclear weapons.  

Human Nature.  This was about gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9 technology.  It’s a challenging but really important subject, comparable to the internet, just starting to change the world.  The film does a great job at teaching the science basics and raising some of the difficult questions about where this technology might take us.  

Kifaru.  This one treated the extinction of northern white rhinoceroses and humans trying to save them.  I was amazed to see that these ancient and fierce-looking animals form bonds with their caretakers and play with them.  The tone was gentle and elegiac, and the photography beautiful. We talked with some of the filmmakers and one of the Kenyan caretakers afterwards.  It won the Festival’s Audience Award and the Environmental Award.

Ask Dr. Ruth.  There is only one Dr. Ruth, famous for her talk show on sexual problems, and this is her documentary biopic.  As a child, she barely escaped the Holocaust, and her family did not. Now, at age 90, she’s incredibly warm, upbeat, and peppy.  She spoke after the showing and made people laugh. I caught up with her as she was leaving and thanked her for the film and for making America a little less prudish and a little more joyful.  She thanked me with her terrific smile.

Hail Satan?   This one is about the Temple of Satan and its leader, Lucien Greaves.  The group is in part a satirical theatre challenge social conservative positions on religion and social norms, including their placing Ten Commandments statues on public property and restrictions on abortion and gay rights.  It will upset fundamentalists and some others, and entertain others.

Mossville:  When Great Trees Fall.  This is about the destruction of a thriving black community in Louisiana with the pollution of enormous industrial plants.  The existence of environmental racism is not new but perhaps not widely understood, and this film does a great job in framing the problem on a human scale.  It won the Festival’s Human Rights Award.

The eagles at Shelley Lake, looking for wildflowers, finding conspiracies, and new music

Things are blossoming like crazy here, and I’ve been itching to spend some time outside with the beautiful plants and animals.  In the last few days, I’ve succeeded, and had both good luck and bad luck with my camera.    The good luck was at Shelley Lake, where the two adult bald eagles came out of their nest and posed nicely for pictures.  There may well be a couple of eaglets in the nest, as someone said. The area near the nest has become a little social center for nature photographers, bird watchers, and assorted other humans.  It was fun chatting about the birds, and seeing the excitement when people saw them for the first time.

On Friday morning I took a vacation day and went over to the UNC Botanical Garden to see what was blooming and to get a special pass for Mason Farm Biological Reserve.  I was hoping to find unfamiliar wildflowers. When I got there that my camera battery was almost dead (due to taking many eagle shots), and I’d forgotten my backup battery.  The creek was too high to get well into Mason Farm. So, bad luck, but I did find a few interesting wildflowers, which I admired and photographed.

Later I met Gabe Tiller in Chapel Hill for lunch at the Mediterranean Deli.  The falafel, hummus, and baba ghannouj were all delicious! We caught up on family and work news, and I walked him back to work.  Then I made my way to the UNC Arboretum. Traffic on Franklin Street was busy, and I was lucky to find parking at the planetarium.  There were a lot of blossoms at the arboretum which inspired photographic ideas, but my battery gave out after three shots.

On Saturday morning, after visiting the eagles, I drove over to Durham to see the flowers at Duke Gardens.  I’d seen on Instagram that the tulips there were blooming, and that spectacular collection always brings me joy.  But lots of other people had the same idea; the traffic was crawling. After some slow poking through the various lots, I admitted defeat and drove sadly home.

On the way back to Raleigh, I listened to an episode on This American Life about conspiracy theories.  It’s a timely topic, with Donald Trump declaiming loudly that there was no conspiracy involving him, but there are plenty of conspiracies involving his foes.  As one of the program’s segments noted, for fans of anti-government conspiracy theories, everything Trump says makes perfect sense.

Not being such a fan, I’ve assumed that such ideas, however nutty, are mostly harmless.   But my harmlessness hypothesis  was shattered by reports this week by reporting on Alex Jones and others who have decided to believe that the murder of 28 school children and staff  at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax. In a podcast of This American Life,  I learned that these people have conducted sustained harassment of the parents of murdered children, including sharing their addresses and personal information and threatening them with violence.  

I have a hard time conceiving of how anyone could get disconnected enough from reality and human decency to attack people based on their being the parents of murdered children, but I’ll try.  1. Humans have a deep-seated drive to find explanatory patterns, and a deep aversion to uncertainty and disorder. 2. Finding a group of people who share your beliefs is satisfying, for it is our nature to want friends and allies.  3. It is surely satisfying to believe you have grasped an obscure truth that only a few can fathom. 4. You may get into a feedback loop: those who resist your conspiracy theory are part of the conspiracy, and their efforts to unpack your theory are attacks on your group and proof of the theory’s validity.  

At any rate, I’m guessing that’s part of how people get to believing in a flat earth, UFOs, the Illuminati, and any number of other fantasies.  But for most of those, I’d expect there’s some hedging. If it came to actually doing violence, physical or psychological, in support of the theory, many people would say, hmmm, I might be wrong, and that germ of uncertainty would hold them back.  It probably takes a big mouth con artist like Alex Jones or Donald Trump leading the charge to overcome those doubts. That may take the group over the edge.

This is sick and scary stuff, and it shows no signs of going away soon.  But some good news: as reported in the NY Times and Washington Post, some of the targeted parents have sued Jones for defamation.  As flawed and error prone as our system of justice is, it’s good to think it’s still there, and may well shut down this particular madness.

This is one of the things I like about spending time with non-human animals and plants:  at a fundamental level, they’re truthful. This week I started another book about animal feelings and intelligence:  Moma’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal. De Waal is a psychologist at Emory University, who wrote Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? which is a good overview of recent research that is transforming ideas about the limits of animal intelligence.  His new book contends that the emotional lives of some animals are not so different from ours.  Most dog owners already think this, and it’s interesting that science is catching up.  

At my lesson that afternoon with my piano teacher, Olga Kleiankina, she invited to be an audience of one for her run through of most of the program she’ll be performing next week at the Smithsonian Institution, and after that at the N.C. Museum of Art.  The works were all by living composers, including Ligeti, Salonen, and Crumb. The music was challenging for both the performer and listener, requiring great virtuosity and intense attention.  Lacking the traditional binding agents of tonality, performer and listener had to find other orientation points. I didn’t love everything, but I really liked most of it. As she noted, the music could open things up, and make you listen to other things with new ears.

That evening, I discovered on Spotify a wonderful recording of Mahler’s ninth symphony streaming performed by the Essener Philharmoniker led by Tomas Netopil.  It was an excellent orchestra, and Netopil (Czech, b. 1975) was brilliant. And kudos as well to the gifted recording engineers. I’ve enjoyed this music for decades, but felt like I was hearing it for the first time.  I knew nothing of that orchestra, but checked: Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany. Interesting coincidence!

Seagrove Orchids, meditation developments, and the Elias String Quartet

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Last weekend I drove down to Seagrove, NC, and took some pictures at Seagrove Orchids.  Owner Linda Thorne had invited members of the Carolina Nature Photographers Association to visit her greenhouse with their cameras, tripods, and other gear.  Orchids are always fascinating, and seeing so many blooming at once was almost inebriating. The pictures here involved up to 30 exposures, each with slightly different focus points, which I later stitched together with Helicon Focus software and processed in Lightroom.  I was happy enough with some of the results to use them as wallpaper on my home screens.

 

Jocelyn called this week to catch up, and reported that she and Kyle were experimenting with mindfulness meditation.  They were trying the short practical instructions I’d pointed towards in the NY Times, which are here.  I was so happy to hear it! After several months of  practicing daily meditation, I’m persuaded that it can change us for the better. Just sitting still, breathing, and noticing what our minds do helps with many of our usual problems, like stress, anxiety, and distraction.  To be sure, not all of our problems are in our minds, but meditating reveals that a lot of them are, and with practice we can let those go. 

 

With less mental clutter and a lighter load of fears and anxieties, I find I can tune in better to the various joys of life, like friends, food, and music.  On Saturday we met up with friends in Durham for dinner at Mothers and Sons. It took several tries to get the reservation, but it was worth it; the food and service were excellent.  Afterwards, we all went to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium to hear the Elias String Quartet play an interesting program of chamber music: Schumann’s Op. 41, No. 1, Sally Beamish’s String Quartet No. 4, and Schubert’s D. 804. 

 

The Schumann and Schubert are famous masterpieces, while the Beamish work was brand new, commissioned by Elias. Beamish (b. 1956) took fragments of the melodies and rhythms from the Schumann quartet and explored their tonal possibilities.  The short movements brought to mind the conciseness of Webern and the intensity of Bartok. I liked the idea of using the great music of Schumann in new ways, and enjoyed the piece, though Sally and our friends did not. I thought the Elias played with musicality and passion, though their tone quality was less rich and rounded than my ideal. In this performance, unlike the very greatest quartets, they did not completely gel into a single musical force. But they’re plainly very talented, and they seemed capable of doing so.

New York: art, music, traffic

 

Tenth Avenue

We got up to New York City last weekend, where we visited Jocelyn and Kyle, did some wedding planning, saw some art, and heard some great music.  

New York never stops changing.  More and more, once common and likeable little businesses, like Greek diners and pizza parlors, seem to be disappearing, while other less-lovable ones, like towering luxury condos, are expanding.  When we went down to Chelsea, we went by the new Hudson Yards skyscrapers, and noted lots of bigness. This week the NY Times architecture critic did a scathing review of the project, with some fantastic animated graphics.   I recommend checking it out.

On Friday, Sally and I went to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Guggenheim, and liked it.  His mature work was mostly black and white portraiture of famous or beautiful people, done with classical rigor and exactitude.   Mapplethorpe’s subject matter included unashamed homoeroticism and S&M, which was, and still can be, shocking. He challenges non-gay people to be more tolerant and receptive.

A Mapplethorpe portrait

We also went to the Matthew Marks gallery to see some new work of Jasper Johns.  The artist is now 88, and I was not expecting anything particularly new from him.  But the work was strong! It was inspiring to see such vigor from an almost nonagenerian.   Afterwards, we looked in several other Chelsea art galleries.

One of the new J. Johns

On Saturday Sally and Jocelyn did wedding-related shopping, and I went to the Armory show.  This annual four-day art fair, located on piers on the West Side, featured galleries and contemporary artists from all over the world.  The crowd included international jet setters, students, and all types in between. There was a lot of art I didn’t care for, though some of the things I didn’t like I still found worth thinking about.

That’s one of the things serious art does:  gets your head and your eyes working. You start seeing lines and curves, lights and darks, colors and textures.  And of course, you experience a gamut of emotions, from joy to disgust. You may also consider the social aspect of art, from its relation to status and hierarchy to efforts to discover and convey truth.  

At the Armory show

On Saturday we went to the Metropolitan Opera to see Verdi’s Rigoletto.  This production was set in Las Vegas in the 1960s, with the main characters part of a casino-based crime family.  I didn’t love the concept, but I did love the performance by Nadine Sierra as Gilda. Her famous aria, Caro Nome, was really touching and beautiful.  The wonderful opera podcast Aria Code, with Rhiannon Giddens, had a segment on the music and psychology of this aria a few weeks back, with Sierra as the featured singer.   It gave me a deeper appreciation for the music, though I have to say, I thought her live performance was much better than the podcast one.  

On Sunday morning we went to the Metropolitan Museum and spent some time looking at their exhibit of Dutch painting of the 17th century.  I have a minor obsession with Vermeer, and usually find other great work of that period enjoyable. We also had a look at the pioneering photography of Giraux de Prangy, who, in the early 1840s, traveled around the Mediterranean taking the first ever daguerreotypes of the major architectural monuments of western civilization.  

Finally, we looked through the Met’s abstract expressionism exhibit, which had a lot of wall size art.  Some of these paintings still work for me, but increasingly they seem as uncontemporary as Vermeer. Artists are still mining the abstract expressionist vein, along with every other prior vein from Impressionism onward, and people are still enjoying and buying such work.  But more and more, I’m on the lookout for a path to a new kind of artistic language.

There was an essay in the Washington Post this week by Robert Kagan entitled The Strongmen Strike Back, which I hope will start an interesting discussion.  Kagan argues that there is a common thread connecting the various authoritarian regimes that have emerged in the last couple of decades, including in Russia, China, Egypt, Hungary, and elsewhere.  Instead of ideology, these regimes are founded on idealization of traditional cultural touch points of race, religion, values, and status hierarchies. He suggests an answer to something that’s really been puzzling me:  the acquiescence and even support of a lot of American conservatives for Vladimir Putin. He thinks it isn’t just a bloody-minded rejection of liberalism, but a defensive embrace of traditionalism.

Kagan thinks that traditional liberalism has offered individual rights and freedom, but hasn’t offered enough to those who feel their religious and other cultural preferences need protection.  That seems possible. But Kagan doesn’t say much about the fearmongering and disinformation that seems to be a common thread among the new authoritarians. His vision of liberalism seems to embrace traditional American imperialism and preferential treatment for elites.  I don’t think he’s really proposed a workable solution to authoritarianism, but he’s given some helpful new vocabulary.

In these fraught times, I’m always on the lookout for cheering news, and was really cheered this week to read about the young students around the world who mobilized to address climate change.  There were protests in a hundred different countries and 1,700 locations, according to the Washington Post. As some of the students pointed out, adults have created a dire environmental crisis, and the world they threaten to leave to their children looks distinctly worse than the one they themselves got.  This is part of the moral imperative for addressing climate change — protecting the next generation, and the ones after them.

More on the orchid, on the Michael Jackson problem, and on meditation

 

We’re heading to New York City for the weekend, but I wanted to share some new pictures of Sally’s revived orchid and a few thoughts on Michael Jackson.  I thought the flowers were a good reminder of the miraculous beauty that can be close at hand, but is also easy to miss. It took some patient looking, as well as a fair bit of technology, to make these particular images.  

This week Sally and I watched Leaving Neverland, the much discussed new documentary on the late MJ’s sexual abuse of children.  It was painful on several levels, but also thought-provoking. It raised questions that don’t have good answers, such as, How could he?  With innocent little kids? What were their parents thinking? Why did the victims refuse for years to tell the truth?

It also indirectly raised questions about how fragile a hold we have on reality.  According to news reports, die-hard MJ fans have addressed the evidence of his child molesting with complete denial and threats of violence against those who disagree.  That is, some fans are taking the Trumpian road: it’s all a hoax and fake news. This is a reminder (if anyone needs one) that there is a meaningful segment of America that inhabits something other than ordinary reality and is immune to evidence and argument.  We’ve got a block of people who are not in any technical sense insane, and yet have taken leave of their senses.

It’s difficult to be sympathetic and respectful to those who are in denial as to MJ’s appalling misconduct.  But I’m guessing that their denial relates to their love. MJ did make some fantastic music and projected a sweet persona.  It must be that they just can’t conceive of a person who is so talented and likeable being a serial sexual abuser of children.  They seem to have an idealized vision of the man, which they have imbued with so much meaning that they take it to be vital for their own well-being.  They may think they’re defending their own lives.

There’s a related confusion about the music.  Some who accept the evidence of MJ’s molestations take the view that his music is now unacceptable.  This has been a recurrent issue with regard to other artists: what to do with their art, after they’re determined to be statutory rapists or otherwise guilty of heinous acts.  

This doesn’t seem so difficult to me.  A lot of gifted people, including great artists, have a dark side, and some do horrible acts.  Our understanding of artists’ lives will likely affect how we view their art, but their crimes don’t actually change their art.  Even for child molesters, their art is what it is. Appreciating their art doesn’t mean condoning their acts.

There are so many ways our minds can get untracked and cause problems either for ourselves or others.  I really think meditation can mitigate that risk.  I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation regularly for a few months now.  Although I haven’t seen the heavens suddenly open, I have seen intimations of greater happiness.  My electronic New York Times last week served up a fine short little guide on what meditation is and how to do it, which looked to be helpful and reliable, if you’re thinking of giving it a try.

Eagles, gums, eyes, and the music of Robert Schumann and Leah Crocetto

Mama eagle and nest

After another mostly raw and rainy week, it warmed up and cleared up for a bit on Saturday.  I went up to Shelley Lake to try out my big new Sigma lens (150-600mm) and to check on the nesting eagles and other creatures.  Right after I got there, one eagle flew to the nest, and the other flew out. I stayed for another couple of hours, but saw only tail feathers — no more flying.  It was not lonely, though. There were several other photographers staking out the nest, and many hikers, joggers, and dog walkers who stopped for a bit to get the latest eagle news.  Apparently there are eggs in the nest, and eaglets are expected at the end of March. It was a friendly, cheerful scene. As I was leaving, I saw some other birds, and this deer with Canada geese.  

Last week, I had some health maintenance work done, including my regular (every six months) dental check up and cleaning.  As most people know, good teeth are a critical tool for eating and smiling, and we need to take good care of them. And so I’ve long been reasonably diligent about brushing and flossing. Even so, I’ve come in for some criticism by my dental hygienists.  Six months back, Debbie, the new hygienist, gave me a “needs improvement” grade, and heavily promoted my getting a water pick . The machines shoot a concentrated stream of water at the gums, which I always assumed was redundant with flossing and probably a waste of time and money.  But Debbie was extremely passionate and knowledgeable about teeth and gums, and I figured I’d better do what she said. I bought a cheap water pick and used it once a day, after the morning flossing.

It worked!  At my appointment this week, Debbie gave me an A+, declaring that my gums looked fantastic. She also acknowledged that it took sustained daily effort to get such a result.  I was very proud!

I also had my annual eye exam with my optometrist, Dr. Cloninger.  The good news was, my right (good) eye was fine, and in fact slightly less near-sighted than last visit, as sometimes happens with age. Dr. C didn’t think I needed new glasses.  But he mentioned some research regarding the harmful effects of blue light from computer screens, including macular degeneration. This was disturbing, since I really need to take care of my remaining vision.  That very day I activated the blue light protection mode on my computers. (For Apple devices, that’s Night Shift mode.)

A chickadee

As usual, I’ve been giving myself regular music therapy — practicing the piano, including a fair bit of sight reading, and listening to some music that’s new to me.  I also started the new biography of Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik. It’s a pleasure to read, and it inspired me to listen to more Schumann via Spotify.

At some point when I was a serious music student, someone I trusted made a negative, dismissive remark about Schumann’s style, which was enough to steer me away from it.  That was unfortunate! He was bold and original, with emotional depth and insight. I’ve been listening to his piano works, chamber music, and songs, and finding a lot of beauty.  Just one example: Dichterliebe, a song cycle of 1840, is so beautiful it hurts. With the internet, this wonderful music is at our fingertips, almost free and easy to find. But as noted, in a world full of attractions and distractions, it’s also easy to miss.  

A singing Carolina wren

On Sunday afternoon we went to a recital of soprano Leah Crocetto with pianist Mark Markham.  Crocetto sang the title role in Norma with the N.C. Opera a few months ago, and I was overwhelmed by her enormous talent.  But I was unfamiliar with most of the music she programmed for the recital — sets of songs by Respighi, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, and Gregory Peebles (b. 1977) — and wasn’t really expecting to love the show.  

But it was wonderful!  Crocetto, it turns out, is not just a great voice.  There’s also an extraordinary intelligence in her musicianship at every level, from the programming to the subtlest nuance of expression.  For all that, it didn’t feel over-engineered. She seemed to inhabit the songs, rather than just singing them. She gave them, and us, everything — total emotional commitment.  It was powerful.

The last part of the program was a selection of songs from the great American songbook — that is, show tunes by Gershwin, Arlen, Rodgers, and Fain.  When I saw them on the program, my expectations were low; I figured these songs were pretty well mined out by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and countless others in the mid-twentieth century.  How wrong I was! Crocetto brought the songs to life, and made each one a dramatic story. Unlike with some great singers, her performance was not at all about her, but rather about the song. She was generous and unselfish.  

The same was true of Markham on the piano.  He was an excellent musician and a superb accompanist.  If I was a singer, I’d love to have him as a partner.

Another good singer — a cardinal (the North Carolina state bird)

 

Getting the Green New Deal

Sally’s newly revived orchid

This week Sally succeeded in coaxing an orchid back into blossoming, after several months of hibernation.  On Saturday I made a picture of it, and also took some shots of Sally’s expanding menagerie of house plants.  Outside it’s been gray and rainy, but at Casa Tiller things are green and growing. The New Yorker cover of earlier this month of a devoted indoor gardener (see below) suited Sally well, and she framed it for her desk.    

I’ve been reading a lot about the Green New Deal, and am hoping it has legs.  The foundational GND document, House Resolution 109, is not long or difficult. It starts with a clear-eyed acknowledgement of the massive environmental disaster now threatening all of us, and recognizes that it will take years of work on many fronts to combat that threat.  H. Res. 109 is primarily a call to arms, rather than a battle plan, and of course, much more planning is also needed. But it is encouraging to see at least a few political leaders putting the climate change issue front and center.  

The GND suggests a connection between our current environmental crisis and social problems of education, health, jobs, inequality, and natural resources.  It accepts that our predicament is part and parcel of our economic system, and fixing it will require systemic changes. The editorial board of the New York Times, as of today, prefers to view our rapidly degrading environment as unrelated to our economic myths and abuses.  

But the connection is getting attention. In the Times, Lisa Friedman and Trip Gabriel did a useful piece on some of the economic issues of the GND.  Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic has a good discussion of the GND and economic policy.  David Roberts, in Vox gives a useful historical overview and points up the GND’s intent to foster new social and economic relationships. Is any of this politically feasible within a viable time frame?  Maybe I’m an optimist, but I want to believe so.  

Last night we went to Durham for dinner and an extraordinary concert:  master cellist Steven Isserlis and master pianist Robert Levin in an all Beethoven program.   In Duke’s Baldwin auditorium, Isserlis and Levin played the first, third, and fifth of the five cello sonatas, along with the Op. 66 Magic Flute variations.  They presented this great music using a fortepiano, the type of instrument that Beethoven primarily used. The keyboard and cello blended wonderfully.  More than any cellist I’ve ever heard, Isserlis made me forget that the cello is very difficult to play. He seemed radiant with joy, and the music seemed to come directly from his heart.    

Skiing in Utah, and Knausgaard’s radical honesty project

Snow at Snowbird, February 16, 2019

Last week Sally, Gabe, and I went to Utah for six days of skiing at Snowbird and Alta.  They had four or five feet of snow in the week before we came, and around four feet while we were there.  The locals said the snow was a bit on the heavy side, but even by local standards, at the snowiest ski area in North America, it was an amazing powder skiing experience.

In recent years we’ve had one week of skiing a year, and only a few deep powder days.  We weren’t completely unprepared for the powder challenge, but we were far from experienced.  Powder is a different ball game. The techniques that work on groomed snow have to be modified, and the modifications have to be further modified according to constantly varying snow conditions.  It involves trial and error; there’s no settled, reliable recipe for success. Facing down the steep terrain into snow where no one has gone takes gumption. But by day three, we were getting a level of confidence, which increased in days four through six.  It’s a wonderful feeling, flying on clouds of snow.

We rented skis at our hotel, Cliff Lodge (see photograph below), and they set us up with good tools.  I was very impressed with my Volkyl 100eights (173cm), which were versatile and reliable. They floated beautifully, were highly maneuverable on moguls, and could carve at medium-high speeds on packed snow.  

Skiing the challenging (black and double black diamond) terrain at Snowbird and Alta clears the mind.  There is, of course, the possibility of falling. Pointing the skis downward takes commitment and focus, and being in the moment.  It has a meditative dimension.

There is also a lovely social aspect.  Our little trio enjoyed exploring for new (to us) ways down the mountain, and savoring little victories together.  Gabe, by far the strongest skier, gave me a tip on poling technique that was transformative. He recommended I quit poling with my wrists, and envision turning the steering wheel of a car.   Almost immediately, my turns got stronger. He later reported that he’d focused more on the idea after he taught it to me, and found it helped him lift his game.

On day three, we skied at Alta with Sally’s cousin, Chip, and his wife, Judy, who live there.  They were great companions, full of good fun and local knowledge. They took us on a climb up Devil’s Castle in search of an expanse of untracked powder.  My legs and my lungs both gave out short of the top, and I headed down into a lesser powder field. I was really impressed and inspired by their good skiing and fitness, and resolved to get more fit for skiing next year.

Happy skiers at Alta: me, Judy, Gabe, Sally, and Chip

As it was, after three days of skiing I felt like I’d been mugged by a gang of toughs, aching and sore all over.  On day four, I felt much better. Along with the exhilaration, we had some tough conditions — very limited visibility in places, cold in the teens, and high winds.  I heard reports of gusts of over 50 MPH, and could easily believe that our sustained winds were 40 MPH in places. There were a couple of moments on the lift when I wondered if the wind could pull a person off.  

At the end of our ski days, we enjoyed some time in the hot tub.  I read more of Knausgaard’s magnum opus, My Struggle, book two. I’ll say one thing about it that I haven’t seen in the reviews:  it is radically honest. Knausgaard seems want to say as truthfully as possible exactly what he thought and felt in the process of ordinary life.  It turns out to be absorbing, and at times shocking, when someone sets aside, or at least tries to set aside, all pretense, all the layers of self protection, and all the small lies of social convention.  What’s left isn’t necessarily pretty, but it is fascinating, and makes the reader consider the consequences of extreme truthfulness.

At Snowbird: Peruvian lift and Cliff Lodge