The Casual Blog

Our cruise on the Danube, toilets, facism, and Fred Rogers

Woods-8

Budapest, Parliament

We just got back from taking a cruise along the Danube River, Budapest to Passau, five countries in seven days.  We saw castles, palaces, and cathedrals, art and technology, and some beautiful countryside.  It was stimulating and fun.  

Unfortunately, our air conditioner died.  When we got back on July 4, it was really hot (in the 90s), and our apartment was stifling.   Our cat and plants were still alive, but struggling. Sally got a qualified technician to check it the next day, and he diagnosed a failed motor. He ordered the part, which is expected in tomorrow.       

Woods-10

It was pleasantly cool when we were in Europe (high 60s to low 70s), and things looked to be working well.   They appeared to be trying to address climate change, as we saw lots of electric trams, solar panels and wind turbines.    

But I was particularly impressed with their toilet systems.  Unlike in U.S. cities, we found that there were usually clean well-functioning public restrooms conveniently located. They charge for admission (up to one Euro), but it’s totally worth it. As a tourist spending hours poking down their lovely winding streets, I was so grateful.  

Woods-5

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic

As we looked at very old cities, I was struck by the multiple levels of culture that existed side by side, like distinct layers in sedimentary rock, or a slice of linzer torte.  In places we could see bits of ancient Rome, medieval culture, Renaissance, Baroque, neo-classical, and other influences all in the same church or castle, or street.

Woods-12

Matthias Church, Budapest

 

The cathedral building efforts involved multiple generations of humans cooperating.  Each one is unique, an expression of a specific local culture, and some of them are really beautiful. How did they organize themselves and then keep on going for many decades? The pay can’t have been very good. And they didn’t have any power tools! For all the Church’s problems,  I give it credit for animating so much creativity.

Woods-2

Passau, Germany

Our cruise on the Danube was on the Viking Legend.  The Viking staff was friendly and very competent, and organized the trip in a way that made a lot of sense for a first time visitor.  We would typically cruise to a new destination in the evening, have breakfast, and then have a guided tour in the morning. We’d then have lunch either in town or on the boat, and explore on our own in the afternoon.   Then, back to the boat for a cocktail, dinner, and after dinner entertainment.

Woods-19

A cafe in Passau

 

The guided tours were by local folks who were knowledgeable and good-humored.  We were not especially knowledgeable about the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, and other political history of the area, and got an introduction that made us want to learn more.  We got better at distinguishing baroque, rococo, and Neo-classical styles.

It was also interesting to hear personal stories of the guides who’d grown up in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic under the Communist system.  Our Czech guide mentioned that after the fall of the Berlin wall, he was the first kid in his school to visit the west and get Legos. Back home, the other kids were wild for those Legos!

Woods-14

Bratislava, Slovakia

There were about 180 guests on our ship.  Most of them were “seniors,” though there were a few younger families with kids, and one cute pair of honeymooners.  At meal time, most people we shared a table with were pleasant enough to chat with, and there were a few we quite enjoyed.

We had one afternoon of cruising the Danube between Krems and Vienna.  The weather was cloudy and threatening to rain, but it was lovely seeing the the mountains and villages shrouded in fog, and the ruins of ancient castles.

Woods-7

As there was so much impressive architecture built over hundreds of years, it took some time to understand how much was pointlessly destroyed by British and U.S. bombing in WWII.  While killing more than 400,000 German and Austrian civilians, we all so took a terrible toll on these civilizations’ cultural treasures. There’s a good, though painful, account of this terror bombing in Daniel Ellsberg’s recent book, the Doomsday Machine.  But I’m happy to say that the Germans and Austrians we met didn’t seem bitter about this, or to be expecting an apology.  They’d rebuilt with loving and obsessive precision some of their most treasured buildings, and moved on.

Woods-3

Passau, Germany

There were several guides who said interesting things about Hitler.  They seemed to view him as evil, but also viewed their forefathers as in part his victims. It’s hard for most of us to understand the appeal of Antisemitism, but there’s no denying it really excited some Europeans.  The idea that the Jews were a threat to society was, of course, completely crazy, but having an enemy group gave them a sense of purpose. It brought them a kind of unity and provided a simple (but wrong) way to address their social problems    

At any rate, our own recent experience with ascendant racism and xenophobia made me much more understanding and forgiving towards those who supported or failed to stop Hitler.  Here, as elsewhere, Trump is teaching us some true but sad lessons. Words that draw us together as a tribe by pretending to racial superiority are extremely appealing to many. At the same time, those same words, dehumanizing those who are physically or culturally different, make some of us fearful and suggestible.  And politicians who figure this out can manipulate these excited and fearful people. Those of us who aren’t so fearful can hardly believe it’s happening, or that we have to actively oppose it.

Woods-15

Sally in Salzburg

On Saturday we went out to an air-conditioned movie  theater (the Rialto) to see the new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers.  I remember trying to watch his show with my children when they were small, and finding it so slow that it was literally impossible to sit through.  But of course, I was not part of the target audience. Rogers took the needs and fears of small children very seriously, and addressed them with uncanny respect and love.    The film was really touching, and a welcome reminder that there is goodness in the world.  

img_1551.jpg

Me and my beer, Hofbrauhaus, Munich

Dragonflies, our N.C. Courage, and pride

 

Woods-2

Yesterday morning I went dragonfly hunting with my camera, and got these shots.  These apex predators of the insect world are both beautiful and unsettling — like little aliens.  Photographing them takes patience and gumption, since their workdays are mostly about fast flying, not stopping and posing.  They like places that are hot and swampy.    Woods-5

On Saturday evening we got out to see the N.C. Courage, our professional women’s soccer team, play the Utah Royals.  The Courage’s play was excellent — quick, precise, creative, and energized. They were dominant throughout, though I credit Utah for a strong defense.  At the end of regulation the score was tied at 0-0. Then in the last of minute of additional time, Utah scored. It ended an undefeated start of the season for the Courage — a tough loss.   

Woods-9

The game was publicized as a pride event, and the gay population might have been slightly more identifiable than usual.   It’s encouraging that we’ve gotten over some of our fears and prejudices, and made progress in recognizing the dignity and worth of gay people.  It shows that minds can change.

 

 

Our 36th anniversary, Jane, nature photography, and a hopeful suicide

Woods-3

At Grandfather Mountain last week, with wind and rain

This week Sally and I had our 36th wedding anniversary.  It seems not so long ago that we were feeding each other wedding cake and dancing that first dance, but there it is, a large set of years.  I feel extremely grateful for our happy marriage. We had a celebratory dinner at Vidrio, a wonderful restaurant in our neighborhood, where we shared the delicious burrata, green chickpea hummus, mushroom polenta, black rice risotto, and roasted cauliflower socca.

On Saturday night we had Sally’s spaghetti with red pepper sauce and watched Jane, a new documentary about Jane Goodall, on Amazon Prime.  Goodall is most famous for her groundbreaking research on wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. Until I saw the documentary, I hadn’t appreciated how remarkable her achievement was:  being the first known human to closely observe our closest primate cousins in the wild, and then overturn much of the conventional wisdom about them. It took amazing courage, originality, and empathy.   The documentary was really beautiful and moving, with video of the young Jane almost alone in the jungle with the chimpanzees who could easily have killed her, but accepted her. I highly recommend it.

Woods

Speaking of nature photography, last weekend I went to western North Carolina for the Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend.  The weather was  very windy and rainy at times, and so I didn’t do as much hiking about and photographing as I’d hoped.  But the program included lectures by some very accomplished photographers, who had inspiring images and intriguing ideas. I photographed some raptors that had been injured and taken into an education program, and saw the bears and other animals at the relatively benign zoo.  

Woods-2

This was my second year at the conference.  I got a lot out of it last year, but kept mostly to myself.  I don’t mind making small talk, which can sometimes lead to larger talk, but I don’t find it easy to start a conversation with a stranger, and I also don’t particularly mind not talking.  But this year I made a point to speak to those who sat next to me, and was glad I made an effort. I had several enjoyable chats about cameras, lenses, processing software, good spots for shooting wildflowers, and other matters of interest to fellow photog nerds.  

Woods-6

A red tailed hawk

I enjoy the gear-head aspects of nature photography, but the more fundamental and rewarding part of the experience is nature.  The camera gets me outdoors and looking hard at the non-human world. There are times I just take the gear out in the woods and walk, and end up not taking any pictures, without feeling disappointed.  The natural world is rewarding in and of itself.  It is also in many places and ways at risk of destruction by humans.  It needs our support and attention.  

Woods-7

A screech owl

A few weeks ago, a non-famous guy of about my age named David Buckel burned himself to death in Brooklyn as an environmental protest, like the Buddhist monks who opposed the Vietnam war.  Buckel was deeply worried about the harm that humans are doing to the planet, and his disturbing act was apparently intended to communicate that.  

Annie Correal wrote a long piece in the New York Times about Buckel that referred to a lengthy suicide letter that he sent to the Times.  I sent her an email of appreciation, and also asked if she could let me have access to his entire message. She said the Times had a policy against that, and I didn’t manage to persuade her to make an exception.

So, except for the few journalists who got to see Buckel’s letter, we don’t know the details of what he intended to express. But it seems clear that he felt a sense of desperation at our heedlessness in the face of climate change and other environmental misdeeds, and wanted to make us address those issues.  He must have also had a sense of hope, or he wouldn’t have bothered to raise the environmental issues as he sacrificed his life.  It’s a sad and shocking thing that he did, but perhaps his death will have resonance.

Woods-4

The wedding dress problem, goodbye to Roth, and hello to Knausgaard

Jocelyn and Kyle visited us for the holiday weekend, and one of the planned events was the kick off of the search for Jocelyn’s perfect wedding dress.  Sally excitedly briefed me on their plan for a mother-daughter visit to a high-end bridal shop, and I felt a bit queasy. For the first time, it hit home that there was a strong assumption that I’d be stroking a large check for a dress that will be worn only once.  

I thought, maybe we can discuss this.  We could deconstruct the cultural significance of wedding customs and related status displays, and consider revising certain traditions, perhaps at lesser expense.  And then I realized that this would get me nowhere, and I may as well give up and enjoy the dress, which will, I’m sure, be beautiful.

I was affected by Philip Roth’s death this week, since his books have been an important part of my life.  I’ve read about a dozen of them, including several that enriched my understanding of what can happen in the heads of others. He had a fierce engagement with life, and his books did what the best novels do: tell truths that can be told no other way. My favorite Roths are American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, the Zuckerman trilogy, Sabbath’s Theatre,  and of course, Portnoy’s Complaint.

I started an engagement with another major book recently:  My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Knausgaard’s book is an autobiographical account of ordinary life and relationships translated from the original Norwegian and extending for 6 volumes (3,600 pages).  It’s been talked about in literary circles, and I’d made a special note to avoid it. It seemed like unpromising subject matter having no bearing on my life issues, and way too long.  

But having made it halfway through volume one, I’m utterly captivated.  It’s uncanny: it seems very much about my life. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman notes having the same sensation.    The work explores emotions to a depth that makes them seem both strange and true.  My early impression is that Knausgaard has achieved something similar to Proust, but with less affectation and more intensity.  

I took these pictures on Saturday morning in Umstead Park, where I hiked for a couple of hours on the Loblolly Trail.  It was humid and very green.

Our therapy dog, and addressing resegregation of schools

Sally and Mowgli at graduation. Photo by Susan Foote.

This week Sally and Mowgli (Gabe’s dog, and our granddog, a/k/a Mo) completed their  therapy dog training. They’re now qualified to visit various kinds of institutions (like assisted living facilities, hospitals, and schools) and offer residents the comfort of doing some petting.  Getting qualified as a therapy dog team has taken a full year and many hours of individual training. They passed the final exam with flying colors! I can personally attest that petting Mo is very comforting, and I’m glad he and Sally can now share that gift with others.

This week there was a big protest in downtown Raleigh by North Carolina public school teachers, and I got to see them from our offices as they marched up Fayetteville Street towards the legislature.  I read later that there were over 20,000. The march had a festive air, but of course, they’ve got some serious issues.

As a product myself of N.C. public schools, I’m forever grateful to several teachers who took a particular interest in me and helped me along the way.  It’s been painful, and also puzzling, to see teachers caught in the crossfire as our legislature here has significantly cut funding for our public schools.  See some of the background here and here.  

Teachers here and also in other states have been doing poorly in terms of pay and working conditions.  A lot of them who started with an ideal of public service leave the profession in frustration, and potential teachers choose better paid and respected professions.  It’s a vicious cycle that’s been worsening our schools. What is going on?

I’ve long assumed that Republicans and Democrats, and others, by and large agree  on the fundamental importance of public education and the moral imperative to provide a decent education to every child.  This seems foundational — a primary purpose of our democracy, and a primary force in sustaining a fair and prosperous society.  

It’s becoming clear, however, that that’s not as well settled as I thought.  The anti-public-education movement has no publicly declared objective. But there is a movement that has worked quietly for decades to undermine public schools.  It has manifested itself in various relatively benign-sounding programs– vouchers, charter schools, tax subsidies for private schools, promoting religious schools, promoting home-schooling — as well as school budget cuts at the federal, state, and local level.

One can come up with innocent-sounding explanations for some of these measures, but viewed in the context of U.S. history — that is, of hundreds of years of discrimination against blacks — there’s an unmistakable pattern.  A lot of it has to do with race. Our schools are being resegregated, with programs that encourage whites to leave the public schools and fewer and fewer resources for students left in the public schools.

Nationwide, public schools have become substantially more segregated in the last 20 years, and that pattern holds in North Carolina.     This has puzzled many, since segregation is illegal, and there have been many successful efforts at school desegregation.  We’ve largely quit using references to race in the context of education, which might have suggested we’d overcome the worst of our racial prejudices.

Recent scholarship and recent politics shows that stopping the conversation about race was premature.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, makes a convincing demonstration of official anti-black discrimination in housing policy.  Through most of the 20th century, not only was it legal to discriminate against black people, but there were laws that effectively required it. Mortgage lending to blacks and building integrated neighborhoods was effectively prohibited.  As part of this system, white people were encouraged by financial incentives and fear mongering to move out of racially mixed inner cities and into whites-only suburbs.

The civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties was successful in stopping this legalized discrimination, but it did not eliminate the conditions it created, including segregated neighborhoods and racist ideologies.  The emergence of the Alt Right and other unapologetic proponents of white supremacy demonstrates that racist views were not defeated, and are still salient for some people. The election of a President who expresses sympathy for “some very fine people” in the Neo-Nazi ranks suggests a fairly large iceberg of latent white supremacist aspirations and racial fears.

Something has happened in our schools that resembles what happened in our housing.  By defunding public schools, governmental policies have worsened the conditions of those schools and lowered the quality of the education provided.  Parents who want the best quality education for their children may try to support the public schools, but at a certain point most will decide that the education of their own children is for them the most important thing.  So they put their kids in private schools or charter schools. Increasingly, the kids who are left in public schools are those whose parents have no other options.

This dynamic has been mostly under the radar.  It’s hard to see from up close, and even from a distance it’s complicated, with multiple elements.  Those most affected are those with the least political power. Those most in favor of it, whether because of beliefs in white supremacy, fear and hatred of blacks, or designs to profit directly or indirectly from private schools, are canny enough to keep quiet about their true objectives.   

There are very interesting parallels between what is happening today and the immediate aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education Decision.  In 1956, North Carolina opposed desegregation with the Pearsall Plan, which allowed local districts to close schools that became integrated and provided for vouchers for white students to leave the public schools.    The Pearsall Plan was declared unconstitutional — but not until 1969.  Our current Republican-led anti-public-schools program looks like a slow motion version of the Pearsall Plan.  We may need to fight that same battle again, in much the way the victors of the Civil War had to fight another hundred years for basic civil rights.  

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and the Republican anti-public-schools programs have nothing to do with getting white kids separated from black kids and providing the worst services to the black kids. There’s an easy way to test that: ask your Republican representative what programs he or she favors to promote integrated schools, and what measures he or she is taking to improve program support and funding for majority black schools.  

I still think we’ve made progress toward racial equality, and I still believe we’ll eventually put white supremacy behind us.  And of course, the resegregationist project has not been completely successful — there are still good public school teachers and successful integrated schools.  But we need to stop this heartless, racist project and start moving in the right direction. Kudos for the public school teachers in N.C. and elsewhere who are marching.  More of us should be joining the parade.

Our new leaves, art, and white supremacy

 

In the last couple of weeks, the trees around Raleigh (“the city of oaks”) have leafed in, and the new leaves are really bright.  It’s a dazzling moment, and passes quickly. I took these pictures at Yates Mill Pond and Blue Jay Point.

I also got in some golfing with Gabe.  He’s been working hard on his game, and making amazing progress.  His tee shots are sailing high and long, and his short game is showing judgment and maturity.  He’s starting to look like a real golfer. It makes me want to play better, too!

Sally and I are so happy that he just started a promising new job got at Kalisher, which provides art and design services for hotels and restaurants (think Hiltons, Marriotts, Four Seasons, and Hyatts, as well as less established establishments) all around the world.  They have a lot of artists, and he’s the senior graphic designer.

Speaking of art, we bought a new Meural Canvas, which is basically a slim, high-resolution monitor with a matte and a simple wood frame.  Meural offers a huge library of old masters and contemporary art to go in it, which is easy to access with a tablet device, and easy to change, with a wave of the hand.  The images look really good, and it’s fun to sample new art.

Yates Mill Pond

We’ve been talking recently about the white supremacy art near us, including monuments on the Capitol grounds to “our Confederate dead.”  I had a closer look at them this week, and determined they were put up in 1895, 1912, and 1914 — one or two generations after the “War Between the States” (as it’s called on the largest monument).  These were probably not designed to help remember heroes, but to reinforce white supremacism and remind black people of their place.

 Last week I heard an interview on WUNC with Maya Little, a UNC grad student who protested Silent Sam, a Jim Crow statue at the University.    She poured some of her own blood and red paint on Sam, and is facing jail time for her protest.  That’s activist art. Maya Little’s got courage.

I learned this week about another subgenre of white supremacy art — picture postcards of lynchings.  On Fresh Air, the wonderful NPR show, Terry Gross interviewed James Allen about his book about the postcards, which were popular souvenirs.   I’d thought lynchings were relatively rare, and done relatively quickly and secretly, but that’s wrong.  In some cases they were advertised in advance in local newspapers, with hundreds or thousands of white people watching for hours as black victims got tortured, then killed, and their bodies were mutilated.  Local law enforcement did nothing to intervene. Starting after the Civil War, there were more than 4,000 documented lynchings. About 100 of those were in my beloved state of North Carolina.

It would be nice to think that we’ve put white supremacist violence behind us.  But we hear every week or so about another police shooting of an unarmed young black man.  Chris Rock, in his recent comedy special, manages to cause both a laugh and a stab of pain when he suggests that we could use some equality here, by having the police shoot more white teenagers.  

The NC Historical Commission recently had a public hearing on whether our Confederate memorial statues should be moved.  Most of the people who showed up and spoke were in favor of leaving them in place, which is disheartening.  With avowed white supremacists getting praise and encouragement from our highest government official, things may get worse before they get better.  Those of us who oppose racism and bigotry (still the majority, I think) have some work to do.

A wedding, glass, and unknown history

Paul after the wedding on the American Rover out of Norfolk

We went to Virginia Beach last weekend to celebrate my brother’s wedding and catch up with the Tiller clan.  The wedding was outside in a yard beside the intercoastal waterway, and it was a bit on the chilly side, but sunny.  My brother Paul played his banjo as his bride arrived, and the couple seemed very happy. Afterwards we moved inside for lunch, and caught up on family news.  

We Tillers have been fortunate in many ways, not least in that we still love each other, despite our differences in politics and religion. As my sister Jane observed, people these days are very polarized, and it’s gotten hard to communicate across tribal lines. But we still had plenty of common ground, and had some invigorating discussions.     

Sally and Jane at the Chrysler Museum

The next day we visited the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, and spent a couple of hours looking at their impressive glass collection, which we missed when we previously visited.  Much of the enjoyment for me was about history and craftsmanship, rather than individual artistic vision.  But there were some pieces that were definitely art, and were moving.  It made me look at our household glass differently, and consider it as part of a long tradition of craft and experimentation.

In iris at Raulston Arboretum

Speaking of art and history, this past week there was a significant opening:  the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Way too few Americans know much about the terrorism against black Americans in the first half of the twentieth century.  Thousands of black people were publicly tortured and killed, some in front of crowds of white people who viewed the violence as entertainment.

The new memorial to the victims of this horrendous violence sounds powerful in just the way the D.C. Vietnam memorial is powerful:  making the suffering concrete and undeniable in a beautiful and dignified way. There was a fine description of it in the Washington Post, including good photographs.    I’ve added it to my list of places to visit.

Just one more thing about our racism, and then I’ll stop.  This week the New Yorker has a fine and unsettling piece by Alex Ross called the Hitler Vortex.    I’d recently read most of the new biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, which was quite good, but Ross provided new perspectives on the conflicting schools of Hitler scholarship, and the social forces that brought Germany to acknowledge its enormous crime against the Jews.  

As Ross notes, Hitler greatly admired America’s genocide of native Americans and its elaborate system for repression of African Americans.  This should give us pause. Unlike the Germans, who have acknowledged and worked to atone for the crimes of the third reich, we Americans for the most part maintain our ignorance and innocence as to these enormous racial crimes.  Perhaps one day we’ll teach our school children what really happened, how it was horribly wrong, and how we need to be continually vigilant to prevent such evil from ever recurring.

In the meantime, we need to do what we can, and stay sane.  For a dose of beauty and clarity, I recommend a walk at Raulston Arboretum, where the irises and early roses are blooming.  I took these flower pictures this weekend.

A documentary marathon, and learning about American apartheid

 

Sally’s orchid

Last week we checked into the Marriott in downtown Durham for the Full Frame Film Festival.  We really like documentaries, but even so, sitting and watching films for four days is a test of mind and bottom.  We’d bought tickets for 15 films, and as we started I wondered if we might have bitten off more than we could chew.  

But we made it, and it felt like a quick trip around the world, which left us buzzing with new impressions.  Several of the movies we saw were about difficult subjects, like Syrian refugees, child trafficking in Ghana, Jihadist fighters, and disarming landmines in Iraq.  We got new perspectives on the 1967 civil disturbance in Detroit, the Supreme Court, American prisons, and the high-end art market. It was inspiring to see the accomplishments of so many talented filmmakers, and heartening to see a lot of people coming together to see their work.   

An iris yesterday at Raulston Arboretum

One of the films that particularly resonated for me was Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, by Giorgio Angelini.  Angelini skillfully wove together several narratives relating to housing discrimination against blacks in the US. Until recently, I’d thought of such discrimination as one of those unfortunate chapters in American history which we’d put behind us.  But I’ve been reading The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, which makes it clear that it’s a fundamental flaw in our system, and its effects are still very much with us.  

For much of the twentieth century, federal, state, and local governments actively promoted segregated housing.  There were several methods for this, including public housing programs that forbade mixing of races, federal housing loan programs that excluded blacks, and promotion of suburban development that excluded blacks.  These and other programs included official, explicit policies that intentionally discriminated based on race. They were augmented by state and local zoning and planning that isolated black neighborhoods and put industries and waste disposal operations near them. 

Angelini’s documentary and Rothstein’s book both explain how such policies led to much lower levels of homeownership for black Americans.  This has had a ripple effect, as whites were able to accumulate wealth as home equity at much higher rates than blacks. Over the decades, this has increased wealth inequality.  There was also a ripple effect on education levels and resulting job qualifications, as segregated neighborhoods were tied to segregated schools.

State discrimination based on race was made illegal by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1868, and civil rights legislation in the 1960s explicitly outlawed private housing discrimination.  But the American apartheid system developed in the first half of the 20th century is still pervasive. Our suburbs are mostly white, and racially mixed neighborhoods are unusual. This has come to seem so natural that we seldom even notice it, and it has hardly ever been a matter of public debate in recent decades.  

I’ve always assumed that racial segregation was more the product of ignorance rather than evil, though Angelini’s and Rothstein’s work may suggest a more disturbing explanation.  Politicians can build coalitions by exploiting fear. If white people are taught to view black people as threatening, they come to believe they need special systems for protection:  racist police, more prisons, and separate neighborhoods. They come to oppose funding for social safety net programs, since they include benefits for black people. They come to support defunding public education, to discourage participation by privileged light-skinned people and possible mixing with dark-skinned ones.

Once blacks and whites are well separated, the big lie that black people are fundamentally threatening to whites is easier to sustain, since white people have fewer close contacts with blacks that would disprove the lie.  That is, there’s a feedback loop that starts with racial fear and grows into a greater fear and more extreme policies. And so we come to our time, when police killings of unarmed black teenagers seems understandable and forgivable to some whites.

And the greater fear can be used by politicians.  Query whether this is part of the program of Trump and the alt right in characterizing inner cities as horrific war zones and people with darker skin color as menacing criminals who need to be walled off and locked up.  Could that be what the Trumpian base’s excitement for “building the wall” is really about? Whipping up a fear of black people and others so powerful that it overwhelms logic, decency, and even self-interest?  

Racial fears are very powerful, but the good news is that they can be countered.  Now that anti-black discrimination in housing and other areas is being exposed, we can understand it better.  We can see that racial fears are delusional and self-defeating. We can understand that bigotry is contrary to our highest values and aspirations.   And we can overcome it.  

The new engagement, wildflowers, and consciousness

 

At the Eno River, near the old pump house

Jocelyn and Kyle are engaged!  He popped the question on the Williamsburg Bridge, after they’d done a run together.  The wedding will be in New York in the fall of next year. Jocelyn quickly shifted into bride-to-be mode, and is considering many logistical and atmospheric issues. She checked to see if I minded if she and I did the second dance, rather than the first.  I did not see that as a problem. We started kicking around the question of what love songs the DJ would need to play.

A trout lily at Swift Creek Bluffs

It warmed up this weekend, and I got out in the woods to look for wildflowers.  You have to be attentive to find these little guys, and the effort puts me in a good mental place.  I got down on my knees in the forest mud,  using a 105mm lens on my Nikon D850 on a tripod, very low to the ground, with focus, aperture, and shutter speed set manually, and a cable release.  I usually take several shots of a subject, changing the settings for each one, experimenting. It’s a labor-intensive way to make an image, but the extra steps also leave room for looking carefully, and allows for the possibility of a subtle shift in the light that is golden.  These are very small flowers, substantially magnified.

Spring beauties

On the ride over to Eno River State Park on Saturday, I listened to an audiobook titled Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright.  I recently finished Wright’s The Moral Animal, a lively and at times unsettling take on evolutionary psychology, and was curious about how he could fit Buddhism into his framework.  Wright’s Buddhism is largely secularized (no extended discussions of reincarnation) and focused on mindfulness meditation, which is ground well-trodden by others, like Stephen Batchelor.

But Wright has some stimulating ideas about the nature of consciousness and its relation to the external world.  He posits a modular model of the mind in which conscious thought is a product rather than the producer. Conscious thought, in his view, serves various purposes, including public relations, but the primary drivers of activity are feelings.  He sees our emotions as evolutionary adaptations that we can understand and shape with the tools of meditation.

In other consciousness news, this week’s New Yorker has a lively piece by Larissa MacFarquhar’s on the philosopher Andy Clark.  Clark takes issue with the idea that the mind is simply the brain, and argues that it extends outside the body. A homey example is using a pad and pen to keep notes, which augments mental capacity.  He sees our relationships to objects and to each other as essential, rather than optional. Like Feldman, Clark has modeled human activity in terms of constant predictions based on probability estimates from our experience, rather than an orderly reaction and consideration of external phenomena.     

By Yates Mill Pond, and some quartets and symphonies

Yates Mill Pond, March 24, 2018

On Saturday, the forecast was for rain, but it was dry when I went out early to Yates Mill Pond, though chilly.  It seemed like winter left last month, and then came back. There were few other humans, but lots of birds, including honking Canada geese, trilling Carolina wrens, and a quiet pair of hooded merganser ducks.

On Saturday night, we went over to Durham for the sixth concert of the Duke Chamber Music series, where we heard the Jerusalem Quartet.  I’m aware that many people think of string quartet music as per se boring, which is too bad. At its best, a string quartet is an extraordinary being: a four-person virtuoso, an entity with the sensitivity of one and the knowledge of many.  And some of the greatest music in the western classical tradition is written for this ensemble.

The Jerusalem Quartet was amazing.  These four serious-looking young men were absolute masters of their instruments, and 100 percent committed. They took a questing, energized approach to the music, and convinced me that the Beethoven op. 95 should be considered a late, rather than a middle, quartet.  Their Debussy was a sonic marvel.

I wasn’t familiar with the Shostakovich second quartet, and liked it less than other Shostakovich quartets, but it was worth hearing. Composed near the end of WWII in Stalin’s Soviet Union, it raises the question of the role of music in a world of bloody war in a society led by a murderous psychopath.    The answer seemed to be — a tenuous, strained, painful beauty.

For the last few weeks we’ve been getting to know the seven symphonies of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).  These symphonies are essentially romantic, but full of moods and questions, restless and heroic. There are numerous excellent versions available for free or almost on Spotify.   Our favorites are number two and number five, but all seven have wonderful moments.