The Casual Blog

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 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 with 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 threat 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 the 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 a 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

Looking for eagles, My Brilliant Friend, patterning, and a brilliant string quartet

Red shouldered hawk (I think)

On Saturday and Sunday mornings I went up to Shelley Lake to see if I could spot and photograph the eagles.  I had no luck on Saturday, though I enjoyed walking around the lake and seeing other birds. On Sunday I located the eagles’ nest and got a brief view of one of them, but it flew before I could raise the camera.  I waited around for a while hoping it would return, and some other nature lovers stopped to share eagle news. A photographer named Don said that his buddy got a shot of the eagles mating a couple of weeks ago, which could result in eaglets in a month or so.  I didn’t see the eagle again, but I did get a close view of (I think) a red-shouldered hawk.

This week  I finally finished the fourth and last book of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.  Ferrante has a kind of passionate naturalness, and something that seems fundamentally true.  At the start, I had my doubts that I could get involved with a long story of working class Naples, Italian literati, crime families, and complicated female friendships, but I did.  I loved some big chunks of it, though by the end I was ready to move on.

I also read again a good portion of The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent’s subtitle is A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, and it’s hard to improve on that description.  At a high level, the book covers the entirety of our history as a species, and compares and contrasts major cultures and their modes of thought.  For anyone interested in why how human consciousness works, it is very thought-provoking. It’s also highly readable.

Lent breaks down the hierarchy that we in the West think of as natural, with rational thought given a privileged position, and all other modes of thinking and sensing viewed as far inferior.  He draws a connection between many of our belief systems and the way we generally view nature as separate from us, with it having no importance other than sustaining humans. This orientation has caused us to wreak enormous havoc on the natural world, and indirectly on ourselves. But it is certainly possible to change that perspective, and to view our relationship with nature more as an organic whole, regarding our human lives as vitally connected with those of non-human lives.  I’m working on that.

I also came across a lively, much shorter discussion of some of the inherent flaws in ordinary human thinking on  Vox.com:  Brian Resnick’s interview with David Dunning, co-discoverer of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which concerns people’s tendency to overestimate their own intelligence and abilities.  Dunning explains the broad applicability of the theory — we all are prone to such errors — and has a few suggestions as to how to address the problem. Thinking in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties, should help, and consciously seeking to hear the views of others.  He’s in favor of cultivating intellectual humility.

There’s a lovely new biographical essay in the last New Yorker magazine by Robert Caro.  I’ve been a Caro fan from his first book, and have read each volume so far of his biography of Lyndon Johnson.  In his essay, he writes about becoming a journalist who loves to dig through files and provoke people to honesty.  As part of his Johnson research, he lived for three years in the Texas Hill Country where the future president grew up.  That’s commitment!  At age 83, Caro is still working hard on the last volume of the Johnson biography and planning a memoir.  Let’s wish him a very long life, with much for him and us to look forward to.

We heard some excellent live music in the last week.  The N.C. Opera did a wonderful production of Carmen. The performance we attended last Sunday looked to be sold out, and the crowd was enthusiastic.   On Saturday evening at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium we heard the Schumann string quartet. This young group of three Schumann brothers from Germany and violist Liisa Randalu from Estonia,  was superb — technically flawless, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally powerful. Their account of Schubert’s great Death and the Maiden quartet was epic — a battle to the death, as first violinist Erik Schumann called it. Before playing a Mozart encore, he also told the audience that it was a privilege to play for us in Baldwin, which he said was acoustically the best hall they’d ever played in.  Nice to hear!

Snow geese and tundra swans, Roman history, and another wall problem

Tundra swans at Pungo Lake

Each winter thousands of migrating tundra swans and snow geese stop in eastern North Carolina for a while to collect themselves and eat what’s left in the farm fields.  For a human, all that bird life is a thrilling sight.

In addition to the thrill, I was hoping to capture some images of the birds in flight.  In preparation, I did some research on optimal settings and customized some of my camera buttons.  This process was involved and confusing, and I thought it possible I would end up with a hard-to-repair mess.  I also decided to try wielding my Sigma 150-500mm, a beastly large lens, free hand (no tripod).

Pungo Lake, where I saw most of snow geese and most of the tundra swans, is about 2.5 hours east of Raleigh.  For part of the time I traveled with other members of the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, including some friendly and very well-traveled shutterbugs.  I got to hear some of their stories and picked up some helpful tips.

I saw thousands of big white birds, as well as several species of ducks, waders, and one black bear.  We had good weather until Saturday afternoon, when the rain came in and the temperature started to drop.  I was happy with some of the shots I got before then.

On an ordinary day, I check the digital news headlines frequently, which  rarely puts me in a more relaxed, pleasurable state of mind. So it was good to unplug for the weekend and concentrate on the beauty of the natural world.  

I also spent some of the driving time learning about the classical world.  I finished listening to a series of lectures titled The Rise of Rome, by Gregory Aldrete, from the Great Courses series.  It traces the rise of Rome from a settlement to the Western world’s first superpower.

Aldrete is a good teacher and a good story teller, and mixes broad themes with interesting anecdotes.  The Romans were certainly great engineers and organizers, as well as fearsome warriors. In the late Roman Republic, the levels of corruption, extreme inequality, and political dysfunction were even worse than our own, which I found somewhat comforting.  Leaving aside the lives and civilizations destroyed by Rome, life went on.

Snow geese coming in for a landing near Pungo Lake

I’ve been trying to avoid spending too much time obsessing over the latest Trump conflagration, since it does little or no good.  But I have been keeping a sharp eye on the presidential approval poll numbers, hoping to see a change in the national mood, and possibly our direction.  Even though Trump has been generally unpopular almost since day 1, his Republican base has been mostly steadfast.

I know some sane, well-informed, thoughtful, kind and generous Republicans, and have found it hard to understand how people like them could support a President with none of those virtues.  Trump, it seemed, might have been right when he said that no matter how crazy or heinous his acts, his base would never abandon him. But in the latest polling, after his reckless government shut down and non-stop nonsense about the Wall, the polls indicate some of his loyalists may be rethinking their position.

Although Trump has a gift for bringing out the worst in people, at times he inadvertently brings out better things.  For example, his racist language encourages the no-holds-barred racists, but it also makes others think more and talk more about the hard-to-see realities of our longstanding, everyday privileging of whiteness.  His climate change denialism is getting harder for the base to swallow as they face more frequent droughts, floods, fires, hurricanes, and other storms.

Even the Wall discussion seems to have crossed a threshold.  For many, it seems to have gone from being primarily a fun slogan to yell at a Trump rally to looking like a nutty and wasteful boondoggle.  There’s an aspect of the Wall idea that hasn’t gotten much attention, which I was glad to see noted in the  news  recently: the harmful effects on non-human life. The 650 miles of wall already in existence is very bad for the hundreds of species of animals and plants that live in the vicinity. Many of these need to travel north and south for food, water, and mating.  We need to take their needs into account.

Chilly birds, a friendly fish in hot water, and a successful cell phone repair

Great blue heron at Shelley Lake

Saturday morning was overcast and chilly.  I put on some layers and warm gloves and went up to Shelley Lake to check on the birds and take some pictures.

Ring-billed gull

  There were a few dozen ring-billed gulls that mostly bobbed on the lake, but occasionally took to the air for some fast acrobatic flying.  Back home, when I looked at my pictures, I saw a pattern: when there were groups of gulls, they were usually chasing a gull that had some food.  That seems mean! A friendly passerby pointed out a couple of eagles sitting in a tree on the other side of the lake. I also enjoyed seeing the double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, and great blue herons.  The shots here were taken with big heavy lenses (Nikkor 80-400mm, and Sigma 150-500mm), and no tripod.

Chasing gulls

Why are some birds so beautiful?  This weekend I read a really good piece in the NY Times on this by Ferris Jabr:  How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.  Some birds, like peacocks, are extravagantly gorgeous, with colors and shapes that seem to make them easy targets for predators.   This seems to contradict some of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (“survival of the fittest”), and after 150 years scientists have still not agreed on an explanation.

But there’s modern support for the view that natural selection is supplemented by sexual selection (usually, females preferring males that look or sound better).   This implies that the animals have preferences that aren’t purely functional — that is, aesthetic preferences. Jabr’s piece gives a sense of the strong passions of the scientists involved. It’s well worth reading.

Double-crested cormorants

Speaking of animal intelligence, I want to make a note about a particular fish who captured my heart when we were scuba diving in the Bahamas.  As we prepared for a dive onto a ship wreck, our leader recommended we look around for a friendly grouper they called Binks, who she said liked to be petted.  Near the end of the dive, I looked over the top edge of the wreck and saw a little grouper (perhaps 18 inches) watching me. I extended my arm, and he came up and nuzzled my hand.  I petted him with gentle strokes, like a dog. Binks was such a sweet little fish!

I was startled at Washington Post’s report this week that recent studies have found oceans are warming significantly faster than had been thought.  Oceans cover 70 percent of the earth.  Warmer oceans mean rising sea levels, more severe weather disasters (hurricanes, cyclones, droughts, etc.). This is terrible for many living creatures, including humans, and fish, including Binks.

The Sierra Club magazine this month had an encouraging piece titled There Is No Planet B:  It’s Up to Us to Craft the Shape of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson.   Robinson acknowledges the possibility of mass extinction, but outlines the possibility that we can still reverse course.  He notes that need to rethink some of our traditional capitalist assumptions, which will not be easy. But those assumptions were created by humans, and they can be changed.  

Two bald eagles on the far side of the lake

Finally, I need to give a shout out to CPR — that is, Cell Phone Repair, a local business at Holly Park, off Wake Forest Road.  I discovered last week that I’d broken the camera in my Samsung Galaxy S7 device. The guys at CPR said they could get it fixed in 3 hours.  I asked if there was anything to be done about my weakening battery, and they said, sure, they could help me out with a new battery. They got it done in 2 hours, and everything worked great!  

 

Some yoga, being more present, nature photographers, Fiction Kitchen, the dances of Shen Yun

Sunrise in Raleigh this morning looking southeast

I was congested and sniffly for the first week of 2019, but still managed to get up early for some exercise every morning.  On Friday, I went to Flywheel for a spinning (stationary bike) class, and had a pretty good result: 317 points, and second place in the class.  After that I went down to O2 fitness and did some upper body resistance and core work, plus stretching.

I also made it to my first yoga class of the year.  I like the Early Bird classes at Blue Lotus, just across the street from us, which are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  Each class is different, but the system always combines flexibility, strength, and balance. I like moving as part of a group, and I like the teachers, Andrea and Glenda.  I don’t have much interest in New Age ideas, which fortunately they do not emphasize.   

Last Thursday Glenda was an excellent form, and gave a lot more than an ordinary exercise class.  She always has a great mixture of cheerfulness, supportiveness, and demandingness. But this time she helped me tune into to tiny details of sensation and investigate connections of distant parts of the body.  She encouraged us to move into the present moment in a way that made it seem both easy and marvelous.

This is my prime New Year’s resolution:  to be more present. I’m hoping to spend less energy in unproductive worrying and the like and more in the present moment.  On the Waking Up podcast last week, Sam Harris spoke about meditation and its benefits. Harris pointed up that most of us could improve the overall quality of our lives enormously just by cutting out useless mental loops of fear, anger, or craving.  Just dropping the pointless emotional junk would allow a lot more room for fulfillment.

I also resolved to get to some of the Carolina Nature Photographers meetings.  I joined the group a couple of years back, and have gone to some of their outings, but until this week I hadn’t been to  single one of their monthly meetings. Part of me always thought it would be great to talk shop with other nature photographers, and I decided to start this week.   

But part of me was resistant.  I generally dread meeting people I don’t know.  Based on my reading in evolutionary biology, I’d guess this dread  has ancient roots: our ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago living in small bands seldom encountered others of their species, and when they did it usually meant trouble, and possibly a violent death.  So they too probably avoided it when possible, and passed this strategy along to their successors. Anyhow, for whatever reason, I’ve got a mild phobia of strangers.

But I recognize it’s important to connect with others and so I usually manage to buck up and just do it.  Much more often than not, I enjoy a social chat once it gets started. At the meeting, not surprisingly, I found several nice people to chat with companionably about photography subjects, and enjoyed the presentation.  I thought some of the photography shown was really good, but not at all out of my league. I’d already resolved to take better pictures, and resolved this week to enter some of the contests.

I took the wildlife pictures here this weekend at Yates Mill Pond, Lake Lynn, and Shelley Lake.  I liked the reflections.  I was experimenting with some new settings in preparation for a trip with the Carolina Nature Photographers to Lake Mattamuskeet in a couple of weeks, where I expect to encounter thousands of water birds — snow geese, tundra swans, various ducks, and others.  

On Friday night we ate at one of our favorite restaurants, Fiction Kitchen.  We were happy to get a seat at the bar.  They’re popular and don’t take reservations, and we’ve been turned away more often than we’ve gotten in.  Fiction Kitchen is about delicious vegetarian and vegan food and a friendly artsy atmosphere. The core social vibe is distinctly lesbian, but all are welcome.  Sally had the veggie mock pork barbecue, and I had the mock sushi. Both were very tasty, and we had no room left for dessert.

Then we walked over to Memorial Auditorium to see Shen Yun, the Chinese dance troop.  They bill their art as part of an ancient Chinese tradition going back thousands of years, and contend that it is the root source of elements of western ballet and gymnastics.  Perhaps. What is certainly true is that they are very graceful and super athletic. The colorful flowing costumes are lovely, and the use of technology in the sets is creative.  There’s a degree of formality in the way the dancers present themselves, but that also is attractive.

Shen Yun’s beautiful dancers and lively stories emphasize the richness of Chinese culture, and at first I wondered if it was sponsored by the Chinese government.  But midway through the program, there were a couple of highly political segments that dramatize the brutality of Communist authoritarianism. The roots of Shen Yun seem to be in Falan Dafa, a/k/a Falan Gong, a movement involving meditation and qiqong exercises which continues to be persecuted by the CP.

Anyhow, we found the show stimulating and fun, and would go back again.  As I mentioned to Sally, the idea of China that was I got from American schooling turns out to have been a wild oversimplification.  The inhumanity of Chinese Communism is only one part of the picture. The China of real people turns out to be incredibly varied and interesting.  Without too much preaching, Shen Yun showed this.

Our scuba diving trip to the Bahamas

 

Sally and I got back on Saturday from a scuba diving trip aboard the Bahamas Aggressor.  After a week on the ship, our sea legs are still working — that is, the floor to our apartment has been rolling from side to side.  Our ears got a bit stopped up from a lot of time underwater, so we’re not hearing so well, and my poor toes have a couple of bad blisters from hours of kicking with fins. But it was wonderful to be at sea, seeing so many amazing creatures.  The pictures here were all taken by me during the trip, except the last one, which was by Brynne, one of our ship photographers.

The Bahamas Aggressor is a 100-foot vessel with a crew of 6 that sails out of Nassau.  The ship was, we learned, the oldest member of the Aggressor fleet.  It was a little cramped, but had all the necessities, and the various systems (water, electricity, AC, air compressor, etc.) worked fine.  Our only real disappointment was the hot tub, which looked inviting, but was unfortunately broken.    

Our dive sites were southeast of Nassau, in the Exuma and Eleuthera areas.  We had some spectacular sunsets, but it was mostly gray, and cooler and windier than expected.  The seas got a bit rough at times, and I was glad I took motion sickness pills. The water was generally around 79 degrees F, and I felt comfortable in a 5 mm wetsuit with a hooded vest.  The visibility was usually around 60 feet, though substantially less than that on a couple of dives.

We generally did four or five dives per day, including a night dive.  Most dives were a little under an hour. The dive sites were mostly either walls or coral reef structures, with a couple of wrecks thrown in.  We saw a lot of interesting sea life, large and small. To name a few, there were Caribbean reef sharks, southern sting rays, groupers, barricuda, jacks, Atlantic spadefish, filefish, queen triggerfish, porcupine fish, grunts, striped burrfish, and various types of parrotfish, along with various angelfish (gray, queen, French), butterflyfish, and lots of other small tropicals.  There were, unfortunately, a lot of destructive lionfish. We also saw several green sea turtles, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and conchs, and various tinier creatures. A few people saw a solitary hammerhead shark, but we missed that one. There was also one octopus sighting, but sadly, we didn’t get that one either.

There was beautiful coral in places, but a number of the dive sites did not look healthy.  There was some serious coral bleaching, and also a lot of green algae. We’d been well aware that coral reefs have been dying in many places, but had hoped they would be healthier here.  Over all, I found the conditions worrisome.

But we found many beautiful inspiring areas of life.  The crew, led by Captain Christy, was young, cheery, and supportive, and our eight fellow passengers were good diving and dining companions.  Five were of Chinese or Singaporean origin, and we very much enjoyed getting to know them and something of their culture. Caleb the cook fed his two vegetarians (us) well, and made particularly wonderful desserts.

On some dives we stayed close to the guide, but on most we explored on our own.  We had one major navigation snafu. After miscalculating the direction, we found ourselves almost out of air and surfaced a couple of hundred yards from the boat, and so had to be picked up by the Zodiac pontoon boat.  Also, on our very last dive, the plan was for a drift dive in strong current, with divers jumping in quickly one after the other off the side from the moving boat. I was the last in the line, and when my turn came, in I went.

Once in the water, I found the visibility very limited (perhaps 10 feet), and I could not see anyone.  I assumed the group must be a short way ahead, just beyond visual range, and so I let myself be carried along quickly by the current. It was fun to drift, but after a few minutes, I started to get worried.  I finally decided to call it and surfaced after 15 minutes.   Rob, the mate manning the Zodiac, quickly spotted me and picked me up, and back we went to the boat. It turned out that everyone else had surfaced 3 or 4 minutes after the start of the dive, and they were getting worried about me. As happens at times, I had marched to a different drummer.  It was good to be back.

Between diving, eating, and sleeping, there wasn’t a lot of time for other activity, but I did finish an interesting book, The Social Leap, by William von Hippel.  It’s a science-for-non-scientists account of how evolution shaped homo sapiens and their social systems. Von Hippel explores differences between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, and brings into focus simultaneous opposing strong forces of cooperation and competition.  I wish he’d  been clearer about what was well-established science (which much of it was) as opposed to creative speculation, but he throws out a lot of intriguing ideas. He suggests looking at fear and unhappiness as essential to our species, in that they keep us alert to danger and lead to progress.  He views our inability to live in the present as both a gift and a problem, and notes the usefulness of meditation.

On Saturday, we had a direct flight from Nassau to Charlotte, and then drove home to Raleigh.  We talked a lot about the week, and started to kick around where to go for our next big diving trip.  Maybe the Red Sea. We also enjoyed listening to a new-to-us podcast called Aria Code.   Hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, each episode has a panel discussing a famous opera aria from musical, historical, and psychological points of view.  We especially liked the episode on love at first sight in Puccini’s La Boheme.