The Casual Blog

Category: ballet

Our documentary film marathon

Waiting in line for a screening in the Carolina Theater

Last week we spent four days in Durham at the Full Frame Film Festival, where we  saw a lot of documentaries.  We spent some quality time getting to know black working class families, surfers, Syrian refugees, pig farmers,  ballet dancers, Guatemalan revolutionaries, emergency room doctors, and others.  It was mind-expanding!    

Documentary filmmaking seems to be thriving as an art form.  This was Full Frame’s 20th anniversary, and all of its ticket packages sold out in advance, with large and appreciative audiences for everything we saw.  The Festival selection committee considered 1750 films, and ultimately showed about 100.  At many screenings, the directors showed up and answered questions, and added to our understanding of the films.

We stayed at the downtown Marriott, which is connected to the Festival screening rooms in the Durham Convention Center and the Carolina Theater.  The hotel staff folks were remarkably friendly, and they had a good breakfast buffet.  We got our lunches from the fine Greek folks who set up a tent on site (the eggplant stew and baklava were outstanding), and for dinners found nice places (Indian, tapas) to eat close by.   We saw 16 films, and liked almost all of them.  Here are quick notes on some favorites.

Whose Streets?  This was a street level view of protests in Ferguson, Mo. after the death of Michael Brown, including rioting and police brutality.  You could feel the anger and better understand the frustration of the black community there.

Zaatari Djinn.  A film about the daily lives of Syrian refugee children in a camp in Jordan.  It sounds depressing, but in fact it was quietly beautiful, humorous,  and touching.

Filmmakers and the Rainey family, subjects of Quest, answering questions after the film

500 Years.  An account of what just happened in Guatemala:  a revolution led by indigenous Mayan people who ousted the corrupt president.  It covered a lot of ground — 500 years of oppression of the Mayans, including genocide.  It was inspiring to see the young leaders and protesters.

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton.  I didn’t know anything about big wave surfing or the most famous big wave surfer in the world, but I sure do now.  Amazing, exhilarating footage of the biggest waves and biggest rides you’ve ever seen, and a portrait of a flawed but remarkable person.

The Last Pig.  Bob Comis, who devoted years of his life to making the most humane imaginable pig farm, comes to the view that he can no longer make peace with the killing.  As he says, and you can see, the pigs are sentient beings — lively and curious.  Comis ultimately can’t see how we can decide not to eat our dogs, and still eat our pigs.  

Quest.  A working class black family in North Philadelphia, with a music studio, a strong community, and random violence.  We get a view of both the stresses and the richness of their lives, with some sweet and intimate moments, like braiding hair.  It took about 10 years to make this film, and it was worth it.  

Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer.  This features Marcelo Gomes, a dancer with American Ballet Theater in New York for the last 20 years.  Now a senior in dance terms, he still looks great and dances wonderfully, and seems like a nice person to boot.

Tell Them We Are Rising:  the Story of Black Colleges and Universities. Starting with the slavery era, we learn about how blacks were educated (or not) in America.  For much of the 20th century, historically black colleges were an oasis in a segregated world.  An important part of the film is about the civil rights struggle and the leadership role played by students.  

Dance photos, octopus minds, and engineering Islamophobia

Dress rehearsal for Petit Ballet Romantique

Dress rehearsal for Petit Ballet Romantique

I took a photography lesson this week from Ted Salamone at a dress rehearsal of the Carolina Ballet.  The lighting conditions were challenging, and at first I felt well out of my depth.  It took some pressurized experimenting with ISO and shutter speed to get anything to work.   Ted gave me some great tips, and the dancers were beautiful and inspiring.    

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I just finished reading Other Minds:  the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  Godfrey-Smith is a diver as well as a philosopher who has spent a lot of time watching cephalopods.  As he notes, octopuses are aliens to us, about as far removed in evolutionary terms as possible.  

Yet  they have abilities and behaviors that merit the word intelligence.  Their shape-shifting and camouflaging abilities are astonishing, of course, but they also solve problems and exhibit curiosity and affection.  Godfrey-Smith connects them, and us, to the great journey of evolution, and to a better understanding of the nature of consciousness.  There’s a good review here.  l  

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Trying to understand non-human intelligence eventually leads to the question, how well do we understand ourselves?  The question came into focus in a new way for me this week, when I read of polls indicating that a more Americans favored Trump’s new anti-Muslim measures than opposed them.  I like to think of my neighbors and fellow citizens as mostly kind, compassionate, and tolerant, and mostly willing to help others in need.  I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around the possible alternative.  

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When Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” I think he meant that fear was a powerful force that could undermine us, but also that it could be overcome.  The new President has a different message:  the world is very scary and we need to be more fearful.

And that message seems to be having an effect.  Of course, humans have always been wary of those who are different.  But other forces usually counterbalance those feelings, like curiosity, generosity, and love.  We seem to be losing our balance.

Dress rehearsal for The Little Mermaid

Dress rehearsal for The Little Mermaid

Is Trump’s demonization of Muslims a deliberate strategy?  At first it just seems arbitrary and bizarre.  But Amanda Taub wrote a worthwhile piece in the NY Times this week that suggested a possible method in the madness.   

Taub points up that authoritarian politicians often exploit fears by targeting a politically powerless minority and creating an us-versus-them mentality.  By creating artificial enemies and claiming to be protecting against them, they may increase their popularity and power.  Unless such leaders are checked, they tend to expand the list of targets and dial up the level of violence.  

Of course, we have a governmental system with certain institutional checks and balances.  Are they strong enough?  We’ll find out.

Dress rehearsal for The Little Mermaid

Dress rehearsal for The Little Mermaid

 

Missing dragonflies, and welcoming motorcycles, new ballets, and Wagner

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I didn’t have any luck finding dragonflies this weekend. I tried Lake Benson, Lake Wheeler, and Yates Mill Pond, but it looks like we’ve about come to the end of another dragonfly season. I did see some butterflies and wildflowers, though, and enjoyed walking beside the calm and calming lakes. It was quiet, except for periodic thunderous roars from passing motorcycle groups.
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It was the 12th annual Capital City Bikefest in Raleigh this weekend, and on Saturday evening we walked downtown to have a look at the hundreds of bikes parked on Fayetteville Street. The bikes were mostly enormous Harleys, but with endless gleaming customizations, objects of pride and passion. Lacking tattoos and denim, we may have stood out a bit, but we didn’t notice any negative energy directed our way.
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We ate at Living Kitchen, the new vegan restaurant, where the clientele did not include any obvious biker types. I had the lunasagna, which was cool and tangy, and Sally enjoyed the living burrito, a collard green wrap. Our server, Rebecca, was friendly and efficient.
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Afterwards, we strolled over to Fletcher Hall for the first Carolina Ballet program of the season. Zalman Raffael’s new work, La Mer was a “non-linear” story ballet involving family dynamics and natural forces. We liked it a lot. I was particularly taken with Amanda Babayan’s character, the daughter with the troubles of adolescence.
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Robert Weiss’s first new piece was titled Stravinsky Pas de Deux, with highly dissonant music and angular gestures, danced with wonderful electricity by newcomers Lily Wills and Miles Sollars-White. Weiss’s The Double featured Alicia Fabry and Lindsay Purrington in startlingly close, tense unison. The final work was Weiss’s new Beethoven Piano Concerto # 5, which was very joyous and musical, with great leaps, spins, and lifts. I especially enjoyed Ashley Hathaway’s graceful solo in the second movement, and Alyssa Pilger imperial command in the finale.

Finally, I need to give a shout out to the N.C. Opera for its outstanding production last weekend of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. This little company somehow assembled a cast of world-class Wagnerians for two performances of this complex and thrilling work. Conductor Timothy Myers was masterful, and the singing was superb. Todd Thomas as Alberich managed to touch some unsettling psychological depths as he drove to his famous curse. I got goose bumps.
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Beauty, violence, and delusions: a Macbeth ballet, a Vietnam history, and a Kenya drone strike movie

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It was raining lightly on Saturday morning when I got to Raulston Arboretum, and there were quite a few new irises and roses. I enjoyed the colors, textures, and strange architecture, as accented by the raindrops. I had to work fast, because I’d scheduled a spin class for 9:30. But I had 25 minutes of strolling, peering, sniffing, and clicking, and made it to Flywheel in good time for the spin class with the cheery, peppy, hard-driving Vashti.

I’d felt a little discouraged after my spin class last week, when I was aiming for 300 points and managed only 281. I decided on a slightly different approach this week, involving more conscious pacing and allowing for short recovery periods. My results were better, with a final score of 307, and an average heart rate for the 45 minutes of 154, tying the record.

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That evening we went over to Durham for some food and ballet. We ate at Watts Grocery, where I had a delicious asparagus salad and couscous with beets. At DPAC we saw the new Carolina Ballet production of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s play is a bloody one, dense with painful emotion. This new ballet by Robert Weiss is also violent and anguished, but with interludes of light – friendship, play, and love. It succeeds as storytelling and as dance, with many subtleties and flourishes. Unfortunately, the music was not very interesting and highly repetitious. But I really liked the dancing, the craggy set, and the costumes.
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Speaking of bloody intervals, last week I finished reading a history of U.S. misconduct in Vietnam by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves. It is a difficult and almost unbearable story. The catalog of American atrocities is long – wanton murder of civilians, widespread rape, torture, and mutilation, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed on a wholesale basis by massive bombing and artillery. Hardly any of those who engineered the policies behind this carnage or those who carried it out were held accountable.

This history has been substantially suppressed, ignored, and forgotten. The human capacity for sustaining ignorance and self-delusion is a remarkable thing. In general, we are amazingly adept at suppressing new information that’s inconsistent with our prior beliefs, at justifying bad conduct when it fits with our preferences and self-interest, and at repressing memories that don’t fit into our preferred narratives. For Americans, coming to grips with any story of American action where we aren’t heroes is extremely difficult.
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But doing so is important work. Understanding the conditions that give rise to cruelty can help us prevent it. Therefore, with some hesitation, I recommend Turse’s book, with the caveat that it should be read only by mature readers not currently considering suicide or other violence and that, when reading, they take frequent breaks from these dark chapters to get hugs and kisses from their loved ones. One of my takeaways was that it’s usually or never a good idea to invade distant countries where we are ignorant and contemptuous of the people and culture.
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We saw Eye in the Sky last week at the Raleigh Grande. It was our first visit to the recently upgraded theater, and we liked the soft reclining seats. The movie is about setting up a drone strike by combined British and American military leaders and technicians in Kenyan on Al-Shabab terrorists. The primary tension in the movie is whether they should fire a powerful hellfire missile when it looks like it will kill a sweet little girl.

I thought it was well-played, and it was interesting to see what may well be close to state-of-the-art spying and killing technology. It was nice, in a way, to think that some military leaders might find it hard to decide whether to kill one little girl when they had a chance to execute several terrorists. The big question I left with, though, was never addressed in the movie: why would the U.S. and Britain be devoting themselves to fighting enemies of Kenya?
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Duke blossoms, rising ballerinas, AlphaGo’s victory, and the Age of Artificial Intelligence

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On Saturday morning it was overcast and threatening to rain when I drove over to Durham to see what was blooming at Duke Gardens. Did you know it’s one of the top 10 public gardens in the U.S.? It is certainly a treasure. There were new cherry blossoms, tulips, and many other delights. I shot 234 closeup images with my Nikkor 105 MM macro lens before it began to drizzle. I got a few that revealed aspects I’d never looked at as closely before, and expressed some of my own joy of the season. The images here are all from Duke, except for the daffodils, which I took late Friday afternoon at Fletcher Park.
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That evening we saw the Carolina Ballet with new works by Zalman Raffael and Robert Weiss. Raffael’s new piece was set to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. As it launched, I worried a little that 24 variations to this familiar music could easily bog down, but far from it: this was a lively, kinetic work that developed organically with continual surprises. Working in the Balanchine tradition, like Weiss, Raffael makes ballets that are abstract but intensely expressive. He’s so accomplished and assured already, and so young!

In the performance we saw, some of the younger company members who normally are in the background stepped into the spotlight, and performed beautifully. I very much enjoyed the subtle elegance of Courtney Schenberger and Rammaru Shindo in Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. Ashley Hathaway, with Adam Crawford Chavis, was really sensual and powerful in the adagio Meditation from Thais. Amanda Babayan was a lovely Miranda in Weiss’s Tempest Fantasy. So much talent, developing quickly, like those blossoms. It’s a privilege to receive their art.
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Speaking of surprising progress, this week AlphaGo finished its five game Go match with a popular Korean grandmaster in Seoul, in which it prevailed 4-1. It was a significant moment in the advance of artificial intelligence. I learned the rudiments of Go a few years back. It seems so simple at the very beginning, as you take turns laying single stones, black or while. But it is massively more complex than chess. There are more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

Anyhow, I tweeted congratulations to the Google team, though with mixed feelings. The Age of AI is on its way, and the prospects are both good and bad. Computers are mastering tasks that we thought impossible for them a few years ago, like driving, reading MRIs, and reviewing legal documents. In the new Age of AI, there will be safer cars, more reliable medical care, and cheaper legal services. On the down side, a lot of jobs are going to disappear forever. We’re going to need to figure out what to do about having a lot of redundant humans. We’ll probably need to come up with a system with a guaranteed minimum wage, which seems impossible at present from a political perspective.
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But maybe the AI on the way can help with some of our political and mental problems. I’m thinking particularly of our magical thinking – areas where our biases and received ideas prevent us from seeing what’s right in front of us. The drug war is an example. After several decades of being taught that particular plants and chemicals are inherently evil and threatening, and that we need to fight those drugs, we have trouble conceiving of any alternative. It makes no difference that the drug war never moves any closer to victory, and that the human collateral damage is enormous. The facts that do not fit with our long held beliefs are suppressed or ignored.

Climate change denialism is another example of magical thinking. Another one: the Republican mainstream belief that cutting taxes will lead to increased growth, higher tax revenues, and balanced budgets. The New Yorker had a good essay by James Surowiecki this week explaining that decades of evidence now show that, as you might initially expect, cutting taxes leads to lower tax revenue. But current Republican leaders and followers, like those before them, devoutly and streadfastly deny the obvious.
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The WSJ had a must-read essay this week by David Gelernter on AI. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, argues that the intelligence of our machines will inevitably surpass our own, and we cannot reliably predict what will happen after that. Thinks of machines with IQs of 500, or 5000. They could be dangerous, perhaps viewing us as we view houseplants. Gelernter suggests that in experimenting we exercise the kind of caution we use with biological weapons.

But hey, assuming that the machines do not decide to enslave or kill us, they could really be helpful. They would almost surely see more possible moves in addressing difficult problems, like global warming. Perhaps it would be so obvious that they’re reliable authorities that we would give up on magical thinking. Then again, such thinking is almost perfectly hermetic and impervious.
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Izzie the cat, questionable executions, and ballet love

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Izzie the cat took her last trip to the vet this week. After almost 14 years together, we were sad. Our pets enrich our lives and make us better, more loving humans, even the ones with mercurial moods like Izzie. One minute, she would be seeking affection, angelically purring, and hissing like a little demon the next. Of course, we probably seemed strange to her.

From time to time I tried to get her to do some modeling for me and my camera, but she never cared much for that. I cannot say that any of my photos quite got her essence. White with black splotches and wings, she was a strange, pretty thing. It will be a slightly different world without her.

Deciding to put down a beloved pet is a hard decision. We considered for a while the evidence of Izzie’s diminishing capacities and increasing behavioral problems, and balanced as best we could the pros and the cons. In the end, we decided it was a good time for her death. But there remains a little nagging discomfort, along with sadness. To actively take on the choice of life or death is unsettling, which it should be.
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This week U.S. fighter planes reportedly blew up several dozen people in a Libyan terrorist training camp. The target was a single Tunisian individual I’d never heard of, Noureddine Chouchane, based on his participation in terrorist attacks in Tunisia. I found this disturbing. Assuming Noureddine Chouchane was a thoroughly evil person who committed heinous acts (we couldn’t possibly get that wrong, could we?), should we be the judges and executioners for all terrorist acts, no matter how far removed from the U.S.? And even if we can justify that, how to justify taking the lives of dozens of other people who, so far as we know, committed no crimes? Do we really think it’s OK to kill all potential terrorists (who are, after all, also potential future non-terrorists)?

The Times had a story this week headlined (in the print edition) “Scars Left by American Bombs Resist Fading, 25 Years Later.” The particular scar in issue was damage from our bombing of civilians in 1991 at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. We dropped an especially powerful bunker busting bomb on a shelter in a middle class Baghdad neighborhood and killed 408 people, most of whom were burned alive.

I can see how ordinary Iraqis could find this a moral outrage. Wouldn’t anyone? Yet I had never heard of the incident before, and after digging through 25 years of Times coverage on Iraq, couldn’t find an earlier story about it. It makes you wonder whether there are some other military atrocities that even faithful Times readers have not heard about.
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The Atlantic has a good piece by Peter Beinart titled “Why Attacking ISIS Won’t Make America Safer.” Beinart notes that most Americans favor attacking ISIS, but argues that history shows that our military actions in the Middle East have resulted in inceased, not decreased, terrorist attacks. He calls it “the terror trap”: the more terrorists we kill, the more terrorists there are trying to kill us. Beinart doesn’t say this, but I will: the military solution will not work.

On a lighter note: Saturday night we went to the new Carolina Ballet show, Love Speaks. It was delightful! The theme of romantic love never gets old, and it’s right in the sweet spot of this wonderfully talented company. Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s new work has a narrator providing some poetry of Shakespeare, and a sort of Elizabethan look, but also kind of jazzy, with quickly developing flirtations, fascinations, and jealousies. I really liked it. I also particularly enjoyed Jan Burkhard and Richard Krusch in the balcony scene of Weiss’s Romeo and Juliet. It was profoundly romantic.
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Delicious pears and a magnificent Sugar Plum

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One of my favorite things in the holiday season is Harry and David’s Royal Riviera Pears. Every year, we get a box from Sally’s dear godmother (whom I’ve never met), and every year they are incredibly sweet and dripping with deliciousness. So it was this week. You may have seen the Harry and David’s ads and wondered whether a mere fruit could ever be an appropriate holiday gift. Well, my view is yes. They are amazing: the fruit of the gods!

The Nutcracker ballet is another great seasonal treat. It endures because there are a lot of things to like: a great Tchaikovsky score, a story with recognizable characters, a bit of naughtiness, and a lot of sweetness. The Carolina Ballet production has gorgeous costumes and sets. There are a lot of children in the production, who seemed particularly young and touching this year. But the main reason I go to see it is for the wonderful dancers in solos, small ensembles, and choruses.
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Saturday evening Alyssa Pilger, our pointe shoe sponsoree and friend, made her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy on Saturday. As a dancer, Alyssa has a natural elegance about her. She seems at first delicate, but then there is also a quality that’s almost fierce. Her moments of stillness don’t seem like rests or pauses, but rather radiate energy. She has a musician’s musicality, which goes beyond just staying with the basic rhythmic framework, to understanding it deeply and realizing when and how it can be creatively opposed.

Sugar Plum is a big role. It makes little girls want to be ballerinas, while transporting the big boys and girls to transcendent place. Alyssa rose to the occasion. Her technique was impeccable, as fluent in adagio as in allegro. And there was that extra something, that expressive spark. I got goosebumps, and, I admit it, tears from both eyes. It was so beautiful!

It was, for me, Alyssa’s night, but I need to mention that Adam Crawford Chavis as her partner, the Cavalier, was also wonderful. He’s big and handsome, and amazingly poised and strong. Their pas de deux was intensely romantic. The crowd gave them long and loud hurrahs.
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Re the pictures, this weekend I continued, and concluded for the year, my project of visiting and photographing local parks I didn’t already know well. I went up to Falls Lake on Saturday morning to Blue Jay Point, and then again on Sunday to Rolling View. It was clear and bright and cold both days, and there were almost no people. I also spent some time experimenting with my new Nikon SB910 speedlight in making the portrait here of a Harry and David’s pear sitting on my piano. Afterwards, I ate that pear, which was delicious.

The Casual Blog will be on a holiday break for the last couple of weekends, while we’re traveling. I’m hoping to have some pictures of pretty tropical fish when we return. For my dear readers who celebrate Christmas, I wish you a merry one.
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More leaves, Beethoven ballet, and fear of refugees

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Last week Jocelyn took over her cell phone account, thereby cutting the last part of the financial cord from home. Oh happy day! The timing was good, in that she’d recently gotten a promotion and a substantial salary increase. She asked me for my Verizon password to do the changeover, and I told her I didn’t believe I had one. But she found out that I did, and hacked into it after correctly answering my security question. I was both proud and a little unsettled.

On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park and took the trail around the lower lake. It was chilly, still, and very clear. I was looking for leaf colors and patterns, and particularly for some reds and oranges , of which there were only a few. I got close to another great blue heron, but unlike the one last week, this one flew off as soon as I came into sight.

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Saturday evening we had dinner with friends at Sono and then went to see the Carolina Ballet’s Beethoven Ninth program. The dancer we’ve been sponsoring, Alyssa Pilger, was recently promoted from the corps to soloist, and she had good solos in the Beethoven. There’s an ethereal quality to Alyssa’s dancing – light and evanescent – but at the same time commanding and incisive. The Beethoven was powerful, and she delivered, brilliantly.
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The famous choral Ode to Joy at the end of the Beethoven is always inspiring, and the message of the universal brotherhood seemed particularly timely this week, when a lot of U.S. politicians responded to the Syrian refugee crisis by seeking to keep them out. This is disgraceful. I thought the New York Times editorial on Saturday put the problem well:

After the attacks in Paris, the world is again challenged by fear. With every bombing, beheading and mass shooting, the dread spreads, along with the urgency of defeating this nihilism.
But no less a challenge for the civilized world is the danger of self-inflicted injury. In the reaction and overreaction to terrorism comes the risk that society will lose its way.
History is replete with examples of the power of fear and ignorance, to which even the great can fall prey. Franklin Roosevelt calmed a nation in bleakest days of the Depression, but he also signed the executive order imprisoning tens of thousands of American citizens for the crime of Japanese ancestry.
In our time, disastrous things have been done in the name of safety: the invasion of Iraq, spawned by delusion and lies; the creation of an offshore fortress, sequestered from the Constitution, to lock up those perceived as threats, no matter the cost and injustice; an ever-expanding surveillance apparatus, to spy on the people, no matter the futility.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State did not compel us to shackle ourselves to a security state, or to disgrace our values by vilifying and fearing. refugees and immigrants.

Along this same line, Nicolas Kristof had a good column in today’s Times. Kristof calculates that the risk of a refugee turning out to be a terrorist attacker is about 100 times smaller than that the a given resident of Florida will turn out to be a murderer in a ten-year period. He notes, “When we’re fearful we make bad decisions. That was true around World War II, when we denied refuge to European Jews and interned Japanese-Americans. That was true after 9/11, when we invaded Iraq and engaged in torture.”
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Bees, batching it, basic incomes, Confucius, and a brand new ballet

At Raulston Arboretum

At Raulston Arboretum

Sally’s tennis team made it to the state finals, which was in Greensboro this week. Of course we were proud of her, but also concerned, since this meant leaving Gabe and me, and the three cats and two dogs, to fend for ourselves for a few days. Sally is our goddess, but also our our binding agent, and general civilizing force. There was a risk we’d have a quick return to the state of nature and a Lord of the Flies situation.

In the end, the cats threw up less than normal, the dogs sustained bladder control, and we kept things reasonably tidy and companionable. A couple of evenings, Gabe and I did parallel play, each in the living room with our MacBooks, working on Adobe programs. While I’ve been trying to learn Lightroom, he’s been delving into Illustrator as part of his exploring becoming a graphic designer. I’ve always thought he was talented in this direction, and so this doesn’t seem unrealistic, though I worry that creative careers are for most people underpaid ones.
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Speaking of careers, I read more this week about the quick rise of artificial intelligence that will likely render redundant large chunks of the world’s workers. I started Martin Ford’s new book, Rise of the Robots, Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, which talks about the latest advances in AI and robotics, along with unemployment problems. He’s an advocate of the guaranteed basic income to address the problem of increasing structural unemployment. There’s a piece in the Atlantic about the basic income movement — paying everyone enough for the necessities, so they can continue to buy goods and services. This could stave off economic collapse, which would be a good thing.

Of course, the idea of a bigger safety net seems wildly unrealistic in these days of so-called conservative political ascendancy. But this week there were reminders that good ideas that seemed impossible a short while ago can suddenly become the new normal. Nebraska legislators ended the death penalty in that very red state! Kansas legislators who championed tax cutting are talking about raising taxes to pay for basic services. Not so long ago, it seemed impossible that the United States would ever legalize marijuana or gay marriage, and now those things seem more probable than not. And despite continuing fear mongering, it looks like the Patriot Act is going to expire tonight. A guaranteed basic income could become as American as Social Security.
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I realize I’m jumping around a bit, but this is related in a way (political ideas/notions of human meaning and purpose): there was a thought-provoking book excerpt by Henry Rosemont, Jr. in the Huffington Post contrasting the libertarian strain of western political thought with Confucianism. About all I thought I knew about Confucianism was that it involved something about ancestor worship, but Rosemont presents some profound and useful ideas about social relations, morality, and the role of the individual.

He writes,

By emphasizing not our individuality but our sociality, the Confucians simultaneously emphasize our relationality: an abstract individual I am not, but rather a particular son, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, student, colleague, neighbor, friend, and more. In all of these roles I am defined in large measure by the other(s) with whom I interact, highly specific personages related to me in one way or another; they are not abstract autonomous individuals either. Moreover, we do not “play” these roles, as we tend to speak of them, but rather live our roles, and when all of them have been specified, and their interrelationships made manifest, then we have, for Confucius, been thoroughly individuated, but with nothing left over with which to piece together an autonomous individual self. Being thus the aggregate sum of the roles I live, it must follow that as I grow older my roles will change, and consequently I become quite literally a different person.

Rosemont goes on to explain that the quest for a single definition of one’s self is futile, because “we are basically constituted by the roles we live in the midst of others.” That is, the self is a dynamic construction made by individuals working in concert. As to meaning, he writes, “My life can only have meaning as I contribute to the meaningfulness of the lives of others, and they to me.” This does not seem radical to me, but it stands in stark contrast to the traditional western view of the individual as autonomous and self-directed. I’m considering getting Rosemont’s book and exploring this more.
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Sally got back from the tournament in Greensboro on Saturday in time for us to get to the Carolina Ballet studios for the first ever performance of a new ballet by Zalman Raffael. Sonata 17, set to Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 31, no. 2, was created with a grant from the New York Choreographic Institute, and involved four male and four female dancers, including our friend Alyssa Pilger. It was romantic in the sense that Beethoven is romantic, and had a boy-seeking-girl subplot, but at the same time was coolly modern. My main criticism was that the pas de deux second movement seemed overly minimal.

The third movement got off to a blazingly kinetic start, but then Rammaru Shindo fell and was unable to get up. The music stopped, and he was helped off the stage. The other dancers finished the piece, with blanks where Shindo would have been. It was a reminder of that the amazing athleticism of these dancers involves serious risks, and they can and do get hurt. There was a reception afterwards, where we had a glass of wine and chatted with Zali, Alyssa, Michael and Amy Tiemann, and other friends.

That evening we saw a very good documentary on Netflix called First Position about young dancers preparing for and participating in a large ballet competition. The dancers were amazingly talented! It was a pleasure to watch, and also showed the incredible discipline and drive of top dance students.

I took these pictures at Raulston Arboretum on May 29, 2015, at about 6:30 p.m. The season of pure new blossoms has passed, but there were bees hard at work. They work fast, with only a moment on a flower, but photographically frozen, they look like they love their flowers. I was also pleased to come upon a well-camouflaged little snake who was intently sensing the world with his tongue.
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Our Memorial Day weekend in New York — great ballet, art, and ethnic food

The New York Palace (that's our place on the 32nd floor) and St. Patrick's Cathedral

The New York Palace (that’s our place on the 32nd floor) and St. Patrick’s Cathedral

For Memorial Day weekend, we went up to New York City to see our sweet Jocelyn and get an infusion of arts and food. I’d bought tickets to both the NYC Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, and wanted to see the new Whitney Museum. We designated Jocelyn as the food concierge, and she booked us into some fun ethnic restaurants. After going back and forth, I decided not to lug along my big DSLR kit, and instead took my compact Canon G16, with the results shown here.

Sunset right after we checked in at the New York Palace

Sunset right after we checked in at the New York Palace

The flight up went smoothly (storage room remaining in the overhead bin, on time departure, seatmate not apparently infectious). I read a piece in the last New Yorker on Marc Andreessen, the famous Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist. It was a good primer on what VC is and does, and seemed like a fair portrait of Andreesen and his firm (Andreesen Horowitz). He is, of course, intelligent and richer than Croesus, but, it turns out, sort of inexpressive and unadventurous in his personal life. (His likes watching television.) And for all his successful bets on where technology is about to go, he seems in complete denial about the big economic changes technology is bringing, like rising inequality and unemployment. Cognitive dissonance, perhaps?

We stayed at the New York Palace on Madison and 50th. This hotel opened in 1981, when we lived in Manhattan, and was known as the Helmsley Palace, with ads that featured a then-famous dragon lady named Leona Helmsley touting its remarkable luxuriousness in a loathsome way. Now rebranded (thank goodness), it is quite a fine hotel, and from our room on the 32d floor we had good views of Manhattan towers and a sliver of the East River.
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We had dinner in Curry Hill, the little Indian restaurant neighborhood at 28th and Lexington, at Chote Nawab. It’s a lively place, and the food was good, but our server was amazingly inattentive. Even so, we had fun catching up.

It was remarkably clear on Saturday morning and a bit chilly when we went down to the meat packing district to the new Whitney, which is situated on Gansevoort right where the High Line starts. It took a minute to absorb that the line to get in was a block long, and we kicked ourselves for not buying tickets in advance. But the line moved quickly, and we were inside in about 20 minutes. The place was crowded, but with a little patience we managed to get close to the pieces that interested us.

Eva Hesse's last work before her death at 34

Eva Hesse’s last work before her death at 34

The current exhibition is called America is Hard to See, which is so true, and is a loosely chronological survey of some of the key examples of the Whitney’s permanent collection. It starts on the eighth floor (the top) with the beginning of the 20th century, and comes down and toward the present. The works were given a good amount of space, and where there were narrative labels, they were helpful.

At this point in my own art historical education, Abstract Expressionism from the 50s seems more like an old friend than a shocker. But I found myself moved and shaken by some of the political art of the 60s (some of the big issues of that time are still big issues). I also engaged with the minimalism and conceptualism from more recent decades. It struck me that this was art intended to be discussed, to expand out into a social dialog. It wasn’t about just looking — it was also about talking.

The Whitney's decks

The Whitney’s decks

In addition to the fine display spaces, the new museum has large outdoor decks. We lucked out, with beautiful weather, and after each floor, we stepped out in the sun clear our heads and enjoy the wonderful cityscape views.

Looking south from the Whitney at the new Freedom Tower

Looking south from the Whitney at the new Freedom Tower

We’d thought of visiting some galleries in the area after the museum, but after two and a half hours at the Whitney I was more than sufficiently stimulated, and a bit wrung out. Jocelyn met us outside the museum, and we walked up to the Flatiron District, where we had good lunch at a Korean place called Barn Joo.

Then Jocelyn gave us a tour of her offices in the Flatiron Building. This iconic triangular building at 23d and Broadway, completed in 1902, was one of the first skyscrapers in New York. J’s employer, Macmillan Publishers, is now the sole tenant. The offices were nothing fancy, but still fun to see. It reminded me of our offices at The New Yorker in the late 70s. There was a great view of the Empire State Building from the northern point of the building.

The Flatiron Building

The Flatiron Building

We poked around in Eataly, a giant gourmet grocery and restaurants space, which was very crowded and fully of delicious smells. Jocelyn promoted the cookies at a bakery a few doors down as the best in New York, so we bought three and ordered coffee. The barista for some reason had trouble with our order, and took ten minutes to produce various beverages we had not ordered. We consumed them at a table near Madison Square Park. My cookie was a good mix of smooth and crunchy, and I enjoyed it very much.

The Empire State Building, from the Flatiron Building

The Empire State Building, from the Flatiron Building

We had dinner at Boulud Sud, a Mediterranean Restaurant at 64th St. near Lincoln Center. The place was bustling. There were no veggie options on the menu, but they proposed a gnocchi dish that was good.

We finished dinner with enough time (barely) to get to our seats at the Metropolitan Opera House to see the American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle. I was interested in Giselle in part for its historical significance as one of the oldest ballets still in the common repertoire. It was first performed in Paris in 1841, with Carlotta Grisi as Giselle and Lucien Petipa as Albrecht. It must have been astonishing at the time to see the women rise and hover en pointe.

This production had Stella Abrera as Giselle and Vladimir Shklyarov as Albrecht. Abrera was not previously known to me, but I will not forget her. She was sublime. Her gestures seemed somehow to be magnified and extended, with a remarkable emotional intensity, without being overstated. Shklyarov was also excellent. In the second act, the ethereal Wilis were spookily graceful, and when they tried to dance Albrecht to death, Shklyarov was so fervid that it seemed on the verge of real danger. The ovation was tremendous by New York standards, with the audience clapping for about 10 minutes. After I drafted this, I saw Alastair McCaulay’s review in the Times, which was a rave for Abrera.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On Sunday morning we took a taxi up to the Metropolitan Museum. I’d been looking forward to seeing an exhibit of the art of the plains Indians, but it had, unfortunately, closed. But there is always a lot to see at the Met. We started with a tiny exhibit of Van Gogh’s irises and roses, which had four paintings. The signs explained that the red pigment in the paintings had deteriorated and changed the colors of the paintings, and a video offered an interpretation of what they must have looked like. We spent time with the Lehman collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, thirty or so great paintings that sum of the field amazingly well.

A Vermeer that just kills me

A Vermeer that just kills me

Then we made our way to the galleries with the Vermeers and Rembrandts. I listened to an interesting podcast the previous week with a debate on whether Rembrandt or Vermeer was the greater artist, and confirmed that I’m more of a Vermeer man. The Met has 5 of the 35 or so existing Vermeers, and I particularly love a couple of them. We also spent time looking at the pre-Colombian art, which is getting more and more interesting to me, and African art.
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We met Jocelyn for lunch on the West side at Nanoosh, a Mediterranean spot, and I had some delicious falafel. Then Jocelyn came with me to Lincoln Center to see the New York City Ballet perform La Sylphide. This was, again, for me partly about ballet history, since La Sylphide is another path-breaking early work, from 1834 by August Bournonville. Lauren Lovette was the Sylph, and Anthony Huxley was James. The corps of Sylphs in Act II was, like the Wilis in Giselle, all in diaphanous white tulle, and entrancing. Lovette danced beautifully.

Jocelyn outside the David H. Koch (aka "El Diablo") Theater

Jocelyn outside the David H. Koch (aka “El Diablo”) Theater

After the ballet we went down to the west Village, where we found an outside table and sipped wine, then had dinner at Pagani, an Italian restaurant. We liked our food, and the service was good until dessert time, when things suddenly came to a halt. The staff regrouped, though, and comped our tiramisu.

On Sunday morning we checked out and took a cab out to Jocelyn’s place in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Her area seemed sort of Village-like, at least on a sunny Memorial Day holiday. We met up with our and J’s old friend Kathryn M, and ate at a South African restaurant called Madiba, which had a lot of funky charm, though it took a while to get a beer. I had the vegetable Durban curry, and liked it, and heard about Kathryn’s new admin job at Victoria’s Secret.

Then we went to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, where there were things that were blooming and things that were not. I didn’t see a great diversity of species, but the landscaping was pretty. We also took a stroll through some of Prospect Park. There were hundreds of Brooklynites picnicking, playing, and soaking in the sun.