The Casual Blog

Category: dance

Wet flowers, Vidrio, and beautiful dancing

For Earth Day on Saturday, I took a walk on the trail at Swift Creek Bluffs, and found a few late wildflowers, including the pair above.  Lots of birds were singing.  On Sunday morning I looked in at Raulston Arboretum right after it had rained and before it rained again.  I had a close look at some freshly showered irises, a few of which are below.  


On Saturday night, Sally and I tried a fairly new restaurant, Vidrio, on Glenwood Avenue just three blocks from us.  It was excellent!  The decor is stylish and eclectic, with an entire wall of large colorful glass serving dishes, ropes, tiles, frames, and other whimsies.  Our server from Argentina had a winning mix of personal warmth and professionalism.  We had an amazing foamy cocktail called an amortentia.  The food was a spin on tapas, with several vegetarian (though not vegan) options.  We particularly enjoyed the agnolotti and the black rice risotto.

Afterwards, we saw the Carolina Ballet do works by director Robert Weiss and choreographer-in-residence Zalman Raffael.  Weiss’s Mephisto Waltz, a pas de deux, was his last work created on Lilyan Vigo, who is retiring after nineteen years with the company.  This waltz that had the smoldering intensity of a tango.  It’s always been hard to take one’s eyes off  the beautiful Vigo, and she was magnificent.  But her partner, Yevgeny Shlapko, was highly charismatic as the Devil.  

Raffael’s Rhapsody, set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is a brilliant jazzy ensemble piece, with excellent solos performed that night by Jan Burkhard (back from maternity leave and most welcome), Lindsay Purrington, Marcelo Martinez, Amanda Babayan, and Miles Sollars-White.

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.    



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  


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.  


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


Getting close to big cats, a ballet Dream, transgender recognition, and Political Animals

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On Saturday morning I saw some big cats at the Conservators’ Center near Mebane, NC, where I got a tour with a group from the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association. We got wonderfully close to lions, tigers, leopards, caracals, servals, and binturongs, as well as wolves, dingos, and coyotes. We were allowed to poke our lenses through holes in the fences, on the condition that we had to be ready to move back quickly when directed, which we were and did. A couple of times we heard several of the big cats roar together, which was a deep, rich sound. The friendly staff seemed devoted to these beautiful animals. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that their lives are unnaturally circumscribed, which made me kind of wistful.
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I got cheered up that evening by the Carolina Ballet’s last program of the season, with Robert Weiss’s Water Music and George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Water Music, with Handel’s iconic score, was at once regal and playful, danced with wonderful elegance by leads Margaret Severin-Hansen, Richard Krusch, and Alicia Fabry. Balanchine’s Dream, with Mendelssohn’s shimmering music, was gorgeous and funny. Pablo Javier Perez threatened to steal the show as an exotic Puck, and Ashley Hathaway, Lindsay Purrington, Adam Schiffer, and Oliver Beres had extended romantic complications. The children who played fireflies and ladybugs were delightful.
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With so much beauty and creativity in North Carolina, it’s particularly unfortunate that our Republican politicians continue to embarrass us on an industrial scale. We’re now known nationally and internationally for our anti-leadership in the area of transgender rights. This week they sued the Justice Department in federal court over their beloved HB 2, a/k/a the bathroom bill. I read the complaint, and I think I now understand how they can view themselves as non-discriminatory.

In a nutshell, these so-called conservatives do not believe transgender people actually exist. There are, for them, only two possible sexes, defined according to a look at the genitals of a just-emerged newborn. Any person whose behavior does not align with gender stereotypes – say, a person with a penis who likes wearing dresses – is by definition a fake and a fraud, and up to no good. We need to protect the children from them.

This binary categorization system is similar to that once widely used to marginalize and dehumanize blacks as inferior and gays as defective perverts. It is ignorant and mean. But, as I’ve noted, it is good that this prejudice is now out in the open where it can be debated and changed. The conservatives’ exclusion of gays from the joys and privileges of marriage got thrown on the ash heap of history more quickly than expected, and the view that trans people are not real people entitled to respect could change quickly, too.
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This week I finished reading Political Animals: How Our Stone Age Brains Get in the Way of Smart Politics, by Rick Shenkman. It’s about how our thinking processes often lead us astray because they were developed to serve hunter-gatherers living in small groups and facing many dangers (tigers, snakes, other hominoids). These thinking processes do not always work well in the modern world. For example, we’re strongly biased, when in doubt, to prioritize and react quickly to possible threats, and so overreact to some things that are not actually threats.

Shenkman, a historian, draws ideas from Kahneman and others, and applies them to illuminate various political and historical puzzles. He demonstrates that our powers of self-deception are amazing and almost limitless. I found particularly interesting his discussion of the evolutionary roots of empathy. He proposes that it was an evolutionary advantage to empathize and support our close kin, while regarding unrelated humans with indifference. By supporting and protecting kin who share more genes, our ancestors maximized the chances that their genes would be passed on, but doing the same for unrelated persons was wasted energy from the genes’ perspective.

It’s both helpful and disturbing that think that our most natural way of thinking is far from altruistic. It certainly could explain some of our puzzling indifference to war crimes not committed against ourselves and to large-scale humanitarian disasters, like the current refugee crisis. But we also know that it’s possible to acquire moral vision and empathy that extend beyond our close kin. This is one of the challenging lessons of Christianity (“love thy neighbor as thy self”) and other religions. We may be naturally selfish and brutish, but we can become better.
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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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Happy gays, lowering that flag, flamenco, new reading technology, understanding consciousness

Our Jocelyn, at home

Our Jocelyn, at home

Friday was big! Jocelyn came home to Raleigh to attend an old friend’s wedding, and the Supreme Court made it legal throughout the US for gay people to get married. Jocelyn reported that the gay people she knew in New York were weeping with joy, and she was, too. I got a bit misty myself. I don’t suppose we’ll all at once get rid of anti-gay discrimination, any more than we’ll suddenly finish off racism, but this is a long step forward. It gives me hope that we can address some of other big problems that today seem caught in political gridlock, like global warming.

Speaking of racism, another fantastic development this week was the beginning of the removal of the Confederate battle flag from certain government buildings and the shelves of giant retailers. This potent symbol of unrepentant old-fashioned racism has made me queasy for years. How can it have been socially acceptable to lay out in public on a beach towel with that flag? Anyhow, last week it became dramatically less so. Sure, people are entitled to express their racist views, but they also deserve to be shamed for it.

I listened to an interesting Australian Broadcasting Service podcast called Science Vs last week on the question: does race exist? We may have assumed the answer was obvious, but it’s not. In fact, from a biological point of view, many scientists view the concept of race as meaningless. There are no consistent reliable genetic or other markers of racial boundaries. Race is a cultural construction that has been used primarily for purposes of oppression, such as slavery. Still, the idea is so familiar it seems natural, and it’s hard to let go.

At Fletcher Park, Saturday morning

At Fletcher Park, Saturday morning

There are, of course, different cultures, which is a good thing. Gabe and I got a taste of part of flamenco culture on Saturday night at an American Dance Festival performance by Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca. They performed a flamenco version of Antigone. I enjoyed Barrio’s dancing, which had strength and intensity, but found the movement vocabulary pretty limited. I enjoyed the singing and guitar playing in parts, but the melodic and harmonic vocabularies also were restricted, and the whole thing was over amplified.

In other culture/technology news, I recently discovered a new way to read: combining an ebook with an audio book. When I purchased the ebook Incognito, by Thomas Eagleton, Amazon proposed to upsell me on an Audible audio book for a few dollars more. I took the bait, and it was worth it. The great thing is that you can read a bit, then switch over to listening to it on another device, and switch back – and in either medium it picks up where you left off on the other. I really enjoyed listening to the book while working out at the gym, and reading some before bed in the evening.

Eagleton mostly synthesizes much of current psychological and neurobiological thinking and research, including work by Kahneman, Gazzaniga, and others, but he also has an interesting model of consciousness. He emphasizes that most of what we do and are is unconscious. The unconscious, as he views it, has a multitude of subparts, which generally work quite well without our ever knowing anything about them. Some subparts overlap and may disagree with others, which he refers to as a team of rivals. Eagleton suggests that consciousness is like the CEO of a large corporation, who has executive authority to intervene when there are major conflicts or new problems, but plays a limited role in ordinary activities. We’re mainly driven by unseen emotional forces, but the CEO is skilled at persuading us that she is calling the shots.

One pleasing aspect of Eagleton’s theory is that it accounts for the fact that even the most intelligent people make amazing mistakes and hold tight to beliefs that seem downright goofy. But if it’s true that we’re all fundamentally prone to errors of thinking, that must mean that the same it true of you and me. Knowing that could make you more humble and hesitant from striving to avoid the worst errors. That could be good. But all that careful thinking and hesitant uncertainty could lower your standing and influence in your tribe, which could be bad.

Finally, on a more cheerful note, let me point up one new progressive thing about my home state of North Carolina (among all the new regressive things): on-line driver’s license renewals. I was due for my five-year renewal, and dreading the slow, dull experience of the DMV, when I saw the announcement that NC was starting a new program of on-line renewals. That same day, I found the site, and completed the application in about 3 minutes. No fuss, no muss. I’m good for five more years!

Processing a hand problem, Shen Wei dance, and The Unpersuadables

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It’s been more than a year since I injured my right hand in Dominica, and though it got better for a while, it still does not feel right. I was trying to play Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu recently, and just could not get the loud, fast parts to go loud and fast. I made an appointment with Dr. Edwards at the Raleigh Hand Clinic, with a view to getting a referral to an occupational therapist I’d heard about, and getting some helpful exercises to fix me up. I saw him on Friday, and got some bad news.

Based on X-rays (which he showed me on his iPhone), Dr. E quickly diagnosed osteoarthritis. This is one of those things that don’t get better, and generally get worse. He could not say how quickly it would progress. The doc recommended Aleve for pain. He mentioned that if it got a lot worse, I could eventually be a candidate for finger joint replacement surgery. Yikes!

As a youth, I tended to view intellectual pleasures as superior to physical ones, but eventually I came to welcome the physical side of life as a glorious thing. I’ve taken great satisfaction in dexterous use of my hands, on the piano keys, the computer keys, the camera buttons, and many other places. This diagnosis will take some time to process. Though, of course, life will go on.
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On Saturday we met up with some friends in Durham and had fine dinner at Rue Cler. Then we walked over to DPAC and saw a modern dance program by Shen Wei, the first show of the season at the American Dance Festival. The first SW piece, Untitled No. 12-2, started slowly: the curtain came up to reveal gray fog, and there was silence and blankness happened for a surprisingly long interval. Then we saw projections of abstract paintings by Mr. Wei. Eventually the troop began a slow traverse of the stage, with accents by individuals. The music was sparse percussion sounds. I found the piece overly spare and intellectual and underly physical.

The second piece, Map, was much livelier, with music of Steve Reich and large helium balloons. The choreography seemed well atuned to the energetic music, with sweeping gestures and twists, and small groupings moving in and out of phase. We liked it.

Afterwards, we walked over to 21C, the new luxury hotel in the former SunTrust building, and looked at their bold and brash collection of contemporary art. It’s open to the public, and free, and fun. Afterwards we stopped in a new place, Bar Lusconi, for an exotic beer.
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Today I finished reading The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, by Will Storr. Storr narrates his encounters with intelligent people who believe crazy things, such as Holocaust deniers, past life regressionists, alien abduction experiencers, climate change deniers, and young earth creationists. In interviews, Storr challenges these folks, and confirms that they are impervious to reason and facts. Nothing can shake their beliefs. By way of partial psychological explanation, he draws on the work of Kahneman, Haidt, Ariely, Gazzaniga, Tavris, and Aronson regarding the inherent flaws in our mental processes, such as cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and unstable memories.

Storr is a journalist rather than a scientist, but he incorporates good source material and has genuine insight into the powerful illusions of consciousness. The book is also surprisingly personal, as Storr unflinchingly addresses his own biases and weaknesses. He recognizes that scientists can at times be highly unscientific, engaging in groupthink and suppression of evidence that doesn’t fit their world view. Perhaps most amazingly, as he engages with individuals who construct bizarre and odious theories, he manages to subject their ideas to fair scrutiny and at the same time respect their humanity.
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My New Yorker, a touching Traviata, Whiplash, and sparkling new ballets

As I’ve noted before, The New Yorker magazine was for me a formative influence, having given me my first job out of college, my True Love, and weekly jolts of literacy ever since. Thus it was with mild shock I received the February anniversary issue, which for 89 consecutive years has reprinted the same cover, and saw that Eustice Tilley, the top-hatted dandy, had been replaced by multiple new covers of various ages, styles, and ethnicities. But after a few deep breaths, I let it go and moved on: the new covers were bold and entertaining.

There were several good short pieces on the history of the Magazine (as it was called by editorial staff then and perhaps now), and one longer one that I particularly relished. Mary Norris, who joined the Magazine around the time we did, contributed a piece about her career there as a junior minion and eventually a senior copy editor. I wouldn’t say Mary and I were close friends, but when I also was a minion, we were friendly, and would talk companionably at parties as we kept a lookout for potentially more exciting adventures.

It was a pleasant trip down memory lane remembering how we put out the Magazine and some of the now departed editorial figures of our world, like Eleanor Gould, Bob Bingham, Pat Crow, and William Shawn. And Mary successfully communicates the spirit of grammatical fanaticism that is part of what makes the Magazine unique. I’ve never seen a more humorous discussion of the serial comma, a punctuation practice that in those days I took as serious business. Thanks to Mary and her colleagues who have kept the fussy but proud tradition alive.

Raleigh is not New York, and it is hard to believe, even for people who live here, that Raleigh is producing world class opera and ballet. But it’s true. In the last week, we’ve been treated to both.

The N.C. Opera’s production of La Traviata was really beautiful and moving. The story is simple in a way – a party girl and a playboy unexpectedly fall in love, break various social conventions, are separated by misunderstanding, and reunited, just as she dies. It works in large part because Verdi’s music is highly evocative – of joy, love, and tragedy.

I was especially moved by this production, which had a marvelous Violetta in Jacqueline Echols. She had an extraordinarily fine voice, as well as musicality and expression. She is a rising star. I also particularly loved the singing of Joo Won Kang as Giorgio. The costumes and settings were lovely. The staging was a bit meandering and uncertain, but it didn’t undermine the force of the performance. Conductor Timothy Myers was outstanding, always serving the music, but creatively, with flexibility of tempo and sensitivity in tone. In the sad parts, this strange thing happened with my eyes – they got all watery.

Also last week, we saw the movie Whiplash at home via streaming service. The story is about a music conservatory student (a jazz drummer) and a sadistic/idealistic music teacher who do battle and try to make great music. Aspects of it were pure Hollywood – no half-sane performer would ever sabotage a performance as here – but there was something true about it that drew me in. As a former conservatory student myself, I was reminded of the highly competitive aspect to music education, and the intense drive for perfection.

The student (Miles Teller) was believable, and reminded me of the hidden and scary sacrifices that all serious musicians make for their art. And J.K Simmons as the foul-mouthed professor was wonderfully evil. I’ll say, though, I could have done without the anti-gay slurs, which were copious and ugly. We’ve quit tolerating nigger, and we should quit tolerating faggot._DSC8412_edited-1

We saw the Carolina Ballet’s new program, Master Composers: Music for Dance, on Saturday night. The program of new works by Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael featured dance music by Chopin, Byrd, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Granados, Brahms, Stravinsky, Adams, and Tchaikovsky. As Weiss’s program notes noted, there is there is a wealth of music in the classical tradition that is, in some sense, dance music, but has never been used for ballet, and this program mines those riches.

This company has so much talent! It was delightful to see some of the junior members shining in solo roles, including Elizabeth Ousley, Ashley Hathaway, Alyssa Pilger, Amanda Babyan, and Rammaru Shindo. There were moments of moody drama, particularly with Lara O’Brien and Cecilia Iliesiu, and also light-heartedness,with Sokvannara Sar having fun with six ballerinas. I thought that the Mozart and Brahms sections could have been trimmed a bit without loss of effect, but there was nothing I didn’t enjoy.

Taking in some art, sport, and food in New York

14 11 02_3603Last Friday I attended the Software Freedom Law Center’s tenth anniversary conference in New York, wishing my friends at the SFLC happy birthday and learning something about the state of the art in FOSS law. Afterwards I met up with Sally and daughter Jocelyn at the Warwick Hotel for a Manhattan weekend. I had in mind to see some painting, some photography, some opera, and some ballet, all of which we did, plus some good food and conversation and the New York City Marathan.

As for the painting, on Saturday we went to the Metropolitan Museum, where we focused mainly on the exhibit of recently donated Cubist paintings by Picasso, Braque, Leger, and Gris. Cubism has never been my favorite thing, but I was curious to see some reputed masterpieces not shown in public for generations. The exhibit ultimately had its way with me.

I’d known that Braque and Picasso collaborated, but I hadn’t understood that they were basically partners and co-inventors of the Cubist style. What remarkable courage for guys in their mid-twenties to work exclusively in a style that was so radically new and difficult. They must have known it would be tough to sell at a time when, I’m guessing, they needed money. How excited they must have been to be seeing visions no one had ever seen before, and imaging they would permanently change the cultural/visual world. And they were right!

Engaging with art, and particularly art that requires commitment and struggle, changes you at a fundamental level. Your brain rewires itself, neuronal axons and dendrites making new connections. You are a subtly different person afterwards, who sees the world a little differently.

And though it involved some commitment and struggle, I warmed up to the paintings. There is steely rigor, but there’s more than that. There are moods, from sunny to brooding, and a surprisingly amount of humor. But you have to give the paintings some time and let them speak.
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We met Jocelyn for lunch in a Korean place on 37th Street, where our table got covered with savory little vegetarian plates and vegetable dumplings. Our waitress intervened when she realized Sally didn’t know she was supposed to spice up and mix up her kimbap. It was drizzly and chill when we came out and walked up 6th Avenue to the International Museum of Photography.

There we saw an exhibit called Genesis by the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado. The black-and-white photos are of remote, vulnerable, and magnificent places around the globe, including Antarctica, Galapagos, Patagonia, Indonesia, and Africa. I was very moved by this art. The works were big, some like large posters, and they had lots to say. Some of the landscapes have a stately lyrical classicism, and his photos of indigenous people are frank and intimate. He succeeded in his aim of making me think more about how beautiful and fragile is our planet.

We had dinner at Robert restaurant on the 9th floor of Museum of Arts and Design looking out at Columbus Circle. The room had the energy of forward leaning design, and the food and service were both really good.

Then we walked up to the Metropolitan Opera to see The Death of Klinghoffer. After all the recent controversy (charges of anti-Semitism, which I thought were way off base), I had some worries that there would be protesters, and a tiny worry that there might be a homicidal fanatic ready to attack. But happily there were only normal opera folk. Sally and I both thought John Adams’s music was beautiful and expressive. However, I found the staging static and dull. I’m not sure how much this problem was a matter of direction and how much is inherent to the work. On the whole, I was glad I saw it, but a little disappointed.
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Sunday morning was clear but chilly as we walked up from the Warwick Hotel to Central Park South to a spot about half a mile from the end of the New York City Marathon. We saw the first wheelchair competitors, then the first women, and then the first men. After almost 26 miles, most looked like they were in a hard, painful place. But they were booking! The leaders were preceded by a truck with a sign showing the elapsed time. It was particularly interesting to see how close the fight was for number one and two for both women and men. As they passed us, both pairs were so close that I thought perhaps they were friends that enjoyed running together. The women’s finish was the closest in the history of the race, and the men’s was also quite close.
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After a quick lunch, Jocelyn came with me to Lincoln Center to a matinee performance of American Ballet Theatre. We saw Sinfonietta (music by Janacek, choreography byJiri Kylian), Bach Partita (Bach, Twyla Tharp), and Gaite Parisienne (Offenbach, Massine). I greatly enjoyed it all, but particularly adored Gaite Parisienne. It was like Nutcracker for grownups: sumptuous, slightly risque fun. Hee Seo was a gorgeous Glove Seller, and Herman Cornejo was a manic, hilarious Peruvian. There were a LOT of really good dancers!

After Jocelyn got on the subway to go home to Brooklyn, I had a little time before we were due to head to the airport. I walked down Fifth Avenue and over to the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. I noted that the varied collection of flags from many nations had at some point been replaced by all US flags. Good looking flags, though .

Buds, laughs, and cries, including Romeo and Juliet (the ballet)

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Sally’s taking a flower arranging class at Wake Tech, and here is her latest project, which I really liked. With spring officially here, I’m very much ready for the big blossoming , and took a Saturday morning walk through Fletcher Park and Raulston Arboretum to see what was up. They’re not here in numbers just yet. But it was fun to take a close look at some things on the point of bursting out.
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Is there anything more boring than people bragging about their marvelous kids? Perhaps hearing people complain about their aches and pains. But other people’s impressive kids are still a serious problem, conversation-wise. Why is it, then, that stories about my own kids are so interesting?

So, sorry, but here goes a proud papa: Jocelyn, having conquered the book publishing business in Manhattan (i.e. getting an entry-level job in ebooks at Macmillan), has now published her first professional writing. It’s a humorous essay about getting the fun of a good cry, which you may read at Quarterlette, a site for twenty-something women. The pay was not good (zero), but she was very excited to be a beginning author. Who knows what comes next? She’s got a piece on online dating in the works, and we kicked around ideas for a funny piece about the annoyances of Facebook.
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At an opposite extreme, there’s a piece in last week’s New Yorker by Andrew Solomon about Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza. Remember Adam, the Sandy Hook killer, who took the life of 26 little kids, his mom, and himself? This is worse than a parent’s worst nightmare. I hadn’t known that he was a high functioning autistic kid who may also have been psychotic. We want to know why he did what he did or what might have made things unfold differently, but there are no full, satisfying answers. Nobody saw Adam’s potential for horrific violence, including the mental health professionals who examined him or his parents. I was moved by Peter Lanza’s struggle with both the pain of loss and profound guilt.
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There’s another good story about death and love called Romeo and Juliet, which the Carolina Ballet performed on Saturday night. We’ve seen Robert Weiss’s choreographed version several times over the past 15 years, and it’s one of my favorites. Shakespeare’s story, it turns out, works quite well without words. The language of ballet is fully sufficient to convey the richness of the trembling, tingling ecstasy of first love, and the explosive violence of feuding clans.

In this production, Margaret Severin-Hansen played Juliet with sweet innocence, and her Romeo, Sokvannara Sar, was strong and sensitive. Their balcony scene was complete, unmitigated, overwhelming love — love that obliterates everything else. Eugene Barnes was a smoldering, intimidating Tybalt. I thought the group sword fights could have used a bit more edge and brio, though I hesitate to say so – I wouldn’t want any dancers to actually get hurt.

Lindsay Turkel was radiant in the trio of gypsy street dancers. We were also happy to see Alyssa Pilger, a corps member and our pointe shoe sponsoree, get a high-profile solo as the Mandolin Girl. She rocked! I’d previously been struck by her beautiful technique, but last night she danced with amazing power, impassioned and electrifying.

A beautiful Nutcracker, Xmas spinning, and getting ready for Fiji (including ebooks)

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We were on the fence about whether to go to the Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker ballet this year. There have been many lovely Nutcrackers, even enchanting Nutcrackers, but after many years of cracking, I worried that the magic might be wearing a little thin for me. That Tchaikovsky music is great, but also very, very familiar. It would be a shame to find that the thrill was finally gone. But Will Levine, son of our friends David and Maggie, dancing the nephew/nutcracker/prince, we decided to go again.

I’m so glad we did. It was a particularly touching and magical Nutcracker. Having a live orchestra to play that delicious music really helped, and this was a good band, ably led by Al Sturges. There were the cute little kids and sumptuous costumes and settings. But most of all, there were the dancers. The Carolina Ballet has so many talented artists just now. They looked like they loved their work.

The star of the evening was Lara O’Brien as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her SPF was elegant and assured, highly musical, with a slight note of tragic grace. Her pas de deux with Marcelo Martinez was beautiful and moving — so passionate – I got a bit misty.

Also especially wonderful was Alicia Fabry as Butterfly (the lead in the Flowers waltz), and newcomer Alyssa Pilger as the lead Ribbon Candy. Young Will did well, to the relief of his parents, and us, too. As in past years, there were a couple of little kids who could do fantastic handsprings, and big boys whose leaps seemed to defy gravity. It was all delightful. It took me into a magical place, in equal parts childhood fantasy and nostalgia, and reminded me of many happy times gone by.

In other Xmas news, I had an holiday-themed spin class at O2 this week led by the fabulous Jenn. She announced at the start that she just loved Christmas, and she’d made a special Christmas tunes mix for our spinning pleasure.

It turned out to be some hard-driving rock songs of the season, and she kicked us into a very high gear. There was lots of sprinting (including a killer sequence of fast, faster, and fastest) and intense climbing. One new trick – she can ride out of the saddle with no hands, and she thinks we can, too. I gave it a shot, and verified that it is not easy. Anyhow, the class was fun, in a brutal kind of way. I knew for certain at the end I had worked out.

For our holiday, Sally and I are heading out for a scuba diving trip to Fiji on Monday, which should be incredible. It’s taken a lot of planning, and the logistics are complicated. There are quite a few important pieces of dive gear, photo gear, and other stuff that must not be forgotten (some of which is pictured above).

In addition to all those details, I’ve given some thought to what books I want to read. Reading time is one thing to like about long flights. My tablet device makes it easier (less heavy) to carry a lot of books, but pre-loading was necessary, since I don’t expect to have much if any internet connectivity. Also, the tablet is not a good reader in direct sunlight, so I need some old-fashioned paper books as well.

Here’s a quick listing of my current books-in-progress and new ones that I may get going. The are ebooks unless otherwise noted.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., by Ron Chernow. I figured it would be fairly interesting to find out how the Rockefeller became the most successful monopolist in history, and it has been, fairly. Rockefeller was a very driven person, with a high standard of personal morality (a lifelong Baptist) and a low standard of business morality. His trust was a primary inspiration for the beginnings of modern antitrust law.

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier. I’m about done with this one. I don’t think the title is much of an exaggeration – big data is transforming many fields, including retail, finance, education, and medicine. definitely worth thinking about.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t, by Nate Silver. The creator of the FiveThirtyEight blog and impressively successful political prognosticator talks about his methods and related things. Based on the first chapter, it appears somewhat padded as a book.

The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business, by Eric Schmnidt and Jared Cohen. I picked this up out of curiosity regarding what the chairman of Google was thinking would come next. I’m about half way through, and finding it not particularly well organized, but there is interesting reporting and thinking on how technology is reshaping our lives. The portion on hacker-terrorist is hair-raising.

Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, by Steven Wise. The author recently brought a habeas corpus action on behalf of a champanizee, which struck me as a legal long shot, but interesting, and I was curious about his theory.

Ordinary Men, by Christopher Browning. A history of a small group of regular joes who worked at ground level as part of Hitler’s final solution. For a long time I’ve been interested in the question of how otherwise normal people could participate in mass murder on an industrial scale, and Browning sheds some light on this.

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, by H.W. Brands. Franklin is by far my favorite founding father, and I’ve read most if not all of the other major contemporary biographies of him. Earlier this year I read Brands’s American Colossus: The Triumph of American Capitalism 1865-1900, and thought it was quite good, so I’m looking forward to getting his view of Franklin and his world.

Reef Fish Identification (Tropical Pacific), by Allen, Steen, Humann, and Deloach (in paper). There are an amazing number of amazing reef fish in the Pacific, and it’s fun to know a bit about them.

Zukerman Bound, by Philip Roth. I got this as a used paperback (price $4.50) of the three Zuckerman novels (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and the Anatomy Lesson). Roth is my favorite living novelist, and for some reason I hadn’t read these key works of his early middle period. It will be a great pleasure.

The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles. A classic, obviously.

Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman (paper). The embodiment of what is great – and strange – about America. It seems like a good time to read it again.