The Casual Blog

Category: poetry

Wild swans in eastern North Carolina and posthumanism


This past weekend I drove to eastern North Carolina to see wintering tundra swans and other brilliant creatures.  The swans were there — hundreds of them!  These are majestic birds, with long necks and seven-foot wingspans.  They look quiet and elegant as they swim, but they’re very vocal, barking and squawking, sounding from a distance like a huge crowd of little kids at an exciting  sporting event.  

For part of the time I was travelling with members of the Carolinas Nature Photographers Association.  We stayed in the Holiday Inn Express in Plymouth, which was fine.  The CNPA folks were friendly and knowledgeable, and I enjoyed talking with them about such things as camera lenses, post-processing, and wildlife.  I took these pictures with my Nikon D7100 and a Sigma 150-500 lens (a beastly large piece of glass) on a Vanguard tripod.


To get to the birdy places, we had to drive a good ways down muddy dirt roads.  I unwisely brought my sports car, and was more than a little anxious at points that we’d get stuck in the mud, with uncertain prospects of getting unstuck.  We never quite got caught, though we did get muddy.  We explored Pocosin Lakes (mostly at Pungo Lake) and Lake Mattamuskeet.

Once I got over the initial goosebumps of seeing the crowds of swans, I started looking for snow geese, but without success.  I  did see various pretty ducks, including northern pintails and northern shovelers, as well as great egrets, great blue herons, and black crowned night herons.  I also saw three black bears, including a youngster.


It was wonderfully absorbing and calming to be beside the water, removed from civilization, relatively (my phone had 0 bars ).  Given the fraughtness of our current political drift, it was a particularly good time to be outdoors and close to all that non-human life.  Earlier in the week, I’d read an intriguing column about posthumanism, which resonated with me strongly.


More and more, I’ve found myself unsatisfied with the common assumption that people are by definition superior to other animals, and disturbed by the dark implications of that assumption.  It turns out that these are issues addressed by posthumanist thinkers.  The column, an interview by Natasha Leonard of Cary Wolfe, is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s a sample.

Humanism provides an important cultural inheritance and legacy, no doubt, but hardly the kind of vocabulary that can describe the complex ways that human beings are intertwined with and shaped by the nonhuman world in which they live, and that brings together what the humanist philosophical tradition considered ontologically separate and discrete domains like “human” and “animal,” or “biological” and “mechanical.”

. . .

So on the other hand, what one wants to do is to find a way of valuing nonhuman life not because it is some diminished or second-class form of the human, but because the diversity and abundance of life is to be valued for what it is in its own right, in its difference and uniqueness. An elephant or a dolphin or a chimpanzee isn’t worthy of respect because it embodies some normative form of the “human” plus or minus a handful of relevant moral characteristics. It’s worthy of respect for reasons that call upon us to come up with another moral vocabulary, a vocabulary that starts by acknowledging that whatever it is we value ethically and morally in various forms of life, it has nothing to do with the biological designation of “human” or “animal.”

. . .

My position has always been that all of these racist and sexist hierarchies have always been tacitly grounded in the deepest — and often most invisible – hierarchy of all: the ontological divide between human and animal life, which in turn grounds a pernicious ethical hierarchy. As long as you take it for granted that it’s O.K. to commit violence against animals simply because of their biological designation, then that same logic will be available to you to commit violence against any other being, of whatever species, human or not, that you can characterize as a “lower” or more “primitive” form of life. This is obvious in the history of slavery, imperialism and violence against indigenous peoples. And that’s exactly what racism and misogyny do: use a racial or sexual taxonomy to countenance a violence that doesn’t count as violence because it’s practiced on people who are assumed to be lower or lesser, and who in that sense somehow “deserve it.”

That’s why the discourse of animalization is so powerful, because it uses a biological or racial taxonomy to institute an ethical divide between who is “killable but not murderable,” those who are “properly” human and those who aren’t. So the first imperative of posthumanism is to insist that when we are talking about who can and can’t be treated in a particular way, the first thing we have to do is throw out the distinction between “human” and “animal” — and indeed throw out the desire to think that we can index our treatment of various beings, human or not, to some biological, taxonomic designation. Does this mean that all forms of life are somehow “the same”? No, it means exactly the opposite: that the question of “human” versus “animal” is a woefully inadequate philosophical tool to make sense of the amazing diversity of different forms of life on the planet, how they experience the world, and how they should be treated.

I was enough intrigued by this to download Wolfe’s latest book, but soon found it tough sledding.  Based on Wolfe’s many references to Jacques Derrida, it sounded like I might need to go back and get a deeper understanding of Derrida’s work.  I downloaded Derrida:  A Very Short Introduction, by Simon Glendinning, which at any rate hasn’t yet been hopelessly confusing.  This might be fun and illuminating (though it might not).  

Anyhow, the swans made me think of  The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats, just as Yeats had helped draw me towards the swans.  I once memorized these stark and poignant lines and enjoyed rereading them, and hope you will as well.  It’s an amazing feat to combine with seeming simplicity such wonderful sensuality and the steady-eyed confrontation of  death, that most difficult of subjects.


The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.


The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.


I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.


Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.


But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

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.

The State Fair, The Circle, and James Turrell

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It was clear and brisk in Raleigh early Saturday afternoon when Sally and I got on the bus for the N.C. State Fair. My last fair visit was with Jocelyn when she was in elementary school, about 14 years ago, and just before she began to much prefer going with friends rather than dad. In the years since I haven’t expected that the fun would outweigh justify the headaches of traffic jams and crowds. The convenience of the bus, which stopped on Hillsborough Street just a short walk from us, made us re-do the fun/not-fun calculus, and off we went.
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Our main objective was the agriculture exhibits. With most days full of hurry and technology it’s good to slow down and reconnect a little with the rural past. It’s terribly sad to think about mistreatment and needless slaughter of farm animals, but there’s also something sweet about getting close to the gorgeous prize-winning animals at the fair. The chickens and turkeys were amazingly varied, and the cows were generally good-tempered. I’m with Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.”
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We also enjoyed the people watching. There were, of course, rural people, but it seemed like the crowd was much more ethnically diverse than years ago. We took in a free show by a troop of acrobats, including a handstand master. \13 10 26_4838
We also so a free show of stunt BMX bikers and motorcyclists. These guys were awesome.
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Also on Saturday I finished reading Dave Eggers’s new novel, The Circle. Set just a few years into the future, it’s about a young woman who goes to work for a tech company, the Circle, which sounds like a combination of Google and Facebook, and which has some cult-like qualities. It seeks total involvement and devotion from employees and may have a dream of world domination. The Circle promotes a vision of extreme transparency, pushing public officials and others to live completely on camera, open to full time universal internet scrutiny.

The idea is interesting, but the writing had about as much charm and verve as Newsweek. The subject of the book is how technology affects the human mind, but there wasn’t any depth to the characters, or much in the way of psychological insight.

Still, I liked the central thought experiment: what would happen if everyone’s life was totally visible and potentially viewable by everyone else? As The Circle notes, it would probably reduce crime. It would probably initially bring a feeling of a new kind of community. But would it destroy the possibility of human intimacy? Probably. And without intimacy, what would remain of meaning?

On Sunday morning I flew to Los Angeles for the annual meeting of the Association of Corporate Counsel, where I’m doing a presentation. In the afternoon I went to the L.A. County Museum of Art, where I wanted to see the special exhibit of the work of James Turrell. He’s best known for his work involving light and space, including environments that completely baffle our understanding of boundaries.

Turrell expects his viewers to enter into his work, literally and psychologically. I found it rewarding to do so. Although the work is primarily concerned with perception, it also inspires a surprising amount of feeling. For me it had some of the calming effects of meditation. I found myself looking at light differently as I left the museum.
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A fun Memorial Day weekend on the Outer Banks — eating, talking, running, looking at wild horses and birds, and reading

Jane and Keith's beach house in Corolla, NC

Jane and Keith’s beach house in Corolla, NC

Again this year, my sister Jane invited us out to the Outer Banks for Memorial Day weekend, and we happily accepted. The beach is a good place to relax and restore. After weighing the pros and cons, we decided to drive out in Clara, who with her sporting heritage rides rougher than the Suburu Outback, but is also prettier and more exciting. Traffic wasn’t bad. We went at the speed limit plus 9, and the heavy complement of state troopers along I-64 tolerated the overage.

Charlie the Boogle

Charlie the Boogle

We got to Corolla about 9:30 p.m., and everyone was up and happy to see us. We enjoyed a glass of Keith’s merlot before bed. We also met their new dog, Charlie, a friendly beagle-boxer, or boogle. The camera made him a little nervous.

The next morning was sunny but chilly and windy. Keith prepared an egg casserole and fruit salad for breakfast, and we caught up on family news.
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We also talked a bit about technology and biology. I briefed them on some of the progress on understanding the human microbial community, which I read more about in the piece by Michael Pollen in last Sunday’s NY Times. Pollen wrote, “It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes . . . . To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this ‘second genome,’ as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents.”

This is mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting stuff. One researcher says “we would do well to begin regarding the human body as ‘an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.’” We’re just starting to understand some of the links between human health and microbial health. It’s a huge mistake, which most of us have previously made, to think of all germs as things that should be exterminated. Certain bacteria are essential to health, and problems in the microbiome appear to relate to chronic disease and some infections. Human health can be thought of as “a collective property of the human-associated microbiota . . . that is, as a function of the community, not the individual.”

The Pollen article is a great introduction to this subject, which is also discussed in The Wild in Our Bodies by Robert Dunn.
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After breakfast, I went out for a run with my nephew David, now 13 and growing fast. David has fallen in love with lacrosse and is getting lots of playing time as his team’s goalie, so I figured he would probably run me into the ground. Instead, he developed a major cramp problem, and so we did more walking than running. I learned about his prize-winning science fair project, which involved growing and measuring characteristics of a fast growing plant called brassica rapa.
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Keith cooked an amazing lunch – cucumber soup and pasta asparagus salad. Then we loaded up in the 4WD sport ute, and drove north on the beach looking for wild horses. Past the lifeguard station, we turned left into the sand roads through the gnarled trees and bushes of the maritime forest. We found several horses. It’s cheering somehow that these big animals can make their own way in small wild areas surrounded by development. We also saw a fox.
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I had time for some reading in the afternoon, and got a good start on Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who died recently. This is his first and most famous book, and perhaps the most famous work of African literature to date. I was immediately hooked. The prose combines the muscular economy of Hemingway at his best with the vision of Faulkner, with an overarching tenderness and humanity. The story is about African village life, which, it turns out, has many of the same emotional components as our lives.

I also read more of More Balanchine Variations by Nancy Goldner, which is a book about various Balanchine ballets. Goldner is a generous-hearted critic, and she loves her subject. It’s so hard to bring dance to life other than by dancing, but she comes close.
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One other major bit of reading was chunks of the complete poems of Wallace Stevens. I came close to reading them all last year, before shelving the project some months back. Stevens is challenging, and not uniformly great – some of the poems seem mannered or even mad. But the greatest poems are both beautiful and profound. My favorite is still Sunday Morning, which is a sly, subversive, arresting, sensual, and humorous. I memorized it, and it still gives me goosebumps at the end, with its powerful image of “casual flocks of pigeons make/ ambiguous undulations as they sink,/ downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

Stevens proposes this joy in nature as an answer to religious asceticism, and it works for me. It also makes me look at the world with different eyes. For example, in back of Jane and Keith’s beach house, purple martins are still numerous, and still flying fast feeding on insects. It was a pleasure to watch them.

We played a new beach game on Sunday afternoon. It’s one of the many variations on horse shoes, but a good one. Points are scored by throwing a string with weighted balls on each end around a bar. They couldn’t remember the name of it, but no matter. It was fun!
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Chilling with Robert Frost and a new camera

The hot weather finally broke last week, after setting a temperature record here in Raleigh for most consecutive days over 100 (6) and tying the all time high of 105. Most of the time, I’m in air-conditioned environments, but still, I usually try to spend some time in unprocessed air. During the recent heat wave, though, the idea of communion with the natural world seemed rash. The brutality of nature was in full display.

To cool off mentally, I refreshed on The Wood-Pile, a poem by Robert Frost. I memorized this chilly thing a while back for no good reason other than its stark strangeness. It begins, “Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, I …” The narrator at first sees nothing but “tall slim trees.” It seems matter of fact, but it’s completely strange! Who goes walking in a frozen swamp? Especially when the sky is gray and gloomy?

As with other great poems by Frost, what seems at first to be simple factual reporting turns out to raise question after question. The nominal focus of the poem is on a well-formed cord of wood incongruously left in the middle of the snowy swamp. The narrator has personal knowledge of the hard work required to cut so much maple with an ax, and is baffled and offended that anyone could invest such effort in a fine wood pile and leave it “far from a useful fireplace.” He speculates that such a person must be someone who “lived in turning to fresh tasks.” This is, from the narrator’s viewpoint, a strange and disturbing thing. And so we wonder more about the flinty narrator.

A woodchuck near the Buckeye Trail

Is it a bad thing to turn to fresh tasks? The poem make us wonder, but still I think, generally not. New challenges are, more often than not, good. I undertook one last week and bought my first digital SLR camera with the thought that I’d like to engage with the visual world a little differently and take better pictures. I’ve been drawn by photography since I was a kid, but in the pre-digital era was discouraged by the difficulty of working with film (dark rooms, chemicals, and so forth) and the expense.

I also worried about that the camera sometimes shuts off the photographer from experience. Think of gaggles of tourists taking snaps of the Grand Canyon — and forgetting to look at it. Direct experience of beautiful things, or even not-so-beautiful things, is a terrible thing to waste.

Balancing that risk, though, is the possibility of finding a different way of seeing, and also a different pathway for communication. I’ve enjoyed using my little point-and-shoot to share images with friends, and noticed that at times taking a picture created an interesting shift in my own visual perspective. A photograph is an abstraction from a larger visual reality, but being conscious of this can focus attention on the larger reality. Deciding whether something is worth snapping and how to snap can open things up.

Anyhow, I got a Nikon D3200 with two Nikon lenses (an 18-55 zoom and a 55-300 zoom). Although the D3200 is an entry-level SLR, it is, to me, amazing technology. 24 million pixels! Four shots per second! ISO 100-6,400! Fast autofocus! A vibration reduction system! HD video with sound! And it fits my hands perfectly. All that it requires is knowledge, experience, and creativity.

I was thinking that it would be fun to photograph wildlife, and especially birds. I’m also interested in trying to look at human-built places that are not intended for show, places that happen as a by-product of other objectives, to see what we might be missing. Above and below are some of my first efforts.

Mallard ducklings at Lake Johnson

Sensationalizing homophobia, engaging with aging, and testing mindful eating

Coming back yesterday from a short trip to Manhattan, I had a few minutes to spare in the crowded Delta terminal at LaGuardia. There were no seats near my departure gate, but I found one three gates away, and flipped through The New Yorker magazine. With only a few minutes, I purposely chose a story I expected to be relatively uninteresting — a piece by Ian Parker titled A Reporter at Large: The Story of a Suicide: Two College Roommates, a Webcam, and a Tragedy.

The story keyed off a widely reported incident at Rutgers University in 2010 in which a student spied on his roommate with a webcam and tweeted that he’d spotted homosexual behavior. The ensuing mediathon developed the story line that a heartless homophobe had posted video on the web that caused a vulnerable closeted gay student to kill himself — an emblematic hate crime.

In Parker’s reexamination, the popular media story turns out to be a gross distortion. Dharun Ravi, the surviving roommate, is now facing a criminal trial on vague charges with the potential of years in prison. Ravi created an extensive record of tweets, texts, and other communications that seem stupid and immature, but not unusually so for a 17-year-old. There turned out to be no web cast of video. The suicide victim was actually out of the closet. Ravi’s juvenile online socializing comes across as frenetic and somewhat pathetic. He seems smart, selfish, insecure, and not all that unusual.

I got a few a columns into the story before I decided with boarding time approaching I needed to position myself closer to my gate. I wheeled my possessions a hundred yards or so. Somewhere in that process, my New Yorker disappeared. I retraced my steps, but it had vanished. How annoying! I hope whoever recovered it enjoyed it. After I got home, I managed to download the piece to my iPad and finished it.

It’s too bad, in a way, that the facts don’t support the story line of a bullied gay martyr. Homophobia plainly exists, and violence against gays exists, and those things need to be publicly condemned and appropriately punished. Tyler Clementi’s suicide was unquestionably a tragedy. But, as Parker’s story shows, the cause is unknown, and probably complex. There’s no simple way to assign blame for it. The media’s hype and erroneous reporting fed hysteria and calls for revenge, and now comes a criminal trial that will at a minimum scar a second life.

As an alumnus of the editorial staff of The New Yorker, I enjoy flipping through it every week, though I admit to reading less of it than in days gone by. Last week I read with intense pleasure in the January 23d issue a piece by Donald Hall titled Out the Window: The View in Winter.

The 83-year-old poet has written about getting old. He now needs a wheelchair and has various physical problems. He’s conscious of being “a separate form of life,” treated with either indifference or too much solicitude. He spends a lot of time looking out the window at his bird feeder and the countryside beyond. The outline of his life sounds sad and dull.

This is the amazing thing, though: his life is full of incredible beauty! His descriptions of the drama at his bird feeder are marvelously clear and vivid. He writes of the sequential blossoming of spring flowers with rhythmic, muscular prose. To think that this depth of perception and power of expression can be part of growing old is inspiring.

I’d like to become more conscious of ordinary sensory experience, and to reduce, if only a little, the percentage of each day lived on autopilot. It’s challenging, though, to engage with the present. There are distractions inside and out. Art, like Hall’s essay, can help. I find yoga is also helpful. I hadn’t really thought of meal time as a possible aid, but was inspired by a column this week in the NY Times headed Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.

The basic notion is to focus carefully and completely while eating on the sensations of eating — the flavors, smells, and textures, down to tiny details. The way I normally eat involves talking to people, reading, listening to music, thinking about things, and sometimes combinations of these, jumping from one to the next, hardly noticing the food. Mindful eating is the opposite — quiet and slow.

According to the column, this approach to food is an antidote to over eating and helps with distractedness. It also could lead to greater pleasure. I was reminded of my old friend Tom, now departed many years, a casualty of AIDS, who considered great cooking to be an art entitled to no less respect than painting or music. Accordingly, he had an enthusiasm for high-end restaurants at a time when neither of us could well afford them. He once used part of his Watson fellowship money to treat me to a meal in a four-star restaurant in Paris. His only request was that we not talk while we ate. We enjoyed the incredible meal in perfect silence.

More recently, on an average day I have a hard time focusing for half an hour on anything, and that includes eating. But at least now I’m thinking about it. So far, I’ve managed to eat only a few mindful bites at the beginning of a meal, but I’m going to keep trying.

A White House meeting and a Black circus

On Friday I flew to DC for a meeting at the White House. I joined top lawyers from three other technology companies to speak with four of the President’s top advisors on economics and technology about patent reform. Addressing the serious damage invalid patents are doing to innovation is a cause near and dear to my heart, and the chance to discuss it directly with Administration officials was one of the high points of my career.

My cab ride from Washington National (or Reagan, as some call it) was driven by an older African American with a mellifluous voice. I asked him about the weather so I could listen to his lovely baritone, and he answered with enthusiasm. Then he began reciting poetry. The poem concerned how each minute of life is valuable. In response, I recited Rudyard Kipling’s If, which builds toward the idea of filling “each minute / with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” My cabbie was delighted, and asked me to read along to check his accuracy as he recited a poem by Maya Angelou. He was nearly perfect. I suggested that he get a copy of Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language, and he asked me to write the title down. At the end of the ride, he said he was so glad I got into his cab, and I told him, with feeling, it was a great pleasure.

I was really looking forward to looking inside the White House. It turned out the meeting was in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, but I guess a meeting with White House personnel qualifies as a White House meeting. The meeting room reminded somewhat of my days as a clerk at the Supreme Court, where the inner sanctums have a similar old-fashioned clubby opulence. Everyone there was surprisingly young and incredibly smart. We covered several big ideas very quickly. It was invigorating. And the officials seemed to appreciate that we have a big problem with patents that hinder innovation. It gave me hope for the future.

Back in Raleigh that evening, Sally and I went to the UniverSoul Circus. It’s basically a an old-fashioned, under the big top, African-American circus. Lots of the performers, and practically all of the audience, were Black. The music was urban accented (lots of hip hop) and very loud. I enjoyed, among other acts, the African-American tight rope walkers, the Chinese girl trick bicyclists, the Trinidadian stilt boys, the Columbian motorcyclists in the globe of death, and the African female contortionist, who appeared (I’m still unable to believe this is possible) to set on her own head and also (I’m less certain of this) to rotate her hips 180 degrees.

But I also really enjoyed the audience. They actively participated in the show, singing, dancing, and shouting their approval. Being in a racial minority for a couple of hours was bracing, and being with these folks was really fun. I couldn’t stop smiling.

Paradise Lost — surviving air travel with some good books

On plane rides to and from Dallas this week, I experienced above average travel headaches — absurdly slow security checks, bumpy air, noisy talkers all around, and somebody who had beans for lunch. But the fast metal tube is a good place to read, and I made substantial progress on Paradise Lost. John Milton’s great poem is intimidating in several ways – long, complex, and religious. But sweet Jocelyn had spoken of it with animation during her studies, which inspired me to sample it in Harold Bloom’s poetry anthology. It was beautiful, and so I decided to begin at the beginning.

It creates a world that is at times fantastically vivid. And there is a powerful music to the language. Parts of it are part of our vernacular, and it’s pleasant to come upon them. Other parts are highly obscure, and challenging in their complex syntax. But it moves forward with confident, powerful authority, telling a really big story, bejewelled with glittering details.

I thought I might be put off by the religious subject matter, because I generally have a strong allergic reaction to such ideas. It’s true that Milton uses the Genesis story for his basic material, but he makes it into something much more dramatic and thought-provoking than the original. His transformation of early religious writings into drama is similar to what Wagner did in the Ring cycle with the Norse myths. The Creator is just one character in the drama, and hardly the most interesting one.

I also spent some time reading A Culture of Improvement by Robert Freidel. Freidel traces the elements of technology that transformed ancient and medieval life. I used to think that technology changed little between the Romans and the eighteenth century, but there are all sorts of interesting things that happened earlier. His chapter on medieval cathedrals addresses both why and how they got built. Lots of trial and error — like technology today.

My kick back book was Sabbath’s Theater by Phillip Roth. I think Roth is the best living American writer of fiction (and I know of no better in other languages), and I was pleased to see that President Obama honored him with the National Humanities medal this week. Sabbath’s Theater is a masterpiece of a dyspeptic sort. Sabbath is an aging former puppeteer and theater director who has left his callings and devoted himself primarily to seducing women. His enthusiasm for each new female is at first humorous, but it gradually becomes clear that he is deeply disturbed. It’s like Portnoy’s Complaint as King Lear. I would not recommend Sabbath’s Theater as an introduction to Roth, or to anyone uncomfortable with sexual subject matter. But for some readers, it will open doors.

Piano lesson

One door closes, and another one opens. My piano teacher for the last four years, Randy Love, left for a sabbatical in China last month. Our piano lessons, at intervals of once a month or so, have taken me a long way along the path of the great western piano music tradition. The tradition is based on written texts, but much of it is unwritten, transmitted from teacher to student. Randy has transmitted much, and been an excellent master and a good friend.

During that time, I’ve enjoyed gaining fluency at the keyboard, but I don’t view increased technical mastery as the most valuable accomplishment. Much more important, and also much harder to express, is a change in the experience of the music. “Music is feeling, not sound,” according to Wallace Stevens (in Peter Quince at the Clavier). Stevens was on to something, although music is, obviously, sound. There’s a type of emotional energy stored in written musical texts and released and renewed with each performance. And there are many levels to that emotional experience.

So I went in search of a new master, and found myself yesterday at the music building at N.C. State in the studio of Olga Kleiankina. She’s a Russian with degrees from schools in Moldova and Romania, a masters from Bowling Green and a doctorate from University of Michigan, and joined the NCSU faculty last years as head of the piano program. She’s got an impressive amount of performance experience, and is an active concert artist. She was friendly but focussed. Straight away, she invited me to try out her two pianos, and after playing a bit of Chopin on each, I settled on the Mason and Hamlin over the Yamaha. Then she asked me what I’d brought to play for her. I played the first half of Chopin’s nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2, one of Chopin’s most beautiful, lyrical pieces, very like an operatic aria, with a broad emotional range. I played it rather well, with real feeling, I thought.

Olga was polite, but wasted no time with compliments. She said she could help me with my technique, and plunged in. It was quite bracing. We worked hard on weight transfer, activating the back and arm and relaxing the wrist. She showed me different ways of positioning the fingers on the keys for different sounds. She also talked about the shape of the gestures of the hand as it related to the flow of the music. She demonstrated this in various ways, including taking my hand and guiding it. I’ve usually thought of the physical aspect of piano playing as supporting but separate from the musical part, but Olga seemed to view the two as unified. Beautiful movements make beautiful sounds. She also demonstrated a level of attention to detail that was inspiring, and daunting.

At the end of the lesson, I felt like I could be at the foot of a new mountain. There’s a long way to go to reconfigure my playing along the dimension Olga pointed to. It will be challenging, and maybe transformative.

Robert Frost and my new iPad

I’ve finally managed to memorize The Wood Pile, by Robert Frost. It’s a strange, bleak poem, about walking through a frozen swamp and not seeing very much, except snow, trees, a bird and a decaying wood pile. Just as the narrator doesn’t really know why he keeps walking deeper into a frozen swamp, I’m hard put to explain why I went to the considerable trouble of memorizing this poem. It’s difficult to picture an ordinary situation in which anyone would voluntarily listen to a recitation with pleasure. But memorizing it entailed many many readings with close examination of every word, and through that process the poem gradually revealed a stark startling beauty.

At the end of the poem, the narrator wonders at the isolated decaying wood pile, and remarks that the person who made it must be “someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks” so as to “forget his handiwork on which he spent himself, the labor of his ax.” It may be that the laboriously created, carefully measured, woodpile is one of Frost’s poems, and that Frost is pointing up the minor tragedy of art that fails to reach its audience. He also seems to be saying that remembering can be harder than creating. It isn’t hard to see that we all constantly live in eagerly turning to fresh tasks and also, without realizing it, forgetting other valuable things.

Yesterday I turned to the fresh task of learning how to work my new iPad. It is a very pleasing little device both in form and function — light, sleek, quick, uncomplicated, but sophisticated. I got it mainly to use as a reader and a web surfer, though it may turn out that other functions, like the video viewer or some game, will turn out to be useful to me. To get started, I put some of my favorite poetry on the Kindle reader, including W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Frost, thinking it would be a comfort to have them along in my travels. I also felt it would be worthwhile to always have handy some Proust, and downloaded Swann’s Way.

Within a few minutes I’d figured out how to make the Kindle reader application do some interesting things, like go to the table of contents, jump to a given page, highlight text, make a note on the text, and change the typeface of the work. This was mainly a matter of touching the screen in various ways, some of which were not immediately obvious. Experimenting with it was fun.

It’s remarkable how learning how to work new devices (sometimes hardware, but most often software) is now a constant feature of modern high tech life. In days gone by, a new device might come into my life every few months, but now it’s more like every few hours. The concept of the iPhone, and probably the iPad, includes encouraging the constant addition of more and more apps. Each app has at least a small learning curve, which consumes some amount of human energy.

Other than causing fatigue, do the apps do anything? The best thing they do is speed up information gathering. Whether the subject is world politics, scientific research, movies, or restaurants, it’s possible to get information faster. This could lead to better decisions. The problem is that our brains can only go so fast and only hold so much. Like John Henry racing to put down rails against the steam hammer, we can’t possibly keep up with the pace of our powerful computers.

So we have to figure out when to say, basta! On any given day, we have to be careful about turning to too many fresh tasks and forgetting what is really valuable. We have to quit downloading apps all the time and read something beautiful and profound, like Frost or Proust. Small, slow, and error-prone as our brains are, we need to protect and care for them and nourish them well.