The Casual Blog

Category: travel

It could be worse

On Saturday, still in shock from the election, I took a longish drive over to Hanging Rock State Park. It was sunny and brisk, and the last leg of the drive was hilly and twisty. At the park, the trail went upwards quickly. The trees were getting ready for winter. There were sweet waterfalls and cliffs, and sweeping vistas.

On the drive back, I listened to some Liszt, and continued to mull. How much should we be worried that the President-elect will keep his campaign promises?  Americans of color, immigrants, and Muslims are understandably uneasy, as are transgender people, gays, and women. Indeed, anyone with an interest in avoiding devastating climate change and nuclear catastrophe should be concerned. 

But with all those risks, there’s a strong mitigator. The President-elect is a man who has based his career on deceiving people and who is indifferent to ordinary standards of truth and honesty. There’s a long list of his victims – investors in his projects, ordinary contractors, students hoping to learn the secrets of his supposed success.

As despicable as his dishonesty is, we can now see an upside to it: his campaign promises can be significantly discounted.  For him, promises are simply words that are useful in manipulating people. He is unlikely to view any recent promises as binding. 

As to his deplorable racist language, as best we can tell, he is no ideologue. His primary driver is to be admired. He probably has no other agenda. Thus he is probably not determined to stop and frisk minorities, deport immigrants, and bar Muslims. He will probably not actively promote torturing those suspected of terrorism or killing their families. He doesn’t actually hate minorities, or care much about them one way or the other.

Of course, there are some of his supporters who are driven by hate. They are angry people. They’ll probably get angrier still when they realize that those promises that inspired them –- bringing back the good manufacturing jobs, more steel, more coal, and so forth – were just empty words, and he won’t be bringing back the jobs. His supporters could turn on him.

Same with the promises of populist change. Most likely, he’ll find the actual business of understanding government and making policy intolerably boring, and leave the real work to the traditional power elite — that is, establishment “conservatives” primarily concerned with not paying taxes and otherwise feathering their own nests, while hoping the base will be distracted by symbolic “conservative” social policies. In other words, the usual Republican playbook.

This is, to be sure, all very bad. Our structural economic problems, including inequality of opportunity, will not be addressed. Our systemic health care problems will probably get worse. Our education system problems will not be fixed. Our environmental problems will probably get worse. The threat of war, including cyber war, will increase. The existential threats from global warming – hurricanes, draughts, floods – will get worse, as will the existential threat of the nuclear holocaust hair-trigger – if we’re lucky.

But it could be worse. At the moment, the plumbing and electricity still work. There’s food in the stores and medicine in the hospitals. We’re not in a state of war, or a condition of near anarchy.

I don’t rule out the possibility that our traditional protections for free expression and limits on state power could go by the wayside. Thug paramilitaries could be unleashed, with dissidents disappearing, and ever more intrusive state surveillance.  We could become a kleptocratic thugocracy, like Russia, or some new species of fascism.  And then you and I would find out how much courage we really have.
But we’re not there yet, and we may not get there. In his latest NY Times column, David Brooks predicted that the President-elect would “probably resign or be impeached within a year.”

Anyhow, we survived the Reagan years (though we wreaked considerable havoc). We survived the George W. Bush years (though wreaking more havoc). We will probably survive the years (or months) of the Orange One.  

Going to a new gym, the battle for truth in Trumpworld, and intelligent animals

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Sunrise at Monument Valley, Navaho Nation

Last week I got a new gym membership at Lifetime Fitness at Six Forks. Why? I needed to get out of a workout rut and push forward. The cardio and weight equipment at Lifetime is more plentiful than at O2, and the space is larger. It also has a pool. It’s a little farther, but still easy to get to. I think I will like it.

My usual early morning workout starts with 10 minutes on the stairs machine, then 10 on the treadmill. Then I do core work (planks, leg lifts, etc.), balance, and flexion for 10-15. The next 25 is for resistance training, doing upper body and lower body on alternating days. Then 10 intense minutes of intervals on the elliptical or bike. At the end I stretch for 5-10 minutes. The numbers don’t quite add up, but it covers a lot of systems, and takes about an hour and a half.

Speaking of exercise, I want to give a little shout out to my new heart rate monitor, the Polar M400. Keeping track of my cardio effort level when exercising sometimes inspires me to work harder, and at least shows something is happening. The new device has a chest strap with a small snap-on Blue Tooth transmitter that signals a wrist monitor. In addition to showing current heart rate, it calculates average and maximum heart rate, steps, calories burned, and (with GPS) speed and distance traveled. It comes with some easy-to-use software for saving results on a smart phone or a laptop. There’s a little stick figure salutes you and congratulates you enthusiastically. My former device, a low-end Garmin, was less reliable, less entertaining, and more costly, so in hindsight I’m glad it finally broke down and needed replacing.

Waiging for sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Before sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

While working out, I’ve been listening to various podcasts, including the latest This American Life. This show just keeps getting better – taking on some big subjects, with insight and dark humor. This week Ira Glass looked at Trumpworld, where lying is non-stop and shameless. We know this now, but we’re still struggling with something even more disturbing than pathological lying: that in Trumpworld, truth has no force.

It doesn’t matter that clearly indisputable facts show that crime is down, immigration is under control, our military is by far the strongest in the world, election fraud is incredibly rare, and the President is not a Muslim who founded ISIS – the true believers will not believe it. Until recently, I thought that these bad ideas were a problem of ignorance – just not having the right facts – but it turns out that that’s not it. For these folks, if evidence contradicts their beliefs, the evidence must be disregarded. We know that some of these people are intelligent, generous, and well-meaning, but they live in an alternative reality.

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Sunset at Horseshoe Bend, Navaho Nation

Speaking of unconventional psychology, I finished reading Jonathan Balcombe’s recent book What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins. I liked it. Balcombe challenges the conventional wisdom regarding fish intelligence, which has it that their lives are largely automatic and instinctual, without consciousness or creativity. There’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. Some species have astonishing memories, the ability to plan, and to use tools. They experience fear and pain, and also pleasure. They have complex social relationships, and form groups both for hunting and protection. And they have an incredible range of skills in sensing and responding to their environment.

I also recommend Frans de Waal’s new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? De Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, debunks with overwhelming evidence the old chestnuts that only humans use tools, cooperate in social groups, and recognize individual identity. He presents an array of fascinating examples of non-human cognition, and invites us to use our imaginations to enter those other worlds. After reading De Waal, it is hard to view humans as entirely distinct from other animals and inherently privileged to exploit them. The gifts of other creatures are awe-inspiring.

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

Sunset at Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

In Antelope Canyon


Each week for the Casual Blog I try to make some new photographs that I like well enough to share. This forces me to get outside and explore, which is fun. To avoid the obvious and keep from repeating myself, I have to keep experimenting and learning. It’s challenging, and also sort of a virtuous cycle. At any rate, I enjoy it, and feel like I'm getting better.

But I’m departing from custom this week. I’ve been sorting through photos from my photo workshop trip to Utah and Arizona (described in my last post), and post processing some of them.
The ones here are from lower Antelope Canyon. It’s a narrow slot canyon with red sandstone cliffs of flowing serpentine shapes. The location is in the Navaho Nation, near Page, Arizona. You may have seen a popular Windows screen saver that depicts one of the areas we passed. There were so many amazing spots.

Our group was privileged to be led by local Navaho guys who knew the terrain well and understood the needs of photographers. We were working with tripods and taking long exposures, which required patience of both us and other visitors.

In places the passage was only wide enough for one person. There were stairs that were almost ladders. Getting ourselves and gear along was challenging, particularly with other visitors coming in the opposite direction. But by golly, we did it!

During the Southwestern workshop, leaders Scott and Phil helped me up the learning curve in photo processing with Lightroom and Photoshop. In Lightroom, my RAW images are getting more vivid and closer to my impressions and intentions. I still find Photoshop daunting in its complexity, but I’ve got a better understanding of the key photography tools, and am getting proficient in doing some kinds of repairs. I’m looking forward to learning more.

Seeing and photographing some awesome icons in the Southwest


I just got back from my nine-day southwestern photography trip, which started and ended in Las Vegas. Vegas did not enchant me. It reminded me of an upscale shopping mall interbred with Times Square and Disneyland. Leaving aside some public near-nudity and drunkenness, it didn’t seem very extraordinary, much less alluring or sophisticated. Gambling in smoky casinos was not my thing, and I wasn’t much in the mood for a show.

But walking the Strip on my last night, I was impressed with the sheer size and busyness, and I liked all the glowing neon. The service personnel I encountered were surprisingly warm and friendly.

My real objective was to take in some of the iconic rocks and other features of Utah and Arizona and learn more about landscape photography. I went with a group of eight photographers organized by Aperture Academy and led by Scott Donschikowski and Phil Nicholas. We drank in and photographed Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches, Monument Valley, Horseshoe Bend, Lower Antelope Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.

It was amazing! Photographs can never do complete justice to these landscapes, which may be why, even knowing there are so many previous pictures, we keep on trying. I was moved, awed, and inspired. The forces of nature that made all this – primordial minerals, oceans and rivers, tectonic plates, hundreds of generations of flora and fauna, sun, rain, and wind – brought to mind geologic time – tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions of years. It made me feel at once very small and incredibly fortunate. The beauty is powerful.

I learned some very practical things about photography. For instance: there’s stiff competition to stake out a position for your tripod at the most famous sites, and so you have to get there really early. We were out the door and on our way as early as 3:30 a.m. for sunrise shots. We traveled in the middle of the day, and then set up at a new site for sunsets and shot until they were done. We got tips on composition, learned about using various filters, and experimented with white balance, apertures, and shutter speeds. We also learned various post-processing techniques.

I made lots of mistakes, but learned from them. My teachers were generous with their support, photographic and otherwise. Phil helped me regroup after a fall on a steep hill at Monument Valley, and Scott let me use his tripod when I lost a critical piece of mine. We had good weather throughout, though as Phil and Scott noted, the clouds could have been a little more dramatic in places.

My fellow shutterbugs were friendly and supportive. We were not all in agreement on the question of Clinton vs. Trump, which at first concerned me. Every day there was new news of Trump’s deep flaws, and the Trump supporters were clearly accomplished, intelligent people. I gathered that they had managed to filter out or suppress the information about his dishonesty and other unethical behavior, and greatly magnified the supposed negatives of Hillary (Benghazi! The emails!). And in spite of their apparent security and prosperity, they seemed very worried about crime and immigrants.

It was good, though, to be reminded that people with some disturbing opinions can also be knowledgeable, wise, considerate, and ethical. And good to be reminded that we can agree on many things and help and enjoy each other, even when we disagree strongly on others.

Raleigh’s newest crane, Big Food, and getting ready for Utah

Last Saturday afternoon, I got to watch the new construction crane go up at the old Greyhound bus station site, just southeast of us. Construction sites are fun to watch! And there’ve been a lot of them in Raleigh lately. We’re still growing.

On Sunday I visited Raulston Arboretum, where there were fall blossoms and lots of butterflies. I got some shots I liked of an American Lady, of which these were my favorites.

I recommend reading a new piece by Michael Pollan in the NY Times magazine about our food system and our political system. Pollan has written before about the power and nefarious influence of Big Food. Here’s his quick description:

A food system organized around subsidized monocultures of corn and soy . . . guzzled tremendous amounts of fossil fuel (for everything from the chemical fertilizer and pesticide those fields depended on to the fuel needed to ship food around the world) and in the process emitted tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas — as much as a third of all emissions, by some estimates. At the same time, the types of food that can be made from all that subsidized corn and soy — feedlot meat and processed foods of all kinds — bear a large measure of responsibility for the steep rise in health care costs: A substantial portion of what we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases linked to diet.

His new piece is about how Big Food lobbied hard to stop every reform proposed by the Obama administration, and was generally successful. But he concludes on a somewhat hopeful note.

[B]ehind the industry’s wall of political power, there indeed lurks a vulnerability. That vulnerability is the conscience of the American eater, who in the past decade or so has taken a keen interest in the question of where our food comes from, how it is produced and the impact of our everyday food choices on the land, on the hands that feed us, on the animals we eat and, increasingly, on the climate. Though still a minority, the eaters who care about these questions have come to distrust Big Food and reject what it is selling. Looking for options better aligned with their values, they have created, purchase by purchase, a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food. Call it Little Food. And while it is still tiny in comparison with Big Food, it is nevertheless the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

Some large food companies are voluntarily changing their practices in response to the concerns of these consumers, whether about antibiotics, animal welfare or the welfare of farmworkers. One future of food politics may lie in grass-roots campaigns targeted not at politicians in Washington but directly at Big Food and its consumers, taking aim at its Achilles’ heel: those precious brands.

Maybe so. Anyhow, kudos to Pollan for speaking truth to power, and educating the rest of us.

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading to southern Utah and Arizona to see some of the most amazing rocks on the planet: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon, all of which I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I’ll be traveling with a small group of photographers, and taking lots of pictures. I’ve been to REI and Outdoor Provisions to get insulating layers for those cold mornings, and have made up my mind what lenses not to lug. I’m ready!

Wildflowers, bug bites, and why I’m getting behind Hillary

Wrightsville divingBug 1-2It’s been unpleasantly hot and humid this week. On Saturday I got out early to avoid some of the heat and visited the park at the art museum and hiked in Schenk Forest. I enjoyed seeing and photographing the wildflowers and butterflies.
Wrightsville divingBug 1-7

Taking this kind of pictures involves getting heading into the woods and pushing through the high grass. On Saturday I was still recovering from fifteen or so bug bites on my legs from an outing at Jordan Lake two weeks ago. These were no ordinary mosquito bites. They were much bigger, itchier, and longer lasting. Some of them were probably chiggers, but I have no idea what creatures did the others. I also had a couple of tick bites.

There is a real risk of Lyme disease and other insect-borne illnesses in these parts, and I’ve made up my mind to take more care. No more wearing shorts on these kinds of outings, and more systematic insecticiding. I tried out Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus, which includes SPF 30 sunscreen. I got no new bites, though of course it’s possible the biting bugs were busy elsewhere.
Wrightsville divingBug 1-8

There’s an interesting recent essay by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, explaining the rising tide of anti-immigrant paranoia in terms of the psychology of authoritarianism. Authoritarians, defined according to child-rearing preferences like prioritizing obedience, are in Haidt’s view not naturally intolerant, but become more so when they perceive a threat to their values and culture.

For example, Muslims who insist on their own distinctive customs pose an implicit challenge to traditional mainstream customs and values, and the authoritarian personality reacts with alarm and anger. This alarm isn’t so much fear of mass killings as of dilution of the values that bind together families and communities. Liberals don’t understand or sympathize with those feelings, but right wing demagogues understand and exploit them.

It’s an interesting theory, and seems to explain some of the weirdness now in the air. Even if not completely right, it reminds us how complicated and varied humans are, and how little we really understand about the drivers of our behavior as either individuals or groups. More study is needed, as the scholars say.
Wrightsville divingBug 1-9

Anyhow, many Democrats, including me, can affirm that perceived threats can draw us together. So it was this week that many of us, disturbed and mildly traumatized by the anger and barely repressed violence of the Republican Convention, decided it was time to put aside our differences and pull for Hillary. Whatever else, she is the lessor of the evils, by at least an order of magnitude.

I truly respect and admire Hillary Clinton for her intelligence, strength, and discipline, and her long record of public service. At the same time, I worry that her natural instincts will dispose her to continue the status quo of wide income inequality and destructive militarism. But there’s a possibility she can change. And there is no imaginable scenario in which she is the author of the kind of disasters and self-inflicted wounds surely in store under President Trump. We need to work together for a massive Hillary victory that leaves no question that the great majority of us completely reject him and his ideas.
Wrightsville divingBug 1-4

Inspiring art in New York

This week I had a conference in New York on patents and patent trolls. I stayed in the conference hotel, the Times Square Sheraton. I was on the 32nd floor. Though there were minor glitches — no way to raise the window shade, wi-fi that required a long tech services call, slow elevator service — it was a reasonably nice hotel, and conveniently located.

After the conference, I took a vacation day to make a long weekend, and saw some old friends and some art. NPR had a story recently on the sale of the art collection of David Bowie. Asked to describe the collection, an art person said the works were mainly bold, and seemed to be things Bowie bought because they spoke to him, rather than as investments. He bought art for inspiration. That seemed to me a good criterion for deciding what art to spend time with, and so I made a point of looking for work that might inspire me.

On Thursday evening, I met up with Jocelyn in Chelsea, and got my introduction to gallery opening night, which happens every Thursday. We looked into four or five galleries, sipped cheap Chardonnay, and checked out the new work. Although I didn’t see anything life changing, there was work worth talking about, and we had fun talking.

On Friday morning, I spent some time at the Metropolitan Museum. I focused on the Greco-Roman collection and art of ancient Near Eastern civilizations. These very old objects (some several thousand years old) are powerful, but also somehow calming. Civilizations rise and fall, but as far back as we can look, humans have a drive to make things of beauty.

In the afternoon, I went to the Met Breuer and saw In the Beginning, photographs of Diane Arbus. I’d thought of Arbus as being mainly about pictures of sideshow freaks and other oddities. This turned out to be not completely untrue, but still really wrong. Her portraits take their subjects completely seriously, regarding them as specific individuals with dignity. Arbus somehow got them to open up, and we find ourselves connecting with them. It’s a strange feeling, a new domain of human experience. Afterwards, looking around at ordinary people, I felt more curious, and noticed fleeting expressions and feelings.

Jocelyn and I had a pre-theater dinner at the Robert, where we had a table by the window looking out from the 9th floor on Columbus Circle, Central Park, and Broadway. J had requested this particular spot, and it was truly a spectacular panorama. The couple ahead of us must have liked it, too, because they sat for forty minutes longer than expected, and caused us to get started on dinner behind schedule. The staff comped our cocktails, and sped service up to help us get out in time for our show. It was a hot struggling walk through the Times Square tourist crowd to get to the Minskoff theater, but we made it, with about ninety seconds to spare.

We saw The Lion King. It was, of course, wonderful. There’s a reason that it’s a huge long-running success, with a sweet story of coming of age, soaring melodies and exciting drumming, and those fantastic puppet costumes. I’m normally more of an opera person, and felt slightly out of place joining the LK crowd. But as Jocelyn noted, it would be too bad if you couldn’t enjoy something when they main thing it does is make you smile. We were definitely smiling.

On Saturday, I had lunch with my old friend Bob Dunn, who gave me a copy of his new novel Savage Joy. He had news of several former colleagues from our New Yorker days, and caught me up on his writing, photography, teaching, and other career developments. We also discussed Trump.

The other art exhibit I saw that particularly affected me was by Danny Lyon, titled Message to the Future, at the Whitney. Lyon’s photography was highly socially engaged, including stints photographing the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, migrant farm workers, prisoners, and other outsiders. Like Arbus, his subjects are particular individuals, rather than symbols. He’s adept at telling their stories. I was also intrigued by his montages, which combine photos and other materials in a way that suggests a multiplicity of connections. I watched a chunk of his film on a tattoo artist, which was painfully intimate.

A Wrightsville scuba weekend

Last weekend Sally, Gabe, and I drove down to Wrightsville Beach for some scuba diving. We stayed in the Hilton Express in Wilmington, and went out to the wreck of the Hyde on Saturday, and the wreck of the Liberty ship on Sunday. It was good to gear up and get wet again.

The Hyde is about twenty miles out of Wrightsville, and getting there took over an hour, in seas that were a bit choppy. With seventeen divers, the small Aqua Safari boat was quite crowded. Once the tanks were all connected to the gear, there was a ledge of about 5 inches to sit on. It was not comfortable. Several divers got seasick.

We did two dives on the Hyde, which was about 80 feet down. Visibility there was about 40 feet. We saw sand tiger sharks, southern sting rays, barracuda, and hundreds of small fish. I tried out my new Olympus TG-4 camera with a PT-056 housing and two Sea and Sea strobes. Although I didn’t get any career photos, I liked the feel of the equipment, which much smaller and easier to work with than my last rig, and ran glitch-free.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That evening we met up with my sister-in-law, Anne, and ate at a very nice restaurant called Manna. It was relatively upscale for Wilmington, with women in dresses and none of the men in tee shirts. Although there were no vegetarian entrees on the menu, our waiter explained that the chef could whip them up according to our directions or, if we preferred, according to his inspiration. I gave some directions based on the day’s non-meat accompaniments, and Sally decided to trust the chef entirely. We were all delighted with the food and the service.

On Sunday morning, it was only a short boat ride to the Liberty ship. The visibility about 40 feet under was quite limited – about 10 feet – and the creatures we saw on our two dives were all small ones. We were hoping to find an octopus, which didn’t happen, though we did see some oyster toadfish and a striped burrfish. We were happy that we didn’t lose each other in the murky gloom, and that we managed to find our way back to the anchor line and the boat.

A lovely wedding, and new books on evictions and the war on drugs

On Saturday we drove down to Charlotte and then flew to Chattanooga for my nephew’s wedding. After we checked in to the downtown Holiday Inn, we took a cab to Dalton, Georgia for the ceremony.  The venue was a converted farm, with green meadows and mountains in the distance, and the skies were sunny and blue.  It was good to see family, and good to see the loving groom and bride.

On Sunday morning we walked from the hotel down to the river, and that was all the time we had to check out Chattanooga before flying out.  We would have visited the aquarium if we’d had a little more time.  People we encountered seemed unusually friendly.

With the benefit of all that happiness, I was able to have a look at some counterbalancing sad truths, including finishing reading Evicted, by Matthew Desmond.  It’s a close up view of the lives of poor people in Milwaukee who can sometimes barely, and sometimes can’t, make rent.  The problems related to housing insecurity are basic but also big — joblessness, poor nutrition, poor education, and lack of community.  It’s an eye- opening  and disturbing portrait, and a call for reform. I highly recommend it.

I also finished a Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari, a book about our war on drugs.  The book focuses on a few individuals who were either drug warriors (government officials, drug logs) or victims. I hadn’t known the story of Harry Anslinger, a primary architect of the federalization and internationalizing of the war on drugs starting in the 1930s. In this telling, he is a ignorant, peculiar man, but, unfortunately, highly effective in promoting the idea that some drugs are inherently evil, and the people who take them should be treated as criminals.

Hari offers the alternative view that illegal drugs are not inherently different from legal ones, and although they can be harmful, we’ve inherited a greatly exaggerated view of their harmfulness.  Drug addicts are not zombie monsters, but rather troubled human beings who can be helped.  He examines the results of the legalization programs in Portugal and elsewhere, and looks at how we might get to legalization in the U.S.  I thought the book was a bit heavy on the human interest anecdotes and sometimes light on the science, but still well worth reading.

There was also a good short primer this week on the history of the war on drugs in the Huffington Post by Tessie Castillo. Castillo makes a good case that the main reason we treat certain drugs as illegal was economics and cultural prejudice, and particularly fear of immigrants.  Opium was perfectly legal and widely available until Chinese workers were demonized as taking American jobs, at which point it was criminalized.  Similarly, marijuana was legal until it became associated with Mexican immigrants and other minorities, at which point it became “dangerous.”  The myths required to sustain this view, including explicitly racist nonsense, eventually began to seem real.  

Richard Nixon has been treated unfairly by history in some respects, such as our tendency to forget his progressive social programs, but he deserves disdain and disgust for his whipping up the hysteria on drugs.  According to reporting by Dan Baum, John Ehrlichman, White House counsel to President Nixon, fessed up as follows: “The Nixon campaign in 1968 and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar Left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Political cynicism? Perhaps a wee bit. But note, President Reagan followed suit, and President Clinton, and …. Well, we’re still fighting a war on drugs that with enormous costs in dollars and lives, based on fundamentally false premises. I think we’re starting to realize this is crazy, but we’ve still got a ways to go.

A thought-provoking documentary film festival in Durham

Having had such a good time last year at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, this year we decided to go all in. We got a room at the downtown Marriott, which connects to the site in the Durham Convention Center, and took some vacation so we could stay all four days. We saw some excellent documentaries, met some interesting people, and had a lot of good conversations and other fun.

In high school I had a music theory teacher who was a practitioner of Eckankar, which teaches that the soul can separate from the body and travel about. I ordinarily think of Eckankar as an example of the useful rule that there’s no idea so bizarre that some subpopulation won’t believe it. Still, this weekend was soul travel of a sort. The documentaries whisked us around the world and also transported us into some remote and unfamiliar interior landscapes.

Another thing I like about documentaries is that in general they try to be truthful. Even when the filmmaker has a strong point of view, she’ll almost inevitably provide evidence for other points of view. We were particularly interested this year in the films that took on complex social issues. For several of those, the filmmakers answered questions afterwards, and the messages they thought they were sending were not always the same as the ones we took away. I viewed that not so much as an indication of the filmmaker’s weakness as of the medium’s strength.

There were more than 100 films screened, of which we saw 17, including several that I expect to be thinking about for quite a while. Here are some quick notes on my favorites.

Weiner. This was about Anthony Weiner and his New York mayoral campaign, which ended in ignominy because of his social media sexting. Weiner became a late night TV punchline, and so it was a surprise to see him presented as a complex person with a great deal of intelligence and drive. As Sally noted, it was a great reminder that headlines can be misleading. I sat next to co-director Josh Kriegman at another film, and was happy to learn from him that Weiner is still married.

Sonita. Sonita is a 15-year-old Afghan girl living in Tehran who wants to be a successful rap artist. As crazy as it sounds, she may just do it. From her first informal performance with her girlfriends, you sense a prodigious talent. The odds against her are huge at the beginning, as her poor, traditional family plans to sell her to be married, but she records Brides for Sale, which becomes a minor sensation, and things start to happen. You should check out her gut-punching music video, which is here.
Clinica de Migrantes. A clinic in south Philadelphia provides primary medical care for mostly Hispanic undocumented immigrant workers. The volunteer doctors and other personnel are overworked and overwhelmed, but they somehow soldier on, with empathy and kindness. The patients look a lot like the people we see cleaning our hotel rooms, preparing restaurant food, building our houses, and caring for our yards and our children. The film doesn’t preach about the injustice of leaving these people out of the health care system, but quietly makes you feel it. It also reminds you that there are some really good people in the world.

Unlocking the Cage. The subject is Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, which has brought habeas corpus petitions on behalf of caged chimpanzees. Wise has worked for 30 years for animal rights, and has succeeded in raising the profile of the issues. He maintains a remarkable air of humanity and decency even with those who think he must be crazy.

Raising Bertie. This film was made about 100 miles from here as the crow flies in Bertie Co., N.C., a poor, rural, majority African-American area. The filmmakers spent 6 years following 3 young black men trying to get through high school and become adults. They make some of the same mistakes that their parents made, such as starting families when they’re much too young, and struggle to find decent jobs. It’s a subject that we all think we know about, but have never seen this intimately, and it’s powerful. We got to meet with one of the filmmakers and a couple of the film’s subjects in the hotel bar last night.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. This film by master documentarian Joe Berlinger follow self-help impressario Robbins through a six-day seminar for which he charges $5,000 per head. It struck me as a mix of evangelical Christian revival and new product sales force meeting, where the attendees were encouraged to get excited and emotional and commit to a better life or more productive next quarter. Robbins struck me as a snake oil salesperson, though more well-meaning than some. I was surprised to learn, when Berlinger spoke afterwards, that he had attended a Robbins seminar and found it life changing in a good way. But as noted above, this disconnect speaks well of the medium, and also of Berlinger, in allowing for different interpretations.

Don’t Blink: Robert Frank. Laura Israel, the director, worked with Frank for years as an editor before making this remarkable film. I just started looking hard at Frank’s intense, quirky photography in the last couple of years, and came to this documentary knowing nothing of his experimental films and other work. I came away with even more respect for Frank, and more curiosity. The film says something fundamental about how artists make art: they never stop experimenting.

I could go on, but, enough. Footnote: I made all these photographs except the tulips on a Samsung Galaxy S7, which I got a week ago. So far, it seems like a very smart smartphone, with a surprisingly credible camera.
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