The Casual Blog

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The Eno at the end of fall, meditating, a piano lesson, and a list of thought-provoking books

With a big winter storm on the way, on Saturday I drove over to Durham and hiked along the Eno River on the Cole Mill trail. The colors were muted, and I was reminded of that melancholy tune by the Mamas and the Papas:  “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.”  It was quiet, except for the noise of the fast-moving water.  

I’d brought along my camera equipment, planning to make some landscape images, but struggled to get inspired.  Things didn’t seem at all scenic, and in fact seemed kind of sad. But after a bit I slowed down and started noticing spots of unusual energy, like tree roots and branches, decaying stumps and pale lichens on boulders.  The shots here are what developed.

Taking in smaller wonders is one of the lessons I’ve taken from my efforts at mindfulness meditation.  Over the last few months, my 15 minutes of daily sitting have helped with managing stress, and also has given me some meaningful, though humbling, insights into my own unruly thinking processes.  I’m looking forward to learning more.

On Saturday afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina over at the N.C. State music department.  As I’ve noted before, I usually think of my piano playing as music therapy, providing personal balance, flow, and happiness, without many connections to my professional or social life.  But Olga always reminds me that piano playing is also a serious undertaking, with long traditions, deep musical questions, and technical challenges that are not easily surmounted, as well as the potential for personal expression, communicating feelings, and transcendent beauty.  

This week I played a well-loved Chopin waltz (c# minor, Op. 64, no. 2).  I arrived with a good mastery of the notes and a decent understanding of the architecture.  She wanted me to incorporate some new gestural elements to improve the sound, and explained to me how she uses the legs and core for fine keyboard control.  I also played Debussy’s beautiful Bruyeres from Preludes, book 2. We talked about varying tone colors and voicing (both horizontally and vertically), and specialized pedaling challenges.  The lesson was almost two hours, and I was exhausted at the end, but also inspired.

Last week I was telling a friend about rereading (actually, re-listening to) Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He noted that in the last couple of years I’d mentioned several books that relate to his interests in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy, and asked if I’d mind making a list of favorites.  

So I looked over what I’d read involving science topics and other big ideas in the last couple of years, and realized, it’s a lot!  For whatever it’s worth, here is a selection of books I found worthwhile and would be happy to discuss with other readers. I have not attempted to rank them, but they are roughly grouped by major subject.  

Science matters, mainly in the areas of physics, biology (including neuroscience), and psychology

The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far:  Why Are We Here? By Lawrence Krauss

Origin Story:  A Big History of Everything, by David Christian

The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll

I Contain Multitudes:  The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

The Moral Animal:  The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright

How Emotions Are Made:  The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Behave:  The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Before You Know It:  The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh

The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, by Jonathan Balcombe

Other Minds:  The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben

Half-Earth:  Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Assorted Other Interesting Ideas

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent

The Shape of the New:  Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder

The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg

Why Buddhism Is True:  The Science and Philosophy of  Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

Connections, construction, climate change denialism, and the insect apocalypse

The new Publix, looking toward downtown Raleigh

We had a nice Thanksgiving weekend, with family visiting and catching us up. Jocelyn and Kyle, down from New York, had sworn off Alexa, and had interesting things to say about privacy and social media.  Among many other things, we talked about the epidemic of loneliness. Even with overwhelming digital connectedness, meaningful connections aren’t getting any easier.  Love takes some work.

The big construction projects in our neighborhood in downtown Raleigh are coming right along.  I took the Tiller drone up on Saturday morning and flew around the work site of our forthcoming Publix and the almost-complete Metro apartments for some fun and pictures.  It’s going to be so good to have a grocery store just down the street. I had a scare when my aircraft and I lost radio contact, but after I did a short walk to get out from behind a building we got back together.  

Sally and I went over to Durham that evening for some food and chamber music.  We ate at Viceroy, which features good British-style Indian food, which we finally figured out we like best on the milder side of spicy.  Then we heard the Calidore String Quartet play at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium. They’re a relatively young group that’s won a lost of prizes, and we thought they were excellent.  They played with passionate musicality and rare freedom. Their program was also inspired: Sergey Prokofiev, Caroline Shaw (an N.C. native born in 1982), and the brilliant Robert Schumann.  

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the Boylan Heights Art Walk.  Residents had lent their porches and front yards for the day to many artists and craftspeople, including potters, jewelers, wood workers, metal workers, weavers, glass blowers, printmakers, painters, and others.  The weather was mild.  We enjoyed looking over the work, and chatting with friends.

There’s been a lot of good journalism this week about climate change, including some addressing the puzzle of why climate change denialism persists.  Possible answers, as Paul Krugman recently noted,include ignorance, party tribalism, and corporate greed (similar to the cigarette industries’ disgraceful denial that their product caused cancer). Anyhow, there’s some good news with the bad: as we experience more and more catastrophic weather, like droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes, more people are recognizing that there’s a planetary emergency.

But most of the discussion is still about the disastrous effects of global warming on humans — their cities, housing, transportation networks, food supplies, and so forth.  I keep looking for more discussion of what is happening to the non-human natural world. These last few years as I’ve spent more time hiking in the woods, it’s seemed like fewer birds are singing.  Given my small sample size, I haven’t drawn any firm conclusions from my data, but I’ve been worried.

The almost complete Metro, restored after the big fire of last year

This week the NY Times published a strong piece by Brooke Jarvis titled The Insect Apocalypse Is Here:  What Will the Decline of Bugs Mean for the Rest of Life on Earth?  Jarvis summarizes a lot of data, and makes a convincing case that in recent decades insect life has collapsed on a massive scale.  Populations of monarch butterflies are down 90 percent, and other studies show reductions in flying insects of 75 percent and more.    

We hardly noticed, and we still don’t fully understand the causes.  Along with global warming, there have been pesticides and loss of habitat.  Monarchs aside, most insects aren’t particularly glamorous, and we seldom think about their role in the ecosystem.  But without enough insects, a lot of birds and other animals starve. In addition to their vital niche in the food chain, insects pollinate many plants and turn dead things and waste into soil.  

As alarming as the insect decline is, Jarvis’s article shows that there are people who care.  There’s a short profile of a group of passionate entomologists in Krefeld, Germany, who have kept detailed records of their bug watching since 1905.  Their main motivation seems to have been simple love of nature.

The big lake, Leonardo, and Blue Planet II

This week was raw and rainy, and I was sick with a cold.  But it brightened up for the weekend. On Saturday morning I went up to Umstead park and walked around the big lake.  At a certain point, I set up my tripod and took some pictures with various lenses and filters. As usual, my objective was to practice the craft and come up with a few new images that, if not masterworks, at least weren’t too embarrassing to share.  Which is what I did, as shown here.

On the drive back I neared the end of the audiobook version of Leonardo, the recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.  I’d gotten bogged down in a couple of sections where Isaacson describes and interprets particular paintings more than I found helpful. But I thought he did a good job over all of telling Leonardo’s story and bringing to life aspects of the early Renaissance.  

I’d known in a general way that Leonardo was a polymath, but I had not appreciated the full range of his interests and accomplishments.   He was a professional musician, theatrical producer, and writer, as well as an inventor, engineer, designer, architect, urban planner, and proto-scientist.  Not to mention a pretty good painter.

Leonardo was good-looking and convivial, though there was a dark side.  Isaacson notes some very disturbing behaviors, including probable sexual exploitation of minors and eagerly offering his services to murderous tyrants.  His reach frequently exceeded his grasp, and he started many more things than he finished. But it’s hard not to be inspired by his powerful curiosity and passionate attempts, sometimes successful, to see things that no one had seen before.  

This week we watched a several episodes of Blue Planet II, a BBC documentary about the life in the world’s oceans.  We’d gotten tired of waiting for it to show up on Netflix and decided to pay for it on Amazon. It was worth it!  The photography was just incredible. As scuba divers, we’ve swum in some of the places and seen some of the creatures, but many were new to us.  And we saw some almost unknown behaviors — fish playing, using tools, and working cooperatively with different species.

It’s exhilarating to experience such wonders, and troubling that the level of the threat to them is dire.  Rising ocean temperatures and acidification are killing the big coral reefs, and plastics and other chemicals are strangling and poisoning many creatures.  The reefs and underwater forests could be gone in a few decades. The question remains whether humans will get their act together and save our oceans.    

The case of the missing lake, making paintings out of photographs, fake videos, Harari’s 21 Lessons, and Stevenson’s Just Mercy

 

On Saturday morning I went up to Durant Park to see how the leaves were doing.  It was a brisk 51 degrees, and the light was undramatic, without a cloud in the sky. I was sorry to find they’d drained the lower lake to repair the dam, and the mud in the lake bed wasn’t so pretty.  But the upper lake was still a lake, and it was good to be outdoors, smelling the fallen leaves.

I took a few pictures, including some with my 10 stop filter for long exposures that smoothed out the lake surface.  I wasn’t especially enamored of any of them, but I did enjoy experimenting on them with Topaz Studio. This software will turn photographs into many different styles of paintings.  A few of my initial efforts with the tool are paired here with their source photos.  

Is it OK to make an impressionist painting in a few minutes, without a paintbrush?  I say yes, with this qualification: we should be honest and forthright about what we’re doing.  We’re interacting with nature using our own imagination, aided by our DSLR cameras and our processing software, which draws on manifold technical and creative sources, including the artistic geniuses of times past.  That said, if the images work — touching us, moving us — they work.

There is certainly the possibility of artistic fraud, and it should give us pause.  This week we’ve seen the White House promoting fake video of a reporter assaulting a press office person.  It wasn’t a particularly good fake, so it was quickly detected. But it’s getting so easy to make reasonably convincing fake video that you and I could do it.  This technology will surely change the way we think about the images, and probably make us trust our eyes less. There’s a good piece by Joshua Rothman in this week’s New Yorker about the people who are advancing this technology, including some who worry about its implications.  

That said, photographers will continue to seek interesting subjects, and interesting things to do with those subjects.  On the way back from Durant, I stopped at Peace Camera. The store used to be on Peace Street, a couple of blocks from our building, but it’s now in north Raleigh.  I was sorry when it moved, but I really like the new store, and the sales people were friendly and helpful. I found a couple of new gadgets I liked, and enjoyed talking shop with one of the sales guys about practical photography challenges, like finding a good storage bag for circular filters.  

On the trip home, I listened to the latter part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli history professor, and also a vegan and dedicated meditator. The title is unfortunate, since it sounds like it might be a self-help or text book.  In fact, it’s a bracing discussion of serious global problems, including racism, authoritarianism, robotics and AI, genetic engineering, economic dislocation, climate change, and nuclear war.

Harari takes a very long historical view, starting prior to homo sapiens, and has broad geographic and intellectual scope.  He moves along quickly (sometimes too quickly), but of course, some of the issues he addresses are existential, with short deadlines.  Among other minor points, he notes that there is nothing new about fake news. The earliest civilizations were organized around animating myths with no factual basis, and generally speaking this is true of us as individuals.  This could be viewed as depressing, but I prefer to take it as a foundation for humility and tolerance.

I finally finished Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson.  Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, and has spent decades seeking justice for row inmates and others.  He provides new perspectives on the death penalty, mass incarceration, and racial bias in the American legal system.  He has a really big heart. Given the brutality of his chosen for his battleground and the long odds against success, it’s remarkable that he has not given in to cynicism and despair.   I found his book an inspiring source of hope.

Sunrise this morning, looking northeast toward Raleigh, with the new Metropolitan apartment building in the foreground nearing completion

Learning photography in western N.C., and saving the wild places

Last week I went to the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina for a photography workshop.  I was hoping to improve my camera and processing skills, take in some natural beauty, and meet some nice people.  That all happened, and I also made these pictures.

The workshop was led by Chas Glatzer, a master nature photographer and gifted teacher.  He was friendly, patient, and nonjudgmental. He got our group to good vantage points for sunrise and sunset and tried to make sure we didn’t slip on the rocks near waterfalls or get mauled by a herd of elk.  

Chas coached us individually on composition and camera settings.  He also explained the work behind some of his stunning animal shots in harsh and remote places.  He was ably assisted by Dave Kelly, who taught us some good Lightroom processing techniques, and helped me figure out more about my Nikon D850, which he also uses.    

We stayed in the Hampton Inn in Pisgah Forest, Brevard County, N.C.  Brevard bills itself as the U.S. mecca for waterfalls, with 250 of them, and the ones we saw were beautiful  The trees were changing colors, though the colors were muted this year. We also saw an impressive herd of elk (28) and a flock of wild turkeys. 

The majority of our group was older, with several retirees, and most were quite knowledgeable and experienced in photography.  We talked a lot about equipment and techniques. I got some good tips, and also enjoyed hearing about their lives. Some were dealing with serious health conditions and other tough circumstances, but they seemed absorbed and happy in their efforts to make better photos.  There’s a lesson there on dealing with personal adversity.

The mountains of western NC, with their dense forests and wildlife, are special for me:  I always feel my head getting clearer and my heart expanding there. I remember visiting these forests as a kid and assuming they and their inhabitants would last forever, but now I’m very conscious of their fragility.  Trying to catch part of their essence in photographs and share it with others seems more urgent than in times past.

The NY Times reported on a scientific study this week on the dire situation of the world’s remaining wilderness areas.  The scientists found that humans had modified 77 percent of the earth’s surface, and the remaining wild areas could disappear in a matter of decades.  They pointed out that these areas “provide a lot of life support systems for the planet,” including storing carbon dioxide. The scientists called for urgent action to save these remaining wild areas.

This week that Hansjorg Wyss, a Swiss businessman and philanthropist, announced that he is donating $1 billion for a conservation effort aimed at protecting 30 percent of the planet’s surface.  Wyss wrote a short essay explaining that preserving wild places is necessary to prevent the extinction of a majority of plant and animal species.   

Hats off to Wyss.  Of course, most of us don’t have an extra billion dollars to contribute to the cause, but there are some things we can do.  One timely one is to vote this week in favor of politicians who recognize the urgency of our climate crisis, and oppose those who deny or equivocate on the issue.  Neither of our major political parties has been as strong as needed on behalf of environment, but one has been much worse than the other. Please let me know if you need any help in figuring out which is which.  

I learned this week about the iNaturalist project , which involves citizen-naturalists posting photographs of wildlife and plants on a site, expanding the base of knowledge and getting help in identifying the subjects.  It’s the brainchild of Dr. Rob Dunn of N.C. State. The account the project in the Times focused on the project’s work in the wonderful world of indoor insects.  I downloaded the app and am looking forward to making some observations.

Muted fall colors, Ax’s piano recital, Crocetto’s Norma, and some thoughts on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

It’s definitely fall, but we’re not seeing much of the fall colors that usually come to the forests of piedmont North Carolina this time of year.  On Saturday I went to Lake Johnson, where the trees were shedding leaves, but not brightly. It was pretty quiet, and about to rain. I experimented with my neutral density filters, and enjoyed the lake and the trees.

That night, Sally and I went over to Duke for the first concert of its piano recital series.  We ate at Watts Grocery, which we’ve enjoyed in the past. Unfortunately, that night there were no vegetarian entrees on the men. When we raised the issue with our server, he didn’t seem much concerned, and the resulting food was undistinguished.  

Sally and I disagree on the best approach to addressing the problem of restaurants with low appreciation for vegetarians.  She favors talking to them and encouraging them to raise their plant food games. I’m inclined to boycott them, and spend my dining out money where I can wait for my meal with high confidence that there will be food I can enjoy.

The piano recital was by Emanuel Ax, an extremely distinguished concert artist whose recordings I have always enjoyed.  I was very familiar with some of the music from having played it myself (Brahms Op. 79, Chopin Op. 62, No. 1), and found his interpretations of these pieces intelligent and tasteful, though not revelatory.  I very much enjoyed hearing for the first time a set of short contemporary pieces by George Benjamin, which was highly pianistic, with varying textures. Ax used the sheet music for this work, but relied on his memory for the rest.

Ax’s playing was altogether musical, but I really didn’t get swept away until the last piece on  the program, Chopin’s Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22.  Ax is no spring chicken — getting on and off the stage didn’t look easy for him — and I wondered how he was going to meet the intense physical demands of this highly emotional showpiece.  But he did it. It was magnificent, and thrilling.

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the N.C. Opera’s presentation of Bellini’s Norma.  It was superb! The leads were all very fine singers, the chorus was good, and the orchestra, conducted by Antony Walker, sounded particularly rich and full.  But Leah Crocetto as Norma was beyond superlatives. When she sang the famous aria Casta Diva, I nearly lost it, and managed, just, to weep quietly. She sang, and Maestro Walker accompanied, as if this were the first performance ever, and might be the last. Her singing was technically brilliant and musical, but also truly transcendent.  It penetrated and illuminated the extremities of human emotion, from love to fury to despair

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, apparently by order of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been much in the headlines, and provoked leaders around the world (with the U.S. president, as usual, a sad exception) to condemn the Saudi government.  Needless to say, it’s a heinous crime. But I’ve been puzzled at such a strong reaction to one killing, while the Saudis’ mass atrocities in Yemen, including blowing up thousands of civilians, rarely make the news.

Addressing this puzzle, Max Fisher wrote a piece this week in the NY Times that’s well worth reading.    Fisher noted that journalists commonly use the device of a single individual’s story to cast light on a larger problem.  I’ve tended to think of this as an inherent weakness of ordinary journalism, but Fisher makes a case that it’s unavoidable and even necessary.  

It’s not just that readers can more easily relate to stories of individuals.  People are wired to understand and feel compassion about a single death, but they can’t do the same in reaction to mass death.  Psychologists have found that people switch off their emotions in reaction to large-scale slaughter as a self-protective measure, which is called collapse of compassion.  

This theory may explain a lot of moral inconsistency and inaction.  It’s really hard to think about the deaths of millions or billions as a result of global warming or a nuclear accident that starts a nuclear war.  Talking about these topics is not something anybody really likes. It’s hard to get them on the political discussion agenda.

The prospects admittedly are not good.  But I was a little cheered by an interview on NPR this weekend with a climate scientist who had a good understanding of how bad an environmental disaster we’re likely to have with a 1.5 Celsius temperature rise.  She pointed out that however bad things get, they can always get worse. A 3 degree rise is not a bad as a 4 degree rise. There is no point while we’re still here that the struggle to prevent a worse disaster is pointless.  

Managing through some bad news, including a climate change update

Bad news has been coming in fast this week.  I usually keep a fairly even keel and manage to look on the bright side.  But with hurricane Michael wreaking havoc, the stock market tumbling, democracy on the skids, and my glaucoma medication out of stock, just for starters, I’ve been jangled.  

It cheered me up when Sally brought home a new orchid, and I enjoyed taking some pictures of the pristine beauty in the early morning light.  I found the work absorbing.  In addition to visual imagination, it takes a bunch of equipment and software: a Nikon D850 (full frame), a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 macro lens,  focus rails on a tripod, and a cable release. I sort and process the images in Adobe Lightroom, and tweak some of them with Photoshop and Helicon Focus. I consider the images here works in progress, but I like them, and thought they were worth sharing.    

I finally confessed to Sally that I’ve become obsessed with Natalie Dessay.  The short of it is I’m in love with a recording of the French soprano called simply Italian Opera Arias, with music by Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.  I recall listening to it some years back, when I was starting to explore bel canto opera, and thinking it was nice enough, but finding her voice a little on the light side.  

But for the last several months, I’ve been listening to Italian Opera Arias over and over, and amazed at her vocal facility, the intelligence of her interpretations, and the unique beauty of her voice.  Listening closely to the nuances of phrasing and tonal color, part of me is a student, looking to enrich my own musical vocabulary and insight But mostly it’s pure joy. The recording is available on Spotify, Amazon Music, and iTunes.  

I was glad to hear on the BBC’s morning newscast this week that they are planning to do more stories about climate change, since it’s a big problem, to put it mildly.  The climate report last week by the United Nations’ scientific panel was clear: we’re almost out of time.  Unless we act quickly, many of us alive today could see the start of the greatest disaster in the last 66 million years.  It’s a break-glass emergency. We need to move quickly, shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, instituting carbon taxes, mobilizing our research capabilities, and then looking at what else is possible. And to state the obvious, there’s good reason to doubt that our leaders and systems are up to such a task.  

The situation is truly terrifying, and it’s hard not to despair.  I found it helpful to talk to Jocelyn about this. She recommended 1. taking deep breaths, 2. compartmentalizing, and 3. not getting obsessed.  She pointed out that we might find a way out, but in any case we need to live our lives.

I appreciated her reminding me that there are sometimes unexpected solutions to big problems.  An example: at the beginning of the 20th century, it appeared that Manhattan would become uninhabitable because of the mountains of horse manure.  Many horses were needed for transportation in the densely populated city, and there was no known practical way of managing the piles of excrement. And then from nowhere came a new technology that took care of the horse manure problem:  the automobile.

So  there may be a new and unexpected technology just in time.  You never know what may come next.  But it’s foolish and beyond irresponsible to count on it. We need to use every social, political, economic, and technical capacity we have right now, right now.  

 

Working on gratitude, air conditioning (finally), my sweet tennis champion, improving sex education, and our nuclear nature park

At Harris Lake Park on Saturday morning

Recently I’ve been working on gratitude, and it hasn’t been easy.  I’ve gotten some leads from the Calm meditation app, which has a series of gratitude lessons by the wonderful Tamara Levitt.  Levitt approaches the subject from various angles, but the toughest, and most timely, is gratitude for difficulties.  She suggests looking at unhappiness as a teacher, and seeing what can be learned.

We finally got our new air conditioner installed and working three days ago, after weeks without AC.  Most of the windows in our apartment don’t open, and there are a lot of them facing south and west, so it got hot.  It was fairly miserable, but I’m proud to say we kept whining to a minimum, and made it through. Our AC technicians had a tough time installing the new unit — it took four days to get it fully operational — and I thank them.

Right after they got the AC operational, Sally went with her tennis team to the N.C. state tournament, so Rita (our cat) and I kept each other company.  Rita is a pretty calico cat who purrs a lot, but also complains a lot, and needs a lot of petting. She meows, rubs against my leg, and swats me over and over with her tail.  I like petting to a point, but that point is generally not quite enough for Rita.

We were both very happy to get Sally back this afternoon.  Her team is the new state 4.0 women’s champion! Sally has always been a focused and determined competitor, and she wins a lot at the local level, but this is her first state tournament victory.  She said there were a lot of good competitors and close matches. She was beaming.

Like all of us, my dearest Jocelyn followed the drama of the Kavanaugh confirmation process closely, and had some strong things to say about it.  I liked her proposal that we take this opportunity to consider and improve how we talk about sex. Sex is a fundamental driver of all human cultures (one thing Freud got right), but talking about it in America is highly taboo.  We don’t do much sex education in our schools, and if anything we do less in our homes. As briefly as possible, we warn our daughters and sons not to do it, cross our fingers, and hope for the best.

Jocelyn noted that our prevailing norm is that respectable girls should resist sex, while boys will continuously seek it.  This sets up a dangerous disconnect: boys expect that girls will resist, but think that resistance shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Adding to the complex dynamics of social pressures and passing moods, in a given encounter neither player may be quite sure of their own true preferences.  Misunderstandings are rampant, and even with good intentions, traumatic mistakes happen. Jocelyn suggested a new rule: boys and girls agree that they will only have sex when they come to agreement that the objective is their mutual pleasure.  

I took these pictures yesterday at Harris Lake Park in southern Wake County.  The lake provides cooling water to the Shearon Harris nuclear plant. As I was heading down US 1 to get there, it started raining hard, but it stopped just before I got to the park.  The lake was peaceful. The cooling tower had a disturbing aspect, but that was mitigated by birds, grasses, bushes, and trees. There were a few people fishing from the shore and from a few boats, and me.  

The world’s most beautiful duck, a Chopin lesson, and some thoughts on Judge Kavanaugh and patriarchy

On Saturday morning, I went over to Duke Gardens to see what was blooming and buzzing.  There were some exotic large-leaved plants in the terrace garden. I brought along my camera, hoping to shoot some butterflies, but that didn’t work out.   

I did, however, find a Wood Duck.  At the pond, there was a crowd of more ordinary ducks hoping to get fed, and among them was this spectacular creature.  The Wood Duck’s name is completely misleading. It could more aptly be called the Heart Breakingly Beautiful Hallucinogenic Duck.  Its iridescent colors and varied patterns are vivid and thrilling.

These spectacular creatures are usually shy, and I’ve only seen them a couple of times in the distance.  This one must have gotten used to people who feed the ducks. Anyhow, he swam within five feet of me, and I felt honored.

I had a piano lesson with Olga in the afternoon, and played Chopin’s haunting Nocturne in F sharp minor.   Her main comment was that the playing seemed tasteful and musical, but that I needed 1. to get a better understanding of the underlying structure and 2. get a deeper connection to the emotional substance of the piece.  

After a few minutes of analysis, I saw what she was getting at regarding the structure.  The question of how the pianist can connect to the music at a deep emotional level was more complicated, and we talked about it at length.  One of her suggestions was to spend less time playing and more just thinking about the music. One of her techniques is to go over a piece as she’s going to sleep, and let her sleeping brain experiment.  

As I did errands this weekend, I listened to podcasts about the Kavanaugh hearing, and tried to figure out what I thought.  Until this week, I had a grudging respect for Judge Kavanaugh, based on his intelligence, hard work, and apparent integrity.  Now I’ve changed my mind about the integrity. Whether or not he truthfully has no recollection of assaulting Christine Blasey Ford, it is not believable that he is unfamiliar with the problem of getting so drunk you forget things.  

The confirmation process has brought political polarization to a whole new level, which is unfortunate, because it makes it hard to have a rational discussion.  But on the bright side, it has put the issues of our sexism and misogyny squarely on the discussion agenda.

During my lifetime, women in the U.S. have made enormous progress in terms of professional opportunities and personal freedoms.  But as the Republican senators on the judiciary committee have reminded us, parts of our system continue to be staunchly patriarchal and sexist.  Discrimination against women in the workplace is still common, including in hiring and pay. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are a reality, and for a woman to speak about sexual violence is still a risky undertaking.

For some of us, and especially for privileged white males, it takes some work to understand the reality of subordination of women in our society, since it is part of the fabric of our culture.  Like our racism, it’s just part of the air we breathe, and we usually don’t even think of it as a thing.

It’s revealing that a political acid test for being a “conservative,” and a critical issue for conservatives in supporting a new Supreme Court Justice, is  opposition to abortion. I’ve spent some time reflecting on the difficult moral issues around abortion, and I have no doubt that some conservatives have surely done likewise.  

But I’ve come to think that for most abortion opponents, the driver is not really protecting fetuses. Rather, it’s a symbolic issue.  It expresses membership in the conservative tribe. It’s part of the value system espousing the need to preserve “tradition,” which requires keeping women in “their place.”   The effort to make abortion illegal is an expression of the worldview of men as superior and women as inferior.

It’s a sort of lucky accident that Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination raises both the hard-to-spot aspect of this symbolism and the impossible-to-miss problem of sexual violence, since they are related.  I am not expecting that we’ll work these issues out in the next week or so. But I do expect that there will be a long conversation, and still hope that the arc of moral history will bend toward justice.  

Spinning hard, mental health, and getting inspired by a great violinist (Joshua Bell)

 

I’ve been finding it hard to get in a good gear recently at my weekly Friday morning spin class, but  yesterday I kicked butt and took names! My final score was a healthy 337, and I came in first by a good margin.  My recent scores have been a little over 300, and there have been several strong riders who have made that look quite unimpressive.  I appreciated their not showing up this week and letting me look good.

There was a report in the Wall Street Journal recently about the types of exercise that were best for mental health.   The best ones were team sports and group exercises, like cycling and yoga.   So spinning may be doing my brain some good. I’ve also been getting to yoga class a couple of times a week, which I’m confident is good for my head.  

Speaking of mental health, I finished up the introductory mindfulness meditation course provided by Calm, the smart phone app.    I found it worthwhile.  Mindfulness meditation is really simple, in a way, and it’s easy to find basic directions online.  But the Calm coaching gave me some new perspectives, and helped with motivation.

On Thursday, we had dinner at Capital Club 16, and then heard the N.C. Symphony play the Brahms violin concerto with violinist Joshua Bell.  Bell has been much hyped as perhaps our greatest living violin virtuoso, which is bound to raise questions.  But he completely lived up to the hype:  he was truly electrifying. I got big goosebumps and moist eyes, and also a richer understanding of this great concerto. He performed on a Stradivarius instrument that Brahms had heard play this very piece.  Bell’s cadenza, which he composed, was a brilliant distillation of Brahmsian thought.

Some great virtuosos are intimidating, and make music students think of quitting.  Bell, however, made me want to listen harder and be a better musician. Music in the classical tradition takes time and effort to enjoy, and it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s worth it in the modern world.  But Bell made a strong case for its survival. The Brahms is a supreme technical challenge for the violinist, but also dauntingly complex for inexperienced listeners. It was cheering that a concert hall full of North Carolinians seemed to get it and love it.  In fact, we gave Bell a good ovation after the first movement. In the U.S., we almost always wait until after the last movement to clap, but apparently we agreed that Bell deserved to have us break the rule.

I loved the little poem in last week’s Sunday Times magazine:  On a Line by Proust, by Adam Gianelli.  It you’ve never read Proust or Milton, it may not hit you quite as strongly, but it might inspire you to try them.  Like Proust, it evokes the painful joy of recovering past experience, and how our literary lives can illuminate our ordinary lives.  

I’ve been making my way through the NY Times special titled The Plot to Subvert an Election, by Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti.   It’s basically the story of Putin, Trump, and us.  It is hard to believe that this happened, and is happening, and easy to feel overwhelmed.  Shane and Mazetti have done some great reporting, which is worth reading.

I went to Raulston Arboretum this morning and found these butterflies.  There were a lot of beautiful creatures flitting beyond range of my camera.   I was grateful for these.