The Casual Blog

Our sexism comes out, and the campaign to stop the Trump investigation boots up

At the edge of the marsh near the Elizabeth River

Early Friday morning, I completed my hundredth spin class at Flywheel.  I did not meet my goal of 300 points (285), but I made it in in the top three, and I certainly got my heart rate well elevated (low 160s). Afterwards I drove over to O2 gym for some upper body resistance work and stretching.  Then I came home and fixed a green smoothie for breakfast, this time with orange juice, almond milk, kale, banana, baby carrots, celery, and blueberries.  That’s a lot of health in one glass, and it was also tasty.  

I’m exercising to feel good and increase the chances that I’ll still be here when Donald Trump is gone.  It helps my mood, which needs all the help it can get these days.  In particular, the recent flood of stories of powerful men sexually harassing women is depressing.  It suggests our problem is a lot worse than I thought, and we may well have not hit bottom yet.  

It’s no surprise that some percentage of males are dangerous sexual predators, and that there’s a larger percentage prone to crossing the line.  What’s new is the level of tolerance for such behavior. Last year almost half the population voted for a presidential candidate who bragged on tape about sexual assault.  Now a candidate in Alabama with a well documented record of molesting young teenage girls and lying about it stands a good chance of being elected to the United States Senate.

I formerly assumed that we all — Republican, Democrat, or other —  would agree that it is beyond the pale for middle-aged men to sexually assault fourteen-year-old girls.  That is, there are plenty of close questions when it comes to the boundary areas of sex, but there are some, like that one, that I thought were beyond debate. But apparently not.

What does this mean?   I think we’re seeing something that has been right in front of our noses all our lives but seldom noticed.  That is, we have a system in which women formally have equal rights, but in certain respects are regarded as unworthy.  In the US, we allow women to vote, attend school, work, and wear what they want. But we also systematically pay them less, give them less authority, and accept as normal that they’ll be subject to some degree of sexual misconduct.  

Ferguson and Black Lives Matter began a wrenching process that exposed a  hidden strain of racism.  Similarly, the disgusting and illegal behavior of Trump, Weinstein, Moore, and others  may be the start of a process that shines the light on our entrenched sexism.  We may expand the dialogue and expand the population that considers and treats women as fully human, and get to the point that nothing less will be tolerated.      

I hope so.  Meanwhile, I’m worried by the new effort to discredit and undermine the investigation of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.  The evidence of Russian assistance to the Trump campaign is already extensive, and the evidence of ties between Trump’s top aides and the Russians is growing.  Now, as the plot thickens, Robert Mueller and the FBI are being accused of being partisan hacks out to get the President for no good reason. 

This campaign of slime is being led by Trump, Fox, and several Republican Congressmen.  There’s a good Washington Post piece on this by Paul Waldman here.  There’s also an account of the House Judiciary Committee’s work along this line here.  

I was sufficiently astonished by this idea that I decided to get out of my own bubble and watch, for the first time ever, an hour of Fox News.

So we saw Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night, and it was both better and worse than expected.  Hannity and his guests are very skilled at weaving together uncontested facts with unfounded speculation and outright falsehoods so that they’re hard to distinguish.  The people are well-dressed and look serious and intelligent, and they all agree with each other on their key points.  

Thus several people at once will assent verbally and non-verbally to a proposition like “Hillary is the real criminal.”  They repeat their basic points over and over, but with enough variations that it isn’t completely obvious.  Unless you bring to the table a body of background knowledge, you might not notice the leaps in their reasoning, or the lack of any supporting evidence.    

So if you were to get all your news from Hannity, you might well believe that Trump is basically a good guy doing his level best and being unfairly thwarted by evil liberals.  And you might end up thinking that there’s no reason to worry about Russia taking over our political process.  At the same time, you might not be much concerned about electing sexual predators to high office.  

Hannity and Fox are really good at big lie propaganda.  Ordinary journalists can’t counter them as long as they are constrained by honesty and actual facts.  Reality based reporting doesn’t always fit neatly with our prejudices, and it just isn’t as exciting.  

Despite the effectiveness of Fox and Hannity, Trump’s poll numbers continue to sink.  I was heartened to read last week that his support among evangelical Christians had dropped by 17 percent since February.   Maybe it’s a trend.

I took these pictures last weekend when we visited my brother in the Virginia Beach area.  We got out on the Intercostal Waterway and did some kayaking.  The water was smooth and peaceful.  

Thankfulness, and un-thankfulness

At Durant Nature Park, November 24, 2017

We had a good Thanksgiving with some beloved family members, and I was grateful, as was appropriate.  But it struck me that Thanksgiving needs a little balancing.  Along with things to be thankful for, most of us have a good number of things to mourn or regret, and these too should be acknowledged.  To balance our feasting, we could have an annual day of fasting, and focus a bit on the things that we’re sorry about and unhappy with.  It could be therapeutic.  

Flying at Durant

I got to try the fasting part this weekend in preparation for an ordinary course colonoscopy scheduled for tomorrow.  I normally maintain a decent level of skepticism regarding the medical-industrial complex’s  expensive procedures for apparently healthy people.  But I’m also fairly terrified of cancer.  So I followed the dietary recommendations, including several days with no fiber and a final day with no solid food.  I will spare you the details.  Fun it is not.  

At Umstead Park

It was mostly clear and mild this weekend, and I enjoyed doing some hiking through the woods and around the local lakes.  I took these pictures with the Tiller Quadcopter and the terrestrial Nikon D7100. 

Missing meteors, fall colors, robot love, the end of nature, and Grosvenor the pianist

Flying over Blue Jay Point, November 18, 2017

Coming home from the concert in Durham on Friday night, I stopped to look for the Leonid meteor shower.  I hiked into the fields at the N.C. Museum of Art, which were dark enough to hope for good sightings, and also isolated enough to give a little twinge of fear.  But it was peaceful looking into the clear eastern part of the night sky, with stars shining bright.  I didn’t have much luck spotting meteors, which may have been shooting to the west where it was more cloudy.  

On Saturday morning I went up to Blue Jay Point to see some fall colors and take some pictures.  The dying leaves have not been very bright this year, but there was still some beauty there.  It was calming to walk in the woods and along the shore of Falls Lake, which was very quiet apart from a couple of passing motor boats.  It can be tricky keeping on the path this time of year, with everything covered in brown leaves, and I did in fact get off track on the way back, though I wasn’t lost for long.  I also took a fall when I tripped over a tree root that appeared out of nowhere.  My right hip got bruised, but fortunately the camera was OK.   

Sally and I finally got to the movie theater to see Blade Runner 2049.  I really liked the original Blade Runner, which had a visionary quality (though a fairly grim vision) folded into an intense sci-fi story, and had high hopes for the sequel.  The new movie was likewise a disturbing prophecy — a world where natural resources have been exhausted, inequalities have widened, violence is endemic, and humans lord over a race of human-like robot slaves.  But there was a strange beauty to it, and an oddly hopeful theme about new and unexpected kinds of love, including robot love.  

The end of nature in the movie, with no trees growing and no birds singing, doesn’t seem too far from where our current trend line could take us.  The situation is dire.  This was the view of a letter  published this week and signed by 15,366 scientists from 184 countries, which I hope will be widely read.  The scientists outlined damages and risks that you probably already know about ( though many still do not), including potentially catastrophic climate change, overpopulation (35 percent more humans since 1992), and mass extinction of “many current life forms.”  They note that time is running out.  

But the scientists also note that it is still possible for us to course correct with adoption of sustainable levels of consumption, preserving natural resources, promoting family planning, eating less meat, respecting nature, and prioritizing green technologies.

There are some signs that more of us are waking up.  199 of 200 nations have signed up for the Paris climate accord.   In the U.S., more states and cities are taking action, as Jerry Brown and Michael Bloomberg recently noted  in a NY Times piece, and so are more big businesses.  Despite the ascendance of Trumpanical contempt for nature,  government scientists recently issued a comprehensive climate assessment report that very frankly set out the dire threats to our dear planet.   There’s still hope.  

The Big Lake at Umstead Park, November 19, 2017

On Friday night, Sally had a conflict, so Olga Kleiankina, my piano teacher,  joined me at Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium to hear the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.  For what it’s worth, the program director pronounced the artist’s name “Grovner” (with no sounding s).   Grosvenor was praised in the New York Times last week as perhaps the most cultivated pianist of his generation (he’s 24), and he did not disappoint.  

In the first half, his Bach, the fifth French Suite, was fast moving and elegant, with creative ornamentation,  and his Mozart sonata (K333) was well conceived and elegantly executed.  I think I liked it more than Olga, who did not dispute his technical excellence, but felt that the performance lacked heart.  She may well have heard things I didn’t or expected things I didn’t,  since she is unquestionably an artist.  

For the second half, I very much enjoyed Grosvenor’s performance of an Alban Berg’s Sonata op. 1 and of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.  Gaspard is a quintessential impressionistic piece, and I thought he fully grasped the spirit, with striking virtuosity.  Olga liked it as well.  We ran into a number of our musical friends there, so it was an enjoyable social event, too.


Visiting the Lower East Side, Turandot, recent Chinese art, and The Patterning Instinct

Looking southwest from the Sixty on Allen Street

Friday before last I went to the Software Freedom Law Center conference, and afterwards Sally and I stayed on in New York to see friends and take in some art and music.  We stayed at the Sixty LES (Lower East Side) near Jocelyn and Kyle’s new apartment.  Back in the day, we viewed this neighborhood as a place to be avoided after dark, but now it’s what Soho and Chelsea used to be — a lively and relatively affordable area where young people live and new art can be made.  It hasn’t yet been completely gentrified — there’s graffiti and trash, and little Bohemian businesses.  I enjoyed walking around early in the morning and taking pictures, including the street scenes here.

We Are Moving

We went to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon and saw Puccini’s last opera, Turandot.  My only prior experience with Turandot was from recordings, and I had not particularly loved  the music.  The story,  involving a Chinese princess who murdered all her suitors, seemed far from alluring.

Nevertheless, I absolutely loved it.  Opera is a hydra-headed art with many elements, and here the music, sets, costumes, and acting made a compelling whole.  For this story, Puccini’s music worked brilliantly.  The Zeffirelli production looked fantastic, the orchestra sounded great, and the chorus was excellent.  Sopranos  Oksana Dyka and Maria Agresta sang beautifully, and the tenor, Aleksandrs Atonenk, absolutely killed in the famous Nessun Dorma aria.  

Also on Saturday, we spent some time at the Met Breuer looking at  the photographs of Raghubir Singh and at the Met looking at the old masters drawings exhibit, Leonardo to Matisse.  On Sunday, while Sally went with Jocelyn to see the NYC marathon, I went up to the Guggenheim to see Art in China after 1989.  In that year a decade of relative political freedom in China ended with the Tiananmen Square massacre.  Young Chinese artists went in various directions, with many leaving China, and in various landing spots looking to express their political and personal concerns. There were 71 artists and groups represented, and multiple media and approaches.  Not all of them spoke to me, but a few did, powerfully.  

Ai Weiwei breaking a Han dynasty urn

One of the best known artists in the show is Ai Weiwei, whom I’ve found inspiring as a dissident thinker and conceptual artist.  One of his works here was a room that brought to light thousands of  unnecessary deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to a corrupt system and  shoddy construction of schools.  The work was as much journalism as art, but that was not by accident.  In the exhibition notes he is quoted as saying, “Fight for freedom.  Forget about art.”   I don’t think he means to be taken literally on the forgetting part, but he’s serious about the fight.   

Chen Zhen’s dragon

The big hanging sculpture  by Chen Zhen of a dragon made of bicycle tires and parts was delightful and thought-provoking, invoking China’s shift from bicycles to cars and other technology.  I also liked Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddha room which had little Buddha statues, parts of old computers and other detritus hanging underneath a suspended garden.   Liu Dan had a large work that evoked traditional landscape painting but with a severe twist.  Others used video with varying degrees of success.  I liked the one that had a dozen or so monitors showing people scratching.  

Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddhas

Most of these Chinese artists had been influenced both by their traditional culture and by Western culture, just as we in the West are absorbing Asian influences. I’ve been reading a new and intriguing book about how cultures are made and evolve:  The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent traces the development of several Eastern and Western foundational ideas, including Taoism and neo-Confucianism, which he argues have been successful and remain vital.  He also contends that certain core ideas of monotheism and science, including the mandate to dominate nature, are closely related to each other and are drivers in our global ecological crisis.  There’s a lot in the Patterning Instinct to process, which is why I’m now working my way through it for a second time.  


Our trip to Venice


Sally in  Burano

Last Sunday Sally and I got back from a week in Venice, which was a lot more challenging and stimulating than I’d expected.  As everyone knows, there’s a lot of beautiful art and architecture to take in, or try to take in.  I hadn’t understood, though, some fairly basic aspects of the place.


For example, there are no cars, or trucks, or motorcycles.  As far as I could tell, there are no powered terrestrial vehicles in Venice.  It is a city for walkers and boaters.  We walked a lot — between 16,000 and 18,000 steps most days.  And the walking is somewhat complicated — along quays, through narrow alleys, and up and down the steps of bridges over canals.  Once you leave sight of the Grand Canal, it’s easy to get lost in the twisty, narrow streets, though you eventually find your way back.  


Given that there’s so much walking in Venice, I was surprised at how bad some people were at it.  People would veer in front of us, or stop with no warning in crowded areas.  I thought at first these must be tourists from places where there isn’t much walking who lack the sophisticated observation and signalling skills of big city pedestrians.  They may have been disoriented by the many luxury shops and other sights.  But it may be that they were just inconsiderate.  


That said, most tourists were nice enough, and the service industry people we dealt with were almost all helpful.  I was a little hesitant about using the vaporetto (water bus) system, but the ticket sellers gave good directions in good English.  The system works really well, with many boats running regularly.    


For lodgings, we used Airbnb, and found a little apartment with a balcony near (but not too near) St. Mark’s Square.  The young man who owned it  met us at the nearby Giglio vaporetto stop and guided  us in, and gave us a friendly briefing on the neighborhood shops and services.  A few steps from our door was an old leaning bell tower, with bells that pealed loudly at 7:30 each morning to make sure we got up.  There were minor issues (not enough soap and toilet paper), but the pros greatly outweighed the cons, and the cost was a fraction of an equivalent hotel room.  


Our neighbors’ laundry

We stopped in many cafes and gelato shops, and ate well.  For dinners, the vegetarian offerings were mostly along the pasta line, but we also had tasty risottos, and one evening had the mother of all gnocchis.  The local wine was excellent.  I expected to come home several pounds heavier than I went out, but in fact gained less than two ounces.  All that walking surely helped.


St. Mark’s square

Mid-October turned out to be a good time for a visit.  Daytime temperatures were in the high 60s to low 70s.  We had some sun but mostly clouds, and no rain.  There were plenty of other tourists, but not so many as to be overwhelming or depressing.  


Near the Accademia Gallery

We were there in large part to take in the Biennale, the huge every-other-year art fair with exhibits by many nations and artists.  Most of the art did not involve paintings in frames.  There were many videos, multi-media constructions, music and non-musical sounds, happenings with human actors, and environments.  We looked at a lot, and found quite a few artists with something pressing to say.  There were very strong exhibits from some countries whose governments are authoritarian, including Russia and China.  The artists reminded us that these countries are much more than their leaders and elites.  


We also loved seeing the extraordinary Renaissance art in the Doge’s Palace, the Accademia Gallery, and various churches, and particularly the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (which is not singled out in every guidebook).  I’ve recently been reading about much earlier civilizations, and so art from five or six hundred years ago felt fairly recent.  Much of this art is devotional, in the sense of being inspired by and celebrating the religious thinking of the time, but some of those thoughts still resonate.  We are touched by the beauty of each new baby, and the suffering of those brutally victimized.

Dragonflies-2One day we took the train out to Padua, where we saw the marvelous Giotto frescoes at the Cappella degli Scrovegni and the impressive Basilica di  Sant’Antonio.  We got turned around, and unlike in Venice, had no canal to orient by.  We walked 22,000 steps that day.  Another day we took the vaporetto out to Murano and Burano.  In Murano, we saw some glass making, which looked hard to do well.  In one shop a salesman took a determined run at selling us some glass art costing thousands of Euros, but we managed to resist.  

A swimming milestone, Courage-ous soccer, deconstruction in our neighborhood, gun idealists, and nuke idealists

Looking south over Capital Boulevard at downtown Raleigh.  Our building is the big one one on the upper right.

I had the last of my eight swim lessons last week, and my teacher Eric seemed pleased with my progress.  My primary objective was learning the butterfly stroke, which I did, though Eric said it looked like I still had to think about it, which was true enough.  He said the cure for that was practice.  On freestyle, we talked about gliding and breathing, and for backstroke, we focused on keeping the head and chest up.  He liked my breaststroke!  These last weeks working on better swimming have been energizing, and I look forward to many more good laps.  

On Sunday afternoon, we got out to see our N.C. Courage play the Chicago Red Stars in the semi-finals of the National Women’s Soccer League.  These ladies can play!  The Courage had more attacks, but Chicago played almost flawless defense, and the game was scoreless through 89 minutes.  In the 90th minute, a hard, low shot from the Courage’s Denise O’Sullivan  found the net.  The crowd went wild!  The Courage, in their first season here, will be playing in the championship game in Orlando against the Portland Thorns.   

 In our neighborhood there’s a tremendous amount of construction going on, and also deconstruction.  Just a couple of blocks to the north and east, several buildings have been taken down in the last couple of weeks, including Finch’s Restaurant and my favorite photo gear and advice spot, Peace Camera (whose business is now located at Quail Corners Shopping Center).  The destroyed buildings had no particular architectural distinction, and it’s sort of exciting to see things changing and look forward to new developments, though at the moment it’s a wasteland.   I took these pictures on Saturday morning with the Tiller Quadcopter.     

The horrifying mass shooting in Las Vegas happened in front of the Luxor, where I stayed last year.  The national press mostly focused on the killer’s motivation, which remains unknown.  I read a couple of interesting pieces on the more important question of why a lot of Americans are passionate about guns and oppose all gun regulation.  Kurt Andersen’s piece in Slate is brilliant.  Andersen acknowledges that shooting guns can be a perfectly fine recreation, but also shows the powerful fantasies and fears that drive gun activists to extreme positions.  Somehow a significant number of people came to believe that they need a lot of powerful guns because they’re likely to be needed to fight the government that wants to take their guns.  

I also thought David Brooks’s latest NY Times  column on guns was thought-provoking.  Brooks views love of guns not so much as a product of fear or fantasy as of identity politics.  People who oppose gun regulation are demonstrating solidarity with a matrix of “conservative” issues, such as opposing abortion and immigration.  He suggests we need to end the culture wars if we want to address the gun issue.  That’s a tall order.  In the meantime, if we hear something that sounds like bullets, let’s be prepared to hit the deck.

Speaking of perils, I’d like to congratulate this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Committee for recognizing them:  the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).   Don’t feel bad if you missed the announcement of this prestigious prize, which the NY Times buried on page A10.  The risk of nuclear accidents and nuclear conflicts is so enormous that it’s almost impossible to think about, and so we generally don’t.  The situation is dire, but it isn’t hopeless.  Indeed,  ratification of the new UN treaty banning nuclear weapons is in process in at least 53 nations.  Kudos to the ICAN for continuing to sound the alarm.  

A short brag, some bluegrass music, some brass, and a moving Cold Mountain opera

I’ve been trying to think of a way to share this without seeming to brag — and cannot.  So I’ll just brag:  I’ve been doing really well in my recent  spin (stationary bike) classes at Flywheel.  Their computers and software reveal how the spinners do relative to each other, which tends to make me try harder.  And I’ve come in first in the class in three of the last four Friday 6:00 a.m. classes, and number two in the fourth.  The average age of my fellow spinners was about half  my own.  My final score this Friday, 315, was not a record, but I was happy enough, and tired enough.  

It was a good start to another active arts weekend in piedmont North Carolina.  The annual IMBA bluegrass music festival took over downtown Raleigh, with pedestrians only on Fayetteville Street and connecting side streets, and several blocks worth of crafts and snacks pedlars.   After work on Friday, we had some fine Mexican food at Centro, then strolled about, and listened to music at the free venues. For me, a little of the old-school, three-chord foot-stomping-type bluegrass music goes a long way.  But we heard a couple of groups that used the traditional instruments but went well beyond that traditional model, and especially enjoyed them.  

On Saturday evening we drove over to Durham, ate some great Italian food at Mothers and Sons, and went to the first concert of the season of the Duke Chamber Series.  The performance was by the American Brass Quintet.  They did a program of mostly sixteenth century and modern works (Hillborg, Tower, Ewazen), plus some music from nineteenth century Russia.  These guys are good!  Back in college days, I played with a brass quintet, with great enjoyment of the brass sounds and the repertoire.  Hearing a chamber brass performance at this high level was a treat.

On Sunday afternoon we drove over to Chapel Hill for the N.C. Opera’s production of a new opera, Cold Mountain, with music by Jennifer Higdon and libretto by Gene Scheer.  I’ve enjoyed  Higdon’s music, but this was her first opera, and we didn’t know what to expect.  On the whole, the production was a great success.  It deftly created a universe, with quirky characters and settings, and the story was well told — highly dramatic but very human.  

The sets, lighting, and costumes all were imaginative and well executed, and the singers and orchestra sounded great.  At first I found the vocal writing a bit meandering, but in the second act it started to work for me. I found the climax very moving.  The near sell out audience gave an enthusiastic standing ovation.  It was cheering to see a large crowd come to a brand new opera with such enjoyment.  There’s still hope for the future of opera.  

Caribbean misfortunes, reconsidering Vietnam, good drug news from Portugal, and rising Carolina dancers

It’s been tough to see the devastation of the Caribbean islands by hurricanes Irma and Maria these last weeks.  I’ve got a warm connection to some of the most affected islands (Dominica, Turks and Caicos, the Virgin Islands, Key West)  from scuba trips.  I found so much beauty and joy there from both the natural world and the people.  I recently read a new history of the region,  Empire’s Crossroads, by Carrie Gibson, and discovered some unexpected complexity.  

Beginning in the late 15th century with Columbus’s voyages and extending for another three hundred some years, these islands were not vacation paradises but rather economic powerhouses for an expanding Europe.  They were  fought over repeatedly, because they produced enormous wealth, mostly from growing sugar with slave labor from Africa.  At the time of the American Revolution England and France both valued their Caribbean possessions more highly than the American colonies, and England’s need to protect those islands from the French was part of what created a power vacuum that led to the revolutionaries’ victory.  Their normally kind and beautiful exterior conceals a lot of tragedy, and they just got more.  

The people there face desperate conditions — homes and businesses destroyed, no electricity, no drinkable water.   And of course, the animals and plants there have also suffered greatly, which is seldom noted.  Our tendency as humans to forget about other species is deep seated, but not insurmountable.  It’s possible to view nature as worthy of caring and respect, rather than just something for humans to exploit.  This viewpoint makes possible a deeper engagement with nature, but it also makes natural and man-made disasters more painful.  

Speaking of painful subjects, we’ve been watching the new Burns-Novick documentary on the Vietnam war, and I highly recommend it.  It’s by no means fun, but it feels positive to get a more rounded understanding of this chapter.  There’s a lot of tension between our abiding central national narrative (we’re always on the side of good), and the death and mayhem that’s almost impossible to get our heads around (58,000 lost American lives are a lot — but we tend to forget the 3,000,000 Vietnamese ones) .  It’s amazing in a way that we’ve mostly repressed and forgotten the Vietnam experience, especially when its combination of good intentions, hubris, cynicism,  and sheer cluelessness continues to be relevant to our quagmire in Afghanistan and violence elsewhere.  

In other quagmire news, there was a relatively cheering piece by Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times today entitled How to Win a War on Drugs.  It summarizes the experience of Portugal after it decriminalized all illegal drugs fifteen years ago.  Portugal’s drug mortality rate is now the lowest in Western Europe and one-fiftieth (1/50) of that in the US.  Portugal’s rate of heroin use has dropped by seventy-five percent.  Meanwhile, deaths in the US from opioids have risen dramatically.  The core of Portugal’s approach is to devote resources to medical treatment for addiction.  Though far from perfect, this approach has been far more effective, and far less expensive, than the US’s war on drugs.  While there’s a lot we don’t understand about drug addiction, it could hardly be clearer that our war approach hasn’t worked, and that there are better alternatives.

We went to our first Carolina Ballet performance of the new season last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  With all the disasters in the headlines, to find a couple of hours of nourishing, energizing beauty is particularly welcome.  Some of our favorite dancers retired last season, and they’ll be missed, but the change has brought vibrant talent from the company ranks into view.  Lily Wills was a sweet and touching Ugly Duckling.  Jan Burkhard, back from maternity leave, was exquisite in Flower Festival in Genzano, a Bournonville pas de deux.  

Dialogues, the new ballet jointly choreographed by Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael, was bold and refreshing.  The Dialogues music, Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Chopin, was played by pianist William Wolfram, who performed with insight, power, and passion.  With his daughter, Lauren Wolfram, now part of the company, I hope we’ll get to hear this great artist again.  We also enjoyed the angularity of Les Saltimbanques, with choreography by Weiss and music by Stravinsky.  Ashley Hathaway, Amanda Babayan, and Courtney Schenberger were striking and lovely.

A collision avoided, with remarkable safety systems

Self-driving cars are getting here– not all at once, but by bits and bytes.  When I got my Mazda CX-5 a few weeks ago, one of my priorities was accident avoidance and damage minimization, and I took every safety option available.  I’ve already gotten good value.  Just a few days ago, in a dense traffic situation on Capital Boulevard, when I was looking to move to the right lane , the car ahead of me unexpectedly stopped.  My CX-5 beeped and then stopped — before I could apply   the brakes.  We were about six inches from the car ahead.  

I  checked the Mazda manual, and it does not promise such collision avoidance (the “Smart Brake Support” system claims only to minimize damages in such emergencies), but I’m telling you, it happened.  And was I happy!  No ugly crushed metal, deployed airbags, police, insurance, deductibles, or collision repairs.  Thank you, Mazda engineers!  

After this, I spent a  little time with my owner’s manual, and got clearer on various systems.  My ex, a classic sports car, was extremely fun to drive, but had relatively few creature comforts — no nine speaker Bose stereo system, no adjustable lumbar support, no dual climate controls. More important, no warnings when you veer out of your lane or when there are cars in the blind spot, no variable cruise control, and no warnings of oncoming cars when you’re starting to back out of parking spots.  This last warning feature particularly  delighted me, as the most dangerous thing I do on a daily basis is get into and out of parking decks, and you just can’t always see oncoming cars.

I’ve also been discovering other hidden talents in the CX-5.  It accepts a variety of vocal commands, such as play the radio or navigate home.  The navigation system (which I would not have opted for, but it came with other options) can receive instructions for a new destination by voice.  Also, the cost of ordinary operation is about half as much as my ex.  I admit, part of me misses my 911, but mostly I’m glad to be in a new car relationship.

Getting some lessons

On Saturday morning I had another swimming lesson with Eric and worked more on my butterfly stroke.  It’s a very different way of moving through the water, and not easy to get your head around.  It surely does get the heart rate up.  I can now do intervals of 50 meters without being disqualified or dying, which I consider an accomplishment.

While figuring out the butterfly, I’ve been working with Eric on refining my freestyle, breast stroke, and back stroke, which are all by comparison quite relaxing.  It recently came into focus that swimming has always been for me a struggle  — at bottom, a thing to do to keep from drowning.  And now, finally, through the struggle to be a butterflyer,  I’m finding it can actually be fun.  

I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten even this far without a skilled teacher helping me.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:  if you want to learn a complex skill,  find a good teacher.  There’s no substitute for having a guide in difficult unknown terrain.  You may get to where you’re going without a teacher — now and again people do — but you’d have to be more-than-ordinarily lucky.   

For this reason, I’ve continued getting lessons on the golf swing from Jessica at GolfTec, and had another this weekend.  We talked about hips, shoulders, and wrists.  Jessica knows a lot about the swing, and she also has helpful technology tools — sensors, computers, and video. I’m seeing improvement, both in my measurements and in how the ball flies, and I understand a lot more about how a good golf swing works.  But it’s hard to change ingrained habits.  When you fix one problem, you may create another.  I’m starting to understand that although there is improvement, there is never perfection.

I was hoping to also have a piano lesson this weekend, but Olga said she was too busy.  With a new baby, a full teaching load, and concert commitments, that’s understandable, but I was disappointed.  Among other things, I’ve been working on Chopin’s famous Nocturne in B flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, and I’m eager to get her take on it.  Recently I had a minor epiphany that there would never be a point when her response to my playing would be:  that’s perfect, and there’s no way it could be improved.  In the great classical tradition there are always new possibilities and new things to be explored.