The Casual Blog

Retiring, learning nature photography, and reprioritizing, with a lesson from my mom

 

Barred owl in a cypress tree with Spanish moss

Last Friday was the one-week anniversary of my retirement, and the start of the next phase of my education in  nature and photography. I drove down to Charleston, SC for a workshop sponsored by the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  The workshop included two one-day courses, with one led by Jamie Konarski Davidson on garden and macro photography, and the other led by Eric Horan on bird photography.  With Jamie’s group at Magnolia Plantation I battled heat and mosquitos, and with Eric’s I hand held a big lens on a rocking boat in Charleston Bay. It was challenging. I took many not-very-good pictures along with a few that I liked, including the ones here.  

Oystercatcher parent and child in Charleston Bay

My plan for the next several months is to learn a lot about nature photography and see if I can make better pictures.  I’ll be traveling both in and out of state and getting coaching from some master photographers. I’ll also be reading and watching videos on post-processing techniques, and doing a lot of trial-and-error experimenting.  We’ll see how it goes.

Osprey in Charleston Bay

Anyhow, I enjoyed the Charleston trip and got some good tips.  I traveled with Barry Wheeler, a fellow retiree with a long resume and the same camera as me (the extraordinary Nikon D850).  He posts some of his nature photography on his blog, Travels of an Old Guy, which I find well worth following.  During the drive, we had some great conversation on camera equipment and life in general.  

Great egret on a shrimp boat

As I told Barry, as I’ve started my post wage-earning life, I’ve been reflecting on some important things I learned from my mother, Zola Tiller.  She had a major hand in directing me toward the life of an intellectual, though of course I didn’t perceive that at the time, and also for a long time afterwards.   She often spoke admiringly about Albert Schweitzer, a French theologian, philosopher, humanitarian, musician, and physician. She must have read his biography.  I assumed from her account he was extremely famous, though I doubt I’ve even heard his name for at least 40 years.  

Black skimmer

Anyhow, according to mom, he was a good role model.  From these and other examples I absorbed a value system that placed great weight on high intelligence and professional achievement.  For most of my career, I did business where smartness was the coin of the realm, with other human qualities valued much less. And my mom was never an intellectual.  It’s embarrassing to admit, but when I was a young man this bothered me.

It wasn’t until near the end of her life that I realized she was exceptionally gifted in another way, which was relating to people with kindness, compassion, generosity, and love.  I used to think that those qualities were common, but I’ve come to see them as relatively rare, and worth noting and extolling. I suppose it would be good to be a Schweitzer, a formerly famous humanitarian.  But it would also be good to be a Zola Tiller — a person who gave warmth and caring to those in her circle and others fortunate enough to cross paths with her.

Hydrangea at Magnolia Plantation

On Wednesday, Sally and I celebrated our anniversary — the 37th!  She has made me the happiest of men! She gave me a very sweet card, and we had a good dinner at Bloomsbury Bistro.

Orchid at Magnolia Plantation

The eaglets fell but are OK, as am I, having retired

The eaglet last week at Shelley Lake

Last week one of the two eaglets at Shelley Lake fell from nest and was rescued.  The following morning I got some pictures of the remaining youngster and the storm-damaged nest, and caught up on eagle family news with other eagle fans.  I went up there again yesterday, and learned that the other eaglet had also been found on the ground and also got rescued. I saw one of the eagle parents fly to the nest site and perch briefly, with its back to me, before flying out again.

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Jocelyn and Kyle came down from New York to visit and help with a surprise party dinner for my retirement.  Yes, this week, after 32 years as a licensed attorney and 11 years as vice president and assistant general counsel at Red Hat, Inc., I came to the end of that chapter.  Mainly I felt happiness and excitement, but there were other complicated feelings, including regret that I won’t be as close on a daily basis to my work friends.  

But I’m looking forward to new adventures.  I’ll be the father of the bride in Jocelyn’s and Kyle’s wedding.  I’m planning on learning some new dishes to cook for Sally, and getting some golf coaching from Gabe. Also, in the next several months I expect to be traveling, studying photography, and making photographs of various living things, including flowers, fish, and grizzly bears, and lots of birds (like puffins, cranes, snow geese, and penguins).  

I’ll be exploring new piano repertoire, including more Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and Debussy, and also reviving my jazz studies, which have been sitting in storage for quite a few years.  I’ll be sketching with pencil and paper, and also with an iPad. I’m hoping to improve my language skills in French, Spanish, German and Italian. I’ve also got a long English-language reading list — mostly history and various branches of science and philosophy, but also poetry and fiction.

My retirement dinner at Caffe Luna. Left to right: Jocelyn, Kyle, Sally, me, Gabe, and Clark

First off, though, I’m taking a few deep breaths.  When I left Red Hat on Friday, I went up to Raulston Arboretum to check on new flowers.  Then I stopped for coffee at Cup A Joe’s and sat for a while with a new e-book (Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan).  It was a new thing for me to sit reading well after I finished my beverage, with no urgency to get to the next thing.  The next day, I went to our rooftop pool area with Jocelyn and Kyle to chat and read, and for the first time since we moved here almost 10 years ago, I got in the pool.  For such a hot day, it was surprisingly chilly and refreshing.

The eaglets test their wings, and I finish The Overstory

The eaglet siblings and their nest at Shelley Lake

I went up to Shelley Lake last Saturday morning hoping to see the two bald eagle chicks and take some photos.  I put my long lens (a Sigma 150-600 mm zoom) on a tripod, and watched the nest for a couple of hours.

It wasn’t boring!  There were quiet periods, but I found them peaceful.  The eaglets were dark, and from about 70 yards away, I couldn’t see a lot of detail.  It wasn’t until the next day when I processed the images with Lightroom and other tools that I understood what they were up to:  waiting for their mama, flapping their wings and getting ready to fly, and eating.

The eaglets looked to be about three-quarters as big as the adults.  Each spent some time standing on the edge of the nest, probably thinking about taking off.  But when mama eagle returned from the hunt with food, they opened their beaks wide to be fed like little baby birds.

 

I was looking at the nest a little differently this week, giving more consideration to the pine tree that held it.  I had just finished The Overstory, a novel by Richard Powers, which has at its center the complex lives of trees.

Powers has a lot of human characters, who gradually converge, and he draws on recent scientific discoveries about trees’ social behavior and responses to their environments.  His characters struggle to come to grips with the slow motion disaster that humans are wreaking on the planet. It’s a big novel in every sense, with a lot of beauty and urgency.  

Birds and alligators, and our extinction problem

A snowy egret at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine

Week before last, Sally and I drove down to St. Augustine for the Florida Birding and Photo Festival.  We saw a lot of birds, and I took a lot of pictures, of which these are a few.

Tricolored heron with eggs

We were especially delighted by the Alligator Farm, a zoo that hosts nesting migrant wading birds.  Dozens of families of egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and storks build nests and hatch their chicks in trees above dozens of alligators.  There’s a boardwalk through the area, and some of the bird families are very close to it. The parents fly back and forth bringing nesting material and food for the noisy chicks.  

Wood stork

It was both beautiful and strange to see all those birds and reptiles together.  Apparently the birds like to nest there because the alligators protect their broods from predators.  Of course, there’s an inherent danger for those new chicks: if they fall out of the nests, it’s curtains.  

We also saw a lot of shorebirds during a couple of boat trips on the Intercoastal Waterway and hiking Anastasia State Park.  I attended nature photography workshops by some highly accomplished pros, including Charles Glatzer, Lewis Kemper, Roman Kurywczak, Scott Bourne, Jack Rogers, and Joe Brady, and learned a lot.  

A roseate spoonbill

The more time I spent with the birds at the Alligator Farm, the more I saw, and felt.  On the first day, I was excited just to get a good view of several species that weren’t familiar to me.  But after a few hours, I started keying into family relationships — expectant and new parents, nestlings, and fledglings.  The nests of different families and different species were close together, like high rise apartments, and I watched as the birds worked out conflicts over space.  They spent time grooming themselves, working on their nests, and flying out and back with food for the little ones. The nests were busy places.

The birds seemed not at all bothered by the humans watching them and taking their pictures.  They must be used to it.

A great egret family

It’s encouraging that there are places like the Alligator Farm where humans are devoting some resources for the benefit of non-human animals, and where we can learn about their world.  But we need to do a lot more. Last week I finished reading (actually, listening to) Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction.  I was glad to find it not all gloom and doom; there were various lively characters and stories.  But the overarching story of what homo sapiens have done, and are still doing, to the planet is deeply troubling.

Planetary destruction ought to be a big news story, though it seldom makes the front page, and I’m afraid there are a lot of people who still haven’t got the message.  Maybe that’s changing. Just yesterday, the leading newspapers reported at length on the new United Nations report on the global threats to biodiversity and the critical need for conservation efforts.  The full 1500 page report is not yet available, but the summary is out and the key findings were reported in the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal , the Washington Post, and the Guardian. As they all noted, the UN report says that more than one million species are at risk of extinction in the near future.  

The UN panel connected various interacting threats to biodiversity, including  habitat loss, water pollution, soil exhaustion, over-logging, overfishing, transportation of invasive species, and burning fossil fuels.  It emphasized that these human activities together are threatening the basic natural resources (like food and water) on which humans depend.

The report didn’t seem to give much weight to the inherent value of non-human species.  The idea that the only purpose of nature is to serve humankind is deep-seated, and arguing against it might sound strange, if not treasonous. So the report’s authors could well be hesitant to argue against the idea that humans have an inherent right to kill everything that’s not human.  Anyhow, if the only thing that will mobilize humans to stop destroying the natural world is raw self-interest, the report authors should be thanked for making an effective appeal to that self-interest.

I’ll just note briefly that there are alternative views.  Of course, we’re strongly conditioned to think of nature as our inferior and our enemy in a war for survival.  But it’s dawning on us that this line of thought has taken us to the brink of disaster, and that we ultimately rely on the natural world for life.  In place of a war footing, it’s possible for humans to regard themselves as connected to and part of nature.

It’s not easy to let go of the idea that we’re in all regards superior to nature and entitled to exploit it without limitation, but it can be done.  This opens up a vista of nature in its beautiful complexity and ourselves a part of that. The challenge is to discover balance and harmony within this constantly changing reality.  

Meanwhile, there’s the problem of eating.  I highly recommend checking out the Times’s recent feature on how our eating affects the environment.   It explains that our food system is an enormous contributing factor to our environmental problems, and that eating more plants and less meat would help.  

The growing eagle family, and the consciousness of other animals

Papa eagle at the nest

On Thursday afternoon I went up to Shelley Lake with my camera equipment to check on the nesting eagles.  The walk to the nest is close to a mile along a paved path on the east side of the lake. It was clear and mild, though breezy.  When I got there, papa eagle was perched in the pine tree beside the nest. A fellow eagle watcher said there were two chicks in the nest, and mama was off hunting.  Forty-five minutes later, she flew in with some food in her talons and disappeared in the nest. When she emerged, she spent a few minutes perched with her mate, and then flew off.  

Of course, I was excited to see the birds, but there was also something calming about being near them.  The wind sometimes blew the pine branches in front of them, or blew them aside for one second, just enough for a picture.

Speaking of animals, I’ve been reading two good books — Mama’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal and Beyond Words, by Carl Safina.  Both books explore animal social organizations and thought processes. Dr. de Waal’s primary subjects are chimpanzees and other primates. De Waal explains that when he was a young scientist, the orthodox view in academia was that animals did not have emotions.  He’s devoted his career to testing this view, and has succeeded in thoroughly debunking it.  In exploring non-human animal emotions, he shows us more about our own minds.

Dr. Safina focuses on elephants, wolves, and killer whales, and closely observes a few of their social organizations and personalities.  The stories are moving, and raise absorbing questions about the consciousness of these animals. Some of the human behaviors, including killing elephants for their tusks and killing other creatures merely for pleasure, raise uncomfortable questions about human morality.

 

Notre Dame, Our Planet, and some very small scenes

Like millions of others, I was shocked and saddened by the devastating fire yesterday Notre Dame Cathedral    I lived in Paris for a few months right after college, and visited the church many times. I loved the beauty and majesty, but there were other, quieter aspects that also moved me.  I liked to think about the anonymous builders who carved and laid the gray stones starting in 1160.  It was built to last!  It showed the strength of human creativity and of what communities could achieve together.  

It will take some time to mourn and process the terrible damage to this historic treasure.  For now, I find it helpful to remember that communities can be amazingly resilient, and they are capable of remarkable feats of restoration.  There are many examples in Europe of unique buildings destroyed in WWII that have been miraculously recreated. It may be that this loss will inspire another such effort, and demonstrate again the power of communities.

We’ve started watching the new nature series on Netflix, Our Planet, which I highly recommend.  Narrated by the legendary David Attenborough (now 92!), it sets a new standard for beautiful nature photography, including footage of rare and wonderful animals and habitats.  But, as the Times critic pointed out, it departs from the usual conventions of nature documentaries by being both richer in its ecological vision and more frank in its damage assessments.  It recognizes that the smallest life forms are inextricably linked to the largest, and all are part of a dense interconnected web that humans and other animals depend on.  

The series faces up to the harsh reality that humans have already wreaked enormous damage on the planet, and are continuing to do so. In the series, and also in public statements, Attenborough and producer Alastair Fothergill have communicated that as dire as the situation is, there’s still hope, and a lot of nature that we can still save.

Last weekend I went to Durham for a workshop led by Mike Moats on macro (that is, close-up) photography.  Mike gave our group a lot of tips and ideas, and brought along groups of little objects for us to shoot. I’m generally much more interested in using my camera to explore the natural world, and I approached these subjects with low expectations.  But back home after I sorted and processed the images (using Lightroom, Photoshop, and Topaz Studio), I found there were several I kind of liked, which I’m sharing here.

 

At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

This week Sally and I went back to the Full Frame Film Festival in downtown Durham, and watched 15 or so documentary films.  As in prior years, it was an amazing, enriching experience, like a quick trip around the world. Full Frame is one of the best, or perhaps the best, documentary festival in the country, pulling in filmmakers and fans from far and wide, and we’re fortunate that it’s so convenient for us.  

As usual, we saw a few Raleigh friends there, but we’re always surprised not to see more.  Part of the reason may be lack of knowledge.  It isn’t entirely clear from Full Frame’s publicity what it is.  From the Festival’s point of view, this doesn’t seem to be a problem, since they seem to sell out most of their showings. But for those missing this amazing experience, it’s worth knowing a few things.

For example, the 70 or so films shown are selected from many hundreds.  They are all, in effect, contest winners. There are many subjects and styles.  Production values (filming, animation, music) are typically high. More than with typical movie going, it requires a slight leap of faith to buy tickets, since most of the films are new and almost unknown.  But we’ve learned through experience that the programming committee knows what it’s doing, and we can trust that almost everything they show will be invigorating.

Another fun aspect of Full Frame is the people.  For many of the films, the filmmakers and subjects come to the screenings and answer questions afterwards, and hang around to talk after that.  And the audience members are a varied, interesting lot. While waiting for the next movie, many people like to talk about what they’ve been seeing, what they’re about to see, and their lives.  We’ve had many uncommonly enjoyable chats.

Anyhow, we love it.  As usual, we booked a room in the downtown Marriott, which is physically connected to the Convention Center where most of the films are shown.  We only went outside to eat or wait in line for the screenings in Fletcher (the largest hall). It took a certain amount of commitment to do five screenings on Friday and Saturday, starting around 10:00 A.M. and ending around midnight.  And it was emotionally challenging, with some of the subject matter evoking strong feelings of regret and loss. But there were also moments of humor and a lot of rays of hope — examples of love, compassion, and organizing to do something about serious problems.  

Here are a few notes on my favorites.

F/11 and Be There.  This was a film about Burk Uzzle, a photographer who worked for Life Magazine and went on to a distinguished career in art photography and portraiture.  He had a lot of interesting things to say and show about photography, including the primacy of emotional content and the connections to making music. He’s still going strong at age 80, and answered questions at the screening.  

Meeting Gorbachev.  This is a bio documentary by Werner Herzog about Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev had a lot of intelligence and humor, and said some very timely things about stopping nuclear weapons.  

Human Nature.  This was about gene editing with CRISPR-Cas9 technology.  It’s a challenging but really important subject, comparable to the internet, just starting to change the world.  The film does a great job at teaching the science basics and raising some of the difficult questions about where this technology might take us.  

Kifaru.  This one treated the extinction of northern white rhinoceroses and humans trying to save them.  I was amazed to see that these ancient and fierce-looking animals form bonds with their caretakers and play with them.  The tone was gentle and elegiac, and the photography beautiful. We talked with some of the filmmakers and one of the Kenyan caretakers afterwards.  It won the Festival’s Audience Award and the Environmental Award.

Ask Dr. Ruth.  There is only one Dr. Ruth, famous for her talk show on sexual problems, and this is her documentary biopic.  As a child, she barely escaped the Holocaust, and her family did not. Now, at age 90, she’s incredibly warm, upbeat, and peppy.  She spoke after the showing and made people laugh. I caught up with her as she was leaving and thanked her for the film and for making America a little less prudish and a little more joyful.  She thanked me with her terrific smile.

Hail Satan?   This one is about the Temple of Satan and its leader, Lucien Greaves.  The group is in part a satirical theatre challenge social conservative positions on religion and social norms, including their placing Ten Commandments statues on public property and restrictions on abortion and gay rights.  It will upset fundamentalists and some others, and entertain others.

Mossville:  When Great Trees Fall.  This is about the destruction of a thriving black community in Louisiana with the pollution of enormous industrial plants.  The existence of environmental racism is not new but perhaps not widely understood, and this film does a great job in framing the problem on a human scale.  It won the Festival’s Human Rights Award.

The eagles at Shelley Lake, looking for wildflowers, finding conspiracies, and new music

Things are blossoming like crazy here, and I’ve been itching to spend some time outside with the beautiful plants and animals.  In the last few days, I’ve succeeded, and had both good luck and bad luck with my camera.    The good luck was at Shelley Lake, where the two adult bald eagles came out of their nest and posed nicely for pictures.  There may well be a couple of eaglets in the nest, as someone said. The area near the nest has become a little social center for nature photographers, bird watchers, and assorted other humans.  It was fun chatting about the birds, and seeing the excitement when people saw them for the first time.

On Friday morning I took a vacation day and went over to the UNC Botanical Garden to see what was blooming and to get a special pass for Mason Farm Biological Reserve.  I was hoping to find unfamiliar wildflowers. When I got there that my camera battery was almost dead (due to taking many eagle shots), and I’d forgotten my backup battery.  The creek was too high to get well into Mason Farm. So, bad luck, but I did find a few interesting wildflowers, which I admired and photographed.

Later I met Gabe Tiller in Chapel Hill for lunch at the Mediterranean Deli.  The falafel, hummus, and baba ghannouj were all delicious! We caught up on family and work news, and I walked him back to work.  Then I made my way to the UNC Arboretum. Traffic on Franklin Street was busy, and I was lucky to find parking at the planetarium.  There were a lot of blossoms at the arboretum which inspired photographic ideas, but my battery gave out after three shots.

On Saturday morning, after visiting the eagles, I drove over to Durham to see the flowers at Duke Gardens.  I’d seen on Instagram that the tulips there were blooming, and that spectacular collection always brings me joy.  But lots of other people had the same idea; the traffic was crawling. After some slow poking through the various lots, I admitted defeat and drove sadly home.

On the way back to Raleigh, I listened to an episode on This American Life about conspiracy theories.  It’s a timely topic, with Donald Trump declaiming loudly that there was no conspiracy involving him, but there are plenty of conspiracies involving his foes.  As one of the program’s segments noted, for fans of anti-government conspiracy theories, everything Trump says makes perfect sense.

Not being such a fan, I’ve assumed that such ideas, however nutty, are mostly harmless.   But my harmlessness hypothesis  was shattered by reports this week by reporting on Alex Jones and others who have decided to believe that the murder of 28 school children and staff  at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax. In a podcast of This American Life,  I learned that these people have conducted sustained harassment of the parents of murdered children, including sharing their addresses and personal information and threatening them with violence.  

I have a hard time conceiving of how anyone could get disconnected enough from reality and human decency to attack people based on their being the parents of murdered children, but I’ll try.  1. Humans have a deep-seated drive to find explanatory patterns, and a deep aversion to uncertainty and disorder. 2. Finding a group of people who share your beliefs is satisfying, for it is our nature to want friends and allies.  3. It is surely satisfying to believe you have grasped an obscure truth that only a few can fathom. 4. You may get into a feedback loop: those who resist your conspiracy theory are part of the conspiracy, and their efforts to unpack your theory are attacks on your group and proof of the theory’s validity.  

At any rate, I’m guessing that’s part of how people get to believing in a flat earth, UFOs, the Illuminati, and any number of other fantasies.  But for most of those, I’d expect there’s some hedging. If it came to actually doing violence, physical or psychological, in support of the theory, many people would say, hmmm, I might be wrong, and that germ of uncertainty would hold them back.  It probably takes a big mouth con artist like Alex Jones or Donald Trump leading the charge to overcome those doubts. That may take the group over the edge.

This is sick and scary stuff, and it shows no signs of going away soon.  But some good news: as reported in the NY Times and Washington Post, some of the targeted parents have sued Jones for defamation.  As flawed and error prone as our system of justice is, it’s good to think it’s still there, and may well shut down this particular madness.

This is one of the things I like about spending time with non-human animals and plants:  at a fundamental level, they’re truthful. This week I started another book about animal feelings and intelligence:  Moma’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal. De Waal is a psychologist at Emory University, who wrote Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? which is a good overview of recent research that is transforming ideas about the limits of animal intelligence.  His new book contends that the emotional lives of some animals are not so different from ours.  Most dog owners already think this, and it’s interesting that science is catching up.  

At my lesson that afternoon with my piano teacher, Olga Kleiankina, she invited to be an audience of one for her run through of most of the program she’ll be performing next week at the Smithsonian Institution, and after that at the N.C. Museum of Art.  The works were all by living composers, including Ligeti, Salonen, and Crumb. The music was challenging for both the performer and listener, requiring great virtuosity and intense attention.  Lacking the traditional binding agents of tonality, performer and listener had to find other orientation points. I didn’t love everything, but I really liked most of it. As she noted, the music could open things up, and make you listen to other things with new ears.

That evening, I discovered on Spotify a wonderful recording of Mahler’s ninth symphony streaming performed by the Essener Philharmoniker led by Tomas Netopil.  It was an excellent orchestra, and Netopil (Czech, b. 1975) was brilliant. And kudos as well to the gifted recording engineers. I’ve enjoyed this music for decades, but felt like I was hearing it for the first time.  I knew nothing of that orchestra, but checked: Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany. Interesting coincidence!

Seagrove Orchids, meditation developments, and the Elias String Quartet

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Last weekend I drove down to Seagrove, NC, and took some pictures at Seagrove Orchids.  Owner Linda Thorne had invited members of the Carolina Nature Photographers Association to visit her greenhouse with their cameras, tripods, and other gear.  Orchids are always fascinating, and seeing so many blooming at once was almost inebriating. The pictures here involved up to 30 exposures, each with slightly different focus points, which I later stitched together with Helicon Focus software and processed in Lightroom.  I was happy enough with some of the results to use them as wallpaper on my home screens.

 

Jocelyn called this week to catch up, and reported that she and Kyle were experimenting with mindfulness meditation.  They were trying the short practical instructions I’d pointed towards in the NY Times, which are here.  I was so happy to hear it! After several months of  practicing daily meditation, I’m persuaded that it can change us for the better. Just sitting still, breathing, and noticing what our minds do helps with many of our usual problems, like stress, anxiety, and distraction.  To be sure, not all of our problems are in our minds, but meditating reveals that a lot of them are, and with practice we can let those go. 

 

With less mental clutter and a lighter load of fears and anxieties, I find I can tune in better to the various joys of life, like friends, food, and music.  On Saturday we met up with friends in Durham for dinner at Mothers and Sons. It took several tries to get the reservation, but it was worth it; the food and service were excellent.  Afterwards, we all went to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium to hear the Elias String Quartet play an interesting program of chamber music: Schumann’s Op. 41, No. 1, Sally Beamish’s String Quartet No. 4, and Schubert’s D. 804. 

 

The Schumann and Schubert are famous masterpieces, while the Beamish work was brand new, commissioned by Elias. Beamish (b. 1956) took fragments of the melodies and rhythms from the Schumann quartet and explored their tonal possibilities.  The short movements brought to mind the conciseness of Webern and the intensity of Bartok. I liked the idea of using the great music of Schumann in new ways, and enjoyed the piece, though Sally and our friends did not. I thought the Elias played with musicality and passion, though their tone quality was less rich and rounded than my ideal. In this performance, unlike the very greatest quartets, they did not completely gel into a single musical force. But they’re plainly very talented, and they seemed capable of doing so.

New York: art, music, traffic

 

Tenth Avenue

We got up to New York City last weekend, where we visited Jocelyn and Kyle, did some wedding planning, saw some art, and heard some great music.  

New York never stops changing.  More and more, once common and likeable little businesses, like Greek diners and pizza parlors, seem to be disappearing, while other less-lovable ones, like towering luxury condos, are expanding.  When we went down to Chelsea, we went by the new Hudson Yards skyscrapers, and noted lots of bigness. This week the NY Times architecture critic did a scathing review of the project, with some fantastic animated graphics.   I recommend checking it out.

On Friday, Sally and I went to the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Guggenheim, and liked it.  His mature work was mostly black and white portraiture of famous or beautiful people, done with classical rigor and exactitude.   Mapplethorpe’s subject matter included unashamed homoeroticism and S&M, which was, and still can be, shocking. He challenges non-gay people to be more tolerant and receptive.

A Mapplethorpe portrait

We also went to the Matthew Marks gallery to see some new work of Jasper Johns.  The artist is now 88, and I was not expecting anything particularly new from him.  But the work was strong! It was inspiring to see such vigor from an almost nonagenerian.   Afterwards, we looked in several other Chelsea art galleries.

One of the new J. Johns

On Saturday Sally and Jocelyn did wedding-related shopping, and I went to the Armory show.  This annual four-day art fair, located on piers on the West Side, featured galleries and contemporary artists from all over the world.  The crowd included international jet setters, students, and all types in between. There was a lot of art I didn’t care for, though some of the things I didn’t like I still found worth thinking about.

That’s one of the things serious art does:  gets your head and your eyes working. You start seeing lines and curves, lights and darks, colors and textures.  And of course, you experience a gamut of emotions, from joy to disgust. You may also consider the social aspect of art, from its relation to status and hierarchy to efforts to discover and convey truth.  

At the Armory show

On Saturday we went to the Metropolitan Opera to see Verdi’s Rigoletto.  This production was set in Las Vegas in the 1960s, with the main characters part of a casino-based crime family.  I didn’t love the concept, but I did love the performance by Nadine Sierra as Gilda. Her famous aria, Caro Nome, was really touching and beautiful.  The wonderful opera podcast Aria Code, with Rhiannon Giddens, had a segment on the music and psychology of this aria a few weeks back, with Sierra as the featured singer.   It gave me a deeper appreciation for the music, though I have to say, I thought her live performance was much better than the podcast one.  

On Sunday morning we went to the Metropolitan Museum and spent some time looking at their exhibit of Dutch painting of the 17th century.  I have a minor obsession with Vermeer, and usually find other great work of that period enjoyable. We also had a look at the pioneering photography of Giraux de Prangy, who, in the early 1840s, traveled around the Mediterranean taking the first ever daguerreotypes of the major architectural monuments of western civilization.  

Finally, we looked through the Met’s abstract expressionism exhibit, which had a lot of wall size art.  Some of these paintings still work for me, but increasingly they seem as uncontemporary as Vermeer. Artists are still mining the abstract expressionist vein, along with every other prior vein from Impressionism onward, and people are still enjoying and buying such work.  But more and more, I’m on the lookout for a path to a new kind of artistic language.

There was an essay in the Washington Post this week by Robert Kagan entitled The Strongmen Strike Back, which I hope will start an interesting discussion.  Kagan argues that there is a common thread connecting the various authoritarian regimes that have emerged in the last couple of decades, including in Russia, China, Egypt, Hungary, and elsewhere.  Instead of ideology, these regimes are founded on idealization of traditional cultural touch points of race, religion, values, and status hierarchies. He suggests an answer to something that’s really been puzzling me:  the acquiescence and even support of a lot of American conservatives for Vladimir Putin. He thinks it isn’t just a bloody-minded rejection of liberalism, but a defensive embrace of traditionalism.

Kagan thinks that traditional liberalism has offered individual rights and freedom, but hasn’t offered enough to those who feel their religious and other cultural preferences need protection.  That seems possible. But Kagan doesn’t say much about the fearmongering and disinformation that seems to be a common thread among the new authoritarians. His vision of liberalism seems to embrace traditional American imperialism and preferential treatment for elites.  I don’t think he’s really proposed a workable solution to authoritarianism, but he’s given some helpful new vocabulary.

In these fraught times, I’m always on the lookout for cheering news, and was really cheered this week to read about the young students around the world who mobilized to address climate change.  There were protests in a hundred different countries and 1,700 locations, according to the Washington Post. As some of the students pointed out, adults have created a dire environmental crisis, and the world they threaten to leave to their children looks distinctly worse than the one they themselves got.  This is part of the moral imperative for addressing climate change — protecting the next generation, and the ones after them.