The Casual Blog

Tag: Aria Code

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.

Our scuba diving trip to the Bahamas


Sally and I got back on Saturday from a scuba diving trip aboard the Bahamas Aggressor.  After a week on the ship, our sea legs are still working — that is, the floor to our apartment has been rolling from side to side.  Our ears got a bit stopped up from a lot of time underwater, so we’re not hearing so well, and my poor toes have a couple of bad blisters from hours of kicking with fins. But it was wonderful to be at sea, seeing so many amazing creatures.  The pictures here were all taken by me during the trip, except the last one, which was by Brynne, one of our ship photographers.

The Bahamas Aggressor is a 100-foot vessel with a crew of 6 that sails out of Nassau.  The ship was, we learned, the oldest member of the Aggressor fleet.  It was a little cramped, but had all the necessities, and the various systems (water, electricity, AC, air compressor, etc.) worked fine.  Our only real disappointment was the hot tub, which looked inviting, but was unfortunately broken.    

Our dive sites were southeast of Nassau, in the Exuma and Eleuthera areas.  We had some spectacular sunsets, but it was mostly gray, and cooler and windier than expected.  The seas got a bit rough at times, and I was glad I took motion sickness pills. The water was generally around 79 degrees F, and I felt comfortable in a 5 mm wetsuit with a hooded vest.  The visibility was usually around 60 feet, though substantially less than that on a couple of dives.

We generally did four or five dives per day, including a night dive.  Most dives were a little under an hour. The dive sites were mostly either walls or coral reef structures, with a couple of wrecks thrown in.  We saw a lot of interesting sea life, large and small. To name a few, there were Caribbean reef sharks, southern sting rays, groupers, barricuda, jacks, Atlantic spadefish, filefish, queen triggerfish, porcupine fish, grunts, striped burrfish, and various types of parrotfish, along with various angelfish (gray, queen, French), butterflyfish, and lots of other small tropicals.  There were, unfortunately, a lot of destructive lionfish. We also saw several green sea turtles, lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and conchs, and various tinier creatures. A few people saw a solitary hammerhead shark, but we missed that one. There was also one octopus sighting, but sadly, we didn’t get that one either.

There was beautiful coral in places, but a number of the dive sites did not look healthy.  There was some serious coral bleaching, and also a lot of green algae. We’d been well aware that coral reefs have been dying in many places, but had hoped they would be healthier here.  Over all, I found the conditions worrisome.

But we found many beautiful inspiring areas of life.  The crew, led by Captain Christy, was young, cheery, and supportive, and our eight fellow passengers were good diving and dining companions.  Five were of Chinese or Singaporean origin, and we very much enjoyed getting to know them and something of their culture. Caleb the cook fed his two vegetarians (us) well, and made particularly wonderful desserts.

On some dives we stayed close to the guide, but on most we explored on our own.  We had one major navigation snafu. After miscalculating the direction, we found ourselves almost out of air and surfaced a couple of hundred yards from the boat, and so had to be picked up by the Zodiac pontoon boat.  Also, on our very last dive, the plan was for a drift dive in strong current, with divers jumping in quickly one after the other off the side from the moving boat. I was the last in the line, and when my turn came, in I went.

Once in the water, I found the visibility very limited (perhaps 10 feet), and I could not see anyone.  I assumed the group must be a short way ahead, just beyond visual range, and so I let myself be carried along quickly by the current. It was fun to drift, but after a few minutes, I started to get worried.  I finally decided to call it and surfaced after 15 minutes.   Rob, the mate manning the Zodiac, quickly spotted me and picked me up, and back we went to the boat. It turned out that everyone else had surfaced 3 or 4 minutes after the start of the dive, and they were getting worried about me. As happens at times, I had marched to a different drummer.  It was good to be back.

Between diving, eating, and sleeping, there wasn’t a lot of time for other activity, but I did finish an interesting book, The Social Leap, by William von Hippel.  It’s a science-for-non-scientists account of how evolution shaped homo sapiens and their social systems. Von Hippel explores differences between hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies, and brings into focus simultaneous opposing strong forces of cooperation and competition.  I wish he’d  been clearer about what was well-established science (which much of it was) as opposed to creative speculation, but he throws out a lot of intriguing ideas. He suggests looking at fear and unhappiness as essential to our species, in that they keep us alert to danger and lead to progress.  He views our inability to live in the present as both a gift and a problem, and notes the usefulness of meditation.

On Saturday, we had a direct flight from Nassau to Charlotte, and then drove home to Raleigh.  We talked a lot about the week, and started to kick around where to go for our next big diving trip.  Maybe the Red Sea. We also enjoyed listening to a new-to-us podcast called Aria Code.   Hosted by Rhiannon Giddens, each episode has a panel discussing a famous opera aria from musical, historical, and psychological points of view.  We especially liked the episode on love at first sight in Puccini’s La Boheme.