The Casual Blog

Tag: Blue Lotus

Some yoga, being more present, nature photographers, Fiction Kitchen, the dances of Shen Yun

Sunrise in Raleigh this morning looking southeast

I was congested and sniffly for the first week of 2019, but still managed to get up early for some exercise every morning.  On Friday, I went to Flywheel for a spinning (stationary bike) class, and had a pretty good result: 317 points, and second place in the class.  After that I went down to O2 fitness and did some upper body resistance and core work, plus stretching.

I also made it to my first yoga class of the year.  I like the Early Bird classes at Blue Lotus, just across the street from us, which are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  Each class is different, but the system always combines flexibility, strength, and balance. I like moving as part of a group, and I like the teachers, Andrea and Glenda.  I don’t have much interest in New Age ideas, which fortunately they do not emphasize.   

Last Thursday Glenda was an excellent form, and gave a lot more than an ordinary exercise class.  She always has a great mixture of cheerfulness, supportiveness, and demandingness. But this time she helped me tune into to tiny details of sensation and investigate connections of distant parts of the body.  She encouraged us to move into the present moment in a way that made it seem both easy and marvelous.

This is my prime New Year’s resolution:  to be more present. I’m hoping to spend less energy in unproductive worrying and the like and more in the present moment.  On the Waking Up podcast last week, Sam Harris spoke about meditation and its benefits. Harris pointed up that most of us could improve the overall quality of our lives enormously just by cutting out useless mental loops of fear, anger, or craving.  Just dropping the pointless emotional junk would allow a lot more room for fulfillment.

I also resolved to get to some of the Carolina Nature Photographers meetings.  I joined the group a couple of years back, and have gone to some of their outings, but until this week I hadn’t been to  single one of their monthly meetings. Part of me always thought it would be great to talk shop with other nature photographers, and I decided to start this week.   

But part of me was resistant.  I generally dread meeting people I don’t know.  Based on my reading in evolutionary biology, I’d guess this dread  has ancient roots: our ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago living in small bands seldom encountered others of their species, and when they did it usually meant trouble, and possibly a violent death.  So they too probably avoided it when possible, and passed this strategy along to their successors. Anyhow, for whatever reason, I’ve got a mild phobia of strangers.

But I recognize it’s important to connect with others and so I usually manage to buck up and just do it.  Much more often than not, I enjoy a social chat once it gets started. At the meeting, not surprisingly, I found several nice people to chat with companionably about photography subjects, and enjoyed the presentation.  I thought some of the photography shown was really good, but not at all out of my league. I’d already resolved to take better pictures, and resolved this week to enter some of the contests.

I took the wildlife pictures here this weekend at Yates Mill Pond, Lake Lynn, and Shelley Lake.  I liked the reflections.  I was experimenting with some new settings in preparation for a trip with the Carolina Nature Photographers to Lake Mattamuskeet in a couple of weeks, where I expect to encounter thousands of water birds — snow geese, tundra swans, various ducks, and others.  

On Friday night we ate at one of our favorite restaurants, Fiction Kitchen.  We were happy to get a seat at the bar.  They’re popular and don’t take reservations, and we’ve been turned away more often than we’ve gotten in.  Fiction Kitchen is about delicious vegetarian and vegan food and a friendly artsy atmosphere. The core social vibe is distinctly lesbian, but all are welcome.  Sally had the veggie mock pork barbecue, and I had the mock sushi. Both were very tasty, and we had no room left for dessert.

Then we walked over to Memorial Auditorium to see Shen Yun, the Chinese dance troop.  They bill their art as part of an ancient Chinese tradition going back thousands of years, and contend that it is the root source of elements of western ballet and gymnastics.  Perhaps. What is certainly true is that they are very graceful and super athletic. The colorful flowing costumes are lovely, and the use of technology in the sets is creative.  There’s a degree of formality in the way the dancers present themselves, but that also is attractive.

Shen Yun’s beautiful dancers and lively stories emphasize the richness of Chinese culture, and at first I wondered if it was sponsored by the Chinese government.  But midway through the program, there were a couple of highly political segments that dramatize the brutality of Communist authoritarianism. The roots of Shen Yun seem to be in Falan Dafa, a/k/a Falan Gong, a movement involving meditation and qiqong exercises which continues to be persecuted by the CP.

Anyhow, we found the show stimulating and fun, and would go back again.  As I mentioned to Sally, the idea of China that was I got from American schooling turns out to have been a wild oversimplification.  The inhumanity of Chinese Communism is only one part of the picture. The China of real people turns out to be incredibly varied and interesting.  Without too much preaching, Shen Yun showed this.

Our amazing safety, veggie restaurants, blossoms, golfing hopes, and ISIS

Daffodil, Raulston Arboretum, March 21, 2015 Daffodil, Raulston Arboretum, March 21, 2015

Spring is here, with some good, and perhaps surprising, news: “America is safer than it has ever been and very likely safer than any country has ever been.” Writing in this month’s Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch drily sums up the gap between our perceptions of terrorist threats and reality: “American are about four times as likely to drown in their bathtub as they are to die in a terrorist attack.”

“Given how safe we are, and how frightened people nonetheless feel, it seems unlikely that Americans’ threat perception has ever before been quite as distorted as it is today. Never have so many feared so little, so much.” Rauch notes, “The United States faces no plausible invader or attacker. All we are really talking about, when we discuss threats from Iran or North Korea or ISIS, is whether our margin of safety should be very large or even larger.”

Why are we so scared? Rauch cites evolutionary biology, which equipped our ancestors to be hyperalert to the possibility of predators or enemies, and programmed them and us to err on the side of overreacting to threats. Part of it is also probably opportunistic politicians and sensationalistic media. Whatever it is, the cost is enormous. See, e.g., budgets of Defense Department, Justice Department, CIA, NSA, TSA, FBI, etc.

A new veggie-friendly restaurant. We tried Pho Pho Pho Noodle Kitchen, a new Vietnamese restaurant within walking distance of us on Glenwood Avenue this week. Our pho (noodle soup, basically) with tofu was tasty, and the place was lively, with a neo-Buddhist vibe. Our server must have been new, since she was a bit over eager – checking in on how we liked everything every 4.5 minutes or so – but we still liked her. Although there was only one vegetarian offering on the menu, we verified that there were several other items that could be done meatlessly. We’ll go back.

As Sally noted recently, we’ve been vegetarians now for 20 years. It’s gotten easier. There are a lot more fun vegetarian friendly restaurants these days, and we consciously try to support them. These are now quite a few good places with more than one veggie option, and vegetarians are clearly not second class citizens. My current favorites in downtown Raleigh are Fiction Kitchen, Capital Club 16, Buku, Sitti, Blue Mango, Kim Bop, and Bida Manda.

Saturday. On Saturday morning I did a sunrise five-mile run up Hillsborough Street, had a quick bowl of cereal, and went to an 8:30 yoga class with Yvonne across the street at Blue Lotus. My recent classes with Yvonne have been more about stretching and deep breathing than heavy working out, which works well after a run. Then I drove up Hillsborough to Raulston Arboretum for a slow walk with my camera.

It was a bit muddy from rain the day before, but things were quickly emerging. And also decaying: the beautiful blooms do not last long. The daffodils I saw last week were mostly gone, though there were some pretty new ones. Several oriental magnolias had particularly gorgeous blossoms. The birds were singing brightly.

In the afternoon, I practiced the piano, and then went over to RCC for some golf practice. As usually happens as spring arrives, I start thinking this could be my golf breakthrough year. Last year was pretty much a lost one for golf, due to eye, hand, and shoulder injuries, but I’ve been pretty healthy lately. And I’ve got some of the elements of a bona fide game. The thing is with golf, it’s remarkably hard to put it all together and make it happen on a consistent basis. Anyhow, I enjoy watching the little white ball fly up and away. Practice is fun.

We had delicious Thai food for dinner at Sawasdee on Glenwood Avenue, and went to the Raleigh Grande to see a documentary called Red Army. It tells the story of the Soviet hockey team that dominated the world in the 70s and 80s. The Soviet system was brutal, but they played brilliant hockey. I thought the subject was interesting, but the ex-players were not very expressive or insightful, and the analysis didn’t get much below the surface.

More on ISIS. I mentioned last week that we don’t know much about ISIS, but thanks to Graeme Wood I now know a good deal more. Wood wrote a piece for the Atlantic titled What ISIS Really Wants, which is well worth reading in its entirety. In a nutshell, ISIS takes the Koran completely literally, including the parts about militarily establishing and expanding a caliphate that applies Sharia law. It believes in requiring the allegiance of all Muslims, killing apostates, and enslaving non-believers.

Unlike Al Qaeda, they have no current interest in attacking western nations, but rather want the west to attack them. This would both help recruitment and gibe with their end-of-days theology. In fact, they don’t get along with Al Qaeda, which they view as insufficiently Islamic. As with other fervid fringe religious movements, for whatever reason this appeals to some, but a majority of Muslims and everyone else reject it as nutty, and the atrocities will always limit its appeal. Also, the ISIS ideology rules out cooperating or having diplomatic dealings with any who disagree even slightly with their views. Thus they can never have allies, which limits the possibilities for expansion.

Clearly, ISIS is a serious, and perhaps existential, threat for people who live within its range and disagree with it. But we should distinguish between possible terrorist threats to our lives and property, and the humanitarian concerns relating to the people of Iraq and Syria.

Cityscapes, intelligent plants, and weight loss work and play

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I got up a little after 6:00 on Saturday morning to allow time for walking Stuart, feeding him and the cats, breakfast, newspaper, and a little neighborhood photo safari at sunrise before yoga class. I’m still figuring out all the buttons, dials, numbers, icons, and graphs on my Nikon D7100, and experimenting with my new 10-24mm (wideangle) Nikkor lens. Adding to the challenge – wearing gloves. It was overcast, with temperature in the mid-30s.
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My neighborhood in downtown Raleigh has some stylish, pretty spots, and my usual way of seeing is to pay the most attention to those. But this morning I forcefully looked at older, grittier thing, and their shapes, patterns, and textures. I always enjoy construction sites, where you can see the innards of a building-to-be, but it was interesting looking at the opposite – destruction sites, and places where humans had run out of money or just don’t care anymore how things look. In those places, there’s nature: plants competing with concrete, pushing into cracks and crevices, revealing and exploiting areas that humans neglect.
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I read an interesting article this week by Michael Pollan on recent research into plant biology, and specifically neurobiology – how plants sense their environment and exchange information. Plant biologists are sharply divided on whether to call these abilities intelligence. Some scientists insist there cannot be intelligence unless there’s a brain, while others define it in terms of the ability to solve problems, which plants can do. But there seems to be general agreement that plants have some remarkable perceptual abilities.

Pollan describes plants’ “unique existential predicament as their being rooted to the ground and therefore unable to pick up and move when they need something or conditions turn unfavorable. The ‘sessile life style,’ as plant biologists term it, calls for an extensive and nuanced understanding of one’s immediate environment, since the plant has to find everything it needs, and has to defend itself, while remaining fixed in place. A highly developed sensory apparatus is required to locate food and identify threats. Plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five . . . .”

Plants have also developed some remarkable chemical methods of defending against marauding insects and communicating with others of their species regarding threats and food opportunities, and even recruiting other species to perform services. One researcher estimated that a plant has three thousand chemicals in its vocabulary. Researchers have also found examples of plant learning and memory. Most plant behavior is either invisible or happens too slowly for humans to perceive, but time-lapse photography is opening new windows.
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One of the challenges of this research is the ethical implications. One scientist, Stefano Mancuso of the University of Florence, argues that “because plants are sensitive and intelligent beings, we are obliged to treat them with some degree of respect. That means protecting their habitats from destruction and avoiding practices such as genetic manipulation, growing plants in monocultures, and training them in bonsai.” Mancuso doesn’t go so far as to avoid eating them. He contends they have evolved to be eaten, which accounts for their modular structure and lack of irreplaceable organs.

Most of this research was news to me, but I didn’t find it hard to believe that plants have extraordinary abilities, or that humans might find this hard to accept. Some people have the same problem dealing with the existence of (non-human) animal intelligence. I guess it’s insecurity. To me, learning about and appreciating the abilities of other species of life makes the world that much more amazing.
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In health news, I’m happy to say I finally got back to my fighting weight of 155 lbs this week (that’s a BMI of 22), after gaining 5 during our Xmas holiday travels. It is certainly harder to take them off than to put them on. I did it by working more interval training into my workouts, like jumping rope or rowing as part of a weight circuit, and lengthening my longer cardio work (elliptical, stairs, and such) from 30 to 40 minutes. Also, of course, eating sensible portions of healthy things (fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains).

I also am grateful to my health and fitness guides, especially Larisa Lotz, who meets me each Thursday at 5:30 a.m. at Studio Revolution with several mind and body surprises. This week, for example, her latest workout creation had me lunging and twisting, slamming down a heavy medicine ball, squatting with a sandbag, old school dead lifts, rowing with kettle bells in plank position, and fast agility movements through a rope ladder, among several other aerobic and anaerobic activities. She didn’t have a new balance activity this week, but she’s got me working on several, including balancing on my knees on an exercise ball.

This week I also tried a new morning exercise class at O2 Fitness called Chisel. I’ve been enjoying/enduring the spinning class there on Fridays with Jenn, who is funny, inspiring, and relentless, and she told me I should give it a try. I hadn’t previously done gym classes other than spinning, in part because I’ve got plenty of other things I like to do, but also in part because of shyness – a little bit of fear of the unknown, of confusion and possible embarrassment.

But with Jenn’s encouragement, I showed up last Monday. She was, as usual tough and inspiring, and funny. The hour-long class involved a background of driving dance club music and foreground of intense intervals both with and without dumbbells. Hardest for me were the jumping lunges. I found it very sweat inducing, and after hanging on for dear life, I felt great afterwards – an endorphin surge.

On Saturday morning as usual I went to Blue Lotus Yoga for Yvonne Cropp’s open level Vinyasa class. This weekend is Blueversary – the seventh birthday for the studio – which made me particularly conscious of how grateful I am that it’s there. There were several new people in the class, which may have accounted for Yvonne’s keeping things relatively low-keyed, well within normal yoga conventions. It was good, as always, to really stretch and to breathe together with the class. Afterwards, there was a drawing for special prizes, and I won one – a basket with lavender-scented soap and such. I didn’t really need the lavender, but still, I felt lucky.

My fabulous teachers (fitness, yoga, and music) and seeing Dallas Buyers’ Club

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Our geranium on the balcony is a true survivor! Here we are in mid-December, after several nights sub-freezing nights, and it still looks perky. Sally asked me to take a picture of this marvelous plant, and so I did — several in fact, but these are the best.
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Getting out of a rut and trying new things takes some energy and effort. It also really helps to have a good teacher. As I came into the home stretch of this week, it struck me that I’m fortunate to have found several such teachers, who’ve been helping me with fitness, yoga, and music.

First, there’s Larisa Lotz, who is my regular personal trainer each Thursday at 5:30 a.m. at Studio Revolution. I always look forward to it, because there’s an element of play and fun, but I also always find I’m barely able to make it through. This is not by accident, of course. Larisa has got my number, and knows about where my limits and weak points are. And she works on those weak points – which get stronger.

This week, as usual, she had some new activities and combinations. For core work, I had a side plank with the top leg pulling in and kicking out to the side, and a TRX suspended push up from the ground followed by drawing the legs in. She had me throwing a soft heavy medicine ball as high as possible, to work on “explosive energy,” which she said was a gap in most people’s fitness regimen.

We did some agility drills with quick stepping in various patterns through a rope ladder. We also did some sandbag work, including a fast intense series with dead lifts, cleans, squats, presses, and rows. And several other things. I took home several ideas for new things to work on.

On Friday morning I got to O2 Fitness at 5:35, and did some of Larisa’s hip and leg exercises and some more traditional upper body work – chin ups, dips, push ups, rows, and presses. Then I took my weekly RPM spinning class with Christy. This class involves dance club music of the throbbing, driving sort, which is not my favorite music, but it makes the hard biking in place in a dark room relatively fun. Our class on Friday involved more sprints than usual. I kept an eye on my heart rate monitor so as not to redline for too long. I topped out at 162 – high, but with all that effort, I was surprised it wasn’t a little higher.
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Later that day, at lunchtime, I shot over to Massage Wallah for some therepeutic massage work with Emily Alexander. My neck and shoulders were in need of special attention, so that’s what she worked on. This was my second session with Emily, and it was fairly intense, but good. Emily is not overly chatty, which I appreciate – it’s good to concentrate on the sensation. But I asked her about her story, and learned that she, like me, went to high school at the N.C. School of the Arts, and went on to film school at NYU and movie and TV work in Hollywood. We compared notes on digital cameras. My neck was much better afterwards, and I thought my shoulder was improved.

On Saturday morning I went to Yvonne Cropp‘s Juicy Flow yoga class at Blue Lotus. This is an hour-and-a-half class that combines traditional vinyasa work with kriya practice, which as presented by Yvonne involves three minute or so segments set to dance music with rhythmic movements working different muscle groups. It definitely gets the heart going. I ordinarily can figure out the exercise, but there is one I can’t: rolling backward, then forward and standing up without using the hands. Most of my fellow yogis were doing it, so it’s definitely possible. Another challenge for the future.

It was rainy on Saturday afternoon, which was good weather for a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina. I played Debussy’s second Arabesque and the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. As usual, Olga made me aware of some new dimensions of sound. We spent a long time working on the silences around the staccato notes in the Debussy. Along with a number of such tiny details, we worked on rhythm in connection with the larger structures.

For the Bach, she pointed out that one could never mistake Bach for Mozart, because Bach made much more use of interior parts of the measure for beginning and ending phrases – sort of like syncopation. She showed me how certain accents and timing tricks would bring the piece to life. Of course, knowing about it is one thing, and doing is another. It will take practice.

That evening Sally and I went out to Cary for dinner and a movie. When we go to the Regal at Crossroads, we like to eat at Tom Yum Thai, where the food is delicious and the service warm and friendly. They will take you at your word if you require things very spicy, and for me medium spicy is about right.

During dinner we talked about Dasani, the eleven-year-old homeless girl featured in a series of five articles in the Times this week. She’s a plucky, smart, athletic kid who faces very long odds at the bottom of the economic food chain. We got to know her large family, her teachers, and her homeless shelter in Brooklyn, where the conditions were dire. The series, by Andrea Elliott, is an extraordinary window into the world of poverty – well worth reading.

We saw Dallas Buyers Club, which concerns a macho Texas rodeo-type guy who gets AIDs in the 1980s and starts a business supplying unapproved AIDs drugs to the gay etc. demimonde. There are some colorful and funny characters, and a tour de force performance by Matthew McConaughey. He is almost unrecognizable, very gaunt, with a ton of grit and attitude. Of course, the subject is tragic. It reminded me of the first wave of the AIDs epidemic, and some of my own precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.

Sleepwalking, yoga, Bach, Schlosser on the nuclear precipice, and Spiegelman’s Maus

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So I apparently had another bizarre sleepwalking experience. After what seemed like a normal night’s sleep, I got up to find several unusual things. There were two wine glasses full of beer on the coffee table – one sitting on top of my laptop. There was a bowl with popcorn kernels, and a lot of popcorn on the floor. In the kitchen, the light on the stove hood vent was on, and the microwave popcorn wrappers were strewn about.

My first thought was that we’d had a break in, but the various quasi-valuable things in the vicinity were still around, and the door was locked from inside. That left just two possibilities – Sally and me. When she got up, she verified she had not knowingly done any of this eating and drinking.

From my prior somnambulism, I figured it had to be me. But I had absolutely no recollection of any such activity. And I would never, ever put beer in a wine glass – or worse, set the glass on my computer! And I did not know exactly how to operate the light on the stove hood, which I never use.

It is very strange to think of such complex activity happening without any consciousness whatever. Eating and drinking without meaning to is bad, but it could get worse. Is there any safety module that keeps the sleepwalker from going over the balcony rail? And falling twelve stories?
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In the last few days, I’ve taken note of various waking automatic behaviors and strange forgetful episodes. I expect everyone has some. Did I take that pill already or not? I parked that car, but where? My foot is bouncing up and down, which I did not tell it to do. Sally had a good one: she couldn’t find the pomegranate juice, and looked high and low, before realizing she’d already gotten it out of the refrigerator.

So a lot of our behavior is taking place without our consciously knowing anything about it. This is at times surely a good thing, allowing us to save mental energy for where it’s most needed. Cultivating good habits is partly an accommodation to the reality that there’s just not enough time or energy to think about every behavior. We choose a template that we think is likely to be effective in different future situations and repeat it until it is automatic.

But still, sleepwalking is pretty weird.

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Some yoga

The weather for most of this week was unseasonably warm and sunny, but it turned cold and rainy for the weekend. So no golf, but I did get in two yoga classes. On Saturday morning Suzanne filled in for Yvonne at Blue Lotus, and led an hour-long open level vinyasa class. She kept things flowing pretty fast, which I like, and I did a reasonable amount of sweating.

On Sunday morning, based on the recommendation of Larisa (my personal trainer), I tried a class with Hayley at Evolve. Her style involved holding poses for longer, which was challenging. When she said we’re going to do hand stands, I was surprised, but game. I managed to kick up and stay up for a while against the wall. Then Larisa asked Hayley to give me some pointers, and I had another go and managed to have a fairly spectacular crash. But I learned something: Hayley theorized that I got a little surprised when I touched the wall and let my elbow bend. Onward and upward.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

On Saturday night we had a fine Italian dinner a Caffe Luna, then went to a performance of the N.C. Symphony and the N.C. Master Chorale of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I was not familiar with the piece, but liked it very much. The chorus sounded great in some very challenging choral writing. The four soloists had pleasing voices and style, and the orchestra played well. Our friend trumpeter Paul Randall had a very high and prominent part in the last cantata, and shined.

My only complaint was conductor Grant Llewellyn seemed overly metronomic — without much rhythmic flexibility. I guess that’s one way to do it, but it seemed to me Bach would have liked more expression. We went out for a drink with Paul and a couple of his colleagues afterwards. It was interesting hearing the younger musicians talk about the intense challenges of auditioning for orchestra jobs.

Command and Control — the Nuclear Weapons Precipice

Speaking again of sleeping problems, for several nights recently I had anxiety dreams, inspired, I think, by reading Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion o Safety, by Eric Schlosser. The headline is: for decades we lived frighteningly close to the edge of an accidental nuclear disaster. A hydrogen bomb could have exploded in any of numerous training or maintenance accidents, while the huge arsenal of missiles could have been unleashed through computer error or human misjudgment.

In the final chapter Schlosser indicates that the risk of an accidental explosion from a US weapon has gone down, but it may have gone up in countries like Pakistan and India. And we’ve still got the irreducible human factor – that is, imperfect humans are in charge of these incredibly destructive weapons, and they could make a bad decision that could cost thousands or millions of lives.

Even before reading the book, I was generally of the view that it is insane to build, maintain, and keep on alert nuclear weapons capable of destroying many millions of innocent civilians and much of the planetary ecosystem – ending, as they say, life as we know it. This was true in the cold war, but even more so now, when there is no existential military threat. Why would any rational person or society do such a thing? After reading the book, and learning more about the theories of nuclear war and the practical engineering problems of the weapons, it seems even crazier.

How can it be that de-nuclearization is not a high priority issue in national and world politics? Of course, we do much hand wringing about Iran’s potential for a nuclear weapon, which makes it even odder that we somehow mostly avoid discussing our own weapons and their disastrous potential. It’s like we’re sleepwalking. Perhaps Schlosser’s book will help us start to wake up.


On a cheerier note (ha!), I started reading Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel masterpiece about the Holocaust. It’s in part about Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, who was concentration camp survivor. The early pages are about his life in pre-war Poland, first as a bachelor and then meeting Spiegelman’s mother. It’s surprisingly sweet, but also direct and honest, and remarkably vivid. I’ve never read anything remotely like it, and I really like it.

Stuart’s and my birthdays, a yoga class, a new green smoothie, and Beautiful Whales

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It was Stuart’s eleventh birthday on Tuesday. This is not ancient, but in dog years it is getting up there. It seems fitting to note that he is still the best little doggie ever. Sure, he’s grayer, but he still loves going on walks and being petted, and gets excited (drools) at meal time. He used to love to play with other dogs, but now, he doesn’t. But he’s very skilled at that greatest of dog skills: figuring out what his humans are feeling and making them feel better. He tolerates Rita, Isabel, and Phoebe (the cats).
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The next day was my own fifty-eighth birthday. I normally keep a low profile on birthdays. It just seems awkward, unfair in a way, to get extra affectionate attention for something that demands no skill beyond bare survival. And as will happen, those birthday numbers have gotten bigger. One of my coping mechanisms is to start thinking in the months running up to, say, the 58th birthday, that I’m about 58. Then when the day arrives, I initially think, good God, I’m 59. Then I realize I’m actually only 58, and feel a little better. I won’t be 59 for another whole year!

I don’t think I’m unusually fearful of death, but I’m still keenly interested in postponing it for as long as possible. Regular readers know that I have an interest in taking care of my physical self in a way that, if I observed it in a person I disliked, I might view as wacky. But if you’re in your later fifties, either you’re fighting the forces of entropy or you’re going downhill. I’m still getting up early almost every day and either going to the gym, swimming, doing a yoga class, seeing a personal trainer, or taking a spin class. And amazingly, I enjoy it! I wish I’d discovered how good it makes me feel when I was in my salad days.

Tuesday morning was my usual day for Early Bird Yoga at 6:30 with Suzanne. One of the things I like about Suzanne’s class is it’s always different, and usually fresh and lively.  Suzanne is inspired by ancient Vedic texts, which are not a particular interest of mine, but I’m glad they inspire her, because she inspires me. Her voice is sweet and low, with a lovely Trinidadian British accent. I just clear out my head, listen and do whatever she says to do. It’s simple, in a way, though not easy.

This week she had us go quickly through a typical flow (planks, chatarangas, cobras, down dogs, warrior ones, steps to the front of the mat, rising up, folds, half lift, fold, repeat, repeat again, etc.), then started throwing in side movements, twists, back bends, leg raises, and a series of one-legged balance poses. Then a few lovely minutes of complete relaxation in savasana. After considerable stress, I felt pleasantly calm at the end, and ready for an active day.

After crossing the street and taking the elevator back home, I made myself my usual weekday breakfast, a green smoothie. Each one is a little different. This one had kale and dandelion greens, a little orange juice and soy milk, a little flaxseed oil, a scoop of Vega One protein shake powder, strawberries, blueberries, and a banana. A little ice for coolness and texture. My restaurant grade blender is still working well, though I wish it were not so noisy. The smoothie was, as usual, dark green. I put it in the refrigerator to chill while I took a hot shower.

Back home after work, Sally gave me a birthday card with a male and female cardinal (birds that have strong couple bonds), and three presents: some workout shorts, a portable scales for luggage, and a book. I appreciated the new shorts and will find the scales useful for avoiding excess luggage fees, but I loved the book: Beautiful Whale, by Bryan Austin. It is an oversize coffee table volume with large photos of humpback, sperm, and other whales. One of my big dreams is to swim with these amazing creatures. The book is about as close to that experience as a book will get. The images are indeed beautiful and moving.

Getting over personal trainer-phobia

Although I’ve worked out at various gyms over the years, I haven’t had a personal trainer — until now. My reasoning was that exercising isn’t all that complicated, and if I couldn’t figure out how to do something by myself I wouldn’t care to admit it. Some people seemed to find trainers helpful in getting motivated, but I didn’t really have a problem motivating myself. But I recently was got over my trainer-phobia, and it made me reflect on the value of good teachers.

To state the obvious, staying reasonably fit is a good idea for a lot of reasons: feel better, get sick less, look better, think more clearly, live longer, etc. But it isn’t so easy. It takes persistent, continuous effort. It’s a challenge to find the necessary time (early mornings work for me) and to find ways of moving that you enjoy. But over time, it can get to be a habit.

At that point, there’s a different kind of problem. Doing the same thing over and over gets boring, and also at a certain point stops producing improvements. You need to change things up now and again. So staying fit takes some creativity and a willingness to try new things. In recent times, I’ve gotten out of my comfort zone by exploring yoga, and more recently got an introduction to the Pilates system. My teacher, Julee, recently left to go to med school, but not before reminding me of the value of having a guide in a new area.

In domains other than fitness, I already knew this. Learning new things is wonderful. Through trying to teach myself about things as diverse as science, music, and various languages, I’ve come to the general view that the best way to learn a new thing is to find a good teacher. It isn’t the only way, but it’s the most efficient and fun, and so the one most likely to succeed. A good teacher knows the ultimate goal, but also the interim levels, and taking into account your particular strengths and weaknesses, she will propose various possible ways for you to get to the next level. She guides you past blind alleys and hazards. You waste less time, and make faster progress. This makes it less likely you will give up. You work harder when someone else challenges you. You want to acquire the skill, but you also want to please your teacher. And if you’re fortunate, you and your teacher will form a meaningful human connection.

Anyhow, Julee’s departure, though sad for me, made me think about other things that I might like to try. My yoga teachers at Blue Lotus directed me towards Studio Revolution, just a few doors down the street. And so it was that I began working once a week on functional and TRX training with Larisa. We’re doing lots of variations on lunges, bends, twists, and squats, pulling against cords, moving sand bags, throwing heavy balls, and other tools for increasing core strength. She has introduced me to foam rollers. Larisa’s also making me conscious of which muscles are working in various movements, and which ones aren’t. I’m meeting some parts of my own body for the first time.

A juicy yoga class and other educational experiences

As much as I really love yoga, I go back and forth on Yvonne’s once-a-month Juicy Flow class at Blue Lotus. I like doing a class on Saturday mornings, and I like Yvonne, but I have the same issue the first Saturday every month.

Rather than her usual hour-and-a-half of Vinyasa (which is a lot), Juicy Flow is two hours, with a lot of fast movements. It’s eclectic. She puts a lot of thought into the music mix, which can range from goofy 80s pop to the world. In terms of movement, it’s always different, and there’s always something lively and fun. But it’s always exhausting, and tends to make me sore for a couple of days afterwards.

I was particularly hesitant about Juicy Flow this week, because I’ve been having some issues with my shoulders, and the class ordinarily stresses those parts. But I decided to give it a go. As usual, she’d come up with some demanding variations of traditional asanas, and several three-minute-long Kriya sequences of fast, big movements, including shoulder turns, squats, rolling up and down, scissoring legs, and open palm punches. There was also some free-form dancing.

Like every good yoga class, it was a learning experience — finding out some new things about what my body can and cannot do, and what the possibilities are. It was sufficiently demanding that I was not thinking about much of anything other than Yvonne’s directions. The two hours went fast. It was sweaty and exhausting, but also fun, and left me feeling amazingly calm and relaxed.

I was pleased to see news reports this week that Harvard and MIT are starting a free online education initiative called EdX. I might be interested in some courses. In fact, I’ve been auditing Michael Sandel’s Harvard course on justice (i.e. theories of ethics) through iTunes U. I usually watch Sandel or a Ted Talk in the early morning while getting my heart rate up on an exercise machine. It gets my head going.

Opening up the Ivy ivory tower strikes me as a very good thing for society in general, and I hope a lot of people will use it for continuing their education. It’s worrisome that anyone could think of college as the completion of an education. Seriously, has there ever been anyone who is reasonably well-educated after four years of college? College is kindergarten for adulthood. Getting fairly well educated takes a long time, and even then, there’s always more to explore.

Cultural diversity: yoga, Gambia, Lucretius, hockey, and Wagner

Looking west from the balcony

Daylight savings time ended this morning, and so we gained back the hour we lost in the spring. It’s strange that hours can be moved from one season to another. Anyhow, the leaves are changing, with yellows, oranges, and reds, and the temperatures are cooler. It’s fall.

Tuesday is my usual day for the Early Bird Yoga class at Blue Lotus with Suzanne. I normally get up at 5:30, do half an hour of interval work on the elliptical machine in my building, change out of my sweaty tee shirt into a fresh one, grab my yoga mat, and get to the 6:30 class in good time. Some yoga breathing, lowering, lifting, balancing and stretching is a good way to start the day.

Suzanne’s instructions are direct and clear, and her strength and grace are beautiful and inspiring. Each class is different, and lately she’s been taking us noticeably beyond our comfort zone. She seemed really pleased last week when she got us all up in tripod headstands. This week she had us all try side crow. This did not work at all for anyone (except her). Lately I’ve been working on front crow, and making progress, so perhaps we’ll do side crow one day.

Early Wednesday morning (5:40) I got in a cab to go to the airport. The cab driver was winded, and said he’d been doing jumping jacks to stay awake while waiting for me. It was better, he said, not to drink too much coffee. I agreed. He asked me where I was going, and I told him the bare fact (Boston), thinking I’d rather not get involved in a chat. There’s effort involved, and no guaranteed reward. But after a couple of minutes of silence, I relented. I figured I would try to be a decent chap and throw a lifeline to a lonely soul, so I asked him where he was from. Answer: Gambia, a tiny country in west Africa which I knew almost nothing about, and which he dearly loved.

He was a lively guy, and much more interesting than NPR. He described the government in terms that sounded benign though authoritarian, and improvements in roads, schools, and hospitals. He said that most people were at least part-time farmers and described how they stored crops in their own warehouses. When I asked him about his languages, he said he spoke seven, including three from Gambia and French, Spanish, and German. His English was accented but just fine.

The weather was clear and mild in northern Massachusetts, but there was still snow on the ground from an early season storm that had left many thousands without power. I did a bunch of meetings in Westford and then went down to Cambridge for more. On the flight back I read How to Read Montaigne by Terence Cave. Montaigne (1533-1592) is a startlingly original, modern thinker.

I was inspired to start exploring Montaigne by a few comments in an excellent book I finished a couple of weeks back: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. The Swerve recounts the discovery in a monastery in 1417 of a copy of an ancient Roman manuscript, and explains how that discovery changed history. The discoverer, Poggio Bracciolini, was a former apostolic secretary for a deposed Pope with a classical education and passion for finding and saving ancient books. The book that was almost lost, On the Nature of Things, was written by Lucretius about 50 BCE. It’s an epic poem that describes the philosophy of Epicureanism. Greenblatt covers a lot of ground, from the philosophers of Greece and Rome, the creation of libraries, the fanaticism of early Christianity, the preservation of books in medieval monasteries, the intrigues of the popes, religious wars, the intellectuals of the Renaissance (including Montaigne), and onward.

In addition to a lot of lively history, there’s a pithy account of the ideas of Epicurus (b. 342 BCE), including the notion that the entire universe is constructed of tiny indivisible building blocks called atoms. This carried with it a view of the world as a natural phenomenon, not something magical created and controlled by gods. Epicurus espoused freedom from superstition and the pursuit of pleasure.

By pleasure he meant not pursuit of wealth or debauchery, but something more nuanced that included a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world.. According to Philodemus, a follower of Epicurus, “It is impossible to live pleasurably … without living prudently and honourably and justly, and also without living courageously and temperately and magnanimously, and without making friends, and without being philanthropic.” The Epicureans celebrated friendship, emphasized charity and forgiveness, and were suspicious of worldly ambition.

According to Greenblatt, Epicureans, including Lucretius, believed that the gods existed, but that they couldn’t possibly be concerned with human beings. Along with atoms, Lucretius’s ideas encompassed the notion that living beings have evolved through a long process of trial and error, that the world exists for reasons that have nothing to do with humans, that humans are not unique but rather linked to all other life forms and to inorganic matter, there is no afterlife, that religions are superstitious delusions based on longings, fears, and ignorance, and that by fashioning gods humans became enslaved to their own dreams. Happiness could be attained through discarding delusions through reasons, looking squarely at the true nature of things, and discovering a sense of wonder.

These ideas were, of course, not congenial to early Christians, who almost succeeded in stamping them out. But somehow a copy survived, which Poggio discovered and copied, and which is recopied many times, and ultimately influenced thinkers in subsequent generations up to our own. Greenblatt’s book is a true pleasure.

We saw some professional hockey on Friday night: the Caroline Hurricanes vs. the Washington Capitols. I’d learned from my new assistant about a free bus that runs between downtown and the hockey games, and it turned out that it made a stop right at our building. The bus arrived on time, with many cheerful fans dressed in Hurricanes red and white. We had a good view from box seats.

The Hurricanes started strong but collapsed in the third period and got trounced. As long as the game was close, it was fun. As with soccer, the more hockey I watch, the more I see and appreciate the incredible athleticism. The drama is simple, but effective: there’s a surge of great joy at every goal our team makes, and stab of pain at a goal of the opponents. The bus trip back home seemed slower and much less cheerful.

On Saturday we saw quite a different sort of drama, Siegfried, the third opera of Wager’s Ring cycle, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera to all over the world, including the North Hills Cinema. I know the music well from CDs, and love it, but had some qualms about the amount of sitting required: five and a half hours. Wagner is musically dense, and that’s a lot of Wagner. It was, it turned out, for us, incredibly powerful.

The story is about courage. Siegfried is a callow young hero who forges a magic sword and uses it to slay a dragon and an evil dwarf, then travels though a ring of fire to save and win a beautiful maiden. In pre-broadcast comments, Renee Fleming (a great soprano who would know) described Siegfried as the most difficult tenor role in the world. Our Siegfried was Jay Hunter Morris, a relative unknown who subbed in at the last moment and had a total of three performances under his belt when he performed before a worldwide audience of many thousands yesterday. This took true courage. Morris gave a performance for the ages, vocally powerful but nuanced throughout. The entire cast was superb, and the technical effects (especially the ring of fire) were impressive. Fabio Luisi conducted brilliantly. The famous horn solo, the exciting few bars that horn players test and polish their whole lives, was perfect.

This Siegfried, the opera, moved me deeply (tears). Driving home afterwards, I felt wrung out but exhilarated. Sally also loved it, and announced that she was now a Wagnerian. I found this very cheering.

Work, Pilates, Bjork, and musical play time

Nocturne in D flat major by Frederic Chopin

It was another busy week of many meetings, calls, and issues, with business dinners almost every night, and my email backlog continuing to pile up. But interesting, always interesting. On Friday I was scheduled to go to the coast for two days of wreck diving, but bad weather arrived and the trip was cancelled. I was not heartbroken. It was good to get some down time.

On Saturday morning it was cold and rainy. I thought of taking Yvonne’s open level Vinyasa yoga class at Blue Lotus, but learned from the web site that someone else was filling in for her. I check for alternatives, and found an early Pilates class at the Y. And so it was that I had my first Pilates experience. It was similar to yoga, with its emphasis on breathing throughout a series of exercises with unusual stretches and contractions. I found this particular class less strenuous than my normal yoga classes, and also less serenity-inducing. Still, I would do it again, especially if there’s no yoga available.

Other new things: earlier in the week I read a news story about Biophilia, the new multimedia production of Bjork, the Icelandic singer-songwriter, and downloaded the work to my iPad. Biophilia is in part a collection of songs about nature and science, but rather than being an album, it’s something we don’t have a word for yet. Bjork worked with scientists and artists to make interactive productions that allowed the listener to participate actively in the music by adding notes and altering images. After a few minutes of experimenting, I could make a bit of music with the tools provided, and participate in some of Bjork’s visions of microscopic, geologic, and celestial phenomena.

The idea of sharing a vision this way — not just providing passive entertainment, but inviting participation as a way of inspiring and teaching — is exciting, and the NY Times story took the view that it was ground breaking. For me, the experience was intriguing but not really thrilling. I liked being allowed to work with Bjork’s electronic instruments and play with her, but the musical possibilities were narrowly circumscribed and not expressive enough to satisfy me.

For example, by using the touch screen, in various songs you can add to Bjork’s fairly simple musical backdrop more harp notes or more synth notes, and play faster or slower, but so far as I could figure out without taking any new harmonic direction. The videos were in some cases beautiful, but the songs themselves were more performance art than either art music or dance music. Still, I liked the ideas, and I will probably play some more with Biophilia.

Phoebe, Holtkotter lamp, and music technology

The idea of using technology to express new musical thoughts has interested me for a while. This past spring, I began playing with the instruments built into GarageBand (a Mac application), and eventually purchased a cheap electronic keyboard and a cheap auxiliary speaker to experiment with. One of my ideas was to translate early music (1500s) through synthesizer voices to see what new things emerged. The sheet music came with a lot of interpretive problems, so I didn’t get far on the vector. But I had fun improvising with various synthesizer personalities using various systems, like Greek modes and pentatonic scales. I thought of it as playing, in the sense of playing a game. It’s a different kind of musical outlet.

Bjork’s idea of engineering a collaboration with an unknown audience has a distinguished heritage. It’s what we do when we open a volume of Chopin nocturnes and start to play. Chopin left us the architectural drawings, which the pianist uses to create musical in real time, while at the same time personalizing the structure with thousands of unwritten details according to the pianist’s experience, intelligence, and feelings.

This system — master composer, written music, trained pianist — has worked amazingly well for a couple of hundred years. It does, however, depend on musical education — there has to be a support system for training pianists, and also listeners. For music with the harmonic complexity of the great Western tradition, you have to learn a lot before you can interpret it, and you have to learn a fair bit to get deep enjoyment from listening to it. It is worth the effort.

I sometimes worry that there is a long historic curve in which our music devolves from the complex and brilliant to the simple and sweet, and from there to the just plain dumb. The traditional system of classical music education and performance is not in good health. But perhaps humans are just getting started in discovering what music can do. Who knows where it goes? We have to keep experimenting, keep creating. That’s what Bjork is doing, and good for her.