The Casual Blog

Tag: Blue Ridge Parkway

On the Blue Ridge, our caste system, and Trump’s latest doozy

The Perseid meteor shower was at its peak this week, and I was looking forward to some shooting stars.  I spent a day exploring different spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking at the mountains and flowers.  I stayed at the Pisgah Inn and saw a lovely sunset, with towering clouds that lit up with pink and orange.  Around 1:00 a.m., I got up and walked outside.  It was dark and quiet, but also, unfortunately, cloudy, so I saw no meteorites,  Maybe next year.  

Sunset from my balcony at the Pisgah Inn

After photographing the sunrise and hiking to a couple of waterfalls in Brevard County, I made my way to I-40 and headed east toward Raleigh.  I turned on the radio, and caught Joe Biden and Kamala Harris giving their speeches announcing that Harris was Biden’s VP pick.  

They were good speeches!  No self-aggrandizing!  No whining!   Nothing fancy, but addressing the big issues, like climate change, police brutality against black people, the pandemic, education, health care.  And of course, the disaster in progress known as Donald J. Trump.


Although Trump continues to trail in the polls, it’s safe to assume he is unconstrained by any sense of honor or morality and will do anything to win, so I’m not taking anything for granted.  We watched a short Netflix documentary on him that was part of the series Dirty Money.  The film is worth seeing if you’re unfamiliar with his history as a pathetic grifter who pretends to be a super successful businessman.  

Pretending to be a businessman on TV for The Apprentice worked out much better for Trump than his various actual business ventures, which were almost all embarrassing failures, including Trump casinos, Trump Airlines, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump magazine, and Trump University.  

At the time, I thought The Apprentice seemed bogus, but it was a big hit.  There’s a fine article by Patrick Radden Keefe from the New Yorker about the making of The Apprentice, which explains how hard the producers had to work to make Trump seem reasonably sane and competent.  Let’s just say the show was heavily edited.

Sunrise on the Blue Ridge

The Trump presidency closely resembles a reality TV show, with its hype and hoked up drama, but unfortunately, off camera, there are real people suffering.  We’ve got huge unemployment, a health care crisis, a housing crisis, a pandemic, climate change bringing one weather disaster after another, and so on.  So, true to form, rather than acknowledging our serious problems and trying to help fix them, Trump has once again played the race card.   

Last week he tweeted that that “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” would “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” 

This is racism that barely pretends not to be; the racist dog whistle is more like a train whistle.  For most of the 20th century, the United States prevented racial integration in housing through governmental programs, including discriminatory FHA loans.  This appalling history is examined in some detail in Richard Rothstein’s important book, The Color of Law.  

The subject of Trump’s racist train whistle was a program called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, which was instituted under Obama, and directed at getting municipalities to identify and address patterns of discriminatory segregation.  Trump seems to think that there are a lot of white suburbanites fearful of invading black people, and he can exploit that fear and get their votes.

Once again, Trump is betting big, hoping that the shameful longings for sustaining white supremacy will be stronger than opposing feelings, like hope for justice and fairness.  It probably won’t work.  But as with other failed Trump experiments, the failure will teach us something about our beliefs on race, and also our concern for justice.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste, she argues that the American system of racial oppression is similar to other caste systems like those in India and Germany before WWII.  She explained the idea on several podcasts this week, and I think she’s on to something.  

As Wilkerson notes, an individual American may or may not have racial animus, but everyone of us is enmeshed in a system that involves distinguishing black from white and conferring certain benefits based on that distinction.  Using the vocabulary of caste may help depersonalize the problem.  Although the system has deep roots, recognizing it as a system (as opposed to simply an individual moral failing) may make it easier to change. 

For a man with such a big mouth, Trump has been strangely quiet about the recent news of Russian aggression against the United States.  When reports emerged of Russia giving bounties to fighters in Afghanistan who killed US and allied forces, he claimed to be unaware of it.  More important, he didn’t propose doing anything about it.  And weeks after the news became public, he is still taking the position he hadn’t been informed, and still not doing anything.  In fact, he’d had a chat with Vladimir Putin, and admitted he hadn’t brought up the matter.  This is appalling and disgusting.

If this were the only instance of Trump declining to oppose clear Russian aggression, I might chalk it up to his lack of interest in anything other than his own aggrandizement or progressive dementia.  But this has been a pattern. When the Russians worked to defeat Hillary Clinton and help Trump, he refused to acknowledge their success, and also invited them to continue hacking.  He seems indifferent or hostile to the many warnings that the Russians are again working to undermine fair US elections.  He has little to say about Russian interference in other countries, and nothing but compliments for Putin.  

I very much doubt that Trump is actually a paid Russian agent.  Putin, though not necessarily a stable genius, is smart enough to recognize that Trump lacks anything like the discipline, drive, and intelligence to be a worthwhile spy.  Trump doesn’t like taking orders, and he would have trouble remembering them.  He’s also not very good at keeping secrets, other than his own financial shenanigans.

It’s much more likely that Trump fears Putin for personal or financial reasons, and understands that crossing Putin would put him in peril.  Could Trump’s not-so-enormous fortune be dependent on Russian loans and money laundering?  Of course it could.  Think of how convenient it could be for Russian oligarchs to stash their ill-gotten gains in Trump high-rise condos, and how a salesman like Trump known mainly for lying  would struggle otherwise to sell high-end property. Also, how likely is it that Trump could resist an offer of an attractive Russian prostitute with an advanced degree in political  black mail?  

Of course, I don’t personally know, and perhaps Trump somehow avoided his characteristic corruption and moral degradation with regard to the Russians.  Maybe we could clear all this up if the President would quit concealing his tax returns and related financial records.  

Even without them, it’s clear that Putin could hardly have been more successful in creating political chaos that threatens the continued existence of American democracy than if he had managed to get a Russian spy elected president.  Trump has been Putin’s dream come true.

On any given week it’s usually difficult to say what was the craziest, most disturbing thing Trump just did, but we certainly had a doozy this week.  Trump indicated that he was withholding funds from the Postal Service so that they wouldn’t be able to deliver mail-in ballots for the presidential election.  Meanwhile, the Postmaster General he just appointed is shaking up top staff, decommissioning sorting machines, and assuring that delivery is slowing to a crawl.

With the pandemic still raging, mail in ballots are looking like a great option for getting rid of Trump.  Unless Trump can manage to keep them from being delivered!  He seems to assume most of those inclined to use the mail to vote would vote against him.  Maybe this is because he’s encouraged his supporters to ignore the pandemic, so they can (in the Trumpworld of alternative facts) vote in person without risking illness and death.  

I’m still socially distancing and trying not to catch the coronavirus, so I sent in my request for an absentee ballot, and was feeling a little sick at the thought that Trump and his minions might prevent delivery.  So I checked the NC voting procedures, and learned that I can personally deliver the completed ballot to the county board of elections.  If you live in NC and certain other states, you can, too.  Good luck!


Elk families and photo pros, and getting Greta

Elk bull at Cataloochee, NC

I got to spend some time last week with the elk at Cataloochee, NC.  There were at least four different family groups, each with a bull who ruled over several cows and calves.  Late in the day, the bulls called to their families to gather them together, and their trumpeting was powerful, with harmonic overtones.  The elk seemed to understand each other from sounds and gestures as they slowly got organized to go from the pasture into the woods.   

At one point a younger bull came close to an older, larger one, probably to test the hierarchy.  After a stare down, the elder turned away, and the two put off the fight till another day.  

The young buck

One day, we waited until after sunset to leave, which turned out to be a mistake.  The drive up the mountain out of Cataloochee was on a winding narrow gravel road through the woods.  It quickly got very dark. At a few hairpin turns, it was impossible to see any road to be turned into, and missing the edge of the road could mean falling a long way.  It was difficult.

I stayed in Black Mountain, NC, and went to the Smoky Mountain Foto Fest, a four-day workshop at Montreat.  The hilly wooded campus at Montreat was pretty. There were several accomplished pro photographers who gave presentations at the workshop, and I got some helpful tips and concepts.

I especially appreciated the talks by Bill Lea on wildlife and landscape photography. Lea showed some gorgeous shots  of black bear mothers and cubs.  He’d found that each bear had its own personality, with some mothers being strict but loving, and others easygoing and neglectful.  He said it was a good idea to talk calmly to the bears if they seemed unhappy with you. On the last day, I won a door prize: a calendar  with his nature photography, including some of those bears.  

I also got some new ideas from Marc Adamus, whose speciality seemed to be exotic landscape photography.  Adamus showed some fairly extreme processing techniques using Adobe Photoshop and other tools. His approach took nature to places she likely would never otherwise visit.  I found some of his images overly dramatized, but I liked his adventurous and experimental spirit.  

Red tailed hawk

There was an animal rescue specialist there with three tethered raptors.  These birds had been injured and were unable to fly and survive in the wild.  I got shots of the turkey vulture, the red tailed hawk, and the barred owl.

Barred owl

Before heading home, my friend Barry Wheeler and I went up to the Blue Ridge for sunrise.  There were wispy low clouds in the valley. Once the sun was well up, we packed up the photo gear and stopped at the Pisgah Inn for breakfast.  The mountain views and vegetarian sausage were excellent!

Back in Raleigh after the workshop, Sally and I had our customary end-of-week round up viewing of the late night comics’ highlights.  We especially like Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah. Ordinarily there’s plenty to laugh at regarding Trump’s most recent buffoonery and head-shaking craziness, and this week was no exception.

But Trevor Noah’s interview with Greta Thunberg struck a note that was more serious and moving.    Thunberg is a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, and she just crossed the Atlantic under sail to bring attention to climate issues.  She explained in simple but ringing terms that people her age are facing dire consequences of global warming, and pressed for political change.  She reminded me of King and Gandhi — a moral prodigy.

Business + pleasure at the Grove Park Inn, including the spa and the Blue Ridge Parkway

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On Friday Sally and I took Clara from Raleigh to Asheville for a business + pleasure trip. I’d been invited to speak at the Federal Circuit’s Bench and Bar conference, which was being held at the famous Grove Park Inn, and after that ended we thought we’d do a little hiking near the Blue Ridge Parkway and get a treatment at the spa.

The Grove Park Inn is an odd but appealing place, with lovely views of the Blue Ridge mountains. It has massive stone masonry walls inside and out. It turned 100 last year, and is proud of its history. We found our room perfectly fine, and the service at the hotel, the various restaurants, and the spa to be attentive and exceptionally friendly.
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As usual for me with professional speaking engagements, I enjoyed the actual doing of it, though I felt a certain dread in the last few days beforehand. I was one of four panelists, and it was far from clear even shortly beforehand how it was going to go. Fortunately, all were seasoned veterans, and it went fine. I had a chance to point up some of the serious problems with software patents, and give the conference an open source perspective on other issues. I gave my perspective that the patent system is seriously dysfunctional, and was happy that it sparked some debate, and I didn’t get run out of town on a rail.

That afternoon, we did a bit of driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway and took a pleasant hike at Craggy Gardens. When we returned, we went down to the spa to prepare for our massage.
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I’m a late convert to spa-ing. Until recently, I really could not see the point, and considered it a waste of valuable time. Both at work and play, I am normally a busy person, with more to do than there is time to do it. Workwise, the challenges are never ending. A lot of my leisure activities, like playing the piano and playing golf, demand a lot of commitment to improve, and that commitment requires time. And there are so many things I’m curious to know more about, and learning also requires time. Time is so valuable, and I try very hard not to waste it.

But I’ve gradually come to consider massage as valuable to good health, both physical and mental, and wanted to share a couples massage with Sally. Other than massage, I wasn’t quite sure what the Grove Park spa involved.

I’m here to tell you, it’s very nice. It carries forward the stone masonry motif of the Inn. There are numerous pools of different sizes and carefully graded temperatures, some with little waterfalls and some with big waterfalls. There was a eucalyptus infused steam room, pared with a whirlpool and a cold dunking tank. I was persuaded to go from the hot sweatiness of the steam room to a plunge in the cold tank, and it was definitely a shock — almost agonizing, but also refreshing.

After soaking in various pools inside and out, we repaired to a lounge and sat quietly for a few minutes in plush chairs next to a big fireplace. Then our massage therapists arrived, introduced themselves, and debriefed us on our health issues and massage likes and dislikes. My therapist, Sarah, was very good. She described her technique as basically Swedish massage, but she was very responsive to my request for firmer pressure, and attentive to the various knots and tensions of my body.

An aspect of the treatment was scented lotions and oils, as well as scents generally – aromatherapy, as they call it. I experienced something described as detoxifying citrus, with oils of lemon, orange and petitgrain (no idea what that is), and various other exotic substances. Did they do anything significant for my health and well-being? It’s hard to say. But it was very pleasant, and I certainly wouldn’t mind doing it again.

We felt quite wonderful after our massages, and though we had a dinner reservation pending, didn’t want to leave the spa immediately. Sarah helped us get the reservation pushed back, and we did some more soaking in the hot tub and other pools. It was delicious.

We eventually made our way to the Sunset Terrace restaurant, where they gave us a great seat on the edge of the porch looking out toward the mountains. So many restaurants try to seat you in the less desirable spaces unless you push back, but they did not try that on us at the Inn. They had a vegetarian entrée involving tofu, and it was fine. Afterwards, we sipped the last of our wine and listened to a local flamenco quartet. The musicians seemed quite fine, and their singer, a blonde Swedish-looking gringo, sang in Spanish that sounded appropriately tragic and passionate. It was an unexpected pleasure.
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On Sunday, we did a little more driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It really is a national treasure – a road that exists for the pure beauty and pleasure of driving. It winds and twists along ridges with views of adjacent mountains and valleys. For a few miles, there was no one in front of us, and Clara could stretch her legs a little.
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Clara catching her breath

Clara catching her breath