The Casual Blog

Tag: butterflies

Spinning hard, mental health, and getting inspired by a great violinist (Joshua Bell)

 

I’ve been finding it hard to get in a good gear recently at my weekly Friday morning spin class, but  yesterday I kicked butt and took names! My final score was a healthy 337, and I came in first by a good margin.  My recent scores have been a little over 300, and there have been several strong riders who have made that look quite unimpressive.  I appreciated their not showing up this week and letting me look good.

There was a report in the Wall Street Journal recently about the types of exercise that were best for mental health.   The best ones were team sports and group exercises, like cycling and yoga.   So spinning may be doing my brain some good. I’ve also been getting to yoga class a couple of times a week, which I’m confident is good for my head.  

Speaking of mental health, I finished up the introductory mindfulness meditation course provided by Calm, the smart phone app.    I found it worthwhile.  Mindfulness meditation is really simple, in a way, and it’s easy to find basic directions online.  But the Calm coaching gave me some new perspectives, and helped with motivation.

On Thursday, we had dinner at Capital Club 16, and then heard the N.C. Symphony play the Brahms violin concerto with violinist Joshua Bell.  Bell has been much hyped as perhaps our greatest living violin virtuoso, which is bound to raise questions.  But he completely lived up to the hype:  he was truly electrifying. I got big goosebumps and moist eyes, and also a richer understanding of this great concerto. He performed on a Stradivarius instrument that Brahms had heard play this very piece.  Bell’s cadenza, which he composed, was a brilliant distillation of Brahmsian thought.

Some great virtuosos are intimidating, and make music students think of quitting.  Bell, however, made me want to listen harder and be a better musician. Music in the classical tradition takes time and effort to enjoy, and it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s worth it in the modern world.  But Bell made a strong case for its survival. The Brahms is a supreme technical challenge for the violinist, but also dauntingly complex for inexperienced listeners. It was cheering that a concert hall full of North Carolinians seemed to get it and love it.  In fact, we gave Bell a good ovation after the first movement. In the U.S., we almost always wait until after the last movement to clap, but apparently we agreed that Bell deserved to have us break the rule.

I loved the little poem in last week’s Sunday Times magazine:  On a Line by Proust, by Adam Gianelli.  It you’ve never read Proust or Milton, it may not hit you quite as strongly, but it might inspire you to try them.  Like Proust, it evokes the painful joy of recovering past experience, and how our literary lives can illuminate our ordinary lives.  

I’ve been making my way through the NY Times special titled The Plot to Subvert an Election, by Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti.   It’s basically the story of Putin, Trump, and us.  It is hard to believe that this happened, and is happening, and easy to feel overwhelmed.  Shane and Mazetti have done some great reporting, which is worth reading.

I went to Raulston Arboretum this morning and found these butterflies.  There were a lot of beautiful creatures flitting beyond range of my camera.   I was grateful for these.

Some butterflies, and bidding adieu to our local paper

I’ve been a big fan of newspapers since I was a kid with a paper route.  I’ve held it to be both valuable and pleasant to start each day with coffee and a printed newspaper.  And so it was with sadness that this month I dropped our subscription to our local paper, the News and Observer.  For several years, the paper has been wasting away, with less and less content, and when I got their last bill, I decided the value just wasn’t there any more.

I pay for both paper and electronic versions of the New York Times, and digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.  I also get the Economist, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, and check on a number of free web-based news sites. So losing the N&O will not put me into an over all information deficit.

But there’s no good substitute for local journalists with knowledge of state and local politics.  Press scrutiny has traditionally constrained the state legislature, but now not so much. In NC, the ruling party is re-engineering the political system, with little scrutiny or thoughtful criticism.  

As we’ve needed better journalism, it’s been frustrating to see the N&O doing less and less of it.  But I don’t really blame it.  The internet has sucked away advertising dollars. Local papers all over the country are losing advertisers, money, and subscribers, laying off staff, and closing.  The traditional local newspaper model isn’t working any more. It’s a big problem, not just for journalism, but for American democracy.

Anyhow, I feel sorry for the N&O.  I’d like to say thanks to those writers and editors, ad sales folks, press people, and deliverers who in years past made it a good local paper, and those today who are still doing what they can under difficult market conditions.  

Speaking of good journalism and market and policy failures, two weeks ago the NY Times magazine had a special issue with a single article:  Losing Earth: the Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich. l  It took me a while, but I read the whole thing, and I recommend going all the way to the last sentence.  

It’s basically the story of how in the 1980s a small group of scientists and activists recognized the relationship of CO2 and global warming.  They succeeded in starting a social and political movement that grew to worldwide dimensions. Then that movement was neutralized by hubris, political opportunism, and the oil and gas lobby.  And the serious damage wrought by humans on the natural world continued and worsened. It is not a cheerful story. But we’re still in it — the last chapter hasn’t been written — and we can still do something about it.  

The pictures here are ones I took this weekend at Raulston Arboretum.  It was hot, but the butterflies seemed to like it.

Our new floor, Liszt, and some ants

At Raulston Arboretum, September 3, 2017

They finished installing our new wood floor, and so we said so long to the Hampton Inn and moved back home on Friday.  There’s still a lot of unpacking, reconnecting, and rearranging yet to do, but the worst is behind us.  The new flooring is American walnut in wider planks and a more textured surface, and we really like it.

We had a special sound absorbent underlayer put under the floor, in consideration of the neighbors situated under my Fazioli 228 grand piano.  The instrument can put out a lot of sound, which I hope isn’t too annoying for them.  I was very happy to be able to play it again.

The new floor under the Fazioli

Among other things, I’ve been working on one of Liszt’s songs for piano, Oh! Quand Je Dors, from the second Buch der Lieder fur Piano Allein.  It’s so beautiful!  At times it feels a bit lonely caring about Liszt, since my friends generally don’t seem to like him nearly as much as I do.  I suppose loneliness often comes along with a passion, since caring intensely about something will separate you from others.  Of course, it also connects you to others, but they may not be close by, and may even belong to generations long gone.

My teacher lent me a book by one of Liszt’s piano students, August Gollerich, which consists of diary notes of master classes Liszt conducted in 1884-86, the last two years of his life.  The format of Liszt’s master classes was just like those today, with a series of students playing works, and then getting critical comments from the master.  Liszt was very direct about what he liked and didn’t like, but he also had a sense of humor. He mixed practical instruction on tempo and volume with notes on the animating emotions, and frequently played to demonstrate his points.  How daunting and amazing it must have been to play Liszt for Liszt! For his part, the master, nearing the end, seemed happy to be surrounded by adoring students, and still passionate about music.

Speaking of lonely passions, I heard a radio interview with Eleanor Spicer Rice, an entomologist who truly loves ants.  She pointed up their under-appreciated contributions to the environment and some wonderfully quirky behaviors.  She was so sweet and excited about these tiny creatures that I ordered and started reading her book, Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants.  For each species, she writes three or four pages about their habits, customs, and talents, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

Butterflies, nature, and star dust

Me and my little butterfly friend

I love butterflies, and they love me!  At least, one of them really really liked me.  Last Sunday, a swallowtail landed on my right thigh near the pocket and stayed there for well over an hour.  Eventually I got him to rest on my hand, and put him on my chest, from whence he climbed onto the top of my head.  Then, after a few more minutes, he flew away.  

Meanwhile, I took pictures of his fellows at the Butterfly House of the Durham Museum of Life and Sciences with other members of  the Carolina Nature Photographers Association.  I shot with my Nikkor 105 mm lens on  my Nikon D7100, hand-held, setting the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focus manually.  Working the various dials and buttons quickly enough to capture these lively creatures was challenging, and there were many whiffs.  But these I liked.  I learned that the average lifespan of butterflies is just one month.

Does nature matter?  Yes, much more than we usually realize, according to Geoffrey Heal, in an interview  in the current newsletter of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  He describes the vital connections between humans and the rest of nature in a way I hadn’t quite thought of before, and which seemed worth pondering.

Heal observed,

The natural world provides everything we depend on. We get our food from the natural world, we get our drinking water and our oxygen from the natural world, and we evolved as part of it. We simply can’t live without it. Plants create food, and they need pollination from insects and they need rain and they need soil. We can’t synthesize these things. So we really are totally dependent on the natural world in the end.

Heal notes that we must make changes in the way we organize our economic systems, or face “catastrophic economic change in our lifetimes.”  But he believes that it’s still possible we can make a course correction to address the threats to our environment and our prosperity. He advocates a version of capitalism that includes accounting for and taking responsibility for externalities — that is, environmental damage caused by commercial activity and imposed on the public.  This sounds entirely sensible, and I’m thinking of reading his new book, Endangered Economies.

Along this line, it’s worth reading the really fine NY Times story from last week on the massive coral die off in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.  The subject is huge — the largest coral reef on the planet, visible from space — and the reporting is highly readable and credible. As a diver, I’m particularly conscious of the beauty and intensity of life on coral reefs, and their enormous significance in the ocean ecosystem.  The rapidity with which this iconic reef is collapsing underscores that climate change is not just a problem for future generations, but for us, right now.  

On a more cheerful note, in case you missed it, the Science Times had a charming and fascinating story last week on a Norwegian jazz guitarist who discovered how to find star dust.  Did you know that ten tons of tiny dust flakes from space hits the earth every day?  Some of it comes from stars that exploded very long ago and far away.  It’s very  hard to see, but it turns out that it’s everywhere — on our roofs, our cars, and our food.

Guitarist and amateur astrogeologist Jon Larsen figured out how to distinguish stuff from space from ordinary debris.  Larsen and his team made some lovely photographs of the alien dust using microscopes.  It makes you wonder what else is all around us that we haven’t yet seen, but might if we knew how to look.

Raleigh’s newest crane, Big Food, and getting ready for Utah

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Last Saturday afternoon, I got to watch the new construction crane go up at the old Greyhound bus station site, just southeast of us. Construction sites are fun to watch! And there’ve been a lot of them in Raleigh lately. We’re still growing.
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On Sunday I visited Raulston Arboretum, where there were fall blossoms and lots of butterflies. I got some shots I liked of an American Lady, of which these were my favorites.
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I recommend reading a new piece by Michael Pollan in the NY Times magazine about our food system and our political system. Pollan has written before about the power and nefarious influence of Big Food. Here’s his quick description:

A food system organized around subsidized monocultures of corn and soy . . . guzzled tremendous amounts of fossil fuel (for everything from the chemical fertilizer and pesticide those fields depended on to the fuel needed to ship food around the world) and in the process emitted tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas — as much as a third of all emissions, by some estimates. At the same time, the types of food that can be made from all that subsidized corn and soy — feedlot meat and processed foods of all kinds — bear a large measure of responsibility for the steep rise in health care costs: A substantial portion of what we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases linked to diet.

His new piece is about how Big Food lobbied hard to stop every reform proposed by the Obama administration, and was generally successful. But he concludes on a somewhat hopeful note.

[B]ehind the industry’s wall of political power, there indeed lurks a vulnerability. That vulnerability is the conscience of the American eater, who in the past decade or so has taken a keen interest in the question of where our food comes from, how it is produced and the impact of our everyday food choices on the land, on the hands that feed us, on the animals we eat and, increasingly, on the climate. Though still a minority, the eaters who care about these questions have come to distrust Big Food and reject what it is selling. Looking for options better aligned with their values, they have created, purchase by purchase, a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food. Call it Little Food. And while it is still tiny in comparison with Big Food, it is nevertheless the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

Some large food companies are voluntarily changing their practices in response to the concerns of these consumers, whether about antibiotics, animal welfare or the welfare of farmworkers. One future of food politics may lie in grass-roots campaigns targeted not at politicians in Washington but directly at Big Food and its consumers, taking aim at its Achilles’ heel: those precious brands.

Maybe so. Anyhow, kudos to Pollan for speaking truth to power, and educating the rest of us.

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading to southern Utah and Arizona to see some of the most amazing rocks on the planet: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon, all of which I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I’ll be traveling with a small group of photographers, and taking lots of pictures. I’ve been to REI and Outdoor Provisions to get insulating layers for those cold mornings, and have made up my mind what lenses not to lug. I’m ready!
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Missing dragonflies, and welcoming motorcycles, new ballets, and Wagner

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I didn’t have any luck finding dragonflies this weekend. I tried Lake Benson, Lake Wheeler, and Yates Mill Pond, but it looks like we’ve about come to the end of another dragonfly season. I did see some butterflies and wildflowers, though, and enjoyed walking beside the calm and calming lakes. It was quiet, except for periodic thunderous roars from passing motorcycle groups.
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It was the 12th annual Capital City Bikefest in Raleigh this weekend, and on Saturday evening we walked downtown to have a look at the hundreds of bikes parked on Fayetteville Street. The bikes were mostly enormous Harleys, but with endless gleaming customizations, objects of pride and passion. Lacking tattoos and denim, we may have stood out a bit, but we didn’t notice any negative energy directed our way.
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We ate at Living Kitchen, the new vegan restaurant, where the clientele did not include any obvious biker types. I had the lunasagna, which was cool and tangy, and Sally enjoyed the living burrito, a collard green wrap. Our server, Rebecca, was friendly and efficient.
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Afterwards, we strolled over to Fletcher Hall for the first Carolina Ballet program of the season. Zalman Raffael’s new work, La Mer was a “non-linear” story ballet involving family dynamics and natural forces. We liked it a lot. I was particularly taken with Amanda Babayan’s character, the daughter with the troubles of adolescence.
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Robert Weiss’s first new piece was titled Stravinsky Pas de Deux, with highly dissonant music and angular gestures, danced with wonderful electricity by newcomers Lily Wills and Miles Sollars-White. Weiss’s The Double featured Alicia Fabry and Lindsay Purrington in startlingly close, tense unison. The final work was Weiss’s new Beethoven Piano Concerto # 5, which was very joyous and musical, with great leaps, spins, and lifts. I especially enjoyed Ashley Hathaway’s graceful solo in the second movement, and Alyssa Pilger imperial command in the finale.

Finally, I need to give a shout out to the N.C. Opera for its outstanding production last weekend of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. This little company somehow assembled a cast of world-class Wagnerians for two performances of this complex and thrilling work. Conductor Timothy Myers was masterful, and the singing was superb. Todd Thomas as Alberich managed to touch some unsettling psychological depths as he drove to his famous curse. I got goose bumps.
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Butterflies, and constructing terror narratives

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On Saturday morning I ran 5 miles, up Hillsborough Street and back. It was humid. I went slower than usual, and struggled to finish. That afternoon I went out to Cary for my monthly haircut with Ann, and we talked about our families and cars. Then I drove west to Jordan Lake. I stopped at Horton Pond and took some pictures of a spicebush swallowtail (above). (The other butterflies here were taken this week at Raulston Arboretum.) Afterwards, I put Clara in sport mode and had a lively drive on the winding country roads.
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It’s so interesting how intensely we insist on fitting disasters into familiar narratives. After the horrible Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice this week, leading politicians immediately dubbed the act “terrorist,” despite knowing nothing of the driver’s motivations. Now, three days later, there is still no evidence that the driver had any particular ideology, and there’s some evidence that he was just a sad, mentally disturbed, violent loner. Yet the press, including the NY Times, continues to characterize the mayhem as “terrorism” and to raise the alarm on the need to escalate the war on it.

Narratives are our way of making sense of the world. We create meaning by imposing a cause-and-effect ordering on events. But our compulsive drive for understandable narratives can also cause us to see things that aren’t there. When acts of deranged individuals or small, not-very-powerful groups are attributed to a single powerful force of evil, our fear level rises. Strong emotions make us less capable of careful analysis, more susceptible to demagogues, and more liable to overreact and do harm to others and ourselves.
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This is, in fact, what the real terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, hope: that we’ll react to their crimes by killing innocent people, whose relatives will swear vengeance on us and join the radical cause. Al Qaeda had remarkable success in provoking us this way. Our endless war in the Middle East allowed them to extend their influence and spawned even more bloody-minded imitators.
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In the face of a heinous mass killing, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by grief and fear, and hard not to grab at a handy possible explanation. But more times than not, we can’t really know all the causes of such crimes, and sometimes we can’t pin down any of them. As much as we like stories, we need to accept that some things don’t fit into our familiar narratives. Fear narratives may feel satisfying, but by not exaggerating fear and avoiding overreacting, we are less likely to cause harm, and ultimately safer.
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Getting a new floor, Ethiopian food, beautiful bugs, helping refugees, and our gun problem

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We’re living in a hotel in Cary while the floor of our condo is being removed and replaced. While I’m grateful we have the means to remedy our defective flooring, this has been a major project – like moving (lots of planning, arranging, sorting, boxing, and hauling), but without the ultimate gratification of a move. Flooring is one of those things I don’t usually think much about, and I will be glad to be finished with it.
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It’s unsettling to be uprooted. Our hotel is fine, with amenities including a gym, pool, free wi-fi, breakfasts included, and best and most unusual of all, they take doggies. At first our Stuart was discombobulated by the new situation, uninterested in his food (most unlike him), listless and particularly in need of affection.

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We all consoled each other, and we humans, though unsettled, did not lose our interest in food. On Friday evening we tried a new-to-us Ethiopian place called Awaze. Our servers were warm and friendly, and happy to give us coaching on the traditional forkless method of eating. You tear off a piece of injera, a spongy sort of bread that comes rolled up, pick up some of your main dish with it, then insert in mouth. We tried the vegetarian platter, a combo of most of their veggie entrees. Every bite was exotically spiced and delicious.

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On Saturday morning I visited Raulston Arboretum, as I often do. One thing you discover when you regularly visit a garden: it’s never the same twice. There are major changes every week. This week it was lush and green, with lots of insect activity, including some gorgeous butterflies. The closer you look, the more beauty there is to see.
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This week I read the latest UN Report on Refugees. Did you know that we currently share the planet with the largest number of refugees and displaced persons in history – 65.3 million? That’s up from 59.5 million a year earlier. Children make up more than half of the total. The largest source countries are Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. This short UN film (scroll down to Global Trends) highlights the human dimensions of this catastrophe.

Inasmuch as these fellow human beings are in dire straits, and particularly in consideration of our partial responsibility from our destructive decades-long war in the Middle East, it would seem we should be working hard to help. For many, though, the primary concern seems to be that there could among these unfortunates uprooted by war and terrorism be terrorists. Based on this disproportionate fear, we’re doing almost nothing, and let the devil take the hindmost. This is an ethical failure of huge proportions. Consider a gift to the International Rescue Committee or another reputable charity serving refugees.
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There are occasional shining sparks of humanity. The New Yorker this week had a harrowing/inspiring piece by Ben Taub about the work of Doctors Without Borders and others providing medical care to displaced persons in Syria. The Assad government has denied health care to millions of civilians by systematically killing hundreds of health care workers and destroying hospitals. You might think this would drive out the surviving doctors, but there are still some who will not quit, and continue to save lives under unimaginably harsh conditions. Human kindness and courage still exist!
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Speaking of moxy, House Democrats showed some backbone this week in staging a sit in in support of gun control. The NRA’s bought-and-paid-for veto power over gun legislation is an extreme example of the corruption of our political system, and although it’s grotesque, we’ve come to accept it as unchangeable.

In the wake of the Orlando massacre, as dozens of Democrats disrupted House business demanding a vote on a gun control bill, it felt bracingly close to real change. The bill at issue was underwhelming – as the gun wingnuts correctly pointed out, the no-fly list is not a reliable source for identifying bad people – but the larger point was clear and important: we can no longer treat this corruption preventing sane gun laws as business as usual.
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The New Yorker noted this week that more Americans were killed by firearms in the past decade than in all of WWII. What is the root cause of the American obsession with guns and allergy to reasonable gun control? A lot of it surely involves high levels of irrational fear. What if we tried to help people find better ways to deal with their fears, and helped them see that in general guns make them less safe, not more?

Sure, that’s a tall order, but it’s worth a shot. Here are some first thoughts to get the ball rolling. Call out fearmongering by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and many others. Give away free copies of local crime statistics showing downward crime trends. Teach stress reduction techniques. Promote visits to the local arboretum.
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Farewell to Oliver Sacks, family health, witch trials and terror trials, and beautiful bugs

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Oliver Sacks, one of my heroes, died last week, and I’ve been thinking about what he bequeathed. In his many articles and books on psychological problems, oddities, and exceptionalities, he covered the extremes of human mental experience, from savants to the severely impaired. Reading about his subjects, I felt gratitude for being relatively normal and wonder at the range of human perceptual experience. He showed in his work and by his work that much more was possible than I’d thought.

Some months back I heard Sacks interviewed in a program about prosopagnosia, a rare condition involving the inability to recognize faces. Sacks had a severe version of the condition, such that he couldn’t recognize the faces of people he’d known for years. This made social interactions very challenging for him. It may have accounted in part for his amazing literary output, by keeping him home and working evenings rather than socializing.

Sacks, then 82, announced his terminal metastatic cancer seven months ago in the Times, and published additional reflections as recently as three weeks ago. Hes faced his end with calm dignity, intelligence, and gratitude for life, without metaphysics, and without bitterness at the reality of death. This was a wonderful final gift. RTILLER4 (1 of 1)

Diane got discharged from the hospital this week and was taken to a live-in rehabilitation facility for more therapy. She continues to struggle with weakness, dizziness, and confusion. Sally has been busy giving her support and being her advocate. A major problem was what to do with Diane’s two greyhounds, but with the help of the local greyhound rescue society she located a kind-hearted person willing to be a foster dog parent until Diane regroups.
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Jocelyn called early this week from Brooklyn during her walk to the subway. She reported that she’d improved her mile-run time (7:26, I think) and was finding longer runs more fun. She’s also eating healthy food and consciously avoiding junk. I was proud of her! This was a girl who seemingly had an allergy to exercise, and is now taking really good care of herself. I’ve tried to set a good example for her, and now she’s doing it for me.

On Friday morning I went to a spin class at Flywheel, where I achieved two of my three objectives. The Friday crowd is a fit-looking group, most of whom are my juniors by two or three decades. I was looking to: 1. not come in last in the men’s group (as happened last time), 2. hit 300 points, and 3. end the week at my target weight. I managed number one, though it was close: I was trailing the pack with 5 minutes to go, and had to push hard to edge ahead of the next guy. I didn’t achieve number two, finishing at 295 – which actually wasn’t bad. Finally, I made my weight goal of 155.
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The Salem witch trials have fascinated me since I was a kid. As you may recall, the Puritans in New England in 1692 tried, convicted, and executed 20 people based on the crime of witchcraft. The New Yorker had a piece last week on the event by Stacey Schiff that walked through the facts in a way that was engaging, even as the events were appalling.

There was a time, long ago, when I wondered whether there were true witches with magical powers, but I’ve long since concluded not. Since then, my interest in the witch trials has been in what it shows us about flawed thinking and group behavior. Some very smart, well-meaning people did some terrible things. The episode shows both the power of ideas and the danger that truly bad ideas may, at least temporarily, triumph.

Schiff’s piece doesn’t attempt to relate the witch trials to current events, but the piece seems timely. As religious fundamentalist groups like ISIS wreak violent havoc in the Middle East, we might reflect that we’ve had our own murderous fundamentalists right here in New England in days gone by. And eventually the fever broke, and the extreme craziness stopped.

At the same time, we’ve had something very like witch trials in living memory. The trials based on allegations of ritual Satanic abuse of children in the 1980s turned out to be products of children’s imaginations inspired and guided by quack therapists. But our tendency to attribute awesome diabolical power to various unfamiliar foes (immigrants, Communists, jihadists) is in some ways similar to the Puritans’ hysteria. We imagine scary ghosts and goblins attacking us when they’re doing nothing of the kind. As long as our leaders maintain that ISIS is an existential threat to America, and continue a campaign of brutal executions, the spirit of 1692 lives on.

There was a good piece in the NY Times magazine last week on Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who became a popular Muslim cleric and was executed by drone. After the FBI discovered that he had an addiction to prostitutes, fearing exposure he fled the country and went to Yemen, where he became a became an Al Qaeda leader. Since his execution, he’s been hailed as a martyr, and his radical teachings are more popular now than in his lifetime. It seems that killing Awlaki was yet another self-inflicted wound in our war on terror.

This weekend we watched The Newburgh Sting, a documentary about an FBI sting operation centered on the Mosque of a poor community in New York. An undercover FBI agent offered some poor black guys an enormous amount of money ($250,000) to do some bomb attacks. There was no indication that the guys were radical, or even particularly religious, or that it had ever occurred to them to conduct a violent attack, or that the attack had any jihadist purpose. Apparently all that money was just too tempting for people that had almost none. Anyhow, this FBI operation was hailed as a great victory in the war on terror, and the guys were sentenced to 25 years. This is another data point suggesting that our anti-terror efforts have come off the rails.

On Saturday, I went up to Durant Park with my camera and took a slow walk around the lower lake. I was especially on the look out for butterflies, dragonflies, and spiders. Most of the large butterflies were gone, but I got a few images of tiny (less than .5 inch wingspan) skippers. There were quite a few of the locally common dragonflies. Most were flying fast, but an Eastern Pondhawk posed for me. A few leaves were falling.

Diane’s fall, ignorance, our industrial food system, and butterflies

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On Thursday, Diane (Sally’s mom) had a bad fall while walking her greyhounds and got an ambulance ride to Rex Hospital. One of the EMTs on the ambulance somehow got our number out of her phone and let us know. Diane’s symptoms included short term memory loss, dizziness, weakness, and confusion. She thought it was 1929.

After various tests, including a CAT scan, the neurologist concluded that she had a mild concussion. After a few hours, she started improving, but she’s still feeling very weak. Sally has been spending most of the last couple of days with her in the hospital, where she was generally impressed with the professionalism of the staff.
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Our brains are so complicated, and yet so delicate. And there’s so much we don’t know . An op-ed piece in the NY Times this week made a case for teaching ignorance. It sounds odd, but actually make sense: we need to understand better how much we don’t know. Relatively little in our world is known with scientific certainty. As we learn more, we also see how much we have to learn. Creativity lies in this ambiguous territory where the known meets the unknown.
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This week in the gym during an early morning workout I finished reading (actually, listening to the audiobook of) Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s a serious but elegant book about food, from the production to the harvesting to the consuming.

Pollen does a great job in the early chapters of summarizing the bizarre state of our food system, with its extensive dependence on corn, which is grown with big government subsidies and without normal market pressures and then transmuted into high fructose corn syrup and hundreds of other ingredients in our food, not to mention our meat.

He does a good job sketching out the problems of our industrial production of chicken, beef, and pork, including the cruelty to the animals, the spread of disease, the massive greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental problems. He ends up feeling badly about meat eating, but not badly enough to quit. I wasn’t much enchanted with his final chapters about hunting and killing a wild pig and serving it and other forest foods to his accomplished foodie friends.
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We all have difficulty with seeing things we don’t want to see, even when they’re right in front of us. That is, most of what we see and think we know is what we already believe. So it’s remarkable when someone questions the well-settled status quo. Last week his week the NY Times had a piece on judges who are questioning long prison sentences and other inhumane features of our criminal justice system. It’s good to see those involved in running the system are having their doubts.
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For the first time this week I went up to Durant Park. It’s in far North Raleigh, a 25-minute trip from here, but I was glad I made the effort. By a small lake there were many active butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, including quite a few that didn’t mind having their picture taken.