The Casual Blog

Tag: Calm

New bird views, meditating for health, and the Trumpian take on liberals

 

With the chilly and rainy weather this week, I didn’t get out for any nature photography.  I missed seeing the birds, but was glad to have some extra time to experiment with photo processing. I’ve been improving my Lightroom and Photoshop skills, and learning how to use Nik, Topaz, and Luminar software.  Along with various failures and frustrations, I’ve discovered some new possibilities.  

These images are revisions of recent shots.  When I first made them, I was excited to be able to see details that were generally invisible to the human eye.  Looking at them again reminded me of the joy of just looking at the birds and sharing their world.  Trying out new software tools to the images made me look at the animals in new ways.  

Like most everyone, I generally think of reality as fixed and solid, though I also try to keep in mind that there are other ways to think about it.  Along that line, I’m currently reading Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, by Sean Carroll. Carroll is a research professor of theoretical physics at CalTech.  He gives a lively account of the main ideas of quantum theory, including the mind-bending oddities, such as entanglement (particles affecting the behavior of distant particles).  

For all its remarkable theoretical and practical achievements, Carroll admits that quantum physics is incomplete, lacking in a broadly accepted paradigm.  He is supportive of the Many Worlds theory, which holds that the best explanation of quantum phenomena is that our universe is only one of a great many. I’d thought that Many Worlds was some sort of game for deep science nerds, but he convinced me that it’s more than that. 

More research is required.  Anyway, along with our enormous universe, there could be many others, some with beings like us that we can never communicate with.  That seems less farfetched after experiencing the polarization of US politics, and most recently the Trump impeachment hearings.

 

Watching Republican legislators last week was, for me, surreal.  Asked to address hard evidence that Trump had acted in direct opposition to US policy on Ukraine in order to benefit himself, they tried various maneuvers, including objecting to procedures, talking about conspiracies, and babbling and shouting incoherently — seemingly anything to avoid the issue.

I couldn’t watch for long — it was just too painful.  But I saw enough to conclude that these Republicans had very strong feelings.  They were very emotional. I had been assuming that they were cynical hypocrites, with little regard for the public interest or much of anything other than their own selfish interests.  

But their anger seemed sincere.  So I decided to work with the assumption that they sincerely believed that Trump had done nothing wrong and was the victim of an evil witch hunt by liberals.  I wondered how, in spite of a mountain of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such a belief could arise.

Part of the story is surely Trump’s attacks on the mainstream press.  By calling every report that is unfavorable to him “fake news,” Trump seems to have thought that he could create doubt and confusion about facts that were otherwise uncontested.  And, amazingly, he may have been right.

I originally assumed that no thinking person would buy the fake news idea.  After all, Trump has such a long record of compulsive lying on matters large and small that the most reasonable assumption about his latest statement is that it is false.  He also reflexively resorts to the schoolkid move of flipping any attack, as in, “You can’t say I’m a bully — you’re the bully!” As his preferred “news” organ, Fox News, beams out praise for him and attacks on his opponents without regard to reality, it makes a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland sense that he’d call all other news “fake.”  

The traditional media has struggled to survive in an online world, with newspapers closing left and right.  But other than the Trumpian claims, there’s no reason to think that our long established and respected media organs, like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, have switched from their traditional business of reporting on actual events in a relatively balanced way to just making things up.  The charge of fakeness generally comes with no back up evidence or proposed corrections.  But the claim of “fake news” seems to really resonate with Republicans.

Why?  I have some ideas.  First, there’s the information bubble.  Our online world has made it easy to surround oneself entirely with information sources that fit one’s own preferences and biases, and avoid any contrary information.  Fox News has been a trailblazer in the dark art of stylish disinformation, while Facebook, Twitter, and others have enabled the creation of alternative realities.

At the same time, human thought processes are far from reliable.  Our brains are generally subject to confirmation bias, which makes us tend to believe what fits with our prior beliefs.  We avoid cognitive dissonance, or information that calls into question those beliefs.  We are prone to mistakes based on our likes and dislikes.  We’re also inclined to think whatever the tribe says we should think.  Even with the calmest, most rational among us are subject to these tendencies. 

And Trumpism does not encourage calmness and rationality.  It encourages fear and anger. Trumpism sounds the alarm as to various non-existent threats that are declared to be dire:  hordes of brown-skinned people invading across the southern border so they can rape and pillage and take over jobs, minorities that are predominantly criminals, child molesting gays, secularists destroying traditional religion, Jews, etc.  

But the most dire, most hated threat in the Trumpian universe is liberals.  This is so bizarre that it took a long time for liberals to see it.  Liberals thought they were engaged in ordinary life and politics, in which having diverse views was normal.  That is, liberals thought of themselves as normal people, and of Trumpian Republicans as basically normal people who just disagreed with them.  Liberals assumed the feeling was mutual. 

That turned out to be wrong.  In the Trumpian world view, liberals are not just ordinary political opponents.  They are a threat to the social  order and basic values. They are subhuman animals. They are evil.  

As Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out in a good op ed piece, Trump treats liberals as “the enemy” and subjects them to a constant barrage of dehumanizing propaganda.  Liberals are “scum.” Repetition and amplification by Fox News and its allies fills the Trumpians’ information bubble.  

So the Republican legislators’ recent behavior — the lies, the insults, the shouting — probably seems to them well justified.  Fearful for their careers and their tribe, they feel that they’re under violent attack and must defend themselves.  For them, facts that implicate Trump are ipso facto just “fake news.” Those who say otherwise are evil liberals. 

When we get excited or scared, it’s much harder to think reasonably and to be our best selves.  This is one of the reasons I spend some time every day doing mindfulness meditation.  It settles me down emotionally. It also helps in understanding more about how the mind works, and recognizing that it is just the mind.  For a timer, I use a free app called Insight Timer,  which also has a collection of good instructive talks.  I’ve also benefited from the guided meditations from an app called Calm.  

 

Working on gratitude, air conditioning (finally), my sweet tennis champion, improving sex education, and our nuclear nature park

At Harris Lake Park on Saturday morning

Recently I’ve been working on gratitude, and it hasn’t been easy.  I’ve gotten some leads from the Calm meditation app, which has a series of gratitude lessons by the wonderful Tamara Levitt.  Levitt approaches the subject from various angles, but the toughest, and most timely, is gratitude for difficulties.  She suggests looking at unhappiness as a teacher, and seeing what can be learned.

We finally got our new air conditioner installed and working three days ago, after weeks without AC.  Most of the windows in our apartment don’t open, and there are a lot of them facing south and west, so it got hot.  It was fairly miserable, but I’m proud to say we kept whining to a minimum, and made it through. Our AC technicians had a tough time installing the new unit — it took four days to get it fully operational — and I thank them.

Right after they got the AC operational, Sally went with her tennis team to the N.C. state tournament, so Rita (our cat) and I kept each other company.  Rita is a pretty calico cat who purrs a lot, but also complains a lot, and needs a lot of petting. She meows, rubs against my leg, and swats me over and over with her tail.  I like petting to a point, but that point is generally not quite enough for Rita.

We were both very happy to get Sally back this afternoon.  Her team is the new state 4.0 women’s champion! Sally has always been a focused and determined competitor, and she wins a lot at the local level, but this is her first state tournament victory.  She said there were a lot of good competitors and close matches. She was beaming.

Like all of us, my dearest Jocelyn followed the drama of the Kavanaugh confirmation process closely, and had some strong things to say about it.  I liked her proposal that we take this opportunity to consider and improve how we talk about sex. Sex is a fundamental driver of all human cultures (one thing Freud got right), but talking about it in America is highly taboo.  We don’t do much sex education in our schools, and if anything we do less in our homes. As briefly as possible, we warn our daughters and sons not to do it, cross our fingers, and hope for the best.

Jocelyn noted that our prevailing norm is that respectable girls should resist sex, while boys will continuously seek it.  This sets up a dangerous disconnect: boys expect that girls will resist, but think that resistance shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Adding to the complex dynamics of social pressures and passing moods, in a given encounter neither player may be quite sure of their own true preferences.  Misunderstandings are rampant, and even with good intentions, traumatic mistakes happen. Jocelyn suggested a new rule: boys and girls agree that they will only have sex when they come to agreement that the objective is their mutual pleasure.  

I took these pictures yesterday at Harris Lake Park in southern Wake County.  The lake provides cooling water to the Shearon Harris nuclear plant. As I was heading down US 1 to get there, it started raining hard, but it stopped just before I got to the park.  The lake was peaceful. The cooling tower had a disturbing aspect, but that was mitigated by birds, grasses, bushes, and trees. There were a few people fishing from the shore and from a few boats, and me.  

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.

Not diving, flowers, meditating, and watching 13th

Happy flowers at Raulston Arboretum, July 21, 2018

We’d scheduled a diving trip this weekend out of Wrightsville, but it got cancelled because of bad weather.  We’d been looking forward to seeing some wrecks and fish, but so it goes. Instead we had some pleasantly uncommitted and uncrowded hours.

Yesterday morning I stopped by Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and buzzing.  I was surprised at how many new flowers were there, including these. The rain has stopped and it was cloudy — good photography weather.

I also took a little extra time for meditating.  Lately I’ve been practicing sitting still for 15 minutes first thing in the morning, and focusing on the breath.  I find it’s helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, of which there is no shortage these days. It also unmasks some of the odd and funny things the mind will do.  I took a little refresher course on basic meditation techniques using an app called Calm, which was helpful.

We had a good dinner at La Santa, a relatively new Mexican restaurant a short walk from our apartment.  The place has a brash festive air, with murals of Santa Muerte, and current Mexican music. The menu doesn’t have a lot of vegetarian  offerings, but they had no problem making their fajitas without meat, which were tasty.

That night on Netflix we watched 13th, a documentary about the relationship of slavery and mass incarceration.  It notes that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population, and a disproportionate percentage of those prisoners are black.  The film also explores how politicians have encouraged and exploited fear of black people, with the wars on crime and drugs. I thought the editing was overly lively, but it was definitely worth seeing and thinking about.