The Casual Blog

Tag: dragonflies

Dragonflies, our N.C. Courage, and pride



Yesterday morning I went dragonfly hunting with my camera, and got these shots.  These apex predators of the insect world are both beautiful and unsettling — like little aliens.  Photographing them takes patience and gumption, since their workdays are mostly about fast flying, not stopping and posing.  They like places that are hot and swampy.    Woods-5

On Saturday evening we got out to see the N.C. Courage, our professional women’s soccer team, play the Utah Royals.  The Courage’s play was excellent — quick, precise, creative, and energized. They were dominant throughout, though I credit Utah for a strong defense.  At the end of regulation the score was tied at 0-0. Then in the last of minute of additional time, Utah scored. It ended an undefeated start of the season for the Courage — a tough loss.   


The game was publicized as a pride event, and the gay population might have been slightly more identifiable than usual.   It’s encouraging that we’ve gotten over some of our fears and prejudices, and made progress in recognizing the dignity and worth of gay people.  It shows that minds can change.



Construction work, butterflying, golfing’s promised land, and some rough rugby

Demolition work this week in downtown Raleigh

This week there was a lot going on at the site of the gigantic fire of last March.  They’ve been tearing things down and cleaning them up, and I’m guessing we’ll soon see new construction.  This operation — knocking down the almost completed parking deck — was what we saw from our balcony on Tuesday, the day before we moved out.  

Since last May, when our dishwasher overflowed and destroyed part of the hardwood floor, our condo has been in disarray —  bare concrete underfoot and furniture situated in unusable places.  It took some time to get estimates, and more time to get the insurers to step up to the plate.  Then we had to pick new flooring and get on the contractor’s schedule.  Then we (that is, Sally — thanks,  Babe!) had to pack up everything that normally sits on the floor.  It’s been a trying time.  

Meanwhile, we got a new Korean  dishwasher that does its job amazingly quietly and has a charming trick:  when it finishes, it plays a few bars of Schubert’s immortal Trout theme.  Of the thousands of engineers at Samsung, there’s at least one who’s a music lover.  

Dragonfly at the pond at the N.C. Museum of Art, August 26, 2017

Anyhow, on Wednesday we packed our bags and moved out, and the construction got started.  We’re staying at a hotel in our neighborhood. It’s fine, but we miss Rita, our cat, and there’s no good way to eat out every night and not gain unwanted pounds.  It will be nice to be back home with Rita and the new floor.

On Saturday morning I had my fourth lesson on the butterfly stroke.  I’ve been practicing diligently, and was quite pleased when my teacher gave me an 8 on a scale of 10.  He challenged me to get more power from the dolphin kicks and make it less about about the arms.  We started working on improving my breast stroke.  There’s a lot more technique involved in good swimming than I realized.  It’s challenging, but also very pleasing to discover new ways to move through the water.  

I’ve also continued my project to improve my golf swing.  Gabe has made up his mind to become a real golfer, and it’s been fun practicing as a father-son duo.  He’s advanced quickly, and is now beating me.  In my search for the perfect swing, it may be that like Moses, I won’t make it to the promised land, but I could still have the happiness of seeing him get there.

But I’m not ready to throw in the towel.  I’ve changed my swing path substantially to come from inside to out and figured out how to get my hips moving separately from my torso.  I can hit a draw.  There are still some bad shots, but more of them are flying closer to my ideal.   

Saturday night we watched the Rugby League national championship game between the New York Knights and the Atlanta Rhinos.  We’re new to rugby, but learning fast, because Kyle, Jocelyn’s boyfriend, is a key player for New York.  The game was played in Atlanta.  It was streamed online with lots of technical difficulties (periods of loud buzzes, slowed video, no video, no sound), and the color commentator seemed heavily biased in favor of Atlanta.  And despite our best fan efforts, our Knights got beat.  

But hats off to Atlanta, which, from what we could see, played a strong game with excellent defense.  And congratulations to the Knights for a great (undefeated except for this game) season.  Afterwards we went to the Mellow Mushroom for some comfort food — a veggie pizza and beer.  

Is it OK if our President supports neo-Nazis?

Dragonfly near Booth Amphitheater, Cary, NC, August 19, 2017

Last week it seemed like we might be ready to start a serious conversation about how to get out of our nuclear predicament, while we worried about a possible war with North Korea.  Now that all seems long ago.  Those hopes and worries were preempted by news feeds of marching, chanting, menacing neo-Nazis.  

Of course, we always knew there were such people, but we understood that they were a small minority that posed little risk beyond being disgusting and offensive.  Then the President announced that he thought neo-Nazis  were OK, or at least no worse than the people opposing the neo-Nazis.  The neo-Nazis were enraptured. 

If you haven’t already watched the short Vice News documentary on this, you should.  It brings home that these guys are real, and scary.  They are not ashamed of their racism; they’re proud of it.  And they are definitely not non-violent.  

What is the matter with these people?  There was an interesting interview on NPR last week with Christian Picciolini, who was a neo-Nazi leader as a young man.  He eventually renounced the movement and  founded a group to work for peace and help young people looking to get out of such groups.  

In his view, all people seek three things:  identity, community, and a sense of purpose.  Hate groups are good at providing these.  The young men who are vulnerable to being recruited by such groups generally have an underlying issue, such as psychological difficulties, or past trauma or abuse.  

We can all hope that these guys get their issues addressed, but in the meantime, let’s not be encouraging them to act out!  They could so easily get out of control.  It is despicable that the President has knowingly inspired them.  

On a related subject, what to do about confederate memorial sculptures, Trump’s commentary  (suggesting they’re comparable to statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) is ill-informed, but raises interesting issues. These founding fathers were indeed slave owners, and that doesn’t fit well with our tradition of venerating them.  As I’ve learned more about them and their time, I’ve found my admiration for their courage and intelligence tempered by disgust for their willing participation in the slave system.  

But, obviously, individuals are complicated, and history even more so. As to the confederacy memorial statues, I didn’t learn until this past week that  most if not all of those currently being discussed do not date from the generation that experienced the Civil War.  Rather, these statues were put up decades later,  well into the shameful era of the Jim Crow, when blacks were suppressed by law, custom, and mob violence. Those statues were not put up as reminders of beloved fallen ancestors, but rather to terrorize and subjugate living black Americans.   

Maybe on the race issue, the debacle of Trump will ultimately do some good, by highlighting history that we might have preferred to forget and forcing us to grapple with unresolved problems of prejudice and inequality.  But in the meantime, we need to get past Trump.  He still has fervent supporters, including some who are not committed racists or otherwise crazy.  For them, perhaps this latest outrage will bring home that he is a national disgrace and morally unfit to be president.    

Dragonflies, On Tyranny, and the strange reverence for Putin


A dragonfly at Apex Community Park

On Saturday morning I had to drive out to Apex for a haircut with Ann, who’s been cutting my hair ever since we lived there.  I asked Sally if she had any good ideas for nearby places to hike and look for dragonflies, and she suggested the reservoir at Apex Community Park.  I spent an hour and a half there before my haircut, and took these pictures.  It was quite hot and muggy, and with my 180 mm lens and tripod, I managed to work up a considerable sweat, as Ann noted.  


This week I read On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder’s latest book.  Snyder, a history professor at Yale, has  a deep knowledge of the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century, and perspectives on how they bring civic life to an end.  He points up that these developments have been the product of many individual choices, including choices to quietly compromise, let go of moral principles, obey orders,  and submit.  His book is short and unsystematic, but full of sparky insights and practical advice on opposing authoritarianism.

Do we need such advice?  Yes.  I’d been starting to think once again that Trump was more a disturbed clownish bumbler than a genuine threat to our democracy.  But even after several months of failures, embarrassments, and scandals, he’s still popular with conservative Republicans (90 percent of them approve, according to one poll last week), which is making me wonder.  

I felt a cold chill when I read in the NY Times yesterday that there’s a prominent branch of conservative Republicans that are aligned with  Trump in admiring Vladimir Putin.  The Times cited several high-profile ideologues like Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and Pat Buchanan as viewing Putin as the kind of leader it would be nice to have here.  Apparently they admire his “Christian” values (such as criminalizing homosexuality) and manly aura, and aren’t much bothered by his murdering of opponents, military invasions of neighbors, looting of his own country, or his subverting of elections here and elsewhere.  I somehow had missed that this point of view existed, and found it shocking.  

Snyder’s book shows how the personal is related to the political:  authoritarian systems invade the personal realm and then undermine it.  Accordingly, there is a political aspect to maintaining personal integrity and ordinary human relationships.  Eye contact, smiles, and small talk have a deeper meaning  and value when the government is unleashing attacks on minorities or suppressing dissent.  Part of resisting is maintaining human contact.  

Snyder observes that constant grandiose lying is a common thread of the successful authoritarian regimes in Germany, Russia, and elsewhere.  But we now have a related problem never seen before:  the internet echo chamber, filled with bots, which create and amplify illusions, and make it hard to distinguish true from false.  The very concept of truth is at risk.  For some, facts seem to be irrelevant.  It is both ironic and scary that Trump and his minions have repurposed the term “fake news” to mean news they dislike.   Part of resisting is serious reading, evaluating evidence, and applying reason.  

Of course, it’s still possible that our institutions will work as intended and our traditional liberties will survive without permanent damage.  The recent demonstrations of the weaknesses in our systems could teach us some lessons, and we might even emerge stronger and wiser.  But it’s a good idea to do some contingency planning and worst case modeling.  We may  need all of our courage.

Missing dragonflies, and welcoming motorcycles, new ballets, and Wagner

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Admiring damselflies, Colombia at peace, recognizing addicts as humans, Syria’s bizarre war, and our Saudi problem

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I’m ready for fall. It’s been a hot August here in Raleigh, and relentlessly humid. As usual, I got outside to see if I could find and photograph something beautiful in one of our parks, and found these damselflies and the dragonfly along the Buckeye Trail and at Lake Crabtree. They were very small and usually moved quickly. It took some exertion to make these images, handholding a heavy 180 mm lens, struggling to get tight focus and good exposure with sweat getting in my eyes, but I thought it was worth it.
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When there is good news, it should be noted, and there was very good news this week from Colombia. The civil war between the government and FARC was tentatively resolved with a peace accord, subject to approval in a vote of the citizenry. This war, which began more than half a century ago, has cost hundreds of thousands lives and displaced millions. Columbia has so much beauty and so much human potential, but for my entire life has seemed a scary place. Now peace, after decades of horrendous carnage, is possible.
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I also spotted some good news on the drug war out of Seattle. On Page A13 (far past where busy people normally stop skimming), the NY Times of Aug. 26 reported that an official Seattle task force established to combat the heroin epidemic has proposed establishing sites where addicts could take heroin and other illegal drugs under the supervision of trained professionals. The idea is to decrease the risk of infections and overdoses. Sites like this already exist in the Canada and the Netherlands.

This is huge! They’re thinking of addicts as human beings whose lives have value, rather than simply as worthless derelicts and criminals. That is, they’re recognizing that people who take illegal opioids are not really different from people who take legal opioids. Both groups include people with varying intensities of physical and mental pain, and also varying cravings for stimulation.

This is a big conceptual step toward the end of the drug war that has destroyed millions of lives. The idea that an arbitrarily defined group of chemicals is inherently evil has been official policy and a quasi-religion going back several generations. It’s a foolish idea, but it’s so deeply lodged in our brains that it’s going to be very hard to correct. Fingers crossed that we move forward.
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Meanwhile, the Times presented a brilliant, though far less cheering, piece by Max Fisher on the complex dynamics of the war in Syria. I started to say “the civil war in Syria,” but as I finally grasped, this is not simply a struggle between two, three, or four internal groups seeking dominance within the country, but a multi-dimensional struggle for regional dominance involving several local groups and Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and, unfortunately, the US.

There are many forces that make this conflict particularly horrendous for civilians and assure it cannot quickly be resolved. An important perpetuator is the involvement of the outside nations, who have effectively endless military resources and do not bear the pain of the constant death. I can partially understand the political and venal interests that drive some of these actors to kill each other and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The big exception is the United States of America. Why are we a primary arms supplier and dealer of death from above in this catastrophe?
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Also worth reading is a piece on Saudi Arabia by Scott Shane, which asks the question, has Saudi Arabia been the primary exporter and supporter of the version of Sunni Islam (Wahhabism) that underpins the worst of the jihadist violence afflicting many countries? It seems that it has. Shane does point out, however, that there are other causes of such violence, including extreme poverty and authoritarian rulers.

But the Saudis have a lot to answer for. And, it should be noted, their primary armorer and military mentor is the United States. So we have a lot to answer for. Without thinking it through, we have indirectly supported Saudi exports of jihadist ideology, which morphed into al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and other bloody-minded groups, which we then fight by dropping US bombs. And, of course, when we kill innocent civilians, we transform some of their relatives into vengeance-minded jihadis. To put it as mildly as possible, this is not a sensible policy.

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.

A macro photography class, and two soccer games

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Today I took my first ever photography class: a three-hour session on macro photography. It was offered by the Raleigh Parks department at the Sertoma Arts Center at Shelley Lake. The teacher, Eric Krouse, was pleasant and knowledgeable, and an even bigger gear hound than I, and possibly as great a lover of dragonflies. After discussing theory, we went down to the lake, where we didn’t see much, but I got a couple of dragonfly shots I liked. The others below were taken at Raulston Arboretum yesterday.
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It was a big soccer week for us, and I do not mean the World Cup. We went out to Cary on Wednesday night to see the Carolina RailHawks take on Dallas, a major league team, in the U.S. Open cup quarterfinals. The RailHawks played gamely, but finished the first half down 3-2. That turned out to be most of the story, though Dallas scored twice again in the last few minutes. In truth, Dallas had a couple of very speedy, impressive scoring threats, and we did not have a good answer. It was a good game, but after a long stretch of home wins, painful to lose.
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It’s been good to see the world enjoying World Cup soccer. Soccer is a pleasing sport in many ways, with speed, agility, grace, and force. Why hasn’t it become more popular in the U.S.? I would guess it’s mostly a matter of custom and tradition, with most people happy enough with what the games they learned about as children and a little fearful of trying to learn the rules of a new game.
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On Saturday we saw the RailHawks lose again, this time to Indianapolis. We led at the half 1-0, but the Indianapolis team had a better attack, and ultimately prevailed 3-2. Again it was painful to lose, but good to be see great athletes.
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Beautiful dragonflies, an unlikely soccer victory, and my hand injury

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I spent some quality time this weekend with my camera looking for dragonflies. They are amazing aerialists, with the ability to hover, fly backwards and upside down, and attain speeds upwards of 30 miles an hour. They eat mosquitos, among other prey. Their eyes are the largest in the insect world, taking up most of their head and allowing them to look in all directions. And up close, some are quite beautiful. At the boardwalk over the swamp at Raleigh Boulevard, I found great blue skimmers, common whitetails, Halloween pennants, along with others who buzzed about but declined to perch for a picture. At Lake Lynn, I found a particularly cooperative blue dasher, who did a series of quick poses for me, three of which are below.
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We got to see some high-grade soccer up close and personal this week when the L.A. Galaxy came to town to take on our Carolina RailHawks. The contest was part of the U.S. Open Cup, with the winner advancing to the round of sixteen. The Galaxy had been beaten twice before by the RailHawks at home, when they’d failed to send their top players, so this time they showed up with their stars, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.

We won! Even to my inexpert eye, it was clear that the Galaxy was the stronger team, dominating in possessions and shots on goal. But with a determined defense and heroic goal-keeping by Scott Goodwin, the RailHawks survived the first 90 minutes with a scoreless tie. They finally broke through with a powerful score by Daniel Jackson in the first of two fifteen-minute overtime periods. The moral of the story? Sometimes you win even when your opponent has superior resources. You may as well give it a shot, since the competition may stumble or you may exceed expectations — you never know. Anyhow, it was fun to see world class athletes competing, and satisfying to somehow come out on top.

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I’ve been more-than-usually conscious of physical limits these last few weeks since hurting my hand during our holiday in Dominica. The accident occurred because of my unreliable depth perception, which stems from my retinal detachment last year. I was stepping onto a boat to go whale watching and thought the deck was six inches higher than it was. That is, I put my weight on thin air – then went down hard. All this happened fast, so it’s hard to be sure, but it’s likely I tried to protect my D7100 as I fell. Anyhow, I didn’t catch myself with both hands, but rather went down on my right hand, twisting it backward. Afterwards, it swelled up like Micky Mouse’s, and hurt a lot. But it was still usable, so I figured it was no worse than a bad sprain.

But after seven weeks, it was still hurting and weak. I could play the piano, but not with my usual gusto – loud octaves in Liszt pieces were painful, and twisting movements and trills did not work well. Certain simple daily tasks, like opening jars and buttoning buttons, were difficult. I wasn’t making much progress, and decided to go to a hand specialist.
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Dr. George Edwards of the Raleigh Hand Center took some images and quickly diagnosed a radial collateral ligament tear in my middle finger. He taped it to my forefinger and instructed me to stay taped for the next few months. There’s a chance it will heal up, but an equal chance I’ll need surgery, and the surgery would involve many weeks of recovery. Meanwhile, no piano, and no golf.

I was shaken to hear this. The idea of hand surgery actually scares me more than eye surgery (of which I’m a battle-scarred veteran). Losing mobility in the middle of my dominant hand would be serious. In particular, losing the ability to play the piano would be catastrophic.

But I soon noted that my hand pain was mostly gone from the tape job, and I decided to focus on the 50 percent chance that everything will be fine. It will be challenging to maintain my usual good cheer without my usual daily dose of keyboard therapy, but I’ll do my best. I’m thinking that I’ll try to burn off some of my musical energy by working on my solfege (sight singing) and other listening skills.

Speaking of more cheerful things, here are some photos I made on Friday evening at Raulston Arboretum of bees hard at work.

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Dragonflies, playful mice, fearful crayfish, and an argument for personhood for animals

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On Saturday I was thinking of heading to Raulston Arboretum to look at the latest blossoms and bugs, but Sally suggested I check out the doings at boardwalk over the pond off of Crabtree Boulevard. She’d found a shortcut to get there, and coached me through it. As she foretold there were some pretty dragonflies and damselflies. 14 06 14_0008_edited-1

This week I’m doing a round-up of animal news, some cheery, and some disturbing. Here are notes on playful mice, fearful crayfish, Your Inner Shark, and the struggle for legal rights of persons for animals.

Have you ever wondered whether mice like to run on exercise wheels? Scientists at the University of Leiden did. As reported in the NY Times, they put a couple of wheels in the wild and monitored with video cameras for several years. The results were unequivocal: the mice like to get on the wheel and run. They came “like human beings to a health club.”

The researchers seemed to be addressing the issue of whether forcing mice to run in laboratory environments was cruel, but the work also speaks to another issue: why run when you don’t have to? One scientist suggested it was no great mystery: “All you have to do is watch a bunch of little kids in a playground or a park. They run and run and run.” In other words, mice play.
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In another apartment of the animal kingdom, researchers tested crayfish to see if they experienced anxiety. At the University of Bordeaux, crayfish who got a mild electric shock were timid and withdrawn compared to unshocked crayfish, who were more adventurous. But the shocked ones improved when they got anti-anxiety medication. Is this amazing? Not exactly, but it made me think for the first time about crayfish as creatures with emotional lives.
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This week I finished reading Your Inner Fish, a Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin. Shubin is a palentologist and professor of biology and anatomy at University of Chicago. The book is about paleontology, genetics, and anatomy applied to the human body. It makes the case that the mechanisms of the human body all have predecessors in much more ancient creatures.

Shubin recounts his early experiences hunting for fossils and failing miserably. But eventually, his mind learned to distinguish tiny fossils from tiny ordinary minerals. He communicates the joy of scientific discovery in studying comparative anatomy and seeing the amazing similarities in body structure that run through all the creatures at the zoo – including us.

This is true not just at the level of large-scale architecture (creatures with heads, limbs, fronts and backs), but also with regard to the workings of subsystems like eyes, ears, and smelling organs, and sub-sub systems like tissue cells, and the systems for connecting tissue cells. Shubin approaches the body from multiple angles, extending all the way back to the first single-celled microbes of 3.5 billion years ago, and focuses on various levels, like the features we share with all vertebrates, those we share with all fish, and those we share with all worms.

I found some of the science, and particularly the genetics, tough sledding, but learned a lot. Our bodies are certainly amazing, but this is true of all animal bodies. Shubin made me see more of the connections between all living creatures, and the connections of all those creatures with the earth over the eons.

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Finally, a couple of weeks ago I finished reading Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals, by Stephen Wise. Wise is a lawyer who recently brought a habeas corpus action on behalf of a chimpanzee, and I was curious about his theory. His book is a useful compendium of the literature of non-human primate intelligence. He argues that the evidence of language, math, and other accomplishments of chimpanzees and other primates entitles them to be treated as persons with certain rights under the law. He includes quite a few stories of horrendous treatment of chimpanzees in laboratories.

Wise’s larger point is that the sharp dividing line in the law between humans and other animals is a relic of ancient times that is unsustainable in the light of science. His account of the ancient roots of jurisprudence classifying animals as chattel (mere things) is interesting. He does a good job challenging the traditional categories, though he doesn’t address all the difficult questions of breaking down those categories. He seems to understand that no matter how wrong legal ideas are, changing them is a long-term project.