The Casual Blog

Tag: Elena Ferrante

Looking for eagles, My Brilliant Friend, patterning, and a brilliant string quartet

Red shouldered hawk (I think)

On Saturday and Sunday mornings I went up to Shelley Lake to see if I could spot and photograph the eagles.  I had no luck on Saturday, though I enjoyed walking around the lake and seeing other birds. On Sunday I located the eagles’ nest and got a brief view of one of them, but it flew before I could raise the camera.  I waited around for a while hoping it would return, and some other nature lovers stopped to share eagle news. A photographer named Don said that his buddy got a shot of the eagles mating a couple of weeks ago, which could result in eaglets in a month or so.  I didn’t see the eagle again, but I did get a close view of (I think) a red-shouldered hawk.

This week  I finally finished the fourth and last book of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.  Ferrante has a kind of passionate naturalness, and something that seems fundamentally true.  At the start, I had my doubts that I could get involved with a long story of working class Naples, Italian literati, crime families, and complicated female friendships, but I did.  I loved some big chunks of it, though by the end I was ready to move on.

I also read again a good portion of The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent.  Lent’s subtitle is A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, and it’s hard to improve on that description.  At a high level, the book covers the entirety of our history as a species, and compares and contrasts major cultures and their modes of thought.  For anyone interested in why how human consciousness works, it is very thought-provoking. It’s also highly readable.

Lent breaks down the hierarchy that we in the West think of as natural, with rational thought given a privileged position, and all other modes of thinking and sensing viewed as far inferior.  He draws a connection between many of our belief systems and the way we generally view nature as separate from us, with it having no importance other than sustaining humans. This orientation has caused us to wreak enormous havoc on the natural world, and indirectly on ourselves. But it is certainly possible to change that perspective, and to view our relationship with nature more as an organic whole, regarding our human lives as vitally connected with those of non-human lives.  I’m working on that.

I also came across a lively, much shorter discussion of some of the inherent flaws in ordinary human thinking on  Vox.com:  Brian Resnick’s interview with David Dunning, co-discoverer of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which concerns people’s tendency to overestimate their own intelligence and abilities.  Dunning explains the broad applicability of the theory — we all are prone to such errors — and has a few suggestions as to how to address the problem. Thinking in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties, should help, and consciously seeking to hear the views of others.  He’s in favor of cultivating intellectual humility.

There’s a lovely new biographical essay in the last New Yorker magazine by Robert Caro.  I’ve been a Caro fan from his first book, and have read each volume so far of his biography of Lyndon Johnson.  In his essay, he writes about becoming a journalist who loves to dig through files and provoke people to honesty.  As part of his Johnson research, he lived for three years in the Texas Hill Country where the future president grew up.  That’s commitment!  At age 83, Caro is still working hard on the last volume of the Johnson biography and planning a memoir.  Let’s wish him a very long life, with much for him and us to look forward to.

We heard some excellent live music in the last week.  The N.C. Opera did a wonderful production of Carmen. The performance we attended last Sunday looked to be sold out, and the crowd was enthusiastic.   On Saturday evening at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium we heard the Schumann string quartet. This young group of three Schumann brothers from Germany and violist Liisa Randalu from Estonia,  was superb — technically flawless, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally powerful. Their account of Schubert’s great Death and the Maiden quartet was epic — a battle to the death, as first violinist Erik Schumann called it. Before playing a Mozart encore, he also told the audience that it was a privilege to play for us in Baldwin, which he said was acoustically the best hall they’d ever played in.  Nice to hear!

Our ski trip to Switzerland and Italy

Sally and the Matterhorn

Skiing in Switzerland and Italy last week was really fun, though I had one tough fall (described below), and getting back to Raleigh was pretty brutal.  We underestimated the time it would take the train to get us to the airport, and when we got there the gate was closed (though the plane was still there).  The flight was jointly branded by United and Lufthansa, and each claimed that only the other could help us.  Surely one or both of them were wrong, but I eventually figured out that arguing was getting me nowhere.  

The online  outfit that sold us tickets, Justairtickets, also initially declined to assist us, but after I made clear that we needed reasonable customer service or we would never be doing business with them again, they stepped up to the plate.  Just kidding!  They shamelessly disclaimed all responsibility.  In the end, we had to buy new tickets from an agent in Milan (a big ouch), and it took 30 hours (including last row inside seats and a night trying to sleep on the hard floor of JFK) to get home.

But otherwise, we had a great trip.  We skied for five days in Zermatt/Cervinia, where they’ve had epic snow this winter, and had plenty when we got there.  The views of the Alps were just spectacular.  The iconic Matterhorn was really and truly there, and there were jagged snowy peaks in every direction.  

There’s a lot to ski around Zermatt.  The highest point of the resort is 12,791 feet.  There are 7,477 feet of vertical — which is big!  There are  224 miles of trails, and the longest run is 16 miles. There are lots of restaurants on the mountain, in a range of formats.  There are lifts of every description, including a funicular, various types of high-speed chairs, and enormous gondolas that hold more than 100 people.  For the most part the slopes were uncrowded while we were there, and we never had to wait in a significant lift line.  

Zermatt is mainly about marked, groomed runs.  Most of the skiers we saw were quite good, but very few ventured off piste.  This could be a function of the Swiss love of orderliness:  if a piste is marked for skiing, then that’s where you’re supposed to ski.  This is a different mind-set from the American west, where good skiers view the groomed runs as passages to the main event — the ungroomed, untracked, adventure stuff.  

Early in the week, we found the groomed runs had good snow and lots of variety, while the off-piste snow was crusty.  We found the steeper groomers lots of fun, and worked on refining our cruising skills.  We skied on the Italian side (Cervinia) on day three, where the scenery was just as beautiful, though the lifts were not as modern and the slopes were mellower.  On day four, it snowed, and visibility at times was close to nil.  That day was also cold (in the low teens) and windy.  At times we started runs in the clear above the snow clouds, then descended into the dense fog.  It cleared up for our last day, and there was some super fun off piste skiing on the soft fresh snow.  

My rented skis were Dynastar Cham 97s, 178 cm.  It was a true all mountain ski, very versatile — easy to turn, stable at speed, good in the light powder.  A little shorter might have suited me better, but still, I really liked them.  

 

We stayed at the Phoenix, a small, pleasant hotel with good breakfasts and a convenient ski gear room, which was within walking distance of both lifts and restaurants.  I’d heard that Zermatt was the model for Vail, and saw similarities in the architecture.  The village had a lot of charm, and a lot of life.  Private vehicles are not allowed, though there were many taxis, which were electric vehicles shaped like tiny UPS trucks.  The main restaurant street had many dining options, along with a lot of luxury shops:  watches, clothing, perfume, chocolate.  We had no trouble getting tables for dinner, and ate well.  

My one bad fall came on the last run of our last day.  It was late in the day, and more crowded than we’d seen for most of the week, with skiers of varying abilities winding things up.  We were coming down a steep, narrow, icy passage, with a lot of people waiting at the top.  I was making my way downward, not prettily, but under control.  

Then, near the bottom a young skier suddenly stopped, leaving me no room to get through and effectively running me into the dense snow bank on the side of the piste.  I make it a rule to give a lot of leeway to inexperienced skiers, who sometimes veer unexpectedly, but unfortunately I broke my rule.  I fell backwards and felt a snap and sharp pain in my right calf.  

As I regained my footing, my back started to spasm.  It took an act of will to get to the bottom of the mountain, and to get to the hotel I had to take baby steps.  My leg was hurting!  Sally initially diagnosed a calf muscle tear, and predicted it would take some weeks to heal.  But it turned out to be less severe —  probably a sprain.  I was significantly better by the next day, and continued to improve as we continued our trip.  

After dinner on the top floor of the Rinascente department store, near the Duomo

On Saturday, we had a pleasant train trip through the Alps and along Lake Maggiore to Milan, where we made our way to our Airbnb apartment.  The place was extremely small, but very convenient to the Duomo and other points of interest.  We had dinner in the Canal District (Naviglio Grande), where there were a lot of people promenading and a lot of moderately priced restaurants.  We enjoyed risotto Milanese and local pasta specialities.  

Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo, is magnificent — an enormous white marble structure with flourishes everywhere.  The surrounding area has lots of stores and museums.  We were particularly interested in looking at Renaissance and early Baroque art, and there was lots of it to see.  We particularly enjoyed the Pinocoteca Ambrosiana (which had a gorgeous Caravaggio still life), the Brera (had to wait an hour to get in, but it was worth it), and the paintings at the Sforza Castle.  We couldn’t get tickets to see the Last Supper, so we’ll need to come back for that.  

Our last full day we took the train for an hour up to Lake Como, where we started by walking around Varenna and then took ferry rides to visit Menaggio and Bellagio.  There was mist and fog, but it was still very beautiful, with the enormous calm lake, charming villages and the Alps rising above.  

On the trip back, I made substantial progress in Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel, The Story of a New Name.  I’m liking it even more than the first one.  Things that initially seemed uncomplicated turn out to be quite complicated, but in a believable, human way.  I haven’t gotten pleasantly immersed in a novel this much for a very long time.  

 

Swimming with sharks and other remarkable creatures: our scuba trip to Honduras

For Christmas week, our family did a scuba diving trip to Roatan, Honduras. We saw a lot of beautiful sea creatures, and had fun hanging out together.  I managed to lose my prescription sunglasses on the way down, and was quite bummed.  Returning to Raleigh around midnight, after 13 hours of travelling, I left my iPad and book on the plane.  I’ve been in touch with American Airlines’ lost-and-found bot, which says it’ll let me know whether they can find them within 30 days.  Argh!

But we really liked staying at Coco View Resort, which is on the east side of Roatan. Coco View is perfectly arranged for diving, with rooms just a short walk from the equipment lockers and docks. Their dive staff was friendly and knowledgeable, and the dive boats were large and comfortable.

A queen angelfish

The dive sites were easy to get to with boat trips of only 10-20 minutes. We went out with the boats after breakfast and after lunch, and did two dives each trip.  Our deepest dives were around 90 feet, but more typically at 60-70 feet. The second dive was usually a drop off near a wall, and we’d work our way back to the resort.  

A school of blue tang

The waters were mostly calm, with little current and only occasional surges.  The bottom temperatures were around 81 degrees F. Visibility was generally around 40 feet. It rained heavily at times, though mostly at night.  The locals said the visibility was worse than normal because of an unusually intense rainy season.

A banded coral shrimp

We didn’t see as many big animals around Coco View as we had hoped, but there were some good ones: two spotted eagle rays,  green moray eels, a hawksbill turtle, many lobsters and crabs, some scorpionfish, and some large Nassau groupers, among others. There were schools of smaller tropicals, and occasionally one of the glamour residents, like French, gray, and queen angelfish, butterflyfish, scrawled filefish, trunkfish, trumpetfish, and porcupinefish. We also spotted some sea horses and interesting tiny shrimp.  We didn’t spot any sharks at Coco View.

A scorpionfish

But one morning we took a special trip to a neighboring resort to look for Caribbean reef sharks. We knelt on the bottom while the sharks came in. Fourteen or so females showed up, and they gradually swam in closer and closer, getting close enough to touch. Then we swam with them for a few minutes. For the final act, we hunkered down, and the guides gave the sharks a large closed paint bucket with some fish inside. The sharks worked the top off the bucket, and then there was a short but intense feeding frenzy. It was awesome.

A Caribbean reef shark

Jocelyn with the reef sharks

We worried, of course, that the reefs and resident creatures would be struggling and declining because of rising ocean temperatures, acidification, agricultural run off, or other problems.  We did see some coral bleaching and what might have been algae (fuzzy brown stuff) coating some areas. The locals said there had been a major bleaching episode earlier in the year, but much of the coral had recovered.  They hadn’t detected a general drop in fish life, though they noted that the fish seem to go elsewhere when the water is murky.  

A crab

As always, there were minor equipment problems and physical challenges.  Sally’s low pressure inflater hose went into free flow when she was starting a dive, and needed an emergency repair.  Gabe’s BC (inherited from me) didn’t fit very well.  Jocelyn’s computer was balky at one point.  My fin straps (a spring-type) were too loose, and so my fins came off a couple of times when I hit the water.  On one dive I couldn’t get my BC to inflate (probably from a poor hook up job) and was sinking too deep, so I took out my regulator and inflated with my mouth.  Sally got a lot of bites by some insect (perhaps sand fleas) and got miserably itchy.   

A seahorse

Sally, Gabe, Jocelyn, and I got better at staying together as the week went on, and had progressively fewer moments of wondering if we’d lost someone. I got worrisomely low on air on one of the early dives, and Jocelyn sweetly checked from time to time after that to make sure I had a good supply. Sally, Gabe, and Jocelyn all developed keen eyes for some of the tiny exotics, like arrow crabs, banded coral shrimp, and brittle stars. We had a lot of fun.

A green moray eel

I almost finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and hope American Airlines will return it so I can read the last twenty pages.  I know a lot of people have enjoyed Ferrante, which made me somewhat resistant to reading her, but I shouldn’t have been.  She creates a compelling world, and takes you inside a rich female consciousness.  

Jocelyn and Sally

Gabe is OK