The Casual Blog

Tag: First Friday

Our anniversary – Astonishing cave paintings – Our TSA – Fear itself

Performers on West Martin Street at sunset, June 5, 2015

Performers on West Martin Street at sunset, June 5, 2015

Friday was our 33rd anniversary. Yes, that is something. What amazing good fortune to find my beloved, to persuade her I was the one for her, and to get her to make me the happiest of men. We don’t usually do anniversary gifts, but we gave each other a kiss and affectionate cards, and I gave Sally a little heart-shaped stone, which she said she would treasure always. We had a fine Italian dinner at our old standby, Caffe Luna, where they had good pesto linguine and sweetly treated us to dessert.
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Then we looked in some galleries that were open late for First Friday. At ArtSpace, there were several engaging paintings that had been in a competition, and also some old friends to chat with. In the warehouse district, there was a mini-street fair, with circus performers and musicians. 311 Gallery had some colorful abstract paintings by Joseph DiGiulio that we particularly enjoyed.
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On Saturday evening, we cocooned at home: Indian takeout food from Blue Mango (delicious!) and Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Netflix. This documentary by Werner Herzog examines the Chauvet Cave paintings in Southern France. I’d been very curious to see these paintings, and since they are firmly closed to the public, this is likely the closest I’ll ever get. Herzog’s narration is rather stolid, but the paintings are thrilling. Painted some 30 thousand years ago, they depict bison, horses, rhinos and other creatures with astonishing freedom and vigor. Pictures are here.

At the gym, making my rounds among the various weight systems and cardio machines, I’ve been listening to a podcast called You Are Not So Smart. Its subject is human psychology, and particularly the biases and systemic flaws that our thinking is subject to. We tend to feel that our thinking is usually rational and objective, but this is very often not even close to true. Knowing this may sometimes help us avoid grievous mistakes. At any rate, it’s worth a shot.

Case in point: we learned last week that the TSA (the airport screening folks) performed quite badly in tests of their systems. When the testers impersonated potential terrorists, they were able to get forbidden items, like fake bombs and guns past the screeners in 95 percent of the cases. 95 percent! Let it be noted, however, that the screeners might have done better had they been tested on seizing expensive moisturizers and nail clippers.

Seriously, at first, I found this disturbing. And annoying! Think of almost every American air traveler, for years and years, all those hours, waiting anxiously in line – all the taking off your shoes, jackets, and belts, emptying all your pockets, pulling out laptops (but, oddly, not tablets), getting your privates exposed by scanning machines, and sometimes your stuff rifled through, and your self physically groped and interrogated, and occasionally missing your flight – and all of it accomplishing nothing.

The massive inconvenience that the TSA process imposes on the flying public looks like a huge waste of taxpayer dollars and time. But then I realized, we haven’t heard of any airplanes blowing up for a long time. If the TSA isn’t stopping would-be terrorists, and no planes are blowing up, that’s probably because there aren’t many terrorists trying to blow up planes. That’s a good thing! But it also suggests that the terrorist threat is way overblown (as I’ve long maintained).
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So why do we put up with this absurd system? The You Are Not So Smart podcast introduces various interesting terms for the psychological syndromes that lead us astray. I’m thinking there should be a name for the particular glitch in the human thinking system that inclines us to widespread panic once exposed to a dramatic dangerous event, like 9/11. Fourteen years after that horrible disaster, we’ve not seen anything remotely close to another such dangerous terrorist attack, and yet we’re obsessed with the idea.

What is the thing that makes us exaggerate our fear so much that we tolerate the TSA’s groping, the NSA’s incursions on our privacy, and invasions and occupations of countries that are not threatening us? Fearophilia? Politicians’ and journalists’ fear mongering helps produce it, so perhaps – mongerization? Probably not. Whatever we call it, it spreads rapidly through a population like a virus, and once an infection occurs it is devilishly hard to cure. For years now, we’ve seen the world through fear-colored glasses.

Part of this syndrome is a tendency to think violent radical ideologies are all focused on us, in a kind of mass egocentrism. This week the advances of ISIS gave strong evidence to the contrary, as these kooks with a surprising talent for horrific executions advanced in Syria and Iraq. As radical Sunnis, they’re eager to fight less radical Sunnis, Shiites, and any other Muslims or others that care to disagree with them, so they can establish the Caliphate. Do we care what their theological thinking is on this? Hardly. Who doesn’t have more interesting, pressing, and sane things to think about? It’s not our problem, or our world.

Last week there was NY Times reported that ISIS has been attacking the Taliban in Afghanistan. Which is worse? Before you answer, remember, we’ve been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2001, the longest war in American history. The Times also reported that Syria’s thuggish president Assad, a presumed target of ISIS, was coordinating with ISIS in giving air support for attacks on other rebel groups.

This seemed contrary to all previous reporting, and I wondered if it was pure propaganda (perhaps by another rebel group, or Assad, or ISIS, or – us?). But even if false, it reinforces that we cannot begin to fathom the complexity of the variables in this war, and so cannot reasonably hope to have a positive effect, let alone win it. It is just outside our realm, and our weapons will not resolve it.

Apropos of that, the Atlantic has a good piece by Dominic Tierney on the paradox of American military power: with the most powerful military on earth, we keep getting into military quagmires we cannot win. Tierney notes that we have failed to recognize that almost all modern wars are civil wars, in which our military advantage is less effective than in wars between nation states. And because we still think we cannot be defeated, we cannot admit defeat. The piece is bold, and worth reading.

Gabe, testing out new glasses

Gabe, testing out new glasses

Gabe normally resists being photographed, but he agreed to let me take a few shots on Saturday at sunset. My favorite was one of him shirtless, looking handsome, but he did not want it published. I’ve also been trying to get a good shot of his golden retriever, Mowgli. He’s an affectionate dog, surprisingly laid back. This is the best pic so far.

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First Friday gallery hopping, new wildflowers, and tolerating Scientology

Dogwood blossom on Blount Street

Dogwood blossom on Blount Street

This week the big trees in Raleigh started to shoot out baby leaves, and the horizon got green. The mild temperatures encouraged me to walk to work, and on the way there were cherry blossoms on Lane Street and the season’s first blossoming dogwoods on the Capital grounds.

Cherry blossoms on Lane Street

Cherry blossoms on Lane Street

On First Friday evening we went out to visit some galleries. We particularly enjoyed the photographs of Simon Griffiths at 311 West Martin Street. There were Raleigh street scenes, landscapes, and portraits of workers in small businesses. The works were clearly subject to extensive post-production work, which caused the views to seem at once familiar and unfamiliar, somewhere between hyper-reality and a dream. His work can be seen here.

I would have loved to learn some technical details, but didn’t have a chance to ask him, because we were cutting it close for our dinner reservation and had to start walking. There were a lot of people out strolling. We ate Lebanese food at Sitti, where the baba ghanoush was delicious, but the falafel was a bit dry. Service was great, and the vibe was lively.

Spring beauty

Spring beauty

Over the weekend I went out to Cary’s Swift Creek Bluffs park to check for wildflowers. There were thousands of little white ones (spring beauties) and a few other interesting species. It was windy, so these guys were moving around. I had to get down on the ground with them to take their pictures, and got a bit muddy, but I thought it was worth it. These little wildflowers do not last long. If you’re interested, the time to see them is now.

We watched Going Clear, the much-discussed documentary on Scientology, on HBO this week, and liked it. It included both historical footage of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer and founder, and other movement leaders, as well as interviews with several ex-Scientologists. It recounted without particular ridicule the foundation myth, which involves beings from outer space and nuclear bombs exploding in volcanos, and its pseudo-scientific technique of E-meter auditing.

Although it’s tempting to make fun of the wackiness, many better established myths are no less untrue, and many long-established customs and rituals are unsupported by science. Tolerance of other beliefs (and non-beliefs) is a good and vitally important thing. The film focused on what deserves to be criticized: the group’s paranoia, abuse, and thuggery. Apparently it secured its US tax exempt status by harassing individual IRS officials with lawsuits. !!! It has harassed and intimidated many others, though not me (at least so far). _DSC8863_edited-1

First Friday

Last night was First Friday, Raleigh’s monthly celebration of its downtown food, music, and art scene.  Despite the heat wave, thousands of people were out.  At Moore Square, there was a two-girl circus act in which one lay on her back, legs raised,  and the other got on top and balanced in various ways with a big smile.  In City Market, there was an oldies rock band, and the listeners were mostly middle-aged.  But at Art Space, there was a thick crowd of twenty-somethings, many with unsettling tattoos.

Sally and I had dinner at Gravy, which features reliable Italian comfort food in a hip brick-walled and oak package.  Among other things, we talked about the problem that large food portions served in most restaurants pose for American eaters.  Partly because of too many business meals recently, I’d again picked up three pounds I didn’t want to carry about. This inspired my latest eating experiment:  cutting off about a third of my food before beginning to eat, and leaving that third on the plate at the end.  The eggplant pie (thin breaded eggplant with marinara and ricotta) was really tasty, but more than I needed, and I’m sure I’d have eaten it all if I hadn’t established a visible stopping place.

I was taught as a child not to leave food on my plate, which was supported with the moral note that children were starving in Africa.  It did not occur to me until much later that the tragedy of starving children was not going to be mitigated by over-eating, which would itself cause obesity, illness, and premature death.  But changing those early ingrained eating habits requires more than recognizing their lack of justification; you have to replace them with other, better, habits.  We’ll see if this cut-a-third system works.

After dinner we looked in some galleries and then strolled back to our neighborhood.  We stopped at Second Empire and had cocktails in their classic bar.  It turns out that stop lights that are mistimed and clog traffic are one of Sally’s pet peeves, and we discussed them for a while.  We got back to our building around eleven.  Just a few steps from our door, in front of the Still Life club, there was a lively scene, with girls with high heels, long legs, and very short black dresses coming or going.  Sally noted as she took Stuart out for his last pee of the day that she wanted to have another look at those dresses.