The Casual Blog

Tag: gay marriage

Happy gays, lowering that flag, flamenco, new reading technology, understanding consciousness

Our Jocelyn, at home

Our Jocelyn, at home

Friday was big! Jocelyn came home to Raleigh to attend an old friend’s wedding, and the Supreme Court made it legal throughout the US for gay people to get married. Jocelyn reported that the gay people she knew in New York were weeping with joy, and she was, too. I got a bit misty myself. I don’t suppose we’ll all at once get rid of anti-gay discrimination, any more than we’ll suddenly finish off racism, but this is a long step forward. It gives me hope that we can address some of other big problems that today seem caught in political gridlock, like global warming.

Speaking of racism, another fantastic development this week was the beginning of the removal of the Confederate battle flag from certain government buildings and the shelves of giant retailers. This potent symbol of unrepentant old-fashioned racism has made me queasy for years. How can it have been socially acceptable to lay out in public on a beach towel with that flag? Anyhow, last week it became dramatically less so. Sure, people are entitled to express their racist views, but they also deserve to be shamed for it.

I listened to an interesting Australian Broadcasting Service podcast called Science Vs last week on the question: does race exist? We may have assumed the answer was obvious, but it’s not. In fact, from a biological point of view, many scientists view the concept of race as meaningless. There are no consistent reliable genetic or other markers of racial boundaries. Race is a cultural construction that has been used primarily for purposes of oppression, such as slavery. Still, the idea is so familiar it seems natural, and it’s hard to let go.

At Fletcher Park, Saturday morning

At Fletcher Park, Saturday morning

There are, of course, different cultures, which is a good thing. Gabe and I got a taste of part of flamenco culture on Saturday night at an American Dance Festival performance by Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca. They performed a flamenco version of Antigone. I enjoyed Barrio’s dancing, which had strength and intensity, but found the movement vocabulary pretty limited. I enjoyed the singing and guitar playing in parts, but the melodic and harmonic vocabularies also were restricted, and the whole thing was over amplified.

In other culture/technology news, I recently discovered a new way to read: combining an ebook with an audio book. When I purchased the ebook Incognito, by Thomas Eagleton, Amazon proposed to upsell me on an Audible audio book for a few dollars more. I took the bait, and it was worth it. The great thing is that you can read a bit, then switch over to listening to it on another device, and switch back – and in either medium it picks up where you left off on the other. I really enjoyed listening to the book while working out at the gym, and reading some before bed in the evening.

Eagleton mostly synthesizes much of current psychological and neurobiological thinking and research, including work by Kahneman, Gazzaniga, and others, but he also has an interesting model of consciousness. He emphasizes that most of what we do and are is unconscious. The unconscious, as he views it, has a multitude of subparts, which generally work quite well without our ever knowing anything about them. Some subparts overlap and may disagree with others, which he refers to as a team of rivals. Eagleton suggests that consciousness is like the CEO of a large corporation, who has executive authority to intervene when there are major conflicts or new problems, but plays a limited role in ordinary activities. We’re mainly driven by unseen emotional forces, but the CEO is skilled at persuading us that she is calling the shots.

One pleasing aspect of Eagleton’s theory is that it accounts for the fact that even the most intelligent people make amazing mistakes and hold tight to beliefs that seem downright goofy. But if it’s true that we’re all fundamentally prone to errors of thinking, that must mean that the same it true of you and me. Knowing that could make you more humble and hesitant from striving to avoid the worst errors. That could be good. But all that careful thinking and hesitant uncertainty could lower your standing and influence in your tribe, which could be bad.

Finally, on a more cheerful note, let me point up one new progressive thing about my home state of North Carolina (among all the new regressive things): on-line driver’s license renewals. I was due for my five-year renewal, and dreading the slow, dull experience of the DMV, when I saw the announcement that NC was starting a new program of on-line renewals. That same day, I found the site, and completed the application in about 3 minutes. No fuss, no muss. I’m good for five more years!

More eye surgery, healthy habits, a gay marriage revelation, a new veggie restaurant, and the shame of the processed food industry

This week I had eye surgery to repair the effects of scar tissue from my previous eye surgery, with the understanding that there would probably be more surgery needed in future. And so in the space of a few weeks I’ve gone from an adult in remarkably good health with no history of hospitalization to a fairly experienced consumer of modern American medicine. There are, of course, some negatives, such as worry, fear, and pain, but I’m trying to stay positive. It’s a learning experience.

Most of my healthcare team at the Duke Eye Center, including nurses, orderlies, anesthesiologists, and doctors were surprisingly cheerful and supportive. The anesthesia was designed to keep me partially conscious, which it did, and so I was able to listen to the conversations of the team and the music they listened to (vintage rock, unfortunately). I was instructed to let them know if things hurt, and I did speak up a couple of times when it got fairly intense.

The operation involved removing scar tissue from my left retina and eye wall and reattaching the retina to the wall. It was an extremely delicate procedure and took about three hours. When Dr. Mruthyunjaya checked me the next day, he was pleased with the initial results, but noted that it would be some months before we’ll know how much vision I’ll have with that eye. At some point I’ll need cataract surgery as well. But that day I was able to see the top couple of lines of the eye chart, which was an enormous improvement from last check, when I couldn’t make out any letters at all.

Healthy Habits

I was banned from all strenuous exercise for at least a couple of weeks and possibly more. I’m not sure Dr. Mruthyunjaya appreciated that this was a fairly harsh sentence for a person like me, with a big exercise habit. Getting to the gym or other physical activity most every morning is something I just do. It makes me feel better for the rest of the day and is part of the long-term plan of staying healthy and happy. But I don’t think about the pluses and minuses at 5:15 a.m., which would be way too much work. It’s taken a long time to get to the point where exercise is almost automatic, and does not feel like dreary work. I don’t want to lose the habit.

With this partly in view, I decided to recommence my computer programming studies during the newly freed up early morning. I signed up with Codeacademy for their free online Python course. It should keep me in the habit of getting up early. So far, it’s been interesting and mostly fun, though also frustrating at occasional junctures when I get stuck. I’m thinking of it as a lot like learning Spanish: an exercise that at a minumum serves to stimulate the brain in a healthy way, and could turn into a skill that could come in handy.

Gay Marriage Switcheroo

Speaking of brains, in the news this week was a report that Senator Rob Portman, a Republican, had decided to switch from an opponent to a backer of gay marriage. His reason? His son came out as gay. I had two reactions to this:

1. good
2. you’ve got to be kidding me!

As to 1, I’m happy that Senator Portman has seen the light, and come to view gay people as entitled to the same civil rights as everyone else. But as to 2, coming to this view really shouldn’t depend on having a gay child!

All of us place special weight on the welfare of our loved ones, but that isn’t a very reliable starting place for broader moral reasoning or policy making. Otherwise, those with healthy families would have no concern for the less abled, and those in a majority race would ignore the rights of minorities. This would be a morality with severe myopia. I wonder how much conservative family values blather is accounted for by such myopia.

I don’t mean to be too hard on Senator Portman, who must surely possess more-than-usual courage to take issue with the conventional and rabid views of his party. We could all benefit from exercising our empathy muscles. Here’s a suggestion: what if we all spent five minutes a day imagining that a specific human in a group we generally dislike is our dearly beloved child? Our imaginations could extend the diameter of our circle of caring and feeling. This would be a good thing. I’ll go first, and try to think loving thoughts about a rightwing fringe Republican.

Trying a New Vegetarian Restaurant

Last night Sally and I tried Fiction Kitchen, Raleigh’s new vegetarian restaurant on Dawson Street. It was full when we got there, with a wait time of 45 minutes, which would exceed our usual supply of patience, but we found a place to stand near the bar and had some Chardonnay. The vibe was hip-funky, similar to Poole’s, but with a younger, edgier crowd — think tatoos, grad students, gays and lesbians, interracial couples, and even a few babies. Oh, and one middle-aged guy with a strangely red left eye swollen half-shut. The place hummed with the sound of many conversations.

The food was creative, with an emphasis on local seasonal ingredients. For appetizers, we had the wintery spring rolls with spicy peanut sauce and seasonal fritters, which had NC apples, spices, and bourbon-agave. We split two entrees, the sweet potato sushi rolls with sashimi tofu and braised tempeh with pesto grits. Every bite was tasty.

Shameful Goings on in the Processed Food Industry

It was really cheering to see a new vegetarian business in Raleigh doing so well. As regular readers know, I’m a big proponent of healthy, ethical eating, which is another habit that’s good for humans, and also fun. But there are powerful forces promoting unhealthy food. For evidence, see an op ed piece in today’s NY Times, by Michael Mudd, a former honcho with Kraft Foods, titled How to Force Ethics on the Food Industry.

As a former insider, Mudd seems credible when he characterizes the business of large food processors as “enticing people to consume more and more high-margin, low-nutrition branded products.” He describes how “relentless efforts were made to increase the number of ‘eating occasions’ people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each.”

According to Mudd, “Even as awareness grew of the health consequences of obesity, the industry continued to emphasize cheap and often unhealthful ingredients that maximized taste, shelf life and profits. More egregious, it aggressively promoted larger portion sizes, one of the few ways left to increase overall consumption in an otherwise slow-growth market.”

Mudd also describes the food industry’s clever PR efforts to deflect attention and regulation, such as attributing the obesity epidemic to other factors. There are, of course, multiple factors, but none with the same despicable level of conscious intent. At the same time, they contend they are giving the victims “what they want.” These wants, of course, are the product of advertising and food engineering. (There was a very interesting piece in the Times magazine by Michael Moss a couple of weeks ago on the dark art of synthesizing junk foods that are almost irresistible.)

For solutions, Mudd proposes federal and state taxes on sugared beverages and snacks that undermine health, which would generate funds for education programs and subsidize healthy foods for low-income people. He also recommends mandatory federal guidelines for marketing foods to children and better food labeling. This makes sense.

A lovely Friday cocktail, Bill Cunningham, the anti-gay vote, David Brooks’s The Social Animal, learning to listen while playing the piano

How nice it is to have a cocktail and relax at home on Friday evening! Of course, strong drink must be handled with care. A glass of wine with dinner is certainly a pleasure, but the habit can sneak up on you, and a glass of wine can so easily turn into three.

A few weeks back, Sally and I decided to limit drinking to weekends. Among other good effects, this makes the Friday evening drink particularly delightful. Last night, Sally made us margaritas with fresh lime. For the first time in years, I had a sudden urge to listen to Stevie Wonder hits from the seventies, which we now can easily stream from Rhapsody. I dedicated my streaming of the wonderful Signed, Sealed, Delivered to my sweet Sally.

We watched a documentary called Bill Cunningham New York. Cunningham is a photographer whose specialty is candid shots of New Yorkers wearing interesting clothes. He has a feature in the Sunday NY Times style section in which he shows this week’s street fashion trend, which, although I’m far from a fashion person, I always enjoy looking at. But I didn’t know him by name, and would have missed the documentary but for Sally’s putting it at the top of the Netflix queue.

It was sweet and kind of inspiring. Cunningham is in his mid-80s. He’s still snapping pictures all the time (using 35 mm film), publishing weekly in the Times, and travelling by bicycle on the streets of Manhattan. Age may have slowed him down a bit, but he’s still passionately creative. He’s got a great, boyish smile.

We voted in the North Carolina primary this week, which involved primary races for governor, secretary of agriculture, and various other offices, and an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Why a gay marriage ban? It’s mysterious, and bizarre. I am stunned that it passed by a 20-point margin. Raleigh, the part of North Carolina in which I spend most days is multi-cultural and tolerant, with a visible and completely uncontroversial gay population. (I blogged about this visibility a while ago.) But most of the state is rural. What is going on in the heads of homophobes? I’d like to understand, but I don’t get it. It’s a different culture. I believe that that culture is eventually going to change, but for now it’s still alive and kicking.

Speaking of culture, I’ve been reading The Social Animal, by David Brooks, the NY Times conservative columnist. Brooks has collected recent ideas on psychology and culture, including those of Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, and woven them into a readable and, in places, intriguing book. The theme, which is getting considerable attention lately, is that people are primarily driven by unconscious perceptions and desires, rather than rational thought.

But Brooks views this in a positive light, arguing that although our brains make all kinds of mistakes, they work better than a completely rational system running in real time could. He argues that behavior is best viewed as a function of those around us and our surrounding environments rather than of individual intelligence, and proposes that we think about meaning more in terms of relationships and cultural systems. I don’t much like his device of two imaginary characters who gradually discover or rub up against the various theories he explores; the characters never really come to life. But I think it’s worthwhile — I’m more than half way through, and likely to finish.

On Saturday I had my last piano lesson of the season with Olga Kleiankana, who’s headed to Moldova for the summer. We talked about some Rachmaninoff and Scriabin pieces for me to work on over the summer, and then worked on Scriabin’s second prelude (op. 11). Olga admitted that it sounded significantly better, but pointed out places where the tone seemed flat. She continued to emphasize the importance of gesture in sound production and expression, and when pedaling problems emerged she taught me how to test out pedaling improvements.

Then I played Debussy’s Second Arabesque for her for the first time. She pointed out that I seemed to be reading note by note, when many of the elements were repeated with slight variations. As she went through a quick score analysis, I had a eureka moment: score analysis was not designed to torture hapless students, but rather to make it possible to understand and learn music more quickly and effectively.

Finally I played Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, from Images, premiere serie. This is a gorgeous impressionist piece that calls to mind (especially after hearing the title) reflections in water. It has dazzling effects, some of which are difficult. Olga noticed that I got tense in my shoulders in the fast 32nd-note passages, and advised me that that could be fixed by breaking the passages into simple parts for practice. We also talked about the relationship of touch and tone color. At one point, I played a simple chord, and she said, with a pained expression, “Don’t just play the notes! You need to always think before you touch the keys!”

And she was serious. She listens with a level of concentration that’s almost scary, and expects me to at least try to do the same. I’m having occasional glimmerings of what this might be like. The sound seems richer, with more depth and detail. It’s like hearing in 3D. Of course, little flaws, like unbalanced chords or inappropriate accents, are more jarring. But when a musical statement works, it touches more deeply.