The Casual Blog

Tag: Jordan Lake

Herons, virtual cocktails, and depolarizing

I got in a couple of trips  to Jordan Lake dam before the big shutdown.  There were quite a few great blue herons standing together and periodically flying into the river to catch fish.  I saw a few squabbles over food and fishing spots. The birds were surprisingly comfortable with me, with one flying in to stand for a while just 20 feet away.  I was looking forward to getting to know them better. But with the park closed, that likely won’t be happening this spring.  

In the Raleigh area, we’re now under orders to stay home if possible.  I’m fortunate not to be in danger of starvation or homelessness, but there are other challenges and disappointments.  In addition to missing the birds and the spring flowers, I’m missing my exercise routine. I usually get to the gym or a yoga class six days a week, and have come to think of that as an important element of my mental health, as well as my physical well being. I’ve been trying to do more running, but I have concerns that too much will hurt my knees.  Anyway, I did five miles yesterday.

We’ve heard that gun shops are doing a booming business.  Apparently, the self-defense crowd is worried that desperate hordes will be attacking their homes, and they will need extra guns and ammo to shoot them.  I think we’re a long way from a Mad Max dystopia, but it’s telling that those fears are here.  

In the spirit of making the best of things, we had our first virtual cocktail hour on Friday.  We scheduled a half hour starting at 5:30 for video chatting and drinking with Jocelyn and Kyle in New York.  We used Google Hangouts, which cut out a couple of times, but mostly worked. We commiserated about the pandemic, compared notes on streaming movies and series, and had some good laughs.  We agreed we would all be in deep trouble psychologically if the internet stopped working.

This week I finished reading Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein.  I recommend it to all who are interested in understanding why American politics seems to be working so badly.  Klein contends that political parties have become markers of identity rather than matters of ideology. That is, whichever group we’re in, the group’s policies aren’t as important to us as our being part of the group.  Those who aren’t part of our group are seen as enemies.  

Klein sees race as a central factor in our politics.  During the civil rights movement, Republican politicians used coded racial appeals to pull in working class white people. It seemed like that couldn’t work for long, but it’s still with us.  This isn’t a new revelation, but Klein does a good job putting it in context.  

Recently I discovered a good podcast called Scene on Radio that discusses American history and culture with a focus on issues of race and gender.  It’s now in its fourth season, which reexamines the place of slavery in the formation of the American political system. The founding fathers had strong disagreements about slavery, so there’s not a single, simple narrative.  But the wealthiest of the founders were wealthy because of slavery, and they made sure to protect their wealth, through the design of the Constitution and otherwise. Good podcast.   

It was heartening that faced with a real emergency, last week Congress managed to pass a stimulus bill on a bipartisan basis.  Perhaps it will mark the start of less polarization. But it appears that some at Fox News and extremist evangelicals are still taking the view that the pandemic is a liberal hoax designed to undermine President Trump.  Apparently some reverends are summoning the faithful  to attend their services on the grounds that there is no coronavirus.  We all know that human powers of denial and self deception are great, but even so, with tens of thousands of people already dead, this is amazing.  It’s a long way back from there to unpolarized reality.  

Getting close to birds and farther from people: hunkering down for the pandemic

Last week I got out to Jordan Lake three times and spent some time around sunrise with the wildlife there.  I saw lots of great blue herons, and several ospreys and bald eagles, as well as the less glamorous  gulls, crows, and turkey vultures.  

With the human world in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, I was especially grateful for some time with the birds.  Of course, they have their own life and death struggles, including finding enough food to survive each new day.  But they manage it without undue drama, keeping their focus on the task at hand.  Once the essentials are taken care of, they become very still, alert but peaceful.

The pandemic has quite suddenly changed everything.  We don’t know how long it will be before something like normalcy returns.  In the meantime, there will be brutal economic hardship for laid off people who need the next paycheck for housing and food.  On top of that, cutting direct human contact will likely cause a spike in depression and suicides. This is going to be tough.

In the midst of what looks like an epic disaster in process, it may not be the best time to talk of lessons to be learned.  On the other hand, we’re all going to have some time on our hands, which we might use to think about our situation.

Illness can be a revealing crucible.  It forces us to face up to reality. For example, parents may have all kinds of kooky ideas about praying for health, but when their own child gets seriously ill, and prayer doesn’t seem to be working, they will usually take the child to the doctor.  Illness forces us to quit playing and get serious.  

And so it is that we’re now looking to scientists for guidance about covid-19.  Our President has led a war on science, muzzling experts and eliminating scientific positions and agencies, as the Times and others have noted.  But he seems to be shifting gears, and now he’s consulting with doctors, public health experts, and other scientists.

At this point, it is hardly news that we have an incompetent and mentally ill President who sees the world exclusively in terms of how it can gratify his ego and bank account.  But like the parents with a sick child, even he has come to see it’s time to go to the doctor and get actual facts and possibly some help. He’s still inclined to boost xenophobic conspiracy theories, but he’s finally making concessions to reality.  Along with increasing death and misery, denying reality now might even be politically damaging. 

As little as I respect the President and as fervently as I want to see him defeated, I want to wish him well in this regard:  may he find the wisdom to defer to the best experts. Our scientists and doctors won’t have all the answers, but they’re our best hope.  Assuming we make it through this crisis, we might apply this same rule to address other global crises, like global warming.    

For the rest of us, there’s an opportunity to pause and reflect.  Covid-19 has brought into stark relief the fragility of our social, economic, and governmental systems.  If it wasn’t clear before, it’s now clear that our national healthcare system is a hopeless mess. Our social safety net is full of holes.  Our system of profit-at-all-costs capitalism is failing to address basic needs.    

In the face of the pandemic, even those officials of the all-government-is-bad view are modifying their opinion and trying to do something.  It looks like the government may be sending out real checks to actual families to mitigate some of the hardship. This looks like progress, and also like a tiny band-aid.  But who knows? We may look back on this as the historic beginning of a transformative new system with a universal basic income and greater fairness.

One thing is certain:  this is not going to be easy.  It’s definitely not the case that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  We need to cultivate our courage, and our compassion. Those of us with some surplus need to help others.  My old friend Deborah Ross, a Democrat running for Congress in N.C. District 2, suggests donations to the N.C. Food Bank. The Washington Post yesterday had a helpful list of charities working for those who will be hardest hit. 

Spring birds, and The New Jim Crow

 

Canada geese at Shelley Lake

Spring is definitely arriving here in Raleigh, and the birds are singing lustily.  This week at Jordan Lake, I sawsome juvenile bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons.  At Shelley Lake, I enjoyed my old friends the Canada geese, and there was a towhee who posed nicely for me while singing.

A towhee

At Jordan Lake, I thought I might have spotted a rarity — a black-headed gull.  After studying my bird books, I posted a picture on the Carolina Bird Photographers Facebook page, and asked for the opinion of any gull experts.  I got a quick response: it was a Bonaparte’s gull, which is not uncommon. I was a little disappointed, but I now have a firmer grasp of what a Bonaparte’s looks like.

A Bonaparte’s gull that looked a lot like a black-headed gull

For the spring migration, I’ve been refreshing on my bird song identification skills, using Peterson recordings and the Audubon app.  I’m able to identify most of our local birds, and I’m getting ready for the less common migrants.

I finished reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which I highly recommend.  Alexander, a former civil rights attorney and professor, paints a powerful and disturbing picture of mass incarceration in the US, showing that the  war on drugs was to a great extent a war on black people. Seemingly race neutral laws resulted in a huge increase in imprisonment, with most of the prisoners black people convicted of non-violent drug crimes. 

This had a ripple effect through black communities, destroying families and leaving a large percentage of black males unable tp find work and unable to vote. The effect has been comparable to the Jim Crow system for suppressing blacks after abolition, and has sustained our racial caste system using the race neutral terminology of crime.    

An osprey at Jordan Lake

There’s a quick overview of the book in Wikipedia, and she wrote a recent essay in the NY Times that has some of her main points.    though I thought it was well worth reading the whole book.  

Alexander was on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast recently, and sounded like a really knowledgeable and thoughtful person.  The subject of the podcast was prison abolition. This was the first time I’d heard that there is a prison abolition movement that is connected to the insights of her book.  The basic idea is to address mass incarceration by changing our penal system, including redefining what’s criminal and designing less draconian punishments. This does not sound at all crazy, and I look forward to learning more.  

Juvenile bald eagle

 When Alexander’s book was first published ten years ago, her message that the drug war was a  symptom and expression of a racial caste system seemed radical, but it’s becoming widely accepted.  We’ve made some progress in modifying the worst discriminatory laws of the war on drugs and addressing policing abuses, but much of the system is still in place, and the victims are all around us.  It’s a prime opportunity to exercise our capacity for compassion, expand our political vision, and work for change.

Tree behavior, Hitler, conspiracy theories, and the truth about Hillary’s email

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Big Woods Road, near Jordan Lake in Chatham County, November 5, 2016

Saturday morning was brisk, sunny, and clear. I drove Clara out to Jordan Lake, where I put her in sport mode and enjoyed the winding country roads. We drove up one of my favorites, Big Woods Road, and stopped at various spots to look for birds and colorful trees.

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

Clara, pausing on Big Woods Road

I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben. Wolleben has spent his life as a forester closely observing trees, and has also assimilated a great deal of research into their biology and behavior. As the title indicates, he contends that trees are social plants that cooperate with sophisticated systems for communication, including underground connections of roots and fungi and various airborne chemicals. They work together to ward off predators, withstand weather, and take care of the young. It’s amazing! There’s a nice overview of the book at Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brainpickings.
Jordan Lake

On a more somber note, I’ve been reading the new biography of Hitler by Ullrich Volker. It covers H’s birth to the start of WWII. It’s a good read, and offers insights into (though no definitive solution to) the great mystery: how could an intellectually mediocre charlatan maniac seize and hold dictatorial power, with such dire consequences? At the end of WWI, Hitler quickly rose in political life as a popular speaker on the theme that there was a vast, powerful Jewish conspiracy that accounted for Germany’s problems.

This bizarre conspiracy theory was widespread at the time, and of course has never disappeared. How do such crazy ideas take root and propagate? There seem to be a lot of them flying around these days. A case in point: militiamen who believe the Second Amendment is under siege. The NY Times had a fascinating piece yesterday on these folks by David Zucchino, with good pics by Kevin Lyles.

They are mostly white, rural, and working class, and they like to get together on weekends to shoot their weapons. Zucchino got them to talk. They are passionately convinced of many nutty ideas: Hillary is coming to get their guns, ISIS is invading the country, the Democrats are rigging voting machines. Also, they want to make America great again. All I can say is, Yikes!
Jordan Lake

Only slightly less bizarre is the meme, now rampant, that Hillary’s email handling shows that she is unusually dishonest and corrupt. Matthew Yglesias of Vox did a good piece unpacking this tale and showing it to be based on nothing. Hillary’s handling of email was not illegal, and there’s no basis for accusing her of dishonesty. And yet the networks have devoted more air time to this non-story than every other policy issue combined.

Yglesias concludes as follows:

One malign result of obsessive email coverage is that the public is left totally unaware of the policy stakes in the election. Another is that the constant vague recitations of the phrase ‘‘Clinton email scandal’’ have firmly implanted the notion that there is something scandalous about anything involving Hillary Clinton and email, including her campaign manager getting hacked or the revelation that one of her aides sometimes checked mail on her husband’s computer.

But none of this is true. Clinton broke no laws according to the FBI itself. Her setup gave her no power to evade federal transparency laws beyond what anyone who has a personal email account of any kind has. Her stated explanation for her conduct is entirely believable, fits the facts perfectly, and is entirely plausible to anyone who doesn’t simply start with the assumption that she’s guilty of something.

P.S. On Monday morning at the gym I listened to the podcast version of the latest This American Life, which included a segment on Hillary and the emails. Garrett Graff, a veteran reporter, came to pretty much the same conclusion as Yglesias: there’s no actual scandal. Graff noted that he, like other reporters, always hopes investigations will lead to titillating revelations of misconduct. We often see what we want to see, whether it’s there or not, which may account for some of the press’s egregiously biased “scandal” reporting of the email story. Those reports started a feedback loop that has grown very loud and shrill and overwhelmed our ability to consider the facts.

Butterflies, and constructing terror narratives

Wrightsville divingBug 1-4
On Saturday morning I ran 5 miles, up Hillsborough Street and back. It was humid. I went slower than usual, and struggled to finish. That afternoon I went out to Cary for my monthly haircut with Ann, and we talked about our families and cars. Then I drove west to Jordan Lake. I stopped at Horton Pond and took some pictures of a spicebush swallowtail (above). (The other butterflies here were taken this week at Raulston Arboretum.) Afterwards, I put Clara in sport mode and had a lively drive on the winding country roads.
Wrightsville divingBug 1-9

It’s so interesting how intensely we insist on fitting disasters into familiar narratives. After the horrible Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice this week, leading politicians immediately dubbed the act “terrorist,” despite knowing nothing of the driver’s motivations. Now, three days later, there is still no evidence that the driver had any particular ideology, and there’s some evidence that he was just a sad, mentally disturbed, violent loner. Yet the press, including the NY Times, continues to characterize the mayhem as “terrorism” and to raise the alarm on the need to escalate the war on it.

Narratives are our way of making sense of the world. We create meaning by imposing a cause-and-effect ordering on events. But our compulsive drive for understandable narratives can also cause us to see things that aren’t there. When acts of deranged individuals or small, not-very-powerful groups are attributed to a single powerful force of evil, our fear level rises. Strong emotions make us less capable of careful analysis, more susceptible to demagogues, and more liable to overreact and do harm to others and ourselves.
Wrightsville divingBug 1-6

This is, in fact, what the real terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, hope: that we’ll react to their crimes by killing innocent people, whose relatives will swear vengeance on us and join the radical cause. Al Qaeda had remarkable success in provoking us this way. Our endless war in the Middle East allowed them to extend their influence and spawned even more bloody-minded imitators.
Wrightsville divingBug 1-7

In the face of a heinous mass killing, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by grief and fear, and hard not to grab at a handy possible explanation. But more times than not, we can’t really know all the causes of such crimes, and sometimes we can’t pin down any of them. As much as we like stories, we need to accept that some things don’t fit into our familiar narratives. Fear narratives may feel satisfying, but by not exaggerating fear and avoiding overreacting, we are less likely to cause harm, and ultimately safer.
Wrightsville divingBug 1-5

My recent reading and listening

Tiller7Bug 1-5
One thing that I hate about vacations is that I always come back heavier than I went out. It’s strange, but predictable, that a week of traveling makes me about five pounds heavier. There’s nothing particularly terrible about gaining five, but if you do it enough times, it adds up. I really prefer not to carry around excess pounds, which means, post vacation, I’ve got some reducing to do.

That requires some time exercising, which, fortunately, I enjoy, in a way. It’s a lot more enjoyable since I started combining working out with listening to podcasts and audio books. This week at the gym I’ve been listening to the new Serial, about Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, which examines the mystery of what he was really up to when he was kidnapped by the Taliban. It’s good. I also discovered WTF, an interview podcast by Marc Maron, and listened to an interview with Eric Bogosian, the actor, playwright, and author. He was a student at Oberlin when I was there. Among other impressive talents, he has an amazing voice.

Speaking of talented people I knew slightly, I saw articles in both the NYT and WSJ this week about the artist Robert Irwin. I met Irwin when I was a fact checker at the New Yorker and checked a piece about him by Lawrence (Ren) Weschler that became a book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is still in print.

I really liked Irwin, and was affected by his vision. His work is difficult to describe, but generally involves transforming spaces so that they reveal different things. He has spent most of a restless career, based in Los Angeles and then San Diego, creating subtle, at times vanishingly evanescent, environments with plain materials — fabric scrim, glass, lights, plants and trees — “to make you a little more aware than you were the day before,” as he puts it, “of how beautiful the world is.” He’s now 87, and has various interesting works in progress. Anyhow, I recommend Ren’s book, and the articles, and I’m planning to try to get io his new show at the Hirshhorn.
Tiller7Bug 1-4

One thing I like about vacations is some time to really read. Last week I finished a couple of significant books and made substantial progress in others.

I finished Don’t Panic: ISIS, Terror and Today’s Middle East, by Gwynne Dyer. It helped me get a better grip on the geopolitics that led to ISIS, and that sustain the violence going on right now. The atrocities of ISIS are horrifying, but per Dyer we really have to quit freaking out, because it doesn’t help, and they are not an existential threat to us.

Which is not to say they aren’t wreaking havoc on the Middle East. The plight of millions of Syrian and other refugees is horrendous, and winter is just well started. I did a bit of research of what we as individuals might do to help, and ended up making a contribution to the International Rescue Committee. The Times endorsed it and some other charitable organizations. Please consider whether you might be able to help.

I also finished Black Earth, the Holocaust as History and Warning, by Timothy Snyder. The subject of Hitler’s genocide is, of course, tough to think about, but it turns out that there are very important aspects of it that our history professors and museums mostly missed until – Snyder. For example, most of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were victims of mass shootings, rather than gassing, and the likelihood of dying varied according to the degree to which the existing state apparatus was destroyed, as it was in Poland and the Baltic states. As depressing as it is that humans can be as depraved as the Nazis, it is also cheering that we can understand the past in new ways, and maybe change ourselves.

I made substantial progress on re-reading Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements that Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe, by Curt Stager. Stager does a good job showing how atoms relate to life as we know it, which is both well known and very difficult to grasp. He breaks the world down to its essentials, starting with hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, and shows how basic recycled elements form our bodies. I’ve finally got firmly in mind how a lot of the atoms we are made of are the products of long-dead stars. Joni Mitchell was right that we are stardust. And, just as we are continually transforming our surrounding environment, it is transforming us.

A new colleague at work, Jeff K, recommended I read Hackers, by Steven Levy. It’s a history of the computer programming pioneers of the sixties and seventies at MIT, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere. I quickly got absorbed, and have made it about halfway through so far. These people were obsessed, and in some cases brilliant, as they discovered/created the new digital world that we live in today. A lot of them were awkward and odd, and did not have normal social lives (e.g. girlfriends). I thought that seemed sad, but gradually realized how full they were of the joy of discovery. A lot of these pathfinders were making free and open source software well before anyone labelled it as such.Tiller7Bug 1-2

Finally, I made substantial progress on The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I was interested in the book initially because I love Dutch painting of the 17th Century, and I’ve seen Fabritius’s famous, gorgeous Goldfinch. I’m finding Tart’s book extraordinary, in the way Catcher in the Rye is extraordinary, with perceptions that have the freshness of youth and the risk of fatal error of youth. She’s a great novelist in the old-fashioned way, with a deft grasp of quick emotions and richness of character and incident.

While I’m thinking of brilliant artists, I’ll mention one more recent discovery: the violinist Sarah Chang. As I now know, she was a child prodigy and is now a seasoned concert artist, but I discovered her a few weeks back by chance when I felt like listening to the Brahms violin concerto, and picked her recording from those available for streaming on Rhapsody. (The same recording is available on YouTube) She’s amazing! Volcanic intensity, and yet sensitive to the finest nuance. She’s got a big, gleaming, shimmering sound. Here she is in a wonderful live performance of the Carmen Fantasy.

Saturday I drove out to Cary for my haircut with Ann S, and got caught up on her holiday doings. Afterwards I drove east to Chatham County and visited Jordan Lake. It was gray and raw, with rain threatening, and the water level was high. There were hundreds of gulls at Ebenezer Point, mostly ring-bills and a few herrings.