The Casual Blog

Tag: lacrosse

A fun Memorial Day weekend on the Outer Banks — eating, talking, running, looking at wild horses and birds, and reading

Jane and Keith's beach house in Corolla, NC

Jane and Keith’s beach house in Corolla, NC

Again this year, my sister Jane invited us out to the Outer Banks for Memorial Day weekend, and we happily accepted. The beach is a good place to relax and restore. After weighing the pros and cons, we decided to drive out in Clara, who with her sporting heritage rides rougher than the Suburu Outback, but is also prettier and more exciting. Traffic wasn’t bad. We went at the speed limit plus 9, and the heavy complement of state troopers along I-64 tolerated the overage.

Charlie the Boogle

Charlie the Boogle

We got to Corolla about 9:30 p.m., and everyone was up and happy to see us. We enjoyed a glass of Keith’s merlot before bed. We also met their new dog, Charlie, a friendly beagle-boxer, or boogle. The camera made him a little nervous.

The next morning was sunny but chilly and windy. Keith prepared an egg casserole and fruit salad for breakfast, and we caught up on family news.
13 05 24_1703
We also talked a bit about technology and biology. I briefed them on some of the progress on understanding the human microbial community, which I read more about in the piece by Michael Pollen in last Sunday’s NY Times. Pollen wrote, “It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes . . . . To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this ‘second genome,’ as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents.”

This is mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting stuff. One researcher says “we would do well to begin regarding the human body as ‘an elaborate vessel optimized for the growth and spread of our microbial inhabitants.’” We’re just starting to understand some of the links between human health and microbial health. It’s a huge mistake, which most of us have previously made, to think of all germs as things that should be exterminated. Certain bacteria are essential to health, and problems in the microbiome appear to relate to chronic disease and some infections. Human health can be thought of as “a collective property of the human-associated microbiota . . . that is, as a function of the community, not the individual.”

The Pollen article is a great introduction to this subject, which is also discussed in The Wild in Our Bodies by Robert Dunn.
13 05 25_1642_edited-2

After breakfast, I went out for a run with my nephew David, now 13 and growing fast. David has fallen in love with lacrosse and is getting lots of playing time as his team’s goalie, so I figured he would probably run me into the ground. Instead, he developed a major cramp problem, and so we did more walking than running. I learned about his prize-winning science fair project, which involved growing and measuring characteristics of a fast growing plant called brassica rapa.
13 05 25_1640_edited-1
13 05 26_1751

Keith cooked an amazing lunch – cucumber soup and pasta asparagus salad. Then we loaded up in the 4WD sport ute, and drove north on the beach looking for wild horses. Past the lifeguard station, we turned left into the sand roads through the gnarled trees and bushes of the maritime forest. We found several horses. It’s cheering somehow that these big animals can make their own way in small wild areas surrounded by development. We also saw a fox.
13 05 25_1571
13 05 25_156013 05 25_1608_edited-1

I had time for some reading in the afternoon, and got a good start on Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who died recently. This is his first and most famous book, and perhaps the most famous work of African literature to date. I was immediately hooked. The prose combines the muscular economy of Hemingway at his best with the vision of Faulkner, with an overarching tenderness and humanity. The story is about African village life, which, it turns out, has many of the same emotional components as our lives.

I also read more of More Balanchine Variations by Nancy Goldner, which is a book about various Balanchine ballets. Goldner is a generous-hearted critic, and she loves her subject. It’s so hard to bring dance to life other than by dancing, but she comes close.
13 05 25_1678

One other major bit of reading was chunks of the complete poems of Wallace Stevens. I came close to reading them all last year, before shelving the project some months back. Stevens is challenging, and not uniformly great – some of the poems seem mannered or even mad. But the greatest poems are both beautiful and profound. My favorite is still Sunday Morning, which is a sly, subversive, arresting, sensual, and humorous. I memorized it, and it still gives me goosebumps at the end, with its powerful image of “casual flocks of pigeons make/ ambiguous undulations as they sink,/ downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

Stevens proposes this joy in nature as an answer to religious asceticism, and it works for me. It also makes me look at the world with different eyes. For example, in back of Jane and Keith’s beach house, purple martins are still numerous, and still flying fast feeding on insects. It was a pleasure to watch them.

We played a new beach game on Sunday afternoon. It’s one of the many variations on horse shoes, but a good one. Points are scored by throwing a string with weighted balls on each end around a bar. They couldn’t remember the name of it, but no matter. It was fun!
13 05 26_1763

13 05 26_1759

Birther psychology, lacrosse, and another call to end the war on drugs

Some of the nicest people I know are Republicans, so I say this with all due respect: how is it that 45% of Republicans are birthers? That’s a lot of Republicans! As the NY Times noted this week, not for the first time, there’s overwhelming evidence that the President is a natural born citizen, and so a birther is almost by definition someone resistant to considering evidence and applying reason. The Times got opinions from various academics and pundits about this odd phenomenon, and one by David Redlawske struck me as particularly thoughtful. He observed that feelings often trump facts:

We are all somewhat impervious to new information, preferring the beliefs in which we are already invested. We often ignore new contradictory information, actively argue against it or discount its source, all in an effort to maintain existing evaluations. Reasoning away contradictions this way is psychologically easier than revising our feelings. In this sense, our emotions color how we perceive “facts.”

This isn’t groundbreaking, of course, but it’s easy to forget how fragile and subject to failure rationality is, and how hard it is for the reason to overcome prejudice. Major political issues can get invented, distorted, or ignored based on likes and dislikes, without regard to evidence or analysis. We all do this to some extent, but some more than others. And our dysfunctional political process is a result of this resistance to evidence and reason.

Friday night Sally, Diane (Sally’s Mom), and I went over to Durham to see some lacrosse — Duke and Virginia in the ACC championship semifinals. Diane has developed an unlikely passion for lacrosse, and with her encouragement we’ve been to a couple of games this season. It’s a great sport, with some of the speed and fury of hockey and the strategy and finesse of soccer. The evening was cool and drizzly, and we were damp and shivering by the end. The Dukies had their way with the UVa, 19-10.

On the way back, I asked Diane about her views on the war on drugs. She wasn’t familiar with the term. Diane reads the NY Times every day and is extremely well-informed on current events, so her lack of knowledge on this subject worried me. I suspect that a lot of bright people filter out news on the drug issue, because the news is confusing and frequently painful. The drug war is costing billions of dollars, exhausting the capacities of our courts and prisons, destroying lives, financing organized crime, and destabilizing entire countries (Mexico, Afghanistan, Honduras, Nicuragua, El Salvador etc.).

But some good news: there are more and more people ready to talk about our failed drug policy and what to do about it. According to a reliable sounding blog in the Huffington Post (how’s that for sourcing?), the Obama administration invited questions for various “town meetings,” and the most frequently raised topic was drug legalization. Unfortunately the President avoided the issue. But the political tide is moving, and may be turning.

So what’s the problem? Almost everyone knows that many people like mood and perception altering substances. That was true of our remote ancestors, and it’s true of us. But too much media coverage of the drug issue is alarmist fear mongering, which creates fearful beliefs that make it difficult to proceed with reasoned discourse. Thus we’ve had the rise and fall of the crack epidemic — a drug originally reported to be so addictive that no one could use it responsibly and so powerful that it was going to destroy our cities. This was plainly a huge exaggeration. Before that were such stories as the tendency of LSD to induce psychosis (huge exaggeration), and of pot to cause bizarre criminal behavior (Reefer Madness) (a complete fabrication). The fact in plain view that was ignored, and is still ignored: most people that use illegal recreational drugs are functioning just fine.

I say this not to encourage illegal drug use. It’s been many moons since I myself used an illegal drug. I avoid them because I think they’re too risky, both in terms of criminal liability and otherwise. Some people (you? me?) are prone to addiction, which is a serious health problem with multiple dimensions. Also, there is no particular reason to trust an unknown unregulated chemist, and no reason to be confident that his chemical product will not cause either immediate or long-term physical harm. There are plainly many degrees of risk, and individual preferences for risk taking vary. Some people like to jump out of airplanes, and some people like to try new designer drugs. Others, like me, are uncomfortable with such levels of risk.

But as a matter of ethics, there’s just no distinction between most of the intoxicating substances that we’ve legalized and those that we put people in jail for. Alcoholic beverages for most people are pleasant diversions, and for an unfortunate minority they are career-destroying, family-destroying, health-destroying addictions. The same is true of cocaine, and the same is true of recreational use of legal pharmaceuticals. The Times reported this week that Oxycontin abuse is widespread in Ohio, and resulting in addiction and deadly overdoses. These health problems should be recognized and addressed, but not exaggerated. We need to confront fears and assumptions with evidence, and figure out how to make an orderly withdrawal from the war on drugs.

A beach trip, with a note on failure

For Memorial Day, we took Clara on her first road trip out to Jane and Keith’s beach place.  I enjoyed the drive.  We came over the bridge towards Nags Head just as the sun was setting.  The Outer Banks are not Monte Carlo.  It’s not about glamor.  But the area can induce serenity and happiness.  Traffic on the island moved slowly, and we sampled the local radio stations — a fundamentalist preacher, 80s rock, country, and my favorite, hip hop.  It was good at last to see Corolla again.

Keith is a grill chef extraordinaire, and for our benefit volunteered to go all vegetarian for the weekend.  Having recently mastered gluten-free cooking, he seemed to appreciate the challenge, like a high jumper who wants to go higher.  He made waffles with fruit and honey whip cream for breakfast.  Delicious!  A tomato cucumber soup with hot cheese pie for lunch.  Scrumptious!  Stuffed peppers and corn flan. Extraordinary!  He tried a rich chocolate torte, which he judged too dry and threw out.  The second effort was a great success.

We went to the beach in the afternoon,  Sally donned a wet suit and swam with my niece Kylie and nephew David.  I piloted a kite for a bit before it crashed, and I reread a bit of Endurance, by Alfred Lansing, the incredible story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to cross Antarctica, which was a failure in terms of its original mission, but a success in terms of its plan B — survival.  It’s nice to a frigid, desperate story and a sunny beach.

David, 10, is mad for lacrosse, and insisted while we were on the beach I learn something about it.  He let me use the shorter stick.  Under his intense coaching, I managed to make some catches and throws, and was pleased.  I also missed some catches and made some bad throws, which was less fun.  But I persisted for a while, even with little expectation of ever being any good, partly to humor David, and partly to continue road testing my theory of failure.

It’s this:  greater acceptance of failure increases the possibilities for happiness.  Part of the reason is that we learn from failure.  In any new endeavor, we start out incompetent, so we make mistakes, and if we persist we gradually work out how to make fewer mistakes.  Every significant accomplishment (apart from the occasional stroke of pure luck) is the result of many failures.

But there’s a broader reason for greater tolerance for failure.  Clearly, failure does not always lead to success.  Most of the things we could try will not turn out well, because no one can be good at everything. But if we decline to accept our own failure, we narrow our range of experience.  I might have missed lacrosse, or skiing, or Liszt.  If we give ourselves permission to fail, we can try new things, and be happier.