The Casual Blog

Tag: meditation

Resetting in retirement, new animal photos, new music, and reading The Uninhabitable Earth

A white-tailed deer at Lake Wheeler

My transition from a corporate schedule to a non-corporate one has been fairly undramatic.  I find myself smiling more and carrying around less stress. But it’s been sudden, and a little disorienting.  On Sunday night, I found myself starting to think about getting up early to get to the gym for the start of a new corporate work week, when there wasn’t going to be one.  Old habits die hard.

But I’m starting to develop some new routines that I like.  Instead of rushing out early to the gym, most days I’m starting with 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation.  Then I head out to one of our local forests and lakes with my camera and look about for animals and plants in the gentle early light.  After a couple of hours of looking, I head to the gym for various types of cardio activity, resistance training, core work, and stretching.  If it’s not a swimming day, I either read or listen to podcasts while I sweat.

Back home, I get a shower and make a green smoothie for a late breakfast.  Then I’ll download and process my latest photographs. I’m experimenting with various software tools, including especially Lightroom and Photoshop, and also Topaz, Nik, Aurora, and Helicon Focus.  

When my eyes and neck start to ache from photo processing, I usually practice the piano.  Currently on the workbench are Chopin’s first Impromptu and the Op. 27, No. 1 Nocturne, Liszt’s third Consolation, and Brahms’s Rhapsody Op. 79, No. 2.  

I’ve also been working on a couple of dozen jazz standards, like Misty, Stardust, and All the Things You Are.  I got reasonably proficient at playing some of the great American songbook before law school, but afterwards put that music it in storage for most of the last 30 years.  Now I’m getting the dust and cobwebs off and enjoying it again.

A gray squirrel with a hot dog at Lake Wheeler

Speaking of music, I finished reading the new biography of the Robert Schumann by Judith Chernaik, which I found worthwhile.  Schumann (1810-1849) was a great composer, who adored and married Clara Schumann, a great pianist, and had several children. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, but left an enduring legacy.

I also finished reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Machines Like Me.  It’s a sometimes funny but ultimately serious book set in the recent past but with a futuristic premise:  the protagonist buys an expensive new home gadget, which is a completely realistic super intelligent humanoid robot.  There are various practical problems with having this device, and even more moral problems. I find the trajectory of advancing artificial intelligence fairly worrisome, and McEwan gave me some new grounds for worry. 

Although I finished The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, I immediately began re-reading it.   I would not recommend this book to anyone struggling with depression. The unvarnished accounting of the global-scale disasters that, to a high degree of probability, are coming our way are hard to process.  But I’m hoping there are many healthy people who will read it and be inspired to action. As much as Wallace-Wells makes vivid and real the possibility of cascading climate disasters, he also explains that, just as this is a situation that humans have created, it is one that humans have it in their power to address.

A great blue heron at Crabtree swamp

This week there was a good Ted Radio Hour podcast on this same subject.   It was inspiring to hear 16-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg, and get some ideas about carbon capture, animal agricultural redirection, and addressing climate change denial.  I’d like to think the dire reality of our situation is starting to sink in to public consciousness, and we may be starting to pull out of our death spiral.

In E.O.Wilson’s recent book Half Earth, on preventing more species extinctions (which I’m also re-reading), he points out another possible name for the coming era.  Instead of the Anthropocene, which emphasizes a biological world existing “almost exclusively by, for, and of ourselves,” he suggests calling it “the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness.”   On our current trajectory, the earth will have fewer and fewer non-human species. This is, of course, disastrous for non-domesticated animals and plants, but also tragic for the humans who remain.

Carolina wren at Yates Mill Pond

It’s always seemed to me a simple thing to enjoy being outside in nature, but it’s starting to seem less common and more worthy of attention.  Now that I have more time to get out to our local parks, I’m spending more time with our still common animal neighbors, like deer, squirrels, and birds.  The ones here are from the past week. The deer at Lake Wheeler seemed shy but interested in having a good look at me. The squirrels there were having an after-picnic picnic.  The great blue heron at Crabtree swamp spent a long time hunting, standing still for periods, moving slowly, and striking quickly. It had several little fish for breakfast.

Seagrove Orchids, meditation developments, and the Elias String Quartet

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Last weekend I drove down to Seagrove, NC, and took some pictures at Seagrove Orchids.  Owner Linda Thorne had invited members of the Carolina Nature Photographers Association to visit her greenhouse with their cameras, tripods, and other gear.  Orchids are always fascinating, and seeing so many blooming at once was almost inebriating. The pictures here involved up to 30 exposures, each with slightly different focus points, which I later stitched together with Helicon Focus software and processed in Lightroom.  I was happy enough with some of the results to use them as wallpaper on my home screens.

 

Jocelyn called this week to catch up, and reported that she and Kyle were experimenting with mindfulness meditation.  They were trying the short practical instructions I’d pointed towards in the NY Times, which are here.  I was so happy to hear it! After several months of  practicing daily meditation, I’m persuaded that it can change us for the better. Just sitting still, breathing, and noticing what our minds do helps with many of our usual problems, like stress, anxiety, and distraction.  To be sure, not all of our problems are in our minds, but meditating reveals that a lot of them are, and with practice we can let those go. 

 

With less mental clutter and a lighter load of fears and anxieties, I find I can tune in better to the various joys of life, like friends, food, and music.  On Saturday we met up with friends in Durham for dinner at Mothers and Sons. It took several tries to get the reservation, but it was worth it; the food and service were excellent.  Afterwards, we all went to Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium to hear the Elias String Quartet play an interesting program of chamber music: Schumann’s Op. 41, No. 1, Sally Beamish’s String Quartet No. 4, and Schubert’s D. 804. 

 

The Schumann and Schubert are famous masterpieces, while the Beamish work was brand new, commissioned by Elias. Beamish (b. 1956) took fragments of the melodies and rhythms from the Schumann quartet and explored their tonal possibilities.  The short movements brought to mind the conciseness of Webern and the intensity of Bartok. I liked the idea of using the great music of Schumann in new ways, and enjoyed the piece, though Sally and our friends did not. I thought the Elias played with musicality and passion, though their tone quality was less rich and rounded than my ideal. In this performance, unlike the very greatest quartets, they did not completely gel into a single musical force. But they’re plainly very talented, and they seemed capable of doing so.

Some yoga, being more present, nature photographers, Fiction Kitchen, the dances of Shen Yun

Sunrise in Raleigh this morning looking southeast

I was congested and sniffly for the first week of 2019, but still managed to get up early for some exercise every morning.  On Friday, I went to Flywheel for a spinning (stationary bike) class, and had a pretty good result: 317 points, and second place in the class.  After that I went down to O2 fitness and did some upper body resistance and core work, plus stretching.

I also made it to my first yoga class of the year.  I like the Early Bird classes at Blue Lotus, just across the street from us, which are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  Each class is different, but the system always combines flexibility, strength, and balance. I like moving as part of a group, and I like the teachers, Andrea and Glenda.  I don’t have much interest in New Age ideas, which fortunately they do not emphasize.   

Last Thursday Glenda was an excellent form, and gave a lot more than an ordinary exercise class.  She always has a great mixture of cheerfulness, supportiveness, and demandingness. But this time she helped me tune into to tiny details of sensation and investigate connections of distant parts of the body.  She encouraged us to move into the present moment in a way that made it seem both easy and marvelous.

This is my prime New Year’s resolution:  to be more present. I’m hoping to spend less energy in unproductive worrying and the like and more in the present moment.  On the Waking Up podcast last week, Sam Harris spoke about meditation and its benefits. Harris pointed up that most of us could improve the overall quality of our lives enormously just by cutting out useless mental loops of fear, anger, or craving.  Just dropping the pointless emotional junk would allow a lot more room for fulfillment.

I also resolved to get to some of the Carolina Nature Photographers meetings.  I joined the group a couple of years back, and have gone to some of their outings, but until this week I hadn’t been to  single one of their monthly meetings. Part of me always thought it would be great to talk shop with other nature photographers, and I decided to start this week.   

But part of me was resistant.  I generally dread meeting people I don’t know.  Based on my reading in evolutionary biology, I’d guess this dread  has ancient roots: our ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago living in small bands seldom encountered others of their species, and when they did it usually meant trouble, and possibly a violent death.  So they too probably avoided it when possible, and passed this strategy along to their successors. Anyhow, for whatever reason, I’ve got a mild phobia of strangers.

But I recognize it’s important to connect with others and so I usually manage to buck up and just do it.  Much more often than not, I enjoy a social chat once it gets started. At the meeting, not surprisingly, I found several nice people to chat with companionably about photography subjects, and enjoyed the presentation.  I thought some of the photography shown was really good, but not at all out of my league. I’d already resolved to take better pictures, and resolved this week to enter some of the contests.

I took the wildlife pictures here this weekend at Yates Mill Pond, Lake Lynn, and Shelley Lake.  I liked the reflections.  I was experimenting with some new settings in preparation for a trip with the Carolina Nature Photographers to Lake Mattamuskeet in a couple of weeks, where I expect to encounter thousands of water birds — snow geese, tundra swans, various ducks, and others.  

On Friday night we ate at one of our favorite restaurants, Fiction Kitchen.  We were happy to get a seat at the bar.  They’re popular and don’t take reservations, and we’ve been turned away more often than we’ve gotten in.  Fiction Kitchen is about delicious vegetarian and vegan food and a friendly artsy atmosphere. The core social vibe is distinctly lesbian, but all are welcome.  Sally had the veggie mock pork barbecue, and I had the mock sushi. Both were very tasty, and we had no room left for dessert.

Then we walked over to Memorial Auditorium to see Shen Yun, the Chinese dance troop.  They bill their art as part of an ancient Chinese tradition going back thousands of years, and contend that it is the root source of elements of western ballet and gymnastics.  Perhaps. What is certainly true is that they are very graceful and super athletic. The colorful flowing costumes are lovely, and the use of technology in the sets is creative.  There’s a degree of formality in the way the dancers present themselves, but that also is attractive.

Shen Yun’s beautiful dancers and lively stories emphasize the richness of Chinese culture, and at first I wondered if it was sponsored by the Chinese government.  But midway through the program, there were a couple of highly political segments that dramatize the brutality of Communist authoritarianism. The roots of Shen Yun seem to be in Falan Dafa, a/k/a Falan Gong, a movement involving meditation and qiqong exercises which continues to be persecuted by the CP.

Anyhow, we found the show stimulating and fun, and would go back again.  As I mentioned to Sally, the idea of China that was I got from American schooling turns out to have been a wild oversimplification.  The inhumanity of Chinese Communism is only one part of the picture. The China of real people turns out to be incredibly varied and interesting.  Without too much preaching, Shen Yun showed this.

Working on gratitude, air conditioning (finally), my sweet tennis champion, improving sex education, and our nuclear nature park

At Harris Lake Park on Saturday morning

Recently I’ve been working on gratitude, and it hasn’t been easy.  I’ve gotten some leads from the Calm meditation app, which has a series of gratitude lessons by the wonderful Tamara Levitt.  Levitt approaches the subject from various angles, but the toughest, and most timely, is gratitude for difficulties.  She suggests looking at unhappiness as a teacher, and seeing what can be learned.

We finally got our new air conditioner installed and working three days ago, after weeks without AC.  Most of the windows in our apartment don’t open, and there are a lot of them facing south and west, so it got hot.  It was fairly miserable, but I’m proud to say we kept whining to a minimum, and made it through. Our AC technicians had a tough time installing the new unit — it took four days to get it fully operational — and I thank them.

Right after they got the AC operational, Sally went with her tennis team to the N.C. state tournament, so Rita (our cat) and I kept each other company.  Rita is a pretty calico cat who purrs a lot, but also complains a lot, and needs a lot of petting. She meows, rubs against my leg, and swats me over and over with her tail.  I like petting to a point, but that point is generally not quite enough for Rita.

We were both very happy to get Sally back this afternoon.  Her team is the new state 4.0 women’s champion! Sally has always been a focused and determined competitor, and she wins a lot at the local level, but this is her first state tournament victory.  She said there were a lot of good competitors and close matches. She was beaming.

Like all of us, my dearest Jocelyn followed the drama of the Kavanaugh confirmation process closely, and had some strong things to say about it.  I liked her proposal that we take this opportunity to consider and improve how we talk about sex. Sex is a fundamental driver of all human cultures (one thing Freud got right), but talking about it in America is highly taboo.  We don’t do much sex education in our schools, and if anything we do less in our homes. As briefly as possible, we warn our daughters and sons not to do it, cross our fingers, and hope for the best.

Jocelyn noted that our prevailing norm is that respectable girls should resist sex, while boys will continuously seek it.  This sets up a dangerous disconnect: boys expect that girls will resist, but think that resistance shouldn’t be taken too seriously.  Adding to the complex dynamics of social pressures and passing moods, in a given encounter neither player may be quite sure of their own true preferences.  Misunderstandings are rampant, and even with good intentions, traumatic mistakes happen. Jocelyn suggested a new rule: boys and girls agree that they will only have sex when they come to agreement that the objective is their mutual pleasure.  

I took these pictures yesterday at Harris Lake Park in southern Wake County.  The lake provides cooling water to the Shearon Harris nuclear plant. As I was heading down US 1 to get there, it started raining hard, but it stopped just before I got to the park.  The lake was peaceful. The cooling tower had a disturbing aspect, but that was mitigated by birds, grasses, bushes, and trees. There were a few people fishing from the shore and from a few boats, and me.  

Spinning hard, mental health, and getting inspired by a great violinist (Joshua Bell)

 

I’ve been finding it hard to get in a good gear recently at my weekly Friday morning spin class, but  yesterday I kicked butt and took names! My final score was a healthy 337, and I came in first by a good margin.  My recent scores have been a little over 300, and there have been several strong riders who have made that look quite unimpressive.  I appreciated their not showing up this week and letting me look good.

There was a report in the Wall Street Journal recently about the types of exercise that were best for mental health.   The best ones were team sports and group exercises, like cycling and yoga.   So spinning may be doing my brain some good. I’ve also been getting to yoga class a couple of times a week, which I’m confident is good for my head.  

Speaking of mental health, I finished up the introductory mindfulness meditation course provided by Calm, the smart phone app.    I found it worthwhile.  Mindfulness meditation is really simple, in a way, and it’s easy to find basic directions online.  But the Calm coaching gave me some new perspectives, and helped with motivation.

On Thursday, we had dinner at Capital Club 16, and then heard the N.C. Symphony play the Brahms violin concerto with violinist Joshua Bell.  Bell has been much hyped as perhaps our greatest living violin virtuoso, which is bound to raise questions.  But he completely lived up to the hype:  he was truly electrifying. I got big goosebumps and moist eyes, and also a richer understanding of this great concerto. He performed on a Stradivarius instrument that Brahms had heard play this very piece.  Bell’s cadenza, which he composed, was a brilliant distillation of Brahmsian thought.

Some great virtuosos are intimidating, and make music students think of quitting.  Bell, however, made me want to listen harder and be a better musician. Music in the classical tradition takes time and effort to enjoy, and it’s reasonable to wonder if it’s worth it in the modern world.  But Bell made a strong case for its survival. The Brahms is a supreme technical challenge for the violinist, but also dauntingly complex for inexperienced listeners. It was cheering that a concert hall full of North Carolinians seemed to get it and love it.  In fact, we gave Bell a good ovation after the first movement. In the U.S., we almost always wait until after the last movement to clap, but apparently we agreed that Bell deserved to have us break the rule.

I loved the little poem in last week’s Sunday Times magazine:  On a Line by Proust, by Adam Gianelli.  It you’ve never read Proust or Milton, it may not hit you quite as strongly, but it might inspire you to try them.  Like Proust, it evokes the painful joy of recovering past experience, and how our literary lives can illuminate our ordinary lives.  

I’ve been making my way through the NY Times special titled The Plot to Subvert an Election, by Scott Shane and Mark Mazetti.   It’s basically the story of Putin, Trump, and us.  It is hard to believe that this happened, and is happening, and easy to feel overwhelmed.  Shane and Mazetti have done some great reporting, which is worth reading.

I went to Raulston Arboretum this morning and found these butterflies.  There were a lot of beautiful creatures flitting beyond range of my camera.   I was grateful for these.

Not diving, flowers, meditating, and watching 13th

Happy flowers at Raulston Arboretum, July 21, 2018

We’d scheduled a diving trip this weekend out of Wrightsville, but it got cancelled because of bad weather.  We’d been looking forward to seeing some wrecks and fish, but so it goes. Instead we had some pleasantly uncommitted and uncrowded hours.

Yesterday morning I stopped by Raulston Arboretum with my camera to see what was blooming and buzzing.  I was surprised at how many new flowers were there, including these. The rain has stopped and it was cloudy — good photography weather.

I also took a little extra time for meditating.  Lately I’ve been practicing sitting still for 15 minutes first thing in the morning, and focusing on the breath.  I find it’s helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, of which there is no shortage these days. It also unmasks some of the odd and funny things the mind will do.  I took a little refresher course on basic meditation techniques using an app called Calm, which was helpful.

We had a good dinner at La Santa, a relatively new Mexican restaurant a short walk from our apartment.  The place has a brash festive air, with murals of Santa Muerte, and current Mexican music. The menu doesn’t have a lot of vegetarian  offerings, but they had no problem making their fajitas without meat, which were tasty.

That night on Netflix we watched 13th, a documentary about the relationship of slavery and mass incarceration.  It notes that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population, and a disproportionate percentage of those prisoners are black.  The film also explores how politicians have encouraged and exploited fear of black people, with the wars on crime and drugs. I thought the editing was overly lively, but it was definitely worth seeing and thinking about.