The Casual Blog

Tag: mindfulness meditation

My concussion, water birds, toxic masculinity, and submitting to Trump

Tundra swans taking off at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Those are sandhill cranes in the back.

This week I got back from several days of photographing water birds in North Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware.  I still haven’t managed to look at all the thousands of images, but I thought I’d go ahead and share here a few that I liked. 

I’m happy to report that I’m substantially recovered from my concussion of three weeks ago.  I got it on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, when I somehow fell and hit my head on the wood floor, briefly losing consciousness.  I stayed in bed for the next couple of days because I couldn’t do much else.  

But gradually the queasiness, dizziness, and lightheadedness receded, and I started getting back to normal life.  Still, the experience shook me up. You just never know when you might get struck by a bolt from the blue.   

 

I got the images here during two workshops led by Mark Buckler, a master wildlife photographer and gifted teacher.  The first was in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern N.C., where there were thousands of tundra swans and hundreds of thousands of snow geese, along with many interesting ducks, such as northern shovelers, pintails, and widgeons.  

The second workshop, immediately after the first, was in Cambridge, Maryland, and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  There we saw hundreds of gorgeous water birds, including canvasbacks, widgeons, scaup, buffleheads, red heads, long tailed ducks, brants, and loons.  We also saw one red breasted merganser.  

A widgeon at Cambridge, Maryland

At times it was windy and cold, but it was fun watching the birds going about their lives — flying in, eating, socializing, squabbling, and flying out.  They’re all extraordinary creatures, as shown by the fact that they manage to stay alive in challenging environments. Some of them were not shy, and swam close to us.  I felt like they taught me something about connecting to other creatures and their surroundings and accepting life as it is.

Canvasbacks

I met some nice people on the trip, though I was surprised at times how difficult it was to connect.  Especially with guys of a certain age, like me, there’s typically a reluctance to engage. We’ve been conditioned to avoid exposing ourselves emotionally.  Hard to say what we’re afraid of. Maybe it’s just not seeming like a normal guy. So even those of us who care nothing about the Super Bowl will talk about it instead of something we actually care about.

Female canvasback

Peggy Orenstein had an interesting piece recently about masculine ideals in The Atlantic: The Miseducation of the American Boy,  Her thesis seems to be that we socialize males toward an ideal that is ultimately sad and lonely.  We’re taught to be tough and unemotional. We’re not supposed to show vulnerability. And so we wall ourselves off from others, especially other males.  Over time, a lot of us end up isolated and emotionally crippled, and that’s just part of the problem. The masculine ideal for some incorporates misogyny, homophobia, and racism.  

A northern pintail at Mattamuskeet

Of course, there are plenty of males who don’t conform to the broad stereotype.  And Orenstein doesn’t seem to think that toxic masculinity is immutable. People can change.  It’s just hard. I’ve found that mindfulness meditation helps in understanding unhelpful thought patterns and developing better ones.  A useful, free resource is the Insight Timer app, which is here .

A scaup at Cambridge

Anyhow, if you have a child, a friend, or a self that’s a typical male, they can use your compassion.  We need to rethink how we teach our kids and quit pushing boys to be “manly” in a soul-destroying way.  Meanwhile, girls get socialized in different limiting stereotypes, while they’re taught to expect and accept toxic masculinity. Instead, we need to teach our kids and ourselves how to better understand emotions, relax gender stereotypes, and develop empathy and compassion.  

Snow geese taking off from a field at Pocosin Lakes

It’s been a tough few days for liberals — so much so that I was tempted to give up discussing politics, at least for a while.  Seeing a majority of the U.S. Senate publicly and dramatically affirm their support for the obviously corrupt and unconstitutional conduct of our unlikely President was jarring and demoralizing.  It does not inspire confidence in our system, or in our fundamental decency. And that’s putting it mildly. It makes you wonder, how much farther down can we go till we hit bottom?    

 

While I’m tempted to extend the discussion of the craven shamelessness of the Republican congresspeople, plenty of others have covered that ground.  The question that I’m interested in is, why? What accounts for a mass defection from some of our most fundamental values, like upholding the rule of law and respect for truth?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the cultural strain I was just discussing of toxic masculinity.  The prized characteristics of toughness and emotional disconnection have been fully on display. There’s a tie between bro culture and Trumpism that’s evident in the exaggerated display of virility and the hostility towards those who are different.  

For strong evidence, see a blessedly concise collection  from the vast cesspool of poisonous discharges from the man that Trump just saw fit to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Yes, Rush Limbaugh. A sample: “Feminism was established so unattractive ugly broads could have easy access to the mainstream.”

The Republican legislators are tough all right — so tough that they’ll fight reality itself!  Their anger and hatred of liberals is so strong that it defeats their own respect for truth. Of course, they’re also fearful that they’ll lose their privileged positions if they oppose Trump. 

In a recent op ed piece, James Comey, formerly of the FBI, addressed the question of how principled, decent Republicans can continue to support a President who is thoroughly unprincipled.   He pointed up the power of fear and group think.  He reminded me that that’s how people are — prone to surrender their morality to the group, forgetting that the group is often led by the loudest and worst of us.  

As Comey suggested, all or most of us have had moments when we abdicated responsibility and went along with the group doing something we ended up regretting.  Staying together with our tribe is almost instinctive. But our mothers taught us to try to think for ourselves, and not just go along with the group.  To do what’s right even when it’s scary and difficult.  Sometimes we find the strength and courage to do that.

Anyhow, I liked how Comey managed to replace some of his anger at Trumpist Republicans with an effort at understanding and compassion.  As he said, they’re just people, and their weaknesses are understandable. As I said, people can change, and there’s always some possibility that they’ll change for the better.  If not, we’ve still got some of our framework of democracy, and we can organize and vote.  

 

New bird views, meditating for health, and the Trumpian take on liberals

 

With the chilly and rainy weather this week, I didn’t get out for any nature photography.  I missed seeing the birds, but was glad to have some extra time to experiment with photo processing. I’ve been improving my Lightroom and Photoshop skills, and learning how to use Nik, Topaz, and Luminar software.  Along with various failures and frustrations, I’ve discovered some new possibilities.  

These images are revisions of recent shots.  When I first made them, I was excited to be able to see details that were generally invisible to the human eye.  Looking at them again reminded me of the joy of just looking at the birds and sharing their world.  Trying out new software tools to the images made me look at the animals in new ways.  

Like most everyone, I generally think of reality as fixed and solid, though I also try to keep in mind that there are other ways to think about it.  Along that line, I’m currently reading Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, by Sean Carroll. Carroll is a research professor of theoretical physics at CalTech.  He gives a lively account of the main ideas of quantum theory, including the mind-bending oddities, such as entanglement (particles affecting the behavior of distant particles).  

For all its remarkable theoretical and practical achievements, Carroll admits that quantum physics is incomplete, lacking in a broadly accepted paradigm.  He is supportive of the Many Worlds theory, which holds that the best explanation of quantum phenomena is that our universe is only one of a great many. I’d thought that Many Worlds was some sort of game for deep science nerds, but he convinced me that it’s more than that. 

More research is required.  Anyway, along with our enormous universe, there could be many others, some with beings like us that we can never communicate with.  That seems less farfetched after experiencing the polarization of US politics, and most recently the Trump impeachment hearings.

 

Watching Republican legislators last week was, for me, surreal.  Asked to address hard evidence that Trump had acted in direct opposition to US policy on Ukraine in order to benefit himself, they tried various maneuvers, including objecting to procedures, talking about conspiracies, and babbling and shouting incoherently — seemingly anything to avoid the issue.

I couldn’t watch for long — it was just too painful.  But I saw enough to conclude that these Republicans had very strong feelings.  They were very emotional. I had been assuming that they were cynical hypocrites, with little regard for the public interest or much of anything other than their own selfish interests.  

But their anger seemed sincere.  So I decided to work with the assumption that they sincerely believed that Trump had done nothing wrong and was the victim of an evil witch hunt by liberals.  I wondered how, in spite of a mountain of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such a belief could arise.

Part of the story is surely Trump’s attacks on the mainstream press.  By calling every report that is unfavorable to him “fake news,” Trump seems to have thought that he could create doubt and confusion about facts that were otherwise uncontested.  And, amazingly, he may have been right.

I originally assumed that no thinking person would buy the fake news idea.  After all, Trump has such a long record of compulsive lying on matters large and small that the most reasonable assumption about his latest statement is that it is false.  He also reflexively resorts to the schoolkid move of flipping any attack, as in, “You can’t say I’m a bully — you’re the bully!” As his preferred “news” organ, Fox News, beams out praise for him and attacks on his opponents without regard to reality, it makes a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland sense that he’d call all other news “fake.”  

The traditional media has struggled to survive in an online world, with newspapers closing left and right.  But other than the Trumpian claims, there’s no reason to think that our long established and respected media organs, like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, have switched from their traditional business of reporting on actual events in a relatively balanced way to just making things up.  The charge of fakeness generally comes with no back up evidence or proposed corrections.  But the claim of “fake news” seems to really resonate with Republicans.

Why?  I have some ideas.  First, there’s the information bubble.  Our online world has made it easy to surround oneself entirely with information sources that fit one’s own preferences and biases, and avoid any contrary information.  Fox News has been a trailblazer in the dark art of stylish disinformation, while Facebook, Twitter, and others have enabled the creation of alternative realities.

At the same time, human thought processes are far from reliable.  Our brains are generally subject to confirmation bias, which makes us tend to believe what fits with our prior beliefs.  We avoid cognitive dissonance, or information that calls into question those beliefs.  We are prone to mistakes based on our likes and dislikes.  We’re also inclined to think whatever the tribe says we should think.  Even with the calmest, most rational among us are subject to these tendencies. 

And Trumpism does not encourage calmness and rationality.  It encourages fear and anger. Trumpism sounds the alarm as to various non-existent threats that are declared to be dire:  hordes of brown-skinned people invading across the southern border so they can rape and pillage and take over jobs, minorities that are predominantly criminals, child molesting gays, secularists destroying traditional religion, Jews, etc.  

But the most dire, most hated threat in the Trumpian universe is liberals.  This is so bizarre that it took a long time for liberals to see it.  Liberals thought they were engaged in ordinary life and politics, in which having diverse views was normal.  That is, liberals thought of themselves as normal people, and of Trumpian Republicans as basically normal people who just disagreed with them.  Liberals assumed the feeling was mutual. 

That turned out to be wrong.  In the Trumpian world view, liberals are not just ordinary political opponents.  They are a threat to the social  order and basic values. They are subhuman animals. They are evil.  

As Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out in a good op ed piece, Trump treats liberals as “the enemy” and subjects them to a constant barrage of dehumanizing propaganda.  Liberals are “scum.” Repetition and amplification by Fox News and its allies fills the Trumpians’ information bubble.  

So the Republican legislators’ recent behavior — the lies, the insults, the shouting — probably seems to them well justified.  Fearful for their careers and their tribe, they feel that they’re under violent attack and must defend themselves.  For them, facts that implicate Trump are ipso facto just “fake news.” Those who say otherwise are evil liberals. 

When we get excited or scared, it’s much harder to think reasonably and to be our best selves.  This is one of the reasons I spend some time every day doing mindfulness meditation.  It settles me down emotionally. It also helps in understanding more about how the mind works, and recognizing that it is just the mind.  For a timer, I use a free app called Insight Timer,  which also has a collection of good instructive talks.  I’ve also benefited from the guided meditations from an app called Calm.  

 

The Eno at the end of fall, meditating, a piano lesson, and a list of thought-provoking books

With a big winter storm on the way, on Saturday I drove over to Durham and hiked along the Eno River on the Cole Mill trail. The colors were muted, and I was reminded of that melancholy tune by the Mamas and the Papas:  “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.”  It was quiet, except for the noise of the fast-moving water.  

I’d brought along my camera equipment, planning to make some landscape images, but struggled to get inspired.  Things didn’t seem at all scenic, and in fact seemed kind of sad. But after a bit I slowed down and started noticing spots of unusual energy, like tree roots and branches, decaying stumps and pale lichens on boulders.  The shots here are what developed.

Taking in smaller wonders is one of the lessons I’ve taken from my efforts at mindfulness meditation.  Over the last few months, my 15 minutes of daily sitting have helped with managing stress, and also has given me some meaningful, though humbling, insights into my own unruly thinking processes.  I’m looking forward to learning more.

On Saturday afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina over at the N.C. State music department.  As I’ve noted before, I usually think of my piano playing as music therapy, providing personal balance, flow, and happiness, without many connections to my professional or social life.  But Olga always reminds me that piano playing is also a serious undertaking, with long traditions, deep musical questions, and technical challenges that are not easily surmounted, as well as the potential for personal expression, communicating feelings, and transcendent beauty.  

This week I played a well-loved Chopin waltz (c# minor, Op. 64, no. 2).  I arrived with a good mastery of the notes and a decent understanding of the architecture.  She wanted me to incorporate some new gestural elements to improve the sound, and explained to me how she uses the legs and core for fine keyboard control.  I also played Debussy’s beautiful Bruyeres from Preludes, book 2. We talked about varying tone colors and voicing (both horizontally and vertically), and specialized pedaling challenges.  The lesson was almost two hours, and I was exhausted at the end, but also inspired.

Last week I was telling a friend about rereading (actually, re-listening to) Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He noted that in the last couple of years I’d mentioned several books that relate to his interests in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy, and asked if I’d mind making a list of favorites.  

So I looked over what I’d read involving science topics and other big ideas in the last couple of years, and realized, it’s a lot!  For whatever it’s worth, here is a selection of books I found worthwhile and would be happy to discuss with other readers. I have not attempted to rank them, but they are roughly grouped by major subject.  

Science matters, mainly in the areas of physics, biology (including neuroscience), and psychology

The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far:  Why Are We Here? By Lawrence Krauss

Origin Story:  A Big History of Everything, by David Christian

The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll

I Contain Multitudes:  The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

The Moral Animal:  The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright

How Emotions Are Made:  The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Behave:  The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Before You Know It:  The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh

The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, by Jonathan Balcombe

Other Minds:  The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben

Half-Earth:  Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Assorted Other Interesting Ideas

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent

The Shape of the New:  Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder

The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg

Why Buddhism Is True:  The Science and Philosophy of  Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

Scary stuff: Dracula, the ballet, and Ebola, the hysteria

14 10 24_3520
In general, I have very little interest in ghosts, ghouls, witches, vampires, and suchlike. There are enough truly scary things in the world that are real (e.g. global warming, thermonuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and tainted food from factory farms, to name a few). So it puzzles me a little that people spend mental energy scaring themselves with made-up monsters. Maybe it’s something like the fun/fear of riding the thrill rides at the fair (which I’m also over).

So, as much as I adore the Carolina Ballet, I was not eagerly anticipating Dracula, which we saw Saturday night. It is certainly not pure ballet. But boy, is it sexy! There was a good amount of stimulating vampire vamping, and even some touching dancing.

Marcelo Martinez was muscular and mesmerizing as Count D, and Lara O’Brien was a delicate, then demonic, Lucy. The marvelous Pablo Javier Perez played perhaps the scariest character, Renfeld the lunatic, who eats flies, prowls, and watches with superhuman intensity. The Twisted Sisters (Dracula’s harem, I guess) – Randi Osetek, Sarah Newton, Elizabeth Ousley – were naughty and highly exotic. I also particularly enjoyed the dancing of Elice McKinley and Nikolai Smirnov as Colette and Jack — sweet, innocent, loving mortals.

The other work on the program, The Masque of the Red Death, is based on the E.A. Poe story about a ball in a time of plague. The costumes for the costume ball were particularly sumptuous. Richard Krusch was the Red Death. He is a really fine dancer, but of extremely serious mien; he usually looks like he isn’t having any fun at all. But this was not a problem in this role, in which he wears a skull mask.

The dance of death/plague theme seemed timely, and a little jarring, after weeks of daily headlines about the Ebola virus in Africa, and also (a couple of cases) in the U.S. It is sad for the victims and their loved ones, but it strikes me that the media frenzy is out of all reasonable proportion. How many more people are dying daily of AIDS? Or the flu? Or car accidents, for that matter? Plainly, this is a dangerous bug, and we need to watch and take care, but why try to get more scared than necessary?

As I mentioned last week, I’m trying to spend a few minutes every day doing mindfulness meditation. The basic idea, which is well described in this short infographic is to sit quietly, focus on breathing, and observe what’s happening with your thoughts. It’s simple, but not easy.

By coincidence, Scientific American, which arrived this week, has a cover story on the neuroscience of meditation. The headline is that there is substantial research showing that it improves focus, reduces stress, and has other positive health effects. It also can boost feelings of well-being, and improve empathy and compassion.

The story doesn’t mention this, but I’m hopeful that if meditation helps us understand our thought processes, it might improve our ability to distinguish between imaginary threats and real ones, and apply our energy to problems we might be able to solve.
14 10 24_3523