The Casual Blog

Tag: Olga Kleiankina

The eagles at Shelley Lake, looking for wildflowers, finding conspiracies, and new music

Things are blossoming like crazy here, and I’ve been itching to spend some time outside with the beautiful plants and animals.  In the last few days, I’ve succeeded, and had both good luck and bad luck with my camera.    The good luck was at Shelley Lake, where the two adult bald eagles came out of their nest and posed nicely for pictures.  There may well be a couple of eaglets in the nest, as someone said. The area near the nest has become a little social center for nature photographers, bird watchers, and assorted other humans.  It was fun chatting about the birds, and seeing the excitement when people saw them for the first time.

On Friday morning I took a vacation day and went over to the UNC Botanical Garden to see what was blooming and to get a special pass for Mason Farm Biological Reserve.  I was hoping to find unfamiliar wildflowers. When I got there that my camera battery was almost dead (due to taking many eagle shots), and I’d forgotten my backup battery.  The creek was too high to get well into Mason Farm. So, bad luck, but I did find a few interesting wildflowers, which I admired and photographed.

Later I met Gabe Tiller in Chapel Hill for lunch at the Mediterranean Deli.  The falafel, hummus, and baba ghannouj were all delicious! We caught up on family and work news, and I walked him back to work.  Then I made my way to the UNC Arboretum. Traffic on Franklin Street was busy, and I was lucky to find parking at the planetarium.  There were a lot of blossoms at the arboretum which inspired photographic ideas, but my battery gave out after three shots.

On Saturday morning, after visiting the eagles, I drove over to Durham to see the flowers at Duke Gardens.  I’d seen on Instagram that the tulips there were blooming, and that spectacular collection always brings me joy.  But lots of other people had the same idea; the traffic was crawling. After some slow poking through the various lots, I admitted defeat and drove sadly home.

On the way back to Raleigh, I listened to an episode on This American Life about conspiracy theories.  It’s a timely topic, with Donald Trump declaiming loudly that there was no conspiracy involving him, but there are plenty of conspiracies involving his foes.  As one of the program’s segments noted, for fans of anti-government conspiracy theories, everything Trump says makes perfect sense.

Not being such a fan, I’ve assumed that such ideas, however nutty, are mostly harmless.   But my harmlessness hypothesis  was shattered by reports this week by reporting on Alex Jones and others who have decided to believe that the murder of 28 school children and staff  at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was a hoax. In a podcast of This American Life,  I learned that these people have conducted sustained harassment of the parents of murdered children, including sharing their addresses and personal information and threatening them with violence.  

I have a hard time conceiving of how anyone could get disconnected enough from reality and human decency to attack people based on their being the parents of murdered children, but I’ll try.  1. Humans have a deep-seated drive to find explanatory patterns, and a deep aversion to uncertainty and disorder. 2. Finding a group of people who share your beliefs is satisfying, for it is our nature to want friends and allies.  3. It is surely satisfying to believe you have grasped an obscure truth that only a few can fathom. 4. You may get into a feedback loop: those who resist your conspiracy theory are part of the conspiracy, and their efforts to unpack your theory are attacks on your group and proof of the theory’s validity.  

At any rate, I’m guessing that’s part of how people get to believing in a flat earth, UFOs, the Illuminati, and any number of other fantasies.  But for most of those, I’d expect there’s some hedging. If it came to actually doing violence, physical or psychological, in support of the theory, many people would say, hmmm, I might be wrong, and that germ of uncertainty would hold them back.  It probably takes a big mouth con artist like Alex Jones or Donald Trump leading the charge to overcome those doubts. That may take the group over the edge.

This is sick and scary stuff, and it shows no signs of going away soon.  But some good news: as reported in the NY Times and Washington Post, some of the targeted parents have sued Jones for defamation.  As flawed and error prone as our system of justice is, it’s good to think it’s still there, and may well shut down this particular madness.

This is one of the things I like about spending time with non-human animals and plants:  at a fundamental level, they’re truthful. This week I started another book about animal feelings and intelligence:  Moma’s Last Hug, by Frans de Waal. De Waal is a psychologist at Emory University, who wrote Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? which is a good overview of recent research that is transforming ideas about the limits of animal intelligence.  His new book contends that the emotional lives of some animals are not so different from ours.  Most dog owners already think this, and it’s interesting that science is catching up.  

At my lesson that afternoon with my piano teacher, Olga Kleiankina, she invited to be an audience of one for her run through of most of the program she’ll be performing next week at the Smithsonian Institution, and after that at the N.C. Museum of Art.  The works were all by living composers, including Ligeti, Salonen, and Crumb. The music was challenging for both the performer and listener, requiring great virtuosity and intense attention.  Lacking the traditional binding agents of tonality, performer and listener had to find other orientation points. I didn’t love everything, but I really liked most of it. As she noted, the music could open things up, and make you listen to other things with new ears.

That evening, I discovered on Spotify a wonderful recording of Mahler’s ninth symphony streaming performed by the Essener Philharmoniker led by Tomas Netopil.  It was an excellent orchestra, and Netopil (Czech, b. 1975) was brilliant. And kudos as well to the gifted recording engineers. I’ve enjoyed this music for decades, but felt like I was hearing it for the first time.  I knew nothing of that orchestra, but checked: Essen is the ninth largest city in Germany. Interesting coincidence!

Our Stuart, some worries, a piano lesson, and a fine young violinist

14 03 08_7551The weather was dicey this week – wet and icy. With rain freezing on the street, I decided it was safer to walk to work than drive. This may have been true, but walking was also dicey – I had some bobbles and barely avoided falling. One day the temperature was 19 when I set out, and the wind blowing in my face was going about 20 mph, like little needles.

Stuart, our basset/beagle, trotted out to greet me at the door each day when I got home. He’s now twelve, and while still, in my opinion, the world’s greatest dog, he’s not as spry as in days gone by. But he remains a warm, sensitive, supportive little soul. He came around for a pet more than usual this week, nuzzling his snout against my leg, as though he sensed I needed a little extra support.
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Which I did. Along with the usual daily stresses and strains, I was dealing with an extra load of physical pain from the ski trip to Colorado. My sunburned lip really hurt, which sounds minor, but actually seemed major – my face felt like a giant stinging throbbing lower lip. My left should was tender and bruised from a crash in the trees. So was my right leg, which had the mother of all bruises – a huge area of purple, brown, and yellow, shading to black. The leg bruise worried me a little, because I couldn’t remember a fall that could have caused it. It just appeared. Then came the lump.

On Wednesday morning in the shower I felt a lump the size of a golf ball in the inside part of my leg behind the knee. I immediately thought of my friend who’d recently survived a deep vein thrombosis – that is, a blood clot in a leg vein, which if untreated could have been fatal. He had a battery of tests and emergency surgery, followed by months of blood thinning medication – all complicated, time-consuming, and unpleasant, but he got through OK. I gave him a call and confirmed that my symptoms sounded similar, and quickly called my GP, only to learn he’d recently closed his practice. His answering machine suggested trying an urgent care facility.

At this point I felt sure I was going to have a very bad day involving multiple imaging tests, surgery, and possibly death. The more I thought about it, the more certain I was that this was the end. I’d miss the spring blossoms and butterflies in Raulston Arboretum, the migrating warblers, the Carolina Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, diving in Dominica, and the new season of Railhawks soccer. I would never taste another one of Sally’s delicious margaritas. Oh woe.

Of course, it turned out to be nothing. An experienced nurse practitioner took a careful look and diagnosed it as either hematoma or lipoma, which would become clearer in a week or two. She was familiar with deep vein thrombosis, which she said would be in a different place on the leg. I felt resurrected! Before me was a good long stretch of the road of life (assuming no freak accidents, major diseases, or other catastrophes).
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I had another piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina on Saturday, and as usual, she was inspiring and challenging. I played a famous Brahms waltz (A flat major), a tender and touching thing which I heard on the radio recently and decided to work up. There are no serious technical challenges; the challenge is to make it musical and fresh. Olga’s approach was to work for different tonal colors for each hand. This takes a combination of extremely close listening and subtle muscle control (not just the hands, but even more the arms and back).

I also played Rachmaninoff’s Elegy, a lyrical and tragic piece which I thought sounded good — until she began to disassemble it. It seems I was playing it too much like Debussy, without enough firmness and depth. She was not persuaded that I really understood the structure of the piece, and encouraged me to practice the broken chords as block chords to get it under better control. The journey continues.
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I’ve been reading Play It Again, by Alan Rusburger, editor of the Guardian newspaper and an enthusiastic amateur pianist. His book is organized around his quest to learn Chopin’s first ballade (g minor) while at the same time publishing the Wikileaks leaks and performing other journalistic feats. It’s touching that he loves the Chopin piece so much, and I can relate, having also spent a good deal of effort working on it some years back. I was struck by the odd combination of musical sophistication with a certain naiveté. It was clear to me from the first few pages that he taking on a piece that was just too far beyond his capabilities, and was likely to spin his wheels for quite a while. But I admired his pluck, and was glad to learn of others like me who with no hope of gain or worldly honor pour a big part of themselves into this music and tradition.

On Sunday afternoon I went to a concert by the young American violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who was accompanied by Matthew Hagle on the piano. The concert included works by Schubert, Prokofiev, and Franck, and a selection of lullabies that Ms. Pine had collected after having a baby. She was an excellent musician, both poised and passionate, with lovely tone and interesting variety of tone. She also seemed like a friendly, down-to-earth person, to judge from her spoken introductions. She plays a famous violin made by Joseph Guarnerius del Gesu in 1742, which Brahms himself singled out for its beauty. For an encore, she played a funny but fiendishly difficult showpiece which I think she said was by Bezzeti. She tossed off with vigor and charm, earning a standing ovation. Kudos also to Mr. Hagle, who was also an excellent musician, and a sensitive collaborator.

My fabulous teachers (fitness, yoga, and music) and seeing Dallas Buyers’ Club

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Our geranium on the balcony is a true survivor! Here we are in mid-December, after several nights sub-freezing nights, and it still looks perky. Sally asked me to take a picture of this marvelous plant, and so I did — several in fact, but these are the best.
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Getting out of a rut and trying new things takes some energy and effort. It also really helps to have a good teacher. As I came into the home stretch of this week, it struck me that I’m fortunate to have found several such teachers, who’ve been helping me with fitness, yoga, and music.

First, there’s Larisa Lotz, who is my regular personal trainer each Thursday at 5:30 a.m. at Studio Revolution. I always look forward to it, because there’s an element of play and fun, but I also always find I’m barely able to make it through. This is not by accident, of course. Larisa has got my number, and knows about where my limits and weak points are. And she works on those weak points – which get stronger.

This week, as usual, she had some new activities and combinations. For core work, I had a side plank with the top leg pulling in and kicking out to the side, and a TRX suspended push up from the ground followed by drawing the legs in. She had me throwing a soft heavy medicine ball as high as possible, to work on “explosive energy,” which she said was a gap in most people’s fitness regimen.

We did some agility drills with quick stepping in various patterns through a rope ladder. We also did some sandbag work, including a fast intense series with dead lifts, cleans, squats, presses, and rows. And several other things. I took home several ideas for new things to work on.

On Friday morning I got to O2 Fitness at 5:35, and did some of Larisa’s hip and leg exercises and some more traditional upper body work – chin ups, dips, push ups, rows, and presses. Then I took my weekly RPM spinning class with Christy. This class involves dance club music of the throbbing, driving sort, which is not my favorite music, but it makes the hard biking in place in a dark room relatively fun. Our class on Friday involved more sprints than usual. I kept an eye on my heart rate monitor so as not to redline for too long. I topped out at 162 – high, but with all that effort, I was surprised it wasn’t a little higher.
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Later that day, at lunchtime, I shot over to Massage Wallah for some therepeutic massage work with Emily Alexander. My neck and shoulders were in need of special attention, so that’s what she worked on. This was my second session with Emily, and it was fairly intense, but good. Emily is not overly chatty, which I appreciate – it’s good to concentrate on the sensation. But I asked her about her story, and learned that she, like me, went to high school at the N.C. School of the Arts, and went on to film school at NYU and movie and TV work in Hollywood. We compared notes on digital cameras. My neck was much better afterwards, and I thought my shoulder was improved.

On Saturday morning I went to Yvonne Cropp‘s Juicy Flow yoga class at Blue Lotus. This is an hour-and-a-half class that combines traditional vinyasa work with kriya practice, which as presented by Yvonne involves three minute or so segments set to dance music with rhythmic movements working different muscle groups. It definitely gets the heart going. I ordinarily can figure out the exercise, but there is one I can’t: rolling backward, then forward and standing up without using the hands. Most of my fellow yogis were doing it, so it’s definitely possible. Another challenge for the future.

It was rainy on Saturday afternoon, which was good weather for a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina. I played Debussy’s second Arabesque and the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. As usual, Olga made me aware of some new dimensions of sound. We spent a long time working on the silences around the staccato notes in the Debussy. Along with a number of such tiny details, we worked on rhythm in connection with the larger structures.

For the Bach, she pointed out that one could never mistake Bach for Mozart, because Bach made much more use of interior parts of the measure for beginning and ending phrases – sort of like syncopation. She showed me how certain accents and timing tricks would bring the piece to life. Of course, knowing about it is one thing, and doing is another. It will take practice.

That evening Sally and I went out to Cary for dinner and a movie. When we go to the Regal at Crossroads, we like to eat at Tom Yum Thai, where the food is delicious and the service warm and friendly. They will take you at your word if you require things very spicy, and for me medium spicy is about right.

During dinner we talked about Dasani, the eleven-year-old homeless girl featured in a series of five articles in the Times this week. She’s a plucky, smart, athletic kid who faces very long odds at the bottom of the economic food chain. We got to know her large family, her teachers, and her homeless shelter in Brooklyn, where the conditions were dire. The series, by Andrea Elliott, is an extraordinary window into the world of poverty – well worth reading.

We saw Dallas Buyers Club, which concerns a macho Texas rodeo-type guy who gets AIDs in the 1980s and starts a business supplying unapproved AIDs drugs to the gay etc. demimonde. There are some colorful and funny characters, and a tour de force performance by Matthew McConaughey. He is almost unrecognizable, very gaunt, with a ton of grit and attitude. Of course, the subject is tragic. It reminded me of the first wave of the AIDs epidemic, and some of my own precious friends hid in death’s dateless night.

Piano lesson

One door closes, and another one opens. My piano teacher for the last four years, Randy Love, left for a sabbatical in China last month. Our piano lessons, at intervals of once a month or so, have taken me a long way along the path of the great western piano music tradition. The tradition is based on written texts, but much of it is unwritten, transmitted from teacher to student. Randy has transmitted much, and been an excellent master and a good friend.

During that time, I’ve enjoyed gaining fluency at the keyboard, but I don’t view increased technical mastery as the most valuable accomplishment. Much more important, and also much harder to express, is a change in the experience of the music. “Music is feeling, not sound,” according to Wallace Stevens (in Peter Quince at the Clavier). Stevens was on to something, although music is, obviously, sound. There’s a type of emotional energy stored in written musical texts and released and renewed with each performance. And there are many levels to that emotional experience.

So I went in search of a new master, and found myself yesterday at the music building at N.C. State in the studio of Olga Kleiankina. She’s a Russian with degrees from schools in Moldova and Romania, a masters from Bowling Green and a doctorate from University of Michigan, and joined the NCSU faculty last years as head of the piano program. She’s got an impressive amount of performance experience, and is an active concert artist. She was friendly but focussed. Straight away, she invited me to try out her two pianos, and after playing a bit of Chopin on each, I settled on the Mason and Hamlin over the Yamaha. Then she asked me what I’d brought to play for her. I played the first half of Chopin’s nocturne in D flat, Op. 27, No. 2, one of Chopin’s most beautiful, lyrical pieces, very like an operatic aria, with a broad emotional range. I played it rather well, with real feeling, I thought.

Olga was polite, but wasted no time with compliments. She said she could help me with my technique, and plunged in. It was quite bracing. We worked hard on weight transfer, activating the back and arm and relaxing the wrist. She showed me different ways of positioning the fingers on the keys for different sounds. She also talked about the shape of the gestures of the hand as it related to the flow of the music. She demonstrated this in various ways, including taking my hand and guiding it. I’ve usually thought of the physical aspect of piano playing as supporting but separate from the musical part, but Olga seemed to view the two as unified. Beautiful movements make beautiful sounds. She also demonstrated a level of attention to detail that was inspiring, and daunting.

At the end of the lesson, I felt like I could be at the foot of a new mountain. There’s a long way to go to reconfigure my playing along the dimension Olga pointed to. It will be challenging, and maybe transformative.