The Casual Blog

Tag: Outer Banks

My new Trailhawk, sandcrabs, sunflowers, and busing

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My new slightly used ride down the hill from the sunflowers at Dorothea Dix park

When I was in Maine at the and of June, I had a rental car I really liked:  a 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. It was about the same size as my Mazda CX-5, and drove similarly on the highway.  But there were things I liked more about the Trailhawk: its seats, which fit me well, and its instrumentation, including a big touchscreen.  I liked its off-road capabilities, including a locking rear differential and towhooks to get pulled out of the mud. Also, I really liked the color:  velvet red pearlcoat. 

So I read some reviews and did some market research, and the day after I got home I traded in my Mazda for a red Trailhawk.  Later that week we took it to the Outer Banks to visit sister Jane and her family. We watched the 4th of July fireworks at the Currituck lighthouse from their deck, and shot off a few Roman candles.  I got up before sunrise with a plan to take pictures of sanderlings and other shorebirds at first light, but didn’t find the necessary birds.  

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Sandcrabs at Corolla, NC

I did, however, see a lot of sandcrabs.  They’re small and well camouflaged, and they can skitter quickly.  In places where I glimpsed a couple, I got down on my belly with my large zoom, and waited for them to get comfortable with me.   

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I’m sure the families walking by  on the beach thought I was a strange bird as I lay there.  But it was worth it. Eventually the tiny crabs came out of their holes, and I saw them working on different projects, like finding food and scaring off their enemies.  Though I wouldn’t call them beautiful, they are fascinatingly complex.  

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I was reminded of a sweet essay in the Times a few weeks ago my Margaret Renki titled Praise Song for the Unloved Animals.  Renki writes of the hard work by some of nature’s relatively unphotogenic pest controllers and garbagemen, like opossums, vultures, bats, and field mice.  She even finds a kind word for mosquitoes who are food for chimney swifts and tree swallows. She appreciates the complex interconnectedness of life. I’m sure she’d be happy to add sandcrabs into her list.  Yates-3812.jpg

We took the Trailhawk up to the beach area where cars are permitted, and verified that it will go on the sand without getting stuck.  We hunted for the wild horses that live there, and managed to spot eight of them.  

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Back in Raleigh, I got up early three mornings this week to check on the sunflowers at Dorothea Dix park.  There were many of them! I tried to look at them in different ways. These pictures were my favorites.   I also got a shot of a little fawn on the edge of the sunflower field.  It was bleating loudly for its mommy.   It watched me for a long moment, then started to run towards me, perhaps thinking I could help find her.  I waved my arms and told it I didn’t know where mommy was, and the fawn turned and ran into the woods.  

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I never particularly thought of myself as a sunflower person.  And definitely never thought of myself as a Jeep person, or a person who liked red cars.  But if we’re attentive, we sometimes discover things about ourselves we didn’t know, and get past our prejudices.  

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Speaking of prejudices, there was a very fine essay in the Times yesterday  by Nikole Hannah-Jones about school busing.   Hannah-Jones has a great short summary of US system of separating black kids from white ones in our schools, which we still haven’t fixed.  She also decodes the political language. Back in the sixties, and now, Instead of saying, we don’t want our white kids going to school with black ones, we said, we don’t like school busing.  Using the language of “busing” allowed us to conceal from ourselves our racial prejudice, of which we are — and should be — ashamed.

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Hannah-Jones points up that busing was pretty effective in places and at times in undoing some of our legacy of segregation.  I think schools are only one part of repairing the damage of that system. Facing up to extreme inequality in income, jobs, housing, and health care are still on the to-do list.  But desegregating our schools is important, and doable. It is likely to involve buses.   

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Our Outer Banks holiday, with sanderlings

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Last week my well-grown kids, Gabe and Jocelyn, came in from Colorado and New York, and we all headed to the Outer Banks for the long holiday weekend. My sister and her family put us up at their gracious place in Corolla, and made sure we ate and drank well.
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The beach at Corolla was wide, clean, and not at all crowded. The days were sunny and breezy. The water was cool at first. We tried out a surfboard, but had better success catching waves with boogie boards. I had one excellent ride of perhaps a hundred yards. On Sunday we went out about 3:30 in the afternoon, and I wrongly figured that sunblock would not be needed. Got a bit pink.

Each morning I got up around sunrise and took a long watch on the beach with my camera. I saw mostly sanderlings, hardworking little shorebirds that move with comical quickness. I took hundreds of pictures of them. Here are a few that I especially liked.
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Home alone with the animals and our new doggy portrait

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Sally went to Ashville with her tennis team to compete in the state finals this week. They’ve had success this year competing at the 4.0 senior level, and Sally’s feeling good about her game. I was happy for her, but a little melancholy to be home alone. I missed her.

So did the animals. The first day they spent time sitting by the front door waiting for her. The cats showered me with affection that they would normally give to her, and Stuart was much more excited than usual when I came home from work. Our routine called for a pee walk outside and dinner, which are certainly high points of any dog’s day, but even after dinner he wanted extra petting.
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Stuart was immortalized recently in a drawing by Sally’s cousin, Alison (Muffy) Brush. Muffy turned out to be really talented, and we were very pleased with the work. It’s based on some of my photographs, but captures his essence much better than the photos did. As our dance friends will note, he has beautiful turnout. I think Sally’s frame selection really works.

Stuart is 10 now, and showing his age. He’s a basset-beagle mix – a bagle, or perhaps a beset. He still likes people and being petted – he’s met many people during elevator rides and is quite popular in the building – but unlike in his younger days, he’s wary of other dogs. Anyhow, as we often say, he’s a good dog. Handsome, too, I think.

I was somewhat the worse for wear from our trip to the Outer Banks last weekend. For the first time in many moons, I went for a substantial run – four miles – on Sunday. It was a lovely day, sunny and mild, and I felt fine, even when I got my heart rate up to the low 160s. Only hours later did I begin to feel pain in my knee, and more and more soreness in my quadriceps. The next day I was so sore I could barely walk.

Also, according to my usual pre-morning-shower weigh-ins, I somehow gained 6.8 pounds between Friday and Tuesday. This was a shock! Did I really eat that much? I enjoyed Keith’s food, but I consciously kept from stuffing myself – no second helpings, for example. I snacked on pistachios, which were kept in a bowl that somehow never emptied out, and that may have had something to do with it.

Anyhow, I was gimpy and heavy, but things improved over the course of the week. On Friday, I got to the gym when it opened at 5:30 a.m. and got in a mega-workout: 30 minutes of lunges, squats, step-ups etc. a 50-minute spin class (a major aerobic accomplishment), 25 minutes of upper body work, 10 minutes of core exercises, and 10 minutes of stretching. By the time of my morning weigh-in, I had lost 3 pounds from the previous day, and six for the week.

On the drive back from Corolla, Sally and I talked about possibilities for our next adventure. We try to do something fun outside the usual routine every month or so, and the next four week interval brings us almost to the July 4 week. The Fourth is on Thursday, so if I can get off that Friday, presto, we’ve got a four-day weekend. We’ve been wanting to visit Gabe in Colorado, and also wanting for a long time to visit some of the beautiful country in southern Utah, which is within driving distance of Telluride. I took on the job of researching the possibilities of fitting this into a July 4 trip.

Saturday morning I decided to skip yoga and go on a little photo safari to see what was blooming at Raulston Arboretum. There were some beautiful flowers, and it was quiet and calm. I made a few images I liked. 13 05 31_1883
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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Our Outer Banks weekend

For Memorial Day weekend we drove to the Outer Banks to visit my sister Jane and her family. Their beach house in Corolla was comfortable and relaxing, with lots of seashells and board games. There were family dramas to discuss, as well as books to read, food to eat, and wild horses, shore birds, and other beach creatures to see. I also had a few new thoughts on economics and employment, as noted below.

My brother Paul and his wife Jackie came out from Virginia Beach on Saturday afternoon. Paul, in training for a marathon, ran the last seven miles, and arrived looking thinner than he has for at least a decade. The next morning I did my first outside run in a long time, a three-mile run along US 12. After persistent knee problems a few years back, I finally quit running and switched to low-impact activities like elliptical machines and stationary bikes. But I’ve recently seen running is good for bone density, and so have begun running a bit on the treadmill. The run along US 12 went well for a half hour, until I got a cramp in my calf.

I took a break from practicing the piano, but enjoyed the musical activities of the rest of the family. Kylie is making good progress on the violin, as is David on the cello, and Jane has just started teaching herself piano. Paul is quite accomplished on the banjo, and played his version of the Star Spangled Banner in honor of memorial day.

Keith cooked non-stop all weekend. On Saturday morning, he cooked gluten-free waffles with blueberries and strawberries, which were marvelously light. Soon after we cleaned up, he started to work on lunch, wonderful grilled vegetable sandwiches, and soon after that, he got to work on a vegetarian Mexican dinner, which was a complete success. The man loves to cook, and he’s really creative. We were all grateful.

In the Sunday Times, there was an op ed piece by Tim Jackson about how the drive for ever-increasing productivity was resulting in increased unemployment. This was a different lens on a problem I’ve pondered before — what should humans do when computer brains and robots render them redundant? Jackson proposes that the answer is to forget about increasing productivity and embrace lessening productivity.

Jackson broached a critical problem. As I’ve noted before, although we’ve hardly noticed it, robots and artificial intelligence are transforming the human world in fundamental ways. More and more of the manufacturing work that people used to do is now done by robots, and AI is starting to impinge on areas that we used to think of as forever and irreducibly human, such as medicine, law, and education. This is big. As far out in the future as we can see, we will need fewer and fewer people to make our products and perform our services.

We once thought of this as utopia: a world of plenty which required less and less labor to produce goods and services. We assumed it would result in more and more pleasant leisure. But this vision failed to take into account that we aren’t comfortable paying wages to people who aren’t working in a way that contributes meaningfully, and those without work do not feel at leisure.

Jackson suggests reorienting away from simple increases in productivity and towards activities involving caring, craft, and cultural activities, like art. This sounds promising. These are activities that humans have done as long as the species has existed. Once our ancestors had taken care of food, clothing, and shelter, they made jewelry, painted on cave walls, beat on drums, played lacrosse, or otherwise entertained each other. Caring for each other, making things, and making art are things we like to do. But we need to figure out how to associate these activities with fair wages.

On Sunday afternoon we went four-wheeling northward to look for wild horses. Driving on the beach is fun, though I feel a bit guilty at what people like us do to the beach and its creatures. We saw lots of sanderlings and grackles in the shallows, and flying pelicans, gulls, terns, and one snowy egret. We drove through the narrow sandy pathways that wind through the marine forest, working our way around occasional pools of standing water. We finally found three groups of horses, and got close views of two of them.

We sat on the porch for a while and read and talked. Over the weekend, I dipped into the following books: I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter, This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin, The Short Game Bible, by Dave Pelz (golf), Indignation, by Philip Roth, Winner Take All Politics, by Jacob Hacker, and The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edwin O. Wilson.

Sunday evening Sally mixed cocktails for the adults using cucumber vodka, ginger infused simple syrup, lime juice, and elderberry liquor. Keith made gluten-free vegetarian lasagna, which he had to complete with penne pasta because there were no lasagna noodles, but which turned out great. He’d also made vanilla ice cream and peach-and-blueberry cobbler. We played a game called “left right center” which involved rolling dice and losing or acquiring chips. It was a game requiring no skill, but gave the enjoyment of possible good fortune without exacting much pain for bad fortune. There was merriment. After dinner, we lit sparklers and set off some fireworks rockets.


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.