The Casual Blog

Tag: Raleigh

Connections, construction, climate change denialism, and the insect apocalypse

The new Publix, looking toward downtown Raleigh

We had a nice Thanksgiving weekend, with family visiting and catching us up. Jocelyn and Kyle, down from New York, had sworn off Alexa, and had interesting things to say about privacy and social media.  Among many other things, we talked about the epidemic of loneliness. Even with overwhelming digital connectedness, meaningful connections aren’t getting any easier.  Love takes some work.

The big construction projects in our neighborhood in downtown Raleigh are coming right along.  I took the Tiller drone up on Saturday morning and flew around the work site of our forthcoming Publix and the almost-complete Metro apartments for some fun and pictures.  It’s going to be so good to have a grocery store just down the street. I had a scare when my aircraft and I lost radio contact, but after I did a short walk to get out from behind a building we got back together.  

Sally and I went over to Durham that evening for some food and chamber music.  We ate at Viceroy, which features good British-style Indian food, which we finally figured out we like best on the milder side of spicy.  Then we heard the Calidore String Quartet play at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium. They’re a relatively young group that’s won a lost of prizes, and we thought they were excellent.  They played with passionate musicality and rare freedom. Their program was also inspired: Sergey Prokofiev, Caroline Shaw (an N.C. native born in 1982), and the brilliant Robert Schumann.  

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the Boylan Heights Art Walk.  Residents had lent their porches and front yards for the day to many artists and craftspeople, including potters, jewelers, wood workers, metal workers, weavers, glass blowers, printmakers, painters, and others.  The weather was mild.  We enjoyed looking over the work, and chatting with friends.

There’s been a lot of good journalism this week about climate change, including some addressing the puzzle of why climate change denialism persists.  Possible answers, as Paul Krugman recently noted,include ignorance, party tribalism, and corporate greed (similar to the cigarette industries’ disgraceful denial that their product caused cancer). Anyhow, there’s some good news with the bad: as we experience more and more catastrophic weather, like droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes, more people are recognizing that there’s a planetary emergency.

But most of the discussion is still about the disastrous effects of global warming on humans — their cities, housing, transportation networks, food supplies, and so forth.  I keep looking for more discussion of what is happening to the non-human natural world. These last few years as I’ve spent more time hiking in the woods, it’s seemed like fewer birds are singing.  Given my small sample size, I haven’t drawn any firm conclusions from my data, but I’ve been worried.

The almost complete Metro, restored after the big fire of last year

This week the NY Times published a strong piece by Brooke Jarvis titled The Insect Apocalypse Is Here:  What Will the Decline of Bugs Mean for the Rest of Life on Earth?  Jarvis summarizes a lot of data, and makes a convincing case that in recent decades insect life has collapsed on a massive scale.  Populations of monarch butterflies are down 90 percent, and other studies show reductions in flying insects of 75 percent and more.    

We hardly noticed, and we still don’t fully understand the causes.  Along with global warming, there have been pesticides and loss of habitat.  Monarchs aside, most insects aren’t particularly glamorous, and we seldom think about their role in the ecosystem.  But without enough insects, a lot of birds and other animals starve. In addition to their vital niche in the food chain, insects pollinate many plants and turn dead things and waste into soil.  

As alarming as the insect decline is, Jarvis’s article shows that there are people who care.  There’s a short profile of a group of passionate entomologists in Krefeld, Germany, who have kept detailed records of their bug watching since 1905.  Their main motivation seems to have been simple love of nature.

Construction continues, an early voting tip, and election butterflies

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Here are some pictures from the last few days of construction at the old Greyhound bus station site, as viewed from our balcony. After several weeks of grading at the site, things are moving along quickly. These were all taken at sunrise. Every sunrise was a little different.

I did early voting on Monday, when there was no line at all. I liked the convenience, but worried a little that there weren’t more people (i.e. Democrats) queued up. It’s looking now like this is going to be a close finish, and I’ve got some butterflies.
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The ballots in North Carolina are like bubble tests, and the instructions warn you to fill in each bubble completely. I very much wanted to do an adequate job, since I wanted that vote to count. It’s not that easy! After experimenting on the first few, I found that the best technique is to start in the middle with a doodle and work out toward the edges of the bubble.

When in doubt and it’s at all possible, I try to look on the bright side of things, as I’ve done in this election season. The Republican candidate has definitely raised the profile of some problematic issues, like racial discrimination, religious discrimination, and abuse of women. True, he seems to be in favor of all those, but his radical ideas, like banning Muslims, illuminate a part of the national id. And boy, did he ever get us talking!
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Still, it boggles my mind that a significant number of well-educated, mentally stable, and otherwise decent people are voting for the Orange One. At this late date, it does not seem possible that any person otherwise equipped to fill out a ballot could not have heard about his lifelong record of dishonesty, deceit, and moral turpitude, not to mention his fathomless ignorance.

It’s unsettled some of my assumptions about how people think. That is, I’ve understood that we are not completely rational creatures, and that we’re governed in large part by emotions. But I had not processed that there are no apparent limits on the human ability to withstand reason and evidence. So the Orange One has at least taught us something. That could help explain other hard-to-understand things, like anti-science crusaders and conspiracy theorists.
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Raleigh’s newest crane, Big Food, and getting ready for Utah

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Last Saturday afternoon, I got to watch the new construction crane go up at the old Greyhound bus station site, just southeast of us. Construction sites are fun to watch! And there’ve been a lot of them in Raleigh lately. We’re still growing.
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On Sunday I visited Raulston Arboretum, where there were fall blossoms and lots of butterflies. I got some shots I liked of an American Lady, of which these were my favorites.
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I recommend reading a new piece by Michael Pollan in the NY Times magazine about our food system and our political system. Pollan has written before about the power and nefarious influence of Big Food. Here’s his quick description:

A food system organized around subsidized monocultures of corn and soy . . . guzzled tremendous amounts of fossil fuel (for everything from the chemical fertilizer and pesticide those fields depended on to the fuel needed to ship food around the world) and in the process emitted tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas — as much as a third of all emissions, by some estimates. At the same time, the types of food that can be made from all that subsidized corn and soy — feedlot meat and processed foods of all kinds — bear a large measure of responsibility for the steep rise in health care costs: A substantial portion of what we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases linked to diet.

His new piece is about how Big Food lobbied hard to stop every reform proposed by the Obama administration, and was generally successful. But he concludes on a somewhat hopeful note.

[B]ehind the industry’s wall of political power, there indeed lurks a vulnerability. That vulnerability is the conscience of the American eater, who in the past decade or so has taken a keen interest in the question of where our food comes from, how it is produced and the impact of our everyday food choices on the land, on the hands that feed us, on the animals we eat and, increasingly, on the climate. Though still a minority, the eaters who care about these questions have come to distrust Big Food and reject what it is selling. Looking for options better aligned with their values, they have created, purchase by purchase, a $50 billion alternative food economy, comprising organic food, local food and artisanal food. Call it Little Food. And while it is still tiny in comparison with Big Food, it is nevertheless the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

Some large food companies are voluntarily changing their practices in response to the concerns of these consumers, whether about antibiotics, animal welfare or the welfare of farmworkers. One future of food politics may lie in grass-roots campaigns targeted not at politicians in Washington but directly at Big Food and its consumers, taking aim at its Achilles’ heel: those precious brands.

Maybe so. Anyhow, kudos to Pollan for speaking truth to power, and educating the rest of us.

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading to southern Utah and Arizona to see some of the most amazing rocks on the planet: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon, all of which I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I’ll be traveling with a small group of photographers, and taking lots of pictures. I’ve been to REI and Outdoor Provisions to get insulating layers for those cold mornings, and have made up my mind what lenses not to lug. I’m ready!
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Picturing light snow, and thinking about privacy and our digital selves

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It snowed in Raleigh this week, which was kind of exciting and kind of annoying. I love the transformative quality of snow – all that clean white soft quietness. But moving about in a normal human way becomes difficult. When I tried to drive rear-wheel-drive Clara to work, we got stuck as soon as I cleared the door of the apartment building garage. Unable to get up the modest slope, we managed to back down to a lucky parking space, and I walked the mile or so into work – in 18 degree cold. Burrr!
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On the way, I used my new camera, a Nikon D7100 with a Nikkor 10-24mm lens, to get a few images of my snowy neighborhood. I forgot to adjust the ISO, which I’d previously set at 800, but it didn’t seem to cause noise problems. I’ve been reading a book titled Mastering the Nikon D7100, which sounds very boring, but doesn’t seem so at all – which suggests I’m becoming a photo nerd. Oh well. There really is a lot to learn about this camera, but it can do so much! It sounds a little weird, but I’m feeling warmly towards it – almost like a new friend.
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Speaking of digital devices and friends, there was a lively essay by Colin Koopman in the NY Times this week about why we’re struggling so to grasp the nature of the problem with the NSA’s increasing intrusiveness into our lives. Koopman proposes that we should start viewing ourselves more as data (“info persons”). It is, after all, the way we’re viewed by our internet service providers (Google, Bing, Facebook,LinkedIn, Twitter, Amazon, eBay, Opentable, Angry Birds, etc. etc.).

Koopman proposes a simple thought experiment: imagine what would happen if all our digital data, from social security numbers to credit card accounts, medical records, school records, bank records, insurance records, search queries, book preferences, food preferences, porn preferences, avatars, Instagrams, Tweats, and posts – suddenly disappeared. Try it.

When I did, my stomach did a quick shimmy and I felt a bit of vertigo.

His point, I think, is that we have trouble grasping the privacy issue posed by mass electronic surveillance, because we have trouble grasping how our digital technology has transformed us, changed what a human being is. Our digital selves are an increasingly integral part of the human fabric. Because we still don’t quite get how they relate to the pre-digital revolution part of our lives, we tend to not notice them or downplay their significance.

But advertisers and spys have realized that, from another point of view, the digital self is a high value target, enabling the intruder to predict with a high degree of accuracy what we will buy on Amazon and view of Netflix tonight and do with ourselves tomorrow. The new Age of Information is transforming commerce and law enforcement, but it we haven’t evolved political or legal tools to address it.

Our privacy is closely related to our dignity, and to community. We all have imperfections or oddities that we prefer to keep concealed. They may be physical flaws, financial limitations, unusual appetites, or unpopular ideas. Our ability to maintain self-respect and to live in cooperative groups depends on a tacit mutual agreement to respect boundaries for these differences, and to not insist that they be exposed.

We didn’t realize until recently that just by using the new normal tools of communication and commerce, we had opened the door on our private selves. Once we know that our health problems, financial problems, sexual proclivities, and other traits are within view of strangers, we feel diminished and alienated. This is why, even leaving aside the risk of tyranny, data privacy matters.

Speaking of technology and transformation, on Friday we had a nice dinner at Capital Club 16 (an eclectic and vegetarian-friendly place) and went over to Mission Valley to see Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix, the voice of Scarlett Johansson, and the wonderful Amy Adams. It’s about a new sort of digital assistant app that is so human that humans fall in love with it – and it with them.

The premise didn’t seem farfetched to me. I thought it was touching and unsettling, though kind of slow toward the end. The next day I was still thinking about the themes: how prone to loneliness we are, how desperate to connect, how ecstatic in love, how despondent in loss, how changeable, and also how resilient.
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Find out your fitness age

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Jocelyn came home for a visit on Thursday, and she was glowing. After six months in New York, she’d (1) learned her way around, (2) found good friends, and (3) got a job she really liked. Also, she’d joined a gym and started working out regularly, and gotten focussed on nourishing herself in a healthy way.

This was music to my ears! My messaging on healthy habits, which I realize can be annoying, has not been all in vain. I’m delighted that my beloved offspring (including also Gabe) are taking good care of themselves.

That same day I came across an article in the online NY Times about assessing your “fitness age,” defined with reference to peak oxygen intake, which apparently is a strong predictor of future health. A large-scale Norwegian study examined oxygen intake levels at ages between 20 and 90, and also developed a tool using indicators including resting heart rate, waist size, and activity levels to determine fitness age.

The article had a link to the fitness age calculator. Needless to say, I gave it a shot. My fitness age? 28! Not bad for a guy born in 1955, right? But I soon began considering how I might get it down to 27.
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In our neighborhood, Glenwood South, there’s been a fair bit of construction, and also some destruction. Sally told me that an unattractive building on Glenwood across from the Creamery and catty-corner to the Armadillo Grill that had just been demolished, and I went over to inspect the site on Saturday morning. They’d walled off the site, but I got a good view from the adjacent parking deck. Sure enough, all that was left was rubble. It was overcast, but there was still a nice quality to the light, and I took some other pictures of the neighborhood on my walk over to the gym.

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Eye surgery, yet again, and some bluegrass and big cats

Looking southeast at dawn, September 29, 2013

Looking southeast at dawn, September 28, 2013

On Monday at 5:15 a.m. Sally took me over to Duke Eye Center in Durham. It was my third eye operation in the past 10 months, and the routine was familiar. Again the hospital gown didn’t quit fit, and again they checked the various systems (temperature, blood pressure, reflexes, etc.). There were several checks to make sure they were working on the right eye – that is, the left – and checks to make sure I had no allergies or other ailments. As my preop nurse observed, I was a very healthy man, except for the eye.

The operating room was cold. I asked my nurse anesthetist if this was purely for hygiene, and she said it was also good for the surgeons not to get too hot. That sounded reasonable – I wouldn’t want them dripping sweat. As they got me situated and draped my face, I asked if they were planning to listen to music (which they did last time), and someone asked if I cared to hear anything in particular. I said that some Brahms would be good. There was no reaction, which I think meant this was not a choice they expected. Anyhow, there was no Brahms, or anything else. This was mildly disappointing, but at least they didn’t put on anything awful.

It is odd to be conscious when there’s work going on inside your eye. I could hear everything, and feel movement, but it was not painful. From time to time they asked how I was doing, and I gamely said, good, good. The surgeons’ comments mostly related to the job at hand, and there were no indications of unusual difficulties. The surgery took almost two hours. The nurse anesthetist held my hand, which I appreciated.

Dr. M and me

Dr. M and me

At my check up the next morning, Dr. Mruthyunjaya said that things had gone well both for the retina repair work and the cataract removal and lens replacement by Dr. Vann. My performance on the eye chart was not good (couldn’t see any letters), but I could distinguish one finger from two at three feet. It will be some weeks before healing is complete and it’s clear how much vision I’ll have in the left eye. I’ve gradually come to terms with the likelihood that it won’t ever be the same. There’s an irregularity in my macula that’s here to stay. I’ll cope.

Dr. M also enjoined me from vigorous exercise for two weeks. I tried bargaining about this (how about just the elliptical?) but he held firm. And so I missed yoga on Tuesday, my regular gym workout on Wednesday, my personal training with Larissa on Thursday, and my spinning class on Friday. I missed the movement, the stress, the relaxation, and the pleasant endorphin effects afterwards. And I missed my teachers, classmates, and adjacent strangers. The activity and the people are a part of me, and I look forward to getting them back.
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On Saturday I drove out to Cary and took some pictures of ducks at Bond park, then came back to Raleigh for a walk through the IBMA festival, which we’re told is the biggest bluegrass conclave on the planet. We’re on a run in Raleigh with street fairs – in previous weeks we’ve had motorcyclists, SparkCon, and the Hopscotch music festival – and its great to see all the activity. For me, a little bluegrass goes a long way, but it was nice to hear a little, and do a bit of people watching.
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On Sunday, we drove out to Chatham County to Carolina Tiger Rescue, where we saw tigers, lions, cougars, servals, and caracals, as well as an ocelots, a bobcat, a binturong, and kinkajou. It was worth the trip. They were beautiful animals.
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My walk to work, seeing Before Midnight, and eating at Dos Taquitos

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Now that we’ve moved our offices into Red Hat Tower, I’m within walking distance of work. How sweet it is! Last week I went carless three times. If I focus on moving along, I can make it in seventeen minutes. On a warm, humid day, that leaves me in a bit of a lather. On Thursday, I went a little slower, and took some pictures with my trusty Canon point-and-shoot, which are above and below in the order they were taken.
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On Saturday we went to the Rialto to see Before Midnight. I loved the two predecessor pictures, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, both of which were romantic but also smart. Along with My Dinner with Andre, these movies prove that great conversations can be art. In both earlier movies, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were astonishing in their seeming naturalness, and with great chemistry.

In the new movie, they return as the same characters, but middle-aged, and firmly a couple, with children of their own. Instead of gauzy romantic possibilities, they have frustrations and disappointments with life and each other, and anger. But they’re still talking. Boy can they talk! I really liked the movie.
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There’s a little conversational strand early in the film about the nature of the self that could have been inspired by The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood, which I’ve been re-reading. Hood works hard to deconstruct the conventional view of an unchanging self with conscious thought at the center. The characters briefly take notice of the force of this argument, but then do what we all usually do, which is plunge into a narrative.
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After the movie, we had dinner at Dos Taquitos on Glenwood. We’d tried to get in twice before, but both times the place was packed and the waits were long. The third time was a charm, although even at 9:00 we still had to wait half an hour. It was lively, with busy, colorful decor and lots of noise, and the food was just fine. I think the secret of their popularity is: it’s relatively inexpensive. And their margaritas have some kick.
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Make way for Segways, Scouting intolerance, and speaking of ear protection


This week a group of us took an hour-long tour of downtown Raleigh on Segways, those self-balancing two-wheeled scooters. I learned that several Raleigh street names were the names of councilmen who approved the purchase of farmland for the city in 1792, and other similar facts. But more important, I learned how to move forward, backward, and turn. It takes approximately 5 minutes to learn, and 5 more to feel reasonably confident. A few minutes later at the old Capitol I was wondering how fast the thing would go, and the guide was begging me to slow down. I felt like one of the Jetsons.

When I think of fun adventures, I still think of my early years with the Boy Scouts. Even at the time, I thought the uniforms were a bit goofy, but I valued the friends I made and our close encounters with the natural world while camping, hiking, and canoeing. With this happy history, it pains me that the Scouts decided last week to reaffirm their ban on gay members. The Scouts instilled in me a highly serviceable code of conduct: a scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”

But there’s at least one cardinal virtue missing from the list: tolerance. Willingness to tolerate and accept differences is vital for individual and collective happiness. It doesn’t come easily or naturally, and it needs continual tending and encouragement. The Scouts should be promoting it without exception. As much as I was a committed Scout, as long as they have a policy of intolerance of gays and non-believers, I cannot support them.

At times it’s unclear whether unhealthy behavior is the result of ignorance or wilfulness. I’ve generally assumed that exposure to dangerous noise levels was an issue of ignorance. But a story in the NY Times last week suggested that some noise polluters had something close to a criminal mindset. Certain retailers, restaurants, and clubs have raised noise levels to the point where hearing loss is almost inevitable, and have done so with a view to attracting youthful customers to buy and drink more, and to repelling oldsters. If this is done knowingly, it’s despicable!

Young people, and indeed most people, assume that businesses and governments wouldn’t knowingly expose them to serious harm. It reminds me of marketing that used to hook kids on cigarettes, and still hooks them on sugary cereals and fatty fast food. According to the Times story, employees of noisy businesses have hearing and other problems, but regulations are almost never enforced, and few people complain. Here’s a thought — let’s start complaining.

Stuart, who had his tenth birthday this week, says, “Protect your precious ears!”

So long, Krispy Kreme, and hello health

It was bittersweet to learn last week that the Krispy Kreme store in downtown Raleigh was closing due to lack of business. When a business fails, individuals suffer hardships. As a downtown Raleigh resident, I’m particularly eager to see businesses here succeed.

And Krispy Kreme and I go way back. As a boy I was a patron of the first Krispy Kreme store, in Winston-Salem. There you could sit at the counter and eat hot glazed doughnuts while watching more fresh ones coming off the conveyer belt. It was one of the few places in town open 24 hours. After finishing my paper route at 5:30 a.m., I’d sometimes stop in there for a delicious sugary treat. It was also a favorite late night spot for teenage munchie runs. Good times.

But in recent years I’ve come to associate Krispy Kreme doughnuts and similar sweet products with less cheerful things, like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and death. The products are more like cigarettes than food. The nutritional content is minimal, and the high sugar and fat content are unhealthy. This is not exactly big news. In a sense, everyone knows that too much fat and sugar are bad for you. But it continues to be a difficult fact for people to face and do something about. That much is obvious from our obesity epidemic.

We’ve made slow but meaningful progress in the last 50 years addressing the deadly public health effects of smoking. We’ve substantially reduced smoking rates, and therefore smoking deaths. The basic facts about smoking and cancer are now common knowledge, as a result of government requirements for warnings on cigarette labeling and restrictions on cigarette advertising. We have not done anything like this with risky sweet food products that kill people.

If anything, we’ve headed in the opposite direction. Information about nutrition is obscured by industry and federal agencies. Our government transfers our tax dollars to agribusinesses as large subsidies for production of excess corn, which is processed into high fructose corn syrup and added to many common food items. Thus healthy unprocessed food seems unusual and, by comparison, expensive. Thousands of advertisements have convinced us that sweet, fatty food products produce good feelings of love and fun.

Sure, it’s possible to get sound nutrition information and it’s possible to eat in a healthy way, but our culture makes it quite challenging. People who make a point of trying to avoid unhealthy food are viewed with puzzlement and sometimes anger. It’s no fun being ridiculed as a food nut. It’s easier to go along with the crowd.

Lifetime Fitness gym recently published an article by Pilar Gerasimo titled “Being Healthy is a Revolutionary Act,” That’s putting it too strongly, but it is certainly an act that defies settled conventions. The related web site does a good job of putting in bumper-sticker form some home truths about health and nutrition. http://revolutionaryact.com/ The first home truth gets down to business: “The Way We are Live Is Crazy,” based on our rates of obesity and chronic illness. But, it says, we can change.

Maybe so. If Krispy Kreme is doing less business, it probably isn’t because their doughnuts don’t taste good. They taste too good! It’s possible that more people are facing the fact that we can’t go on eating like this.

First Friday

Last night was First Friday, Raleigh’s monthly celebration of its downtown food, music, and art scene.  Despite the heat wave, thousands of people were out.  At Moore Square, there was a two-girl circus act in which one lay on her back, legs raised,  and the other got on top and balanced in various ways with a big smile.  In City Market, there was an oldies rock band, and the listeners were mostly middle-aged.  But at Art Space, there was a thick crowd of twenty-somethings, many with unsettling tattoos.

Sally and I had dinner at Gravy, which features reliable Italian comfort food in a hip brick-walled and oak package.  Among other things, we talked about the problem that large food portions served in most restaurants pose for American eaters.  Partly because of too many business meals recently, I’d again picked up three pounds I didn’t want to carry about. This inspired my latest eating experiment:  cutting off about a third of my food before beginning to eat, and leaving that third on the plate at the end.  The eggplant pie (thin breaded eggplant with marinara and ricotta) was really tasty, but more than I needed, and I’m sure I’d have eaten it all if I hadn’t established a visible stopping place.

I was taught as a child not to leave food on my plate, which was supported with the moral note that children were starving in Africa.  It did not occur to me until much later that the tragedy of starving children was not going to be mitigated by over-eating, which would itself cause obesity, illness, and premature death.  But changing those early ingrained eating habits requires more than recognizing their lack of justification; you have to replace them with other, better, habits.  We’ll see if this cut-a-third system works.

After dinner we looked in some galleries and then strolled back to our neighborhood.  We stopped at Second Empire and had cocktails in their classic bar.  It turns out that stop lights that are mistimed and clog traffic are one of Sally’s pet peeves, and we discussed them for a while.  We got back to our building around eleven.  Just a few steps from our door, in front of the Still Life club, there was a lively scene, with girls with high heels, long legs, and very short black dresses coming or going.  Sally noted as she took Stuart out for his last pee of the day that she wanted to have another look at those dresses.