The Casual Blog

Tag: Sam Harris

Catching local birds flying, and considering their lives and ours (including improved eating)

We’ve been happily not traveling lately, and instead I’ve been keeping an eye out for the creatures and fall colors in the Raleigh parks.  Several mornings a week I’ve been getting up early, bundling up, and hauling my photography equipment to Shelley Lake, Umstead, Durant, or another nearby green space.  The eagles at Shelley Lake are working on a new nest, and I caught one that had just caught a fish. I enjoyed watching the Canada geese and mallards flying in groups, and blue herons working on nests.

The NY Times had a good story this week about vulturine guineaflowl and their surprising abilities.  These east African birds have relatively small brains, but surprisingly complex social organizations.  It made me think there may still be a lot to learn about the lives and talents of the birds we take for granted, like our common ducks and geese.  

It seems to me self evident that their lives have value, and as a matter of basic morality we owe them respect and consideration.  So I’ve been struggling with how to think about the current crisis. Bird populations in North America have declined by almost 30 percent in the last 50 years. That’s about 3 billion dead birds.  See the Cornell Ornithology report.  There are various factors (habitat loss, pesticides, pet cats), but the root cause is us.  Our systems and lifestyles have resulted in an ongoing bird holocaust.  

The latest Audubon magazine acknowledged the tragedy, but stressed that there’s a lot we can do save a lot of wildlife.  It discusses not just political leadership and technical initiatives, but also how we can be more responsible in our own traveling, yard care, eating, and other areas.  Things are not hopeless — just desperate — and we are not powerless.  

Apropos of change for the better, Sally and I tried a new (to us) restaurant last week:  Soca at Cameron Village, and loved it! It has great, modern-but-warm look, and features various interesting small plates (tapas).  We were delighted when our friendly waiter alerted us to the vegan menu, and found several interesting dishes to try. Everything was delicious.  N.B., prices were at the special-occasion level.

We also watched on Netflix a recent documentary on eating better:  The Game Changers. It presented some world class athletes and public figures, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had made the switch from meat to plant food, with no regrets.  It addressed some of the misunderstandings around plant-based eating, including the myth that you can’t get enough protein, and showed that living free of animal products is consistent with high-level athletic performance.  You also get a lowered risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.  

Of course, the health benefits of a plant-based diet are only one of the excellent reasons to quit eating meat.   You also reduce the torture and killing of animals and the huge amounts of greenhouse gases from factory farming. Anyhow, I recommend the film.

I also recommend Sam Harris’s latest Making Sense podcast, in which Harris interviews Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and religious skeptic.  It is really a bracing discussion of some cutting edge science.  

Dawkins is well-spoken and entertaining, and, it turns out, knows almost nothing about insight meditation.  Harris, who is also a meditation teacher, gave Dawkins an impromptu lesson which also taught me a few things.  Among other points, he noted that meditation helps us not by giving new ideas, but rather by letting us drop a lot of useless and distracting concepts, which allows us to see our reality with more clarity.  The podcast is here 

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

Sunrise in Raleigh this morning looking southeast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoying opera, and meditating

Looking west at new construction on Glenwood Avenue, October 18, 2014

Looking west at new construction on Glenwood Avenue, October 18, 2014

Some of my musical friends have a phobia about opera, which I can understand, but it’s really a shame. Some of the greatest music ever conceived is found there, and some of the greatest living musicians express themselves in the form. At its best, it is visual, kinetic, psychological — and fun. A case in point: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, which we saw on Saturday.

This was a new production from the Metropolitan Opera, performed live and simulcast in HD video to movie theatres around the world, including our own North Hills cinema in Raleigh. The main story concerns a servant, Figaro, about to marry another servant, Susanna, who is being pursued by their master, the Count. It’s a comedy about love and jealousy, but it also has a tragic side, with elements of deception, abuse of power, and corruption. It gets complicated, with various hard-to-follow schemes, impersonations, betrayals, and stolen letters – enough to make you wonder whether eighteenth-century audiences were smarter than we are. But with subtitles, we get the gist.

The new production, set in the 1930s, had interesting sets, gorgeous costumes, excellent singer-actors, and the great James Levine conducting. The music is perhaps Mozart’s finest — transcendently beautiful. The production took the story seriously, and not just as a sequence of wonderful songs. Along with belly laughs, there was surprising depth in the leads, who were all new to me. I was particularly charmed by Isabel Leonard as Cherubino, Marlis Peterson as Susanna, and Ying Fang as Barbarina. Peter Mattei as the Count sang wonderfully. Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro was very human, funny, and musical.

The schedule for the remainder of the Met’s season of Live in HD productions includes a couple of other favorites of mine (Carmen and the Barber of Seville) and others that look interesting.

Waking Up

I’ve been reading a new book by Sam Harris titled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Harris is scientist and outspoken atheist, and, it turns out, a serious and experienced practitioner of meditation. He proposes a middle way of approaching what he calls spiritual life that steers between religious mythology and strict scientific rationality. The book is a combination of meditation guide, neuroscience, neo-Buddhist thought, and memoir. It inspired me to find 20 minutes in the schedule for my own meditation practice. If I experience a major illumination, I’ll let you know.
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