The Casual Blog

Tag: Umstead Park

The big lake, Leonardo, and Blue Planet II

This week was raw and rainy, and I was sick with a cold.  But it brightened up for the weekend. On Saturday morning I went up to Umstead park and walked around the big lake.  At a certain point, I set up my tripod and took some pictures with various lenses and filters. As usual, my objective was to practice the craft and come up with a few new images that, if not masterworks, at least weren’t too embarrassing to share.  Which is what I did, as shown here.

On the drive back I neared the end of the audiobook version of Leonardo, the recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.  I’d gotten bogged down in a couple of sections where Isaacson describes and interprets particular paintings more than I found helpful. But I thought he did a good job over all of telling Leonardo’s story and bringing to life aspects of the early Renaissance.  

I’d known in a general way that Leonardo was a polymath, but I had not appreciated the full range of his interests and accomplishments.   He was a professional musician, theatrical producer, and writer, as well as an inventor, engineer, designer, architect, urban planner, and proto-scientist.  Not to mention a pretty good painter.

Leonardo was good-looking and convivial, though there was a dark side.  Isaacson notes some very disturbing behaviors, including probable sexual exploitation of minors and eagerly offering his services to murderous tyrants.  His reach frequently exceeded his grasp, and he started many more things than he finished. But it’s hard not to be inspired by his powerful curiosity and passionate attempts, sometimes successful, to see things that no one had seen before.  

This week we watched a several episodes of Blue Planet II, a BBC documentary about the life in the world’s oceans.  We’d gotten tired of waiting for it to show up on Netflix and decided to pay for it on Amazon. It was worth it!  The photography was just incredible. As scuba divers, we’ve swum in some of the places and seen some of the creatures, but many were new to us.  And we saw some almost unknown behaviors — fish playing, using tools, and working cooperatively with different species.

It’s exhilarating to experience such wonders, and troubling that the level of the threat to them is dire.  Rising ocean temperatures and acidification are killing the big coral reefs, and plastics and other chemicals are strangling and poisoning many creatures.  The reefs and underwater forests could be gone in a few decades. The question remains whether humans will get their act together and save our oceans.    

The wedding dress problem, goodbye to Roth, and hello to Knausgaard

Jocelyn and Kyle visited us for the holiday weekend, and one of the planned events was the kick off of the search for Jocelyn’s perfect wedding dress.  Sally excitedly briefed me on their plan for a mother-daughter visit to a high-end bridal shop, and I felt a bit queasy. For the first time, it hit home that there was a strong assumption that I’d be stroking a large check for a dress that will be worn only once.  

I thought, maybe we can discuss this.  We could deconstruct the cultural significance of wedding customs and related status displays, and consider revising certain traditions, perhaps at lesser expense.  And then I realized that this would get me nowhere, and I may as well give up and enjoy the dress, which will, I’m sure, be beautiful.

I was affected by Philip Roth’s death this week, since his books have been an important part of my life.  I’ve read about a dozen of them, including several that enriched my understanding of what can happen in the heads of others. He had a fierce engagement with life, and his books did what the best novels do: tell truths that can be told no other way. My favorite Roths are American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, the Zuckerman trilogy, Sabbath’s Theatre,  and of course, Portnoy’s Complaint.

I started an engagement with another major book recently:  My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Knausgaard’s book is an autobiographical account of ordinary life and relationships translated from the original Norwegian and extending for 6 volumes (3,600 pages).  It’s been talked about in literary circles, and I’d made a special note to avoid it. It seemed like unpromising subject matter having no bearing on my life issues, and way too long.  

But having made it halfway through volume one, I’m utterly captivated.  It’s uncanny: it seems very much about my life. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman notes having the same sensation.    The work explores emotions to a depth that makes them seem both strange and true.  My early impression is that Knausgaard has achieved something similar to Proust, but with less affectation and more intensity.  

I took these pictures on Saturday morning in Umstead Park, where I hiked for a couple of hours on the Loblolly Trail.  It was humid and very green.

Happy No Thanks Day

blogpicbug-1
I like Thanksgiving as a holiday, because it celebrates things that really matter, like loving families, without too much rampant materialism. But this year the timing was unfortunate, so close to the Presidential election, which has left us feeling shaken. It seemed like time for a different holiday — a Day of No Thanks. Rather than celebrating gratitude, No Thanks Day would be about regret, worry, and resistance.

On Thursday, we had a bit of both Thanks and No Thanks Day. Sally made a delicious Mexican-themed all veggie Thanksgiving meal for our extended family, and we caught up on family news. But we also talked about some of the frightening things happening in our country, including the sudden emergence from the sludge of the so-called alt right.

Until recently, unabashed white supremacists seemed to be so far out on the lunatic fringe that they could safely be ignored. But now they’ve gone mainstream, and their preferred candidate just got elected President of the United States.
blogpicbug-1-7

So what are these people? There was a fascinating and chilling interview this week with Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader, by Kelly McEvers on NPR, which is transcribed here. Spencer is poised and well spoken, and his ideas are absolutely poisonous. His animating political vision seemed to be apartheid — a country just for white people. He saw no problem with swastikas and Ku Klux Klan costumes.

The NY Times had a piece on the alt right this week, and tried to explain the difference between white nationalists and white supremacists. According to Eric Kaufmann, a UK scholar, “White nationalism … is the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.

So, like white supremacy, white nationalism places the interests of white people over those of other racial groups. White supremacists and white nationalists both believe that racial discrimination should be incorporated into law and policy. . . .
Professor Kaufmann says the terms are not synonyms: White supremacy is based on a racist belief that white people are innately superior to people of other races; white nationalism is about maintaining political and economic dominance, not just a numerical majority or cultural hegemony.

blogpicbug-1-6

Is the “nationalist” label something more than a thin veneer for putrid racism and neo-Nazism? I doubt it. The Times reported that this week Spencer gave a speech attacking Jews and immigrants. He quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German and led cries of “Hail Trump” and “Hail Victory” (German: “Seig Heil”).

What’s this have to do with the President-elect? Well, he’s picked as his senior counselor and chief strategist Steve Bannon, who runs what he proudly claims is the leading communications outlet for the alt-right. Bannon is sly about expressing his personal views, but there is no subtlety about his Breitbart News: it’s unabashedly devoted to racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, bizarre conspiracy theories, and fear mongering.
blogpicbug-1-5
Bannon seems to have engineered the press campaign that ultimately resulted in the “Crooked Hillary” meme of the Republican campaign. This is laid out in an interview on Fresh Air of journalist Joshua Green. Using a “research” entity called the Government Accountability Institute, Bannon directed the collection of innuendo about the Clinton Foundation, which was then pitched to investigative journalists of the mainstream press. In effect, he hacked into the NY Times and other traditional media and planted an anti-Clinton virus. The non-stop drumbeat by Bannon and Breitbart — Benghazi! The emails! Lock her up! — unquestionably drove up Hillary’s unfavorable ratings, and arguably caused her defeat. Green’s 2015 piece on Bannon and Breitbart News is worth reading.

Coming back to Richard Spencer, at the end of the interview with Kelly McEvers, he said this: “If I had told you in 1985 that we should have gay marriage in this country, you probably would have laughed at me. And I think most people would have. Or at least – at the very least, you would have been a bit confused, and you would have told me, oh that’s ridiculous. The fact is, opinions do change. People’s consciousness does change. Paradigms are meant to be broken. That’s what the alt-right is doing.”
blogpicbug-1-4
Well, he’s right about one thing: people’s ideas change. They can change for the worse, but also, as his example on gay marriage shows, for the better. A lot of white people, and other people, have put behind them the worst kind of racism and are trying to be conscious of and root out the more subtle kinds. The ascendency of the alt right may just be the death throes of an old sad culture that will soon be gone. But I’m not sure. Their combination of blazing ignorance and brilliance in media manipulation is new in our country. We need to keep watch.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to stay calm. I’m doing deep breathing, and taking walks in the woods. Trees, which can live a very long time, have a kind of wisdom. Being with them is peaceful. These new pictures are from Umstead State Park.

Music therapy, and looking for new bugs

umstead-bugsbug-1-2
My work days are often nonstop meetings, calls, and electronic documents about new technologies and difficult problems, and for several hours my left brain is going at full throttle. I like the intensity, but there are a lot of stress hormones. Without a dose of classical music after work, I’d likely redline and blow up. Playing the piano, even for just a half hour, is like a warm, soothing bath.

untitledbug-1-4

One of the pieces back on my musical workbench is Liszt’s famous Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude. (There’s also some Schubert, Chopin, and Debussy.) I’ve been infatuated by the Liszt piece for a long time, but discouraged from committing to it by two things. First, it has some daunting technical demands, including reaches and stretches that are awkward and even painful. Olga, my teacher, suggested a (to me) non-obvious way of refingering to avoid the worst stretches, and I’ve been working out the details of the new approach.

The other blocker is the length. Most of the piano music I try to master and embody is on the short side by classical standards – under 6 minutes, which I view as pushing the limits of attention spans for most non-specialists. Benediction comes in at around 16 minutes. But what minutes! It’s very lyrical, elaborated by Liszt’s rich harmonies, and conceived with the piano’s singing qualities in mind. Here’s a couple of good and interestingly different performances from YouTube here and here
untitledbug-1-2

We’ve been particularly enjoying listening to music since we had our stereo system reworked last week. This was not entirely optional. Our former system involved in-wall and under-floor connections, which ceased working properly after our new floors were installed. Dr. Video, who installed the system, advised that fixing it would be quite expensive. We eventually decided to reposition the speakers on the large bookshelf, and powered them with a Yamaha R-700 receiver tucked in an adjacent closet. The speakers – two NHT Class Threes and a subwoofer – sounded good before, but with the new position and more power, they sound excellent.
untitledbug-1-6

We inaugurated the new sound set up with Harmonielehre, a piece for orchestra by the contemporary American composer John Adams. This is one of my favorite orchestral pieces of all time, and that’s including all the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler. It manages to cover an enormous emotional range, from a bouncy and cheery to fiery and fierce to wistful and contemplative. The harmonic language is mostly tonal, but with piquant dissonances, and the rhythm manages to seem propulsive and natural, though it is anything but simple. It takes you on the journey of discovery, much as Mahler does. I have the version by the City of Birmingham Symphony, but various other are available on Youtube and Spotify. I highly recommend giving it a listen.
untitledbug-1-7

Another great stress reliever is a walk through the woods and around a lake. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I went to Umstead and Lake Crabtree parks and moved slowly, looking closely in the grasses and bushes for interesting insects. Most of the little creatures I saw did not hang around long enough to have their pictures taken, but I got a few shots I liked.
umstead-bugsbug-1