The Casual Blog

Tag: Wallace Stevens

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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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.

Liberation — death, sorrow, life

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been a big news story these last few weeks, but the news reports have given little coverage to the fact that millions of sea creatures that will die.  Our scuba experiences in the last couple of years have made us more conscious of the teeming life in the oceans, the unbelievable profusion, a cornucopia of bizarre, beautiful life.  The loss of life now taking place is impossible to fully grasp, and painful to consider.  I think it’s good, though, to try grasping it, and accept the pain of it.

We humans are generally deathophobes.  At the same time, it’s obvious that death is a fundamental part of life.  It’s in front, behind, and all around us, and avoiding it is really not possible.  We may as well have a little courage and honesty and figure out how to think about it.

I keep coming back to the line by Wallace Stevens in his poem Sunday Morning:  “Death is the mother of beauty.”  When I first read it, I thought he was just being provocative, but I now see he was struggling with something profound.  It isn’t that death itself is beautiful.  But it is an integral part of the natural cycle of change, which is a defining characteristic of life.  In Sunday Morning, Stevens asks, “Is there no change of death in paradise?  Does ripe fruit never fall?”  The Talking Heads got at the same idea with the funny line, “Heaven/ is a place/ where nothing/ ever happens.”  Such a paradise would be inhuman.  And very boring.

But coming to terms with this part of reality is not just a matter of working through the ideas.  It’s also accepting some unpleasant feelings, like grief and sorrow.  It seems natural to avoid such things, but it won’t work.  Those feelings are integral to the human experience; they’ll always be there.  We may as well face them with honesty and courage.  Opening ourselves to those feelings makes us more human.  It’s liberating.

Sally had a harsh and sad confrontation with one animal’s death this week.  She was monitoring her blue bird boxes at the Lochmere golf course for new for baby blue birds, which is usually a cheering thing.  She came upon  a young Canada goose that had had a horrible accident that destroyed its beak and left it bloody and mutilated.   It could still move, but was plainly suffering and unable to survive long.  The poor thing needed to be euthanized, but there was no practical way to capture it without making matters worse.  She had no confidence that the animal control service would be able to assist without increasing the animal’s fear and pain.  There was no solution, other than nature itself.

Sally began to cry as she told the story, and continued to wonder whether there was something else she could have done.  She is a tender-hearted soul, and I love her for it.  I was reminded of the time years ago when she arrived home in tears at having run over a little frog as she was parking her car.  I knew then, once again, that she was the girl for me.

Soccer news — a non-fan’s notes

Last night Sally and I went out to see some professional soccer by our local team, the Raleigh Railhawks, who opposed the Tampa Bay Rowdies.  We had excellent seats (second row, midfield), and could see how young the players were, how skilled, and also how rough.

For me, the point was some refreshment after an intense work week.  In my days at the New Yorker, one of my friends who worked as a proofreader described going to the City Ballet after a hard day of catching tiny printing mistakes as a cool drink for the eyes.   My work also involves close focus on details and constant decision making.  I get that sort of release from ballet, and also from a close-up, live view of professional athletes.  Minor league baseball by our local Bulls and Mudcats usually has this refreshing effect, too.  TV sports doesn’t work the same for me.

Jocelyn was home from Colorado for a visit this week, and we all went out Thursday for some Thai food at Sawasdee.   When the conversation turned to sports, I asked Jocelyn what she thought was important about big time college sports, including those at her alma mater, NC State.  For her, sports and especially football were a fantastic part of the college experience.  She loved tailgating, loved the drama of a come-from-behind victory.  She enjoyed being part of moments when people united in support of a single cause.  And for her, the Wolfpack was definitely special.

I’ve never been a deeply committed fan of a sports team, so I thought this was both sweet and  interestingly strange.  For me, being a part of a sports crowd involves occasional moments of transcendence, so I know generally what Jocelyn meant.  But being in a crowd also usually involves stretches of wishing the people around me were better behaved.  I don’t get heckling, trying to distract players, or yelling when nothing particularly exciting is happening.   I always choose a team to pull for, but the choice seems basically arbitrary.  It’s hard for me to believe that one team is really more virtuous than another.

So, I was excited when the Railhawks scored the first goal, glad when the goalie made a diving save, and outraged when the referee missed a flagrant foul.  I was also annoyed at a young fellow who incessantly heckled the opposing coach.  I was anxious when the Rowdies tied it up late in the game, and disappointed when we lost, 2-1.  Then we went home, and I read for a while, and was moved by some poetry of  Wallace Stevens.