The Casual Blog

Tag: Watt’s Grocery

Muted fall colors, Ax’s piano recital, Crocetto’s Norma, and some thoughts on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

It’s definitely fall, but we’re not seeing much of the fall colors that usually come to the forests of piedmont North Carolina this time of year.  On Saturday I went to Lake Johnson, where the trees were shedding leaves, but not brightly. It was pretty quiet, and about to rain. I experimented with my neutral density filters, and enjoyed the lake and the trees.

That night, Sally and I went over to Duke for the first concert of its piano recital series.  We ate at Watts Grocery, which we’ve enjoyed in the past. Unfortunately, that night there were no vegetarian entrees on the men. When we raised the issue with our server, he didn’t seem much concerned, and the resulting food was undistinguished.  

Sally and I disagree on the best approach to addressing the problem of restaurants with low appreciation for vegetarians.  She favors talking to them and encouraging them to raise their plant food games. I’m inclined to boycott them, and spend my dining out money where I can wait for my meal with high confidence that there will be food I can enjoy.

The piano recital was by Emanuel Ax, an extremely distinguished concert artist whose recordings I have always enjoyed.  I was very familiar with some of the music from having played it myself (Brahms Op. 79, Chopin Op. 62, No. 1), and found his interpretations of these pieces intelligent and tasteful, though not revelatory.  I very much enjoyed hearing for the first time a set of short contemporary pieces by George Benjamin, which was highly pianistic, with varying textures. Ax used the sheet music for this work, but relied on his memory for the rest.

Ax’s playing was altogether musical, but I really didn’t get swept away until the last piece on  the program, Chopin’s Andante spianato and grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22.  Ax is no spring chicken — getting on and off the stage didn’t look easy for him — and I wondered how he was going to meet the intense physical demands of this highly emotional showpiece.  But he did it. It was magnificent, and thrilling.

On Sunday afternoon, we went to the N.C. Opera’s presentation of Bellini’s Norma.  It was superb! The leads were all very fine singers, the chorus was good, and the orchestra, conducted by Antony Walker, sounded particularly rich and full.  But Leah Crocetto as Norma was beyond superlatives. When she sang the famous aria Casta Diva, I nearly lost it, and managed, just, to weep quietly. She sang, and Maestro Walker accompanied, as if this were the first performance ever, and might be the last. Her singing was technically brilliant and musical, but also truly transcendent.  It penetrated and illuminated the extremities of human emotion, from love to fury to despair

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, apparently by order of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has been much in the headlines, and provoked leaders around the world (with the U.S. president, as usual, a sad exception) to condemn the Saudi government.  Needless to say, it’s a heinous crime. But I’ve been puzzled at such a strong reaction to one killing, while the Saudis’ mass atrocities in Yemen, including blowing up thousands of civilians, rarely make the news.

Addressing this puzzle, Max Fisher wrote a piece this week in the NY Times that’s well worth reading.    Fisher noted that journalists commonly use the device of a single individual’s story to cast light on a larger problem.  I’ve tended to think of this as an inherent weakness of ordinary journalism, but Fisher makes a case that it’s unavoidable and even necessary.  

It’s not just that readers can more easily relate to stories of individuals.  People are wired to understand and feel compassion about a single death, but they can’t do the same in reaction to mass death.  Psychologists have found that people switch off their emotions in reaction to large-scale slaughter as a self-protective measure, which is called collapse of compassion.  

This theory may explain a lot of moral inconsistency and inaction.  It’s really hard to think about the deaths of millions or billions as a result of global warming or a nuclear accident that starts a nuclear war.  Talking about these topics is not something anybody really likes. It’s hard to get them on the political discussion agenda.

The prospects admittedly are not good.  But I was a little cheered by an interview on NPR this weekend with a climate scientist who had a good understanding of how bad an environmental disaster we’re likely to have with a 1.5 Celsius temperature rise.  She pointed out that however bad things get, they can always get worse. A 3 degree rise is not a bad as a 4 degree rise. There is no point while we’re still here that the struggle to prevent a worse disaster is pointless.  

Beauty, violence, and delusions: a Macbeth ballet, a Vietnam history, and a Kenya drone strike movie

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It was raining lightly on Saturday morning when I got to Raulston Arboretum, and there were quite a few new irises and roses. I enjoyed the colors, textures, and strange architecture, as accented by the raindrops. I had to work fast, because I’d scheduled a spin class for 9:30. But I had 25 minutes of strolling, peering, sniffing, and clicking, and made it to Flywheel in good time for the spin class with the cheery, peppy, hard-driving Vashti.

I’d felt a little discouraged after my spin class last week, when I was aiming for 300 points and managed only 281. I decided on a slightly different approach this week, involving more conscious pacing and allowing for short recovery periods. My results were better, with a final score of 307, and an average heart rate for the 45 minutes of 154, tying the record.

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That evening we went over to Durham for some food and ballet. We ate at Watts Grocery, where I had a delicious asparagus salad and couscous with beets. At DPAC we saw the new Carolina Ballet production of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s play is a bloody one, dense with painful emotion. This new ballet by Robert Weiss is also violent and anguished, but with interludes of light – friendship, play, and love. It succeeds as storytelling and as dance, with many subtleties and flourishes. Unfortunately, the music was not very interesting and highly repetitious. But I really liked the dancing, the craggy set, and the costumes.
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Speaking of bloody intervals, last week I finished reading a history of U.S. misconduct in Vietnam by Nick Turse, entitled Kill Anything That Moves. It is a difficult and almost unbearable story. The catalog of American atrocities is long – wanton murder of civilians, widespread rape, torture, and mutilation, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed on a wholesale basis by massive bombing and artillery. Hardly any of those who engineered the policies behind this carnage or those who carried it out were held accountable.

This history has been substantially suppressed, ignored, and forgotten. The human capacity for sustaining ignorance and self-delusion is a remarkable thing. In general, we are amazingly adept at suppressing new information that’s inconsistent with our prior beliefs, at justifying bad conduct when it fits with our preferences and self-interest, and at repressing memories that don’t fit into our preferred narratives. For Americans, coming to grips with any story of American action where we aren’t heroes is extremely difficult.
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But doing so is important work. Understanding the conditions that give rise to cruelty can help us prevent it. Therefore, with some hesitation, I recommend Turse’s book, with the caveat that it should be read only by mature readers not currently considering suicide or other violence and that, when reading, they take frequent breaks from these dark chapters to get hugs and kisses from their loved ones. One of my takeaways was that it’s usually or never a good idea to invade distant countries where we are ignorant and contemptuous of the people and culture.
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We saw Eye in the Sky last week at the Raleigh Grande. It was our first visit to the recently upgraded theater, and we liked the soft reclining seats. The movie is about setting up a drone strike by combined British and American military leaders and technicians in Kenyan on Al-Shabab terrorists. The primary tension in the movie is whether they should fire a powerful hellfire missile when it looks like it will kill a sweet little girl.

I thought it was well-played, and it was interesting to see what may well be close to state-of-the-art spying and killing technology. It was nice, in a way, to think that some military leaders might find it hard to decide whether to kill one little girl when they had a chance to execute several terrorists. The big question I left with, though, was never addressed in the movie: why would the U.S. and Britain be devoting themselves to fighting enemies of Kenya?
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Purity, the Montrose Trio, Gore, and Gates

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It’s been a foggy, drizzly week in Raleigh, which tends to lower high spirits, but is good for introspection. I finished Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity. The book offers several interesting characters, including social activists who think about the big issues like out-of-control surveillance and global warming. Mostly, though, the book is about close family and romantic relationships, and shame and guilt. There’s enough that’s closely observed and honest here to be affecting, and I found myself hypnotically absorbed in some sections. As I neared the end, though, it, or I, lost steam, and I was glad to be done with it.

Saturday night we went over to Durham for dinner at Watt’s Grocery with friends and a concert. It turns out Watt’s is more vegetarian friendly than shown on the menu, willing to create a custom plate of the non-meat offerings, and mine was good. At Duke’s Baldwin auditorium, we heard the Montrose Trio, a new group made up of two former members of the Tokyo Quartet and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. They performed works of Turina, Beethoven and Brahms. Turina was new to me — Spanish, 1882-1949 – and reminded me pleasantly of Ravel, while the other pieces were old friends. Montrose was truly excellent – musicianship of the highest order, applied to great music.

The November issue of the Atlantic has an interesting piece on Al Gore and his involvement with Generation Investment Management, a global equity fund. The company has significantly out-performed the market since 2005 by investing in companies that are not only well-managed compared to their competition but conscious and responsible in their social and environmental actions. This approach runs counter to the conventional wisdom that successful capitalists must place profits ahead of values. The theory of Generation is that long-term profits require long-term thinking, including thinking about sustainability.

The same Atlantic has an interview with Bill Gates on his new endeavor to address climate change. He’s of the view that we’ve got to make major technological breakthroughs relating to energy to prevent or mitigate disastrous environmental changes, which will require research to go into overdrive, and he’s committing $2 billion of his money to the effort. He’s obviously studied up on the subject, and he hasn’t lost all hope or become hysterical. As he points out, either we focus our resources on finding a solution, or we run the experiment of what happens when the planet’s temperature rises by two degrees – and then three degrees and then four.