Archive for August 2018

An indoor labyrinth

The twisty path to clarity

I lead what most people would consider a habitually stressful life. One aspect of this is that I’m nearly always busy—usually with half a dozen major projects in progress, all of which feel equally important, at any given time. Even when I have the luxury of focusing on just one or two things, there always seems to be a deadline looming, a crisis of one kind or another, or some other distraction to keep me on my toes. To be honest, this is not my preferred lifestyle—I don’t thrive on stress the way some people do. If I could get paid to, say, sit at home and read all day, watch movies for a living, or become a professional thinker, I’d be only too happy to change careers. Perhaps one day I’ll score a “dream job” as a fiction writer, motivational speaker, wine taster, or t’ai chi teacher. But even then, I wouldn’t be looking at a stress-free life. Unless I decide to go live in a monastery—a course of action that’s significantly less likely than winning the lottery (which would also be OK)—I imagine the stress of juggling priorities and projects will be a permanent fixture in my life.

As a way of counteracting, or at least controlling, all this stress, I try to seek out healthy practices that put my body and mind into a more relaxed state. Sometimes that’s taking a long walk, watching a movie, or going to get a massage. For a lot of people, though, the only real way to relax is one or another of the many forms of meditation. I used to think meditation meant concentrating on something very hard, and when I found out that the basic idea was to sit (or stand) in a fixed posture for a long period of time without thinking about anything, I thought, “How boring.” Now I’ll admit that having tried both sitting and standing meditation, I’ve discovered they’re not boring at all, but even so, they don’t really suit my temperament. When I’m trying to think through a difficult problem, compose a speech, or just work off nervous energy, I need to walk, or at least pace, and I think the same thing is true of meditation. Being in motion calms me down and clears my mind. That’s one of the reasons I like t’ai chi. It’s been described as “yoga in motion” or a “moving meditation,” and I think that’s a good way of looking at it: the motion makes my mind less likely to wander, and probably the increase in blood circulation helps too.

You Put Your Foot Right In

There are also a number of practices referred to as “walking meditation,” some of which involve special postures, steps, or mental exercises. One interesting form of walking meditation, which is often practiced in Christian mystical traditions, uses the pattern of a labyrinth as its focal point.

Years ago, a friend of mine got a group of people together to go “walk a labyrinth” at a cathedral in San Francisco. I had visions of a huge maze of hedges and was not at all sure what spiritual significance this was supposed to have, but hey, new experience. So I went. The cathedral was dark, quiet, and solemn (as cathedrals generally are)—an atmosphere I find quite relaxing indeed. On the floor in the back of the sanctuary was a large wool tapestry measuring about 36 feet (11m) in diameter, woven in a labyrinth pattern. (The same cathedral also has an outdoor labyrinth made of inlaid stone.) We took off our shoes, went to the starting point, and one by one began walking the winding path toward the center. Unlike a maze, this type of medieval labyrinth design does not have any dead ends; a single, continuous path leads to a large open area in the center; you retrace the same path to leave. Several people may walk the labyrinth at once; the loose protocol indicates that you can walk at whatever speed you want, stepping around slower-moving meditators if you wish. People usually spend a few minutes in silence at the center before returning to the starting point. The whole walk took me about a half hour.

Circular Reasoning

You may be thinking, as I was when I started the walk, “And the point is…?” Strangely enough, by the time I left the labyrinth, I felt I had had a very meaningful experience, though I’d be hard-pressed to articulate why. I returned to walk the same labyrinth months later to see if I could come up with a better explanation. How was this different from just walking slowly around in circles? I’m sure everyone approaches the experience a bit differently, but for me, the walk seemed like a metaphor for life: a winding road with lots of U-turns; a path on which you’re never far from the goal, though it often seems that you are. There’s nothing preventing anyone from walking straight to the center, but somehow there seems to be value in exploring the whole path, allowing it to take you where it wants, when it wants. I’m not normally one for poetic imagery, but let’s just say that somehow, the walk was tonic: it made me feel more at ease with the chaos and surprises in my life. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Labyrinths have been part of various spiritual practices for centuries, if not millennia, but in the past couple of decades they’ve undergone quite a renaissance. There are now several national and international movements promoting the use of a labyrinth as a meditative tool, and a world-wide labyrinth locator online. In some cases, an individual or group will travel with a canvas labyrinth, holding workshops or retreats. For those without access to a full-size labyrinth (or the necessary floor space to install one), there are small wooden labyrinths you can trace with your finger. But in general the message is: make of this what you wish. Just have the experience. Go through the turns—slowly or quickly—and allow it to relax, inspire, or frustrate you in whatever way seems appropriate. More often than not, it turns out to provide both relaxation and clarity. As a dogma-free tool for reflection, a labyrinth is a great way to straighten out those tangled thoughts.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 9, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on November 18, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Humans relaxing by the sea

In 1985, when nine-year-old Sean Moeller was in fourth grade, he declared August 16 to be National Relaxation Day, and thus it has been ever since. I’d like to spend a whole day relaxing, but today is not a convenient day to do so. Indeed, today is not a convenient day for me to spend any time relaxing, but if your life situation can accommodate a labyrinth walk, an afternoon lounging in a comfy chair reading a book, or whatever else you find relaxing, more power to you. Do some extra relaxing for me.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Pan del Indio

The little orange beech balls

A trip to Patagonia in 2004 included a few days on the big island of Tierra del Fuego, just across the Strait of Magellan from mainland Argentina at the tip of South America. Our itinerary called for a couple of days of hiking; we spent Christmas Day exploring Tierra del Fuego National Park. I have nothing against a nice hike through the woods, and certainly these woods—bordered by shoreline with scenic views of the smaller islands nearby—were as pleasant as any I’ve seen. But the mosquitoes were also unusually persistent that day, some of the other folks in our tour group were getting on my nerves, and more than a few times the thought occurred to me that I could have had an equally enjoyable hike through the woods 10 minutes’ walk from my home in California. The view, inspiring though it was, reminded me of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, where I’ve frequently vacationed. What was so special about these rocks, these trees, or this water, besides the fact that they happened to be located here? These were the questions that went through my head as I hiked in the park.

Beech Balls

Before long, I had my answer. There, growing on a tree, was a clump of spherical orange globules, each about the size of a golf ball. In fact, not just one clump on one tree—they were all over the place. Some trees had dozens upon dozens of them. They looked like something created in a special-effects workshop for a sci-fi movie—truly creepy and otherworldly. Our guide told us that they were a type of fungus—Cyttaria darwinii, one of the many species described by, and named after, Charles Darwin. They grow on a type of southern beech tree native to the area; the infected trees, apparently as a defense mechanism, form huge knots on their trunks and branches—but these do not discourage the fungus’s growth.

Our guide did not mention that the fungus was edible, and even though I like mushrooms, it would not have occurred to me to put something like this in my mouth. But the local name for this fungus is Pan del Indio, or Indians’ Bread. The name comes from the fact that in centuries past, the fungus was a staple food for native Fuegians, normally consumed in its raw state. A couple who had visited the park earlier told us they’d tried the fungus. One said it tasted a bit like cheese, and the other said the texture, if not the flavor, was reminiscent of a lychee. Other sources I consulted said that the fungus is almost tasteless when young, but as it ripens, it becomes sweet and juicy. I’m sorry I didn’t get to try it myself, and I hold out little hope of running across it at my local market.

Orange Globs for Everyone

There are a few other fungus species that resemble Pan del Indio; these grow on related beech tree varieties in other parts of Patagonia and in Australia. But as I was researching this odd organism, I had the nagging feeling that it resembled something else too. Let me think: orange…spherical…tastes like cheese…squishy texture…Indians’ Bread…aha! Only a couple of months before our trip, a friend who had spent several years living in Brazil turned us on to pão de queijo (literally “cheese bread”), a popular Brazilian snack. These are orangish, baked balls of tapioca starch flavored with cheese, and they’re addictively delicious. Coincidence? Undoubtedly. But much easier to come by—and more appealing to the gringo palate—than Pan del Indio.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on February 20, 2005.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

National Creamsicle Day

Vanilla ice cream is OK. Not especially exciting. Vanilla ice cream on a stick is that, plus convenience. Many purveyors of vanilla ice cream on a stick do the right thing, which is to dip it in chocolate. Maybe add some nuts or crisped rice. Hey, maybe even put some chocolate in the center too! That makes the apparatus considerably more than OK. Other people…well, some weirdos think that covering the vanilla ice cream in a fruit-flavored ice (basically, the same stuff in a Popsicle) is a good idea, and of those, some über-weirdos think that orange is the optimal flavor of said ice covering. Indeed, there are so many such weirdos that today is just for them: it’s National Creamsicle Day. Not that I have any judgement about that, except that it’s wrong. If you’re offered a creamsicle today, you have my permission to scrape off the fruit coating and dip it in chocolate.

Image credit: Brent Schlenker [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Carolina Eyck playing the theremin

Electronic music’s original user interface

As an amateur synthesist, I have always been intrigued by electronic means of creating sounds. Normally I work with buttons, sliders, and keys on modern digital equipment, every parameter conveniently shown on a digital display of some kind. Long before computer-based, programmable synthesizers, though, there were analog synthesizers that were “programmed” by stringing patch cords across a panel that looked like an old-fashioned telephone switchboard and fiddling with dozens of twitchy knobs. But these early modular synthesizers were still not the beginning of electronic music. Go back a few decades further and you find a device with such a stunningly elegant user interface that it could be played without even touching it. Meet the theremin, the world’s first electronic musical instrument.

Just a Bunch of Hand Waving

The theremin was invented by a Russian engineer named Lev Sergeivitch Termen (whose name was later anglicized to Leon Theremin). Termen was doing research involving vacuum tubes for the Russian government. At one point during his experiments, in which he happened to have headphones hooked up to his measuring equipment, he noticed that his own proximity to the tubes affected the pitch of the sound he was hearing. Although this was completely tangential to his research, the effect interested him; as a trained cellist, he soon found that he could play tunes on his laboratory apparatus simply by changing the position of his body. Termen began to explore not only the theory behind the capacitive sensor he had just stumbled upon, but also the mechanisms for creating musical tones electronically. He began building machines whose sole purpose was to translate gestures into sounds. Accounts vary as to when the first prototype instrument was created, but it was some time between 1917 and 1920, with the first public demonstration held in 1921.

Termen received patents for his device in both Russia and the United States, and in 1929 RCA began production of the first commercial model, then known as a “thereminvox.” The original theremin looked like nothing so much as a lectern: a sloped wooden box on a pedestal. Protruding from the left side of the box was an oblong loop of metal tubing that functioned as an antenna; a second, straight antenna rose vertically from the upper right corner of the box. Sound came from a built-in speaker.

The player stands back slightly from the theremin with arms outstretched—one near each antenna. To play it, one simply changes the proximity of the hands to the antennas. The horizontal loop controls volume—move your left hand closer, the volume decreases, move away, the volume increases. The vertical antenna is responsible for pitch. Move your right hand closer, the pitch goes up; farther away, the pitch goes down. By making subtle, carefully synchronized movements, players can produce all sorts of effects to enhance the basic tones.

Sounds From the Ether

The basic sound of a theremin has been described as being similar to a musical saw, a flute, musical wine glasses, or even a human voice. In reality, the classic, unmodified sound is pretty close to a plain sine wave, but skillful manipulations of pitch and volume produce effects that can sound like the soothing vibrato of a mellow voice, a harsh shriek, or anything in between. In any case, the sound is monophonic—just one note plays at any given time—and it is a continuous sound, always sliding upward or downward in pitch rather than jumping discretely from one note to another. So it’s impossible to play staccato notes on a theremin, though expert theremin players can move between notes so quickly and smoothly that the portamento effect is not noticeable. The theremin’s sound has an ethereal, spooky quality, which made it ideal for soundtracks of science-fiction and horror shows during the middle part of the 20th century.

Though the original RCA theremins have been out of production for decades, Moog Music, the company founded by legendary synthesizer inventor Robert Moog, still sells several compact, solid-state theremin models, including one (the Theramini) equipped with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), meaning it can be used as a controller for other sound sources such as synthesizers or samplers—or, conversely, produce sounds when triggered by a keyboard, guitar, or other controller.

Strange Music Fills the Air

You’re not likely to hear an all-theremin concert, but there are modern classical and jazz pieces written for theremin (in some cases, along with a piano or even an orchestra), so theremins do pop up in serious concert halls on occasion. In addition, numerous bands and other performers use theremins in their acts from time to time. Several years ago we saw magicians Penn & Teller in Las Vegas, and as part of the show Teller played a theremin solo from the side of the stage. There are tons of theremin videos on YouTube (this one is a terrific example), and numerous sites for enthusiasts.

If you’d like to play a theremin yourself, you may be lucky enough to find one on display at a science or art museum, or—more rarely—at a large music store. For a few hundred dollars or so you can buy a modern electronic model for yourself (the original wooden, tube-based theremins are extremely valuable antiques). Theremin-like devices that use other technologies, such as sonar, to determine your hands’ positions exist too. There are also plans and kits available from numerous sources if you want to build your own theremin. Of course, having a working theremin is no different by itself from having a working piano—although anyone can walk up to it and make some noise, it takes a lot of training and practice to become proficient. But even though the theremin is unsophisticated by today’s standards, there is still something deeply satisfying about making music just by moving your hands. Whether you like pretending to be a conductor or a sorcerer, a theremin gives your gestures a fascinating soundtrack.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 27, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on August 31, 2004.

Image credit: By Julius Kaiser, Leipzig (personally) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day