Archive for December 2018

Person meditating silently

A different way of listening

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, one of the main characters is an alien named Ford Prefect from a planet near Betelgeuse. Although he looks, talks, and acts more or less human, there are many things about earthlings that puzzle him, such as the fact that they seem to talk all the time—even if only to repeat the obvious. Over the course of several months, he comes up with a number of theories for this behavior, one of which I found particularly insightful: “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working” (p. 49). I’ve frequently noticed, on the one hand, that many people like to surround themselves with sound all the time (making their own if all else fails); and on the other hand, that contemplation is a foreign and uncomfortable concept to most of us. An increasingly popular way of overcoming the sound habit, at least briefly, is to go on a silent retreat.

All Action and No Talk

The idea of a silent retreat is simple: you go somewhere relatively quiet and don’t talk—for a day, a few days, or even longer. Silent retreats usually involve a group of people, so the significant part is not so much that you yourself aren’t speaking but that others aren’t speaking to you. In addition, most other artificial sounds—radio, TV, music, and so on—are avoided, so that for the most part, participants don’t hear any words for long periods of time.

What exactly is the point of going without words for a few days? You get to hear yourself think. Other people use different language to describe this: meditation, listening to your inner or higher self, hearing the voice of God, and so on. However you wish to think about it, you are avoiding the influences of other voices in order to focus your attention inward. Just as you might step away from a crowd to have a private conversation, a silent retreat provides an extended period of time during which your thoughts can be strictly your own. Silent retreats recall the monastic tradition of vows of silence, which are still practiced today in many contemplative orders; and even some orders that don’t take vows of silence per se, such as the Carthusian monks of The Grande Chartreuse monastery in France, nevertheless remain silent most of the time. In that context, a period of avoiding speech—which for some monks can last months, years, or even a lifetime—is a sign of humility as well as being an aid to prayer and meditation. Some people participate in silent retreats as a religious exercise or because they have a specific problem to solve or decision to make; for others, it’s more of a relaxing vacation, with no real goal attached. But it’s not uncommon for people to begin a retreat without any particular expectations and later find they’ve had a profoundly moving experience.

Sound Decisions

There are no fixed rules for the way a silent retreat should be structured. Often a group will schedule one or two daily sessions during a retreat with a lecture, group prayer, discussion, or some other ritual, temporarily interrupting the silence to give participants some context or direction for their contemplation. It is also not uncommon to have individual coaches, counselors, or spiritual directors meet with participants occasionally to provide feedback or make suggestions as to where attention might be focused. Even without words, though, silent retreats can have an agenda or theme. In addition to Buddhist meditation and retreats organized by various churches, I’ve seen advertisements for silent yoga and t’ai chi retreats, for example. Retreat centers sometimes offer do-it-yourself personal retreats as well, with or without the services of a counselor.

If you look at the comments made by ordinary people who have been on silent retreats, it’s striking how often they say it was a mind-blowing or life-changing event. That the simple act of going without words can affect someone so profoundly shows how unusual silence has become in ordinary life. Even for those who make an effort to avoid extraneous noise, a silent retreat can provide a more thorough and prolonged period of silence. I participated in a silent retreat myself some years ago, and found it quite effective in helping me to clear my mind, organize my thoughts, and make sane decisions. I look forward to my next opportunity for an extended time of silence, and heartily recommend the experience to anyone who likes to think.

Tip: If you’re interested in participating in a silent retreat, you might check with a local church, monastery, or meditation center to see if they organize such events. Alternatively, organize your own or go to a rural retreat center that’s set up for individual participants.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 22, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on July 4, 2004.

Image credit: Pixabay

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day


I’m unsure how poinsettias came to be associated with Christmas. I do know, however, that the name comes from Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist—and the first ambassador to Mexico from the United States—who first introduced them to the U.S., having brought cuttings from southern Mexico. Poinsett died on this day in 1851, which is why Congress chose this date, in 2002, as National Poinsettia Day. But here’s where it gets weird. Even though Poinsett’s expiration date was chosen for the observance, the day is actually intended to honor the contributions of the late Paul Ecke, Jr. (and, to a lesser extent, his father and son) to the poinsettia industry—at one point, Ecke Ranch grew the vast majority of poinsettias sold in the U.S. (The business has since changed hands a couple of times, and a lot of the production has moved elsewhere.) So it’s kind of about the plant, but really, it’s all about the money. And poinsettias are big business, producing annual revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars. Ah, maybe that’s the real Christmas connection!

Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Two buildings in Bodie, California

The liveliest ghost town in the West

One year for my wife’s birthday, I bought her a book called Ghost Towns of Northern California. I was excited to find it, because Morgen is not an easy person to shop for. Ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. By this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. She likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. What do you buy for a person who likes decay? I figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. And I was right: the book was a hit.

We decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. After perusing the book thoroughly, we chose Bodie, a day’s drive east of San Francisco, near the Nevada border. Bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the United States, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay.

Body Language

Waterman S. Body (sometimes spelled “Bodey”) and his partner E. S. “Black” Taylor discovered gold in the area in 1859 and built a cabin nearby. But Body froze to death the following year in a snowstorm while on his way back with supplies. Later that year, Taylor helped to establish a mining camp, which soon took on Body’s name. As a frequently told story has it, the spelling was changed when a sign painter who received verbal instructions guessed incorrectly, but everyone liked the spelling “Bodie” better because it was less likely to be mispronounced, and the new spelling stuck.

The camp grew slowly into a small town with only 20 miners, and was moderately successful throughout the 1860s and 1870s. But in 1878, a huge deposit of gold and silver was found at the Bodie Mine, and news of the strike prompted a rapid influx of miners—along with gold diggers of other sorts, who hoped to profit indirectly. Within two years, Bodie’s population had swelled to over 10,000, making it the second-largest city in California after San Francisco.

At its peak, Bodie had as many as 65 saloons, a popular red-light district, and gunfights in the streets on an almost daily basis. It was a lively—if notoriously lawless—town. A young girl whose parents were relocating the family to Bodie was overheard praying, “Goodbye, God, I’m going to Bodie.” Even as the town was thriving, decadence was its best-known feature.

Life in the Big City

Life was harsh in other ways as well. For one thing, the climate was extremely inhospitable. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains at an elevation just above 8,000 feet (2,400m), Bodie experienced nighttime temperatures below freezing on all but a few days of the year. In the winter, temperatures as low as –40°(F/C) were common, along with extraordinarily strong winds and deep snowdrifts. The thin walls of typical homes provided very little insulation, and wood for heating was expensive. Because Bodie was above the timber line, there were no trees to be found as far as the eye could see, and lumber had to be transported from a source about 32 miles (50km) away. Bodie needed huge amounts of wood, too, as it was used to power the steam-driven mills and mining equipment, besides heating homes. For years, wood was brought in by wagon, but in 1881 a narrow-gauge railroad was built to haul wood from Mono Mills.

Even ignoring the climate and street violence, life in Bodie was difficult for the hardiest of souls. The mills, which ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week crushing ore, were incredibly loud, blanketing the town with constant noise and routinely deafening mill workers. The town also lacked a sewage system, and waste from thousands of outhouses soon tainted all the groundwater in the area, leading to widespread disease.

Fools Rush Out

Within just a few years, however, the gold started to run out, and so did Bodie’s residents. By 1882, the town had shrunk to fewer than 500 people, most of the buildings simply deserted. The following year, Bodie mine stocks crashed and the town shrank even further.

A few people did stick around, however, hoping to squeeze a bit more gold from the failing mines. Jim Cain was a local businessman who had made a small fortune transporting lumber to the town. He bought up many of the mines, as well as the Bodie Bank. Several years later, Cain’s investment paid off. In 1890, he successfully used a new cyanide process to extract significant amounts of gold and silver from the tailings left over from years of mining. Thanks to Cain’s business savvy and modern technology, Bodie enjoyed a minor renaissance.

Currents of Change

But wood was becoming even more scarce, and the high cost of running the steam-powered mills was cutting into Cain’s profits. In 1892, he invested in a new, unproven technology that promised to slash energy costs. A hydroelectric plant was built on Green Creek some 13 miles (20km) away, and power lines were strung to one of Bodie’s mills. Long-distance transmission of electricity was in its infancy, and some still regarded it as a ridiculous idea. Nevertheless, engineers persisted—carefully keeping the power lines straight for fear the electricity would fall out of the wires if it had to turn a corner. The plan worked, making Bodie one of the first towns to receive electricity from a distance. Sadly, however, a major fire just a few months earlier had wiped out most of the town’s business district. And although the mill, with its electric power and cyanide process, remained profitable for decades, the town itself was rapidly fading into obscurity and lifelessness.

By 1932, Cain’s bank was among the few businesses still open in Bodie. In that year, a small boy playing with matches accidentally started another fire. The town had plenty of water and firefighting equipment, but the fire hoses were clogged with debris because intake screens from the reservoirs had not been replaced when they were cleaned. This massive fire wiped out the majority of the town’s remaining buildings, most of which had long ago been vacated. Cain left Bodie shortly thereafter, but he didn’t abandon it entirely: he hired a watchman to protect the town. Even though Cain died in 1939, the town remained guarded, and in 1962 it became a California State Historic Park.

Hold It Right There

California’s park service maintains Bodie in what it calls a state of “arrested decay.” This means that the buildings are kept just as they were found. If a building was leaning, it was braced internally so it continued to lean at the same angle—but no farther. Similarly, any necessary repairs are done as discreetly as possible to preserve the former appearance of the buildings. Only about 170 buildings remain standing, five percent of the town’s pre-1892 size. Of these, most are kept locked to preserve the contents inside just as they were.

If you visit Bodie (as I’ve done several times since that first excursion), you can walk through the streets, gazing into windows of houses, businesses, and schools. Many buildings give the appearance that their occupants left quite suddenly, dropping whatever they had been doing. You’ll see chips and cards from a poker game in progress, store shelves stocked with goods, and schoolbooks open on desks. The effect is eerie, and makes the designation “ghost town” seem quite apt. A few buildings, including the only remaining church, allow visitors inside, and a small museum houses numerous artifacts from Bodie’s heyday. On some days, docents offer guided tours of the Standard Mill and other delicate areas that are normally off limits to tourists.

Bodie is a wonderful place to go if you’re fond of decay. It’s more than just old buildings, too. You can feel the emotions that led to the town’s rise and fall—hope, greed, passion, anger, desperation, sadness. But more than anything, it is a place of great beauty. Not striking landscapes or brilliant architecture, but the beauty of human history in progress—both then and now.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 11, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on November 2, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Landscape with forest mountains

OK, folks, time for some real talk. I’m usually extra enthusiastic about these special days of observance when they’ve been officially declared by a body as eminent as the United Nations, and certainly I’ve enjoyed looking at, and driving around, countless mountains. But—and I say this with the utmost respect for both the U.N. and mountains—do we seriously need an International Mountain Day? I mean, what’s going to happen if we don’t celebrate mountains? Will they disappear…or just feel neglected? And if we do celebrate them, will they get…more mountainous? I mean, I get all the ways mountains are important, but what practical action should all that inspire? So I, personally, will be observing International Mountain Day by continuing to be aware of mountains, as I always am. Done!

Image credit: Stock Graphics

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Entrance to the Mechanics' Institute Library in San Francisco

Exclusive playgrounds for book lovers

Books used to be such rare and wonderful things. I’m not talking about centuries ago, either. During my school years, I felt awestruck every time I visited the large public library downtown. It was amazing to me that as an ordinary citizen—a kid, no less—I could walk in and borrow nearly any book, no matter how old, famous, or important it was. Searching through endless card catalogs seemed like a mysterious black art, and I was always slightly surprised to find that a book I was looking for was actually on the shelves. Wouldn’t everyone in the city want to read this?

I’m equally amazed at the profound changes that have taken place in the last 20 years or so with respect to how people think about books. On the one hand, there seems to be an increasingly common assumption that all useful knowledge exists in digital form, or is at least catalogued that way. Where once a search for information would begin at the library, now it seems that’s the last place many people look—if it isn’t on the web, how important can it be? On the other hand, despite the ever-increasing numbers of books being published and mega-bookstores like Barnes & Noble and, the meme of borrowing books from a library has lost a lot of its vigor. You can order almost any book instantly with one click, and assuming you’re content with an ebook format, you can also start reading it instantly. For a certain segment of modern western society, going to a library for books is now seen as a sign of lower, rather than higher, class.

Be that as it may, libraries remain the primary repository of a huge portion of the world’s knowledge, ready to be uncovered by seekers of all kinds. But there are libraries…and then there are libraries.

Members Only

Public libraries funded by taxes are a relatively modern invention, dating back only to the mid-1800s in the United States. Before that time, members of the general public who wanted access to a large collection of books had to pay for it. One common form of library required patrons to pay monthly or annual dues in exchange for access (which may or may not have included borrowing rights). When public libraries began to catch on, these membership libraries (also called subscription libraries) began to dwindle rapidly; I know of only 22 still functioning in the United States.

One such library is the Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco, of which I was a member during the years I lived there. The library was founded in 1854 as an educational resource for “mechanics”—that is, anyone in an engineering or technical field—providing not just books but also classes, lectures, and cultural programs. By 1906, the library’s collection had reached nearly 200,000 volumes, but they were completely destroyed by the fire resulting from the great earthquake that hit the city that year. Within four years, however, a new building was erected for the library, and with a number of generous donations, it was back in business—this time, with a more general collection to appeal to a wider and less technically oriented audience. It also added a chess room, home to one of the oldest chess clubs in the country but available for use by all members. Today, the Mechanics’ Institute Library is still going strong, with an up-to-date and ever-expanding collection of books, periodicals, audio, and video; the obligatory Wi-Fi for patrons; and a popular series of cultural events. It was one of my favorite spots to do research, write, or just get away from the noise and chaos of the city.

Putting Your Best Book Forward

Why did I pay to go to the Mechanics’ Institute Library when there was a perfectly good public library in town that was much larger, closer to where I lived, and free? That’s a bit like asking why I’d eat at a small, out of the way, expensive French restaurant when there’s a perfectly good mall food court nearby. In other words: you get what you pay for. When I went to the Mechanics’ Institute, I knew that I would be walking into a clean, quiet, beautiful setting filled with great books—as well as intelligent and thoughtful people who, like me, care enough about the quality of their library experience to pay for it. Both patrons and staff take books very seriously—much more so, on average, than what I’ve seen in public libraries.

Plus, for all my facility with internet searches, there’s still something deeply satisfying about finding a piece of information buried in a book or magazine on a shelf in a library. Membership in the Mechanics’ Institute Library is not terribly expensive, but it did give me a certain sense of power and status to be able to swipe my magnetic card and gain access to rooms full of books that most members of the general public have never even heard of. That makes those discoveries of information all the more rewarding.

And there’s something else: reference librarians who are positively itching to help you find information. I always had to avert my eyes when I walked by the reference desk. If I made eye contact, I invariably got this guilt-inducing “why-aren’t-you-asking-me-where-to-find-old-periodicals” look, and I just couldn’t bear it.

During the years I lived in Paris, I was a paying member of a similar institution: the American Library in Paris. Because that library specializes in English-language books, it met an important need for me that the French libraries, excellent though they are, could not.

Membership libraries are somewhat of an anachronism; strictly speaking, no one needs them anymore, because there are other (and, usually, cheaper) ways of obtaining almost any kind of information you may want. Yet the Mechanics’ Institute, the American Library in Paris, and the few other institutions like it are, to all accounts, thriving nonetheless. In part, I believe it’s because they don’t just offer information; the seriousness with which they treat their books and their mission imparts a sacred sense of knowledge as power. That reminder alone is worth the cost.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 3, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on October 20, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day