Camilla Townsend has pulled off a remarkable magic trick in this book, reconstituting the Mexica empire with an amazing level of detail and sensitivity. It makes the Aztecs feel like a real people, with a vibrant and complex culture, instead of the cartoon figures that I pictured them as before.
Two things stand out to me: One, her account covers the Mexica (and more broadly all Nahua-speaking peoples) before, during, and after the Spanish conquest. The empire centered in Tenochtitlan was not the beginning of these people’s history nor was the conquest their end. Instead, the empire and the conquest were massive turning points, but she emphasizes that the people stretch back thousands of years before it and continue to this day.
Two, Townsend relies heavily on actual, first-person accounts written in Nahuatl by people who lived within a generation or two of the conquest — people whose grandparents were eyewitnesses to the invasion. These accounts allow the Nahua people to speak for themselves, through Townsend, and the resulting picture is vastly different than histories written from the POV of the invading Spanish, or from archeologists who look only at artifacts.
I am not a historian nor do I know much about Mexican history or the history of the Aztecs, so I can’t evaluate this book critically. Still, I can tell you that it’s a terrific history and a well-written story, and it makes the people of the Valley of Mexico come alive, in all their glory, beauty, terror, anger, despair, and resilience.
It took many months for me to finish reading this book, as I could only manage it in small doses. Dillard writes with an intensity level that starts around 7 or 8 and cranks up to 11 by the end of each chapter, and as thrilling as that is, it can also be difficult to bear. She is a mystic of the sort who finds the divine in nature; her explorations combine close observation of her neighborhood ecosystem, reading obscure 19th and early 20th century entomology texts, and citing Heraclitus, the Desert Fathers, and Martin Buber. There is humor, in flashes, and a really stellar use of language ranging from popular (childhood rhymes and cowboy movie references) to extremely erudite phrases that will send you to the dictionary.
Overall the book’s mood is alternately tormented and ecstatic. One comes away feeling that Dillard is struggling, hard, with the aftereffects of some kind of deeply traumatic experience, of which the frog being sucked dry by a giant water bug — the book’s most disturbing, recurring motif — is just a pale reflection. Sometimes I felt her angst was arising only because she had her framing wrong and was looking at the situation backward, leading her to anguished conclusions (the chapter on “Fecundity” for instance: “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.”). Other times I was grateful and amazed for her ability to describe transcendent/immanent experiences in which the self disappears and life shines forth in all its blinding presence (the chapters on “Presence” and “Stalking” for instance).
Overall, an undeniable classic of nature literature, of course, but also a reading experience I wouldn’t recommend to just anyone. Don’t come here unless you like having your hair set aflame.
A Zen Buddhist chaplain’s memoir, with many stories shining light on what it means to die, and some of the many different ways it can happen. Written with a gentle, understanding, open heart, and a knack for telling detail and flashes of gentle humor. Also, embedded in these many moving personal stories are some core life lessons, about the importance of connection, the power of ritual, and how love helps draw meaning out of the onrushing river of life.
ALSO: If you ever wanted to know what an exorcism performed by a Zen priest might look like, this book has an amazing account.
The toadfish sits on the bottom of the sea, singing a song of love.
It is a creature midway between humble and fabulous. It is small enough to fit into a person’s hand, and has a bulbous, grey-green, wet look. It is quite ugly, except for the luminescent dots (photophores) running along the length of its body, which give it a spiffed-up, dance party look, like the buttons of an ensign’s jacket, thus giving the toadfish its other name: the plainfin midshipman.
I have never seen a toadfish, but I have heard them singing.
Ordinarily the toadfish lives in the deep, dark sea. But when it is time to seek a mate, the toadfish swims up to the shallow, intertidal waters of a bay or slough. The male burrows into the mud at the bottom, and begins to sing, hoping by his song to attract a female to his burrow. Vibrating his swim bladder, the toadfish emits a clear, resonant tone — a steady drone, a hum. Other toadfish nearby tune in, and they synchronize their pitch with one another, so the water column fills with a continuous humming note. It can be quite loud, penetrating the hulls of boats and ships, keeping their occupants awake at night. It may even be loud enough to awaken those on land. It is often mistaken for a sound of mechanical origin: A distant ship motor, a generator, or some other machinery operating on the shore. But no: It is a sound the toadfish have been singing for probably millions of years, since long before humans existed.
On a recent swim along Muni Pier, aka Aquatic Park Pier, I heard the toadfish singing, each to each. I did not think they sang for me. But their song sounded, to me and my swim friend Zina, like a chant, really, a steady, clear, “OM” sound, somewhere around low A, and it was a song I felt I could join. The deeper I put my head into the water column, the clearer and stronger the sound became. If I could swim deep enough, I thought, I could enter into the sound completely, but I might never return. So instead, from the surface, I tried matching the note with a sound of my own, floating there with my face in the water, chanting my own OM into the water, bubbles blowing out of my mouth as I chanted along with the toadfish.
When I found the right pitch, my whole torso resonated with the sound. I had joined the chant, the chorus of the toadfish. It felt like the all-encompassing, penetrating tone of pure love. It was the sound of the universe singing to itself.
So last week I went for a walk before starting work. It was a simple, small walk, just around the block. I was enjoying the sunshine and the blue sky and paused to appreciate the gnarled, massive pepper tree on the street parallel to ours, which I don’t see nearly enough because I usually don’t walk that way. And then, as I was rounding the corner towards home, I walked past a truck.
It was a vacuum truck, with a hose snaking down into a manhole at the corner, cleaning out the sewer. I walked past, taking care to keep at least six feet away from the two workers at the controls behind it.
As I passed the truck, I realized I was walking through a fine mist. I put my head down, held my breath, and walked until I was clear of the mist, then turned around.
I saw that the mist was coming from an air vent at the top of the truck. The mist had now turned to a spray, and the spray was turning dark gray, almost black, in color. It was blasting against a traffic sign, a yellow diamond warning trucks about the height of the train bridge just ahead, and the sign had turned almost completely black.
It was then I realized I had just walked through a cloud of aerosolized sewage. A literal shitstorm.
I walked straight home, took my clothes off directly into the washing machine, and jumped into the shower. After thoroughly scrubbing myself off and then rinsing my mouth with Listerine, I got dressed for the second time that morning and came downstairs to explain to my family what had just happened.
I called the public works department to complain, and then went off to my office to start preparing for the half-dozen Zoom meetings I had that day. But no sooner had I sat down than I heard the sounds of the vacuum truck, closer this time, and over its machine noise, the sounds of my wife yelling.
I ran back to the front of the house to find that the vacuum truck was now parked right in front of the neighbor’s house, and here it was spraying the black sewage mist all over the neighbor’s car and lawn. The mist was also drifting across our front yard and porch. The workers were trying to control things by spraying their truck with clean water, to no effect.
The truck was too loud for the workers to hear our yells, so we called public works again, and I also called up the number listed on the truck’s side. Eventually the men stopped their work and gave us some lame excuses. A little while later a supervisor showed up so we could yell at him for a bit and — between the yelling — give us the back story.
The truck’s fill sensor had malfunctioned, so its tank overflowed, which caused the first spraying incident. The workers dumped half the tank back into the sewer, and then came down the street to try and vacuum up the overflow that was, by then, going down the gutter, past our house, and towards a storm drain, where, if they let the sewer water flow in, the company might be facing significant penalties, thanks to the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately there was still some kind of clog in the pump, so even though the tank was nearly empty, the shit was still hitting the fan.
I appreciate the work these men do — it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it — but, as I told the supervisor on the phone, they might need to take better care of their equipment, and train their workers on how to handle a malfunction like this. After getting a new truck and cleaning up the gutter properly, the men washed off the neighbor’s car and hosed down our porch (twice). And while I was nervous for a few days, it seems clear I didn’t get sick from the sewage, nor did any of our family members. It’s possible, if it contained coronavirus, that I could still be incubating it. But the black water was from older sludge on the bottom of the sewer line, not fresh sewage, so I think my odds are pretty good.
Still, walking through a literal shitstorm is not what you want to be doing during a pandemic.
Your Zen teachers will have a field day with that story about the shit mist, my friend Susan said, reminding me of the story about Unmon and the shit stick.
I suppose this is a chance to cultivate equanimity. It’s not easy. But in the meantime, it makes for a good story.
Ordinary mind, Buddha mind. Shit stick, shit mist. What’s the difference?
Can you see the Buddha in a cloud of shit? In the middle of a pandemic?
One of the last decisions we had to make when my father was in hospice care was whether we wanted a teddy bear made out of one of his shirts. It was just a day or two before he died, and we didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but it was clear he was getting close to the end. The hospice nurse, on one of his regular visits, asked us if we wanted this free service, as it was included in the hospice fees. (If we wanted extra bears, we could order them for $60 each, but the first one was free.)
I imagine there are people for whom this kind of thing would be a great comfort. But for anyone who’s in this situation and doesn’t already have a clear sense of how to answer, my advice is simple: Do not request a teddy bear made out of the shirt of your deceased loved one.
I don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to let them do this. I was grieving, my father was dying, and I was so focused on his and the family’s needs that I could hardly be bothered with something as remotely relevant and tacky as deciding whether or not we wanted a bear. Or what to do with his body — another awful question the hospice nurse asked us during the same visit. The man is still alive, and he’s lying right there between us, I wanted to shout. And you’re asking whether we want his body cremated or embalmed? Fortunately, my stepmother K. knew how to answer this question.
But for the hospice shirt bear, nobody knew what to say. K. joked about it, because it reminded her of an old Car Talk episode that she and my dad had a good laugh over. In this episode, a caller had described a shared office building in his town that housed both a veterinarian and a taxidermist. Click and Clack had suggested that the two could buy a shared billboard with the slogan “Either way, you get your pet back!”
But while we chuckled about it, there were looks going back and forth between K., my brother, me, and my wife — and nobody seemed to be actually making a decision. So I said to the hospice nurse: OK, we want the bear. Better to have it and not want it than not have it and wish we did. So K. gave the nurse one of my dad’s blue checked button-up shortsleeve shirts, the kind of shirt he had a dozen of in his closet and which he always seemed to be wearing, with a couple pens and other stuff in the pocket. And I filled out the shirt-bear request form, and gave it to the hospice nurse.
And then my father died, and I forgot all about the bear.
Eventually, though, it arrived. The hospice nurse had to mail it to me because K. refused it. So it arrived wrapped up in tissue paper one day, lovingly packed into a box, along with some sentimental printed notes from the hospice shirt bear maker. And the maker’s business card (in case we wanted more, I suppose).
It was ghastly.
This bear was made out of Dad’s shirt, all right. It had two little button eyes, a button heart, and a ridiculous pair of ribbons tied around its neck. It was just like a child’s teddy bear, except, horribly, made out of my dad’s old shirt.
Nobody would want a bear like this. Those who loved my dad would not be able to see past the absurdity of his shirt being made into a teddy bear. (Not a big teddy bear guy, my dad.) Anyone who didn’t know him wouldn’t want a weird blue bear made out of biology-teacher plaid. There are no small children in our family at the moment and at any rate, with those buttons, it is probably not safe for babies or toddlers. And would you really want your baby snuggling and drooling on a bear made out of Grandpa’s old shirt anyway?
The only member of our family who seemed interested in the bear was our dog Lucy, who was eager to tear apart a new stuffed toy. I wasn’t letting that happen either.
So I set the bear on a shelf next to the stairs, out of reach of the dog. And every time I went up or down the stairs for the next two weeks I saw the bear, and sighed.
Then the shelter in place order came down and we all started living at home all the time. I saw the bear about twenty times a day now. It was really getting to be too much.
Fortunately, the solution soon arrived. My brother pointed out an article from Australia about how people are putting stuffed bears in windows (and hanging them from fences, roofs, etc) so that children who are out on walks with their parents can spot them, as a kind of find-the-bear quarantine game. A few days later, I saw a similar headline in the Chronicle, which confirmed that it was a thing here, too.
So now I knew just what to do. I got some string, and an index card, and a Sharpie, and I put the bear in the window.
It solved the problem. The bear has found its purpose. It makes me laugh, now, instead of grimace. And it’s still out of reach of the dog.
I’m not entirely sure I know the difference between grief and depression.
My father died on February 7, and for the past two and a half weeks, I’ve been grieving his death. This is normal and expected. It’s exactly the kind of ordinary devastation that people all over the world feel every day, that we will all feel eventually.
We saw it coming from a long way off. I spent two weeks in early January caring for him at his home in Nevada, and then helping him move into a hospice care facility; I spent another weekend with him in late January; and then I spent the last few days by his side as he declined towards his last day on Earth. And the grief was still a surprise when it hit.
I then got sick almost immediately
after returning home — my immune system almost certainly weakened by the grief
I was carrying — and it was the nasty cold/flu that seems to be going around
all over this year, with about three days of complete exhaustion and fever,
followed by ten days of somewhat milder symptoms, varying day by day: coughing,
eyes running, nose running, sneezing. KJ got sick too, and even the 13-year-old
had a couple days of illness.
And then, with the grief and the sickness, I started to feel like I just couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t get going. I didn’t do laundry, I could barely read or talk with my family, I hardly wanted to eat. I lost all of last weekend to a sleepiness and weariness that is only now just starting to lift. This weekend has been somewhat better, but still low.
So whatever I’m feeling now, it’s
almost certainly a mixture of grief, sickness, exhaustion, and depression.
These feelings don’t fit well
into the narrative of Silicon Valley, or really any part of the working world,
as far as I know. I’ve been fortunate that my bosses have been incredibly
understanding of my need to be with my family, and of my subsequent sick days.
I’ve had nothing but support at work. I would have taken the time to be with my
father during his last few weeks anyway, but to know that I don’t have to find
a new job after returning certainly makes things easier. I’m grateful for that.
But it’s not support, or the
lack of it, that I’m talking about. It’s something more existential: A sense of
not fitting. It’s the matter of trying to put one foot in front of the other,
to keep the fingertips moving on the keyboard, to keep smiling at my coworkers,
when the trap door of grief is opening up under my feet.
I’m not fully concentrated at
work. My sense of time is a little off. Everything seems far less important
than it did before. And really, is there anything that Silicon Valley wants to
hear about less than the inevitability of death?
What to do with all these
feelings? All this perspective?
My answer for now: I’ve been caring for myself as best I can, and taking it a day at a time. When the energy levels permit, I do yoga and qigong exercises that I’ve learned can help with feeling centered and happy. I stretch. I try to fit as much meditation as I can into my waking-up routine, although some mornings it’s just ten minutes at the kitchen table, cradling a warm cup of coffee in my hands. I’m a long way from regularly doing an hour of yoga and meditation every morning, as I was before.
I reached out to two Buddhist teachers I know this weekend. Each of them was very generous with their time, and spent over an hour talking with me, pointing things out and helping suggest some practices I can follow. More time on the zafu. Some helpful rituals for the memory of my father. Recognizing how lucky I am, how lucky we all are, to be alive. Seeing the lesson of my father’s death as a gift, an awakening, as something to be learned from and remembered. That, deep within the grief, there is also a reason to be thankful: Gratitude for the time I did get to spend with him, gratitude for his parenting, gratitude for his example, and for the chance to learn from his passing, this transition that we all must eventually make.
And most of all, the teachers remind me, remember to breathe.
Inhale. Pause. Exhale, slowly
and deeply, as if you were sighing. Notice that pause at the end of the
out-breath: That emptied-out moment, when you let go of everything just a
little bit more, and the body settles into itself just a little bit deeper.
That moment: A glimpse of the last breath, of the peace that might be possible
when you let go with both hands.
And then: The in-breath, as
natural as can be, filling the lungs again.
Ryan D. Tweney, professor, book collector, husband, father, and mentor, died February 7 in Pahrump, Nevada, aged 76. Born in Detroit, Ryan was raised by his mother Helene Tweney and grandmother Viola Marciniak, and educated at Cass Technical High School, the University of Chicago, and Wayne State University, where he earned a Ph.D. in psychology. He taught psychology at Bowling Green State University for over 35 years, inspiring and educating generations of undergraduates and graduate students, particularly with his history of psychology course, which has been described as “legendary.”
A lifelong lover of books, learning, and discovery, he was a scientist at heart, and devoted much of his research in cognitive psychology to the study of other scientists, helping to shape the field of psychology of science, and elaborating and exploring theories of confirmation bias, hypothesis formation, scientific creativity, and more. Author and contributor to countless research papers and several books, a large part of his studies focused on the work and diaries of the 19th-century physicists Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.
In later years his love of the American Southwest and geology led him to the great Mojave Desert, Death Valley National Park, and eventually to retirement in nearby Beatty, Nevada. There he divided his time between his ongoing academic pursuits, including occasional teaching, and his love for taking to the backcountry in his 4×4 with his wife and friends to collect rocks; to explore the desert, the mountains, and the trails running through them; to search out history and old, long-abandoned sites of human habitation; and to marvel at the mind-numbing complexity and sheer beauty of the geology he saw everywhere he looked. He also supported the local fight to save the endangered Amargosa Toad and joined the board of the Beatty Public Library, offering his organizational and writing skills to help with grant applications, community meetings, and planning.
Always generous with his time and advice, Ryan was a beloved mentor to many students, colleagues, and family members. He is survived by his wife, Karin “Kit” Hubert; two sons, Dylan and Chris; a stepson, Seth; and three grandchildren whom he adored: Clara, Curtis, and Vivienne. The world is smaller for his passing.
It’s November, and in the seasonal ebb and return of the San Francisco economy that means it’s time for Dreamforce, the annual tradeshow hosted by Salesforce.com. It’s one of several annual conferences large enough not only to occupy all of the Moscone Center’s three massive buildings, but to spill out into and take over the adjacent street, occupying a full city block of Harrison Howard Street. As a demonstration of corporate power’s dominance over civic power in the 21st century, you don’t get much more vivid than this: A heavily used street is closed down and given over to private use, traffic is redirected at great inconvenience and cost, and the police are called in to protect and preserve this now-private space for the duration of the weeklong conference. Plus there is most of a week before given over to setup and a few days after for teardown.
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In this privatized city block, Salesforce will erect pavilions, roll out Astroturf, set up food kiosks and stages for entertainment — and all for the benefit of its paying customers. Last year there was even a private “park,” with temporary trees and greenery, with signage that echoed the National Park system’s. At a time when the real National Parks are being starved of operating budgets and their irreplaceable natural wonders are being reconsidered as concessions to be developed by the gods of capital — hotels! amusement park rides! Wi-Fi! — the irony of a miniature “National Park” popping up in San Francisco, but designated for the exclusive use of Salesforce customers, struck me as more than a little ironic.
Yes, Dreamforce brings dollars to the city, and to its hotels and restaurants in particular. Such is the deal: Give us temporary use of your public spaces and in return we will pay you, while those who are paying us will also pay you.
At least it’s temporary, and the expenses (extra policing, traffic control, etc.) are paid for by Salesforce, so unlike, say, a publicly funded sports arena there is no economic hangover after the circus leaves town.
This year, Dreamforce again includes a group of monastics from the Plum Village community founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, the second-most famous Buddhist in the world. These brown-robed Zen monks and nuns are offering meditative walking and mindful eating sessions to Dreamforce attendees, in and around a Plum Village Center within Moscone. Again, it’s complicated: “The practice of mindfulness is deeply rooted in Salesforce culture,” the website tells us, and that no doubt helps the company and its employees be more present and aware of the world and their effects on it. The addition of a meditative, spiritual component within a conference that Dan Lyons called a “triumph of vulgarity and wasteful spending” seems like a beneficial balancing element, a beacon of hope for the lost souls stuck in the pit of Mordor. To have a place of refuge, where people can escape the teeming, noisy, busy halls of the tradeshow, is certainly a relief. It may even help make the attendees better people, as meditation and the practices of the Plum Village community have undoubtedly made me a better person.
Salesforce founder Marc Benioff is a longtime supporter of Thich Nhat Hanh, and even offered up his San Francisco home as a residence for Nhat Hanh and his monks and nuns after the latter suffered a stroke in 2015. For months, Nhat Hanh received treatment at UCSF, while dozens of monastics resided in Benioff’s house, accompanying and supporting their teacher. Such relationships, between wealthy patrons and famous monks, have been essential for the continuation of monasteries throughout millennia.
But what is the function, commercially speaking, of a group of Zen monastics in the heart of a tradeshow? What benefit does Salesforce receive for including these monks and nuns? Are they merely a distraction? Another form of entertainment? A way for Salesforce to convey how hip and “different” it is?
Like the word “Dreamforce,” the effect leaves me a bit confused. The combination of something diffuse and spiritual — a dream — with the hard-edged charisma and implied threat of “force” — is a bit like an iron fist in a velvet glove. It’s easy to take it superficially, and be calmed and reassured by the fuzzy exterior, only to be brought up short by the solid material realities: The street is closed, Salesforce owns it this week, and they’re using it for a festival of sales optimization, data collection, customer tracking, and revenue generation.
November is also the time, in the Bay, when the water takes a turn toward the cold. After hovering in the mid-low sixties (Fahrenheit; 60F is equivalent to about 16 degrees Celsius) throughout September, the temperature drops to the high fifties in October and then hits 55 (13C) and keeps dropping in November. This is where things get real. Every degree colder is a noticeable, uniquely different experience. Going from 55 to 54 feels bracing, 53 starts to feel painful, 52 is difficult to face, 51 shockingly cold, and anything at or below 50 (10 degrees C) starts to feels positively icy. We’re not yet at the lower end of that range, but you can feel it coming, the cold, lurking out there beyond the Golden Gate like a massive, liquid mountain of anti-heat, drawing closer every week and bringing cold currents with it. For the cold water really does originate out at sea, welling up from the depths, and as fall advances into winter the tides pull more and more of these ribbons of cold into the Bay, mixing them and swirling them around before flushing them back out to sea. Meanwhile there is less sun every day to shine on the waters in the shallow parts of the Bay, so the warming that happens in the summer is curtailed. It’s as if the front door has been opened to the cold and the heater shut off at the same time: Very quickly the house gets to be the same temperature as the outdoors.
For those of us who swim in the Bay, a regular schedule is key to maintaining one’s cold-water acclimation during these waning months of the year. If you were swimming comfortably without a wetsuit in September when it was 65, you can continue comfortably at 55 provided that you kept swimming at least a couple of times a week during the month that the temperature was dropping. Twice or three times a week is plenty for your body to adjust — and it can and will adjust magnificently— provided you are relatively consistent about it. Unfortunately for me, I have only managed to swim once every week or two for the past couple of months, so I’m not having an easy time of it. I have enough cold water experience that I’m not totally unprepared, and my body adjusts quicker than it did a few years ago when I first started swimming in the Bay, but I still exercise caution. I’m not spending much more than half an hour at a time in the water, and I’m keeping to the safer waters inside Aquatic Park rather than venturing further away from the shore, the showers, and the sauna. I’ve already heard a couple of stories about swimmers experiencing hypothermia, one of whom had to be taken to the emergency room, and I’m not about to put myself in that situation if I can help it.
So there I am, when I swim, diving into “bracing” water and reminding myself how good it is for my heart, my brain, and my mental attitude. It takes my breath away, every time.
“The Institute” is a dark vision of psychic power and how it could be abused by a shadowy organization that transcends any one government — people who believe they are doing massive good for the world while actually inflicting tremendous evil on the children they are using.
Like most of Mr. King’s work, it’s a page turner. Once the story picked up speed I got obsessed with it and felt compelled to read the last third of the book as fast as I could. Unfortunately, the first half of the book is oppressive. I believe King really wants us to feel how miserable the conditions are for the kids — but this part is so long, it drags a bit, and I found it was making me frankly depressed.
Lots of fun to read by the end though, and plenty of spooky (and exciting) action to keep the story charging forward in the last couple sections. And the reader is left with some interesting thoughts about the power that psychic abilities could have, if they were real — as well as some chewy moral considerations about what’s acceptable and what’s not, when your goal is to save the world.