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.
A Zen monastery isn’t the kind of destination you’d typically think of taking the family on vacation, but that’s what we did this summer. I got up very early one morning in late June, shoveled the 18 year old and the 12 year old into the car, along with some basic camping gear, and drove south for approximately 8 hours, until we arrived at the gates of Deer Park, a Zen monastery in the Plum Village tradition, founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. (My wife didn’t come with us for the retreat, but she joined us later that week in Los Angeles.)
Deer Park is in Escondido, in the San Diego area, up in the hills. The family retreat takes place over a long weekend: You arrive on Thursday afternoon and leave Monday morning, giving you four nights and three full days, plus two half days, at the monastery. Is that a five-day retreat, a four-day retreat, or a three-day retreat? I don’t know. I do know that it was enough time for a little transformation to happen.
I was a little nervous going in, because I’d never been to a Plum Village retreat before and had no idea what the weekend would hold. But over the course of the retreat, we all relaxed and became a bit more mindful. I started to touch a deep feeling of peace and had a few insights that extended my meditation practice. And the kids had an awesome time and were begging to come back even before we had left.
The monks and nuns who run the monastery wear brown robes and shaved heads, and they’re supported by a team of lay volunteers who seemed to be everywhere, doing everything. There’s just enough formality to the schedule to make you realize you’re on retreat, but on the whole it doesn’t feel strict or repressive or excessively “religious.” The monastics are cool, and approachable, and amazing with the children. All the kids were divided up by age groups — the 12-year-old went with the tween group and the 18-year-old with a teen group — and each age group had its own, age-appropriate program. Songs, mindfulness, activities, hiking, talking … I don’t know exactly, as the kids didn’t tell me much about what they were doing. Within the first hour or two of arriving, it was clear that both of my children were going to be very happy staying with their groups and that they needed no help or support from me, except for waking them up in the morning.
We stayed in a tent, although dorm or small room accommodations are also available. The camping area was a large sheltered area under some trees, with many other tents — nothing special, but convenient to the bathrooms and reasonably flat.
A few notable aspects of life on this retreat:
Bells. Whenever a bell rings you are supposed to stop whatever you’re doing, hear the sound, and let it bring you back to the present moment. No matter what you’re doing, you just stop for a few moments and just stay with your breath. Then you resume whatever you were doing or saying. And there are a lot of bells! I realized after a day of this just why this organization’s magazine is called The Mindfulness Bell.
Silent meals. When you line up for food and when you’re eating, you’re supposed to remain silent for most of the time. Kids and families are not too good at maintaining perfect silence, but for the most part we ate without talking (or with minimal, occasional whispering), at least until a bell sounded that signaled it was okay to speak. I thought that was awkward at first but it actually worked, and I wound up making friends with some table mates anyway.
The food. Almost totally vegan. It was filling and delicious. For my daughter, a revelation: She didn’t even realize she had been eating vegan (as opposed to vegetarian) all weekend until I told her. Ice cream is also available for purchase at the bookstore during limited afternoon hours, though they are vegan, coconut “ice cream” bars, which my kids complained lightly about — but not enough to say no to them. Pro tip: Buy some wooden ice cream tokens at the bookstore and keep them in your pocket — that way your kids will be forced to return to you if they want these treats!
Walking meditation. If you’re not used to this style of meditation, it might feel like nothing more than painfully slow walking. The idea is to walk slowly enough that you can be fully aware of each step. When you’re doing this at home, on a city street, or in a park, Thich Nhat Hanh advises walking at a normal speed, so you don’t stand out too much and make other people uncomfortable. But at a monastery, if you do walking meditation in a group led by a monk or a nun, you’re going to be walking much slower than you’re used to. Feel free to enjoy it — while you’re supposed to pay attention to your steps and your breath, you’re not actually supposed to stare at the ground ignoring everything around you. Quite the opposite: Once you get into it, this is a good way to become open to all the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells around you, and even the feel of the air and the sun on your skin. The landscape of Deer Park opened up for me on one of these walks and I was stunned by the variety and beauty of flowers, trees, birds, and other things all around.
Deep relaxation. You don’t spend a ton of time in meditation at a family retreat — there’s a morning meditation session and an opportunity to meditate at the end of the day — but several afternoons there was a chance to participate in “deep relaxation,” which is a guided meditation you experience while lying down on flat cushions in the meditation hall, sometimes with gentle music playing. This is extremely relaxing and just the kind of thing most parents need.
Service meditation. Every day we had to do an hour or two of working meditation. The group I was in got assigned to cleaning up the bathrooms, which was not hard. I heard that sometimes you might get assigned a job, like scrubbing pots after meals, that is harder. I didn’t have that experience — the work our group did was pretty light. At any rate, I found it was quite possible to do the work in a mindful, meditative way, much like walking meditation.
Dharma sharing. Every day the small group I’d been assigned to for working meditation spent an hour or so in a circle, talking about our meditation practice or our experiences at the retreat. I valued this aspect of the retreat but I can see how, for someone not familiar with the Plum Village tradition, this might be uncomfortable.
Dharma talks. These lectures, by senior monastics, gave me lots of food for thought and for meditation practice. My kids didn’t attend most of these, and I wish they had — especially one on the last day of the retreat that was actually aimed at tweens and teens, which the 12 y.o. showed up for but the 18 y.o. skipped. But they were busy doing their own things, and were free to choose what they wanted to do — which was something else.
Practice songs. There’s a whole repertoire of Buddhist songs that people in this tradition like to sing. At the retreat these songs came alive. They’re essentially camp songs, and they’re a little goofy, but they’re fun, and they embody important ideas about the tradition and the practice and make them easier to remember. I came away having learned quite a few of them and their tunes even got stuck in my head a bit. It was a nice feeling.
Noble silence. After the last dharma talk of the evening, or after 9pm at any rate, you’re supposed to keep silent — until after breakfast the next morning. In reality nobody’s too strict about this but it does keep things pretty quiet during sleeping hours. In a camping area filled with children all in tents in close quarters, that’s something to be grateful for.
I had a few experiences during the retreat that were especially intense. There was an evening hike up to the top of a hill, where we ate our dinners and then watched the most amazing sunset — with a simultaneous double rainbow in the opposite direction — that was an almost mystical, nearly transcendent experience of too-much-beauty for me. I wrote about this elsewhere.
There was a moment while I was eating lunch where I had a strong vision of how the food was being consumed and would soon be transformed into my body, but also how the food had started out as something else (dirt, rain, air) before being transformed into that food, and that after it had become me (and poop) it would eventually become something else again. It was a powerful sense of existing as a temporary “node,” or a process, among a bunch of interwoven streams of things-transforming-into-other-things.
I missed my kids. While I was happy they were so involved in their groups I also wished I could have connected with them a little more often. But they didn’t much want to eat meals with me, let alone go to a dharma talk or hike. I saw them at night, when we were going to sleep in the tent, and it was clear they were happy, so that was enough. And later I learned that the retreat had a powerful effect on both of them, teaching them ways of relaxing and giving them a strong sense of peace and belonging.
On the last day of the retreat there was a ceremony for a transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which is this tradition’s version of the Buddhist five precepts for lay people. Anyone who wants to receive this transmission is welcome to sign up for it, and there were 12 or 15 people who did so that morning. This ceremony doesn’t require you to become a Buddhist but it does involve monks and nuns lined up in rows in their formal yellow robes, and there’s a lot of bell ringing and bowing, which gives it some gravity. I found it beautiful and moving. It was a nice way to end the retreat.
After that we packed up our camping gear and reluctantly drove away from the gates of the monastery. Almost instantly the kids, who were terribly sugar-deprived after a few days of such healthy eating, were clamoring for Jamba Juice, so we stopped there before heading on to pick up KJ at the airport and spend a few more days of vacation in and around Santa Monica. But that’s a completely different story!
Approaching 50, I went a little bonkers. I grew a beard, started waking up early in the morning to meditate, got into long email and phone conversations with a couple of spiritually-inclined friends, and started going to weekly meetings with a group of Buddhists. Then, about six months ago, under the influence of the Buddhists, I stopped drinking.
The prohibition on drinking is one of the five precepts for lay Buddhists, and it encompasses all intoxicants. Rephrased by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh as the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the precepts have a more positive, gentler spin, with “no intoxicants” becoming a broader commitment to nourish the body and safeguard health by consuming things (including entertainment and news media!) more mindfully. After some initial reluctance, I realized that the Buddha might have had a point: The alcohol I drank every night wasn’t making it any easier to meditate mindfully the next morning. So I decided to give sobriety a go.
As midlife crises go, this was all pretty tame, to the relief of my wife and kids. I wasn’t buying a bright red convertible, visiting a dominatrix on the sly, or quitting my job and applying to culinary school. And it turns out that not drinking and daily meditation have done me some real good. I’m happier, in general: I’m more aware of my moods, both up and down, but the baseline is higher. Not drinking has made me calmer and more energetic, and I lost about five pounds of beer weight.
But there was one thing about going sober that concerned me, and that was the holiday visit home to Ohio. My recent lifestyle change meant I wouldn’t be able participate in one of the central cultural rituals of my family: Consuming alcohol.
While we drink, a major topic of conversation is what we are drinking, mostly wine and its various provenances and vintages, but also scotch, bourbon, vintage port, Tom & Jerrys, hot toddies, and various craft beers. This is a tradition that goes back several generations, and I didn’t relinquish it lightly.
So I went back to Ohio, where I found myself on the edge of the family dinner conversations, drinking from a wine glass filled with Pamplemousse La Croix, and not really having much to say about which type of wine glass was most appropriate to a Burgundy or a Malbec; how Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Shiraz relate to one another; or what the flavor differences are between vintage port and vintage-style port. I mean, I still have opinions on these things, I guess, and it is a basic form of bonding to do a group play-by-play commentary on a shared experience as it happens. But here’s the problem: I wasn’t sharing in the experience, and anyway my opinions on booze are increasingly disconnected from my reality, like my opinions on lunar eclipses, moderate Republicans, or Los Angeles: things I know exist, but of which I have no recent, first-hand experience. It wasn’t the most relaxing visit ever.
Fortunately, my wife, the kids, and I had planned a short stopover in Chicago after the four days in Ohio. This provided a nuclear-family respite from extended-family drama before we returned home to San Francisco. After a day of exposing ourselves to Chicago’s winter winds, the Field Museum, the University of Chicago, and some Chicago-style pizza, I was already feeling better.
In the late afternoon we went to the Chicago Athletic Association, where there’s a rooftop restaurant and bar called Cindy’s, for a pre-dinner drink. Not eager to join the kids in drinking a Shirley Temple or a Roy Rogers, I opted for a Cold Brew and Tonic.
This drink woke me up. Its bitter tonic and coffee flavors blended in a way that pleased my excitement-starved palate. The shot of sugar and caffeine didn’t hurt, either.
As we gazed out at the glittering apron of the city and the cold steel-colored surface of Lake Michigan from the rooftop deck, I realized I was happier than I had been in months. The anger, frustration, and anxiety that for years had been my excuse for drinking were nowhere in sight. All that mattered was the four of us, enjoying the view, with nothing that needed doing except taking a few selfies and staying out of the wind for a little while. Tomorrow there would be ice skating, and exploring, and just enough snow to make snowballs. For now — in this moment — the roof, the view, and the fire were enough.
The CB&T is a grown-up nonalcoholic drink that comes close to the complexity and in-your-face aggressiveness of an alcoholic cocktail.
First there’s the tonic, which already the most flavor-forward of all the mixers. Tonic water’s quinine astringency is more than half the fun of a gin and tonic, and it is good to know that you can ask a bartender for a tonic and lime over ice and that it makes a decent sipping drink when there’s no good nonalcoholic alternative. But the CB&T takes tonic water to a whole different level.
The other key ingredient is cold-brew coffee; Cindy’s uses Kyoto Black. A Chicago local, Justin Doggett, makes this intense decoction, with a painstakingly slow process involving laboratory glassware and ice water. It’s pricey, at $40 for 1.5 liters (it comes in a beverage bag with a plastic spout on the bottom, like what you find inside a box of wine). But that’s about what you’d pay for a good bottle of liquor, and Kyoto Black’s flavor profile is not unlike that of a scotch or a dark rum. Back home, I’ve experimented with other cold brews, including home-made, and they work, too, so long as they are good and strong.
Mix the two in a glass over ice, about two parts tonic to one of coffee. It foams up in the same way a root-beer float does. Throw in a stick of cinnamon as a twizzler (the cinnamon is key, trust me), stir gently, and finish it with a little spritz from the rind of a lemon.
I asked Justin Doggett about this drink, and he shared an alternative CB&T recipe, which has an even more complex flavor profile thanks to the addition of pomegranate molasses and sugary chai. I prefer the Cindy’s version, but you might like Justin’s, which is sweeter.
Who knows — maybe someday we can sit around over a CB&T or two, discussing the finer points of these recipes, their competing ingredients, and which kind of glass is most appropriate to drinking each one.
Just don’t drink too many, or you really will be awake — wide awake — all night. You (and your family) can only handle so much enlightenment at any one time.
Cold Brew & Tonic (inspired by Cindy’s)
5 oz. Fever Tree tonic water
2.5 oz. Kyoto Black or other strong cold brew
Garnish with a spritz of citrus oil from a lemon peel (and optionally add the twist to the drink)
Cold Brew & Tonic (via Justin Doggett)
0.5 oz. Pomegranate Molasses (Vendor: Rare Tea Cellar)
0.75 oz. Chai Spice Simple Syrup (Strong Chai Concentrate mixed with equal parts sugar)
4 oz. East Imperial ‘Red Label’ Tonic
2.5 oz. Kyoto Black Cold Brew – Black Label Justin adds: “The main points we like to cover are to use crisp, flavorful tonics, East Imperial in this case, and to add the coffee last so the mixture does not get too foamy.”
I’ve been blogging since 1999, when we still called these things “weblogs.”
For most of that time, this blog and my professional life overlapped a lot: They were both mostly about technology. They were both from the perspective of a journalist, first in the tech trades (InfoWorld, PC World), then consumer magazines (Mobile PC, WIRED), then the startup/VC blogosphere (VentureBeat).
In the past year, though, the stuff I’m publishing on my blog has diverged from the tech world I work in.
Now, while I still write about tech, I’m just as likely to be posting about swimming, books, poetry, or a range of topics that I guess you could call “how to live a sane life in an insane world.” In the past 14 months just two out of 10 posts here have been tech-related.
I suppose it’s time to give my readers fair warning: After 19 years this blog, and the Tinyletter based upon it, have moved in a more eclectic direction. If you want to unfollow me now, I won’t take it personally. But I’d love it if you stayed along for the ride.
Blogging is still a useful medium for sharing medium-length ideas, especially since I stopped using Facebook. (Seriously: Facebook is bad for you.) Dave Bonta’s poet bloggers revival project has inspired me to post more. And I think I’ve got a couple books in me that need to come out and see the light of day; some of what I’m working on will appear here as rough drafts first. I still do occasional freelance writing and those stories will show up here, too.
This blog will hold to the same publishing standards: It’ll continue to be just as thoughtful, well-sourced, and well-written as possible regardless of topic, particularly when it’s one of the posts that is also going to the email newsletter. I’m not turning this into a daddy blog or a purely poetry blog; I still want what I publish here to be relevant and interesting to a broad range of people. (Plus, you can follow me on Tumblr if you’re interested in more poetry.)
I’ll continue to write about tech here occasionally: My day job is running communications and content at Valimail, and most of my waking hours are spent thinking about email, authentication, phishing, cybersecurity, and how to create and execute massively effective marketing and communications content campaigns for a growing Silicon Valley startup. As part of that job, I write a lot of posts about email and publish notes from the research reports I produce on the Valimail blog.
I will continue sharing the best insights from that world when they’re relevant to a broader audience. It’s just that those “techie” posts will not be the only posts, or even the majority of the posts, on dylan.tweney.com.
Will you stay with me? Will you bail? Either way, I want to thank you for reading these words, and I wish you the best.
One Saturday in July I went to B Street Books with the 11-year-old to hear the author John Muir Laws talk about his field guide to Sierra Nevada wildlife and his approach to keeping a nature journal.
Laws is a talented illustrator, a gifted naturalist, and an engaging speaker. His field guide is a lovely, accessible, and amazingly comprehensive resource. Unlike other field guides it’s organized by type of creature (insects, fish, birds, plants) and then subdivided by color, with handy color-coded tabs on the right side of each page to make things easy to find (look in this section for yellow flowers, this section for blue birds). I don’t know why more guides aren’t organized this way: It’s the quickest and simplest way for someone who knows next to nothing to find their way to the most relevant pages.
Laws spent six years’ worth of springs and summers in the Sierras, sketching and painting outdoors, and the intervening winters working in his home studio and doing research in museums and research libraries. He cross-checked all his sketches with top biologists and their graduate students, and then field-tested his field guide with inexperienced people (kids and adults) to iron out usability errors. The finished book contains over 3,000 watercolor paintings and is now regularly used by rangers working in the Sierras. Laws even showed a photo of the famous biologist E. O. Wilson with a copy of the Laws guide sticking out of his pocket.
For the second half of his talk, Laws discussed his approach to nature journaling and how to emulate it. In his view, it’s a way of stimulating your awareness of beauty and wonder — which also helps make the things that you see more memorable. The trick is that your brain gets acclimated to things that it thinks it already knows (oh, another California poppy, or even more impoverished: Oh, another orange flower) so it gets inured to the wonder-filled things happening around it all the time. Laws counters that with a three part approach designed to stimulate awareness, curiosity, and creativity. For each thing you record, note these three things:
Awareness: “I see…”: You notice something, draw a picture of it, make notes about it
Creativity: “It reminds me of…” (or more simply “IRMO”): You consciously seek out analogies to what you’ve seen and make notes about those
Curiosity: “I wonder…”: You ask questions or create hypotheses about what you’ve seen.
As an additional stimulus, Laws suggests making three kinds of notes on every page: drawings, words (descriptions), and numbers (measurements). That helps engage a wider range of your brain’s abilities and contributes to the awakening of awareness, creativity, and curiosity.
But what if you don’t feel comfortable sketching, or you’re just too embarrassed because you can’t draw? You can get past that, Laws says: Stick with it, and practice twice a week or so. Within a year your brain will feel more comfortable with the sketching process and you will start to get pleasurable squirts of dopamine when you do it, making it easier and more pleasurable for you to continue practicing.
I came away from his hourlong talk newly inspired to sketch and make notes about nature, not just up in the Sierras or wherever I happen to be vacationing, but also around the Bay Area and my own back yard.
I also came away with a copy of his field guide, and a set of five laminated, fold-out mini-guides to Bay Area wildlife that he also designed.
And, I leave you with a suggestion he made at the beginning of his talk: Support your local bookstore. By all means, use Amazon to browse, search, and read reviews for books. But once you find a book you want, instead of ordering it from Amazon, go down to your local bookstore and ask them to order the book for you. It’ll take longer, it’ll be slightly less convenient, it will probably cost a bit more — but you will gain immensely from supporting your local bookseller and getting to know them a bit. Anyway, it’s certain that Jeff Bezos doesn’t need any more money, but local bookstores do, and events like this one are a shining example of why we all benefit when they continue to exist and thrive.
When I crossed the road I had been on the trail for about a mile and a half, starting with over 700 stairs straight up out of Mill Valley into the forest above the town. I asked the ranger directing cars which way to the Dipsea Trail, and he told me to cross the parking lot and turn right. But a few minutes later, I found myself at the gateway to Muir Woods, tourists milling around and looking up at the tall trees. “This can’t be right,” I thought to myself, so I asked a second ranger. She said I could go back the way I came, or I could proceed through Muir Woods, turn left onto the Ben Johnson trail, and get back on the Dipsea from there. The second route was shorter, she said, but I’d have to buy a ticket.
After waffling for a minute I decided to continue through. I was on the third leg of the Dolphin Club’s Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, and so far that morning I’d already swum from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park (58 minutes), bike to Mill Valley (about an hour), and run as far as Muir Woods. I figured I needed to conserve energy and take the fastest route.
So I paid the $10 entry fee in cash, said no thanks to the brochure the ticket-seller offered me, and jogged into the woods, weaving around families and slow-moving couples as I passed by one monumental tree after another. Entering Cathedral Grove, I noticed the sign requesting respectful quiet, but as it didn’t say anything about speed, I kept up my steady jogging pace.
A sign with a map on it indicated that the Ben Johnson trail would be a left turn after Bridge 4, so when I reached the bridge, I crossed over it and started up the path, excusing myself politely to pass a largish family group that was also ascending. I continued jogging along the trail, marveling at the cool air, the light, the magnificent trees and roots and stumps all around.
Earlier, as I was walking up the stairs that started the trail’s steep ascent out of Mill Valley’s Old Mill Park, I had been glancing at the plaques embedded into the concrete risers. Most of them paid tribute to loved ones, or memorialized families, but one caught my eye. “Enjoy this wonderful moment,” the plaque said, which was somewhat amusing to consider from the point of view of a person suffering up a brutally steep climb equivalent to the height of a 55-story skyscraper. But it also reminded me of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, whose writings repeatedly remind us to recognize the present moment, to enjoy this wonderful moment. So I was savoring that saying, and the awareness of the wonderful moment, as I jogged through the ancient trees, the filtered light, the ferns and dirt and rocks of the trail above Muir Woods.
And then I noticed the trail wasn’t connecting with the Dipsea. In fact, it was curving back down to rejoin the lower, level path through Muir Woods. Dammit! I had jogged back almost to the entrance of the park! Clearly, I realized, I’d taken a wrong turn — again.
Rather than head back out and start over, I decided to take a second jog through Cathedral Grove and turn the correct way this time. Looking at another sign, it was clear that I needed to turn to the right, not left, immediately after crossing Bridge 4, so that’s what I did on my second time across. And as I made my second ascent from Bridge 4 I realized where I had gone wrong the first time: In my rush to pass the large extended family on the trail, I had jogged past the turnoff to the Ben Johnson Trail. The people I was passing had probably stepped aside onto the trail I actually wanted to take in order to let me go by on the wrong path. A lesson in mindfulness: You can enjoy this wonderful moment, but don’t forget to look for the trail signs.
I climbed, more slowly now, noticing the beginnings of cramping in my quadriceps, up the steep Ben Johnson Trail towards (signs indicated) the Stapleveldt Trail. I passed many fewer people now, most of them going the opposite direction. “You run on these trails much?” one person asked me, clearly hoping for directions. “This is my first time!” I answered, just as befuddled as he.
Eventually I took my phone out and switched it out of battery-saver mode so I could use the map. I double-checked my course and confirmed that I was headed the right way, slowly but surely.
About an hour after talking to those two rangers, I finally emerged onto the Dipsea, still climbing, but definitely in the right place. A short while later I reached the aid station called “Cardiac,” which at 1,360 feet above sea level is the trail’s high point. I had reached the four-mile marker of the official course in about two hours, with my diversion adding (I would learn later) about 2 extra miles. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like that mistake might cost me the ability to finish the race. Still, I knew I could keep going for now. A volunteer I knew from the South End offered me mini-candy bars from a cooler full of ice, I drank a couple cups of cool water, and then I jogged along.
Fortunately, after Cardiac the trail stretched mostly downward toward the ocean and Stinson Beach. It turned out that jogging helped the cramps go away; it was only on my slow climbs that my thighs really started acting up. Three miles later I was at sea level again, eating the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’d sent ahead and snacking on red potatoes dipped in salt (a Dolphin Club triathlon tradition, one of the volunteers told me). I checked my watch: It was about 1:30pm, or four and a half hours after I started the event by jumping into the water off Alcatraz. After drinking some more water, I decided not to quit. More accurately, I decided to just keep going. So I headed back up the Dipsea.
The return trail was not easy. A long, hot ascent led up through the brush away from Stinson, exposed to the sun much of the time. While the day wasn’t terribly hot, I was. And my legs were exhausted, although fortunately the cramping problem mostly abated. I walked, rather than ran, on this long uphill. When I reached stairs, I trudged, rather than walked.
But eventually I hit Cardiac again, and I knew that the rest would be downhill — more or less. A dip, followed by another rise of a few hundred feet, still lay in front of me, but it was already about 2:15 p.m. and I knew I could manage the rest of the route in an hour or so. The end was in sight.
I was able to jog on the downhill stretches, and maintained a good walking pace when the trail angled uphill. It was only when I hit the many stairs leading back down to Mill Valley that I truly slowed down again. Over 700 stairs down, and my legs were tired, sore, and absolutely unhappy about being made to lower my body down, step after step. I went slowly and carefully down the steps until, at last, I stepped off the last rise — and there, across the street, I could see Curtis, my son, waiting for me. He waved and ran up to me, and I jogged with him to the finish line.
It was 3:35 p.m. when I finished the race, for a total official time of 6 hours and 35 minutes. I learned later that I’d placed 41st out of a field of 49 finishers. Could have been worse, but not bad given that I ran a total of 16 miles instead of 14. I ate a chocolate chip cookie and guzzled a chocolate milk, and Karen and Curtis took me home.
This was the longest endurance event — the longest period of sustained heavy physical effort — that I’ve ever done. And while it was exhausting, it was also incredibly beautiful and exhilarating. I described it as mainlining the best that the Bay Area has to offer in one six-hour period: Alcatraz, the view of San Francisco from the Bay, Aquatic Park, the trail leading up to (and looking out on) the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bridge itself, Sausalito’s beautiful marshland and downtown waterfront, Mill Valley’s woodsy wealthy houses. And then the trail itself: Old-growth redwoods, rain forest, fragrant bay laurel forest, sun-warmed manzanita chaparral smelling of sage and lavender. Views of the Bay, distant city skyline, the spreading expanse of the Pacific Ocean with its white lines of surf. And all along, at every aid station, the help and encouragement of the volunteers.
I’m not sure I’d exactly recommend this course to tourists (and anyway the event is only open to members of the Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club), but it was one of the best days I’d ever spent outdoors in San Francisco, and I’m glad I did it. The high lasted for days and the sights (and smells and tastes and feelings) will live in my memory for a very long time.
The 17 y.o. came to me this morning full of outrage about something one of my friends had posted on Facebook.
Here’s what I told her: That outrage you’re feeling? That’s what Facebook is designed to produce.
What my friend posted was just her venting. People do that, among friends, after bad experiences. They make outrageous generalizations and say things that aren’t literally true, because they’ve been hurt or they’re frustrated and they just need to blow off some steam. An understanding friend knows how to listen to that and take it for what it really is.
But Facebook exposes that venting to the world, or at least to a wider circle, where it becomes subject to analysis, interpretation, criticism, debate.
Facebook wants to keep you on the site. The more emotionally engaged you are, the more ads they can show you. So it’s designed to make you engaged and keep you that way.
Anger and outrage are among the easiest “engaging” emotions to provoke. All Facebook has to do is show you some emotionally charged content (that may have been someone venting) and encourage you to respond to it.
So if you are easily outraged (as the 17 y.o. is) and you want to make Mark Zuckerberg even richer than he already is, by all means, spend more time on Facebook. You’ll spend a lot more time being angry and upset, though.
I was under the weather the entire first week of July, so I spent July 4 in bed, reading this book by Mitch Horowitz. Published in 2009, Occult America is an entertaining survey of a variety of “occult” religious trends that blossomed over three centuries of American history.
Horowitz starts his account with the arrival of the Shakers, a somewhat controversial choice since the Shakers weren’t especially “occult,” even by Horowitz’s very broad definition: A belief in a mysterious, hidden world that controls what happens in the visible world, and which can be used to understand or control the visible world in ways that aren’t accessible to most of us. But it’s a good point to start the discussion of enthusiastic, sometimes radical outbreaks of charismatic, contagious spiritualism.
In subsequent chapters, Horowitz covers 18th-century spiritualism and Freemasonry; 19th-century Theosophy and Mormonism; the self-reliant spiritualism of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey; African-American hoodoo; Wicca, Ouija boards, tarot, and mail-order spiritual supply houses; Manly P. Hall; and the rise of the New Age.
Occult America makes a persuasive argument that many of these movements were closely linked with women’s suffrage, abolitionists, and other progressive causes, and that as a result they had a substantial impact on the development of this country’s values, politics, and government. The fact that many of these movement were founded by women and/or included many women in leadership positions is no coincidence. (Side note: A research paper by Mary Bednarowski (.pdf), from the 1990s, found some interesting parallels between various outside-the-mainstream groups’ theologies and the leadership role of women.)
Some tidbits of interest:
The “Shaker formulation”: “Keep hands to work even as hearts soar to God”
Madame Helena Blavatsky and her companion Colonel Henry Steel Olcott were not just the founders of Theosophy, but also played a huge role in defending Hindu and Buddhist practices from colonialism, in India as well as in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Blavatsky: “The Theosophical Society means, if it cannot rescue Christians from modern Christianity, at least to aid in saving the ‘heathen’ from its influence.” [p. 47]
Poet James Merrill’s book The Changing Light at Sandover was composed in part with a Ouija board, which Merrill and his partner were so obsessed with that Truman Capote referred to their house as “Creepyville.” Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath also experimented with Ouija-based poetry composition, less successfully it appears. Merrill, on the reality of spirit communication:
“If it’s still yourself that you’re drawing upon,” he said, “then that self is much stranger and freer and more far-seeking than the one you thought you knew.” And at another point: “If the spirits aren’t external, how astonishing the mediums become!” [p. 79]
Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery was aided in part by a mysterious man he met in the woods, “Sandy,” who gave him a root (called “John the Conqueror” or “John de Conker”) that, he said, would make him impossible to beat in hand to hand combat. The next day, Douglass resisted the slavemaster and fought him to a standoff. The incident gave Douglass a sense of inner confidence and power: “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” [pp. 120-121]
“Man has been an alchemist from the time when first he raised himself,” [Manly] Hall wrote. “… Experiences are the chemicals of life with which the philosopher experiments.” [p. 152]
The word “science” was used by New Thought advocates and mentalists like Phineas T. Quimby, as well as Marcus Garvey, to connote magical practices. But it also indicated that certain practices were deterministic, and could be used to better oneself: “Get you[reself], as the white man has done, a scientific understanding of God and religion,” Garvey told a Jamaican audience in 1928. [p. 135-136]