Monday, November 8, 2010

Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau

31 October 2010: Early on this cold, gray Sunday morning, I drive out to Walden Pond, to visit the woods when it is quiet. I walk the paths around the pond, where some 165 years ago Henry David Thoreau also came to spend 2 years in the quiet of the woods.

Much has been written about Thoreau. But what touches me most is the idea of living simply and going to the woods for the quiet and peace of nature.

A Brief History of Walden Pond

The glacier: The story begins 15,000 years ago with the retreating Laurentide Glacier sculpting a deep fresh-water pond. Over much of the New England landscape, the glacial retreat carved out ponds and left mounds we now call hills or drumlins.

The transcendentalist: In 1845 this little kettle pond had a visitor. A 28-year old philosopher and graduate of Harvard College arrived in Concord, where his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson owned land on the north and east shores of Walden. Only 1 years earlier in Concord, the Fitchburg Railroad was built from Boston. This line provided transportation that allowed Thoreau to venture from Boston to the woods at Walden.

Life in the Woods:
Thoreau proceeded to build a simple cabin near the pond, “squatting” on his friend’s land. His purpose is summarized on a sign near his cabin site. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. And see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Below: The site of the cabin is marked by the granite stones
Below: Replica of the cabin (near the parking lot)

Below: Walden Pond as Thoreau would have seen it from his cabin.

Thoreau, a Kindred Spirit

In high school, Henry David Thoreau was one of my favorites. I really loved the idea of living simply, without a lot of clutter and distraction. I enjoyed reading about his days living near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. But, I lived over 200 miles (350 km) away in New York State, so I had no idea of what the pond or woods at Walden looked like.

But I came to know a secluded pond near where I lived. Pine Meadow Lake was deep in the woods away from paved roads, and about a 1/2 hour hike. It was like my little Walden Pond. As a teenager, I was shy, socially awkward. I didn’t not quite fit in, and felt my family did not understand this yearning within. So, like Thoreau, I too went to the woods was where I could think and clear my head. With sunlight glistening off the clear waters and filled with the starry idealism of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, it was my little oasis.

Living in Massachusetts

I came to Boston for college, in part to get some distance from my family and become my own person. Though I was nearer to Walden, it was years before I visited. (I think the first time might have been skinny dipping in the moonlight while in college – not exactly a spiritual pilgrimage to the sacred ground where my kindred spirit lived.

A bit older now, I’ve been to Walden a number of times to walk around the pond and spend a few moments at the site of the cabin. The reservation at Walden is well-used by swimmers and hikers and fishers. It’s probably, too well used.

So, I came to visit early on this chilly Sunday morning, when the woods are quiet and peaceful. It is the last day of October. The foliage is long past its peak of brilliant hues. The sadness and melancholy of fall becoming winter is setting in. Yet, I came, to spend a few moments, to contemplate living simply, and to share this with my on-line friends.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Feline Thermal Units

Fall is here and the days are shorter and colder. Being staunch New Englanders, we resist turning on the heat until at least Thanksgiving. (New Englanders joke that this gives us something to be thankful for!) Without heat, how to keep warm? Warm sock, sweaters, staying active (e.g., I never feel cold when I’m vacuuming). That’s a few ways.

But our favorite: feline thermal units (or FTUs)! To you, they may look like ordinary house cats. But as warm blooded mammals, they give off a good bit of heat. While heat and air conditioning are often measured in BTUs (British thermal units), we’ve converted from BTUs to FTUs.

Our FTUs come with other nice features: soft fur, a pleasant meow, and deep purrs (they have a 4-stroke motor – after 4 strokes on the head or back, they start a gentle yet strong purr). They also come with 4-on-the-floor, pointed ears, and a sandpaper tongue – all standard equipment.

So, whether watching TV sitting on the couch or sleeping in bed, before we turn on the heat, we take advantage of our FTUs!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Climbing a smaller mountain

Last year we took on the 2,000 foot (650 m) climb of Mt. Monadnack in New Hampshire, the 2nd most climbed mountain in the world, with a summit at 3,165 feet (965 meters). It took some time, but the view from the mountaintop and the sense of accomplishment was worth the effort.

This year, we took on a smaller mountain, known as Pack Monadnack, located in Miller State Park. I think of it as the little baby sister of Monadnack. It is about a more modest 800 foot (250 m) climb from the base parking area to its summit at 2,290 feet (750 m). At right is the view of the big mountain taken from the climb of "little sister."

Still it was an enjoyabe climb. And from a tower on the top of the mountain, one can get a good view all around.

Left: the vista towards Mt. Monadnack, from the climb up Pack Monadnack.

Below: along the trail on the climb

Below: The flora along the path: white birch, oaks, ferns

Below: Vista from the tower at the summit

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


My idyllic version of a summer evening: warm (but not too humid), a clear sky, and a big field or meadow to roam barefoot, just at dusk as the fireflies come out.

This is just such a vivid image from the few times in my childhood when I was away from the city, often on vacation or visiting family. There were a few early teen years when we lived outside the city, but by then, fireflies were not the first thing on my mind.

I just love watching them fly. If it is just after dusk, you can often see them between blinks. But as night approaches, it is only their occasional blinks of yellow light that hints at the pattern of their gently looping flight above the lawn or into the bushes and trees. It is just such a peaceful scene.

I love to catch one just momentarily and peak as it blinks in the darkness of my cusped hand. Then, I let it just fly away. So, gently.

But, their blinking has romantic overtones as the males are in search of their mates. What a wonderful courting ritual!

While I love living in the city, I truly miss the spectacle of fireflies in the meadow on a warm July night!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

My Little Garden, the 2010 Edition

Living in the city, there's not much space for anything. But, we have a tiny little patio behind our home and I can do some gardening around the patio. I love getting my hands in the soil and planting my flowers and vegetables. And I enjoy watching everthing grow and make this little patio in the city as my little pretty oasis. For comparison, see my 2009 garden and my 2008 garden.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Of the Fear and Joy of Flying

For me, I have two thoughts about flying. First, the views from flight can be spectacular, being up with the clouds and looking down on fields and farms and cities and mountains. And then there’s the anxiety and sweaty palms that comes during turbulence and rough landings.

Last week, I took to the airways for the first time in a year for a family wedding. It was a week that can be summed up by saying life sometimes passes faster than we can appreciate it. One day, I’m in tears as my youngest is graduating from high school (my baby boy is grown up!) and the next day we’re up before the dawn to fly west. And we left our graduate with his brother, hoping they would eat something nutritious, wash a few dishes, feed the cats, and keep the house in some condition that we might recognize when we returned.

Flying is something I’m a little reluctant about. As an engineer, I usually know how things work. In fact, in many cases, I know the equations and have run the calculations. I can figure out how much to bank a curve for 60 mph. I had to figure out the forces in each member of a truss bridge. I can figure out how big to make a drain pipe.

But I never learned the equations for flight, so I always worry: How does it stay up in the air? I know all about the velocity vectors and how to calculate the arc of a baseball traveling 90 mph and leaving the bat at an angle of 90 degrees. But the baseball soon falls to the ground, while a place stays up there for hours.

I’ve heard about “lift” and somehow the forward velocity of the plane combined with the wing angle actually causes it to go up despite the relentless pull of gravity that brings all things down to earth, eventually.

So, on takeoff, particularly, I’m imaging all these velocity vectors and force diagrams and I'm rooting with all my strength that the “lift” term in the equation wins out of the force of gravity. (Otherwise it would be a very short flight!)

But this is why I prefer to drive or take the train: I know the equations and I know how it works!

Despite my uneasiness, I must say that flight is one of the great marvels of human accomplishment. To be able to soar above the clouds and gaze down at the earth 30,000 or 40,000 feet (0.9 to 1.3 km) below! To see towering, fluffy clouds from above! To see amazing sunsets or sunrises appearing in elongated landscape format! How inspirational it must be for artists.

No sooner than a day later, I was at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. And there on exhibit was her Sky Above Clouds III/Above the Clouds III (1963). There is that unique view of the dusky horizon. And what a creative presentation of cloud tops, appearing like white lily pads clustered on a broad pond. The view is almost other-worldly. More about Georgia O’Keeffe in another post!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One Mom's Alternative to the Minivan!

This mom and her customized bicycle caught my eye during the spring city bike ride. Every year here in Cambridge we have a city bike ride in May as part of Bike Week. It's a great chance for riders of all abilities to enjoy a ride around the city.

"One less minivan" was the rear plate on this mom's bike. It featured two seats suitable for young children (although it appeared only one child was riding today) The bike also have attachments for bags, water bottles, and other items. Plus headlights and rear lights.

She's saving on the cost of gas, has less problems finding parking spaces, and is not polluting with car fumes. Now, not every mom can ditch her minivan or SUV and take to the road with a multi-passenger bicycle. But, still, I had to admire this mom and her alternative to the minivan!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Other Spring Thoughts

Spring is here at last, and first love is the budding and flowering that signals rebirth. Recently, I was feeling a little sad that things were progressing so fast at times I could not take it all in. But then I realized another aspect of spring: the rebirth is unbounded.

Listen to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring - the music approaches a frenzy at time, almost out of control. Spring is a primative season and cannot be tamed!

Spring is the season of love, especially young love. I remember a spring walk through the Riverway park, talking and enjoying each other's company.... Even as I'm many years older now, it's a season that re-energizes me to get outside and walk and ride my bicycle and feel the warmth of the sun.

Speaking of love, I will also have a special place in my heart for my hometown of New York City. There's no place like it. I was there last weekend for the briefest of stays (about 5 hours) for a family gathering, but on a hotel rooftop, I could watch the sun set over the Hudson River and dusk arrive as the skyline lit up.

But I still haven't seen my favorite New York City park, the High Line Park built on the old railroad trestle down the west side of Manhattan. (Check out my blog post from last spring on this wonderful reuse of an industrial structucture.) Well, next year will be the first with an "empty nest" so a weekend in Manhattan (with a visit to the High Line) may be possible!

Photo below is from

Friday, April 2, 2010


Good Friday was warm and sunny, a sure sign that spring has come. I had taken time off from work to focus on these days, which are central to the Christian faith. Especially for those who were brought up as Christians from birth (such as I), Good Friday can come and go without much reflection. We know what it’s all about: we know the story of betrayal, arrest, questioning, torturing, and death of Jesus.

This year I spend part of the day walking and reflecting. I wanted to have some time set aside from the daily routines so I could maybe gain a new understanding of what this day means to me.

I had thought of going to a church to reflect, but something about the warm day and sunshine seemed to be drawing me outside – perhaps in the warmth of the day, I could find a quiet place where I might be lead to an understanding.

My question was how should recall this day. Do I focus on the suffering and death of Jesus? How would Jesus want us to recall this day?

Gratitude. That is the understanding that came out of my reflections. That is simply what Jesus would want me to feel about his suffering and death. Profound gratitude.

The deed is done; never again need Jesus suffer and die. As some would say “His pain is our gain.” We are freed from sin and Jesus taught us how to live our lives.

Since the deed is done, once and for all time, it is not necessary to focus on the brutal treatment Jesus received. This suffering is described in the Gospels and portrayed in detail in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The suffering is fact, but the fact or details of the suffering should not the focus point of our understanding of what it means for our lives.

I don’t believe Jesus wants us to suffer unnecessarily. We don’t need to invite suffering, because life will present each of us with our own share of suffering. Or friends or family around us will have their share of suffering. But we know Jesus understands our suffering and is with us. And I believe Jesus wants us to be with each other in the suffering and needs that we experience in life. I believe that being with each other in their time of suffering or need is the good way to demonstrate our gratitude for what Jesus did.

Gratitude. Gratitude for profound love for us that Jesus demonstrated. Gratitude for showing us a way to live and be with others. Gratitude. That is how I would sum up the meaning of this Good Friday.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

“…the music for the ceremony, I know you said you’re not very traditional….”

Lunchtime, I'm taking a walk through the park and overhear somehting:

“…the music for the ceremony, I know you said you’re not very traditional….”

That’s all I heard. A mere snippet of a conversation. Not even a complete sentence. A woman, maybe 30-ish sitting on a bench in the park at noon, talking on her cell phone as I walked by.

So many half conversations we hear with people on cell phones, walking near us or on the bus or train; many annoying half conversations. But this was different. This one truly intrigued me!

My mind was racing to fill in all the other details.

Clearly, this was a wedding, no? Ceremony and music and not traditional – what else could it be?

But who was this woman on the bench? Was she the wedding planner? Or a curious friend? Or the music director at the church where the wedding would take place? Clearly, she was not just interested but had a real need to know about the music. I could tell this from the tone of her voice.

And whom was she talking to? Probably, the bride-to-be, I would guess. Or maybe both of them were on the call. But, again from the tone of the woman on the park bench, it sounded to me like there was only one person on the other end of the call. It sounded very person-to-person.

So, here we have wedding planner or someone involved in the ceremony talking to the bride-to-be. It’s March, so probably the wedding is a couple of months away, maybe May or June. But the bride is not “very traditional” so what must she be like? Is she a “free spirit” who wants a very different style of ceremony, maybe very simple, maybe more intimate in the setting. Maybe on a few dozen guests? Anyway, it’s probably not in a big church with hundreds in attendance. Maybe it’s in a small chapel, or in a small room off the reception hall, or outside in a garden.

An what about the dress? Not too traditional, hmmmm. No long trains. Maybe something simple yet elegant. Maybe not pure white, but an off white. Probably no large bridal party either, maybe only the Maid of Honor and Best Man. Maybe they walk in together and skip the traditional giving away of the bride.

And the music. Definitely not a big pipe organ with "Here Comes the Bridge" or other traditional wedding marches. Maybe sometime simple, yet romantic. A couple of tunes played on a violin.

So what do have hear?
  • I think a wedding in June.
  • Simple, but elegant gown.
  • Small wedding, maybe 40 or 50 guests, tops. Just the couple and their witnesses.
  • A brief ceremony with simple entrance and recessional music, a couple of romantic melodies played on violin.
  • And then to the reception.

I do wish them well. I almost feel I know something about them, even though all I heard was a snippet of a conversation, walking through the park at lunchtime in March.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Almost Spring!

After a weekend of drenching rain, the sun came out and so the signs of spring. Only 5 days to go to my favorite season.

For me, spring is the season of hope: little buds daring to pop up above the ground litter and add color to the gray and brown bleakness. Life reborn.

Below: It's only March, but the trees look like they're almost ready to leaf out.

Below: A couple of views of the crocuses in the garden next door, now in full bloom!

Below: Look at how much my little jonquils have grown since my last post!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Beautiful Day in March

Finally, a beautiful weekend in March! And the signs of spring are multiplying, even if spring is officially still 2 weeks away.

This morning, the birds were singing. I found a few crocuses shyly blooming in the yard next door. Buds are appearing on trees, and my little baby buds are turning into juvenile jonquils and daffodils. Before the month is over, a bed of sunny yellow flowers will brighten the garden in front of my home.

It got over 50 degrees today, so I got out my flip flops and walked around in them all day. So nice to feel the warmth of the sun on my feet for the first time in 5 months!

Below, buds are appearing in the trees.

It's two weeks since my Signs of Spring post. Below you can see how much they've grown.

Beautiful day on the Charles River. Even a couple of rowers in shells were spotted.

Here's a blowup of the rowers.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Signs of Spring!

My little garden is budding! It may be the middle of February and our groundhog friend says we have another 4 weeks of winter, the first signs of spring are popping the little green heads up out of the browness of dead leaves and the remains of last year's annuals.

Finally, a day that feels a little bit warm! For weeks (months) I have to bundle up with a wool hat, scarf, warm coat and gloves just to go outside. But today, with no wind and a sun that's feeling "almost springlike" I could throw off the hat, scarf and gloves and do a little work in the garden. After I removed some of the leaf litter, there were the little green buds.

Sometime in the middle to end of March, todays' little buds will become a sunny yellow bed of jonquils (March's birth flower - see their happy faces in the photo on the right and my post from last year) and daffodils are popping up. I can't wait, as I love spring!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Alien Abductions, Sleep Paralysis and Other Scary Night Things

So, what about those reports of alien abduc-tions? Many people around the world have claimed to be abducted by aliens. Usually, they are lying in bed, often on their back. They feel like they are awake, but paralyzed, and shadowy creatures come and take them to a strange place where they are probed and studied.

I’ve always suspected there’s a simple explanation for these experiences. Now I know it’s called sleep paralysis. (Kristof, Nicholas D., "Alien Abduction? Science Calls It Sleep Paralysis," New York Times, July 6, 1999.)

Sleep paralysis is a natural phenomenon. While we sleep our body paralyzes our limbs so we don’t react violently to our dreams.

But sometimes the mind can awake before the body does. In these states, we seem to be seeing as though we were awake, but we just can’t move our body. This is a fringe state between sleep and awake.

In this state, many have reported seeing shadowy figures around them. I recall this once happening to me, with the lights on in the hall and figures passing by in the hall, but I couldn’t identify them.

A blogger, Steven Aitchison,in his blog Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life, reported that these figures tend to congregate at the foot or side of his bed. He theorizes (and I agree) that these shadowy figures are dreamlike projections of the brain that is partially awake and partially asleep. In his post “Sleep Paralysis,” he wrote:

“The shadow figures, as I called them, usually congregated around the bottom or at the side of my bed. I was terrified of them as I hadn’t a clue what they were and why I would be getting them. I presumed, rightly or wrongly, that they were dreamlike figures manifested from a partially sleeping brain. There is no other way to describe it. My mind was awake, my body was sleeping, and another part of my mind was partially asleep.

"What I couldn’t figure out was why the figures only appeared during sleep paralysis episodes.”

What I found especially interesting are the many comments from others who have experienced sleep paralysis. Some have visions; some just have auditory hallucination; some dream about creatures moving their bodies around. Some see monsters, some see “the old hag,” some a devil, one saw spiders, or others are held paralyzed by an unknown creature or force.

Here’s what I like about this explanation. When people have studied manifestations of night visions over the centuries, the nature of these shadowy figures reflects the culture of the day. Back in the middle ages, this phenomenon was characterized by figures identified as devils. Today, they may be monsters, devils, the old hag, or space aliens. But in each case, what they see is very reflective of what they know about - their times, their culture, images in the popular media. For example, there were no cases of seeing space aliens in the middle ages.

But, while I find this a fascinating topic, I also know that it can be intensely frightening for those afflicted by hallucinations during sleep paralysis. This is evident by reading comments on the blog post. But, also interesting, are a few writers who enjoy the visions during sleep paralysis. And some who are able to take control of the dream, what is called lucid dreaming.

Now, this rational explanation of alien abductions has not convinced many who still claim an encounter of the forth kind. But it makes sense to me. With all our instruments and satellites, how could all these alien ships approach earth and hang around long enough to carry out these abductions, probing, and then return their captives?

Still, thinking about this does unnerve me a bit, especially now that it’s bed time!