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While in New York City last weekend and staying near The Battery end of Manhattan, I went out for my walk and decided to follow some of the path that Herman Melville would have traveled in his days there.

With an online walking tour as a guide, I set out. The place I wanted to really see was the Custom House where he worked as a customs inspector. I like to imagine him sneaking in some literary time between working on boring forms about tariffs.

Even with a guide, it can be confusing as there are several “Customs Houses” in the city.  One is the Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street that had been the U.S. capital until 1790 when that honor moved to Philadelphia and the building went back to housing the government of New York City. The building was razed with the opening of the current New York City Hall in 1812. You can see part of the original railing and balcony floor where Washington was inaugurated in the memorial there. The current classical building was built as the first purpose-built U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York and opened in 1842. A nice place to visit, but no connection to Melville.

In 1862, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street which is where Melville spent his time.  Now known as The First National City Bank Building, it rests upon the foundation and lower portion of The Merchants’ Exchange, built in 1842.

Melville’s wife’s family used their influence to obtain a position for him as customs inspector for the City of New York in 1866. This was a humble position, but with a decent salary. He held the post for 19 years. He had a reputation of being the only honest employee in a notoriously corrupt institution.

Though he never knew it, his position and income “were protected throughout the periodic turmoil of political reappointments by a customs official who never spoke to Melville but admired his writings: future US president Chester A. Arthur” (Olsen-Smith).

The basement vaults below Melville held millions of dollars of gold and silver as this was one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations at that time. .

The Merchants’ Exchange replaced the previous exchange which burned down in the Great Fire of New York in 1835

“…it’s worth pointing out that [Herman Melville] worked in [the New York Custom House] as a deputy customs inspector between 1866 and 1885. Nineteen years, and he never got a raise – four dollars a day, six days a week. He was by then a washed-up writer, forgotten and poor. I used to find this subject heartbreaking, a waste: the greatest living American author was forced to spend his days writing tariff reports instead of novels. But now, knowing what I know about the sleaze of the New York Custom House, and the honorable if bitter decency with which Melville did his job, I have come to regard literature’s loss as the republic’s gain. Great writers are a dime a dozen in New York. But an honest customs inspector in the Gilded Age? Unheard of.”
― Sarah Vowell, Assassination Vacation

Just prior to his Custom House days, his writing career was not very successful. His greatest sales had come from his earliest books of adventure and travel. His first book was Typee (1846), a highly romanticized account of his life among Polynesians. That best-seller allowed him to write a “sequel” Omoo (1847). These books gave him enough money to marry Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of a prominent Boston family,

Next, he got to write a novel not based on his own travel experiences. That novel was Mardi (1849), also a sea narrative but a very philosophical one. It didn’t sell at all. It wasn’t what readers expected (or wanted) from Melville. He went back to something closer to the earlier books with Redburn (1849). This story about life on a merchant ship was better received by reviewers. So was the next book about the hard life aboard a man-of-war, White-Jacket (1850). But the books did not bring enough money to sustain the family.

In the summer of 1850, Melville moved his growing family to Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There he befriended fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. Melville started the novel in New York in 1850, but finished it in Pittsfield the following summer. But this great American novel was a commercial failure, and the reviews were mixed.

Just to give a sense of those literary times, along with Moby Dick was the publication of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and in 1855 Thoreau’s Walden and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Melville was no longer a popular or well-known author and Pierre (1852) was at least partially a satire on the literary culture of the time – and not a best-seller. Either was his Revolutionary War novel Israel Potter (1855) which was first serialized in Putnam’s magazine but not well received by critics or readers as a book.

Melville published some excellent short fiction in magazines during this slow period: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), “The Encantadas” (1854), and “Benito Cereno” (1855) which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales.

He wasn’t totally broke and in 1857 he traveled to England and did some lecture tours to earn money. He was reunited briefly with Hawthorne in England. He was also able to tour the Near East.

The last prose he would publish was the quite different and interesting novel, The Confidence-Man (1857).

“Where does any novelist pick up any character? For the most part, in town, to be sure. Every great town is a kind of man-show, where the novelist goes for his stock, just as the agriculturist goes to the cattle-show for his.
The Confidence Man

With money running out, they left the farm and returned to New York so he could take a position as Customs Inspector. They moved to Allan Melville’s house at 104 East 26th Street, for which they traded their Pittsfield farm.

Melville turned to poetry. That first year at the Customs House he published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War which contains his poems on moral questions about the American Civil War.

Probably he had given up on the novels due to the poor sales and reviews. Publishers probably weren’t interested either. But I think the trips abroad had an influence on his thinking and I can see him sneaking in some poetry at lunch and breaks from Customs House work at his desk as he walked and maybe stopped coffee houses around Wall Street.

“… the New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, whose future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the then obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street; and going still farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house, and quote it as a proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.”
― Herman Melville, Redburn: His First Voyage

I made a stop at 54 Pearl Street, which would have been Fraunces Tavern in Melville’s time. It’s not here anymore, so I had to imagine him at what was described as “a slightly rundown tavern and meeting place.” At numbers 58 and 62, you get a glimpse of what he would describe as “grimlooking warehouses.”

Along Pearl Street was Coenties Slip, a man-made inlet, now filled in and making up parts of Water, Front and South Street. Melville knew the area as a boy, and wrote in Redburn:  “…somewhere near ranges of grim-looking warehouses, with rusty iron doors and shutters, and tiled roofs; and old anchors and chain-cables piled on the walk. Old-fashioned coffee-houses, also, much abound in that neighborhood, with sun-burnt sea-captains going in and out, smoking cigars, and talking about Havana, London, and Calcutta.”

This could not have been a happy time for Melville and his family. In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot, which may have been an accident or may have been suicide.

He publishes Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land in 1876, a long and difficult metaphysical piece. In 1886, his son Stanwix died. That year Melville would retire.


Last known portrait of Herman Melville, 1885

Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891, but he had continued to write in his retirement years. Two more volumes of poetry were privately published and one was left unpublished. He was working on another sea novel but the unfinished Billy Budd was not published until 1924.

The 1919 centennial of his birth seems to have started a “Melville Revival”and critics and scholars explored his life, novels, stories and poetry. Certainly, Moby Dick makes every list of the great American works of fiction.

On my walk, I visited (as we know Melville did) Trinity Church to climb up into the belfry. I’m not sure how religious Melville was, but I know that we seem to share similar spiritual concerns, so  a prayer for him seemed appropriate.

I walked by what would have been the Post Office a block away from the church on Nassau Street between Liberty and Cedar Streets. It was demolished in 1882.  I thought about Melville possibly mailing off his writing to publishers there in the hopes of reviving his career.

If he got to go out for lunch during a work day, he would have seen clerks heading up and down the this busy street. Maybe he dropped in on his brother, Allan, whose law office was at No. 10 on the second floor. It certainly figures into his wonderful short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” with “the numerous stalls nigh the Custom House and Post Office.”

This section from Nassau to Broadway is sometimes called “Bartleby’s Wall Street.” I found no one selling ginger cakes or any apple sellers that would allow me “to moisten [their] mouths very often with Spitzenbergs.”

If Herman’s daily work was boring, being a scrivener like Allan, (they were the all-male secretarial pool of that day) and copying legal documents in “quadruplicates of a week’s testimony” sounds even more boring.

I didn’t get to the intersection of Park Avenue south and 26th Street which was dedicated in 1985 as  Herman Melville Square. This is where Melville lived from 1863 to 1891.

A giant species of sperm whale was named in honor of Melville. Livyatan melvillei was discovered by paleontologists who were fans of Moby-Dick. I suppose it is a kind of sad irony that this species is extinct.


Most of us think about consciousness and unconsciousness are the two states our mind can be in. But in religious and spiritual contexts, there is also a transcendent state of consciousness that is harder to define and achieve.

I was reading about William James (1842–1910), the psychologist and philosopher who wrote about this in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.

He believed that the transcendent state of consciousness had several features as experiences in order to qualify as such.

One feature he called “ineffability.” That is a tricky feature because it means that “it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” In other words, it would be an experience that must be directly experienced and could not be explained adequately to others.

He also believed this experience would have a “noetic quality.” He meant that these mystical states are also states of knowledge with insight into depths of truth, illuminations and revelations “full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.” These parts can be explained to others and can be used for creating art and practical solutions.

Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. He found that they had “transiency.” His observation ws that they usually lasted half an hour, or at most an hour or two. Beyond that, they fade. He wrote that “Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.”

His final quality of the transcendent consciousness is “passivity.” Though he noted that the initiation of these altered states may be from voluntary operations, when the transcendent state occurs, the mystic feels as if his own will were “in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.”

William James listed initiating practices such as fixing the attention, and going through certain bodily performances from the fasting and abuse found in some religious rituals, to deep meditative practices.

James drew some of these conclusions from being not only a reader and philosopher but, empiricist that he was, from using his own body-mind as a laboratory. In his case, he used nitrous oxide, also known as  “laughing gas,” which produces a euphoric effects. As a mild hallucinogen, the nitrous oxide gave him a new perspective on own consciousness. He did not claim that it gave him a mystical, or transcendent, experience, but it allowed him to understand those states.

He separated some of the reported transcendent experiences of his time such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, and the trances of mediums. Without saying they were faked, he noted that because there was no recollection of the phenomenon later and they seemed to have no significance for the subject’s inner life, they were not mystical states. True mystical states are retained at least somewhat in memory, and remain as a profoundly important event that modifies the inner life of the subject.


Today I will be at a wedding. My youngest son is getting married. It has been a year in the planning and the past two weeks have been hectic.

Here are a few traditions, superstitions and folklore that I found on weddings.

If the bride puts a sugar cube into her glove (if she wears one), according to Greek culture, i will sweeten the union.

We won’t hold by two English traditions: that a spider found in a wedding dress means good luck, and that Wednesday is considered the “best day” to marry, although Monday is for wealth and Tuesday is for health. That silly line of thinking says that today, Saturday is the unluckiest wedding day – but i is the most popular day of the week to marry now.

Rain on your wedding day is actually considered good luck, according to Hindu tradition. Let’s hope so, because, unfortunately, that is the weather report for today.

Though it is in my DNA, we won’t follow the Czech tradition of throwing peas at the newlyweds. We won’t throw rice either.

Engagement and wedding rings are worn on the fourth finger of the left hand because it was once thought that a vein in that finger led directly to the heart.

Queen Victoria started the trend in Western countries for the white wedding dress trend in 1840. prior to hat, brides simply wore their best dress. That was always the color of choice in Japan. In Korea, brides wear bright red and yellow to take their vows.

Ancient Greeks and Romans thought a veil protected the bride from evil spirits.

The wedding cake evolved from the ancient Roman custom of breaking a loaf of bread over a bride’s head for fertility. It seems that the custom of tiered cakes (which has gone to extremes these days – my son has eschewed a cake and decided on desserts people actually like) came out of a game where the bride and groom attempted to kiss over a cake to which layers were added without knocking it over. What a waste of cake.

In many cultures (Celtic, Hindu and Egyptian weddings), the hands of a bride and groom are literally tied together to demonstrate commitment. That’s where we get the phrase “tying the knot.”

I never knew that the tradition of the bride standing to the groom’s left in Christian ceremonies comes from the idea that the groom needed his right hand free to fight off other suitors.

On average, 7000 couples will marry today in the United States – but I m only concerned about one wedding.


A green flash seen from Santa Cruz, CA (Wikimedia)

The green flash has nothing to do with the red Flash of comic books. They are an optical phenomena that sometimes occur just after sunset or right before sunrise.

With the right conditions, a distinct green spot is briefly visible for just a second or two above the upper rim of the Sun’s disk.  It may look like green ray shooting up from the sunset (or sunrise) point.

These green flashes occur because the Earth’s atmosphere can cause the light from the sun to separate out into different colors.

They can be seen with the naked eye looking at a very clear and very distant horizon. Looking at a location near an ocean improves your chances.

The time to view is at the last moment before the sun disappears below the horizon. Don’t look too soon because the sun can dazzle (and possibly damage!) your eyesight.

The flash doesn’t occur at every sunset or at every location. It is an atmospheric trick. I have yet to catch one, but I keep checking whenever I am near an ocean sunrise or sunset.


Rocker Bono and writer Thomas Friedman were quoted online as revealing the 3 skills that American workers need today. And though I doubt that anyone really knows the secret 3 ingredients in the sauce for workers, I was curious.

Friedman has written several books since he started a mantra with The World Is Flat. That book really kicked up the conversation about how the world is changing at an accelerated speed and that American workers were falling behind and needed to adapt their learning quickly for this shifting marketplace.

That is why they chose being a lifelong learner as one of those skills. He points to AT&T who have partnered with the online course provider Udacity as a way to update the skills of its workforce. The company offers employees about $8,000 per year to take courses. Friedman says this sends employees the message that a lifelong AT&T employee is a lifelong learner.

But professional development is not new. Perhaps the platform for it is new.

The second skill suggested to boost creativity is pausing. This one comes from Bono and his band U2. He says that unlike recording studio machines that on pause halt productivity, humans on pause begin a different kind of productivity through rethinking, reimagining and reflecting.

Clearly, the skills these two believe we need to cultivate are what are considered soft skills. Maybe you would have guessed the skills would include tech skills, like coding, data analytics or AI. Those are things workers can learn in courses and training sessions, but soft business skills are getting more attention lately.

Feedback from employers to colleges are often more about teaching soft skills such as the ability to give and receive feedback, and work collaboratively.

One reason is that machines (computers is too restrictive) are getting smarter and are taking over certain aspects of business, but interpersonal skills is an area that is machine-safe.

Friedman says something that I have not heard before. He claims that one of the first things on a résumé that business leaders evaluate is if applicants were in clubs like 4H or were an Eagle Scout. They find that is a good indicator of a work ethic and soft skills that allow people to grow and adapt with the business.

Bottom Line: Make learning a priority. Upgrade your skills. Increase creativity with an occasional pause. Develop interpersonal and communication skills.

I heard about subliminal messages a long time ago. These are hidden messages in video, audio, still images and music. The word ‘subliminal’ comes from Latin words sub + limen and translates as below + threshold. The threshold here is our subconscious, since these messages supposedly are below our conscious mind and so they are not noticed consciously.

An early study that is always mentioned in these discussions is from 1957. James Vicary played a movie at a drive-in theater and over it he flashed the words “Drink Coca Cola’ and “Eat Popcorn” every 1/3000th of a second. He claimed that Coca Cola sales went up 58% and popcorn sales went up by 18% at the snack bar. But later fact-checking found those results to be faked.

So, are there any real uses of effective subliminal messaging?

amazon subliminal messages

On the Amazon logo, is that arrow connecting A to Z  a subliminal smiley face to suggest a happy experience with their services?

Was the classic Coca-Cola bottle shape meant to resemble a sexy voluptuous woman?

Is that a subliminal (or intentional) arrow between the E and x in the FedEx logo to suggest speed?

I saw online that people have noticed that the science fiction magazine SFX (the abbreviation for special effects) seems to often cover the bottom of the ‘F’ in their SFX logo with a person’s head. Is that a style – or is it a way to subliminally make SFX look like SEX?

It seems that subliminal messages are used for marketing. The other use that I had heard over the years was that supermarkets were inserting subliminal audio messages into the music playing in the store to suggest buying certain products or to not shoplift. They also consider the subliminal messages sent to shoppers by placing the fresh produce and flowers at entrances.

Even if the music playing in a store has no hidden messages, the choice of calm relaxing music or fast-paced louder music has an effect on shoppers.

Is it subliminal to place items that kids like at kid’s eye level?

What about the smell of fresh baking bread or other items in a food store?

It sounds like subliminal messaging is all about marketing. But there are other applications.

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) which is credited to Richard Bandler and John Grinder which is intended to treat anxiety, depression, phobias, and other behavioral disorders. On the evil side, I also read that some people associate its use with mind control.

Though the use of subliminal messages sound intriguing, I don’t find convincing evidence that it is in broad use, or that it is effective. Yet, I know that the use of colors, shapes, sounds and smells evoke feelings, memories and often have symbolic meanings to many people.

Have you encountered examples of subliminal messaging?  Then, post a comment and tell us about it.

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