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In a  column by Omid Safi, he says that “Driving itself is a spiritual experience for me.”  That got me thinking.

“What else do we do that has become so mundane, so ordinary, so boring? What else can be opened up, like a sunroof, to reveal the luminous inside? What else is there in my daily life that could stand to have its sunroof opened up and the windows lowered?

What else is there in your life, friends, that could stand to have sun shining down on it with the winds swirling around, connecting you to the core of your being, your friends, your neighbors, your beloved, the soil under your feet, and the stars above?”

I don’t share that feeling. I think that when I was much younger I did. I loved cars as a kid. I read car magazines. I built model cars. I watched car racing on TV. I could identify almost any car driving past me.

Now, all the cars are interchangeable to me. I don’t read about cars, except for checking Consumer Reports when it’s time to get a new one. I want one that gets me from Point A to Point B economically and without repairs. Almost any new car will have more options than I really need.

“Spiritual” in this context is about things affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. The word is often tied to religion and the sacred, divine, or holy.

But Safi’s quote above and that spiritual feeling doesn’t come from cars. It comes from driving. Although driving an older Toyota Corolla is certainly a different car experience from driving a new Tesla, I wonder how much it changes this spiritual aspect once you have been on the road for a few hours.

I have seen writing about the spiritual connection you might have to the car itself, but it is not a connection I have ever had to the vehicle. I loved my first car, a 1971 VW Beetle, which I drove for 11 years, but I never felt any spiritual connection to it. But I suspect many Corvette owners might disagree with me.

The book Earth Angels: Engaging the Sacred in Everyday Things by Shaun McNiff caught my eye n a shelf because the cover has an Edward Hopper painting. He would disagree with my soulless car theory, as he believes that we need to honor the souls of cars, and also furniture, rooms, computers and other ordinary objects.  He didn’t convince me about “soulful materialism” but I’m sure he has his followers.

I’m also not sure if everyone would agree, but I find being the driver and being a passenger on a drive makes the entire experience different. I find being a passenger much more spiritual. You need to be able to let the mind wander. You need to be able to really see what you are passing. Of course, this eliminates the Romantic notion of the solo road trip which I suppose is another level of spiritual experiences.

I still make mix CDs specifically for road trips with songs that resonate for me when I am driving and sometimes for where I am driving. One of the best experiences I have had with a friend was when on a long drive we sang along with almost the entire Simon and Garfunkel song catalog. Driving on the New Jersey Turnpike while they sing “America” click something in my brain.

The other factor is where you are driving. I have no love for the mundane city driving experience and I doubt that there is much spirituality involved. Any writing I have seen about driving that leans to the Romantic side is probably about open highways and wide vistas. Speed play a part, but it can also be a low-speed drive along a twisting coast highway.

The New York Times had a piece about a retrospective of Stephen Shore’s photographs, many of which are his cross-country color photos (collected in the Uncommon Places). The Times asked some American writers to create short fictions or comment on some of Shore’s photographs.

One piece, “Contemplating Geologic Time While Eating a Filet-O-Fish Under a Cloudless Sky,” by Charles Yu which was inspired by  the photo “U.S. 89, Arizona, June 1972.”

“Don McLean ON FM radio, windows rolled all the way down. In an old car in a new country. Midday’s brutal, blue.

He kills the engine, gets out for some air. Opens the door and the potential energy of the fight quickly dissipates, carried away from them along with their voices, words spoken a minute ago propagating waveforms of fear, of love, tumbling down into the canyon, the historical event of their first argument now traveling outward in all directions to the ends of the universe, sounds they made halving themselves again and again, until somewhere, hundreds of feet below, they break against the rocks in a wash of ambient vibration…”

Yu’s piece reminds me that I would include the road stops when driving as part of the driving experience – the scenic outlook, the classic diner, the odd, unnamed general store or the gas station with one pump in the middle of nowhere.

If you look at a dream interpretation site of book, you will probably find that a dream about driving a car is supposed to be about being in control of where you are going. Driving is taking responsibility for your actions. And in that dream symbolism way, being a passenger in a car might mean you are allowing someone else to control you or your life; or you feel you have no control over your life, and that someone is  “taking you for a ride.” I actually don’t recall any driving dreams (and I am someone who keeps dream journals).

I am much more likely to find spirituality in a walk in the woods than in a drive, but I cannot dismiss the driving experience because I have had those kinds of experiences too.  What about you?

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A Stop at Willoughby” is an episode from the first season of  the television series The Twilight Zone.  I watched that show with my parents as a kid, and I usually watched while hiding behind a pillow on our couch. Many episodes scared me. I remember “A Stop at Willoughby” and I’m sure I watched it a few more times in reruns.

In the episode, a businessman who is having a lousy time at work and at home, falls asleep on his train ride home. He wakes to find the train empty and stopped at a town called Willoughby – but it’s July 1888. It looks like a wonderfully peaceful place, but he is jerked awake and back into the present. He asks the conductor if he has ever heard of Willoughby, but the conductor says there is no such town on their route.

After another lousy work day, he falls asleep again on the train and finds himself in Willoughby again. This time, he gets off the train and is welcomed warmly by the people there.

The scene suddenly shifts back to the present and a train engineer is standing over the businessman’s body. The conductor tells him that the businessman shouted something about Willoughby and jumped off the train and was killed instantly.

The ending shocked me. His escape was suicide. To add a further shock to the ending, as his  body is loaded into a hearse, we see that the name of the funeral home is Willoughby & Son.

That episode was the first thing I thought of when I saw a story online about “haunted Willoughby, Ohio.” This town has a number of stories that would work as scripts for The Twilight Zone. For example, Willoughby Coal is supposed to have menacing apparitions that appear in its darkened windows. But the best known story is the one I came across online that centers on Willoughby Cemetery, where the Girl in Blue’s spirit supposedly stays unsatisfied near her grave.

Her story begins December 23, 1933. A young woman with auburn-hair and hazel-eyes gets off the Greyhound bus by herself in Willoughby. No one knew who she was or why she was there. She took a room at a local  boarding house, and the next morning she asked the owner about local church services and then went out into the town.

She was dressed entirely in blue. She walked through town, unknown, but saying hello to those she met and being welcomed by those she passed.

At the train station, according to witnesses, as a train rushed through the station she sprinted to the tracks and the train sent her body hurtling onto the gravel siding. Although she had no blood or visible wounds, she was dead of a fractured skull.

There was no identification in her purse, but she had a train ticket to Corry, Pennsylvania. “The Girl in Blue” became a local mystery. Had she committed suicide or was she trying to catch that train? Why had she made a stop in Willoughby?

People in town made donations for a headstone and flowers and this unknown person from somewhere else had 3,000 local residents attend her funeral service.

Her headstone reads “In Memory of the Girl in Blue, Killed by Train, December 24, 1933, Unknown but not Forgotten.”

For 60 years, she was a mystery. Then, the week before Christmas Eve in 1993, an article in the News Herald about the 60th anniversary of her death was seen by a real estate broker near Corry, Pennsylvania. He remembered the sale of a family farm and that one of the documents that finalized the sale of the farm was a signed affidavit filed by a son in 1985 that stated that his sister Josephine had died in Willoughby, Ohio on December 24, 1933.

The real estate brokers investigating had given The Girl in Blue a name. She was the daughter of Jacob and Catherine Klimczak, Polish immigrants who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1901. Her name was Josephine, but to her five sisters and three brothers, she was known as Sophie. In Willoughby, a second gravestone was added with both of her names.

Her gravesite is said to have strange orbs hovering nearby, and recordings of a disembodied female voice have been made at her grave; and the figure of a woman has been seen standing next to the headstone, dressed in blue.

Why did she make her own stop in Willoughby?  Did she commit suicide to escape her life? Is there some connection between The Girl in Blue and The Twilight Zone?

The Twilight Zone‘s creator, frequent writer and host narrated each episode and always told us that:

“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”

 

Today is Armistice Day Armistice Day which marks the armistice signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 between the Allies of World War I and Germany to end World War I – the “war to end all wars.” It is also known as Remembrance Day and Veterans Day.

But 1918 was also the year of another kind of worldwide war against the Spanish influenza pandemic. There is no special day to mark this and I doubt that many Americans today know about it or think about it. You may have gone last month for your flu shot, but never thought about the fact that October 1918 was the deadliest month in United States history. 195,000 Americans died in that one month as a result of influenza.

Influenza ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, 1918

By the time the pandemic had run its course, an estimated 500,000 Americans had died of the flu. It is hard to grasp that number. It is more deaths than the American combat fatalities in all the wars of the 20th century combined. And worldwide, the flu may have claimed as many as 100 million lives.

My mother was born in December of that year and it was feared that she or her mother might get the flu. The start of that flu season was in March with the first recorded case being a mess cook in Fort Riley, Kansas. There are still several hypotheses about how and where the flu pandemic began and no conclusive answer.

Though it became known as the “Spanish flu,” it did not originate in Spain. Spain seemed at the time to be particularly hard hit by the virus. I say “seemed” because the Spanish media covered it extensively, but the United States, the UK, France, and Germany deliberately underplayed the virus’ effect in hopes of keeping up wartime morale. Many Americans thought, as with many military wars, that it was something happening far from our shores.

Recent studies of the incomplete medical records from the time seem to show that this viral infection itself was not more aggressive than any previous influenza. Oddly, it seemed to affect healthy people more than would have been expected. Rather, factors such as malnourishment, overcrowded medical camps and hospitals and poor hygiene promoted bacterial superinfection which killed most of the victims after a prolonged period.

There was what was called a “second wave” that year of the same virus. We know it was the same strain because those who had survived a first infection had immunity in a second exposure. But after the lethal second wave struck in late 1918, new cases mysteriously dropped abruptly.

In Philadelphia, 4,597 people died in the week ending October 16, but by Armistice day influenza had almost disappeared from the city. No one is certain why. Did doctors get better at preventing and treating the pneumonia that developed after the victims had contracted the virus? Did the virus mutate extremely rapidly to a less lethal strain?

Could it happen again? That is the stuff of movies, like Outbreak, Contagion and World War Z, all of which make reference to the 1918 pandemic. Certainly our medical knowledge and treatments are much better today. Research done in 2007 reported that monkeys infected with the recreated flu strain has the same symptoms of the 1918 pandemic. They died from what is called a cytokine storm, which is when there is an overreaction of the immune system. That may explain why is may explain why the 1918 flu had a surprising powerful effect on younger, healthier people. A person with a stronger immune system would ironically have a potentially stronger overreaction than a less healthy person.

When I write a post here, I expect that some people will read it. I add an image or two to engage readers, and I will later check to see if there are any comments, shares and how many clicks the post gets over time.

Does any of the post-posting activity really affect people reading what I wrote? I think it does, to a degree. People click on posts that people share and ones that appear on my “Top Posts Today” list in the blog’s sidebar. Social sharing is real.

But some people like to experiment with it. One experiment is at txt.fyi. Even its creator calls it “the dumbest publishing platform on the web.”  You write something, hit publish, and it’s live, but there is no tracking, no ads, fonts, analytics, cookies, user accounts, logins, passwords, comments, friending, likes, follows or sharing or any of the other social media capital so valued elsewhere on the web.

This morning I posted about the Moon moving away from Earth.  But that was something I wrote on txt.fyi last week. The only way anyone will find the original posting is if I put a link to it elsewhere.

This antisocial publishing platform is simple static hypertext. (You can use Markdown language to add some basic formatting.)  If you write there, it is online for as long as the site remains online – though perhaps no one else will ever read what you wrote.

The site is set up so that search engines are “told” not to index the posts, so Google won’t be spreading the word about my post either.

Where will this text.fyi experiment go? I have no idea.

Why was it created? I suspect that its creator Rob Beschizza – a writer, artist and editor at Boing Boing  – also was curious to see what would come of it. Perhaps something good and new. Perhaps it will all go wrong and it will need to be shut down.

To complete this little meta-circle, I also posted at https://txt.fyi/+/9304a536/ about what I wrote here. And the writing goes round and round…

I have read many things on how to improve your memory, but one technique that always confused and fascinated me is the idea of a “memory palace.”

Memory palaces are known more formally as ‘the method of loci’ and they help people remember things (facts and opinions) by “assigning” them to various locations within the brain itself. If you imagine the brain as a palace of many rooms, using this technique you would make up a location within your brain to place these facts, like furniture in a room.  You commit the information to a particular scene and place within the memory palace.

This linking of the memory together with the place is what makes it a stronger memory. It is suggested that this “palace” be based on a place that does exist in some manner –  your own home, a place you have visited or seen in some detail in photos  one you have seen before. It is best to have a palace which does exist in some capacity.

A small amount can be placed in a smaller, basic mind palace room like your bedroom. A large amount of information may require a larger mental space.

I describe this quite simply, but it’s not a simple thing to do. I have tried it with little success, although others find it really powerful.

Apparently, one of the issues people have with this technique is confusing locations. They need to be unique enough that you won’t mistake one place for another.

Do you need to recall information in a specific order? You need to set a route through the palace and room.

Other memory techniques also use associating things with certain places and positions and this can be useful for students. This mnemonic system associates things with specific physical locations and relies on memorized spatial relationships to establish, order, and recollect memorial content. This method is also known as the “Journey Method,” when used for storing lists of related items, or the “Roman Room” technique, which is most effective for storing unrelated information.

The technique is used by the fictional character Hannibal Lecter who sometimes is mentally walking through an elaborate memory palace to recall information, and also to mentally escape unpleasant situations.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie contains a character who is a memory palace containing the memories of another.

We can only pay attention to one thing at a time. For years, you have heard that we all need to multitask and you may have convinced yourself that you can do it it pretty well.

It’s not so bad to listen to music while you work – a distraction, but minimal. But add in checking your email and messages, watching a video on Facebook and all suffer.

The push to multitask is being reversed. We all know now that anything else you do while driving hurts your focus on driving and can be deadly. Listening to the radio, singing along or talking to a passenger may be tolerable distractions, but texting, looking at a screen for your audio settings, looking at the sites as they are passing, reading signs, studying the GPS map, drinking or eating, and fumbling in your pocket or pocketbook for your ringing phone are all very dangerous.

More and more research shows this to be true: We all like to think that we can multi-task and do all the tasks well, but we can’t. And when it comes to paying attention, who is better, men or women? Turns out, neither.

Here is a simple attention test. Watch this short video of two basketball teams, one wearing black and the other in white, passing basketballs between them and count the number of passes made by the white team.

Recent neuroscience research tells us that rather than doing tasks simultaneously well, what we might be good at is just being able to switch tasks quickly. But that stop/start process in the brain wastes time and degrades our focus on both tasks.

When you watched the video, how may passes did you see? Actually, the researchers didn’t care much about that part of this experiment known as the “gorilla test.” Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons created the video to see how many people saw a woman wearing a gorilla suit walk onto the scene, thump her chest several times and then walk off. She is there in the middle of the video for about 9 seconds but only 50% of viewers spot the gorilla.

Why? Because when you are told to concentrate on one thing, your mind tends not to see other things. You were counting passes from one team and paid less attention to other things.

The video is not proof of our inability to multitask, but the psychologists call this effect “inattentional blindness.”

Daniel Simons says:
“Indeed, most of us are unaware of the limits of our attention—and therein lies the real danger. For instance, we may talk on the phone and drive because we are mistakenly convinced that we would notice a sudden event, such as a car stopping short in front of us.
Inattentional blindness does have an upside. Our ability to ignore distractions around us allows us to retain our focus. Just don’t expect your partner to be charitably disposed when your focus on the television renders her or him invisible.”

This shift in our attitudes toward multitasking probably tracks with an increased interest in many forms of mindfulness training, and an increase in the number of people identified as having attention deficit disorders. We know our attention is lousy. We are easily distracted. And most of us want to do something about the problem.

 

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Every day is an experiment.  Not all are a success. Yes, that’s where I’m at today. Not so long ago, but it already seems far away. Makerspace action. At the opening of the NJIT Makerspace. Every end is also a beginning.

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