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Eight Hundred and Sixty-Six Words on the Power of the Still Photograph (an apology)

hey_mister
hey_mister

Last month, as a midterm assignment, I gave my advanced photography students an essay assignment; one thousand words on the power of the still photograph. It made me sound important. At first they thought I meant a thousand characters. They're so cute. A thousand words isn't that much, I told them- its a blog post.  Within ten minutes they had me bargained down to 500 words. Okay, fine, I don't mind.  Most were thoughtful, a few actually engaging. One was intentionally contrary to the point of the assignment, a finger in the eye of my grandeur. The last line was " Please don't fail me."

I'm sorry. I did. Fail you I mean. I mean, I failed. This is my apology...

--- --- ---

I've been a photographer longer than I've been anything else in this life, with the exception of a son, and maybe a compulsive eater. Longer than I've been a husband. Longer than I was a Catholic. Or a smoker. Longer than I've been a teacher, a writer, or a computer nerd. Longer than I've been a licensed driver if I stretch the thread really tight.

A long time.

At least since the age of 19, which I reached in 1977, a camera has defined me in some form. But even before that, with my first 'serious' camera, a Mercury Satellite 127 which I still own, I have been a taker of pictures. When I turned pro it was with an Olympus OM-1n. I loved that camera. Everything about it was perfect. It had perfect weight and perfect size. The shutter speed dial was on the lens mount. Everything about it was perfect. After that came an Olympus OM-2n. I loved that camera. It too was perfect. I used those cameras until they were just plain wore out. We were inseparable. It would be odd to see any one of us without the other. Simpatico.

When I close my eyes I can see them, the the dents and dings, the corners worn down to the brass beneath the chrome. If I try really hard, I can feel them.

Still.

Next came a string of Canons, and with them came a slow separation from the truth. None of the Canon's were particularly noteworthy, none possessed any real magic. Each succession only moved to isolate the act of photography further and further from the moment. Automation trumped artistry. Auto focus. Auto bracketing. Motion dampening. Feature creep insured that a three-thousand dollar camera would be obsolete within a year's time. Then digital killed film, like video killed the radio star, and with it the true therapeutic and redemptive powers of picture making began to fade.

And so it goes, until it goes around...

I'm back on the film. Seeking redemption. And a powerful fix. Last week I scored a brick of Tri-X from a guy behind the dry cleaners. Came at a bundle, but that's the price of addiction. The price of truth. For it turns out film is a far more important player in the creative process than I gave it credit for. And here's why- film makes a photographer think. Film makes a photographer work. When you walk out the door with only thirty-six photos in hand, you pay attention. You acknowledge the unyielding physical limit you've placed on your creativity and you work with it. Limits are what make progress possible.

Still.

--- --- ---

It begins with putting the camera up to your eye. Feeling the cool of the metal against the skin. Deep breath in. Looking through the viewfinder. Seeing through the viewfinder. Just you, in charge, a god-like eye; you and whatever you choose to share your consciousness with. Pick a focal point, find the edges of the frame. Stay quiet, stay focused. That satisfying geared resistance of the thumb against the film advance lever. Pushing it slowly but firmly until it can move no more. The tentative but perceptible pressure against the shutter release. Squeeze the trigger, don't force. The quick slap of the mirror, the snap of the shutter. Breathe out.

--- --- ---

The magic lives in the limits. And in the breath. It's in the focus, and in the consciousness. Its where the power hides. In the sensual beauty of the dance.

stop. everything.

rewind.

unload.

reload.

refocus.

--- --- ---

The still image. Still. What else can claim to represent a slice of time. Capture time. Make time stop. Forever. I have a picture of my Dad. He's twenty-four years old.

Still.

--- --- ---

In 1839 Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre finds the method to make Joseph Nicephore Niepce's "retina" images permanent. No one will believe they are real. In 1968 Eddie Adams took a picture of a Vietnamese Chief of Police preparing to execute a vietcong prisoner with a pistol. Everyone knew it was real. Forty-five years later, the boy begs for mercy.

Still.

--- --- ---

Photography is the dictionary for defining a moment. It is the thesaurus of vision. It is bone, and sinew, and flesh. When mine own bone, and sinew, and flesh is nothing more than dusty dust, a small child will race after another, under a scribbled message on a concrete wall.

Hey mister! God loves you.

--- --- ---

still.

Addemdum: I've moved all the old Bodhicyclist posts over to the new SETT server. The blog address is TheBodhicyclist.com  simple. The new blog has a community section where you'll find cool news and noteworthy tidbits...

mark

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Creep

Its there, toward the end of the low road that traces the southeastern end of the lake, in the perpetually dank, swampy area near the outlet. Its tiny, hiding in the cottonwoods, more shed than anything else. It's been there forever. Everyone knows about it. Its a piece of local lore. The sign out front reads...

AL'S BAIT AND ADULT VIDEOS

Left unvarnished its a beautiful chicken and egg conundrum. Was it, "Hmmm, besides bait, what else do fishermen really like? I know, adult videos!" Or was it more like, "When I'm not watching adult videos, what else do I really like to do? I know- fish!" Either way, its a fantastically freakish conglomeration of commerce. And a perfect illustration of a truly vexing quandary. Why must simple things become more complicated over time? Its a principle known as creep, wherein one simple thing slowly morphs into a more complex thing, and complex in a way no one ever projected or proposed. And once that "cavity fighting, enamel restoring, improved whitening, for sensitive teeth, freshmint flavored" tooth paste is out of the "60% post consumer recycled material" tube, well, you get what I driving at.

In the military its called mission creep. In electronics, its referred to as feature creep. In the educational field we have responsibility creep. And in our lives is called- I don't know what its called exactly. But we're all subject to its laws. In my Buddhist studies one of the first principles I learned, I mean really learned, was mindfulness. Mindfulness is about simplicity. About putting step one first, and step two second. Mindfulness is about thinking only of the mechanical act of completing step one whilst completing step one. And nothing else. Its about separating ourselves from the daily chaos we seem to so actively embrace. Mindfulness is about being in the moment. And we all know how that can suck.

And its really hard to do everyday.

When I'm riding my bike, I try really hard to be in the moment throughout the ride. Its impossible of course, because at some point the wandering monkey brain inevitably takes over. But its easy to beat it back because cycling is about that one thing and nothing else for two or three hours. It requires mental discipline. And maybe thats the problem with life-creep, or activity-creep, or whatever it is that makes a day so complicated. There are so many demands that fight for preeminence we try to attend to them all at once. We call it "multitasking". And we all, to certain degrees, suck at it.

I'm training myself to slow down, to be a unitasker. I used to listen to music while I wrote. Then I realized once that I was writing song lyrics instead of my thoughts. So now I turn everything off, and work in the quiet. Quiet is nice. But it is scary too. The lack of physical distraction leaves only the internal conversation to knock us off task. And knock it will. But if I write, and do nothing else until I'm done writing, my writing is so much better. When I'm at school, planning for classes, I dislike answering the phone. It puts me off my game. It gives me a string of excuses to not continue. But If I can just sit and plan my day, the planning takes half as long and is twice as good.

P and I eat dinner, in the kitchen, at the table. When we eat we converse, but often about dinner. About the food, about it's taste. The squash is sweet. The brussels sprouts are tender. The salmon skin is really crunchy. It enhances the experience. It makes it meaningful. And memorable.

The punchline? I don't know- "Be in the moment" "Pay attention" No- that's not it...

I think its simply "When its time for fishing; fish..."

Mark

Addendum: I'm in the process of moving the blog to a new server. The new address is http://sett.com/thebodhicyclist For the next month or so I'll keep the blog active here but you will want to reestablish any feeds through the sett server. 

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Back...

"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli..." PETER CLEMENZA The Godfather

A couple weeks ago I suffered an inevitable WordPress Blog Failure (WPBF). I logged into the blog and- everything was gone- everything. Posts, pictures, comments; all gone. It took two weeks to get it back, and I'm still looking for the photos to add back in. But at least its back. When I found the blog missing though, my first reaction was to want to puke. I fought it off but it was in my throat. Six months work disappeared in an instant, like Paulie in The Godfather. I could taste the cannoli.

My second reaction was relief. Maybe now is a good time to stop. Frankly, I was surprised I had six months' worth of posts in me. (A friend who edited some early drafts thought I had far less than that.) But merrily I rode along, spouting vast theories based on half-vast premises. And I loved every word I wrote. And every comment I received. I especially loved the single comment I received on my second post, wherein the commenter called me everything from just plain stupid to truly psychologically damaged. It was in itself a work of art. It made the blog- great, and fun, and important.

But after my dad died I just lost steam. After The Vigil I had myself convinced that I had moved past it all, but in all honesty I hadn't really even begun to work through any of it. I left Florida for home on a Friday morning. My dad died a few hours later. When I left for the airport the original plan was for a memorial service sometime in "the future", but by the time I arrived home that evening everything had changed. The reality was that less than a week later I was the only one of my siblings who was not in attendance for my dad's funeral mass. I was at the gym, eleven hundred miles away. It really pissed me off.

Shortly after that, I wrote about Ahab, and what a tool he was. I wrote about my dad, and how much I miss him. And after that I couldn't think of anything decent to write about.

So I just stopped.

And all that time I missed it so. The truth is that I love writing, and I love working against my self-imposed deadlines, and scheduling the drafts at 11 pm to post at 5:01 am the following morning. So I'm taking another shot at it. A shot at momentum. As it stands right now, I don't feel comfortable writing about Buddhist ethics, and I have been counseled not to delve into topics relating to education. So that leaves me with cycling, and photography. And nutrition. And possibly big pharma. (Did you read the story about the pesticide resistant "super-weeds"? The subtext of the story is that over 70% of all corn and soy grown in this country is genetically engineered by Monsanto to resist Monsanto's Roundup®. The sub-subtext is that 100% of the 70% genetically engineered corn and soy is, at some point in its life, soaked in Monsanto's Roundup®. yum.)

I'm also taking this opportunity to start a public registry to replace my aging camera equipment. You can sponsor a lens or a body or an accessory or two. Right now I have my eye set on a Fuji X-Pro1 or X-E1. Don't be shy.

Truly tho- the short of it all is that I think I'm back- I think.

That, and-  I've really missed my friends.

brother mark

(psst; click the quote for a special treat...)

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e.s.t.

"Well they blew up the chicken man in philly last night, and they they blew up his house, too..."     BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN    Atlantic City

Over the Christmas/New Year holiday I was introduced to some new music. Music taste is like food taste. And cartoons. Just because two people like everything they ever shared together before, it does not translate that the next thing will be relished equally. So when a friend with which I have no real musical history said "You have to listen to this..." I was skeptical. Until I was hooked. Everything- the trio format, the melancholy meter, the purposefully off-tempo nature of the call and response- in essence the precision unruliness of the whole, made me, in an instant, a life-long fan of Esbjörn Svensson.

Then the punch line-

"yeah; too bad he's dead..."

So, anyway, in one breath I'm given this great music and in the next the weight of the knowledge that they'll never be any more. It makes me sad to love it so much. Really, go out on the googles and search for "Elevation of Love", the live performance from Berghausen, Germany. You'll understand...

Damn kids...

--- --- ---

Death has been the theme of late, this year's black. I've had to experience too much of it, viscerally and peripherally. I'll let you in on a little secret. Both suck. When death comes close you grieve. And grief lingers long after you think it should have known it was time to go. Grief is like a bad house guest who missed the cue that its time to strip the bed, pack the bags, and take your coffee in a travel mug. For cryin' out loud I just want to read the paper...

And when death comes to a friend its just as hard because there is nothing to be done. Be available, be open, be a good listener. But don't try to 'help' because there is no help you can offer that a true friend wouldn't have already extended.

--- --- ---

Everything dies, baby, that's a fact...

 

Its true for people, pets, plants, jazz musicians, even well-intended-but-poorly-conceived-blogs. Everything has a lifespan. My dad's death was sudden but not unexpected. When a body nears ninety years old all bets are off. You say 'he had a good life' and thank the lord the end was quick and relatively painless. But when death comes sooner you begin to question the point of it all. So young, so much left to do, so much- so much...

 

When my brother Skip died I was mad. Mad that he didn't try harder, mad that I try at all. To this day I don't think I've really cried for him. I cried on and off for days after our cat Gabriel died. P and I talked about what a good soul he was, and how he enriched our lives. And we buried him in the garden and placed an angel on his grave. But for my brother there was only anger. No, that wasn't it. There was mad. Concocted from a pound of frustration and seasoned with a healthy pinch of guilt. Mad. That it made no sense.

--- --- ---

But maybe everything that dies some day comes back...

That days are getting longer. Dinner comes at twilight now, and not early evening. Looking out the kitchen window, the sky is streaked pink and purple. A pillow of dusk. It is a time of looking torward, not whence. Gabriel's angel holds a handful of seed for the finches. They do not linger and wonder at the nature of tender cherub cupping her hands for them to feed from. Lingering is careless and fraught with danger. Smart animals...

 

I'm listening to e.s.t. Live from Hamburg. It is such beautiful music. It makes my brain smile whilst I write. And I realize as I listen, it never ends. As long as I listen the music is real. Every time a song ends, the audience applauds. Every time. And then another song begins. Over and over. And so it goes.

 

It occurred to me tonight that when I left Florida, after I said goodbye to my dad, I took only one souvenir- honest to God- a travel mug, full of coffee. How'd I miss that one?

 

Its time-to move forward, or if not forward, at least toward. Toward the coming spring, coming opportunity, toward the future,  And bring a travel mug full of memories, and stories, and good music...

 

--- --- ---

 

"Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies some day comes back. Put your makeup on and fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City..."

 

mark...

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Abbey Road

"Do or Do Not. There is No Try"   YODA   Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

In 1969 the Beatles released the album Abbey Road. The album was recorded almost six months after the album released as Let It Be, which is seen historically as their final album, but because of quarrels over L.I.B. it was released a year earlier. The culmination of the second side of the album is a sixteen minute medley of first-take recordings of half-finished compositions never meant to be released as a finished product. It kicks ass. And in there lies a message...

Do or Do Not.  (or)  Leave that, I'll clean it up later. I'm not entirely sure yet.

--- --- ---

I don't know where it goes, or why it suddenly comes back. I love winter, but every winter gets a little harder. Even 20,000 I.U.'s of vitamin D daily can't keep the beast at bay. I'm become better at fighting it, and the sullenness lasts only days now, or a week, but it wearies me, the struggle.

This year the big gift among the boys at the high school was headphones. Big-ass, full-on, cover-the-ears, active-noise-cancelling headphones. It took a while for me to figure it all out. They just want to retreat as far as they can into their own heads. 

I bought a set of headphones today. They are International Distress orange. 

--- --- ---

I made a few resolutions this year. I should have announced them with all due pomp and bother last week, but I didn't. They are...

1] Drink more water. at least four liters a day.

2] Find that yoga DVD I couldn't live without two years ago. 

3] Use it.

4] Plan ahead. At least once.

5] ........ I forgot. [damn] It was really good too.

--- --- ---

When Abraham Lincoln was conflicted he would put his thoughts to paper. Thoughts to paper. Tell me that's not a great line.  Anyway, he would write these letters, chastising Generals or admonishing underlings for misdeeds. But upon finishing, he placed them in a folder, and noted them as "Never sent, or signed"  The point was not to confront, but to confront the anger and frustration of a scenario outside the realm of his control. 

I just dismissed the entire second half of this post into the ether. We'll all be better off for that. It is my sincere hope that by doing so it will help reduce the occurrences of my talking to my self out loud whilst walking around the Walmart.  It's becoming really embarrassing. 

--- --- ---

I remember now. I'm going to learn Spanish...

--- --- ---

There is a new camera on the market. It's called the Lytro. It is a "light field" camera. You point it in the direction of the scene you want to photograph. Click. Later, in the comfort of your own home, you zoom, or not, focus close, or far away. Change the viewing angle. Its crazy. I predict it will change photography the way that the Segway changed transportation. 

Remember, you heard it here first. 

--- --- ---

I've begun reading fiction again. For almost twenty years I've read only non-fiction, except for some Kurt Vonnegut, so that really doesn't count. I just bought Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, and The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway. I can't seem to find anything new by John Updike, tho...

--- --- ---

By now, shouldn't I be smarter?

***

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Blue

"It's coming on Christmas, they're cuttin down trees. They're puttin up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on..." JONI MITCHELL   River

Its been such a hard week. I'm digging to find something, anything,  positive to hang my hat on. On the television are a bunch of ass-hats actually saying, out loud, that if all teachers were strapped, our babies would be safe. Why can't you just keep that to yourself?  Then you could at least pretend you have an ounce of understanding.

--- --- ---

My head is spinning. I can't string two cogent thoughts together that don't contradict each other. I've been listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue album. Its about running away. Not all of it, but enough of it to make it worth listening to. It was a mainstay of my college days, when life was full of seminal events and defining moments and philosophy classes. Joni Mitchell always told such great stories. About being sad, or  just tired and alone, or wanting. My first album was Hejira. The title means "journey". The songs are about traveling or being on the road or wanting to be home. But they are also about knowing what you want and what you have. They are about choice and the consequence of choice. And isn't everything...

--- --- ---

As an educator I'm not at liberty to write about education. That would be a conflict of interest. But I can say that anyone outside of the field of education hasn't a clue about what the inside looks like. At least at the K-12 end of the rainbow. You should change that. Soon.

--- --- ---

Ever since my dad died I've felt adrift. We lived very separate lives eleven hundred miles away from one another. I didn't see him or my mom nearly often enough. But it never mattered. We always made up for time and distance when we were together. During their penultimate trip north P and I took my parents to Buffalo so my dad could photograph the Kirsch Saloon building on Niagara Street. We scoured Black Rock all afternoon looking for lost neighborhoods and lumberyards that served as playgrounds. We found most of them. We think.

It was a great day...

--- --- ---

I bought extra Christmas cards this year. They Have the word Christmas in them. As of this writing I think I've made out seven. That leaves, um, a lot left to do.

--- --- ---

I miss writing. I thought I had it back last week. I think I did, briefly. But then I got lost again. I know it will come back. Until then I'll keep stabbing at whatever words are too slow to escape my focus, and stick them here. And i'll listen to Joni mitchell sing, about blue, and green, and skating away. And i'll find solace in the love of my lover. And turn the F'n television off again.

At least until the NHL comes to its senses.

Mark

addendum: I apologize for the ass-hat remark I made earlier (but not really)

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Moby Dick

Why the f*** should I have to press "1" for English?  STATEMENT ON A BUMPER STICKER

Captain Ahab, the mythic, God-like ship's captain in Moby Dick, the man-hero wholly consumed with rage against a Godless beast which cost him his leg, rejects outright all things which do not fortify his fevered vengeance quest. Deep within his soul Ahab believes that the white whale is the embodiment of evil, and acts accordingly against it. From the pages which recount Ahab's odyssey comes one of the greatest exultations of the total consumption of rage ever written in modern literature, American or other.

"He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam on down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

Dude could write.

My friend the Colonel once shared this book to a former Iraqi army officer he worked with. Days later the book was returned with a courteous but confused thank you.

"I'm sorry," he said, "But I just don't understand. All this because he lost his leg."

"Um- yeah, that's the point."

"But bad things happen to people every day. Where I come from we have learned to just move on."

--- --- ---

The world is changing. (...duh)

Look, what I don't know about the world could almost fill the Hollywood Bowl. But I do know this- all living things change. And when I refer to change I'm not referring to climate or population, although if half the world's population were wiped out today, there would still be more people inhabiting the earth than did in 1990. What I mean is the day to day of change, the "Yes, the ATM is asking me to choose a language" change. I mean, really, I'm supposed to adopt this as my white whale?

There's a big disagreement over solar and wind energy. Windmills are ugly, solar takes a long time to pay out. Both are seriously flawed technologies. But the NFL didn't look anything like the NFL when Jim Thorpe was running around in a scratchy woolen sweater and a leather hat. But football, like everything else, evolved. Setting aside the obvious value judgements to be made and focusing solely on the thing, football is what it is because it followed a sequence of change. And the same goes for solar power and wind power and biofuels and microwave popcorn and Southern Tier 2Xmas. What it is is only what it is, not what it was, or what it will be. Why is that so difficult a thing to wrap a head around?

--- --- ---

Resistance to change is what drives most business and all government.  It's what creates brand identity and a two-party system. If we wanted change we would change. But instead we let the same banks that tanked the global economy pay a 'fine' of one point nine BILLION dollars for laundering Mexican drug money and then loaning that money to countries we don't loan money to. And no one says a word. Or goes to jail. Or cares.

George Carlin once wrote that we placate ourselves by marveling at the fact that we have thirty-seven kinds of mustard to choose from on the grocery store shelf, but we ignore the fact we have no real choice over who our leaders are. Because that's the way we want it.

--- --- ---

My father's grandfather came from the Alsace. His grandmother from County Cork. Growing up we ate cabbage and pork and beef cooked in vinegar and more cabbage. My dad drank beer. Two doors down my friend's family ate chopped liver and boiled eggs and chicken and drank sweet wine. Further down the block were dinners of mutton and pasta and veal and wine that didn't come from a store. We were neighbors. And friends. And we were who we were. And we weren't afraid of who the others were either. I learned to speak Hebrew from Sam and Italian from Chuck's dad. I ate gefilte fish. And tripe. And now years later my students bring me mofongo and pani puri to try. And I eat that.

And we are friends.

--- --- ---

And none of this makes me angry, or scared, or makes me lash out at a world out of control or a world that isn't the same as it was when I was young, even though it isn't the same. I don't want it the same. I like my iPad, and Kindle books, and I like my digital camera. And I like a world that offers me a venue to write my thoughts out, and lets me put them out there...

And if it means that I have to press "1" then I'll press "1" and I won't shoot my heart upon some feigned foe. No, instead I'll press "1" and acknowledge the fact that my world is filled with colors and smells and favors I never knew as a boy. I'll remember Kodachrome fondly, but I won't romanticize it.

And I will ask myself why I would want it any other way.

--- --- ---

mark

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Shelf Space

20121128-220814.jpgThis is my twenty-fourth post since launching The Bodhicyclist. It might not seem like a lot. It probably isn't. But already I find myself at a crossroads. Honestly, I thought I knew what I wanted to do with this when I started. I planned thoroughly. I followed the advice of the experts. I wrote fifteen posts before I even launched. And then I found out on that what I thought I was, wasn't.

And the blog has been better for it.

I found out that if I focused on my place in my small corner of the of the small blue dot we call home I could, if nothing else, teach myself something about me I didn't know. And reveal a thousand other questions I didn't know I had.

Like;

What the hell was I thinking when I started this? If I don't believe in God, why do I always write about God? Why do I end up a disappointment to so many people? How does Paula put up with me day after day?

Anyway- I'm running out of shelf space for all my questions. And I need to consider them better. So I may go to one-a-week for a couple weeks. The last thing I want is to make writing a chore. It turns out that after thirty-five years of being a visual guy, I like being a word guy. And for the six regular readers of the blog I don't want reading to be a chore.

And honestly, I miss my dad and I haven't had much time to think about it.

I have a really good horse in the barn for Monday. I promise. I've been mulling it for a bit over a week and its just now making sense. I promise it will be worth the wait.

I'll even put a bow on it...

Thanks,

Mark

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[No] Reservations

I'm remembering back to an episode of the Travel Channel show No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, when Tony is in Japan. He is watching a man make soba noodles. This is what the man does- he makes soba noodles. His entire life he has made soba noodles. Every day of his life. And nothing else. As a matter of fact, in all his Asian travels, so many stops include a person who makes this one thing or does this one thing.

What is a life like that is at once so simple and so wholly purposeful? What it is like to just... be?

I have this memory from when I was young, of visiting the Carmelite monastery in Pittsford NY. The Carmelites are monastic nuns who live a cloistered existence, wholly abandoned to the worship of God. Their life consists of prayer, penance, manual labor, and spiritual contemplation. Out of context it is a beautiful, serene, and I suppose, rewarding life. In some paradigms it might seem a copout. In any, it is an act of renunciation of the tribulations of modern living, with a devotion instead to this one thing- worship; prayer. Every day is purposeful, every life, examined.

--- --- ---

I remembering taking my first picture at the age of ten, a picture of the janitor at my elementary school, with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera (which I still own). It was a child's pursuit, more curiosity than interest. But it was when I was nineteen that I made my first real photograph. I was working my first full-time job. I had been thrown into this crazy work cycle for which nothing in my life had prepared me. I worked eighteen twelve-hour days (3:30 pm to 3:30 am), with one day off between cycles. I followed this schedule for my first six months of employment. It was miserable, but it made me pretty wealthy. Especially for a teen who had been invited to not come back for a second year of junior college.

One of the first things I bought with my riches was a camera; an Olympus OM-1n. My friend Chuck and I were utilizing one of my off days, and we went to Akron Falls State Park. It was a crisp fall day. The leaves were turning, and the park was ablaze with color. Chuck worked in a camera store and was testing a new arrival from Olympus for the weekend. I was there because it was a Sunday and my only day off that month, and I wasn't about to spend it at home watching football. He handed the camera to me to try. I took one picture. The next day he called me from the store, and said I should meet him for lunch. When I arrived he handed me a print of the photo I had taken. I skipped lunch and bought the Olympus instead.

Its hard to convey what I felt when I saw that photo, but it was a combination of "that's so beautiful" and "I made that?" To that point, my adult life had been a combination of failing out of school, and working a meaningless second-shift maintenance job at an auto assembly plant. My uniform was greasy blue-black overalls, my hands perpetually soiled and scarred. Even my pillow case had a permanent yellow stain from where my head had laid upon it. I hated that job because it was not me. It was foreign and and fostered a contemptuous relationship for over a decade.

And then there was that photograph. From it I can trace a convoluted line that led me to where I am now, in my home with my wife and lover of twenty-plus years, a cat asleep on my lap, reaping the simple rewards of a career in teaching.

I teach about photography. And why photography is important. I teach in what is considered a small rural high school, and I teach evening classes at our local community college. I love teaching. I can think of few more rewarding professions. I make no allusions about what I do- at the high school level my job is to create connections- to open a door or two where none existed before, to point out the window and say "look", "see". Some students go on to study photography in college, most don't. But I think most leave changed for the better.

And this is my life. It is what I have done for my entire adult life. For almost twenty-five years. Every day. I never gave it much thought, but I can't imagine doing anything, or being anything, else. Being a teacher allows me to just be myself, to live a life that speaks honestly to me.

I get it now, the soba noodle guy, the Carmelite nun. Its all the same- none of it is about the "what." Nothing happens out of context. It's only ever about the "Why." My story is longer because its mine and I know it better. It is no more, or less, compelling than deciding to be the soba noodle guy, no more, or less, voluntary than choosing a vocation to the Carmelite order. It's about finding a personal water level. Soba guy still has bills to pay and children to raise, the nuns still feel the bone-cold of a New York winter. Life is life no matter how much certain aspects are romanticized. Every day I return home to the unconditional love of my beloved wife and lover. Every night a cat curls up on my lap. And they make me whole. And centered. And though I still carry scars from days as a laborer, they are but reminders of the journey here. About finding peace.

About learning to just...

be.

Mark

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Parachute..

I am afraid I am a very poor example of Buddhist detachment... LAMA NORBU Little Buddha

I knew it would be difficult. And it was.

Difficult.

It wasn't difficult because I didn't want him to go. Going or not going wasn't my decision to make. It was his. And he made his decision. It was his time, he knew it was his time, he made his decision, and he embraced it. It was difficult because I was powerless to do anything.

Anything.

By the time I reached their Florida home he was already very weak. My sisters had been tending to him for a week by then, dutiful and doting daughters, expressing true unabashed love. He had stopped eating, and drank only to lubricate his throat. Twenty-four hours later he was in a dream state. In another twenty-four he was gone. Its forty-eight hours later as I write this.

And I'm in a good place.

It's not that I don't miss him. Every time I think I'm near the end of my list I find new reasons to miss him. I'm in a good place because I found a parachute.

--- --- ---

It felt like jumping from an airplane, like falling. An event uncertain except for the certainty of the pain to come. But it wasn't falling. What I was feeling was actually the sensation of clinging. Of holding on. In short, grief. Grief is the inability to let go of emotion, and the initial emotional freefall that comes thereafter. Thing is- the deed is done, the die cast. And wanting it to be different = Grief. With the capital "G".

And grieve I did. With the capital "G". It began almost as soon as I arrived, and never really stopped until I had said my goodbye and headed home.

I had to go partly because it was time for me to go. I had to get back home to my life, to my family. And partly because there was nothing I could do, except continue to grieve. Worse, my grief was beginning to feed on itself, and was becoming destructive. It was time to go. And let go. But what I didn't know was that hidden inside letting go was a parachute- a big gossamer veil to slow the fall. And within that veil of letting go was the comfort and healing.

I wrote about this not too long ago, about letting go, although it reads now like ancient text. What I wrote about then was slightly different. I wrote about letting go in one's personal life, of not being driven by goals or decisions. Of being the water, and not the rock in the water. Of giving over to inevitability. This is different. And the same.

One immediate acknowledgement was in the needs of mine own family. Life goes on whether we are prepared to go on with it. Or not. But normalcy made me feel normal again. People in the supermarket laughed and discussed weekend plans. The cats at the feed store gave their usual disinterested greeting. Gasoline still cost too much.  Normal. It felt "let go."

--- --- ---

From this point forward it will always be "after dad died." And yet life goes on. And will go on. In the way that life must. And I will miss him, like my brothers and sisters will, and like my mother will, though none of us as deeply as my mother will. And I will cry, at unexpected times, for unexpected reasons. And I will carry with me the memories, of his smile, his amazing piercing whistle, his mechanical genius, and his love- his unending, inexhaustible love. And from these I will build my parachute, and keep it tucked firmly under my arm in case of emergency.

because

I am afraid I am a very poor example of Buddhist detachment...

peace-

mark

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The Squirrel and the Goldfinch

I was looking out the kitchen window the other morning, watching the birds at the feeder. As I sat a beautiful goldfinch flew in for a meal. At the same time a large grey squirrel charged up the pole, deftly stepping around the super-impenetrable squirrel blocking device I had painstakingly crafted and chased the current diners from their perch. The finch sort of hopped up into the air about a foot or two above the feeder, fluttered momentarily to get its bearings, and landed on the tip of an Astilbe frond. If you don't know Astilbe, it's a delicate, fern-like plant with pretty white or purple-ish flowers in summer. Its kind of a garden nuisance around here, but that's a different story. Astilbe is a featherweight plant, and I was surprised at how easily the finch was able to light itself upon the tip of that tender little stem and not even bend it. It sat patiently awaiting intervention on its behalf while the squirrel was busy gnawing a larger access hole in the feeder's tough plastic shell. I shooed the squirrel with a thump on the window. The goldfinch sat, unperturbed by it all, left its astilbe perch and set back down, this time at the smaller thistle feeder. It stayed only a minute ate a few seeds, and was gone.

The faint scenario played out by the finch was in such great contrast to the clumsy, blunt approach to living that the squirrel embraced, it was impossible, even for me, to miss. Squirrels leave little question as to their presence. Their loud chatter, copious litter, their damage to trees, eaves, and bird feeders alike, are an inherent part of squirrel-ness. Meanwhile the goldfinch, adorned in its fading lemon yellow, black and white raiment, floats in on the wind, sings a light and happy song, takes his seed, and is gone. The contrariety seems so profound. The squirrel, for better or worse, is not purposefully injurious but its actions are consequential in an immediate sense. The goldfinch in contrast leaves no echo of its actions. It touches lightly and refers the memory of its cheery song and beautiful plumage as the only lasting legacy of its visit.

The lessons of the squirrel and goldfinch

Events in the last week have put me in mind of considering legacy. When all is gone but for the memory,  by what gauge are we measured? I am much closer to the end of my teaching career than I am to even the middle. As such I am become more aware of what comes after, or more precisely, what remains. When I walk out of my classroom for the final time it will be without regret of any kind.  Though teaching was never something I aspired to do initially, I embraced it and it nourished me. Teaching gave me a new life, a beautiful wife, some prestige, and a living wage. When my teaching days are through my legacy will likely not be found in the room or building in which I taught, but more likely in the students that I taught.They are what remains. If I were to choose how I am remembered it would be fostering a love of learning, with laughter and fraternity, and random moments of inspiration. A Legacy would be that some of my students carry a love of art still, and make art, and teach others about art. It would be be that I cared enough to try, and tried enough to make some positive impact. It would be that I gave better than I got.

But that choice is not mine to make. Nor should it be. Because a legacy is defined by those who come after, by those who remain. Because while I look at the big grey squirrel and see only its littersome trace, others see a legacy of food left for smaller less robust animals to eat, and seeds cast for new trees to grow from, and nuts buried and long forgotten, feeding the soil and its creepy-crawly cast. Squirrel as provider. I see only my deconstructed feeder, and not the marvelous curiosity and tenacious persistence that this animal possess as it asks only to survive another day in the chilling fall air.

And therefore if my legacy decided is that I was a good teacher, or a good husband or friend, and doesn't extend beyond that -that's okay. And any memory of me need be nothing more than the faint tickle of a light touch or the echo of a laugh. In the interim I continue to be who I am, to do what I do.

And what remains, remains to be seen.

peace, and love to all

mark

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All Saints Day

Tony, Tony,
look around.
Something's lost
and must be found!

PRAYER TO ST. ANTHONY

Today is a special day in the Catholic church. This first day of November is All Saints Day. For the uninitiated, All Saints Day is not a typical feast day in the tradition of the individual Saints and their fetes. It is more a day of observance and solemn recognition of all who have passed before. Deeply rooted in the western european tradition, All Saints Day was instituted sometime after 700 A.D. as a sort of papal Veteran's Day to "honour all the saints, both known and unknown." Such a profound and simple principle- "honor all, known and unknown." Its very existence makes manifest the true binding force of any religion or fellowship or tribe; the heartfelt communion of a congregation of souls, past, present, and future. And it underscores the very principle of connectedness with a thick line, indelible to time or whimsey. It says, "We all are one."

I remember as far back as far back goes watching my father's mother sitting after Sunday dinner, occasionally on our living room sofa, but more often on the stiff wooden chair near the big front window, sorting through her holy cards. Every Sunday she recited prayers so long-ago ingrained that the cards, worn thin by the years and crudely laminated with scotch tape, acted merely as orisonal placeholders. Half whispering, half meditating, her charm bracelet making it's grandmotherly clink, clink, clink, she offered recitations of petition and gratitude. She would shuffle through her deck of saints, meticulously assembled like the batting rotation in some fantasy invocation team, with positions secured through years of tough negotiation. "Now on deck, Francis of Assisi. Assisi..."

My grandmother's saints were real to her. They were friends. Each had a special conversation to be spoken, and a special time and place to be spoken to. Each had a job, full with the expectations that jobs bring. The saints were concrete, they were flesh and blood. And really, that's what saints are. Real. Because before the saints were saints they were people. With lives. And stories. And each had earned through due diligence their place in my grandmother's starting lineup. She never played favorites, nor would she brook some trendy upstart with an aggressive PR agenda. They earned their spot in the rotation through hard work and by providing consistent results. And they told great stories.

Always batting first was the perennial fan favorite, Saint Anthony. Before Anthony became the patron saint of lost car keys, he was a simple country doctor and preacher. Born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon Portugal, he became Brother Anthony of the Franciscan order after finding himself tasked by a visiting monk with tending to the bodies of five Franciscan friars who had been martyred for their evangelism in Morocco. "They were willing to die for their belief" he wrote, "and I prayed that my own death should have such weight." Anthony, at the time a foundering novice longed for connectedness to something greater, for the calling. He became an evangelical, traveling extensively, preaching to everyone, and when there were none, to no one. Preaching to spread his word. Preaching to find his way. Through it he found solace, and a voice. There are many stories as to why Anthony is connected to lost things, but the most compelling stories are those that have to do with his utter humility in aiding those in need, and restoring their faith in God and fellow man. Which makes him, along with the finder of lost trinkets, also the finder of lost souls.

Francis, our friend from Assisi, the founder of Anthony's Franciscan order, himself tells a story of casting off riches and the excesses of youth and position, and adopting a life of humble service. It is said that he slept outdoors, on the ground, and that all who knew him considered him a friend. His official team photo depicts him with a bird on his shoulder, cupping his hands to hold food, or water. Service to the smallest among us. Service to the weakest. Service that matters. Indeed it is what ties the saints together, the subjugation of personal desire for a life of service and advocacy.  Its the tie that binds them together, and them to us.

Agnes, the virgin saint, the patron of both couples in love and victims of abuse, was killed for refusing to be forcibly married to the son of a wealthy nobleman. Jeanne D'Arc, a simple farmer's daughter, led a criminally small French army battalion to victory against invading English forces. Later captured and tried by a British tribunal, she endured fourteen months of incarceration and interrogation before being burned at the stake. And all before her twentieth birthday. For God? Perhaps yes, or perhaps instead through God. But certainly for their sisters and brothers, and by extension, for us. Because nothing is anything if its not done for someone, or for something.

And now to address the subtext, the second stringers, the unknowns. While the knowns will always find their herald, there remain so many more unknown's out there, forever unheralded. And now, like then, they are still feeding the birds, fighting an overwhelming force, tending to the battered bodies of the abused. They don't seek recognition, they don't act for redemption or indulgence, they seek only to heal, to help, to soften the blow or even take a blow. For justice, or righteousness, or just for a friend. They'll never make the starting rotation, or make it out of the minors. Hell, they'll never even have a rookie card. But its not because they don't make saints like they used to. It's because true saints don't think of themselves that way. It's because sainthood, like politics, is local.

 In the Buffalo region we have our favorites- like Father Baker, Tim Russert, Constance B. Eve, or Anne and Milton Rogovin... By light of day they looked and sounded like ordinary people, but now, through the filter of time and a light sanding by history, they shine like the beacons we knew they would be. To a person they would say they were just doing their job, just doing what was right, or needed, or wanted. And it's not just that we miss them now that they're gone, though we do, it's that we find in their absence all the things that still need doing. And for the most part it's still pretty grimy work.

 So today I make a special request- leave the name of a known or unknown in the comments box, with a word or two of why, or send it along in an email if you prefer. Share this post with a friend or colleague, and celebrate what the day is about - service...

And save those rookie cards!

peace,

mark...

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Water Moves

Since I gave up hope I feel much better...   ANONYMOUS

 I remember a story from long ago, from a source I no longer recall. The story is one of competitive sailing, on big, fast, ocean-going boats.  It seems that during a regatta the skipper noticed a piece of seaweed clinging to the keel of the boat. These boats are so finely tuned that even a length of kelp could cause a noticeable slowing of the boats pace. A member of the crew was dispatched to remove the kelp with a pike pole, a long pole with a hook on the end. He stabbed furiously at it, trying in vane to dislodge it. The skipper screamed in anger, as his action only further slowed their pace, the stabbing in the water caused more friction than the seaweed itself. Another crew member grabbed the pike, and punched it into the water just forward of the mass, letting the water move it along, catching and freeing the kelp at the pole moved past, swept by only the current. The secret was to let the water go and move with it rather than resist it.

We live in a rural location, with streams and runs crisscrossing our county. Recently P and I were out on one of our beloved day trips, stopping to photograph when inspiration presented itself. It was one of those perfect fall days that is neither warm nor cold, with air so clear and a sky so azure it hurts just to look at it. I found myself perched at the edge of a stream watching the water move past, swirling around some rocks as it moved by. Occasionally a leaf would happen by, carried by the current, and slip past the rocks with a little twist to and fro, and an undulation of acknowledgement of the rock as it meandered along. And then it was gone. And it struck me- if water is the passing of time, the passing of life, then we are either the leaf or the rock. Water moves, and we either give in to it, move with it, and go where it takes us, or stand fast, in defiance of the current and endure its relentless sanction.

When we are rock, our entire existence becomes one of obstruction,  countlessly bombarded by life as it moves around, and past. We cling to our hopes, our dreams, We cling to our problems. The spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle believes we create and maintain problems because they help give us a sense of identity. We define our self by our circumstance. To change the circumstance is to change our identity.

But life for the leaf is relatively calm in comparison.  Granted, leaf life is a state of constant flux with an uncertain future, but from moment to moment the flow is smooth and transitional. If this, then that. For the rock it is one crushing blow after another. The constant friction wears in subtle and unsubtle ways. Until ultimately the rock is worn down, worn out, and worn away. The leaf just gives in. At first blush, giving in looks and feels like giving up. It feels like giving away- of power, of control, of authority. It feels like quitting. But rather, giving in is an exercise of power. Giving in is a conscious release of a false sense of personal identity. Circumstance no longer defines us.

Giving in is letting go. It's the letting go of the frustrations over the things we never did for the acknowledgement of the things we've done. It's the letting go of anger over things we are powerless to change, and the embrace of the power we have. It's the letting go of idle hope and the embrace of action. Giving in is not giving up. It is the first step in moving on, of taking stock of who we are. Now. At this moment. Giving in is the inhale, the in breath. It gives us pause. A pause that refreshes our identity.

Over and over.

Because water moves.

mark

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Fish Out Of Water...

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”   ALBERT EINSTEIN

When I was in fifth grade I learned how to draw. It wasn't in an art class, because the school I attended didn't really have them. I learned to draw after school, taught by one of my teachers who stayed late to teach me. I attended Blessed Sacrament school. You probably know it. The one in Kenmore. My teacher was Sister Martin. She ran a tough classroom, but then again she was Irish, like many of us claimed to be back then. The "Irish" had nothing to do with how she ran her classroom, but when the flag of Ireland is the biggest flag in the room, and you learn to sing Irish songs during free time, and you're ten years old, and you have a limited number of conclusions you can logically reach before it starts to hurt, you think, "Irish." But anyway, when she wasn't making us kneel on pencils, or teaching us about Irish politics, she loved us. And we loved her.

I remember that day. Not the date, nor the season even, but that moment. I remember it was late in the afternoon, after everyone else had gone home. There was only she, and me. We were in the big room that served as the cafeteria and the auditorium and the gymnasium and the playground and the chapel when the heat wasn't working in the temporary church that housed our parish for twenty years. The big room with the chocolate floors polished to a heavenly lustre. That afternoon Sister Martin showed me what I didn't know I knew. That I could draw.

I drew a robin, copied from an Audubon book, and shaded with color pencil. It was a thing of extraordinary marvelosity. It shone. Really. Shone. In my rapturous state I imagined I was channeling Michelangelo himself, and his spirit had surrounded me in a veil of holy robin-drawing light, but apparently I had merely pressed so hard with the color pencil I burnished the pigment into a thin veneer on the paper. But hey, shone is shone. When I had finished it, I showed it to Sister Martin. She smiled and patted me on the head. It was bliss. When I returned home I showed my drawing to every living member of the household, including Archie the cat whom, as a sidebar discussion, was never referred to as just Archie, but always as Archie the cat. "Rawr." he said. "Cool." From that point in my life, from that point forward, I would always be an artist.

I never forgot that kindness, that act of recognition.  I have no doubt that I left ample evidence of my love for drawing on the desk in the classroom, and perhaps she was just trying to find me a better canvas to work with.   But it changed me, that simple act, it forever altered my perception of self. From then on I was a 'something'. 

A few years ago I got to thank Sister Martin. It was at the memorial for my brother Skip, in Cincinnati Ohio. Skip died right before Christmas that year, and the family gathered just after for his service. Cincinnati is an eight hour drive from Jamestown, with way too much time to think. The service was what it was, which was a memorial. At the reception afterwards my mom pointed out an older woman talking to my brother Kevin. "Mark," she said, "That's Sister Martin." She was no longer a nun, and hadn't been for a long time, and lived now in Florida near where my parents live. I told her the story, and finished with "thank you." "You're welcome" was all she said.

So almost forty-five years after that drawing lesson, I find myself imbedded deep within a similar universe, with my role reversed. In high school everyone is a fish out of water, a fish up a tree. My job is to point that out. "Maybe you're not a fish at all," I tell them, "or maybe you are, and the tree isn't where you belong."  And together we look for home, for kin. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we find others just like them. Lots of them. And sometimes I have to point them down a different path and explain that I can't go along.

"Because I'm not a fish," I say." I'm a bird."

A Robin.

mark

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Don't Stop Believing...

"Mama, cars don't behave. They are behaved upon...." BOOLIE WERTHEN Driving Miss Daisy

I used to love politics. It was one of my favorite sports, right up there with hockey and pitching pennies. But no more. Watching politics now reminds me why I turned the television off in the first place, and makes me question why I ever turned it back on. Too much too much. American politics, and maybe politics in general, almost requires a suspension of basic physical laws merely to exist, because politics seems to only function properly in a one-dimensional universe. Politics has become about dislike, and mistrust, and why the other guy sucks so much. It's one of the reasons we should never look to politics for change. It's just not about that. Maybe it used to be but those days are gone along with the forty-hour work week and the 16 ounce pound of coffee. Talking about politics is pointless, because politics will only change when its very survival demands it. The sad and basic fact is that politics, and by extension governance, does not act. It only reacts.

I have a new business card. On the old one I referred to myself as photographer, teacher, and "activist", though without the air-quotes. A profession of activism is not entirely untrue, but its not really accurate either. First of all I'm not completely comfortable with the idea of activism. The word connotes acts far too radical and anarchistic for my taste. And neck tats. So I changed the wording slightly and now refer to myself as an advocate. I like the sound of that. It rings entirely true. I am an advocate. And in some way so must we all be.

I believe that we should live a considered life. The mere fact of our sentience makes this obligatory. I believe that only through sharing ourselves with others do we give our life value. I believe in stewardship of our physical planet. I believe that still photography has a peculiar power to enable us to comprehend the beauty, and horror, or our modern existence. And I believe we have an obligation to advocate for the things we believe in. It is within advocacy that the conduit for change begins and the roots of leadership take hold.

It all begins with knowing what you believe. The very nature of belief, a really true, must tell the world belief, compels the believer to look for others to share it with. The group of equal believers finds a singular empowerment through the belief and the comity of their bond. Their beliefs become magnetic, pulling others closer, if only for look. But all magnets polarize, and outside every belief is an equal and opposite belief with is own believers. Which is where the magic happens.

When our beliefs are challenged, when we become forced to defend a core value, and can do so effectively, even without changing the mind of the challenger, we gain a confidence in our beliefs and a confidence in our self to share those beliefs. We become, for lack of a better word, leaders. No one asked us to lead, or looked to us for leadership, or knew leadership resided within us. We simply lead. Lech Walesa was an electrician in the Gdansk, Poland shipyards. He believed that the workers deserved a union. Communist Poland was not a place where unions found easy purchase. But Walesa believed, and enough of his workers believed in him that from a strike against the yard operator (enter activism) that he organized was born the Solidarność movement, ending in the downfall of the communist government. That's the thing about beliefs. No one becomes a leader who doesn't believe, and believing can make anyone a leader.

As often as possible I try to engage my students in debate. Its one of my charter responsibilities as a teacher, to foster critical thinking. Often we talk about how involvement drives decision, and uninvolvement indecision. I believe it is essential that they own a firm understanding that they have an obligation to be involved in, or at least aware of, the world they inhabit. Because from awareness is borne belief, from belief confidence, and only from a position of confidence can someone truly lead.

Practice leadership. Plant a seed. Lead by example. Love your life and share. Share your religion, your passion, your favorite team. Make a difference. Offer a ride, loan a buck, buy a cup of coffee. Stand in front of the tank, march, be noisy. Or work quietly and in the background. Never give up. Don't back down. Or give in. Be the better version of you. Believe.

peace,

mark

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the thirteen virtues...

“Time lost is never found again.” – BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

I haven't really been a good boy lately. It's not like I've been purposely naughty or a meanie-gut to old ladies or anything, but I have been almost purposely inattentive to some important aspects of my life, and the net result is just as dissapointing. I'm behind on work, way behind on relationships, and hopelessly, hopelessly distracted. Maybe it's the change in the weather, but my monkey-mind is out of it's cage and is and is making a shambles of everything. I'm suffering from a profound loss of focus. I have a list of a dozen things that need my attention, some big, most small, but regardless, the list has sat unaltered for three days now. I'm fine when I leave the house, I have a clear grasp on my daily goals, but within thirty minutes of arriving at school I can't remember a thing I wanted to accomplish. I've tried lists, voice notes, but when you no longer remember what the underlying point is of the task you wish to accomplish, then its just a chore. It's like I have to remind myself to be mindful, to stay on task and proceed one step at a time.

It's proving to be one of my biggest weaknesses, especially because its so crucial to everything else. I think the problem lies in the fact that I have all these things I want to do, but I never want to do them at the time they need doing. So I do something else. Or I do nothing. I'm good at that. It may be my biggest weakness, but I end up setting the bar too low. It's not like I ever wanted to be super efficiency guy, but I'm beginning to hurt myself, personally and professionally, with my inability to simply follow through from start to finish.

--- --- ---

Benjamin Franklin, the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States, wrote copiously about living a thoughtful and considered life. Although his most famous collection of pithy quotes is found in his Poor Richard's Almanac, there is much great reading to be found in his autobiography. There is a fabulous online copy, called the Electric Ben Franklin. Early on Franklin mentions almost in passing of his decision to adopt a mindful approach to living. At page thirty-eight we read, "It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other."

It's certainly not an original thought- to be a better person, to have a more attentive and deliberate nature, but it is unusual to actually have devised a workable action plan for implementation. Known today as the thirteen virtues, his personal moral code is a laundry list of actions any true contemplative might employ. For the sake of brevity I've listed them without their attendant precepts, but they posess a simple clarity. No virtue recommends pure abstinence, and all demand an attentiveness to action, and a mindfulness of purpose, outcome, and effect.

The virtues

Temperance

Silence

Order

Resolution

Frugality

Industry

Sincerity

Justice

Moderation

Cleanliness

Tranquillity

Chastity

Humility

I've found on the interwebs several different iterations of the virtues, but strangely, none of the writers who promote them do so correctly. I've run across several planner-style virture checklists- each day of each week we can check off our virtues as we live them- cleanliness, check; moderation, check; chastity sincerity, check... taken as a whole its a formidable, if not unworkable, set of hurdles to to tackle every day. The real shame though is that the checklist dumbs it down to a- well, a checklist. It completely forgoes the point of Franklin's pursuit- to improve one's self. He himself said it wasn't possible to juggle the entire baker's dozen at once, although I think he said it more eloquently than that.

To quoth, "My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view..." It's so simple its stupid. And brilliant.

Be really good at one thing and grow from there.

--- --- ---

And therein lies the key to mine own studies in contemplative living and controlling the monkey-mind. Construct a ladder. Make the bottom rung the key to reaching all the other rungs. Do one thing. Get it right. Build on it. Yowsa. I've reread my list of contemplative precepts and picked one to be my commitment. To wit:

Be not distracted by meaningless activity; Be attentive to the tide of living.

That should keep me busy for a while.

peace,

mark

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PetSmart...

Okay, so yesterday I go in to PetSmart to buy a bag of cat food. No big deal, right? But when I get to the cat food aisle I turn the corner and am immediately stopped by an associate in the middle of training a dog owner. At PetSmart they will train dog owners how to be a dog owner while at the same time convincing them that they're training the dog. Like you have to train a a dog to be a dog.  But anyway the aisles at PetSmart are really long so I couldn't immediately find the food I was looking for.  And every time I moved I either stepped in front of the dog who was assisting in the training of his owner, or was standing between the associate and the owner being trained who were talking to one another from opposite ends of the aisle.

Now normally I wouldn't be put out by any of this but I was sensing this energy from them that was distinctly negative.  I was interfering with the dog owner training and my presence in the cat food aisle was not welcome. I sidled in, mumbling out loud at the inconvenience, barked at the associate when she asked if I needed assistance, stabbed at a bag of food, and took it to the register and checked out, fuming. Now honestly my agitation and confusion might have been compounded by the 5 Hour Energy shot I inexplicably purchased while checking out a few minutes earlier at Wegmans, but bottom line I ended up walking out with the wrong bag of food, and not even just a little wrong, but wrong by a mile. My mind was in a million places, none of them good. It took almost an hour for me to get beyond the whole stupid incident. It really, really got under my skin. But now, in the cool of the evening, things are different, and I'd like to make an apology to those two innocent souls.

I'm sorry I behaved so badly.

I don't know what it is that gets into me. At times I take on such a small-minded, egocentric view of my world. And in that frame of mind  it was easy to understand how these two people at either end of the aisle could create such an unworkable situation. Me- innocent guy trying to locate a simple bag of cat food, them- occupying and dominating an entire aisle of this otherwise sparsely populated store. I know their perspective was much different. Them- having a lovely, fun, and instructive afternoon, me- angry, agitated, and frankly, rude guy acting like someone just parked their car in his living room.

 I completely lost my self to anger. Over cat food.

I don't know where this anger comes from or what purpose it serves. Perhaps it is some sort of alarm, a warning that I'm out of balance, or tired, or hungry. But it seems so deeply rooted, and so quick to show itself. And that's what scares me. The fact that I'm capable of such irrationality. Looking back some hours later I can see that it came in reaction to being - embarrassed- not the word i'm looking for but-  I was caught off guard, I was surprised by walking into the middle of this dog owner training and -panicked. right word. I panicked. I could have so easily said, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to get in your way, but I need to look for cat food. I'll only be a couple minutes, don't let me interfere." But man did I not do that.  Not even close...

Thomas Merton, always helpful in a pinch, says that anger stems from a loss of connectedness, a separation of spirit, which allows for a polarization of humanity. It makes sense when I look at the way in which I wrote the original scenario, with the focus on the "Me / Them" conflict.  And although I will stop short of questioning Merton's insight into humanity, I have to put forth a different postulation of my own. Having had some time to think this through and develop a reasonable rationalization, I'm hoping that it really wasn't anger at all that I felt. I think I was, for lack of a better word, scared. A situation I was not prepared for presented itself and I acted like an animal does when it finds itself cornered and confused. I made myself as threatening as possible.  Yeah- that's the ticket- it was just animal Mark. But although that may be a reasonably argued explanation for my actions, I won't allow it to be an excuse.

Because I'm better than that.

At least that's what I tell myself . And then I keep proving myself wrong.  But I'm beginning to think that therein lies the point. That life gives us unending opportunity to test and retest our beliefs. I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon putting summer to bed- getting outdoor furniture packed into neat arrangements in the garage, getting the lawn mowed one last time, raising the porch swing to its winter position - and throughout it all I kept rewinding that five minutes of my life and doing it over and doing it better.

And eventually I did get it right. And then I put it to bed along with everything else .  It left me with a beautiful little gift to roll around over supper, knowing that I had it within me to do it better next time, and knowing that a next time will come. Because for one thing I still need to return the bag of cat food I did buy and buy the cat food I need. And if I happen upon the associate who was training the dog owner, or the dog owner, I'll have to accept whatever version of the afternoon they remember for good or ill, if they even remember it at all.

And I'll do better this time, and maybe the time after this.

till' next time...

mark

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Unity Band

I went to a concert Tuesday night with Paula; Pat Metheny's Unity Band. The show was at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA. Mercyhurst is a great venue. The theatre is small and comfortable, with good acoustics. It was a great show, but in general, any Metheny show is.  But all the way home we both kept remarking to one another how special the night was, and how much fun we had together. And honestly it was one of the best evenings we've had in recent memory. Now keep in mind that P and I spend most of our free time together. Of everyone we know we like each others company the best. Which is how it should be, right? But really, we do everything together. We're really big on day trips. As long as the cats have food enough we're good to go. So this particular evening was nothing out of the ordinary.

Erie is less than an hour away. We left early and took the slower back roads like we like to do. We discussed the fall colors, the Amish way of living, New York State's approach to highway repair. When we topped the ridge that is part of the Niagara Escarpment and allows a one hundred fifty degree view of Lake Erie and glimpses of the Ontario shoreline far away through the crisp autumn air, we both quieted and took it in for as long as it lasted. Then we talked about trains, and what flowers we would plant in the spring, and what specials the restaurant might have tonight. Hopefully, lasagna.

And so it went...

We met friends for dinner before the show, and chatted the way friends chat, everyone talking over one another while stabbing at each others plates for a taste of their meals. We drove to the venue, remarking on how much we loved Erie and how easy the traffic was this night. I dropped her at the door so she could pick up our tickets at will call, parked the Bitch Kitty, and joined her inside.

It was P who first introduced me to Metheny's music, when we were dating. Letter from Home had just been released. P immerses herself in her music and was Radio Metheny when we met. I owned his New Chautauqua album, though I don't know why, but I loved his music from the beginning and was schooled pretty quickly. It made Pat Metheny part of our core foundation as a couple. This night was our first live Metheny performance in at least five years, so neither of us had any real expectations. We were both going in cold, so to speak. Not surprisingly it was an amazing show. With a couple exceptions all new music. P remarked that it reminded her of the Parallel Realities tour with Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette we saw at Art Park the summer we were married. She was right.

The show ended way too soon, as shows of this type do, though in real time it was two hours. We left the theatre, got on the road, and enjoyed another easy ride. We talked about the music, Erie, the light traffic on I-86. We saw the Aurora Borealis. It was a school night so there wasn't time to linger when we got home. Wrangle the cats, get them fed, hop into bed. A goodnight kiss and then sleep.

Morning broke as mornings do. Get up, feed the cats, make breakfast. dress for school. But this morning was different. It had an aura of the night before lingering over it, an aura of being happy and talking all night and laughing. An aura of connectedness. It spoke simple sounds. It said, "Yes, last night was special.  And I'm glad I spent it with you..."

peace,

mark

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An Un-whole Whole

I ain't happy but, I'm feeling glad I got sunshine, in a bag I'm useless, but not for long The future is coming on...

GORILLAZ  Clint Eastwood

 

I read an interesting blog post recently that focused on the idea of some people having near completeness but missing a critical element either socially or professionally, so as to remain somehow un-whole. And although I agree with the point of the article I think the picture is fundamentally flawed. I've come to believe that if we develop empty areas in our whole, they become filled with other elements of character with similar shapes. Nature abhors a vacuum. We become driven professionals, or passionate lovers of some thing, to the create a sense of wholeness. Outwardly we look and act whole, but we remain essentially un-whole.  Reestablishing a balance, then is not just a matter of filling a void, but requires a more base level reorganization of self, which is much harder work.

Last summer I became familiar with the twelve-step program of recovery used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Its used by numerous others as well because it has such a simple philosophy. Healing begins with a simple admission; I am powerless over my transgression, and I cannot fix this alone. It is a beautiful and elegant solution. It's also what makes healing so hard. Most of us are not good at self-reflection. We project our psychological duck face to the mirror, take a quick look, and move on. We don't want to admit to powerlessness. Yet it remains the key to change. But an admission of powerlessness is not a admission of weakness. Rather it is an admission of connectedness, and acknowledgement that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is an acknowledgement that we have responsibilities to others beside ourself.

But it also means much more...

We live in a world of unprecedented technological connectedness. Email, texts, Twitter, Facebook. We have this amazing conduit for connectivity. But for it to have a full measure of usefulness we have a responsibility to use it to create a lasting dialogue. Otherwise we are just electronic soapbox preachers, shouting to a crowd of disinterested bystanders.

What constitutes connectedness?

Connectedness is awareness. An awareness that we all are, that we all exist. That as we pass among one another we exchange between us small bits of understanding, bits of cosmos itself, bits of ourself. The bits fill the voids within us, within our whole. Thomas Merton once spoke of standing on a street corner in Louisville Kentucky and watching the people walk by. In a moment of personal epiphany he saw in the chaos a delicate dance of connectedness as bodies slipped past one another in a silent recognition of each other. He saw also his own connectedness, which had been the very thing he fought against as a contemplative monk. For years Merton had wanted only solitude, from the world, from fellow monks. He wished only to write, to examine his own singular relationship with God. Now here he was, on a busy downtown street corner, observing this magical dance, and seeing the the people "shining like the sun". In a moment he understood the deeper meaning of connectedness, and that it was within this congress with others that God resides.

Connectedness is courage. Mohandas K Gandhi spoke of the non-violent movement as being founded in the principle of connectedness.  To Gandhi connectedness demanded stewardship, of the poor, the sick, the needy. From this stewardship came the courage to protect, and from this the courage to act. The action, or non-action as it were, was borne from the courage of connectedness.

And so it goes...

So, as for the point I seem to be not making in all of this, is that from connectedness comes wholeness. The little slices that enter our whole, the ones we fill with misguided actions and activities, are really symptoms of a disconnect. Fortunately its easy to heal. Admit that you are not alone, that you need your family, you need your friends. Tell your loved ones that you love them. Then show them.

And be whole.

namaste'

Mark

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Chameleon

"Leonard Zelig's problem is that he has absolutely no identity he can call his own. He is a cipher, as close to the theoretical concept of zero as Bertrand Russell could define. He is so pathologically nil that, over the years, he has developed the unconscious ability to transform himself, physically and mentally, into the image of whatever strong personality he's with."  VINCENT CANBY  New York Times

I remember when I first saw Woody Allen's Zelig. It was 1984, on HBO. I fell in love with it from the first viewing. It's such an odd piece of cinema. Zelig is a mock documentary which focuses on Arthur Zelig, also know as "the human chameleon". Zelig, it was discovered, could seemingly change his physical appearance at will.  As the film explains, Zelig would appear spontaneously around the globe, altered in height, gender, or color, having become a likeness of the people around him. Grainy news footage shows Zelig standing at the Vatican with Pope Pius XII, as a flapper in a Harlem nightclub, as a New York Yankee, a Chicago gangster, a black jazz musician. When he becomes the focus of a medical study, he adopts the appearance of his physicians.

And so it goes...

It is a funny and entertaining film, but it spins a dark and unsettling psychological tale. Zelig was a shape-shifter fully and wholly, but a shape-shifter without purpose. He possessed no true identity of his own.

I thought it was a film about me, a story about my own chameleon days;

  • My Punk period
  • My Cowboy period
  • My Weightlifter period
  • My Blue collar guy period
  • My Flamboyant artist period

Its a strange feeling not knowing who you are. Its strange because you know that who you are is not who you are, but at the same time you can't define who you're supposed to be either. So you become who your friends are or who you think your boss wants you to be. And none of those people you become are never you. It took me until my early thirties to find a self that fit comfortably, and most of my forties to iron all the wrinkles out. And now, well into my fifties, i'm more my self, for good or ill, than I've ever been. I've even allowed some of my edges to fray a bit, you know, just for looks. After more than half a lifetime, when I look in the mirror, I finally see Me.

Freud says that during the first few years of our life we are a universe all unto ourself. Its the period of Id. We understand only need. Then comes the introduction of the world view with the development of the Ego, the conscience. By the time we're nine or ten years old we have begun to choose interests and plan futures. We join communities, and act accordingly within them. We grow further still, developing a Super-ego awareness of our world. We say please and thank you. We operate for the greater good when it is in our best interest to do so.  And for the rest of our life we mostly exist in this paradigm. We define who we are through our interactions with each other, or interactions with the world. But none of this addresses the Self. It doesn't explain how I recognize when I am really, truly Me, or why it sometimes it all goes so badly off the boil. What I mean is- why do some of us get so lost? What happens that makes us see a stranger in the mirror? How can life not make sense, and leave us feeling that we possess no identity of our own? What makes us become chameleons, and what happens that snaps us back to center? Does this happen to everyone? Or was it just Leonard and me?

How it was...

I spent my twenties searching. I thought I was searching for love, for companionship, for a group who loved me for me. But I was really just trying to find out who the hell I was. My high school career preference test indicated I was Gumby-like; moldable into any form, but without form of my own. My SAT scores only confirmed this. No particular aptitude for math, english, or science, but no real deficiencies either. Right in the meaty part of the bell curve. So I went were I was told, and where I thought I might discover an answer to that question I hadn't yet learned to ask; "Who am I?"  I tried junior college and engineering. Ha. It took me two days of study to figure out one my science teacher's jokes. Shortly after I was invited to not come back for a second semester. I moved on to work and punk. Work was easy. Punk on the other hand, was hard.

I was the stupidest looking punk you'd ever seen. I would have been a cool, nerdy kind of punk if I was really punk, but in actuality I was more like Richie Cunningham in Fonzie's jacket. (the pre-shark Fonzie) I looked like a poser, because I was a poser. An alter boy in a black Schott Perfecto. That lasted two years. In truth I was ready to quit earlier, but I stuck it out until the Roots Reggae Cafe closed and reopened as a coffee bar. It was time. Next was cowboy. Cowboy was for love. Like all things done for love, it was a mistake. Weightlifting was great, and twenty years later I still carry the lingering benefits of good muscle tone and physical fitness. But weightlifter guy was show a showoff- all bicepey and mal-proportioned.

And so it went...

Eventually I did 'find' myself when I became a teacher. It is who I am. Its how I define myself. The word makes me feel whole. Teacher...

But the fundamental question remains. Why does it take a decade to discover who you are? Why isn't it all more immediately self-evident? Is it because it takes life experience to know? If that's true, then why are some of us "called" and others not? Or are we all called and some of just don't hear? Teaching is my calling. I can't imagine my life without it. But I fell ass-backwards into teaching. Swear to God, it was an accident.

I wonder too if maybe, like Leonard Zelig, I'm confusing personality and persona? Im wondering now if the problem is that we all do? That we overlook our conscience will and desire, we pummel into submission the voice inside telling us what it knows to be true, and instead listen for a call we like the sound of, a tribe to we wish belong to. Rather we should be embracing our own call and letting the tribe find us.  Because surely their call, and our call are the same.

In the end that was Leonard Zelig's salvation. He found within himself a voice that was his alone. A skin that fit. A Me. I found my Me as well, and when I look back on it now I think it happened when I finally stopped looking.

Could it possibly be that easy?

 'till then...

mark

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