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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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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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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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Martin Luther and The 95 Theses

In 1517, Martin Luther, frustrated with Pope Leo X's selling of indulgences for absolution from sin, nailed to the door of the Castle Church his "Disputation on the Power and the Efficacy of Indulgences", which became the basis of the Protestant Reformation. Luther believed that his opinions were right and just. He posted them in public where he was sure they would be read. He wasn't looking for validation of his opinions. For Luther it was a conviction of faith.

I am not in any way comparing myself to Luther, but I understand the significance of his gesture. It is not enough to have strong opinion or incontrovertible conviction. You must also be committed to take action based upon those beliefs, and be equally willing to endure the the repercussions of public expression. And since we've been addressing conviction, here, with all due apologies to Luther conveyed, are a few of my own.

  • God is what you believe God is. I don't believe in God. Or heaven and hell. Or reincarnation. I don't know why we were all put on this earth in this form. Or if we were put here.  I but I do know that what we do while we're here, and how we affect our world around us, is what makes a life.  Accumulation of physical things is a conceit. It accomplishes nothing. That's not to say I don't like nice things or have a favorite pair of shoes, but a ten dollar timex tells time as well as a five thousand dollar Rolex. All physical things return to the dust from whence they sprang. And all energy returns to the cosmos from whence it sprang.  So while I will never see another sunrise once my days on earth have ended and my body turns to dust, I am not afraid. I see God as every bit of energy in the cosmos, from the tumult that births the stars to the imperceptible hum of atoms. It means I am part of something big and glorious. It means my soul or essence can be a sunrise, or be a cool breeze on a warm summer's eve. Or a gentle snowfall. Or something so massively wonderful that my puny human brain could never imagine or comprehend its exisrtance. Over and over, infinitum. And some day some form of 'me' could inhabit some other physical form for all it's days on its planet. That's ok by me.
  • Spirituality can exist outside the realm of religion.  Thirty-five years ago I left the Catholic church. There was no one compelling reason, it just wasn't for me. But that doesn't mean that I don't pray, or don't feel a connection to life greater than my own energy.  I've been a practicing Buddhist for nearly twenty years, and embrace the four noble truths and eightfold path as right and proper. But I also don't think of myself as particularly religious because Buddhism doesn't center on God, but rather personal responsibility. I also practice yoga, which is distinctly Hindu, but practiced my scores of Buddhists, particularly American Buddhists. And that seems to be simply because yoga reinforces the quality of mindfulness. The long poses and metered breathing keep the mind focused on the present moment and quiet the inner conversations. Yoga teaches discipline and ritual, it enhances mental clarity. And it produces a level of self-acceptance among yogis that takes it outside the realm of exercise.  It creates a sense of spiritual awareness in the same manner as does mindful meditation or prayer. It was yoga that led me to explore Buddhism in the first place. To deepen my spiritual growth. And I think both together have made me a better person, both physically and emotionally.
  • You are what you eat. I've always had a fractious relationship with food. Food used to make me angry. Seriously. Angry. I remember once being at a picnic and having the choice of hot dogs, hamburgers, and Italian sausage. And I was angry because I was going to be forced to make a choice, because eating all three was out of the question. Now, I love Italian sausage, but I really love burgers. And I never overlook an opportunity for a charbroiled dog. I can still remember standing there in front of all this food thinking "its not fair to make me choose." Soon after I went into food rehab. At first I stopped eating wheat products, and it helped some. Then I gave up everything that came in a box, or had an ingredient list. Better still. Now I try to eat only meat, fish, leafy vegetables, some fruit, and occasionally some sweet potato. And gone are the internal food fights, the bloated belly, the monstrous cravings. Gone is the anger over having not eaten something that was there to be eaten. I love food now. And I love shopping for food. There is so much good food in the world, and I love finding something I've never had before. I'm now the type of shopper most grocers hate- produce, meat/fish, eggs, checkout. I'm not an aisle shopper or a coupon clipper. There are no coupons for broccoli. But I buy quality foods, organic when possible, local in season. It really wasn't a difficult switch, and it has made me feel healed.

Maybe its not much, or earth shattering in its disclosure, but Its an honest expression of some things I believe, and I wanted it to be public. I'm not trying to start an argument, or begin a paleo/secular reformation movement. Maybe its enough if it merely starts a conversation. If you feel so inclined, I would love to know what some of your core beliefs are- leave something in the comments box or email me.

 

Thanks / namaste

Mark

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Launch Day

rocketLaunch Day. It's been a long time coming. It was back in April of this year that I first posted to Bodhicyclist. I don't have the post anymore, and I don't remember what I was going to write about. I do remember that I liked the name though. There is a good chance that it would have been about my observations whilst cycling. That is if I had ever followed through on it then. Instead I preface this new iteration by making an admission.

I am flawed. When I first conceived to start this project I imagined it would offer to readers insight, advice, and humor. But in truth, I have no advice to give, no insight to offer. Rather, I have a lot to learn. I live a life full of inconsistencies. I'm essentially insecure, and never really certain that I'm doing the right thing. What I used to perceive as the long, beautiful fan in my wake is actually a twisted trail of disappointment dotted with former lovers, friends, and students; I'm an equal opportunity disabuser.

How I came to this conclusion. Over the last year I've completed some wonderful accomplishments and suffered some terrible failures. On one hand I managed to organize and host a hugely successful charity event almost entirely on my own. It was awesome. I run a profitable small business and have done so for years. But I also managed to alienate a couple close friends and damage those relationships in a way that I'm not sure is repairable.

Everyone I know seems to be a better version of themselves than I am of me. Maybe you know what I mean. I have a few friends who are far more dedicated to their photography than I am to mine. To them its religion. Nothing can dissuade them from spending their free time photographing. And they are really good. My wife knows every actor and director from every motion picture made before 1934, and has an appreciation for these films like no one else I know. I photograph all the time but the last time I picked up a camera and just went "walkabout" was well before Christmas. I claim to eat a paleo diet, but if I'm buying organic ground beef from Uruguay, is it really paleo? Is pizza? I call myself a Buddhist but if I can't describe the difference between Mahayana and Theravada traditions, and what I follow personally is the philosophic core wrapped in a jacket of my own design, am I still Buddhist or just something akin to Buddhist?

Taming the beast. Too often I treat my convictions more like suggestions because it all just seems too hard. I like to speak romantically of battling 'inner demons', but honestly- I'm not plagued by demons, I'm plagued by bullshit. I know when I start to cut myself slack its a signal that things are out of balance, and that I'm skimming along just fast enough to stay above the water. And I let conviction lapse.  So every few months I screw up the strength to clean up my diet, or make the time to read my 'holy cards'. And I can feel whole again. For a while at least.

Revelations. Clearly, I have much to learn from my family and friends. Most people aren't afraid to ask for what they want. or to stand up for what they believe in, or to pursue their passions undeterred by convention or circumstance.  I need me some of that. I need to learn the secret of stamina. I need to understand the true meaning of the word "conviction." I also acknowledge that I need the assistance of my friends, and am helpless without them. And this is where you come in. I will be seeking your advice, both in public and private, and sharing your insights here. And what was once to be a blog about my insight will instead be a blog about personal growth and the wisdom of others.

And so it goes. How this plays out over the next several months I don't really know- this is all new to me. But to quote Russell Kirsch, the inventor of the first internally programmable computer, "Nothing is withheld from us what we have conceived to do." Translation? Do, because you have conceived to do, and trust that the answers will come. He said God told him that.

The answers will come. Who am I not to believe that. This blog is proof. This first post is proof. What I initially envisioned for Bodhi, with its outward looking form, seems inconsistent with what is unfolding now. The answer to a question it never occurred to me to ask made itself apparent only because I was advised by a friend to push Bodhi's launch date back by a month. That Bodhi should now be about the inner journey is a direct result of sitting at my desk and simply writing whilst waiting for the new launch date to arrive. And now a very inward, very personal blog is what I have conceived to do. And we shall see where it leads, and from it what answers will come. But through it all I will continue to rely on my friends and loved ones for guidance and reassurance, because I know, fully, that they are the better part of me.

Until then.

namaste,

Mark

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