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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."

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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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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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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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