Day 59 8/23/13: Into the Murk

Thought I might get some snorkeling practice today before my first dive lesson tomorrow. As  tranquil and sun-filled as La Jolla had been, Leo Carillo was murky and treacherous. Endless, rolling, silty green. The kelp still looked gorgeous, but those waving sea grasses, so mesmerizing a month or so ago, now seemed menacing, filled with potential predators.  I felt utterly insignificant in the vastness. My friend Renee and I had to scramble out on the rocks where waves smashed us into other rocks and each other. When we finally found a high crag covered with bivalves and star fish,  I sat there, chest heaving, staring at the crabs in their obscure passages, spitting out salt and thinking maybe I needed a swimming lesson since I took my last one in 1974.

Equally obscure, murky and dangerous were OCEARCH’s replies to critics during a live Facebook chat.  When I asked them what “450 million mystery” could be solved by killing sharks, (which they do in the name of research), they conveniently avoided addressing the killing and focused on the mystery: “We want to find out where they go! How they breed!” When other activists asked them to justify their method of tagging which severely limits shark mobility and leads to infected, ragged fins, they replied that sharks brutalize each other all the time.  When the questions became too rational or scientific, they simply blocked the activists and real researchers and answered questions from 8-year-old kids and sports fishermen.

No matter. Every movement starts small. I do believe OCEARCH will be exposed. How long can people be fooled by shark researchers wearing backwards baseball caps and flashing those heavy metal devil fingers? Ugh. I don’t want to contemplate the answer to that question.

Day 58: 8/22/13: Tern! Tern! Tern!

Picking up trash can be downright addictive when conducted in a scenic location with a simpatico companion. Today Connie and I scoured Santa Monica beach, north of the Pier. As I approached the water, a dolphin surfaced and disappeared in the surf. Birds abounded—flying, floating, hovering. Connie knows birds and informed me that the white specimens expertly dive-bombing into the water were terns. The terns spun and fell out of the sky like nature’s kamikaze pilots.  When has basic survival ever been so fun? Do they ever get dizzy? 

We stood transfixed clutching our trash bags as several generations of wet, coffee-colored pelicans flew just overhead. I once possessed  a toy pelican eraser as a child. He stood about two inches high and dressed like a general with those fringey shoulder decorations, a smart cap and vague circles meant to suggest medals. I traded him to my friend Ria in exchange for a 1964 mint condition Beatles pencil-case and never looked back. But pelicans have always retained a certain absurd authority to me. Watching them land on the green waves, I almost felt like saluting.

Day 56: 8/20/13: Art House Sharks

Spent the first half of the day dutifully studying dive manual and watching short YouTube films about positive buoyancy, proper fin selection, and how to clear a  flooded mask. In the afternoon I attended two movies: Museum Hours at the Royal and Cutie and the Boxer at the Nuart with my dear friend Helen. Both were great–Cutie and the Boxer is a documentary about two married artists—Ushio and Noriko Shinohara–and depicts the art life with all its perils, poverty and messy devotion. At one point, Ushio and Noriko are eating supper in their chaotic loft, talking about “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and 80-year-old Ushio, an action-pop artist who paints with boxing gloves,  notes that  “Jaws” was Spielberg’s best film. While Noriko chastises her husband for his reactionary early work=best work credo, I had to agree with Ushio that Spielberg never topped “Jaws.”

Museum Hours is a meditation. It’s a movie about loneliness, life, death and relatable to anyone who has wandered around a strange city with very little money and become privy to all the ordinary alien miracles of empty urban spaces, the detritus of street markets, the odd beauty of trains at certain hours and the sanctuary of museums that both reflect and heighten the ordinary world. I loved seeing paintings fill an entire movie screen–scenes from Brueghel, beheaded Medusas,  ancient statues with sheared off noses.

I started imagining a new kind of shark movie–not a documentary or a silly exploitation film, but an art movie with winter light, museums and coffee.  Maybe a story about two dedicated shark researchers who lived together like artists, each with their own particular obsession–one devoted to lantern sharks and the other only caring about charismatic “man eaters” and their love threatens to illuminate or devour them at different points in the film. But in my art house picture, the sharks wouldn’t exist as  convenient metaphors for human frailty, beauty or power.  They would exist as subjects in their own right, filling the screen, so we might contemplate their mystery and gravity, as we gaze upon the statues of Gods with missing heads or wings.

Day 55 8/19/13: 10 Things I Did Instead of Studying My Dive Manual


Shark! (Photo credit: guitarfish)

1. Read about the swift but gruesome death of abalone diver Randy Frye in the waters of Northern California.

2. Watched a mini-documentary on technical diver David Shaw who died trying to retrieve the remains of another diver from the depths of a dangerous cave.

3. Meditated for 20 blissful minutes that were occasionally invaded by thoughts of decompression chambers.

4. Felt less alone after reading several articles criticizing OCEARCH’s machismo and brutality.

5. Marveled at Denise Levertov’s briskly paced poem The Sharks. 

6. Tried to do the dishes mindfully, but spaced out and started worrying about August almost being over, a reverie broken occasionally by hummingbirds.

7. Ate fruit

8. Thought again about Thom Knoles–of the failure of the stressed out intellect and how the expansive silence of meditation feels so nurturing, so full of presence.

9. Wondered for the trillionth time about the basic goodness or evil of mankind.

10. Marveled at the ability of writing to redeem boredom and to reveal the miraculous within the ordinary.

Day 54: 8/18/13: Everyone Should Read This (and I don’t mean that as arrogantly as it sounds)

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Beatles and their c...

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Beatles and their companions posed on a dais, image by Paul Saltzman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thom Knoles is a funny, grounded and warm meditation teacher who studied with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s, I think he may have overlapped with the Beatles’ tenure in Rishikesh. I felt like too much of a Beatles nerd to ask when I learned Vedic meditation from him last year.

Learning to meditate  was one of the greatest decisions I ever made.

Thom opened the lecture with this anecdote about speaking at the G8 summit. “I was the only one there wearing beads,” he laughed.  “Everyone here is suffering from chronic brain failure,” he said to the assembled leaders of the world. “Nothing’s going to come of this summit. Any questions?”

I don’t know how the G8 leaders reacted to that, but the crowd at the Santa Monica Marriott really dug it.

In a metaphor I remembered from the meditation class, Thom compared the human brain to an overloaded iphone that can barely process any new information. Decisions made using 2% of the stressed out overtaxed human brain are never going to solve terrorism, global warming, etc.

That’s where meditation comes in. And dharma. And karma.

Dharma is our personal role in the evolution of the universe. When we are living in dharma, doing what we’re meant to be doing at any particular moment, living is effortless and expansive.

To understand what we need to do, to know our dharma, Thom says we must learn to recognize and be receptive “in our least excited state”(meditative) to what “charms us” and to recognize what we have an aversion to.

Karma, on the other hand, is not the word plastered on tip jars in coffee shops. Karma is, according to Thom, “an action that binds.”

“The universe is not angry with us,” he explained. “It’s not punitive. It’s just hoping we figure things out.”

Unlike dharma, karma is restrictive. It is what we experience when we base our decisions purely on intellect and inaccurate assumptions. For example, “If I just keep doing this work (that I don’t really love) it will become something I love.” Or “I will repeat  the familiar even though the familiar makes me unhappy.” Karma is that corrective suffering that happens when we refuse to take risks, when we cling to the known world, when we are not courageous.

And like Thom’s brief address at the G8 summit, today’s talk at the Marriott was ultimately about courage:

“Find out what you should be doing. Embrace potential. Is it enough for you to continue eating, sleeping, pooping, taking up space on the earth? We must make our existence relevant. Urgently examine what you’re capable of giving to the world. Be courageous.”

Day 54: 8/18/13: Weird Karma

I find myself cursing L.A.’s traffic and skin-killing sun until a day like today happens—full of sublime weirdness that could have happened nowhere else and I feel grateful I’m still knocking around this whacky place.

After attending Thom Knoles’ invigorating lecture on the true meaning of karma, I witnessed a scary fist fight in the middle of Santa Monica’s swanky Montana Avenue between a furious pedestrian and a guy in a Mercedes. The driver apparently nearly hit the pedestrian’s family when they rushed into the street. The men kicked, punched, swung at each other and generally behaved like idiots. The wife fueled the drama by nearly rushing into the street while her poor little children clutched her hands, wailing and utterly terrified. Onlookers dialed 911 and one kind gray-bearded man cautiously tried to intervene in the madness  “C’mon you guys, there are children here…”

Harrison Ford at the Pacific Design Center in ...

Harrison Ford at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)g

When the guy in the Mercedes started to drive off,  the apoplectic pedestrian jumped on the hood like a deranged stunt man, tumbling to the street when the driver stopped short, no doubt rehearsing for a later lawsuit.

My friend Brandy and I felt disoriented—this abrupt immersion in human melodrama, after such a transcendent meditation talk made us both queasy. We  found a delicious Indian food restaurant a few blocks north that was empty except for us and Harrison Ford who, as Brandy said, “looks fantastic for his age.”

Later I picked up beach trash for two hours while watching a woman walk a black rabbit on a leash and chatting with a French man who had very interesting teeth. When I told him of my major star sighting (the first in a long while), the tourist looked puzzled and said that he thought that Harrison Ford was already dead. While I untangled the shriveled navels of abandoned balloons from clumps of kelp, the wayward traveler spoke about the wisdom of weather, how lucky I was to live in the land of sunshine, (despite today’s rare overcast skies) and how he’d seen dolphins while paddleboarding near the pier “that was my reward for being daring” (true), and how happy he felt when he realized that the merry fins surrounding the surfboard did not belong to sharks. He then asked me to confirm a rumor he’d heard that it is impossible to sleep in Las Vegas because of the relentless nocturnal campaigns of its hookers.

Day 53: 8/17/13: Ruminations on the Dive Manual

The good news is Sharksavers has responded to initial inquiries from concerned activists confirming that they don’t have any plans to collaborate with OCEARCH. I have my letters at the ready just in case.

When I am paranoid about learning something, I tend to over study. I am reading my diving manual like some gripping but arcane novel, whose premise pulls me in but whose language is at times elusive and complex forcing me to backtrack. I tend to remember the morbid facts: that a tight-fitting dive hood can cause a person to faint, or the symptoms that indicate that my lungs have expanded beyond their human capacity.

My lessons start a week from today and my mind is a tumult of childish anxieties: Will I ever look as ecstatic as the toothy, neon-suited dive friends high-fiving each other on the cover of the book? What if my “buddy” hates me?

As I said in a previous post, what I like about diving is the emphasis on breathing–which is what I like about meditation. An activity that keeps me in the moment.  Many people have assured me that the initial anxiety of diving in the ocean for the first time is soon eclipsed by the beauty of the water, the kelp forests.

It’s extraordinary that I am even considering doing this. Kayaking in New Zealand several years ago freaked me out so much that my legs shook and banged inside their plastic prison and I could barely navigate the little lagoon. Everyone laughed at my shark paranoia, but the next morning the cover of the newspaper featured a picture of a giant fin following  a man in a kayak. The picture had been snapped just up the coast from where our group had leisurely paddled.

I loved the ocean as a kid back in the 70s, even in the shadow of “Jaws,” but my paranoia grew as my shark dreams increased. Yet now I see those dreams in a different light–as assertions of kinship, not foreshadowings of my grisly demise.

(BTW: That last sentence would make a bittersweet and ironic addition to my obituary or any news article following my untimely death by shark attack).