Day 190 1/1/14: A Matter of Life and Death

For the second year in a row, I spent New Year’s Eve at a Buddhist mediation center with friends. This is a tradition that I never really consciously initiated, but one that I highly recommend. It is nice to enter a new year in the silence of meditation or following the rhythmic drone of prayer in a softly lit room while people are lighting fireworks or firing guns or generally acting like madmen in the dark outside.

The monk was funny. After talking about resolutions (regular flossing, fitness) and the power of the mind, he recommended a meditation that appealed to me: “I may die today.” “Or,” he said, looking out at the hundred or so people filling the tiny hall, “it’s likely that some of you might die this year. Not everyone will make it back here next New Year’s Eve.” This focus on death is designed to help us remember what’s important, which in Buddhism is resolving to become a better person and through this discovering some sort of peace which we can share with others.

Later Connie, Gail and talked about the countdown to my descent in the shark cage in South Africa in June. I made jokes about dying in the shark cage, because to joke about death is to at once acknowledge it and ward it off. It would be too perfect, too absurd for me to be eaten by a white shark when the whole point is to live to tell about it, to describe what it’s like to meet this old friend, this old fear, this dream human face to conical snout.What do their eyes look like, really? What’s the exact nature of their blackness, or up close are they really pure black at all?

Today I took down my brand new calendar and filled in all the numbered days until my shark trip, my uneven purple digits scrawled over the white space of unlived time, dwarfing the sensible preprinted numbers of the calendar. What are the odds, I wondered, that I won’t live until June? What is the numerical value of certainty or uncertainty?  I thought of the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”: “Every step of the way/We walk the line/Your days are numbered/So are mine.” And I thought of my favorite piece of Buddhist scripture, “The Five Remembrances:”

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Sometimes I think that more difficult even than death itself (which promises, at least in my view, a degree of contentment, which brings with it the fulfillment of work that here remained unfinished, which is a state of perspective and unity), is the fourth remembrance.

Inescapable change, the separation from people and places, things that I am sometimes fooled into believing are permanent simply because they endure for twenty or forty years. Maybe later I will decide that the infirmity and indignity of old age is tougher, or that facing death whether it comes in the form of a shark, or dark, rapidly dividing cells, defies my attempts to tame it with philosophy. I don’t know.

But I do know that in a world in which everything dissolves and departs, we have to have some ballast, be it a prayer or tradition or the habit of matching every day with a number to make life feel at last, real to us.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipen

Day 139 11/11/13: Shark Miscellany #4

800px-gharial_maleI have been studiously avoiding a pile of essays. Here are the fruits of my procrastination:

1. Check out David Shiffman’s funny and educational piece “What the funniest shark memes can teach us about science.” 

2. Shark Legend Rodney Fox recalls the harrowing, life-changing white shark attack that led to the development of the shark cage.

3.  70-million year old shark poop offers clues to ancient fish’s diet.

4. Fascinating look at a great white tagging study off Guadalupe Island.

5.  From Thought Catalog: 11 Endangered Animals You Haven’t Heard of Cause They Aren’t Cute 

Day 132 11/4/13: Epiphany, Misanthropy & Scalloped Hammerheads

I just stumbled on this piece by a scuba diver and self-proclaimed atheist who found God in the eyes of a white shark off Guadalupe Island.

I needed an epiphany like this to heal the horror of a student presentation given in my 10:40 class. After outlining the habitat, biology of the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark, the student played a clip in which some smug idiot catches a juvenile scalloped hammerhead and holds the small shark on the deck pointing out its distinguishing characteristics while the fish gasps, thrashes and finally dies on camera. I felt like placing a bag over the man’s  head and asphyxiating him while calmly identifying the major appendages that identify him as a Homo sapiens.

My meltdown drowned out the asinine anatomy lesson.  I tried to turn my rage into a “teachable moment.” As the shark’s death seemed to happen in the name of education,  I talked about the destructive “research” of OCEARCH and urged the class to write about corruption in marine conservation. “Please tell me,” I said to the darkened classroom, “how I can continue to witness things like this and not become totally hopeless. Can you guys answer that on the final?”

They nodded sympathetically.

“It’s like zoos,” one girl said. She didn’t elaborate, but I guess I understood.

Lou Reed was right: “You need a busload of faith to get by.”

But sometimes faith involves more forgetting/denial than it does hope.

Lou Reed also said “that caustic dread inside your head will never help you out.”

A conscious rejection of too much negative thinking is another necessity of “getting by.”

Lou Reed’s death leaves me feeling a bit lonely for this kind of immediate connection, this ability to cut fearlessly through to the truth.

It makes me want to be less straitjacketed by wanting to be liked and not being afraid to show how incredibly angry and sad all this stuff with animals makes me feel without trying to wrap it in what David Foster Wallace called “rhetorical niceties.  But I don’t want to rant self-righteously either.  I hope I can find some place in the middle of anger and reverence, joy and despair that isn’t too middle of the road. 

Scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini)

Scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 78: 9/11/13: On Shark Dreams & Shark Cages

Today  in the darkness of the classroom, I remembered how pop culture is often a kind of vehicle for the spiritual, the sacred. It is easy to remember this truth in the realm of music, but easier to forget during things like movies involving killer sharks.

In the last fifteen or so minutes of “Jaws,” Hooper submerged in his steel cage, tries to escape the gaping, strangely feminine mouth and  battering ram of a body of the pursuing shark.  Students groaned as Hooper’s spear gun glided hopelessly away to the sea floor.  As the shark parted the bars of the cage and Hooper escaped into the sanctuary of a nearby reef, I said rather morosely, “I hope that doesn’t happen to me.” The class cracked up. I felt good not only because I’ll do anything for a cheap laugh, but because I sometimes remember: “Oh yeah, this whole project is culminating in my descent into the waters of South Africa in a shark cage!”

Often this truth flat-out horrifies me.

But today I started remembering my over twenty-year catalogue of shark dreams. I have been confronting sharks for years. Underwater, at the surface, sometimes flying through the air. But never consumed, never bitten or  tugged at, never even bumped or inspected.  I’ve watched for them at night, my binoculars trained on the dark water. I’ve lived in empty trailers on desolate beaches just to be near the seas where they swim unseen. So this descent into the cage, though foreign and terrifying in a physical sense, feels in some deeper, intuitive way, inevitable– the conscious version of the descent I’ve made for years in sleep, in dreams.