Day 125 10/28/13: Remembering Lou Reed, Andy Warhol & An Old Horse

I wanted to write about the shark presentations my students gave, but most of them were lifeless recitations of Powerpoint slides, and I found myself thinking more about Lou Reed.

I played his music all last night.

What does it take to crack open the human heart? I don’t know why I’m surprised at my depth of feeling at Lou’s death.

Had I forgotten the heavy thrill of buying my first VU album, “White Light, White Heat,” of memorizing “The Gift”? How I used to keep a picture of Lou Reed in my photo album among images of my family? Why did I not even own this music I loved so much anymore? I’d memorized every song.

Between classes, I tried to lose my despair over the death of a major artist and the death of collective student imagination, in an essay about horses called “Partnering with Pegasus.”  Mares are the true leaders of the herds, not stallions.  I started thinking of 1992,  the last time I saw my childhood mare-ribsy and grizzled, 35 years old coming over the edge of a hill. She nickered when she spotted me, but I, shocked at her appearance, gasped.

Then we both froze staring at each other.

What a great surprise to find that horse standing in that field again.

The image hung there, and suddenly infusing that lost world was John Cale singing “The Style It Takes” a gentle song about Andy Warhol:

I’ll put the Empire State Building on your wall,

For 24 hours, glowing on your wall

Watch the sun rise above it in your room,

Wallpaper art, a great view…..

Did they always belong together this unlikely memory pair–an elderly horse and lonely Andy Warhol?

I started thinking of that well-worn Camus quote about having an infinite summer within. The places I’m afraid to return to, those fields, those songs (which are also places), are sites of renewal. Loss numbs and loss  surprises. Like music it wakes us up again to the dream of life.

Day 119: 10/22/13: On Mothers & Shipwrecks

English: Illustration for "The Wreck of t...

English: Illustration for “The Wreck of the Hesperus” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. From Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People, edited by Mrs. [L.D.] Sale Barker. Published 1885. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another blurred batch of sea poems today. That none of the students chose “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” that morbid Longfellow melodrama that my mother used to recite, left me vaguely disappointed and relieved. No one could have owned “Hesperus” like my mother with her thick Salem Mass. accent. I cannot read it without hearing her voice. The skipper of the Hesperus binds his daughter to the mast during a violent storm. She, being  a rather chatty child, keeps asking the beleaguered old salt questions that he patiently answers until the twelfth stanza:

O father! I see a gleaming light,

Oh say, what may it be?”

But the father answered never a word,

A frozen corpse was he.

In Ma’s dialect, corpse became a very earnest “caawpse” and I had to suppress my delighted laughter or she would not continue to my favorite part:

Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,

With his face turned to the skies,

The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow

On his fixed and glassy eyes.

I loved the lantern. I loved the snow. I loved the odd repetition of “gleamed” and “gleaming” and I loved death’s glassy stare.

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Day 103 10/6/13: Certified and Certifiable

David Foster Wallace gave a reading for Booksm...

David Foster Wallace  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“That’s great! That’s just great! You’re certifiable! Do you know that, Quint?” Brody (Roy Scheider) hollers after Quint (Robert Shaw) smashes the boat’s radio (no more calling in for a bigger one) with a baseball bat.

I replayed that “Jaws” scene endlessly in my head on the way back from Catalina as my dive teacher filled out my diver certification card. I am by no means “good” at diving, but I am no longer afraid of bleeding ears or the large sharks attracted by the ribbons of blood pulsing from my exploding lungs.

The ocean is beautiful—heart-rendingly so. But I don’t want to disturb its inhabitants. I don’t want to shine flashlights in crevices to see lobster, or play with sea cucumbers. Even as I thrilled at the glimpse of a retiring purple octopus curled up in a rock hole, I felt a rush of feeling for the little guy. I know that octopus LIKE to be left alone. And lobsters seem to value their privacy as well.

I felt glad that I would be  teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” in the morning.

The essential question is this:

How do I commune with animals, while not interfering with their nature, their ways of being? 

It’s not that animal rights guilt precludes my enjoyment of the natural world, but thoughts about animal consciousness increasingly shape my experiences.

I grew up riding horses and still love doing it (as a way of seeing the countryside), but even that activity is fraught with complications: bits, and crops and heels into ribs. I recently discovered this observation (given in sign language) from the always candid Koko the Gorilla:

Koko looks at a picture of a horse with a bit in his mouth:

K: horse sad.

CD: Why?

K: TEETH.

(Check out more of Koko’s insights in this fascinating argument for the personhood of gorillas).

More on this idea of displacement & communion soon. The sea hath ignited in my mind the power and glory of language while it seemed to have sapped the very marrow from my bones.

Day 88 9/21/13: Wetsuits, White Sharks, & Whiskey

The smell of wet neoprene has already joined the ranks of dusty hay, lilacs, and library bindings in my sense memory hall of fame. Evocative of pools–and soon the ocean. It’s been a week since I last used the wetsuit and it still isn’t dry. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since I am about to walk off the side of the boat into the ocean, but I find myself worrying about all sorts of things as I prepare to leave. My mouth feels slightly dry.  A byproduct of caffeine or Mild Terror?  I’ve packed ginger pills for nausea and a flannel sheet for the sheet-less bunk on board the boat which will sail from the quaint port of Oxnard, but I wish I had a little flask for whiskey.  Last week we read “Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” in class and I’m not thinking of  sharks so much as the endlessness of the ocean, how border-less it is, how impossible it seems to me that people can actually create boundaries between national and international waters.

But I’d better can the poetry for now, and get on to more practical concerns like packing….and signing this petition to place covers on boat engines to protect great whites who follow cage diving boats in South Africa.

Day 76 9/9/13: Mourning, Millennials & Melodrama in “Jaws”

I had to remind myself to take a deep cleansing breath when I noticed a few of my students texting during “Jaws” today. Later, one of the guilty boys confessed the movie was “just too scary” and with the acute senses of a predatory fish (or a fellow neurotic), I detected residual fear in the shuffling way he gathered his books and hid his eyes behind a lank of  dark hair.

Several people laughed when the bereaved Mrs. Kintner slaps Chief Brody in the face for keeping the beaches open and letting her son Alex get chomped. Is this a kitschy moment? Perhaps. But I always found the scene too odd or mysterious to be pure melodrama. The black-veiled Mrs. Kintner is accompanied by a silent old man who might be her father or grandfather and the two of them progress in some odd inversion of a  wedding march toward Brody.

As Antonia Quirke noted in her BFI essay on “Jaws”: “She’s much older than the other mothers at the waterfront. This child was her last chance” (35). Quirke also notes that a slap in the movies normally stands in for sex, but “[t]o be slapped by Mrs. Kintner in mourning is like being kissed by a skeleton, it has that disquieting taboo mixed in” (36).

The book store ran out of my shark texts which may have explained this group’s lack of enthusiasm for uterine cannibalism or the ampullae of Lorenzini. So other than typing up a quick shark biology quiz, I’ve been checking in with the STOP OCEARCH activists. Sad to hear that the New Yorker did a story about OCEARCH (thanks for the tip, Connie), but pleased to know that a film exposing these charlatans (Price of Existence) and other marine exploitation is in the works. I’ll try to do what I can to help with the fundraising/consciousness raising for this project.

Day 67 8/31/13: Sharks, Shame &Oral Fixations

Preparing for my shark class, I started feeling anxious. Will I strike the right balance between fun and conservation? Will I inspire any one of my students to actually do something about the oceans?Regretting my unfortunate choice of textbooks, I felt on the verge of falling into a major shame spiral about my skill as a teacher, which inspired a kind of greatest hits medley of degradation.

For example,  the familiar domino effect of paranoia and self-loathing I’ve often felt in the course of romantic love:

I fear you will notice my hopelessness at chess, sex, sports, trivia, cooking, dancing, and abandon me. Exposure of my inadequacy will then lead to exile from the larger community, which sensing my lack of fitness, will leave me to perish alone like a deformed animal.

Or something like that.

Sharks evoke a curiously liberating kind of fear—the ring of teeth, the lurid jaw and cavernous throat are primal, immediate. The horror of being consumed by a large fish doesn’t ignite the tedious chain of psychological causes and effects that the proximity of an intimate relationship does.

My first therapist Joyce, was not only a beautiful ex-model who collected Jasper Johns drawings, but an astute Jungian. I’d always had a rich dream life. Lucid dreams. Even premonitions. I told Joyce that I’d dreamed of sharks since childhood, hoping she might seamlessly link my dysfunctional family confessions with some deep-sea mythos of the subconscious.

Instead she stared at my ragged fingernails.

“Well, you’re very oral.”

I  took exhaustive notes during our sessions.  The pens I wrapped my ragged fingers around were invariably dotted with teeth indentations, the caps deformed and squashed by my clumsy molars. As a child I obsessively chewed free library bookmarks, cupcake papers and lollipop sticks to awkward mush balls, a habit that evoked both pleasure and shame.

At the time, I felt disappointed at Joyce’s spare, more Freudian than Jungian response, but over 23 years later I feel grateful to her. Instead of spinning a narrative about submerged anxieties stalking me until I faced them, Joyce aligned me with the powerful creatures I feared.

In some strange way, she made me one of them.

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 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).