June 2010


Thirsty Buddha

This past weekend, at the 2010 Master Sand Sculpting Competition at New Hampshire’s Hampton Beach, I came face-to-face with my new American idol: the Coca-Cola Buddha, the patron deity of appetite and abundance.

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This wasn’t the first sand-sculpting competition I’d been to; last July, J and I checked out the crumbling masterpieces that remained weeks after the New England Sand Sculpting Festival at Revere Beach in East Boston. But among the various sculptures at that event, there was nothing even remotely Buddhist, so I wasn’t expecting to come face-to-face with divinity on the New Hampshire seacoast this weekend. Like any genuine spiritual experience, my Coca-Cola enlightenment came as a complete surprise.

In the interest of iconographic accuracy, I should note that the Coca-Cola Buddha isn’t technically the Buddha; he’s Hotei, a fat-bellied monk who carries a cloth bag filled with treats. If you’ve ever rubbed a Buddha-belly for good luck, you’ve had a close encounter with Hotei, the Buddhist equivalent of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man who brings happiness wherever he goes.

Lady Liberty

Whereas the historical Buddha is an emblem of regal detachment, Hotei is a reminder of life’s sweet abundance. Buddhist monks live on alms, so a fat monk is one that is particularly well-loved. Because Hotei is such a happy, jolly fellow, his begging-bowl is always full, and he is happy to share that abundance with others.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether the Coca-Cola Buddha is the Buddha, as Hotei carries a bag full of lessons all his own. In his guise as the Coca-Cola Buddha, Hotei reminds us to fully enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Whereas the historical Buddha was a pampered prince who renounced his wealth and then experimented with various ascetic practices, you get the feeling that the Coca-Cola Buddha hasn’t said “no” a day of his life.

Sand ogre

The historical Buddha eventually abandoned asceticism, deciding that the Middle Way of moderation was the proper spiritual path…and both Hotei and the Coca-Cola Buddha take the Middle Way one step further, suggesting it’s better to occasionally over-indulge and enjoy a soft-in-the-middle belly-laugh (and share that glee with others) than be a Seriously Religious sour-puss concerned only with philosophical intangibles. The Coca-Cola Buddha believes, in other words, that life is short, so have dessert first!

The Coca-Cola Buddha also reminds us to, in the words of a famous soft-drink slogan, obey your thirst. In a time when obesity has become an epidemic, it’s easy to view food and appetite through the lens of fear. As Michael Pollan argues convincingly in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Americans suffer from a national eating disorder whereby we obsess more and more over the healthfulness of our food while simultaneously growing fatter and fatter; in the words of Raj Patel, we live in a world that is simultaneously stuffed and starved. Given conflicting medical reports about which foods are and aren’t good for us, it’s no wonder our mealtimes are often fraught with worry.

How to train your sand-dragon

The Coca-Cola Buddha offers diet plan far more simple than even the most popular fad or fast: when you’re hungry, eat; when you’re thirsty, drink. This is the wisdom of intuitive eating, a philosophy embraced by Zen masters, psychologists, and self-help gurus alike.

Too often we allow our head or our heart to make our culinary decisions, eating (or abstaining) from a particular food because we think we “should” or smothering our emotions with aptly named comfort food. If you listen to your gut, however, your body will tell you loud and clear when you’re hungry and when you’re full. The Coca-Cola Buddha knows that our bellies are usually far smarter than our brains. While our brains send us to the kitchen in search of Chubby Hubby to distract us when we’re sad, anxious, or bored, the wisdom of our gut is eager to tell us how much food we really need. Once you’ve learned to listen to the wisdom of enough, then you can share that abundance with others.

Tiger by the tail

Lastly, the Coca-Cola Buddha knows that appetite can be sated only in the moment, and only for oneself. I can dream, imagine, and anticipate the soothing refreshment of a cool drink, but that imagined idea won’t quench my thirst.

Several weekends ago, I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, and in lieu of hot tea, the Head Dharma Teacher left a small pot of ice water in the interview room for me to drink. The day was steamy, so I was sweating beneath my heavy Dharma Teacher robes…and when I raised a cup of cool water to my lips, I was delighted to smell the tang of a lemon slice floating among ice cubes. Just like that, a cup of cold lemon-water was more refreshing than Nirvana, a full serving of Ahhhhhhh soothing my summer-shriveled cells. But as much as I try to describe the deep-seated satisfaction of enjoying a cool drink on a hot day, the only way you can “get” this experience is to go to your own kitchen and pour your own glass: drink up!

Flames

A long time ago in New York, a student questioned Zen Master Seung Sahn about the efficacy of mantra meditation: do I have to understand the words of a chant or mantra in order to benefit from repeating it? Seung Sahn insisted that only three things are important when you meditate upon a mantra: first, your reason for doing it; second, your faith that it will work; and third, your tireless effort to keep that mantra.

“So you can chant Coca-Cola all day long and it will work,” the student asked, amazed, and Zen Master Seung Sahn’s reply was even more amazing. “If someone tells you that the words Coca-Cola have power in them and you really believe that, then Coca-Cola will work for you.”

This is the timeless wisdom of Zen Master Seung Sahn, big-bellied Hotei, and the all-American Coca-Cola Buddha. This Present Moment is a brimming glass filled with both sweetness and sorrow, and only you can belly up to the bar called Life to savor it, moment to moment, good to the last drop.

Click here to more photos from the 2010 Master Sand Sculpting Competition at Hampton Beach. If you want to visit the Coca-Cola Buddha and his sandy friends in person, the sculptures will be on display through June 30th. Enjoy!

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What the cat thinks...

It’s true that everyone is a critic. They say cats are difficult to “read,” but it seems clear that Snowflake is not pleased I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw. Although Snowflake is a discerning reader who normally enjoys lounging on Gladwell’s New Yorker essays as well as any book I’ve momentary set aside, this particular collection includes a profile of “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan, an essay about pit bulls and crime profiling, and absolutely no essays about cats. Snowflake, for one, is clearly not amused.

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Poised to pitch

It’s an interesting artistic conundrum. How do you capture the motion of an athlete in the fixed medium of sculpture? The statue of famed pitcher Cy Young on the campus of Northeastern University–the former site of the original Huntington Avenue Grounds, and my alma mater–captures Young in a naturally contemplative moment when he reads his catcher’s signals, plans his pitch, and then coils for his delivery. The statue doesn’t capture movement; it preserves the moment before movement.

Cy Young

Many statues of athletes try to freeze-frame movement, suggesting the fluidity of athletic prowess through the graceful curves of cantilevered limbs. The statue of Michael Jordan outside Chicago’s United Center, for instance, captures Jordan in mid-leap, his ball-wielding arm outstretched toward an invisible basket while his earthbound defenders watch, helpless. Looking at this statue (or looking at any Michael Jordan highlight reel), you truly believe the man could fly.

The new statue of Bruins legend Bobby Orr recently unveiled outside the TD Garden similarly commemorates a moment of flight: specifically, that moment when Orr, having scored the game-winning goal for the 1970 Stanley Cup, lunged forward, his arms and hockey stick outstretched, a skater turned Superman. For one split second–a second captured in an iconic photo–all of Boston believed Orr could fly.

Staring down another batter

Baseball pitchers are typically more grounded than basketball or hockey stars; on a normal day, baseball pitchers don’t fly. The lightning-quick power of a fastball or the unpredictably quirky curve of a knuckleball is too fast for the human eye: only in slow-motion replays can we fully appreciate the power of a pitcher’s preparatory coil, split-second spiral, and fluid follow-through. Just like that, the ball crosses the plate, and we rub our eyes, not quite understanding how a human arm can do that.

The statue of famed knuckleballer Phil Neikro outside Atlanta’s Turner Field, for instance, freeze-frames the beginning of a pitch, with Neikro’s arm coiled behind him in the split-second before a throw:

Knuckleball!

A nearby statue of Warren Spahn is the most dynamic statue of all, freezing the gravity-defying arc of a Hall of Fame pitcher’s delivery. The ball’s power and speed, you realize, doesn’t come primarily through muscle; it comes from the momentum of the pitcher’s contortion, a kind of dance turned deadly as a projectile is released at just the right moment, the hurling offspring of arms and angles.

Monumental

The earthbound statues of Jordan and Orr capture the belief-defying fact that some athletes can fly. The motionless forms of Young, Neikro, and Spahn remind us of the undeniable power of a muscular spiral uncoiling.

This is my contribution for today’s Photo Friday theme, Motionless. I shot these (and more) photos of Northeastern University’s Cy Young statue last August; the photos of Neikro and Spahn come from a game between the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves last June.

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Pollinating

Sometimes if you surrender to distraction on the way from backdoor to car, you’ll discover so many marvels in your own backyard, you’ll wonder why you ever leave it.

Click here for more pictures of the pollinators I saw working our backyard hydrangea bush yesterday afternoon. Enjoy!

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Cosmic kitty

Yesterday afternoon I submitted end-term grades for my latest online term…and just like that, my summer has officially started. For the next two months, I’m not teaching anywhere: not face-to-face, and not online. For the next two months, I’m officially “off.”

Green goblin

It’s been years since I’ve had a summer off: that’s one of the harsh realities of being an adjunct instructor. My face-to-face and online semesters, taught for different institutions, typically overlap, so apart from a week in the summer and a few weeks in December, I teach year-round. Because the typical semester involves a grading-grind at its end and a flurry of preparation at its beginning, having a week or two off between semesters is never enough downtime. By the time you finish grading last semester’s papers, you have to turn around to prep next semester’s classes.

This year, I made a conscious decision not to teach any face-to-face summer school classes at Keene State. Although it’s nice to have some summer income, I’ve been looking forward to a few months of not making a weekly commute between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. When I decided not to teach summer school at Keene State this year, I had envisioned teaching online throughout the summer, as I typically do…but it turns out SNHU Online doesn’t need me to teach this term. So quite by accident–in the way adjunct instructors’ course schedules are always contingent on chance–I won’t be teaching anywhere until the end of August.

Wayne Rooney & MR

When I first found out I’d be unemployed for two solid summer months, I was initially anxious: how will I pay the bills while I don’t have any paychecks coming in, and will one unemployed term lead to others? But my almost immediate second reaction was relief. I really need a break from the juggling act of teaching at multiple institutions, and two months completely off from teaching will be an unimaginable luxury. Full-time professors have their summer months to unwind from teaching, and tenured professors get sabbaticals. These next two months are the closest thing I get to a vacation or sabbatical: a time to recharge the proverbial batteries.

Given the next few months of downtime, what am I looking forward to the most? Being able to read anything I want, instead of reading stacks of student papers. Earlier this week, I finished Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I’d started last week; last night, I finished reading Jackie MacMullan’s When the Game Was Ours, which I’d started at the beginning of the NBA Finals; and this morning I finished Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory, which I’d started sometime last semester. After spending so many months with barely enough time to keep up with my teeming paper-piles, it feels great to start and finish reading entire books.

Ca$h for your Warhol

This morning, facing the question of What To Read Next, I simply stood in front of my bookshelves until something (in this case, Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw) said “Read me.” It’s tempting to make lists of what I “want” to (or “should”) read over the summer, but right now I’m letting my heart guide me. It’s not a matter of accomplishing anything or checking anything off a list; it’s a matter of finding something that interests, intrigues, and even entertains. During these next few months of precious downtime, I don’t want to waste a single minute trying to be too productive.

Today’s pictures come from a Sunday stroll through Central Square, Cambridge. Enjoy!

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White moth on lilac leaves

There are many excellent examples of natural camouflage–creatures that are perfectly adapted to blend in with their environment–but this is not one of them.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Stand Out.

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Excuse me...

“Are you a real Celtics fan,” a fellow wrapped in a Brazilian flag asked J as we made our way to our seats at Sunday night’s exhibition game, or “friendly,” between the New England Revolution and the Brazilian soccer team Cruziero. When J nodded that yes, we’re real Celtics fans, the man in the flag asked the obvious question. “So what are you doing here?”

En masse

Sunday night was Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, and with the series tied at 2-2, Game 5 was a crucial game. If we were “real” Celtics fans, we would have spent Sunday night at home glued to our TVs, or we would have paid an arm and a leg to buy tickets to see the game live. Instead, we were at Gillette Stadium rooting for the Revs.

Sunday night’s friendly between the Revs and Cruziero doesn’t officially count toward either team’s season record, and judging from the 4-0 loss the Revs suffered in last month’s friendly against the Portuguese soccer club Benfica, we suspected we were in for another drubbing. As much as we love the Revs, we know they aren’t a world-class team. Watching the Revs play Benfica or Cruziero is like watching a college baseball team take on the Red Sox, as happens every year during spring training. The experience is awe-inspiring for the college kids, who get to take the field with their heroes, and it provides some good practice for the pros as they prepare for another long season. But no one expects the college kids to actually beat the pros.

Celtic pride

And so it’s been with the various friendlies we’ve attended. We love the huge crowds of colorfully dressed fans who show up for these matches, and we love the chance to see teams with an international (rather than merely local) fan-base. But we knew going into Sunday night’s match that the Revs would probably lose…and we were okay with that, knowing the role of any friendly is to give fans a good show and players a chance to stay in shape during mid-season hiatuses.

So while we did our part to cheer on the New England Revolution simply by showing up, we left our Revs hats, jerseys, and soccer scarves at home and came to the game dressed in Celtics green. Knowing that the Revs would probably lose to Cruziero, we put our sartorial eggs in a whole other basket. With a crucial championship game on the line, we wore our lucky green Celtics shirts and discovered that basketball is one thing that both Brazilian and American fans can agree on.

Sneaking around Shalrie

“Did you see that game where Ray Allen was on fire,” the guy in the Brazilian flag asked once he’d determined our status as real Celtics fans, “and then the next game, where he couldn’t make a shot?” After spending a few moments trading Celtics stories with the flag-wrapped fan, we later encountered a pair of Brazilian women looking for someone to take their picture. “Look,” I overhead one remark to the other. “The lady in the Celtics hat…ask her!” Perhaps because Celtics green and white is a bit reminiscent of Brazilian green and yellow, Sunday night’s Cruziero fans seemed much friendlier to us than they probably would have been if we’d been decked out in Revolution red, white, and blue. Because we were advertising our allegiance to a world-class basketball team, we didn’t look like rivals, just crazy fans who’d wandered into the wrong sports venue.

Beat LA!

During the half, we discovered we weren’t the only real Celtics fans in attendance. Wandering over to the Gillette Stadium footbridge, where you can see the billboard-sized television screen outside CBS Scene restaurant, we encountered a throng of fans watching the opening tip-off to Game 5 from afar. As we walked back to our seats, we met a pair of diehard Cruziero fans who were gesticulating at our green shirts. “Let’s go, Celtics!” one woman shouted, and I countered with a one-woman version of the classic “Beat LA” chant.

It was nice, in other words, to let our Celtics pride shine while we got friendly with soccer hooligans. After watching Cruziero score two goals against our beloved Revs, we left the match ten minutes early, before Cruziero scored a third and final time, so we could listen to the Celtics game on the drive home. As luck would have it, we got home in time to watch the second half, and the Celtics won. Tonight, we’ll be glued to our TV for Game 6, like any real fan. It’s fine and good for Cruziero to beat the Revolution, but tonight is all about the Celtics winning their 18th championship banner by beating LA. There’s nothing friendly about that.

Click here for a photo-set from Sunday night’s friendly between the Revs and Cruziero…and go Celtics!

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