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January 19, 2011

Everything is broken

One day last month, a funny little document appeared on my Facebook page. It was a photo of a wrinkled page of loose-leaf paper upon which was sloppily scribbled a list of “Ways to be cool.”

There were 23 items listed. I can’t imagine anyone arguing that “Motorcycles,” “Leather jackets” or “learn to play guitar” would fail to make anyone cooler, but several of the ideas defied easy understanding as to why they would be on this list — “Move to Williamsburg,” for instance.

Also perplexing was “learn to speak European.” I’m not sure what “EXXXTREME (everything)” might mean, either. Some of them (“Mowhawk” and “Ambercroombie & Flitch”) were misspelled; I think misspelling is totally uncool, but I majored in English and gave up being cool long ago.

The word “Hollywood” appeared on one line … with quotation marks and no additional info. “Online friendships” made the list, too, so a lot of us might be cooler than we thought. And one late entry suggested that we might be cooler if we “eat more meat.”

The last entry was the charm, however. It said, “hang out w/ Steve.” Several people, all named Steve, were “tagged” in the photo, but the first one I recognized was local artist Steve Irwin. I posted a comment offering that I would be willing to hang out with Steve; of all the options offered, hanging out with Steve was something I would do even if it meant that someone might accuse me of being cool.

As it happened, I didn’t have such an opportunity. Steve died on Christmas Day, just three weeks after the list was posted.

That same week, a few days before Christmas, PBS started rerunning a documentary about “The Buddha.” I had seen it before, but the fact that it was running during Christmas week struck me as brilliantly perverse, a lovely counterpoint to the programming on, um, every other channel in the English-speaking world. Where was Rudolph? Where was Heat Miser? What about the local news report from the toy store with the pretty lady asking the harried shoppers what they were hoping to find on the empty shelves?

I put “The Buddha” on my DVR and played it over and over. It was so placid, the interviews described elements of Buddhist philosophy, and Richard Gere narrated the story of the Buddha’s life, the life of a coddled prince who was not allowed to observe old age or illness outside of his palace until, as a young man in his early-/mid-20s, he saw a number of afflicted people and chose to follow a path toward spiritual enlightenment, eschewing material pleasure. Thus, he would inspire the world’s first
great religion.

Mark Epstein, one of the authors interviewed, expressed a central concept of Buddhist philosophy as the pursuit and maintenance of a state of bliss, pointing out that the bliss and the joy of reality is in its transitoriness. “Do you see this glass?” he asks. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. But when the wind blows and the glass falls off the shelf and breaks … I say, ‘Of course!’ But when I know that the glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

Extending this metaphor to its logical conclusion, we can see that everything is broken, destined to decay. Nothing will remain. All will be lost.

Some of you might think I am being morbid, but it is exactly the opposite. If we see that this world, our lives, our bodies are broken, every moment we are able to experience the wonder around us is precious, utterly full of joy.

Oddly enough, that type of perspective is perhaps what Steve Irwin’s friends will most clearly remember about him. His spirit was unbelievably generous; a fountain of positive energy seemed to gush out of him. And his passing leaves us all with the obligation to pay that energy forward.

At his memorial service, a video from the opening of his first solo show in New York City was excerpted. An installation of magnets embedded in one wall formed a message in Braille. Metal filings made the scattered dots visible, but a hand sweeping over them would cause them to fall. The message, he translated for us, his seeing friends, was: “You already know how this will end.”

Dedicated to Steve Irwin, Tony Perez, the Altermensch and other assorted, assembled mortals.