You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2005.

dgiriLots to report, but little time. I am headed off to a 10-day Vipassana course today in Igatpuri, the location where the first Vipassana center was established outside of Burma by Goenkaji.

Paras, our good friend from CharityFocus, known internally as “God,” has been staying with us for the last couple of days.

He has gotten a taste of some of the guerilla service work we are up to.

For instance, one night, at about 11:30 pm or so, we all jumped atop a truck with two men shoveling out sand. We took control of the shovels and found another and unloaded the whole truck. Was tough physical work and we were all sweating buckets by midnight. Unfortunately, God threw up his mango juice. :-(

ludiyabigshotsThe following day, we went to a village where Manav Sadhna was receiving an award for their groundbreaking work they did in Ludiya, reconstructing a ‘model village’ after the earthquake. Somehow, fearing the long-winded program soon to come, we allowed ourselves to get carried off by the kids to the heart of the village where women were making bricks under the hot midday sun. We all three went at it, loading sun-dried bricks on top of a big bed of hay, where they would be fired in an unusual kiln. The work was hot and hard and we recruited some of the kids to create assembly lines. Once again, as we were supposed to head back to the ceremony with some of Gujarat’s most powerful figures in attendance, we were dripping with sweat and instead hung out with the village women for a bit.

pithbricWe took a couple bricks home which we might use to inaugurate construction of the community center in the Tekra (slums across from Gandhi Ashram). This project is incredible and very exciting (more later).

Lots of good stuff happening. Many things in development still to share. But now I’m off to Vipassana for a little soul recalibration. Love to all.

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doggreenWhen we first arrived in India, Mark and I worked to coordinate a hundred Manav Sadhna kids for Animal Help Foundation’s march for animal rights. We worked with the kids to create lots of animal banners with kid-drawn animals attached to wooden sticks, and with the help of Viral and others, created a Gujarati chant saying that “I love dogs; dogs are my friends… I love cows; cows are my friends, etc.” It was a big hit and kids are still chanting it today. The Manav Sadhna kids were the stars of the march.

Because of this and because we are vegan and love animals, Mark and I have become the go-to guys for all animal rights issues.

Although India has a deep and still living tradition of respecting animals, the mistreatment of animals is something you will see everywhere. All of the street dogs, for instance, are in constant terror as people hit them and throw rocks at them all the time.

We were invited to create an hour-long animal awareness event for the summer camp kids at Manav Sadhna, and so quickly put together a very simple program.

parlegpackI bought 14 packs of biscuits and we showed up. The idea was that we would talk for a bit, then go out and feed whatever animals we encountered, giving kids a hands-on lesson in connecting with animals.

We were introduced by Jayesh-bhai, and have learned that anytime that you are fortunate enough to be introduced by him, the rest is smooth sailing. He has an extraordinary ability to create a captivated audience fully in tune to the heart of what you are about to discuss. We’ve experienced this on many occasions.

Mark spoke first and talked about dogs and how in the US, they are considered part of the family. He spoke of their unconditional love and loyalty. I spoke next and demonstrated how people are all living beings, just like animals, and how we are all worthy of love and respect. Many of the kids just seemed to be glowing after we spoke and we all went off to go find animals.

The first exercise was to take some of the biscuits and crumble them into little pieces for the ants to eat. There were plenty of ants around and the kids loved doing this. It was a safe warmer-upper, and an invaluable exercise in benevolence. The kids were quickly addicted.

animalday01Our group of 35 then went out to find dogs and other animals. The kids were amazing. They found lots of dogs and pet them and fed them and kept coming back for more and more biscuits. I was constantly surrounded by little eager hands, and as fast as I could open the packs and hand them out, I did.

We also were able to feed birds and cows and it was an immensely positive experience for all.

When we got back, we got into a circle and the kids discussed what they had learned. It was so awesome to be part of this circle as the kids just went on and on about how they had previously hit dogs and how they would never do it again, how animals are all worthy of love, and how much they give us back in return. When asked if there are any animals not worthy of love, they thought about it for a second and concluded that every animal is worthy.

animalday02Mark demonstrated the right way to approach a dog for those who weren’t quite attuned. And we even discussed how some people view others as inferior in the caste system and how similar this is to the way many animals are seen as inferior. As this group was all from the harijan community, or ‘lowest caste’, this seemed to resonate pretty strongly.  Gandhi was then brought up and everyone present had a powerful experience about the true meaning of equality.

The exercise was such a simple one, but its effect was profound and transformative.

Thank you unnamed contributor. I spent about $1.40US on biscuits. Not only did it effect a lot of people, but it made some animals’ days as well!

If you’d like to be part of the dream, click here.

For some reason, whenever I imagined writing my story, it always begins in my room, upstairs in Old Greenwich, CT. It was the summer between 9th grade and 10th and I spent it almost completely in isolation.

yankees2I grew up a pretty cool kid. I loved sports and I truly believed I’d grow up to be a professional baseball player. In elementary school, I also had an incredible magnetism with the little ladies. I remember in 5th grade, literally every girl in my entire class had a major crush on me, and the same was true in 6th grade. I was a pioneer in my school. My friend and I were the first to kiss girls and we innocently pushed the limits forward for everyone else.

In sixth grade, my best friend was Tom Y (brother of soon to be SF 49er Steve Young). At the time I was ‘dating’ Jenn M, the cutest girl in our school. Tom told me about a girl that went to another school named Tara M and said that she was even prettier than Jenn. I didn’t believe him.

When we began jr. high, I soon found out that Tom had been right. Tara was out of this world. She was going out with the legendary Chris S – by far the most popular guy in the entire school. I developed a major crush on Tara which would soon evolve into my first real feeling of love.

Tara had seemed like she was in an altogether different league. What was most amazing is that she and her friends started asking about me and they started telling me that Tara liked me. Tara even broke up with Chris and started flirting heavily with me. It just seemed impossible and I was pretty unprepared to step up to the big leagues.

I don’t mean to boast about my glory days in grade school, but just want to show how quickly they evaporated into something altogether different.

gynecomastia03You see, I started going through puberty. One thing that happens to a small percentage of boys as their bodies start changing is that they develop lumps under their nipples that make their chest look much like a pre-pubescent girl’s. I imagine that this is pretty humiliating to any boy this happens to, but as a very shy, self-conscious guy, the enormity of the embarrassment I felt is just hard to convey.

I can talk about this now because there is so much distance between now and then, but at the time, my shame was total and I kept this secret guarded under the heaviest of security.

This condition is known as gynecomastia – the result of a hormonal imbalance – and I was told by a doctor during a physical exam at age 13 that it would last about 6 months and then would disappear.

At the time, I was on the basketball team and so much wanted to be hip and cool and integrated, but with this shameful condition, any time I had to change my shirt, I would have to do it with precision, and learned to slouch my shoulders at all times to hide the embarrassing lumps. Any time there was a chance that any event may lead to having to remove my shirt, I would do whatever I could to avoid the event.

This condition lasted, basically, forever. The secret haunted me and its weight became heavier and heavier as time went on. My life started to be seriously altered by this. The hope of having a steady girlfriend disappeared as I could not even imagine having to cross this bridge of shame with her.

Even my closest of friends had no idea of the ponderous secret I was forever carrying around.

I had a great family, but one with no communication at all. As far as they were concerned, I never had any interest in girls, I never took a sip of alcohol, I never said swear words (I’m sure they’ll attest the swear words came soon enough). I kept any truth that was even remotely controversial completely locked away from them. Sharing this burden would just never ever happen.

I suppose these teenage years are awkward for most kids. I made the best of them – had some incredible times, but ultimately ended up pretty all alone.

kinksWhich brings me back to that room upstairs at age 15. I had a set of barbells which I bench pressed over and over to the Kinks album, “Give the People What They Want” Side II. For each of the six songs on that side, I would bench press the weights 20 times. And I would play the album repeatedly throughout the day. I guess I was trying to burn off the lumps with muscle.

I’m not sure why I liked that album. I think in it I found a certain melancholy that matched my growing depression, a certain rawness, as well as a developing eccentricity. The final song, “Better Days,” also left things off with real hope that things would one day be better – perhaps I wouldn’t always be without friends in isolation.

That summer I got huge. Since I only bench pressed and did nothing else, I must have had some serious chicken legs, but I became very, very strong. Still, I couldn’t shake the awkward chest.

I would love to end this story soon, but unfortunately, it just wouldn’t end. These lumps went on to drive me further and further into total isolation in high school. When it was time to take swimming class, I had no choice but to refuse. I was a top student, but unfortunately, skipping gym meant that I would not be able to graduate high school and would therefore not be able to go to college or have much of a hopeful future at all.

I became pretty idealistic during this period and even wrote an article for the school paper saying how gym was created by the government as a way to keep the nation fit in case of war (which I strongly opposed), that it had little to do with education, and that it should be an elective and not something that graduation itself depended upon. In protest I said that I would take a stand and refuse to go to gym and encouraged others to join me. If everyone joined me, we could all skip gym on principle and get away with it. But who else would be willing to sacrifice their whole future to defend a questionable rule in the system? No one. But at least my inevitable martyrdom would now be justified by an ideal to defend.

This story continues with “A Making of a Martyr – Part II

abadphoto1_2We were confident that we could hit the streets cleaning and would generate all kinds of excitement and good will, but at the same time, there existed the question of how much of a contribution would we really be making. Sure, the excitement would be fun and might inspire some people. Who really knows the effect it might have? But perhaps also this wave of excitement would soon die down and leave things more or less back the way they were beforehand.

We wondered what we could do specifically that might help to bring change that was more lasting in nature. For instance, picking up trash off the streets is good and sends a message to people that littering the streets may not be the way to go, but with an absence of garbage bins, people really have no other choice. Therefore, to install garbage bins at the same time as picking up trash might generate the awareness while also modeling a lasting habit.

We thought about what some of these changes may be, and the more we thought and the more we researched, we found that indeed Ahmedabad had plenty of issues, that the people of Ahmedabad shared many common dreams for their city, and that most of the concerns had solutions in sight – solutions that seemed attainable.

We originally planned on spending only two weeks out on the street, but when we found that Ahmedabad was divided into 43 wards, our challenge multiplied many-fold as we decided to spend one day and night in each ward.

We spoke with many of the leaders and thinkers of Ahmedabad, and were receiving good feedback.

  • Ishwar Patel, founder of the Environmental Sanitation Intitute and a respected leader in low-cost sanitation solutions, suggested we take a slow and methodical approach, researching everything thoroughly for many months before starting.
  • Yatin Pandya, a world renowned architect from Ahmedabad, thought that our efforts would be better spent focusing on a single project or area and not moving about. He later offered us a solution toward the dust problems of Ahmedabad as well.
  • The student volunteer group NSS offered us 500 volunteers a day, but only starting in late July.
  • A government official in charge of 600 schools in Ahmedabad (I never caught his name) was moved by our proposal to clean public toilets and said that he was going to initiate a program in all 600 schools where the teachers and the students would clean the bathrooms and engage in an educational program about sanitation. He himself, a powerful man, vowed to also get in there and clean as well. Already we were having some effects and hadn’t even started.
  • As we debated how we would get to and from the wards to our home to clean up during the afternoons, we concluded that a CNG rickshaw would be ideal as it would bring attention to a pollution solution, and we fantasized about getting one donated, painted like the Indian flag. And we were actually able to secure this.

lightbulbideaThe more we looked into the issues, the more we found. What about community harmony after the riots that had taken place here? What about street school for all the kids who weren’t able to attend school? What about planting trees and creating parks? What about street litter bins, trash collection, and city composting?

And the more we looked at these problem areas, the more solutions we found in sight. It seemed as if so much was possible. We didn’t think it was feasible for us to solve them all, but we were hoping to at least tap into these issues during our days by engaging in activities that would at least bring attention to the issues and solutions, and if we were able to work with local NGOs, we could help generate energy, support and volunteers for their causes, and they could continue on after we left.

As our projected start date became closer, we started to wonder if we were really ready. The potential was so extraordinary, but our infrastructure was nonexistent. For instance, after several weeks of looking, we still hadn’t found a map of the wards. It looked like we would be going out and not effectively being able to tap into any of these issues.

Based on the fact that we were about to head out during the hottest time of the year when:

  1. People would be least likely to join us,
  2. Schools were closed – (a great opportunity for outreach)
  3. People’s tempers were at their shortest
  4. Sickness was at its highest (I had been really sick and the risk of sickness shutting us down seemed almost 100%)
  5. We weren’t going to be able to use the NSS volunteers
  6. Many people would be away on vacation
  7. We weren’t ready on most fronts

It just seemed like we were about to make a mistake by starting now. The decision to pull back and wait was a really difficult one. It made a lot of sense, but the amount of focus and determination we had channeled into this would all have to be derailed. The risk of having this all turn into a nice fantasy instead of an incredible adventure would skyrocket. Should we or shouldn’t we? It was a hard choice, but we opted to wait, for better or worse.

The biggest problem in waiting was that the monsoon would come and how long would we have to wait until it became feasible to begin? Perhaps until September. Now we would have plenty of time to plan, but would our motivation and clarity still remain as strong? Time alone would tell.

During this time, I reflected on my own nature and recognized that in my life I have had some of the most spectacular dreams and visions ever imagined – plans that had been worked out into the minutest of detail – ideas realistic and revolutionary – ideas that could bring radical change to the world. Great blueprints were developed over and over and over. Occasionally a plan or two might manifest as reality, but more often than not they remained as dreams, with the challenge of not-enough-self-to-go-around too often winning the day.

gandhi_1Was I again repeating the same mistake? Perhaps. But just like the name of this blog, “to be true,” whether or not these dreams manifest, the dreaming itself has been the greatest gift that I was able to give at the time. The mapping out of beautiful plans has been an expression of full engagement in the world, to the best of my abilities, and this time included, I am doing my best to give all that I can.

For some time now, it has been clear to me that the difference in success and failure is largely due the circumstances and the times. Had Gandhi walked in a slightly different time, perhaps he would have just been a highly ethical lawyer. Had Bill Gates been born in a period of physical might, perhaps he would have amounted to very little. Had a homeless woman been born into a spiritual climate, perhaps she would have become an extraordinary yogini.

Our effects are not always ours to choose, but perhaps it is in being true to ourselves, come rich or come poor, where we will find the most genuine measure of our own success. Within this space of self-honesty, both tragedy and joy are just equal sense adventures to be witnessed and experienced. No matter the ups and downs, the common element – being true – by its very nature, is in harmony with the highest and is therefore a constant source of well-being.

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