The Art of Surfing

I truly believe that new ideas and inspiration happen for a reason. The trick is to recognize when your thinking and interests turn a new direction. Great creative minds have often worked that way. Robert Greene’s book Mastery beautifully documents this. It’s a study of the creative process and the mastery of skills. He shows how these changes emerge and how accomplished persons, past and present, responded to those vicissitudes.

I recently had breakfast with an old friend of mine, whose father is one of the premiere avant-garde artists from Taiwan known as the Blue Moon Group. My friend said his father was constantly changing and exploring new ideas. I think this is true of successful people in any field–and unsuccessful people who aren’t recognized by their peers.

I am feeling a lot of changes lately, relating to the ocean, my response to circumstances in life, and my lifelong passion for combining physical activity with seeking contemplative spaces to find that quintessential balance in life. Surfing lately has been a space that makes sense right now. I am not questioning it. I am listening to the muse. I am seeking out its siren call. So far I have been richly rewarded, including new friendships and perspectives.

This shot was taken two years ago in Leucadia, in San Diego County. It was an epic trip that combined major breakthroughs with my first serious foray into surfing as a way of life. I do not think that was an accident. Hoping you all catch your wave and take it for a ride.

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So are you talking to me, asked the man of the beautiful woman

In the past month, I have been left speechless in the presence of pure genetic beauty. I say genetic, because human beauty does have a component derived from one’s ancestors, how they looked, how they cared for themselves, and how they selected their mates.

Athleta, the product line that captures the "beautiful athelete" look in its products makes me think of the women, and also men, I am seeing with great frequency in and around Portland.

Athleta, the product line that captures the “beautiful athlete” look in its products, makes me think of the women, and also men, I am seeing with great frequency in and around Portland.

There is also just sheer randomness in the assigning of physical features to a person, and the utterly incalculable fate that placed someone in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the Bay Area and another in some godforsaken neighborhood in Detroit, where there are few resources, poor food choices, high crime, and economic despair. (That’s my public health nerd speaking here.)

Those gifted with good fortune can also take additional steps. They can eat good food, exercise daily, become religious, build social networks, adopt a positive outlook, and own a dog. All of these actions can also improve a person’s health, and thus one’s exterior appearance to their world.

So when I see beauty, I never think it is just one thing, though I know genetics matter. I think it is a combination of factors. I know that those with good fortune being born into the right class and group may have a higher probability of good looks.

I think about beauty often now in Portland, mainly because I see a lot of it. It seems Portland has become a popular spot for successful people, including people who have talent, connections, and an upper middle-class upbringing that promotes good luck, opportunity, and a higher chance at being good-looking. (In this country, the poorer you are, the higher your chances are at being overweight and obese, which creates many health and physical appearance issues.)

I have no magic quotient what a high proportion of beautiful people is to a low proportion. I just sense it when I am startled by it on a growing frequency. Portland, since I moved back here in 2014, has a very high percentage of attractive people. They look fit. They look confident. They appear to have a level of wealth—even some of the younger ones, who likely should be saddled in enormous debt given their age. That is unless they were wealthy to start.

Oddly, I stumbled on two incredibly beautiful women in the last month, both on biking excursions. One I met biking with friends. She was the co-owner of a winery, and she was a gracious host to my party. I could not get comfortable with this perfectly dressed, perfectly coiffed, perfectly mannered woman in her early 40s asking me for my order. I felt the Monster character in Young Frankenstein, who was confused when the Doctor said, “Hello handsome.” Was she talking to me? Yes, she was that perfect of a person in how she presented herself to the world.

Hello Handsome. That's what it feels like some times when you encounter Portland's class of beautiful people.

Hello, handsome. That’s what it feels like some times when you encounter Portland’s class of beautiful people.

Despite her nearly perfect everything, she was still a nice soul and a gracious business woman. I told my colleagues as we biked away, she was the girl who would never give me the time of day in high school. Yet, she was proving me wrong just minutes earlier.

Yesterday, again while biking, I saw yet another apparition of physical perfection. This time it was a blonde cyclist—and I normally am not someone who favors blonde hair and the Nordic look. She had on very stylish and colorful bike clothes—meaning expensive. She straddled a bike that was clearly in a price bracket above mine and stroked her machine confidently. We passed on my normal hill climb. She was descending. I was ascending. She gave me a friendly biker “hello,” smiled, and was soon gone, leaving me looking at her colorful figure fade into the distance. She seemed like some dream from a movie.

I would not think too much about this, were it not for other sitings of pretty women and handsome men in this city and in the surrounding area. Portland has changed. We have now become the beacon for the beautiful. It is not just for Southern California anymore.

All of this is highly unscientific, but often one must trust one’s intuition and test one’s hypothesis. I think the hypothesis I have confirmed is that I likely find myself in a pool with the prize catches, and perhaps I am not the king salmon. I still do not know where all of these large numbers of pretty people of Portland are coming from, but make no mistake, they definitely are coming here.

 

Learning by the decades

I just celebrated my birthday.  The day always gives me pause. It forces me to think about what I am doing with my life and what I have learned.

I thought about the important things that emerged over the 10-year increments that I have lived on this world. Here are a few of the big “aha’s” that stuck with me and have made me a better and smarter person.

Rudy as BabyDecade 1 (0-9 years): This was a scrappy period. I learned that I could take care of myself even in situations that were unpleasant. The resilience I learned as a kid has given me the ability to overcome challenges and persevere when the going gets tough. This was a great life skill to master, and I was lucky I had the (mis)fortune to internalize this lesson early on.

Decade 2 (10-19): This was the period when I learned from mentors. My greatest teachers were guys who gave me a chance and allowed me to work for them, and get real-world life skills and also much needed cash. I was lucky to have two very generous business owners and bosses. Everything good I learned about how to run a business I learned from these two men, who decided to give me a lucky break.

Decade 3 (20-29): This was the decade I first learned about the world first-hand and saw how much we all have in common. No matter what country I found myself or how poor or wealthy the residents were, people were genuinely good to me if I treated them with respect and an eagerness to learn about their culture, language, customs, and religious traditions. The world really is a wonderful teacher.

rogerandmeDecade 4 (30-39): This was the decade I learned that life can provide you wild surprises, and what matters in the face of curve balls is how well you deal with rapid change and crisis. I reinvented myself a few times during this decade and did not allow these sideways detours to keep me from moving forward.

Decade 5 (40-49): This was the time when I learned again about the meaning of life, from the example of a wonderful person I knew who taught everyone around him how to live a good life. I made some adjustments for the better and doubled down on my goals to live even more purposefully than before.

Rudy-MaryAnne Rhododenruns
Decade 6 (50 … ): This is an open chapter, and I am learning more about letting slowly go of people I know and care about. But this particular journey this decade has only just begun, and there will be time to write the final chapter many years later.

Some wisdom gained from years of running

Rudy Owens Running the Kendall Catwalk, 2011

Rudy Owens Running the Kendall Catwalk, 2011

I am a lifelong runner. I have been running regularly since I was 15 years old, only taking time off to recover from knee surgery when I was 22. I have literally run thousands and thousands of times, and covered tens of thousands of miles, in North America and abroad.

I love the activity and the way it gives me a clear head and improves my overall physical health. Few things in life give me greater satisfaction than a long run on a trail. Given the mileage I have literally put under my belt, I believe I have earned the right to offer some wisdom on the sport and also the fashion.

Remember, running is now a multi-billion dollar industry. The sale of footwear alone topped $3 billion in 2014, and clothing accessories remain a huge market. However, step into a running store now, and you are mostly surrounded by everything but the shoes—the shorts, the jackets, the shirts, the tights, the hydration systems, the high-tech food, the running belts, the electronics, the hats, and more.

Athleta appeals to the huge fashion segment of the running market with a colorful display of running gear, like these tights. Is it about fashion, function, or both?

Athleta appeals to the huge fashion segment of the running market with a colorful display of running gear, like these tights. Is it about fashion, function, or both?

Running is a fashion statement, a lifestyle, a social activity, a life philosophy, and a very competitive sport nationally and internationally.

Human nature and the work of clever marketers have transformed running into a fashion show, and millions of people have embraced the idea of “my run is a fashion runway.” These include behemoth sports companies like Nike and more niche companies like Athleta, which promotes a vision of unbelievably attractive, fit women as the standard, providing functional and fashionable gear that far exceeds anything designed for men.

Athleta and the Impossibly Beautiful Runners in their Stylish Running Clothes

Athleta brand favors the use of impossibly beautiful female runners in their stylish running clothes

These developments are fine, but it can be funny at times to see how this plays out if those embracing fashion do not honor the sport.

ASICS GEL-Kayano 2006

The ASICS GEL-Kayano 2006 was perhaps one of the greatest running shoes ever, and then Asics stopped making shoes as good shortly after. Why?

I steer to the “functionality” camp. I also have developed some firm ideas on products that improve the experience and those that can make some practitioners look, well, silly. The silliest runner I think is one who does not know he or she looks silly, but then again silly is in the eye of the beholder. It is sort of an Emperor’s New Clothes test: it is obvious but maybe everyone but an innocent child is afraid to speak about it.

Because the United States is a fashion free county (something I rejoice at given the alternatives), you have the right to look the way you want. Yet, others also have the right to comment on how you look and this beloved form of exercise.

So here are a few of my pearls of wisdom. Remember, I at least have practiced the craft long enough to know a few things about function. I simply have not embraced fashion, unless and only if it first provides function.

  • Gel Kayanos from 2005-2007 where the BEST running shoes ever made. Period.
  • For guys, shorts that have thigh-length liners are always better–less chafing, and you look less like a dork.

    I say to guys, really? You like to wear these? Your run, your show.

    I say to guys, really? You like to wear these? Your run, your show.

  • Tiny shorts on guys look really really stupid. What are they thinking? (Note, these seem to be favored by many competitive endurance runners, so there clearly is a functional value by those who do the sport most competitively.)
  • Compression socks that cover the calves have zero credibility of improving performance according to science. It is fashion. I am not impressed, but your target may thinks it is cool.
  • Waist bands that can fit your wallet and keys and maybe some goober snack are da bomb.
  • A fanny pack that fits a 1/2 liter bottle and some snacks and possibly another layer are a runners best friend in any weather.
  • It is best to bring that extra layer, or two, in foul weather. They tie easily around your waist.
  • Always carry ID when you run. You never know when you might slip, get hit by a car, or run into a bear.
  • I am totally fine with running tights, for women. They look great. I still laugh when I see guys in tights. Sorry, it is just who I am. And the more colorful the tights, the better, for women. Women always have better fashion than men. I for one would like some cooler designs for jackets and shirts for men.

    If you dress like this when its freezing, what are you proving to your audience? I am not sure.

    If you dress like this when it is freezing, what are you proving to your audience? I am not sure.

  • Running with practically no clothes in really cold weather proves nothing. But it is a free country. You can look silly if you want.
  • For super cold conditions, nothing beats XC Sport Hill winter skiing/running pants. Mine are 10 years old and I still use them all the time.

Old Greenlandic wisdom on young, unwise children

sealskintent

Traditional seal skin tent on display in Sisimiut.

For three summers in a row, I visited Greenland. I was completely enamored with the place, its people, its natural history, and the wisdom of its long-time Greenlandic residents.

I read every book about Greenland I could get my hands on during that time, from 1998 to 2000. One was Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimos. The collection of stories covers the Danish explorer’s times in Greenland starting in the early 1900s. He lived among the native Greenlanders, married a local woman, and became an observer of their culture, even with infrequent heavy Western filters.

I wrote down a quote I read from this book when I was in Greenland. It provides a perspective from his Greenlandic mother-in-law, who helped him understand why the elders did not yell at the children for damaging their seal-skin pants while sliding on rocks.

twogirlskid

A mother and her young son share a fun moment on a ferry in southwest Greenland.

Yes, but you see, nobody can help thinking by seeing this foolishness, children ruin things without giving it a thought, they have no cares. But every day of their lives they become wiser and wiser. Soon the time will come when they will never do that sort of thing. They will remember their unnecessary wear on their pants and regret it. Everyone must rejoice by recalling that we start out as thoughtless children, but with every day the good sense increases in us. At last we become old and sage. Just imagine if it were the other way around, so that we were born clever and economical, and our wisdom decreased with time. Then misfortune would dwell with people! Therefore, it is joyful to watch children’s careless play.

The Man of Steel, an adult adoptee’s journey of discovery

I recently watched the 2013 blockbuster based on the prototypical American comic superhero, Superman, called Man of Steel. I was not expecting much. I hoped for mindless Hollywood entertainment.

This film adaptation of the 1930s original comic-book character took a new direction with a very overt narrative, amid the buildings falling down and space ships blowing up. In this rebooted franchise, the Superman tale is told as a story of a man’s—or rather, a Kryptonian’s—search for his identity.

Super Adoptee, Superman

Superman, the adult adoptee on interplanetary steroids–beloved and feared by many.

The Man of Steel relies on one of the oldest mythological stories of human civilization, that of a hero’s search for himself by finding out his “true lineage.” This is the arc of great stories, from Moses to King Arthur. The Man of Steel also includes other classic mythological storytelling tropes, such as confronting a nemesis, the inevitable conflict, and the return from the journey as a hero. In this case, the hero happens to be born of one family and sent across the galaxy to be raised by another family in Kansas. He then must spend years figuring out who he really is.

The Haywood Tapestries show King Arthur, a famous adoptee of noble lineage, like Moses, the greatest adoptee of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The Haywood Tapestries show King Arthur, a famous adoptee of noble lineage, like Moses, the greatest adoptee of the Bible and the Jewish and Christian traditions.

The hero’s journey

Minus the over-the-top special effects battles, this film is a basic tale a self-discovery. The most compelling moments in the film involve conversations the young Clark Kent has with his “adopted” father, Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner. They discuss their ambiguous relations as non-biological father and adopted son. That tension bursts in a scene where the older Clark tells his father and mother, “You’re not my real parents.” Right on cue, following that conversation, Costner’s character dies in a tornado.

The adult Clark is left adrift not knowing who to call his parents or how to identify with his biological roots or his adoptive roots. So, the journey begins, and he wanders from the Bering Sea to the Canadian Arctic.

Clark Kent and Father in Superman Film

In this scene form the Warner Bros. film the Man of Steel, Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent talks to the younger Clark Kent, his adopted son from an alien race from the planet Krypton

This cinematic rendering of this rite of passage is nearly identical to what an adopted adult goes through when they have to decide for themselves if they wish to find out their history and biological roots, or accept the decisions institutions and others made for them.

A not-so-super real-life journey by adoptees

The actors who decided those adoptees’ fates are usually shielded by archaic adoption laws and the intransigent bureaucracies who supported the millions of adoptions, as was the case in the United States between the 1940s and 1970s. This adult adoptee decision is never easy, and is often costly. It can be very divisive and unpopular. Such a decision can forever change family relations and be condemned by people who know nothing about this desire to find the truth. It is at its core Superman’s tale.

In my case, I literally had to spend years, like Clark, on a pursuit that took me from state to state, bureaucracy to bureaucracy, until I finally solved the case and learned about the identity of my biological parents. I did not find a space ship buried in the Canadian ice like Clark, and my biological roots are not linked to Krypton. Nor did I meet my computer-generated father, Jor-El, played by Russell Crowe.

A scene from the Warner Bros. film, Man of Steel, showing Russell Crow as Jor-El, father of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent aka Superman.

A scene from the Warner Bros. film, Man of Steel, showing Russell Crow as Jor-El, father of Kal-El, aka Clark Kent aka Superman.

During their conversation, Crowe’s Jor-El tells Clark his “real name” is Kal-El. This is identical to what any adoptee experiences when he or she learns his or her “real name,” or the name at birth and on an original birth certificate. That document in most states is treated as a high-level state secret and never shared with adult adoptees unless they get waivers from surviving birth parents signed. This is the case with the state of Michigan for me, which still refuses to give me my original birth certificate, even though I have known my biological family history now for 26 years.

So Kal-El is also Clark Kent, much as I had another name for three and a half weeks until I was given a “new name.” It was a name I had until I changed it in 2009 to a name that incorporates parts of my birth and adoptive names.

In the fictional movie, Clark has all of his questions answered. His original Krypton father is a noble and great leader, as was his adoptive father, in Kansas. But in real life, how many people do you know have movie-style fathers? My biological father and my adoptive father clearly were not cut out for any story as formulaic as this film. They would never make it into a screenplay for the masses. I never had a conversation like our film hero did with his biological or adoptive fathers.

Finding your answers unleashes chaos, the not-so-subtle message of Superman

In the last act of the film, Superman is exposed as a space alien and chased by a rogue band of surviving criminals from Krypton, who force Superman to make a choice between his adoptive tribe or his biological tribe.

Superman must also tell his adoptive mother he found his “real parents,” watch her sadness, and then be redeemed for viewers by saving her life and calling her “my mother” while doing it. The rescue creates a comforting way we can have Superman be forgiven for being confused who is parents are or who is mother is, when such warm fuzzies may not be in abundance in the real world.

If you follow the narrative of the Man of Steel, these questions could lead you on a journey that threatens the very fate of the planet earth, or something equally dreaded.

If you follow the narrative of the Man of Steel, these questions could lead you on a journey that threatens the very fate of the planet earth, or something equally dreaded.

Ultimately, the film reveals that Superman’s activation of a beacon on the spaceship that he found brought the evil Kryptonites to earth, with the goal of total destruction of the planet. You cannot get more grandiose than the genocide of all of humanity as a penalty for discovering your identity and asking, who am I, and where did I come from. Once the chaos is unleashed by the bad invaders, only Superman, the misfit between both worlds and both families, can save the human race. That is a huge burden to lay on a guy who asked a very basic question.

In the end, Superman remains Clark Kent, not Kal-El. He retains his adoptive family loyalty. He will hide his biological self, except when needed, though he may never be trusted because he is “different.” He has solved his riddle, and the package is neatly tied as many Hollywood movies are.

Life does not follow this pattern. There are no heroic battles with invading aliens. Things are more messy.

But the journey of the real-life hero is no less epic than what the film Man of Steel shows. I  think the film resonated more deeply, more viscerally with those who have undertaken the quest of Clark/Kal-El/Superman. If you have never had to ask the question that confronted our hero, about who you are and where you came from, you may never understand his journey, and also the conflicts and rewards that must inevitably accompany such a quest.

Knowing when it is time to make a change

In 1997, I began a photodocumentary project on genocide in Rwanda, visiting two infamous genocide sites and the Kigali area. I only spent two weeks in that central African nation, but the experience profoundly moved me and changed my life.

machete color

The machete, a common tool found in nearly every Rwanda household, was the principal murder tool of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. I photographed this in the backyard of a Rwandan home in 1997.

In the spring and summer of 2000 and fall of 2001, I completed the second phase of my visual exploration of genocide in the 20th century by visiting Nazi camps and Holocaust sites in seven European countries. In October 2001, I completed the project by visiting historic sites associated with the genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks during and after World War I.

My work on this difficult topic ended shortly after, in 2002. My photos have been published on my Web site and magazines, and they were displayed in numerous photo shows in the Seattle, Wash., area. My photos and stories continue to draw thousands of visitors every week to my Web site, which I will continue to publish as a free on-line resource for the public. I hope these images and stories will be useful for those who want to learn about crimes against humanity, how they occurred, and what forces motivated the perpetrators of these unspeakable acts.

As a photographer and documentarian, I moved on to other projects–focussing on the human potential for goodness. I am still keeping my content online to inform anyone who is doing online research. I still get notes from the public, around the world about this work. Images also can still be licensed to media organizations, publishers, and individuals.

Finally, I will make a personal note about this project. It began in a dark place, not long after the massacres of Hutu moderates and ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda. On that trip in June 1997, I developed malaria, which in part led to my decision to leave the country.

In November 2001, soon after my trip to Turkey photographing Armenian genocide and cultural sites, I visited Netherlands. I travelled to Camp Westerbork, the main deportation center for Jews in occupied Netherlands in World War II. The camp was the staging ground for the deportation of mostly Jewish civilians to death camps in Poland and other concentration camps in Nazi Europe.

I suffered a strange and painful relapse of malaria at the camp, and had to visit a hospital that night for care. This was not a coincidence, as I recently realized. The physical and psychic journeys had taken their toll, and it was clear I needed to put this project behind me.

In 2002, I tossed a small item, a piece of an electrical transformer I found at the death camp Birkenau, into the Puget Sound, as part of my ritual ending a stage of my creative life.

In 2002, I tossed a small item, a piece of an electrical transformer I found at the death camp Birkenau, into the Puget Sound, as part of my ritual ending a stage of my creative life.

In June 2002, I marked the end of this journey by donating my entire collection of more than 50 framed black and white and color framed photographs to the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center of Seattle, Wash (now called Holocaust Center for Humanity). My hope is that the pictures will continue to provide insight for the Holocaust studies and human rights education the center provides to residents of Washington state and the Pacific Northwest.

As I now look back on this project, from its start almost two decades ago, it is good to remember what I learned, and it also is valuable to realize when change is good and you need to move your creative energies in new, and also positive, directions. Always.