My Thoughts on the ‘Muhammad Ali’ PBS Documentary

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble. Ahhhhhh!” This catchphrase from the Greatest boxer of all-time, Muhammad Ali, still ring in my ears as I write about the legend.”

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble. Ahhhhhh!” This catchphrase from the Greatest boxer of all-time, Muhammad Ali, still ring in my ears as I write about the legend. After 8-hours of rarely seen footage, insightful interviews from those people who knew him best, and catchy music and news events highlighting the era and period in which the Greatest grew up in, the Muhammad Ali documentary on PBS (American public television) is a real knockout. There is too much television and movies out there to choose from especially with the streaming services but the Muhammad Ali documentary, recently released in September of 2021 is worth a watch.

Eight hours in total length, split into four ‘rounds or parts, the documentary chronicles the entire 74-years old in which Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay walked among us mere mortals from his childhood in Louisville to his rise to boxing stardom dating from Rome to New York City to Manila to his old age, where he sadly struggled through the progression of the fatal Parkinson’s disease. Ali was a man who was almost too unreal to believe he had existed because of all he said, accomplished, and did during his life.

If you looked in an English idiom dictionary for the expression, ‘larger than life’, a picture and short description about Muhammad Ali should be there as well. The swagger he had when he walked in a room, his way with words as a poet and the ability to dress down his opponent with insults as powerful as his punches, and his commitment to not only his religion but the people around him such as a friends, family, and even random strangers who he would often give money, food, or anything they needed when they were going through a tough time.

Ali was not just talented in the ring, but he was also extremely intelligent, wise beyond his years, and able to be charismatic with many people he would meet. Most boxers would keep to themselves back in the 1960s or 1970s and would not embrace trash-talking, denigrating their opponents, or making bold claims that they weren’t sure would come to fruition. Muhammad Ali did the exact opposite and he built up a reputation to the point where billions of people knew who he was from America to Africa and from Asia to South America. His rants became legendary, and his diatribes were shown to garner a huge amount of press to sell his fights. In my view, he made boxing a global sport and he connected with all people regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. He had love for everybody except for the men he would fight against.

The difference with Muhammad Ali compared to other braggart boxers is that he would often back up his predictions by making them real especially in his early days beating boxers like Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson. He would not only predict that he would win his fight, but he specifically predicted the round in which his poor opponent would be knocked out. His legend grew the more he talked trash and made fun of his opponents and he backed it up in the ring by winning constantly. If he were not Muhammad Ali in terms of talent, hard work, and pure drive to be great, as a boxer, he would have faded away quickly, He simply was a once-in-a-century talent who kept boxing as a world sport in his era and it was the height of its popularity as a sport in America.

Ali, perhaps because of his family upbringing, his change of religion to Islam, or because of an innate sense of right and wrong was a plain-spoken activist who didn’t mince words. He was against racism in all its forms, was against the Vietnam War, and stood up for the poor and disenfranchised people around the world who were without the same opportunities that he had been able to take advantage of because of his boxing talent. While he was a devout member of the group, the Nation of Islam, and had his differences with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., because of his affiliation with that group, he often strived to be a critical thinker on issues of race and religion and would dutifully follow his conscience often when expressing himself in public, as he often did in the national and global spotlight.

Sadly, Muhammad Ali, in pursuit of fame, fortune, and women, made serious mistakes along the way to become the greatest boxer of all-time. The constant time spent on the road, the brutal training regimens, the temptations he succumbed to with extramarital affairs, and even his disregard for friendships such as with Malcolm X or neglecting his wife(wives) or children due to his first love of boxing. He was an imperfect man who committed many sins as he puts it in the documentary.

However, even his sins did not stop him from putting in the work to commit more good deeds than sins throughout his life and for which when it came down to his estimation of himself as a Muslim at the end of his life, he felt comfort knowing he committed more rights than wrongs upon his death. The difference too with Ali is that he knew he had done wrong and tried to make amends later in life for his misdeeds. He apologized and atoned for his womanizing, unnecessary insults of other boxers, and his previous disavowal of friends and family like Malcolm X when they conflicted with his loyal membership to the Nation of Islam.

When I think about this documentary, the way it was able to catalog every major event in Ali’s life while simultaneously describing how he must have felt or acted the way he did during those pivotal moments in his life make this documentary the greatest one made about ‘The Greatest’ himself. Few documentaries go into that much detail, use relevant interviews and narration, while maximizing the quality of historical footage to draw the viewer in. If you are new to the good works of Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, Lynn Novick, David McMahon, and the rest of his wonderful documentary team, he is one of America’s greatest filmmakers in this genre.

Having done previous documentaries on ‘Baseball’, ‘Jackie Robinson’, and the other famous American boxer, ‘Jack Johnson’, you can tell that Ken and his team feel as comfortable documenting American sports history as much as his other documentaries on American politics and war history too. The sheer years of effort it takes to create an eight-hour long documentary like this one on ‘Muhammad Ali’ shows you how dedicated to the craft of documentary making Ken Burns and his team are. They have been doing it for over forty years now and it seems like they get better and better with each new documentary. If this documentary is the first you’ve seen by Ken Burns, do yourself a favor and watch the other sports history documentaries and check out his other ones on other aspects of American history.

What I enjoy most about documentaries about sports or political figures done by Ken Burns and team is that they highlight major events, victories, and defeats of that person or the team, but they also make sure to put that figure or people fit in with the swirling tide of history and timeline through the music soundtrack, the relevant footage, and the interviews with those people from the same era or who know that era in history.

The ‘Muhammad Ali’ documentary is not just about ‘The Greatest’ himself but about the times he lived in as an American and how he changed the country just as he was changed by the country himself. He influenced America more than most figures throughout the 20th century and will be remembered by future generations. He will be known not simply as the greatest boxer of all-time but also as a man who stood up for his principles, fought or did not fight for what he believed in, and enacted positive social changes by helping the poor, the disenfranchised, or even the stranger on the street.

He was a larger-than-life figure who transcended both sports, politics, and culture, and this ‘larger than life’ documentary pays great homage to one of the most celebrated and remembered Americans in the nation’s 246-year long and counting history.

A Life Well Lived According to Emerson

“Emerson was not a man who saw success in only the material or popular means that is often the case of how individuals measure success today. Instead, Emerson believed success in life was about much more than fame, fortune, and overall popularity.”

Whenever I am looking for inspiration in my own life whether it comes to how to develop myself professionally or to be better on a personal level with others, I like to refer to the excellent quote on success and on a well-lived life by American essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, and 19th century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was not a man who saw success in only the material or popular means that is often the case of how individuals measure success today. Instead, Emerson believed success in life was about much more than fame, fortune, and overall popularity.

Emerson saw success and life itself as leaving the world a little better than when you found it. He believed in the importance of caring for nature, of having good relationships with other people, of honing your craft professionally in whatever you were passionate about, and of caring for family or friends who could rely upon your kindness and care. This quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson has always been a favorite of mine because while it was a conventional means of measuring a life well lived or a ‘successful’ life in the 19th century; I believe that too often today, we measure a ‘good life’ in shallow and often selfish ways.

In the era of the transcendentalist movement, there was much more to life than accruing things for material worth, or showing off how much money you had, or thinking that because you have more you are then better than someone else. On the contrary, Emerson and other thinkers of that movement believed in progressive ideals of equality, justice, and fairness. They believed in giving back to others in whatever way was possible and to do so consistently. While it was not a religious movement, it was based around individual actions to help a larger community or society.

It did not shun personal success or individual wants or needs as being unnecessary, but it asked people to believe in the power of working together to a common goal or cause, treating your fellow man or women with respect, fairness, and dignity, and to believe in giving back through charity, through helping others, and to be of good character not just in words but in actual deeds. Emerson like others were idealists and believed in the goodness of humanity despite the dark impulses that can lead us astray. While we are unique individuals of free will, we must never forget to care for our family or our friends, or nature itself which is gift not to be squandered.

The actual quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a long yet impactful one that touches on many different parts of one’s success in life that must not be ignored. When most people define success in a singular manner and often involving their own joy and happiness, Emerson does quite the contrary by arguing that success or a good life is based on how we leave the world after we depart from the Earth and what do we do in life to leave those around us better off than they were before. Above all else, Emerson asks the reader to imagine how they can impact the world in their own way for the betterment of not just themselves but for others as well and humanity.

In the quote, he does not ignore our hierarchy of mental needs such as the need to be respected by others, to laugh often with friends, to be appreciated for what we do, to be able to overcome adversity such as suffering betrayal, which is inevitable at points in our lives but to also appreciate the beauty around us because it is temporary in life as well. Fulfilling that life well lived according to Emerson is not just about being there for others but also being there for ourselves mentally by having our emotional needs met and fulfilled with joy, happiness, laughter, kindness, respect, and overcoming negative emotions such as betrayal and deceit.

“What is success?…
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate the beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

When you look at this memorable quote from Emerson, he prioritizes in life partaking in individual joy in the form of laughter most importantly. He also indicates the need to be respected by other people especially who you choose to associate with as being intelligent either emotionally or figuratively. He also discusses the need to be compassionate towards children, whether they are your own or not. Knowing that critics are inevitable in various avenues of life, Emerson seeks that any individual appreciate the critics who are honest about him or her and asks the reader of the quote to be mindful of those who want you to improve and to try to do right by them in becoming better at what you do.

Emerson also asks that while some friends are necessary to have in life; we must be prepared for betrayals that can occur from those who you thought were friends but were rather only looking out for themselves. Even though others, even friends and family members will let us down at times, we should still seek to see the good in others and to try to get the best out of everyone we meet. Human beings are fallible creatures, Emerson would say, but we should try to look for signs of redemption and efforts of good faith because people deserve to show you that they have good in them, and they can rectify their wrong doings often when they are given a real chance.

Despite facing inevitable criticism, betrayal, and disappointments throughout life, we must stop and take time to appreciate life itself for all its natural beauty. It will calm us down, put our lives in perspective, and think of a world much bigger than our own internal musings. Because of the sheer beauty surrounding us that we can often fail to fully appreciate, this divine beauty should inspire us to be caretakers of this world that we inherited at our birth and to be true guardians of the planet for the next generations. He includes in his musings on success in life to include leaving the world ‘a bit better.’ As individuals, we can only do so much for the state of the world, but if we all pitch in to do our part, that will cause massive change to occur on a societal and global level.

Leaving the world, a bit better is not just about recycling or not littering or being aware of how you’re affecting the natural world with consumption but it’s also about beautifying the world too. Whether it is cleaning a park littered with trash or creating a garden patch for others to enjoy or deciding to walk instead of driving a car, little actions like these by individuals can leave the world better off than before. I saw this kind of contagious effect working with others as a volunteer lately in helping to create a new vegetable and flower garden for a youth center in Washington, DC. Getting your hands dirty, beautifying a small part of the neighborhood, and having others pitch in to help is one of the best feelings one can have in life. It’s not often in our lives when we get to see a positive change happen in real life but creating a garden or even beautifying a park has a large ‘ripple effect’ that can change the world for the better even if it is on a small scale.

Emerson lasts mentions that if you have a child or care for one in your custody that to ensure their health and happiness is one of the great joys of living and contributes to improving the world in a measurable way. Giving back to nature and to other people is a consistent theme in this quote by Emerson and to redeem a societal condition such as creating a garden, raising a child, or being a mentor to a friend who needs your help will not only be doing good for you but for others as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson finishes his quote to sum up success in life and having a good life as coming down to fundamentally whether because you lived, did others live easier because of your presence? Was someone or something healthier, happier, or more fulfilled because you were there? These are important questions to ask yourself. In your life, are you just in it for the fame, fortune, and your own personal gratification? Or are you living your life to leave a legacy that can do some good in the world in some measurable way?

Emerson never mentions personal gratification such as having a lot of money or being popular as keys to a life well-lived and I agree with him. Emerson prioritizes the fact that after we depart from this Earth, what will we be remembered by? What contribution to others and our society did we make? Are people in our lives better or worse off because of your existence? That is what true ‘success’ means in the long-run and that a life well-lived should be based around. I hope that you take this excellent quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson to heart as I have. It’s a brilliant piece of wisdom that gives each of us steps to make the most of our remaining days on this Earth. Let the joy, laughter, beauty, conscientiousness, and unselfishness among other characteristics that he mentions as being the keys to a life well-lived guide you in all your days here.

Thoughts on ‘Roadrunner’

“If there’s any word in the English language that would sum up the life of Anthony Bourdain, a ‘Roadrunner’ would be quite fitting to remember the man by.”

If there’s any word in the English language that would sum up the life of Anthony Bourdain, a ‘Roadrunner’ would be quite fitting to remember the man by. He was also a husband, father, friend, chef, writer, television host, and a cultural ambassador who made the world his oyster after many years as a cook in hot, windowless, stressful New York City kitchens. For some people, travel is a birthright that they have from a young age but for Anthony Bourdain, it was an unexpected gift at middle age after writing the excellent ‘Kitchen Confidential’ book highlighting his years in the underbelly of those same kitchens, which became a New York Times bestseller, and helped lead him into fame, stardom, and notoriety.

Bourdain’s life would never be the same as he was offered other book deals, his first television contract for the show, ‘A Cook’s Tour’, and started to be recognized around the world from Tokyo to Los Angeles. While his life as a newly minted TV host traveling worldwide, tasting different cuisines, meeting different peoples, he opened the world to those of us who only knew what they had read, learned about in school, or heard from others. Those of us who watched his shows learned about the world through the medium of television, but it was Anthony’s narration, his willingness to listen and empathize with whom he shared a meal that made him stand out from others in the travel show business. Bourdain never sugarcoated things and didn’t mince words about what he saw in his travels especially as the focus became less on food and more on culture, politics, and the trajectory of humanity itself. All this time though, watching his shows and reading his books, we knew more about the man’s reflections on the world and then how the world reflected on him.

The shock of his loss still hurts those who were fans of his works over three years later, I included, among the millions of people who were touched by his words, his spirit, and his lust for life. It is hard even now to reconcile the fact that the man who appeared to have had it all still suffered and that there was no outreach, gesture, or love shown that could have prevented his tragic suicide. Feelings of anger, disbelief, regret, and sadness come to mind when you think of how anyone, especially Anthony Bourdain, could decide to let go of life itself especially when it had enveloped him in such a warm embrace especially after his 2nd life of fame, success, and travel had gone on for almost two decades.

What ‘Roadrunner’, the film documentary on Anthony Bourdain’s life tries to answer is not the ‘why?’ of his death but the ‘how?’ of his illustrious life and how it changed, evolved, shifted, swinged on its ups and downs, which the documentary is successful at achieving. Rather than the director, Morgan Neville, attempt to get all of the answers on an unknowable concept such as what makes a person decide to take their own life, which left his friends, family, and fans devastated and unable to make sense of it either, the ‘Roadrunner’ documentary looks at how his life was, which people changed Anthony for better or worse, how he changed as a person, and how did travel affect him over almost 18 years. As a fan of Anthony’s written and television work, you learn a lot about the world through him, but I never got a full sense of who the man was as a person and I’m sure others can relate to this feeling.

Although he gave his all in his craft and in his vision, he rarely liked to be the center of attention in any room and was a shy, slightly self-deprecating, yet also a kind and generous man that would give more to others than would receive himself in return, and who never seemed fully quite comfortable with the fame, success, and notoriety his works produced. Those who remember him in the documentary talk about how he would always reach out to them to see how they are doing and to be a real people-pleaser but not ask for much in return or would find it difficult to confide in others with problems that may have been affecting him, personal or otherwise. While the film does a great job of capturing what it was like for Bourdain as he went from a line cook to a chef to an author to a television host to a cultural icon, we don’t really get to see much about his personal life beyond bits and snippets of details.

The viewer knows Bourdain came from a stable childhood, summers spent in France, loving parents, and a younger brother who he got along with well. However, you can sense from the documentary that he never grasped what most people would want from a ‘normal life.’ Bourdain was a creative soul who was curious by nature, inquisitive, had a taste for linguistics, and had a big imagination given his literary and musical tastes. He was not a man as Mark Twain would rail against as “vegetating in one corner of the planet” for their whole lives. Once he had the opportunity to do so financially and professionally, he seized it and took full advantage of the gifts that he had been given from a young age.

What was missing from the documentary sadly is Bourdain’s own reflections beyond his travels and perhaps the family he built from scratch. We do not hear much about what his childhood was like, how he got introduced to drugs such as heroin, how did he succumb to his addiction to it, and what how his two marriages and past girlfriends affected his outlook on love and life. During the documentary, we are perhaps best informed about who Anthony was as a cook, as a traveler, as a friend, who he was as a father, but it is hard to know who we were behind closed doors when the cameras were not rolling.

There are some aspects of his personality that you can glean from the documentary such as his addictive habits whether it would be using heroin, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or wanting to hold on to his relationships even perhaps their natural end date. For better or worse, as the film portrays, Bourdain loved experiencing novelty and new things which led him to his legendary status as a globetrotter, but it also could backfire in terms of giving too much of himself to people without getting as much in return. It seemed from ‘Roadrunner’ that Bourdain would seek to please others before pleasing himself and that could have led to some deeper dissatisfaction with life. It can be hard to feel as if you’re giving more than receiving and I do believe that does play a role in depression.

You can also infer from ‘Roadrunner’ that Anthony’s romantic views on life, on love and on travel did not always meet reality. He could be very demanding in his professional career and rude or dismissive of his long-time camera crew and production team. It’s shown that he could make rash decisions about hiring and firing of personnel as well as set very high expectations for his television show, which could not always be met by those who worked with him. It’s also true that in his last romantic relationship with Ms. Argento, he would let his personal desires to please her or work with a famous director like Mr. Feng that led to him putting his crew’s creative input on the back burner. When he expressed his desire to quit traveling a few years before his death, his production team encouraged him to do it if he felt it was time to do so and they wouldn’t stop him, but it was as if Bourdain needed someone to validate his decisions to go through with them.

‘Roadrunner’ succeeds in telling the story of one of our young century’s great explorers and cultural ambassadors. In 2021, there are still some gaps in our knowledge of who Anthony Bourdain was and how he felt about his life. Sadly, we will never know the full story because of his tragic death by suicide and we can only infer on how such a bright life could be extinguished too soon when he had so much more to give to the world, to his family, and to his friends. Unfortunately, not all men make it to a ripe old age to be surrounded by those who matter most to them.

Names like Hemingway, London, and now Bourdain died at middle-aged by in their lives accomplished or saw or did as much as five men combined who lived longer than them. It is not the years in your life that matter but the life in your years and Anthony Bourdain made the most of his life as few could or will do again. Even more than three years after his death, he is sorely missed, and the world is not as well off without him and his impact. From the Congo to Iran to Antarctica to Libya, he was not afraid or reticent of sharing a meal with those who were different than him even when he had nothing personally in common with them.

I hope that the ‘Roadrunner’ documentary becomes part of Anthony Bourdain’s legacy and inspires both young and old people to see the world as it is and to hopefully mold it little by little through travels and meals to change the world bit by bit into the world that we would like it to be. That would be a fine way to honor his legacy and to make the world a little less unknown.

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Finding Your Flow State

What’s one thing that all professional athletes, musicians, artists, writers, and anyone devoted to their craft have in common? They have all achieved a ‘flow state’, which is difficult to relate to unless you are fully immersed in terms of what you are pursuing and truly enjoy what you are doing. The flow state is elusive for most people because they either haven’t found their passion in life or haven’t put the time in yet to get better through consistent practice or play. The flow state is a higher state of being because for a point in time, your concentration is matched with your intensity producing a beautiful result.

When you can put other thoughts or other concerns out of your mind to focus on your craft regardless of what it is, you are utilizing your full potential and will be able to achieve a better result for yourself. To outside observers, the flow state looks nearly impossible to accomplish but when you are devoted to art, to music, to sports, or to writing, the final result is nearly guaranteed because you have put blood, sweat, and tears to produce something meaningful.

To me, the flow state is the most optimal state of mind that you can be in because it requires you to be at your best and to perform at the highest level. It’s requires being in a state of movement and using your body in some way to produce an action. You are putting your energy, your concentration, and your focus into a singular goal and it’s inspiring to those people who get to benefit in some way from what you were able to produce. It’s better to be a doer than to be an observer but it can inspire others to find their flow state when you see them do theirs and to do it extremely well.

For example, I was at a popular Jazz club in Mexico City recently and the headliner was a talented Danish guitarist along with a group of local musicians backing him up on the saxophone, the drums, and the Jazz bass. Every one of them was talented at what they do and were in sync generating a group kind of ‘flow state’ that is even more powerful. The thing with a good Jazz group is that you start to yourself get into the ‘flow’ of enjoying the music and moving your body to the rhythm as well.

As someone who played trumpet for 11 years straight and enjoyed the feeling of togetherness and comradery that playing in a Jazz Ensemble can bring, it is impressive to see a group working well together and nailing their parts to achieve their flow state together. To play a musical instrumently proficiently on your own is tough enough, but to work together with different musicians to produce a catchy tune without making any mistakes is as near to a modern-day miracle as it can get.

Musicians thrive off the energy and the drive of others as well as professional athletes and even politicians. It is much harder to achieve a flow state on your own in the solitude of one’s house especially if your craft requires some sort of public attention. Writers and artists tend to be more introverted on average and don’t need the attention of others to achieve an individual flow state. However, there’s something to be said for achieving a group flow state when you’re cheering on a ruthless dunk from a professional basketball player or listening intently in an arena to a Presidential candidate’s stump speech.

People want to believe in the achievements of others, and I know that we prefer to lift each other up rather than to tear each other down. While it’s beneficial to take part in watching other people reach and show off their flow state, you should be trying to find yours every day. You will get much more satisfaction out of life when you are in that mode where you are merging with your craft whether that’s art, music, writing, sports, etc. While it’s fun to cheer others on and take part in their joy, you should always be trying to create a little bit of your own.

Intense concentration and effort is not easy to achieve, but it is extremely rewarding to put your worries and anxieties aside to focus on a singular goal that you want to achieve. It may take hours, days, weeks, months, and even years to get to where you want to be but there is joy to be found in putting away all distractions and devoting yourself to a craft that you enjoy and are able to put serious time into. Our individual potential will not be able to be achieved unless we are able to reach a flow state relating to a kind of creative or intuitive pursuit.

Do your best to try different activities out and see what you like. If you find an activity or an interest you enjoy, continue to add more time to it and you should start to see results. Don’t start to look for monetary rewards or personal fame to keep you going with this pursuit but you should be doing it for yourself primarily and for your desire to reach that state of flow where you can fully immerse yourself in the activity whatever it may be.

You should find happiness and joy in what you do and become the best that you can be at it. If you can enjoy the activity, you’ll eventually find your ‘flow’ with it and be able to do it effortlessly. While you will have a lot of frustration and stress with practicing and doing the activity, if you like it and find it worthwhile, you won’t mind the downsides when the upsides can produce such an intense ‘flow’ where you are in the zone and are able to produce a beautiful result that others will appreciate. Being able to inspire others to reach their own ‘flow state’ creates its own ripple effect allowing our society to become more creative, intuitive, and productive as a result.