Monday, July 21, 2014

On Writing: A Blog Hop

My friend Ji Hyang, who blogs at Natural Wisdom, invited me to participate in this "blog hop" thing. Oh, what I will do for my friends.

What are you writing/working on?

Honestly I have no work habits established as far as writing goes. I manage to hand in a column every month for the Deming Headlight. Supposedly, during this summer in North Carolina I am revising The Chess Play (a play I wrote to be performed by children, workshopped in Deming this spring).  I haven't touched it.

For my son, I have been working on a personal, handwritten storybook. The book pictured above is a blank book, and I've persuaded several members of the cast of Unto These Hills to contribute illustrations from which I take inspiration for the story. It is a whimsical fantasy tale incorporating many things that Gabriel likes, including some of his friends and his little brother.

Here is the illustration for the book's title page (which is untitled for the moment):

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm.  Well.  It's handwritten, and my handwriting is not like anyone else's. Which might be a good thing.

Why do you write what you write?

For pleasure. For communication. For connection. It's true of letters, editorials, plays, and even Gabriel's storybook.

I've no professional aspirations, but it feels good when I do it well. Last year, I wrote a couple of chapters of a book on acting and found it so boring I quickly abandoned the project. The world will be fine.

How does your writing process work?

I don't know. My father, a professional writer, is very disciplined about his work. Me, well, I can usually meet a deadline, but it may or may not follow an all-night writing binge splashed in wine. Language is an instrument and I am a noodler. It helps to be in an environment where I am not interrupted and can play appropriate selections of music. Sometimes it useful to sit (aka zazen) before and/or after writing practice.

The List of Wars

Randy Granger and I had hoped to perform An Iliad together in the Asheville area this summer, but things kept falling through. Two venues in Asheville canceled, and then some of Randy's gigs went away and he could not make the trip to North Carolina. Just as it seemed the play would be on hiatus for the summer, a conservatory connection living in the area helped make a show happen, and so it was that An Iliad came to Black Mountain.  (I also gave a free show in Cherokee back in June.)

The White Horse is a former car dealership which has for several years been a performance venue serving beer and wine. For a show like An Iliad, it works very well, offering easy interaction between the actor and the spectators. Not my strongest run at the beginning, mainly because I was trying to play with a very different space, but the performance found its groove.

Afterwards, I enjoyed a long conversation with a couple of people about The List.

One of the memorable features of this play is a long recitation of major wars and revolutions around the world, starting with the conquest of Sumer and going up through the current civil war in Syria. For several minutes, the list goes on, a solemn litany of major conflicts in human history.

In Las Cruces, a combat veteran told me that as he listened to The List he had been enjoying it as theatre, but when I named the war he himself had fought (Vietnam) it took him by surprise, like a button had been pushed, his experience had been recognized and united with human history past and future. Similar testimonies taught me that The List is an important, almost sacred part of the play, pointing a way toward reconciliation and healing, however imperfect.

Last night, in Black Mountain, the conversation raised an interesting question about The List: what about veterans of non-military conflicts? This was raised by a woman who had gone through Hurricane Katrina, the chaos and the turmoil that followed, the destruction of her home and her society. Her recent decision to leave her home city, the city her family had lived in for generations, for the safety of her young son and to recover from PTSD, was clearly one that had cost her personally. As powerful as The List was, she said, she wanted to be included. She had never worn a uniform or been trained or deployed to a war zone, but she had been in one and felt herself altered forever.

Joining our conversation was a man who had helped counsel first-responders after the attacks of September 11. Here was another occasion when civilians, people not trained for battlefields, were abruptly plunged into The Shit.

9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are not included in The List. The List focuses on military conflicts and a few major social revolutions. I took the liberty of adding "Indian Removal" to The List, as it seemed improper to exclude that horror - the long walk, the trail of tears, let's just call it ethnic cleansing. Especially here in Cherokee country. It feels appropriate to include it since at least one side was in uniform, while on the other side civilians were killed or forced to march, many of them unprepared for conflict with a large army. The line between soldier and civilian is cruelly fluid, and this is not just a feature of modern warfare. Still. The List is, for practical reasons, limited to military conflicts and does not include the suffering of those plunged into warfare unprepared, or those whose lives are stripped by natural disasters with consequences similar to the effects of war.

And those folks need healing, too.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rain Pace

No matter how well you prepare, in outdoor drama there is a critical factor that is under no human control whatsoever, and you already know what we're talking about: weather.

It rains frequently here on the hill and our stage, as you see above, is made of sand. The "eagle rock" set, visible in the top right of the picture, pools with water. There is also a cabin that rolls out on stage left, on which we perform on a flat wooden deck that becomes slick. Meanwhile, when that deck of sand is saturated, it turns into a muddy soup. For the fighters, it becomes dangerous. You don't even need to be swinging a war club or a saber to slip and fall. There are adjustments we make for rain, but wet is wet, and we must tread carefully while, at the same time, moving the performance at "rain pace."

"Rain pace" basically means speeding up the dialogue and whatever else can be sped up safely. Not fights. Not dances. And not scenes that are timed to recorded music (for instance, the scene in our second act, depicting the Trail of Tears.)

The show goes on in the rain. We have, this summer, canceled two shows: in one case, a storm knocked out all power on the hill, and in the other case management held the curtain until after 9:00 PM in hopes a lightning storm in a neighboring valley would move away. Lightning will cancel a show but rain will not. For the hearty patrons who stay, there are rain ponchos for sale, and a rain shelter from which the show can be viewed (though you mainly see the tops of actors' heads from up there). 

There is a blue light downstage, visible to the actors but not the audience, that may be activated at any time if a storm is approaching. There is a similar light backstage. If the light comes on, we're at rain pace.

Moving at regular speed or rain pace, as it may, we are all sodden, cast and crew alike. Our shoes are wet. Wet sand is caked to our skin, smeared on our costumes and our own clothes. Wigs, masks, and microphones need to be protected as best as possible. It rained much of yesterday -- the show went on, performing for an audience of 136 stalwarts in a 2,000 seat theatre, fully exposed to the rain -- and it rained through the night and at this writing it continues.

Time itself seems to be moving at an accelerated pace. Time itself is an illusion, and perceptions of its speed have to do with where our attention is. Nonetheless, it is breathtaking to sit at the fire pit by our dormitories (when it is dry enough for an evening fire) and remember the date, to think more than two months have already gone by. In the two months plus that we've been on this hill, we've mounted a large-cast outdoor drama, workshopped a full-length musical that is in development, some of us (including me) have undergone 60 hours of stage combat training and gone through an examination process, and I've also continued to book and perform An Iliad. (This Sunday, I'm performing it in a tavern in Black Mountain. Click here for details and come by if you're in the Asheville, North Carolina area.)

Meanwhile, in just a few weeks here, two theatre friends back in Las Cruces, New Mexico have died unexpectedly: one of illness, the other murdered. Being so far away, there isn't the time or space to touch other friends and help each other digest such loss and confusion.

The blue light is on and we are packing in the projects, also making time every day to touch the dharma in some formal way -- often finding some quiet place on the hill for zazen, using chant to warm up my voice.

For the last month, I'm hoping to be a bit less industrious, always putting something out there, and to take in and listen to this land where I am privileged to spend some time, the Cherokee reservation and the Great Smoky Mountains. It is so refreshing to be in a different kind of climate, where rain actually falls from the sky so frequently, and it is not just a work-related problem but a natural function of a living place, a nourishing force that can also be a destructive force, doing itself blithely while human beings run around and call to each other through the fog.

[Image: Fight rehearsal on the set of Unto These Hills in Cherokee, North Carolina.]

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Plea for Indigenous Realism

Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous KnowledgeRed Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge by Daniel R. Wildcat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our climate emergency (the author calls it "global burning") is becoming impossible to ignore, and it is already too late to avert some catastrophic effects in 2014, and yet there is much to do and important reasons to do it. This book is an argument for important principles to be learned from indigenous peoples: "American Indian and Alaskan Native wisdom is a cooperative construction built on generations of attentive interaction between humans and the diversity of life found in the unique ecosystems and environments we call home."

This is, as repeatedly emphasized, not a call for a rejection of technology or a reset to some idealized past stage of development, but an argument for an "indigenous realism" in which "the value of technology is...a function of the symbiotic relationship between environment and culture."

It is effectively an extended introduction to an important topic, with some historical detail and a cursory presentation of some guiding principles that can be learned from Native approaches to technology and ecological balance, from the past and also the present. It is, however, not an academic work and does not go into these in depth, but urges the reader to consider and study this perspective more deeply.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Replace your damned timing belt!

I'm not the first motorist to put off replacing the timing belt, and I'm not the first to pay the price.

It happened smack in the middle of a long road trip, too, just to emphasize the lesson.

On May 8, I made a final stop at the university and then hit the interstate to begin a drive from New Mexico to North Carolina. My route would take me across Texas into Louisiana and then Mississippi, veering north across Alabama and Tennessee into the Cherokee national forest and up, up, up onto the reservation to begin my summer working for the Cherokee Historical Association.

My business here is playing a role in their annual summer show, Unto These Hills.  The show takes place in a 2,000 seat outdoor arena in the Ocunaluftee Indian Village, and most of the cast lives in dormitories on a hill behind the theatre.

My beloved Honda Civic was running as perkily as ever.  In Shreveport, Louisiana, I stopped to replace two worn tires and continued on my way. I was enjoying the tall trees and smells of Louisiana when suddenly, without any alarming dashboard lights or ominous noises or any premonition in my mind, the engine simply stopped.  I coasted to the side of the freeway, brought the car to a stop (its final stop), and tried to start it again.  It made a whining noise but there was no engine.

It was late in the afternoon, a Saturday, with hot sun blaring. I waited two and a half hours for a tow truck, hiking to the nearest overpass to sit in the shade with the bottle of water I had in the car. I did not get a choice of where the car would be towed.  The nearest town, three miles away, was Delhi, Louisiana -- it does not rhyme with "deli" but "well hi," with the stress on the first syllable, DEL-hi!  The town had one mechanic, and that's where we went. We dropped the car in front of the business, which would not open until Monday morning.  Then I walked across town looking for a motel.

This ended up being an expensive two-day delay in my trip, and I feared for my job. For the rest of Saturday and Sunday, I more or less hung out in the motel room, taking a few walks around town.  Like Deming, Delhi has a freight train running across town several times a day. Unlike Deming, the train goes right through the center of town. It could well be passing within a few feet of you.

On Monday morning, it took the mechanic all of a minute to confirm that the car was totaled. With an interference engine such as my car had, a timing belt failure is very likely to destroy your engine (click here to read why). So replace your car's timing belt, okay?

At that point I had several problems to solve.  What to do with my car. What to do with stuff in the car (I was on a three-month trip, and had also brought a few props and costumes for my Iliad performance). How to get to Cherokee, North Carolina. How to pay for any of the solutions available to me. How to get home if the show decided to re-cast my role.

The business where I had been towed is called Auto Doctor, and the mechanic who pronounced my car dead (unless I wanted to replace the engine) was the owner, Robert Denman. He and his wife, Vicki, were most helpful and generous. They made helpful suggestions, and Robert took time away from his business to run me to the motel and back while I figured out a plan. Even more generously, he took an hour out of his day to drive me into Monroe to rent a car. While I was heading back, he negotiated with two different wrecking services to get the best price for my car.  He was hesitant to accept any money for his services, but I insisted. He saved my summer, getting me back on the road quickly even if it wasn't in my own car.

The feeling of sadness as I emptied out the Civic was surprising and even amusing.  I don't personalize machines or project personalities onto them.  When talking to mechanics I tended to refer to the car as a she -- not sure where I picked that up. Still, it's a machine, not a pet or a person. All the same, it is a machine I relied on heavily for twelve years.  I began leasing it when I was Abbot of Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles. It went coast to coast several times, across the country a few more times, and traveled heavily all over New Mexico the last five years for work. Somehow it deserved a kinder send-off than this hasty, rushed transaction, abandoning it to a wrecker on the side of the road. I felt a sadness on the level of having to put down a pet, and shame at how messy the event was.

By lunchtime Monday I was back on the road in a rented Camry, with half the drive left to go. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I arrived at the site on Tuesday.  Within 45 minutes of my arrival, I was rehearsing.

And that's pretty much what I've been doing ever since.  It's a large production with a cast of 45 or so, elaborate battles, pyrotechnics, dance, moving sets, and more. The stage has no deck; we are performing in sand. We open in just a few more days. Our days are long.  Although I have combat experience, I don't fight in this show, nor am I dancing, so the physical demands on me aren't as intense this summer. I get to concentrate on my scene work, and just try not to fall on my ass onto the rocks.

In posts to follow, I hope to share a bit about the character I play and things I've seen and learned out here. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Thomas Paine discussed at Left Forum

Hello from Cherokee, North Carolina.

The tale of my journey here and the project on which I am working has yet to be narrated on this blog, although some of you have heard I ran into severe car trouble on the way and was stranded for two days, arriving late to the reservation in a rental car and rushed into a scene rehearsal within 45 minutes.  Quite a travel story. 

For now, I'm just popping on to share a link to an article by Chris Hedges calling attention to our dear ancestor, Thomas Paine, as it seems that this year's Left Forum has dedicated a panel discussion to Paine.

As Hedges writes (and I've added links to his references):

"Thomas Paine is America’s one great revolutionary theorist. We have produced a slew of admirable anarchists—Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day and Noam Chomsky—and radical leaders have arisen out of oppressed groups—Sitting Bull, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Cornel West and bell hooks—but we don’t have a tradition of revolutionists. This makes Paine unique."

Hooray.  Click here for the whole article.

I would be shirking some responsibility if I did not take this opportunity to plug Thomas Paine Friends, an historical organization dedicated to Paine and his writings, with which I have been involved for several years.

And I'll return to tell the tale of my road trip.  It was a rough one.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fooling with Democracy

Here is the April installment of my monthly piece for the Deming Headlight.  It appeared in the paper on April 10.


Perhaps we should change Election Day to April 1.

In a stunning follow-up to its 2010 ruling in the case of Citizens United vs.  Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court struck down more limits on private funding of election campaigns this month.  The rulings were announced on April 2, one day after April Fool’s Day and certainly no prank.

The case of McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission was about aggregate limits on campaign funding – the total amount an individual may spend during an election cycle.   In the current cycle, by law you can spend $123,200 on candidates, national party committees, and certain political committees;  with a limit of $2,600 to specific federal candidates, and a total limit of $48,600 on direct contributions to candidates.  

These limits date back to the Watergate scandal that engulfed the presidency of Richard Nixon.  To fight corruption, these aggregate limits were enacted in 1974 and survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1976.  The limits were later indexed to inflation in 2002. 

In our era, the Supreme Court is rolling back limits on private funding of campaigns.  Citizens United rolled back bans on corporations and organizations from using company funds for direct advocacy, and McCutcheon rolled back aggregate individual limits.  It won’t stop there.  Justice Clarence Thomas complained that “limiting the amount of money a person may give to a candidate does impose a direct restraint on his political communication.”  There is explicit support on that bench for doing away with any limits on campaign spending. 

The rationale is that spending money is equivalent to speech, and therefore it is “free speech” for a billionaire to bankroll campaigns and dominate the available media.  What this means for the rest of us is a politics further dominated by wealthy individuals and corporations. 

Amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth, we do well to remember that this is a political struggle that has been going on since the founding of the United States.  It is a struggle between the conflicting ideals of political democracy (rule by people) and plutocracy (rule by wealth).  The struggle is not hidden and was once written about in plain language without embarrassment.

James Madison, in an essay recorded as Number 10 in the Federalist Papers, acknowledges class conflict in the year 1787, writing, “The most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”  Madison, however, was no communist.  His purpose was to argue that government must preserve these inequalities, to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” as he put it in a debate that year.   For him and many of the other founders of the United States, political democracy was something dangerous, noted for its “leveling tendencies” and its vulnerability to “unruly” passions. 

John Jay, another of our founders and our first Chief Justice, was even more explicit:  “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”  Chief Justice John Roberts may well concur. This idea is very much in practice in our politics today, as the way is cleared for lobbyists, political action committees, corporations, and wealthy individual donors at the same time that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act has been struck down and new restrictions on voting are enacted. 

The purpose of political democracy is precisely that “leveling tendency,” for people to share power and fight for their social and economic interests.  The struggle for political democracy in America is ongoing, and one side is highly organized, well funded, and effective.  Plutocracy is winning.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Regarding the White Gaze

A week ago, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge paid a visit to New Zealand and were greeted by Maori dignitaries, and a contingent of dancers in traditional garb and tattoos.

CNN reporter Jeanne Moos filed a story about the occasion that went dreadfully awry and quickly went viral, widely shared and villified across the internet.   It seems like a natural topic for a soft, humorous "human interest" sort of story, right?  Here is the future British monarch and his family, in western-style formal clothes including a dark suit and tie for the Prince, and they literally rub noses with their hosts as part of a customary greeting.  Two cultures saying hello.  That could be nice and fun.  

Unfortunately, Ms. Moos decided to push the joke.  The tipping point seems to be the bare-buttocked male dancers.  Moos indulged in juvenile puns, calling the event a "royal bummer," and making peculiar comments like, "Is this any way to welcome a future king and queen?"  

Oh, but it got worse.  Ms. Moos then dug up archival footage of First Lady Laura Bush being greeted in Afghanistan by New Zealand soldiers doing traditional dance -- which is a rather high honor -- while Ms. Moos compares the dancing to a Chippendales routine and the mating ritual of an emu.  

And so on in that vain.  Watch it if you wish: 

Pretty soon, there were petitions circulating on-line demanding an apology.  Jeanne Moos acknowledged the criticisms and stated, "I do humour and satire, and I am truly sorry if the tone of my story offended anyone."  It feels a bit like a standard procedure.  Outcry, followed by an indirect, not-really-apologetic apology.

I think something may have gotten lost in the demands that Moos apologize and the standard non-apology.  Saying sorry is nice, I suppose, but it's not about offending, taking offense, or apologizing.  My two sons have latched on to the phrase "I'm sorry" as a magical phrase for getting out of trouble, making a bad situation go away.  The point is -- as I often tell my own children, but it certainly applies to us adults as well -- has anything been learned?  Is there anything in this situation that helps us grow an inch wiser?

Words matter here.  This piece didn't "offend" me.  I wasn't insulted personally.  I am not Maori; in fact, I am a white Euro-American male.  My response to this piece, broadcast by one of my country's major news organizations, was embarrassment.

The moment I heard my older son, at age four, mutter something about "brown people" I dug out the National Geographics and began negotiating play dates with children who don't look like him.  We are trying to introduce both boys to people and cultures foreign to ours so that they feel comfortable and curious about people who are different, about foreign customs, and so forth.

Surely these differences between cultures can be reflected on with humor.  In fact, a sense of humor really helps.  The intent to find humor in the difference between two cultures is not in itself a problem.  What makes me cringe when I watch the Moos piece is something underneath the content.  The entire commentary is based on the assumption that Anglo is normal and what other cultures do is weird.  The object of humor is the non-white, and this is how a dignified Maori dancer in traditional garb and markings becomes the target of botty jokes.  This is embarrassing.  If Moos did not catch this, a producer should have.  They failed.
I don't think a personal apology is adequate or necessary.  What could be helpful and repair some journalistic faith would be to acknowledge this unexamined "white=normal, non-white=ridiculous" dichotomy and consider doing stories about that.  That's how CNN could make this, if you will pardon the clichè, a "teachable moment."  That would probably go much further in repairing journalistic trust and provide a positive example for how we can all look at our unexamined attitudes and widen our perspective.