Thursday, July 31, 2008
This is the role of "talk, talk, talk" (Pam's impatient phrase) in a community and even if our electoral choice is limited to two venal parties, we can be more expansive in our conversation.
Zen teaching warns us about attaching to this or that opinion, clinging to a cherished opinion and defending it. We lose our way here and fall into a sewer of poison. Viewing dialogue, rather, from the perspective of a parent trying to figure out why the baby is crying, and discussing together why the baby might be crying, is a good analogy for debate on this blog.
As a Zen student in somewhat of a democratic republic, correct citizenship brings us back to the realm of opinion but, we hope, with the right priorities in place and a clear direction behind the speech. Serving our families AND our community with meaningful work and upright words is the way of the citizen.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Having just moved to New Mexico, I went looking for voter registration forms. The county clerk's office is in the courthouse, right across from the nice man who wants you to leave your weapons with him. The county clerk and her employees were all very encouraging and yet there is this empty feeling, like complying with some pointless obligation at the office.
It isn't quite pointless, but may I ask this question: If we must limit access to power to two political parties only (a necessity that has never been explained to me), why these two?
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
You can't see the book cover too well - the title is lost in the smog hovering over Los Angeles in the photograph. This is Less Than Zero, being the first novel by Bret Easton Ellis.
Let me state this flatly: I think this novel's literary reputation is overblown. It is not "Catcher In The Rye for the MTV generation" (USA Today). It is a young writer's passionate hate letter to Los Angeles (Ellis was 19, an undergraduate at Bennington, when he wrote this), a meandering fantasy that repeats a single point for 200 pages with some intentionally annoying prose. It reads almost like a marathon run-on sentence, an aqueduct of statements connected by an infinite series of 'ands.'
Moreover, the events in the novel become overwrought and preposterous without developing his theme any further. Clay, the first-person narrator, is home from college for the summer. "Home" is the Los Angeles of the wealthy, privileged, and deeply bored youth of the 1980's, awash in sex without intimacy, heaps of cocaine, families lacking affection, and words that don't communicate.
Ellis makes some skillful use of advertising slogans and wildlife in the canyons around Mulholland to create a darkening sense of foreboding. Clay sticks around even after he's given up trying to connect with his old friends, out of a compulsion to see "the worst of the worst." A similar, more bemused compulsion kept me reading to the end. How dark and preposterous would the scenes become, simply to reiterate the point that the generation of whom he is writing lacks a moral compass or empathy? Raped children and dead bodies are piled at the reader's feet, and conversations that scream self-parody buzz in the ears, even as we recall that Michiko Kakutani praised this novel's "documentary reality." Ha.
At the end, Clay is asked by a woman who wants to love him what he cares about and he can't name a thing. By this time, it isn't news, and there's not much for us to care about, either
Monday, July 28, 2008
(Note the Angeleno in the background working on his screenplay)
The cab was also packed tightly, and every time I hit a bump things would fall on me.
Stopping was fun, too.
Like an idiot.
Vehicle #2, containing:
Child resting his voice
Our Home in New Mexico, a work in progress...
Piano expertly damaged by Ben Hur Moving Company.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
We are so grateful for your responses to our previous post, and your friendly e-mails to our contact at Budget. Yes, I did botch the link to his email box and for that I apologize. Your efforts were not in vain, however. I created a central email address and forwarded your messages.
DeeAnne's appeared as a comment in the previous post. Here are two more responses we enjoyed enormously...
Hi Adam. It's Adam.(Yes, one of Algernon and Sarah's many friends-- I'm also friends with their son Gabriel, although truth be told I haven't actually met him yet. One of these days, I'm sure.)Anyway. I understand they entrusted a piano to you and your company to move from Los Angeles to Deming NM. And that your company promised to have your subcontractor deliver it within 7 business days.Now, I realize that Deming isn't the vast metropolis that is Des Moines, but still, a promise is a promise, after all. And 7 business days is a long time in this Just-In-Time day and age. I am hoping that in the name of Adam's everywhere you won't let Algernon down. (and by this I mean you will go the extra mile for him-- or in this case the extra 705 miles) Well, it's hard to say that the 705 miles are extra, as they paid you guys for them. Hmmm... speaking of which, they should probably get a discount for your company's failure to live up to their promises. I'm just saying-- that's the right way to handle it.I trust that you will (as the saying goes) Do The Right Thing here.Anyway, it was great to make your acquaintance, Adam, and here's hoping that this is a story with a happy ending.
* * *
I am one of Algernon's former supervisors. He worked for me when I was the Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee's Los Angeles office. It might seem odd to you that the Abbot of a Zen Buddhist Monastery would be the Executive Assistant for a Rabbi, but I can tell you from experience it was a very good and productive pairing. What made Algernon so good at his job -- and so helpful in making me good at mine -- were his gentle professionalism and serene spirit. He simply wanted the world to be a better place and invested himself diligently in working to make it so.
His most recent project, as I am sure you are by now aware, has been to improve the world of an infant child by providing the child's mother with her piano, an instrument of goodwill and joy within their small family so recently uprooted from a comfortable existence among cherished friends here in Los Angeles. Can you not spare a bit of your time and attention to assist him in that cause? If you cannot do it because it is part of your job -- or so one assumes -- do it because in a gesture of almost unprecedented altruism Algernon gave up the City of Angels for the God-forsaken dust-blown Hell-hole called Demming, New Mexico. (Personally, if I owned Hell and Demming, I'd live in Hell and rent Demming out, if you fathom my drift.)
So, Adam, let's just assume you hate your employers at Budget and want to make them look terrible. No one would disagree that you're doing a pretty good job at it, but do you really want to create this kind of bad karma when dealing with a Buddhist priest? The only other guy I knew who took Algernon for granted ended up working for a group of Azerbaijanis and spent way too much time shuttling between Encino and the garden city of Baku. Believe me, it's not pretty.
* * *
Unfortunately, this saga has a whole new chapter, as the piano arrived today with massive damage. Cutesy messages to Adam played no part in this - in fact, Budget Van Lines played no part in it whatsoever. We now turn our attention to a very bad moving company named after Ben Hur , an insurance adjuster, and - who knows - perhaps litigation.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
An empty corner stands here at our burning house, a space for Sarah's piano that should have been filled several days ago. Where on earth is Sarah's piano? I will tell you. Sarah's piano is sitting in a warehouse somewhere in the Los Angeles area. It has been there since July 9, when the movers picked it up. According to our contract, it was to have been delivered in no later than 7 business days. That would have been Monday, the 21st.
Let's back up a little bit. Sarah got some quotes for moving her piano from Los Angeles to our new home in New Mexico, and she went with Budget Van Lines. Only later did we look more closely at what kind of enterprise this is.
Budget is not the company that moves your stuff. Budget is just a broker: they subcontract, and what they do to make money is negotiate cheap rates by finding space on trucks with other cargo. It's like a ride-sharing service, except for your belongings. The subcontractor may or may not be any good. Consumer websites like this one relate some horror stories about Budget and their subcontractors which you would hope are the exceptions rather than the rule. There are more tales of woe here and here.
Budget subcontracted Sarah's piano job to a company called Ben Hur. They picked up the piano on July 9. The contract with Budget specifies delivery from 1-7 business days and once that time had elapsed with no word about Sarah's piano, I started calling.
Would you be surprised if I told you that Budget's customer service is a bit lax? Multiple voice mails and emails unanswered until I had to leave messages in my Angry Voice. Someone from sales finally gave me the number of the subcontractor. You realize what that means? That's right. Budget essentially abdicated its role as broker and made ME follow up with the carrier.
"Why am I doing your job?" I asked into somebody's voice mail. "I should invoice you."
Following many phone calls to Budget AND Ben Hur over the last week, here's our situation:
After eleven business days, Sarah's piano is still sitting in Los Angeles, and the carrier cannot tell us exactly when it will leave the warehouse. Today, the carrier said they are "trying to get a truck together" to bring the piano to New Mexico. Trying to get a truck together? Did it fall apart? What's going on over there?
Several employees from Budget have gotten an earful from me (I started calling back random extensions until I reached people) about the fact that Budget failed to follow up with its own subcontractor or communicate with us, and giving them a hard time about making me follow up with them myself. I've been demanding a rebate based on how late the delivery will be.
Our contact at Budget promised he would negotiate this with the carrier, and have the carrier contact me with the amount that would be rebated per day the piano is late. Surprise, the carrier didn't call, and seemed surprised when I called them asking about it.
Ready for the reader participation? Come, merry pranksters, let's have some harmless fun and make the world a lighter place. And be a part of reuniting Sarah with her beloved piano at last.
What we are asking for from our cherished friends reading this blog is a happy cavalry - a polite, upbeat, friendly cavalry. We're not asking you to make trouble (that's why Sarah keeps me around), we just want you to be your wonderful, friendly, optimistic and intelligent selves and send Budget Van Lines your encouragement and support. A love note, if you will.
To wit: we'd like you to send a short and friendly email to our contact at Budget. His name is Adam. Sounds like a young guy, must be very busy because he never answers his phone. When I get through to him he's nice and sounds like he wants to help. I'm sure the fact that his promises don't come through has to do with other nefarious forces at work, and the guilt must keep him up at night. Poor guy. Please be nice to him.
The email should be in your own words, but something like the following. The friendlier it is, the funnier this will be.
"Hello Adam! I'm a friend of Sarah and Algernon. It really is a shame that Ben Hur is so late with their piano. Did you know it hasn't even left Los Angeles yet? I'm sure you're working hard to get that piano delivered and to get these kids a rebate for their trouble and their lost income. Just wanted you to know I'm rooting for ya!"
That's plenty. Click here to email him directly.
And if we are still dealing with this a week from now, I have the carrier's toll-free number. *Wink.*
Monday, July 21, 2008
Oops. This was one of those signs that the candidates are human and get tired. Diane Sawyer asked him a question about Afghanistan and he was probably referring to the turbulence on THEIR border with Pakistan. Of course, I hope we all understand that Iraq and Pakistan do not actually border one another. One is the region we call the "middle east" and the other is in South Asia.
Yet in a weird way, they DO border each other now, in the sense that political rhetoric has conflated the military mission in Afghanistan with the occupation of Iraq and a generalized confrontation with the middle-east itself. We aren't known for our meticulous understanding of world geography anyway, us Americans, so the slip-up is is a bit sad even if it is understandable. Especially coming from the candidate whose signature brag is his unassailable understanding of foreign and military affairs.
So, to the maps!
Iraq is that BLUE THING right in the middle. It is surrounded by Jordan and Syria to the west, Turkey on the northern end, Iran all the way along its eastern border, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on the south.
So where in the heck IS Pakistan? It is sandwiched between Afghanistan and India, underneath China:
Nowhere on the map do I find a region called "Terrorism," and yet Senator Obama (the other overtired nitwit running for President) has been running around Afghanistan proclaiming it a central front in 'the war on terrorism.'
Groan. The war in Afghanistan is a war against the Taliban, the brutal regime that harbored an international terrorist who had organized large and deadly attacks, and would presumably do so again if they resumed power. Okay, let's grant the argument that the military mission in Afghanistan is important - it still is a war against a material enemy, not a tactic. World War I was not "The War Against Trench Warfare."
Declaring war on non-material enemies is the kind of open-ended military commitment with no boundaries that will be the legacy of the Current Occupant and Richard Cheney (the man who has effectively become his own branch of government).
So the candidate of experience is getting his maps mixed up, and the candidate of change is gamely adopting the concepts and rhetoric of the Bush administration.
Here is a map of where this might be leading:
Awww. Okay, that's one way to look at it.
Another way to look at it is to consult local geography - and to get very, very local, starting with one's own inner cartographer. A tired mind can draw a map where Pakistan borders Iraq. A lazy mind can conflate all the nations and cultures of Central America into one vague Spanish-speaking region. A hurting mind can look at historical maps, point to regions around oneself, and say, "That's mine." Every map contains the perspective of the mapmaker.
I'm not sure there's much we can do about these Presidents-in-waiting at the moment. I assume they'll get tired when they actually have the job - what kind of weird errors and language can we expect while they are in power? This, like 2-party rule itself and the lack of diverse, high-quality choices of candidates, is not something I can control.
Great changes have always tended to start from the local and the grass roots, and moved up. Instead of looking up to the politicians at the top, we had better look around - at ourselves and one another. We can make an effort to know where we come from and take an interest in seeing that our local affairs are run decently and that our inner cartographer is rested and clear. That's a place to begin the long march back from Heck.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
The Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis (2003).
What is good about this novel is very good indeed. Mostly good prose (I'm not going to join the chorus that called it 'lyrical'), delivering a story that moves across a generation (panning from a daughter's story to her mother's) with a notably brisk pace. Scenes from Korean islands, G.I. brothels, and contemporary southern California are rendered vividly.
Ava Sing Lo is the black-skinned daughter of a Korean woman who is fascinated by birds; the daughter has an uncanny knack for bringing about the death of these birds. The daughter finds herself seeking out a devastated coastal area where a botulism outbreak is causing a massive "die-off" in the local bird population, helping volunteer efforts to rescue and rehabilitate as many as birds as possible. This becomes a tale of healing for herself and for her mother, whose story unfolds during the course of the novel (in a different typeface, for some reason).
The principal characters are for the most part multi-dimensional and interesting. The occasional visits by the police are a bit tin-pan alley and cartoonish, and the white G.I. who loved Ava's mother supposedly lost his heart while watching her vomit on the street. "The white puke of an angel," he calls it. Silly silly silly (and really gross).
Still, it is worth spending a little time with Miss Ava Sing Lo and her remarkable mother.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
He had long hair tied tightly into a tail behind his head, extending from under a greasy baseball cap. His clothes looked like he did some kind of labor involving engines - auto mechanic? or a farmer with a tractor that needed a lot of care? His beard was bushy and his eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
I heard his voice before I saw him. We approached the Deming post office at the same time, and he called out to the Mexican man selling the local newspaper by the front steps: "Hey!! Get to work!" He said this with a flashing smile and a loud chuckle as he bounded up the steps. I met him at the door and he bade me go ahead of him. "I'm in no hurry!" he said.
I looked around for voter registration forms. Didn't find any. So I got into line right behind him. His turn came and the clerk at the window looked directly at him. There was a hesitation and my fellow customer broke the silence by saying, "Hey! Get to work! You're supposed to say 'Next!', arntcha?"
"You're standing right in front of me," answered the clerk, and the customer gave that same chuckle, something between amusement and spitting.
His "get to work!" seemed to be his greeting to anyone, even strangers, yet I was the only one around him who was between jobs. On August 4, I get oriented as a brand new faculty member at a charter elementary school here in town. We moved here less than a week ago, and are still unpacking boxes and getting used to the little house we are renting. I take walks to learn my way around. There is plenty to do and yet as far as the job goes I have been feeling antsy. "Get to work!" indeed. A strange way to greet somebody and yet I smiled.
Outside, I stopped to buy the local paper seconds after my compatriot had left and, in parting, waved to the newspaper man. "Get to work!" he said and marched down Spruce Street.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Friday, July 11, 2008
And Barack "Change We Can Believe In" Obama supported it, although he opposed it before he supported it - as did McCain.
I feel such sadness about what has happened to my country - and such disappointment. The things to which I feel the most loyalty about my country have been utterly sold out, and this new law is another strong blow to its very legitimacy. To my mind it is that serious. Either I'm wrong, or things are too far gone for it to matter anymore.
Either way, I am losing interest in following the campaign. Under 2-party rule, with these two frauds at the head of their bumbling organizations, I don't foresee a meaningful result anyway. Okay, someone will remind me about Supreme Court appointments.
Somehow the Roberts Court doesn't appear to be doing nearly as much damage as the executive and legislative branches are doing. But that's just a heartbroken citizen talking.
Anyway, I'm busy packing.
Wednesday, July 09, 2008
Monday, July 07, 2008
Only this spring, Los Angeles saw the closing of Dutton's in Brentwood. Appalling. This was a lovely store with a courtyard and a coffee shop, thoroughly independent with a loyal following. Authors read from all sorts of works there. It was a place of literature, fantasy, argument, and strong coffee. A place where an eighteen-year old selling cappucino exhorted the virtues of a novel she was reading, and one saw other young people flipping through the latest Brick or scribbling furiously in journals. More than once, I encountered Dustin Hoffman roaming through the aisles. The first time I spotted him, he actually announced himself by carrying on a rather loud cell phone conversation as he moved through the store and out onto San Vicente Boulevard.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
Brief recap: on a dare from an old Conservatory friend, Mr. Lance Roger Axt, I wrote a radio script and had myself a ball, reading the pages out loud and laughing at all hours of the night. It was submitted first to a national audio theatre festival, and then to Shoestring up in San Francisco. Shoestring recorded the play this spring, and are now set to air it on San Francisco public radio September 26. (You can also listen to it online at their website.)
Here's the page with the listing. Is it not rather marvelous that people are still doing radio theatre? God, they've got a new play up every week...
Friday, July 04, 2008
Happily, I came across something stirring I would have been happy to say myself. So I share it with you here.