Sunday, September 30, 2012

Anthro-phone-ology






After assigning scenes to my students and informing them who their scene partners were, I gave them a couple of minutes to exchange phone numbers or to "bump phones."  Although my phone doesn't do it, I have seen phones that will import contact information from a user's phone simply from physical contact -- hence, "bumping phones." 

One of my students looked ruefully at her own phone, a Blackberry.  She remarked, "Blackberries are for old people." 

"Old people??"  I protested.  Brandishing my own phone, I declared, "This is a Samsung flip phone.  It has manual buttons and no touch screen.  If Blackberries are for old people, what am I?" 

She stared at my phone with wide, horrified eyes.  The words came to her with difficulty.  She said:  "You...are...a cave man." 


Friday, September 28, 2012

Update on Various Film Projects

Recently, a couple of readers have asked for an update on the film projects in which I am involved -- in particular, where or when they might have a chance to see the movies.  The progress of an independent film is slow and news comes in fits and starts.  Below, some updates and, for fun, images from each film.


THE CELLAR DOOR (released in 2007).  This film won a couple of horror-festival ribbons and became a popular illegal download.  (If you like to download bootlegged films, I'm frowning at you.  People like me are deprived of income because you feel entitled to take things without paying for them.)  It is available, legally, via Netflix (here's the link).  It appears that you can no longer stream it, sadly.


A sequel is in the works, but they are struggling to raise money.  My character gets killed off in the film (in a murder that inspired applause at a Hollywood screening I attended), and so I am not involved in the sequel.





LAST DAYS (officially released in 2010).   This quasi-apocalypse suspense thriller is still in search of a buyer.  It has made it into a few film festivals, mostly recently at the Fright Night Film Fest in Louisville in a newly-edited version that I think improves greatly on the initial release.  I'm not aware of any scheduled showings anywhere, but if you drop by the house I could pop it in the DVD player.  Sssssh. 

Watch the trailer.






FOLKLORE (2012).  After a long and frustrating post-production process, this highly-anticipated film was finally screened for the public in Las Cruces this past summer -- while I was in Italy!  There have been a few parties interested in distributing this film, so I'm not sure what the latest is.  I have high hopes that there will be exciting news about this film very soon.  Meanwhile, how about this trailer??








HUMBLE SPIRITS (2012) is a documentary that premiered at the Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso this summer, produced and directed by Andrew Jara (the writer and director of Last Days, above).  I narrate the documentary, which tells the story of a family of professional boxers. 

Watch a trailer here.  This film, too, is in search of a distribution deal.











 AMONG THE DUST OF THIEVES (forthcoming) will be released this fall, almost one year after filming took place in Las Cruces and Santa Fe County.   From what I understand, it will be released as a DVD and sold in at least two venues in New Mexico: the Gadsden Museum in Mesilla and Coas Books in Las Cruces.   (It is an historical drama based on some New Mexico history.)  I suppose either of these venues would ship. 

And yes, there is a trailer.





In closing, I'd like to mention a short film entitled Cigarette which was written and directed by Sheridan O'Donnell, then a film student at NMSU's Creative Media Institute.  This 10-15 minute character drama was an extra-curricular project and because Sheridan is a busy fellow, it took a very long time for his film to come to light.  He did a nice job and as far as I know, it's not being shown anywhere.

It can, however, be viewed in full..... right here!  Enjoy.





Cigarette from Sheridan O'Donnell on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Occupations old and new

Revolution as Theatre: Notes on the New Radical Style

Revolution as Theatre: Notes on the New Radical Style by Robert Brustein



This is a collection of essays written in 1969 and 1970 critiquing the radical student movement and its effect on the university as an institution. It was a time when, among other things, Yale University (where Brustein was a dean) was actually voting on motions to suspend academic activity in order to dedicate its undivided attention to the trial of the Black Panthers.

Brustein expresses concern about the quality of these revolutionary movements, and whether they might be mirroring some of the negative aspects of the society they wished to transform: anti-intellectual, impatient with discourse, violent, and authoritarian. He vividly describes two events: a panel discussion in New York that gets taken over by members and/or followers of the Living Theatre, and a speech on the Yale campus by David Hilliard of the Black Panthers -- how he almost loses his adoring audience, and the peculiar way he wins back their affection.

He moves on to a discussion of the role of the university and how, in his view, the student movement had become so passionate for social relevance that they had become impatient to the point of becoming anti-intellectual and anti-professional. His essays wrestle with the project of reconciling the conservative, the liberal, and the radical. One preserves what is traditional and valuable, the next is open to new ideas, and the radical critiques the foundational structures that support one's beliefs.

Recently, the first anniversary of the Occupy movement passed, and the media reports were mostly disappointing if predictable, writing it off as a passing fad and minimizing its significance.  I would argue that the Occupy presented two radical and necessary ideas: (1) it is now okay to criticize our economic system and the social order that it creates -- and news coverage about economics and inequality has improved as a result; and (2) the movement showed an admirable devotion to process over results -- it was faulted for its "failure" to coalesce around a leader and a political platform, even though this was never the point.  "Occupy" was never accepted for what it was: a non-violent movement of people gathering in order to interrupt the system's daily operation, educate themselves on the problems and their causes, and work in a democratic manner with other people to envision solutions.  The process had a different structure and character than what we read in Brustein's reports -- in particular, its attitude toward learning and to democratic structure.

Sadly, these aspects were not celebrated in the media remembrances -- more like eulogies -- of the Occupy movement.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

More Voices, Please


Rachel Maddow is a self-described liberal and a media celebrity, educated in political science and public policy -- a Rhodes scholar, no less, with a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford.  Her show on MSNBC frequently offers high-quality news analysis and political commentary from a liberal perspective.

And yet, when it comes to acknowledging the contributions of political parties outside of the Democratic and Republican duopoly, Maddow and her program are literally conservative.  Below is a letter e-mailed to the editorial address of the Rachel Maddow Show.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

It seemed reflexive, almost like reciting a short religious prayer, when Frank Rich acknowledged the possibility that conservatives would form an alternative political party and felt compelled to say, "But of course that's quixotic."  This was during an appearance he made on your show this week discussing conservative dissatisfaction with the Republican Party establishment. 

It is a shame to see this reflexive and uncritical dismissal of any alternative to the current duopoly.  If the Green or Libertarian parties are acknowledged at all, or potential other parties, the rule is that they be dismissed immediately as quixotic spoilers who cannot participate meaningfully in politics. 

Even if one feels, from the standpoint of political science, that a two-party system provides the most stable foundation for the republic, one can still acknowledge a legitimate and dignified role for alternative parties in our political discourse.  Many of our allies have effective two-party systems while allowing other parties to compete in the marketplace of ideas as well as elections. 

If the aim of a new conservative party would be to supplant the Republican Party, elect a president, or take the Congress, then I would agree with Mr. Rich that those goals are quixotic.  If the aim was, on the other hand, to mount campaigns and introduce candidates prepared to make a case for conservative ideas and to criticize the Republican Party, and to provide conservative voters with a meaningful choice, that is not quixotic at all.  It enhances democracy and provides the establishment party with healthy competition. 

It continues to disappoint me that the Rachel Maddow Show gives short shrift to these values by ignoring, and occasionally disparaging (as Mr. Rich may have been doing), the smaller political parties trying to introduce a broader range of ideas into our political discourse.  This does not necessarily mean overthrowing the two-party system if that is seen as desirable.  A two-party system, in order to provide a meaningful choice, must represent a distinct dichotomy.  On some matters, our two dominant parties provide this choice, but Rachel Maddow has done terrific work showing how the political center has been pulled to the right.  This leaves voters with the choice of a center-right party and a hard-right party.  That is a two-party system that cannot represent the values and concerns of voters who lean left and would like to see a broader critique of how we approach economics, trade, class struggle, diplomacy, and military power. 

There is a danger that a two-party system with a monopoly on discourse becomes, in effect, a single-party system.  We may not be quite there yet, but it is my feeling that our system does not represent an adequate range of views or ideas for how to address our problems. 

Thank you for your work.  It's a very good show already, and with a more expansive view of our politics and the possibilities we have to organize ourselves and reform our system, I think the show would have even more to contribute.

Sincerely,




----------------------------------------------
[Image: a 19th century political cartoon by Thomas Nast]

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Raising Cain


In all our years as therapists, we have never met a boy who didn't crave his parents' love and others' acceptance and who didn't feel crippled by their absence or redeemed by their abundance.  Strong and healthy boys are made strong by acceptance and affirmation of their humanity.  We all have a chance to do that every day, every time we are in the presence of a boy and we have a chance to say to him, "I recognize you.  You are a boy -- full of life, full of dreams, full of feeling." 



Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of BoysRaising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson with Teresa Barker (2000)

A compelling study of biological and environmental influences on young males in our culture, and an impassioned case for reframing conceptions about boys and men. The major themes are the culture of cruelty that develops among children, some of the influences on that culture, and the power of emotional literacy in helping boys grow into empathic and secure men able to enter into intimate relationships. The book provides a good balance of research data with anecdotal material, and is written in terms easily accessible for the general reader.




[Image:  My son, age four.]

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Moral Arithmetic, Applying Ethics


It is clear to many, as Michael Zweig of U.S. Labor Against the War has written, that "Budgets are not just arithmetic documents.  Budgets are also moral documents."  Budgets reflect the choices we make as a society.  There is nothing necessary about who pays how much in taxes and who gets what benefits from spending.  The right's insistence that the military is sacrosanct and wars of choice, that murder untold victims, are necessary to fight something called "terrorism" - while we do all too little for jobless, homeless veterans, and other working-class people - is itself a choice.  This moral arithmetic matters, and so do the numbers.  Zweig says that the amount taxpayers spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011 was enough to have prevented all the deficits in all fifty states (and of course the loss of countless lives and untold suffering in those now-devastated countries).  Budgets, and how they are paid for, are political and moral choices that reflect class power.
 
Referring to budgets as moral documents does not originate with Professor Zweig, of course.  It is a frequent analogy, a sound one, and opens up the problem of participation.  Who gets to do the math?  If it is left to representatives, as in our republic, who watches them and what powers do we have over them?

The paragraph above appears in William K. Tabb's article in the current Monthly Review, adapted from a presentation he gave at the 2012  Left Forum in New York.  It appears in MR as the anniversary of the Occupy movement approaches.  There are some reports this weekend of a plan to surround the New York Stock Exchange for the anniversary.  Mostly, the media reflections so far speak of the movement in the past tense.  In an NPR story for All Things Considered this week, one participant from Occupy Boston described the movement as "a political Woodstock that went on a little bit too long." 

An interesting analogy. Was this not an insurrection after all, but a concert?  A work of theatre?  Is that what surrounding the New York Stock Exchange would be, as well?  Performance art?  Do we sum this up as a modern example of what Robert Brustein wrote in Revolution As Theatre ?

Although it may be argued that such incidents are dress rehearsals rather than actual performances (and therefore should not be prematurely judged) the truth is that many of these performances will never take place -- only endless previews before a safe audience that can be counted upon to tolerate the charade, if not actually to applaud it.  

Worse still, some of the people are simply watching the dress rehearsal -- spectators at a rehearsal of their rebellion.  And Brustein wrote that in 1970, a more hopeful time.

If the budget is a society's moral statement, and that moral statement is left entirely to our representatives (and those whom they truly represent), then it is not enough simply to blame class power.  Class power has always been a factor.  It is a call to participate.  To show interest, to seek out or demand information, to respond, and to get involved.  And, as needed, to resist.  That is our responsibility, according to our Declaration of Independence:

When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.


That was once the call to arms of Occupy Wall Street: to become participants, not merely subjects to a ruling class or a social order that does not care for them.   

If passing a budget is a moral statement, then we make a decision whom we allow to make that statement on our behalf and with our resources.  Our participation -- or non-participation as they case may be -- is a statement of our ethics. What are we willing to stand up for when the rehearsals are done and it's show time? 






[Image:  Occupy Wall Street.  Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]

Friday, September 14, 2012

Muslim protests coincide with a grim anniversary


Anti-American protests, many of them violent, that are spreading like a California wildfire at United States diplomatic missions across the middle east and northern Africa, have at this writing resulted in several deaths and scores of injuries.  As you have heard on the news, the protests have focused on a 14-minute trailer for an amateur film made in the U.S. that mocks the prophet Mohammad.  While there have been cinders on the ash for some time -- in Cairo, for instance, the United States is widely viewed as supporting Mubarak much too long before belatedly and perhaps cynically throwing its rhetorical support behind the Arab Spring -- the appearance of a film disrespecting Islam has proven an explosive catalyst.

On a side note, I'm not sure how closely I associate what happened in Benghazi with the other protests.  The attack on our embassy there resulted in the murder of our ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and other staff members there.  Witnesses, however, deny accounts that this attack emerged from a protest; there is some suggestion that this was a large-scale and premeditated attack.  It might have had to do with the anniversary of September 11 rather than the video itself.  The matter, however, is still being investigated, events are moving quickly, and new information is being revealed through these days.

People have taken to the streets in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Sudan, Indonesia, and Nigeria, denouncing the United States explicitly because of this strange video.   Some are adamant that the government must have been involved in its production.  Some call for the United States to punish the filmmakers, as would be done in their own countries.  And some reason that because the United States has not punished the filmmakers, this amounts to a state endorsement of the film.

So some of the discussion -- among those paid to discuss current events -- has been about the value of freedom of speech, to what extent this value is appreciated in the "arab world" (conceived almost as a different planet), and whether the United States could successfully "explain" or "teach" the concept of freedom of speech to people of the Islamist republics.  Some protesters understand it quite well, thank you, yet argue that this was an irresponsible use of that freedom, knowing it would touch off protests that can quickly spiral into riots.

Some of this sounds familiar. 

Nowhere yet have I seen it pointed out that this coincides very closely with the publication of the novel that touched off the grand master of all Islamist controversies: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses first appeared on 26 September 1988, twenty four years ago.  The letters and phone calls began almost immediately, and the long list of countries banning the book was initiated within a month.  The following February, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie as well as anyone involved in the translation, editing, and publication of the novel.  Several people were killed as a direct result, and several more survived assassination attempts.  Rushdie went into exile under 24-hour armed guard, changing residence every three days or so for several years.  It was the incident over which the UK and Iran severed diplomatic relations.

And despite the novel's considerable literary merit and critical acclaim, some argued that Rushdie brought this on himself, that he should have anticipated controversy.  (And done what?)  Some even held him personally responsible for those who died in riots and stampedes far, far away from London.  Some criticized Rushdie for accepting state protection from the government he had criticized -- using a logic that eerily parallels the logic by which some muslims condemned him for criticizing his family's religion.  (Rushdie was raised in a Muslim household, and thus his blasphemy made him an "apostate."  It's one thing if I criticize Islam; quite another for a muslim to do it.) 

On the occasion of Rushdie's knighthood in 2008, I wrote this post about my encounter with the book at the time of the riots and Rushdie's exile.

And next Tuesday, Rushdie's highly anticipated memoir of that period of exile, entitled Joseph Anton, is due to appear.



[Image: 1988 anti-Rushdie protest]

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Gabriel and the morning sun


This blog used to have a regular feature of photos of my son, Gabriel.  I won't go into the irritating story of how that got squelched. 

I'm running this photo because some images are just too beautiful to be pre-emptively censored. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Video: Busting the lies about Social Security


Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy



The lies about Social Security and Medicare persist in our political debate, and must be confronted.  I am happy to lend this space to that effort.

Here is Dean Baker, an economist whose work I follow, who appeared on a news program on September 5 to address the myths -- or let's call them lies -- about these two vitally important programs.


Defining Acting, Living in Truth


One of the courses I am teaching at NMSU this semester is an introduction to acting for non-theatre-majors.  Many of the students have little or no prior experience acting aside from, perhaps, high school plays.  Some of the students are majors at the film school and are required to take this course; others are electing to take it as a humanity, or perhaps are considering changing majors or adding a minor.  Some of the students are currently majoring in psychology, sociology, computer science, and more.  One student is planning to enter law school and thinks some exposure to acting would be helpful.

For this semester, I picked two texts for them to read that represent different eras and widely different styles and vocabulary about acting.   One is the Six Lessons of Richard Boleslavsky, which appeared in 1933.  The other is the Practical Handbook for the Actor, a book produced by six actors at the instigation of playwright David Mamet, with whom they had worked closely. 

Both books confront the problem of defining what the art and craft of acting is.  The difference in orientation and style between the two books is illustrated in their attempts at that definition. 

From Boleslavsky, the Polish actor and teacher who trained under Stanislavsky in Moscow:

Acting is the life of the human soul receiving its birth through art.

And from the drier and more secular Practical Handbook:

...to live truthfully under the imaginary circumstances of the play. 


Soul is one of those terms that means so many things to different people one might question its usefulness to this discussion.  If it is assumed to point at the matter of one's true self, then I think both of these statements point at the same reality.  How simply and honestly can the actor relate to the circumstances of the play?  Even within an elaborately researched and realized character, how authentically has the actor invested in the scene? 

In order to do a good job of pretending, the actor has to connect freely and truthfully with self.  This is why directors and acting teachers sometimes bark, "Stop acting!"

The Practical Handbook is a book that is often skimmed, and I think a lot of readers miss a very powerful statement that it makes about society's need for live theatre.  And look, there's that soul again! 

In our world it is becoming harder and harder to communicate with each other simply and honestly, on a gut level.  Yet we still go to the theatre to have a communion with the truth of our existence, and, ideally, we leave it knowing that that kind of communication is still possible.  The theatre can put forward simple human values in hopes that the audience may leave inspired to try to live by such values.  Seeing an individual doing his best against impossible odds and without regard to his fears allows the audience to identify that very capacity within themselves.  That iron will is the will of the actor bringing not some "magnificent performance" to the stage, but his own simple human values and the actions to which they drive him.  When truth and virtue are so rare in almost every area of our society the world needs theatre and the theatre needs actors who will bring the truth of the human soul to the stage.  The theatre may now be the only place in society where people can go to hear the truth.  


[Image: The studio where I teach my classes for NMSU's theatre department]

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11, Still


This piece first appeared on this blog on 10 September 2006, and was reposted one year ago today.  This is its third appearance on the blog.  At this year's memorial, the eleventh anniversary of the attacks, there was talk of beginning to move on from our shock at this event.  Meanwhile, drone attacks continue to kill people who cannot be verified as military or civilian targets in Pakistan, and President Obama has claimed unchecked discretion to target and destroy human beings at will, to a degree war criminals George W. Bush and Richard Cheney did not dare.  Perhaps this is moving on.  But moving on into what?



---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
It is still September 11.

On a walk with her Zen Master, a woman was moved to ask, "Why is there so much evil in the world?"

Without missing a beat, her teacher said: "Because of you."

Earlier today, something very terrible took place in our republic. It had never happened here before, but it had been happening and has been happening ever since, around the world. The rage and violence penetrated our defenses and brought down our illusion of safety from the madness. No longer could anyone feel like they weren't involved.

This sense of security reminds me of the wall that once surrounded a prince named Siddhartha. He grew up and lived in a huge palace compound, a remote fortress within a land that knew much suffering and injustice. When this prince was born, there had been a prophecy suggesting the boy might become a spiritual seeker instead of a king. Papa wanted none of that and kept his son a virtual prisoner of luxury and wealth, for fear that seeing what life was like outside the palace would change his son's consciousness and drive him to religious life.

Indeed, seeing what was beyond the walls hit the prince's mind like a bolt of lightning. When he scaled the walls out of sheer curiosity, he saw a land where rich and poor lived separate existences, where humans languished in desperate conditions, a land of violence, disease, poverty, old age, sickness - and death, the appointment everyone has and no one misses. Death comes no matter how good you are, rich you are, righteous you are, or healthy you are.

The human suffering touched the prince as deeply as anything could: there was no separation, no sense of insulation from human life. Time, he saw, is limited. He was involved. Involved with all of it. All of it.

Getting past the walls and seeing life as it truly is, a prince's mind is transformed by an enormous question. What is this? And the great awakening begins.

This is NOT the story of a person who lived a long time ago and became known as the Buddha. Forget it.

This is our prophecy. Yours and mine. Yep, you and me. It's our story.

Another way to handle our question is to build taller walls, to instill a better sense of security. Walls look like they should do that for us, so we build lots of them. We build gates and fences around our houses, we take our religions literally, and we bask in the cold shade of nationalism. We try to build bigger and bigger walls keeping us uninvolved with the rest of the world - the enemy. We speak of "our way of life," we believe we are right, and we see no need to look critically at our lives or our history - and least of all, our consciousness itself. Oh no. As best we can, we must prevent our consciousness from being changed.

Just as many Americans have consented to believe that dissent is tantamount to treason, we also have come to feel there is no role for compassion or non-violence at all in confronting terrorism, fanaticism, violent crime, oppression and viciousness. We turn to familiar refuges - martial law, militarism, nationalism. Those who make decisions on our behalf promise bigger, better walls. They can be forgiven for this. Walls are their business and walls have uses. It is the walls we don't see clearly that need to be climbed.

Hammers do what we do with them. A hammer cannot wake up, only the person wielding it. I am convinced there is no sane response to September 11 except to wake up. Nothing will make sense from this point on until there is a shift in consciousness.

There is no "post-September 11" world, there is only this moment and our sanctuary has been compromised. The walls stand for us to scale. Our assumptions stand for us to look at in the light and question. What is a human being? What are desire, anger, and ignorance? The choice is to accept our utter involvement in the wholeness of all life.

It is as if the air we breathe is on fire and we are pissing gasoline, wondering why we feel so hot.

Generation after generation, we kill one another because we don't understand what we are. From the beginning, we have embraced the suffering that afflicts us and denied every opportunity to wake up and try a different way. Those who have argued for a different approach are ignored. Those who will not be ignored are dispensed with. The walls stand.

The best we could possibly make of September 11 is to treat it like a temple bell in the center of the earth that tolls so loudly we wake up. Then we climb the walls and explore the territory of good, evil, and everything else we have made.

We are all princes and it is time for the bad news: we made the walls, we made the country, and we made the suffering. We even made us. (And I am not your friend, because I am making things right and left.) We made the whole painful thing. If we don't understand our involvement, we don't understand anything.

There is good news, though.

This is not intended as poetry. It will remain September 11 until we climb the wall. Nothing else will work.

If you have made it this far, I thank you sincerely for reading. Let us practice together. Let us look into the sources of evil - we can begin with the greed, anger, and delusion and seriously consider "Who's asking?" We are involved. Let us wake up.

We best honor our dead by making a vow to wake up and, from wherever we stand, stop believing insane things. A small cup of water will extinguish a wall of fire, whereas no amount of fire ever will.

I am a youngster and cannot teach you anything; but I will gladly hold hands and walk with you. One step. One step at a time.


[Image:  Traffic barriers near the U.S. consulate in Florence, Italy.]

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Gabriel's Match


In August, Gabriel began peewee soccer.  Our four year old certainly likes to run and feels rather spiffy wearing his shin guards.  He is in a group of 4-6 year olds, girls and boys, and although he sometimes grumbles about going to practice, once he's there he enjoys himself.

As their first game approached, an actual refereed match, the uniforms appeared.  Gabriel chose his number and very proudly displayed his bright green jersey emblazoned with the number 7.

On Saturday, the first game arrived.  And so did rain.  In fact, it was a blustery and cold day, the first of its kind all season, with rain overnight and the early morning, followed by a drizzle at the appointed time the 4-6 year olds were to face off on the field.

Among Gabriel's feline traits is a strong aversion to being cold and wet.  One of these may be tolerable, but the two together are simply unacceptable.  He wanted nothing to do with anything outside the house.  The spiffy shin guards and the heroic number 7 jersey gave him no encouragement.  His shorts -- the smallest size available -- would not hug his slender hips, requiring a special knot in the drawstring.  He stalked to the car in high dudgeon, and his grim demeanor was only lightened by us playing his favorite mambo CD as we drove across Deming to the soccer field near the fairgrounds.

The teeny soccer players wore sweatshirts or coats underneath their team jerseys, green and grey, and Gabriel wore his distinctive striped jacket and hood beneath his team regalia.  The referee lined them up, greens facing grey with a ball between them, and Gabriel stood with his arms straight down by his sides, hood inclined downward, his somber gaze on the ground, muscles tense against the cold wet sting of the air.  The referee blew his whistle and someone kicked the ball and the match was on as parents cheered and clapped from the sidelines, celebrating their children's athletic prowess.

Gabriel did not move from his spot.  Arms down, eyes down, utterly still.

We cheered and jumped and stomped and whistled and sang and chanted Gabriel's name.  He looked up and across the field at us with an incredulous expression on his face.  Are you kidding?  that face said.  I am cold.  I am wet.  What on earth are we doing outside?  

As the soccer match raged around him, the ball sometimes passing right by him, I was reminded of Ferdinand, the bull who was off smelling flowers while the other bulls practiced bullfighting.  It's not really a fair analogy: the spirit of the game was not so competitive -- they weren't keeping score.  The six year olds were the seasoned pros, dribbling and landing the goals.  No one got on Gabriel's case about his participation.  And he felt no pressure whatsoever, standing passively, straight and still as a goalpost, fortifying himself against the cold, stoic, trusting with all his four year old heart that eventually, surely, the foolish grownups in his life would come to their senses and everyone would go inside.

So he waited and the ball rolled and flew past him and children swarmed around him, through him, under and over him, and his blue eyes scanned the ground and the horizon and occasionally appraised us for any signs that we were getting the car keys ready.  Then his eyes would return to the ground.  Not yet.

Truth be told, by game's end, he touched that ball and graciously helped his team a bit.  A kick here and there, a trot or two when there seemed to be excitement in one corner of the field, but certainly nothing, definitely and assuredly nothing that hazarded any risk of falling onto the wet, muddy ground -- he had noted this risk, and wasn't about to beckon such a mishap.  If being cold and wet was unacceptable, being cold and wet while also having muddy hands pretty much constituted doomsday.

And eventually, the moment did arrive when everyone on the soccer fields -- the entire youth soccer league and parents and coaches and referees dancing about in shorts (shorts!)  -- finally came around to Gabriel's point of view.  Car keys jingled and the smallest children were grappled and everyone made for their cars and trucks to do what Gabriel knew we should have done an hour ago: go inside!

Maybe there would even be hot chocolate. 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

The Silence on Ecology


[Letter to E.J. Dionne, care of the Brookings Institution]

Dear Mr. Dionne,

Yesterday you were on NPR alongside David Brooks offering your observations about the Democratic National Convention last week.  One remark you made regarding President Obama's speech was sadly revealing.

You noted that the president mentioned climate change in his speech, and how rare this was since this had been a "dead issue," to use your phrase, since the mid-terms.  I would submit that it is the latter point, the silence on ecology, that is astonishing. 

If 75% of the United States were on fire, would we grow tired of talking about it?  Would reporters stop asking about the causes of the fire, containment, emergency relief, the response of fire teams, and the fire's consequences?  If 75% of the United States were on fire, would we get sick of arguing about it and "move on," ceding the issue to those who spread misinformation about the fire and deny that it is a problem?

Climate change is not some pet cause.  It is one aspect of a very serious and quite authentic crisis requiring immediate and long belated attention at a multi-lateral government level, as well as a domestic policy level.  The realistic discussion of ecology and human civilization is no longer about averting a catastrophe; we can only hope for a fact-based discussion of how to contain the consequences and prepare for a new era of environmental limits.

Are we incapable of this, in your view?  Is it not time to treat this seriously, as we watch crucial glaciers melt away, sea levels rise and temperatures change?  As the U.N. now grapples with the question of environmental refugees, forced to move from land that can no longer sustain them?  As oil and coal become more difficult and expensive to produce, and no sustainable alternative infrastructure yet exists?

If we are capable, what moves our elected officers toward having this conversation?

Most Sincerely,

Monday, September 03, 2012

Don't Forget Labor Day



This is an op-ed piece I wrote for the Deming Headlight in 2009, reprinted here on the occasion of Labor Day.

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Labor Day is always in danger of being forgotten in the midst of a busy three-day weekend. The NFL season is kicking off and there is time for one last barbecue, perhaps one last chance to take the kids to Lake Roberts, before we furrow our brows and set to the long march through autumn and our major holidays.

Veterans Day suffers a similar problem, hovering right in front of Thanksgiving, and yet the sacrifice made by soldiers on behalf of our country still grabs our attention. While political fashions come and go, the service a soldier offers to our country is faithful and unassailed. We do not easily forget them.

Labor Day is more vulnerable because the working joe does not occupy such a sacred place as the G.I. You or I might offer our seat to a serviceman, but what about the nurse who worked mandatory overtime last night? Less likely.

Even so, the history of labor in America reminds us that civilians have also been called to serve their country with valor and sacrifice. Many have even made the ultimate sacrifice. Working stiffs, without military training or equipment, have died to establish and defend some of the basic freedoms we hold dear. They died not on faraway battlefields like our champions in the armed forces, but on home soil and often in their own workplaces. Many were called to action by witnessing the death or injury of their friends and family members in sweat shops with locked fire escapes or buried in badly shored mines.

The custom of a working day limited to eight hours was won, lost, and won again through years of political struggle, years of labor strikes that were often answered with deadly violence. The concept of a weekend was enough to get you labeled unpatriotic and run out of town.

Labor Day recalls a time when organizing our peers and bargaining with our employers was illegal. Anyone involved with a union or speaking of workers’ rights could be denounced as a Communist and a traitor to their country. Those who worked in mines or produced iron and steel, those who made our clothing, those who laid the rails and conducted our trains, those who loaded and unloaded cargo at our ports, those who built our automobiles and airplanes, and many more, were collectively punished with lockouts, blacklists, and “yellow-dog contracts” that forced them to promise never to join a union. When these measures failed to squash demands for living wages and time off, and employees continued to demand safe workplaces and other simple justices, some of our largest employers unleashed Pinkerton guards or even opened fire on them.

In today’s politics, it is common to speak of labor unions with cynicism. Unions are not always perfect or upright, but they came into being out of human necessity. In 1882, President Grover Cleveland warned the nation that “corporations, which should be the carefully restrained creatures of the law and the servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.” Has this concern been laid to rest yet? Do Presidents of our time dare speak as frankly as President Cleveland did? Profit rarely yields to human need, and so the brave will continue to be called to defend the interests of people against monopoly.

Labor Day deserves an honored place, alongside Veterans Day, as a patriotic day of remembrance of those who put themselves on the line for our benefit. May we honor the Americans who asked for justice and were fired, called foul names, and were physically assaulted or sent to prison. May we solemnly remember events such as the massacre in the Reading valley, the Haymarket affair, and the Ford Massacre at Dearborn.

Let us take note, also, that those who promote reform on behalf of working people have always been called traitors, Communists, fascists, and even Nazis. It is a predictable tactic designed to confuse and divide us. We can do better than that.

If history and politics don’t interest you, it is also a day to appreciate our neighbors and their labors. Our rough hands, broken nails, and worn shoes are works of art.






Making History



The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

From a New York Times magazine article by Ron Suskind in 2004.  The anonymous statements were subsequently attributed to Karl Rove.

What are the prospects for dialogue with those who choose their own reality?