Saturday, February 28, 2009

Deming Zen Group blog

Hi there,

Created a new blog for news related to the new Zen Group, and some of the more dharma-based postings here. This will remain a place for your Gabriel fix, thoughts on politics, and mad musings on life.

For the Zen stuff, hop on over to the Deming Zen Group blog.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Family Portrait

Valentine's Day 2009

Deming Zen Group update

The garage has been swept clean of cobwebs and dust, and yesterday a new buddha arrived. I lucked out and found him on Ebay, no one else bid on him, and so I got him very cheaply.

Might make him gold, or just leave him deathly white, who knows.

This weekend, five folks interested in sitting here are going to come over, see the space, meet me in person, and we'll talk about schedule and logistics. We are getting underway.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Is Blogger An Al-Qaeda Front??

I just left a comment on a friend's blog and the word verification I had to type in was sharia.

Call Rush, Hannity, Michelle Malkin, all of them. This will provide them with their unsubstantiated smear du jour: a major hub of the blogosphere revealing its secret connection to the evil scourge of Islam. They might even get some Washington Republicans from Congress in on it, the way they roped some of them into their loony conspiracy theories about Obama's citizenship.

Wait -- what's this? I just left another comment and the word verification was SOCIALISM!

Let me try another one. Oh my God! The word verification was PAUL_IS_DEAD!

Number 9...number 9...number 9...number 9...number 9...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Richard Jenkins and the Oscars

We don't have cable here at Casa D'Ammassa, and have no plans to subscribe. We are DVD people and don't even have to worry about the switch to digital broadcasting.

Richard Jenkins is the real deal. He came to Rhode Island four decades ago as an apprentice actor at the Trinity Repertory Company, my hometown theatre. One of the great sorrows of American theatre is that Jenkins, honest to god, loves making movies more than he likes being on stage. It is a great personal solace that as a child I saw him in a few roles on stage, including his unforgettable turn as Eddie in Sam Shepard's Fool For Love. Jenkins commanded that stage like a tiger on a threadbare leash.

Jenkins not only has talent, he has the discipline and work ethic that could give acting a good name if he got the celebrity attention. He never moved to Los Angeles: he still lives in Cumberland, Rhode Island (near Providence Zen Center, as a matter of fact) with his wife Sharon, and sometimes turns up in the audience at Trinity. He came to see our production of Shaw's Saint Joan in 1999 and paid me a compliment -- I can name the date. I was high for days. He made a successful film career without leaving his community.

Richard Jenkins, who I still think of as a Trinity Rep company member, nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. How about that. He is up against Sean Penn and other glamorous people.

I'm not betting on him beating Sean Penn, but if he did, good for the Academy. Richard Jenkins is the kind of actor I wish more people knew about.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Cartoon

One of my fourth graders let the pejorative faggot slip into a classroom discussion, and the room sort of lurched the way it does when somebody says something and no one is sure what is about to happen.

For my part, I asked the boy if he knew what that word meant. He shook his head. To him, it was a vague insult word like "fool." Some of the kids knew its more specific connotation and some didn't. So we talked about it. I introduced the word, its various old meanings, and how it is used against homosexuals. No one was chastised in this conversation. I told the lad (who was a little embarrassed) I just wanted him to know, so he could choose his words with care.

It's a matter of cultural education.

Sean Delonas, a cartoonist whose cartoons appear in the New York Post, evidently could use some cultural education himself. He has apparently passed through his adult life so far without noticing that a common racist stereotype through the history of cartooning is to depict black people as chimpanzees, gorillas, and other simians. This is why his cartoon appearing in the Post this week startled and repulsed so many readers.

You may have heard about the cartoon. I am loathe to clip it and print it here, but it shows two policeman and a chimpanzee they have just gunned down. The main reference is to a recent news story about a chimp attack: some madwoman gave her pet chimpanzee Xanax and the animal mauled one of her friends, forcing police to shoot the chimp. However, the cartoon causes the room to make that awful lurch when Delonas has one of the policeman say, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

If we give Delonas the benefit of the doubt and assume his humor was not intended to be racist, we are left to consider him tasteless and ignorant. The stimulus bill is closely identified with President Obama (who else do you think of when someone mentions it?). His image is thus evoked in a cartoon showing a chimpanzee that has been gunned down.

"Absolutely friggin' ridiculous," says Delonas in response to the immediate firestorm over the cartoon.

The Post has made more than one response to the protests, including an apology to anyone who was offended, that show either a willful sidestepping of the issue or a complete lack of cultural sensitivity. The paper insisted the cartoon was about the chimp attack in the news. When it acknowledges the reference to Obama, the Post merely says it is making fun of "an ineptly written stimulus bill."

Um, this is ignoring the elephant in the room. Or rather, the chimpanzee in the room.

It is easy to point a finger and call someone a racist. Delonas might be, but again -- benefit of the doubt. It could be a simple case of ignorance. Maybe he really doesn't understand the relationship in our history between cartoons of chimps and attacks on African-Americans, or the spectre of assassination that looms over Obama.

Other cartoons by Delonas are on the internet, and I looked at many of them. He targets gays, transgenders, celebrities and politicians he does not like, with humor that is often so juvenile I wince with embarrassment for him.

His response is to dismiss the concerns as "absolutely friggin' ridiculous." My fourth grader, on the other hand, was embarrassed but mainly grateful to know. He was lucky to get his instruction in a classroom among friends. It is time for someone close to Mr. Delonas to sit him down with some historic cartoons and give the man some background. It probably wouldn't change Delonas's sense of humor, but at least he could no longer plead ignorance.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Cat Ran Off

Occurs to me this morning that I haven't given you all an update on Schroeder, the twitchy black cat Sarah adopted as a kitten, who grew up to become a MySpace blogger and a protector deity to our newborn baby.

Schroeder appeared to take our move to New Mexico well and was reconciled to the addition of a baby human in the household, provided he still got to snack on salsa occasionally. We got him new toys that he seemed to like.

One day in September, he left a fecal offering on the kitchen floor and Sarah put him outside so she could clean up. She heard him meow. And during the time Sarah swabbed the floor with vinegar, Schroeder ran off. It was that abrupt. He was there, he was gone.

We walked the neighborhood, including the alleyways between blocks where the trash is collected. We drove around. Friends or family members would tell us they saw a black cat, and we'd look. But no Schroeder.

We gave him up for dead. Schroeder was a spoiled indoor cat who dreamed himself a deadly panther, yet cowered in fear from spiders. How could such a creature survive out there with large dogs, pickup trucks, freight trains, and lots of spiders?

This month, however, Sarah discovered Schroeder alive and well, right in our neighborhood, sniffing around our neighbor's yard. She called to him and he sauntered away. He has a new home around the corner. He might have thumbed his nose at her, if he had a thumb.

Just like him! That's Schroeder to a tee.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Polanski and Peanuts

Nice people do bad things.

Anyone can screw up -- and maybe even on purpose.

Something was bothering me about the recent activity concerning Roman Polanski's legal case, and I am glad someone from wrote about it. Something doesn't sit right about a fugitive from the law, who was guilty of the crime for which he was convicted, trying to negotiate a consequence-free dismissal of his case. Granted, his victim has herself called for the case's dismissal -- but this isn't how it works. It is not the tragic tale of an innocent man.

"This is somebody who could not be a rapist!" protested one of the film-maker's friends, and yet Polanski fled the country to avoid jail time after being convicted of raping a 13-year girl in 1978. There may have been some judicial misconduct in the case, a deal to keep him out of jail suddenly getting scrapped, but the trial itself, his confession, the conviction, and what Polanski did with the child are not in dispute. He drugged and raped a child, yet he "could not be a rapist."

It is a difficult, difficult thing to see someone you love and admire, a good friend or perhaps someone even closer to you, revealed in a darker aspect. There are funny, attractive people who make fantastic neighbors -- and are entirely capable of the worst crimes.

For instance, this week I have been reading news stories about Stewart Parnell, the owner of Peanut Corp. of America. This man's company is behind the salmonella outbreak in thousands of food products containing his peanuts. He had earlier problems with toxic mold, pesticides, and salomnella. Sometimes this led to previous recalls. There is hard evidence in this case that Parnell knew his factory was infested with roaches, rats, and had a roof leaking rainwater and bird dung onto his product. When his peanuts tested positive for salmonella, he went lab-shopping to get a negative test result, and complained about the time and money this process required. He knowingly shipped peanuts that had tested positive for salmonella, according to evidence that continues to come to light. Hundreds of people became ill and nine people have died.

And yet, with little to write about (Parnell didn't answer any questions at his Congressional hearing and has not been hauled before a court of law, so he has holed up in his luxurious home to hide from reporters), the press gives us vapid interviews with friends and neighbors. Yet we hear "He's one of the nicest guys in the world." Right, and Polanski couldn't be a rapist.

It is only natural that our friends and neighbors have a good impression of us. I am willing to believe Mr. Parnell is a loving father to his children, even though he has caused the death of other people's children. (I wonder if he would have allowed his own kids to dip into the peanuts in that plant and eat them?)

But unless the evidence misleads, he did a terrible thing, and that counts just as much as him being a nice guy who compliments you on your landscaping or tells you your children are beautiful. Polanski made some great movies, but his greatest movie doesn't reduce the vileness of what he did to a child thirty years ago.

When actors consider character work, we sometimes engage in an ancient debate about the essence of a person's character. Are we what we dream we are, or what we try to be, or are we what we do? Aristotle made an enduring argument that we are what we do. That may be an excessive reduction. Still, what we do matters heavily -- and it is often the first thing we are tempted to overlook in ourselves, or our friends.

Balancing Acts

Came across something lovely in this 1976 article about shamanism by Barbara G. Meyerhoff:

"I first became aware of the significance of the shaman's need for exquisite balance in my contact with the Huichol Indians of North Central Mexico several years ago. For some time I had been working with a Huichol mara'akame or shaman priest named Ramon Medina Silva. One afternoon, without explanation, he interrupted our sessions of taping mythology to take a part of Huichols, personal friends, and myself, to an area outside of his home. It was a region of steep barrancas, cut by a rapid waterfall, cascading perhaps a thousand feet over jagged, slippery rocks. At the edge of the fall, Ramon removed his sandals and announced that this was a special place for shamans. He proceeded to leap across the waterfall, from rock to rock, frequently pausing, his body bent forward, his arms outspread, head thrown back, entirely birdlike, poised motionlessly on one foot. He disappeared, re-emerged, leaped about, and finally achieved the other side. I was frightened by the performance, but none of the Huichols there seemed at all worried...

"'The mara'akame must have superb equilibrium,' he said, and demonstrated the point by uising his fingers to march up his violin bow. 'Otherwise, he will not reach his destination and will fall this way or that,' and his fingers plunged into an imaginary abyss. 'One crosses over. it is very narrow and, without balance, one is eaten by those animals waiting below.'"

My conception of the shaman had been somewhat technological, like a human transmitter, a traveller between different spaces in human consciousness. My imagination was making the matter more complicated than anything really is. To think of it as simple equilibrium, a simple balancing act, feels more truthful somehow. Artists are concerned with one aspect of the shaman's calling, and that feels very much like an act of balance and equilibrium.

Yesterday, I reviewed a videotape of one of my theatre classes to receive notes and to reflect on my own competence. I watched myself (sick but still energized) trying to navigate several sides around a chasm, not as agile as the shaman but managing, trying to teach children the essential nature of our myths and notions, that we may use them well.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Red-Baiting On Health Care Getting Old

During the past week, I have had a little bit of time to lie on my back. Sometimes people ask me how I'm feeling, and I have not offered a simple answer. I'm not dead. I trust the antibiotic is killing the infection in my right lung. The medicines I am taking have side effects that make me feel a bit unwell.

While recovering from my medicine and following my doctor's command to rest, I have been reading a history of the American labor movement from the Civil War to the Eisenhower Administration. Some of the events that have taken place in labor relations are truly stunning. People who called George W. Bush things like "the worst president in history" might not know we have had presidents who allowed the national guard and the United States army to be deployed against citizens, as strike-breaking forces. Today, we complain about corporate bonuses and other excessive spending by corporations. How many of us recall Ford turning machine guns on its own employees who were striking for the eight-hour day?

One tried and true tactic against progress has been the red scare, a play still very much in use today. With the eight-hour day and living wage, there come a point where the public simply rejected the idea that decent working conditions and reasonable pay was a Communist ideal.

Perhaps, at last, it will be the same with American health care. A new poll suggests that maybe, just maybe, public opinion is warming to the idea of government involvement in health care, and turning away from the ongoing red-baiting and fear-mongering about it. (Today subsidized pharmacies, tomorrow bread lines and gulags!!)

Let us be cautiously optimistic.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fun With Medicines

Ran home from the pharmacy with my little bag, receipt stapled to it in a beautiful bundle, like some fresh fish just-wrapped at the butcher shop, and I ran home like a starving urchin to ravage the hand-proof bottle caps and BEGIN THE DAMNED HEALING PROCESS ALREADY.

Hello, my little superhero friends! The bacteria has a head start on you, I am afraid, so I think I'll go ahead and TAKE ALL THREE OF YOU AT ONCE!



And GULP, by Circe!

That's when Abraham Lincoln looked at one of my bottles and said, "Cipro. Now wait, I may have heard wrong through my one good ear, but I think this is stuff they were giving anthrax victims in Washington in 2001..." At that moment, the bottle crawled out of his hand and snuggled up to the coffee maker, adopting it as his mother.

Baby Gabriel clucked and spat, and tugged at the carpet until it flew up and stood parallel to Lincoln's silhouette for an instant before the shadow flew away on brittle wing snaps, two crow feathers falling in his wake, which is always how Lincoln leaves me. Alone with the monkeys out in the side yard, starting their mad barking a little early today.

I had to sit down.
Gabriel giggled and flew into the air as I passed beneath searching for the bed, where is the bed, I need to lie down right away, can't find my - what is this - no, no, this is Sarah's car. I've gone outside!

"Lost, fella?" I turned to the left and it was Hondo, all faded WarnerColor goodness. "My bed," said I, "I think I was a little overzealous with the monkeys."

"I know how that is," said Hondo with a shrug. "Here, step into my tent."

I did, wonderful burlap-sage-burnt smelling tent, and down I crashed through buttery jade leaves and sandpaper cat tongues while the nurses pulled my bed up around me and I hung from the fireplace snug in my bedstocking content to sleep til shambhala.

Callooo! Callay!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bronchitis & Early-Stage Pneumonia

They make a great comedy team -- really, they'll KILL ya.

Playing an extended engagement in my body. Come on over and enjoy.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The RNC Chairman Says I Am Jobless

My mood is pretty low. I have been sick for such a long time, with a sinus infection or virus that just won't go away, lots of work to do and no energy for it. A student was injured in my class last week, which made for the worst day of my life. I then had to leave for a 2-day conference in Santa Fe of arts educators, and I experienced the event through a haze of cold medicine and illness.

This isn't an invitation to a pity party, just letting you know times are not cheerful. Moreover, the newly elected chairman of the Republican National Committee says I don't have a job!

Here is the chairman of one of our national parties on George Stephanopoulos's show this weekend: "Not in the history of mankind has government ever created a job."

Hmmm. I wonder how these things turned up...

To say nothing of bridges, buildings, sewer systems, tunnels, the submarines that kept so much of my home state employed for so long, and -- well, it's a pretty long list. Yet Michael Steele, chairman of one of our two national parties, one of two parties we allow to participate in national politics, says those jobs don't count because they come from government.
"A job," he said, "Is something that a business owner creates."

Stephanopoulos no doubt wondered if he had heard right. "A job doesn't count if it's a government job?"

Steele: "If you've got a government contract that is a fixed period of time, it goes away. The work may go away."

Yet jobs "go away" for all kinds of reasons - and 600,000 went away in the past month. Business owners employ huge numbers of people on a contractual, rather than a permanent, basis. This man has nothing sensible to say about jobs, and yet he is on TV with George Stephanopoulos. This, friends, is one of two political parties we permit in Congress, while keeping other parties out.

I ask this question frequently, and it stands: Why do we assume these are the only two political parties competent to address the people's business? Why are must we embrace "bipartisan" efforts incorporating insane and discredited ideas? Isn't there a point where we grant higher status to good information and sensible ideas, and dismiss the stupid and incorrect? The assumption that the only solutions to a sluggish economy can come exclusively from the owner class is wrong, disproven, documented, and put away.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Off to Santa Fe...

The district is sending me to a 2-day conference on arts education up in Santa Fe, so this blog will be silent for a couple of days.

Want me to pick up anything for you while I'm there?

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Marijuana Quadrille

Michael Phelps, the great Olympic swimmer who took home, what, five hundred medals?? at the most recent Olympic games, is doing the "Mea Culpa" stroke with a fury to as many media outlets as he can reach. Here's one.

A British tabloid, using journalism to make the world a better place as always, published a photograph of Phelps smoking marijuana with a pipe at some party in November. Consternation and uproar, Phelps called it "a mistake," regrets behaving "in a youthful and inappropriate way," and called what he did "bad judgment."

The U.S. Olympic Committee could have left this alone. Marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug, and he is not competing in an Olympic games currently. But no, the U.S. Olympic Committee expressed disappointment in his "behavior." They slapped him for failing his duty as a role model.

If the picture of Phelps at that party had shown him with a beer in his hand, would we be talking about this? The U.S. Olympic surely wouldn't, since the 2008 games were sponsored by TWO beer companies: Anheuser-Busch (makers of Budweiser) and the Chinese brewery Yanjing.

Here is another story about our hypocritical preoccupation over pot. And folks, just so you know where I'm coming from, I don't like the stuff. I've tried it enough times to know it does nothing for me. The crap stuff does nothing but stoke an appetite for junk food, and the really really good stuff makes me feel sick and removes my ability to speak coherently. I don't like pot and wouldn't seek it out even if it were legal.

Yet the way we speak of this herb, this naturally-occurring plant that has scientifically acknowledged medicinal value and also has, for many, recreational value, is silly. We are constantly being reminded that we have to fear pot, that smoking a doob is a chute to crystal meth and gang membership, that it is a moral failure to put this herb in a pipe and smoke it.

Phelps's athletic performance was used, in part, to promote alcohol consumption. Now he's prostrating himself before our mercy for puffing some grass in private?

This weekend, a young woman here in Deming lost her life when she rolled her pickup. Melissa, her name was; she worked at the Wells Fargo bank just down the street from us. The police are saying alcohol was involved in the accident. This happens every day in every city in the United States, but we don't see celebrities answering to their drinking habits in the press.

Considering the actual dangers and effects of pot, it should be legal if the wine I drink is legal; and if Michael Phelps enjoys it, he should have it. And you and I really ought to shut up about it. I'll start.

. . .

P.S. I could have gone with a different photograph of Phelps, sure, but it's Tracy's birthday this week. Oh, Tracy, you can click on the picture to enlarge. Bwa ha ha.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Building A New Zen Room, Day One

Five months ago, I put a note in the window of the neighborhood used book store inviting people to come sit Zen with me, and leaving my phone number. Last week, someone called, and suddenly there are anywhere from 3 to 6 people interested in trying out a regular sitting group.

Suddenly, I needed a space. There was no way we were going to fit on the front porch -- and my cushions were getting saturated with dust sitting out there anyway. Sarah and I both spoke to our landlord about the garage in our backyard, a structure used for storing lawn equipment and other things, and was not part of our lease. They thought about it and agreed to rent it, and within a day they had cleared it out and swept.

The first day's work was primarily about dust abatement and cobwebs. The place does not smell of gasoline, and does not even have a driveway. It is set well back from the street in a backyard conducive to walking meditation. I attacked layers of dust with brooms, cleaning agents, and electric vacuum. It was a good first scrub, leaving the air breathable although a couple more assaults will be necessary.

The floor is cold concrete, cracked and uneven in places. The whole floor will eventually be covered with a layer of foam and area rugs on top. Today, we laid the first rug down just to get some cushions in and see where we were. Even on the one rug, we can seat five.

Rustic, but it's a start. There are no windows, of course, but during the day with the door open, sunshine comes in and the view opens to the yard. Besides softening and warming the floor, some other aesthetic touches are indicated: dress those studs with some plain fabric, get some decor up, and maybe spruce up the altar accoutrements. What I had on hand is more or less a travel kit:

Ordered a cheap singing bowl from and scoped out bargain supplies on the internet.

Even if no one ever comes, and that is always a possibility, it feels good to have a place where I can do the chanting service again. Chanting is certainly not indispensable, but it is a useful meditation practice, sets a tone for sitting, and is rather pleasant. Heck, it's just nice to hang my robes on a hook again...