Monday, November 30, 2009

On Tenderness and Icons

It is sometimes very moving to observe my son exploring objects. He treats things not only with interest, but with tenderness. It goes deeper than simply hugging his cute stuffed animals, the way he buries his face into them.

The tenderness toward objects starts with his fascination over all the sensory information he gets from things. He compares the relative weights of different objects. He is exploring textures, shapes, soft versus hard, and the sounds things can make. His brand new sensory gates are wide open and everything, literally, is teaching him. The intersection of his body with material objects is very clear to see. We stop noticing this later on in our development, as we impose filters on our experience; many of us achieve a tragic sort of adulthood where we hardly notice or feel anything. Gabriel’s experience of himself and his environment is so vibrant right now, I sometimes feel as though I’ve been asleep for years.

Different objects, for periods of time, are selected for extra time and attention by Gabriel. A plastic toy screw. A stone. One of mama’s slippers. He cherishes these objects, often pulling them out and examining them all over again in loving detail.

Today, in class, I felt something in my back pocket and pulled it out to discover that I was holding a red plastic ring that is one of Gabriel’s favored objects lately. In an instant, I was overcome with the same tenderness Gabriel shows to things.

What’s important to remember is that the objects change. A red plastic ring is not magically charged with this affection for life; Gabriel himself will have moved on to another object as soon as this evening. An adult mistake is to think the ring is what is special, but that’s not it. "It" has to do with the transmission of this tenderness for life – it just happens that a plastic ring may serve as a reminder. So might a wedding band. Or a ribbon. Or some small gift from a loved one. It doesn’t matter.

Moreover, it’s not about a person, either. The person is no more special than the stuffed donkey or the favorite stone. We’re here for a while and soon return to dust. While we are here, though, a person may also serve as a reminder.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hail Stones and the Sangha Gem

This morning, it was gray and chilly.

By 11:30, half an hour before practice, it was raining and I figured that no one was likely to show up. My Sunday regulars come by foot and in inclement weather it would not be a surprise if they stayed home.

At 11:45, the hail started coming down. I was in the garage, getting the place ready for practice all the same. The hail stones hitting the tin roof made a roaring sound. Nah, they wouldn't come; I'd be practicing alone today, for sure.

Wrong. Just as I lit up the altar, here came John. The hail had let up but the rain was still coming down. We rolled down the garage door to give the space heater a chance at warming us up. A few minutes into our chanting, Howard showed up, rolled up the door, came right in and grabbed a chanting book.

With the door down, the only light in the place was from oil lamps and a single bulb -- we were almost chanting by candle light.

It was a little chilly, perhaps, but no worse than Diamond Hill Zen Monastery when the furnace goes out. We did our practice, and then went into the house for ginger tea.

It was kind of moving that these guys came out. They both sit on their own every day, so it's not as if they needed to come here to practice zazen. But they came out, despite the bad weather -- for me.

That's sangha.

[Photo: the garage that is the home of Deming Zen Group.]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Between Occultism and Farce

Or, "Encounters with Mythology and Technology."

Perhaps my favorite scholar is Joscelyn Godwin, a musicologist who has written fascinating books about music, renaissance art, and the occult. If we ever had a really bookish President, Godwin might be awarded a citizens' medal for translating the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili into English.

In the second chapter of Godwin's Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (1987), he relates certain occult studies of fairies or, more formally, 'elementals,' who are "beings made from the subtle essences of the elements, rather than from the physical matter that constitutes our own bodies."

It's a beautiful mythology in that it posits that every particle of matter in our universe possesses a divine spark, that consciousness permeates everything. From this belief in elementals, as defined above, there arises notion that as human beings manipulate our environment (forging tools from metal, for instance), elemental beings get captured and held there in bondage. Anthroposophists describe a cycle of life in which elementals are continually being imprisoned in and freed from matter, as matter changes.

It gets more interesting, with regard to music. There is a body of 'fairy lore' associating elementals with music and the powers of music. It is even said by some that when a composer organizes music, his or her Ego is summoning elementals into a state of enchantment. When the music is performed, the influence of these elementals is conveyed to air and water spirits who convey the music to a listener. When the music reaches the inner ear of the listener, the spirits are freed from enchantment.

The encounter of this theory with modern technology is delightful and fascinating:

The inevitable question, which could not have arisen before Edison's phonograph (1877), is, What happens when the tones are reproduced mechanically via a record or tape? Rudolf Steiner, speaking in 1923 shortly before his death, had condemned the gramophone as a source of music. Of course the gramophone of that time could only produce a travesty of live music, but according to his follower Ernst Hagemann the rejection was more than aesthetic. In an extraordinary passage on the borderline between occultism and farce, Hagemann solemnly described his own research with various clairvoyantly gifted people in order to find out what happens to the elementals' function when music is mechanically reproduced. Not every detail was satsifactorily explained, but the concensus of several clairvoyants working independently was as follows.

On applying their second sight to the surfaces of gramophone records, they found them thronged with elemental forms - all dead. Looking through a magnifying glass, they could see even more of them! These, they said, are the lifeless replicas of the elementals who were constellated in the air, entered the microphone, and were 'shadowed' upon the record matrix during the original live performance. In order to carry over these dead copies into the physical world via the reproducing device, one needs the cooperation of other, living elementals - tiny Gnomes, to be precise - whom the clairvoyants were able to perceive in the diamond or sapphire stylus. (One recalls that gemstones are traditionally associated with these earthy spirits.) Through the Gnomes' agency, the very same kinds of elementals - presumably Sylphs and Undines - could be seen emerging from the loudspeakers as had originally been captured in the recording process.

Friday, November 27, 2009

An Interview with the Burning House

[You Have Five Minutes will be broadcast on KUNM and on its website on Sunday at 6:00 PM mountain time. The program features several short plays, including two by your humble correspondent. On Friday, I sat down for this interview with myself, and found myself a rather boring conversationalist. But I hope you listen to the plays anyway.]

Two of your plays are part of this broadcast on KUNM this Sunday. Do you think anyone will actually listen?

I suspect more people enjoy radio than you realize. Drama, music, and news. Radio drama is fun to write, because you can do anything and you don't have to worry about your budget. It's fun to listen to because you don't have to wait for scenery changes -- you fill it in yourself with your imagination. Listening to radio is a creative act, and we are designed to be creative.

Do you have special plans for a listening party or anything on Sunday?

If I had known that "You Have Five Minutes" would be broadcast on November 29, I would have been tempted to write something in honor of the sham elections in Honduras, which are going ahead as scheduled on Sunday.

Before we get to your silly little plays, why are you so interested in Honduras? Why do you keep bringing it up?

It amazes me that there is so little coverage of this even in so-called left-leaning media. Because the entire hemisphere is calling this a coup d'etat. A coterie of upper-class citizens and politicians who have political issues with their President suddenly flew him out of the country at gunpoint this summer, and then started suppressing independent news media and cracking down on citizen dissent. While we were getting all misty-eyed at cell phone videos from Iran, this was going on in our own hemisphere and Obama had nothing to say about it. It now appears we were tacitly supporting it.

Why would we do that?

Oh I don't know, maybe because we're afraid of socialism catching on. President Zelaya veered to the left, and associated Honduras with the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. It's not hard to guess why Honduran capitalists wanted him out -- it's a legitimate political conflict. That does not make the process legitimate. The suppression of free speech and peaceful assembly in Honduras continued well into the period that would be needed for legitimate electoral politics. This election is a show, just as much as my plays. It's theatre. These are not legitimate elections.

Are your two plays political at all?

One play is a farce on a political theme, and the other is a traditional science-fiction vignette.

The first one is called Simulated Drowning, which was the Bush administration's euphemism for a torture technique known as waterboarding. The phrase is Orwellian, because there is nothing simulated about the drowning. You could call it "controlled drowning," I suppose.

You wrote a comedy about torture?

Not at all. I wanted to make fun of the way Americans talked about torture in the news media, and how I imagined that played out in living rooms among ordinary Joes. The play is about two goofballs who have had a little too much beer and start arguing about waterboarding, the way we debated it over the last year -- "is it torture?" and that whole quadrille.

It's perfectly safe to listen: no one gets tortured, and I don't make torture the object of humor. It's really about the fumbling way some of us Americans talk about important issues. I am concerned that media personalities are training us to talk about politics in senseless ways.

All right then. What about this other play?

It's a science-fiction story. I read an article about the automobile industry's research into artificial intelligence and future generations of talking cars. The idea for this story appeared. Technology, human nature, the concept of compassion. It also gave me a chance to put a Zen Buddhist character into a drama who is not a stereotype -- he's not a kung-fu master or an Asian wizard or anything special, just a guy.

Thanks for this scintillating conversation.

Up yours, too.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Different View on Taxation

Taxes as "together action."

The Thanksgiving Question

Nathan did a fine job with his post today.

Along with the second G, there is the "Gratitude Question." Everyone from famous media figures to guests at my in-laws' are prompted to testify, at some point today, about something they are grateful for.

I am grateful for the guy who showed up to practice last night. We still practice in my garage, which is not heated. It was a chilly night last night. This guy came out with hat and gloves, ready to sit, no problem. He could have sat at home -- he does, every day. But he came for me.

That's sangha. I am ever grateful for sangha, and for the vow we share.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Carl Kasell's Final Newscast!?

I still have not gotten over NPR's virtual dismissal of Bob Edwards back in 2004.

Now this! Carl Kasell, another unmistakable voice on NPR, will give his last newscast on December 30.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fall Hits Hemlock

Fall has fallen on Deming. This is our block, covered with leaves. Luna County is a nice place for enjoying autumn. We get the tactile sensations of changing colors, crunching footsteps, and the smells of earth getting ready for winter, yet it is warm outside, so you can enjoy the sunshine as you throw your boy into piles of leaves. By the time the chill hits your bones, it's well into the night and there is no reason to turn down a cup of hot chocolate before bed.

Unemployment here is so heavy, one frequently sees people going door to door looking for yard work or other odd jobs. We have a 17-year old neighbor who recently had a baby -- by the way, teenage pregnancies are also very high in our county -- and she is need of cash. Her daughter's father is, um, not around. She asked my wife if she could rake up our leaves for a few dollars. We said yes, and so she came over with a friend of hers and the two did a rapid and thorough job. (We plan to leave gifts of baby wipes and Mylicon at her doorstep, too.)

Deming remains a windy city (another reason, perhaps, that in its early days as a railroad village, it was given the nickname "New Chicago"), and no doubt there will soon be more work to do. Not today, however. There are deadlines, there are pressures, and more leaves a-falling, and the sorrows are weighing rather heavy, lately; but let's take a moment today for something more important.

Like, for instance, fastening clothespins onto my son.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Imprecatory Fashion

An imprecation is a curse.

Imprecatory prayer is a plea for God to strike down an evil person or people.

A typical case from the Bible has David, as related in Psalm 35, righteously calling for God's vengeance when he, David, was surrounded by enemies. Not to glorify David, mind you, but to glorify God Himself via some good, righteous, holy ass-whooping.

There is lately an American fashion in imprecatory prayer against the current President of the United States. We see people wearing t-shirts or slapping bumper stickers on their cars saying, "Pray For Obama -- Psalm 109:8."

That's pretty cute. Read the Psalm. "May his days be few, may another take the place of his leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow." (109:8-9)

In other words, calling on God to assassinate a politician they personally do not like. No doubt, they have not for one second considered the parallel to Islamist-inspired acts of terrorism, or acts of Christianist terrorism such as the murder of physicians who perform legal abortion procedures.

This calls for social confrontation and rejection. Notes on windshields of cars that bear such messages. Addressing the issue when someone shows up wearing the t-shirt. A person visiting my home in such a t-shirt, for instance, would be required to change or cover it up -- and I would be prepared to explain why.

I would have responded similarly if I had ever run into someone bearing signs like this during the Bush Administration:

No, no, no. Violence and imprecation are not cures; they are part of the disease.

Whichever side you are on, I ask you to think on this. What sort of country are we making? Are we Iraq, where political and religious divisions led to routine violence on a daily basis in the aftermath of our 2003 invasion? Or are we a democratic republic that honors the results of elections and, if so inclined, prays for our elected leaders to be guided by wisdom and compassion?

By my lights, the dispassionate answer to that question appears to be: neither, but some tortured thing lying in between.

What is your choice, and what will you do to walk that talk?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Not Just Any Bill

A health reform bill passed the House, and the Senate leader is shopping a Senate bill.

My too-busy-to-blog thought on it is simple: passing a bill is not a triumph if it increases inequality.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fear of Trials

Excellent post by Steve Benen:

When one cuts through the nonsense and poll-tested soundbites, the right's opposition to fair trials comes down to fear -- fear that our principles are aren't worth honoring, fear that our rule of law is somehow flawed, fear that radical thugs have acquired supernatural powers. It's just blinding, irrational fear.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It Never Hurts To Ask

On Wednesday, I had business on the campus of Western New Mexico University up in Silver City. After a meeting with my academic advisor, I was to take a piece of paper to the registrar's office on the other end of campus. The directions I was given to take me to this place were on par with a lot of information I get at Western, which is to say that I soon found myself good and lost.

It was odd, and not unpleasant. A rare weekday off, and a beautiful kind of New Mexico fall day, with sunshine, colorful leaves, and warm air -- not a bad time to be lost and wandering. I ran into undergraduates who, curiously, told me they had never even heard of a registrar's office. One wonders if undergraduates are required to take classes. Could it be possible they are allowed to come here, live in dorms, and just make love and drink wine day after day? Sounds nice. I think I tried to get that major myself when I was in college; without much success. I knew where my registrar's office was, all right, because I spent a lot of unpleasant time there.


Wandering around the Western campus last Wednesday, I met a puppy. His name, I overheard, was Socks. Socks was a delightful puppy, with all paws and head and floppy ears, sniffing the feets and slobbering and all those puppy things. We made our acquaintance, the owner called Socks to come along, and we went our separate ways.

After a long meander through various buildings, I was walking back across campus toward the Fine Arts building, and thinking about aborting this mission. The owner of Socks was chatting up a comely co-ed, and Socks was sniffing various things. Our paths crossed again, and Socks was jubilant, all paws and head and slobbering and sniffing the feet.

Since I was pretty much desperate, I said to Socks: "Hey, boy! Do you know where the registrar's office is?"

Suddenly, Socks took off, crimson red leash dragging behind him, down a hill and across a long flat field toward a little building on another side of campus. Arf arf, he indicated the building, and then his owner (who, I presumed, had not succeeded in winning the maiden's phone number) called for Socks to return.

Could it be? I ventured into the building. And wouldn't you know? Sure enough. The registrar's office.

Sometimes it is okay to give the ridiculous a try.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Two of Algernon's Plays To Be Broadcast

KUNM FM, Albuquerque public radio, will air the program You Have Five Minutes at 6:00 PM (Mountain time) on November 29. You can also hear it on-line at the station's website.

Two of the plays, Simulated Drowning and The Heart Has No Location, were written by your humble correspondent.

Many thanks to producer Lance Axt for the opportunity, and the info on the broadcast.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pops and the Spankers

Pretty dismal mood tonight.

Gave up everything, sat, and then looked for ukulele videos on line. Found a nice one I hadn't seen: Pops Bayless singing and playing with the Asylum Street Spankers at a reunion concert. Thanks for the fun.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Weeping Cashier

Had to make a run to the Peppers supermarket last night. I needed a gift for my "secret pal."

At school, we have "secret pals." We leave each other little gifts and cards during the year. I was looking for my secret pal's favorite beverage. They did not have it for sale, so I picked up a few other items we needed: olive oil, some chips, that kinda thing.

The cashier rang up my purchase without saying a word. I noticed that she was weeping through the entire transaction.

Don't know.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Casting my Neti

Today, Dr. Stuetzer up in Silver City recommended I try a neti pot.

He had to explain to me what that was, and then bustled me to the Silver City Food Co-op to see if they had one in stock. I followed him in, hoping they would be "temporarily out" of them. Somehow the idea of flushing my nostrils with warm saline solution was intimidating.

(Personal sidebar: I'm a big baby about medical stuff, even though I am CPR/First Aid trained. In an emergency, I can cope; and I witnessed my son's birth without feeling queasy. And yet: can't put contact lenses in my eyes; have a hard time with blood, cuts, scrapes, etc.; can't look in the mirror when the dentist works on me, have to look away when getting a shot or blood drawn -- I even fainted once. The idea of flushing my nose grossed me out although, years ago, I got into the habit of washing my eyes in warm water and that never bothered me. So who knows?)

The neti pots were in stock, so I bought one and made my first attempt at using it tonight. The device is a simple thing, yet something about the neti pot felt a bit intimidating as I held it in my grasp for the first time.

The directions are simple enough: mix 1/4 tsp. of non-iodized salt into a cup of lukewarm water, stir well. The way it is supposed to work is by tipping your head at just the right angle, making a seal between the pot's spout and your raised nostril, so water flows easily through your nasal passage and out through the lower nostril into a sink or basin.

The sample photograph in the pot's instructions shows a woman gaily flushing her proboscis but did not illustrate well how to achieve the desired angle. If you are off just a bit, the water does not pass through easily. If your head is too far back, you have trouble breathing through your mouth while doing the procedure; cock it the wrong way, and it comes down your throat.

Although the sensation of warm water in my nose was not unpleasant, I just about threw my back trying to find the right angle...

So I did what modern and hip people do, and took my question to the internet, that magic 8-ball of a fact-finder. Google led me to some YouTube videos that demonstrated use of the neti pot, some sillier than others.

Even so, it took quite a bit of contorting to feel like I was doing it halfway correctly...

It will probably take a few tries to master the technique. In the meantime, I now know to be ready to blow my nose in abundance once I am through.

A Note Regarding Honduras

[Similar email message sent to the State Department and the White House. It took less than five minutes.]

Dear ______,

Our policy regarding the coup in Honduras simply does not make sense. I have one suggestion to make as a way to move forward.

As things currently stand, the people of Honduras have no right to peaceful assembly without arbitrary arrest. Several human rights organizations have documented deaths, torture, arbitrary detentions, and repression of news media. Indeed, I have to wonder why our government is being silent on this abuse of civil rights.

Even if the Micheletti regime halted this crackdown, there would still be less than three weeks before elections are scheduled to take place. Their normal election cycle is three months.

Under these conditions, there cannot be free elections in Honduras in November of 2009.

My suggestion, therefore, is to insist that President Zelaya be restored to power, and for elections to be scheduled three months from the date of his return and a return to a free society in Honduras. This would permit some semblance of a normal electoral process.

Failing that, we should not recognize the results of such an election.

It seems, however, that our government is preparing itself to stand behind a fraudulent process on November 29, going against the deliberate and rational opinion of other nations in our hemisphere. They are calling this what it is: a coup d'etat, plain and simple.

The honest truth is that under this new regime, civil liberties and democracy have been suspended. Will you call for their restoration in explicit terms?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Suffering in Tegucigalpa

From time to time, there was a note to myself sitting on the desk to write a follow-up post on Honduras, since we took an interest in this back in the summer. That's when the President of Honduras, Mel Zelaya, was arrested by the military one morning, hustled onto a military plane in his pajamas, and flown out of the country.

It's been a dramatic time in that country. People took to the streets in large numbers demanding that their elected President be restored and, if he was suspected of any crimes, let him be tried in some accountable process. The new government leadership responded by cracking down violently on protesters: beating them, killing them, and making a number of people disappear. At the time, our nation's eyes were still on the unrest in Iran. The Honduran protests did not get much attention in our news media. They continue, undaunted, as the government has consolidated its power and restricted news organizations in that country.

The other nations in our hemisphere have lined up against the coup, insisting that Zelaya be restored to power for the remainder of his term. New elections take place later this month and a new president would take office in January. It seems a reasonable position. The regime said, in effect, no dice. Zelaya had to sneak back into his own country, and take refuge in the Brazilian embassy, calling for negotiations.

The U.S. was slippery. We claimed to be eliminating aid to the country while we in fact continued to pump money into the coup state. We negotiated a weak deal with the Micheletti regime which they have now publically flouted. We might be the lone nation in the hemisphere to recognize elections conducted by the coup regime, whereas the other nations are taking a more principled stance.

This is a very interesting story bearing on democracy in our own hemisphere, with the U.S. taking a stance against most of the states of central and south America with respect to the legitimacy of the Honduran government. I suspect, although I do not have time this morning to make my case, this has much to do with Zelaya's decision to make Honduras part of the Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA) -- something that the U.S., perhaps, does not welcome.

Mostly, I keep returning to it because my heart is sick for the protest movements in Honduras and the repression there. As with Iran, the violence being inflicted on people demanding honest democratic government is brazen, right out in the open, and has been going on since the early summer. The Iranian people took a step back for a while, but the Hondurans have not. Every day they have turned out, demanding justice, some reasonable process for dealing with the political dispute in government, and a legitimate political order. For this, they have been shot, beaten, arrested, every day.

When we see Zelaya on the news, he looks like a funny uncle with his bushy moustache and cowboy hat. The images on the streets of Tegucigalpa are much more urgent, and the failure of U.S. leadership as a defender of democracy and justice reeks of cynical mendacity.

Also, I am embarrassed that I have not used this little space to air the story myself and give it the treatment it deserves. These folks have some good updates and commentary, if you want to keep up. Thanks to Mark Weisbrot for his work on this.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Flag Folding Ceremony in Public Schools

Yesterday we rehearsed an all-school Veterans Day assembly, which will include among many other things the ceremony of folding the U.S. flag.

It is a lovely ceremony in concept, in which the flag of our country is folded with meticulous attention to detail, and each fold has a dedication that is said aloud. The origins of this ceremony and its text come from the armed forces, and must date after 1954 since there is a quote from the pledge of allegiance that includes the reference to God added during the Eisenhower Adminstration.

I had not witnessed the ceremony or heard its text, and I began to feel uncomfortable with the specific religious content.

The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance.

This a theological teaching belonging to one religious tradition. But there is more than this, with references to "the eternal life" and to "the one who entered in to the valley of the shadow of death." With the final two folds, it is implied that this is a country for the Hebrew or the Christian citizen:

The eleventh fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon, and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.

The rest of us, I suppose, are just visitors? A different class of citizen? The language belongs to the school of thought that the United States is primarily a Christian nation that tolerates citizens who are different.

Something should be said. Our children are impressionable, and this kind of messaging is precisely why the teaching of religion in public schools is not permitted. We are not here to teach children that in order to feel like they really belong to this country, they have to believe in the God of the Old Testament or any God. The flag folding ceremony is a sly way to get in some religious instruction. I should say something yet I do not feel comfortable, to be frank. For fear over my job I might well keep silent and thus fail, myself, to uphold our Constitution.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Smashing The Mirror

Harold Pinter's Nobel lecture of 2005 (he had won the prize for literature) is worth reading in full.

His subject was "Art, Truth, and Politics." As well, he could easily have been talking about the borderland between dharma practice and politics:

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror - for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

Replace the word "writer" in the above with "dharma student," and you get the idea.

Pinter describes an event he witnessed at a U.S. embassy in the 1980's, at a time when our federal government was providing assistance to a violent insurgency in Nicaragua:

The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.

Finally somebody said: 'But in this case "innocent people" were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?'

Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,' he said.

As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.

Some time this week, the United States Congress may hear a resolution to kill a United Nations report on what happened between Israel and Gaza in the winter of 2008 and 2009. Some call it "Operation Cast Lead," and some call it a massacre. The facts do not exonerate the Hamas government, or Israel. What is clear is that a great many helpless and innocent people were killed.

The U.N. Human Rights Council investigated and has issued a report on its findings. This is not holy scripture, but it deserves to be read and discussed. For political reasons, however, there is a House resolution "Calling on the President and the Secretary of State to oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the 'Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict' in multilateral fora."

In other words, tearing up the report and refusing to discuss it. In war, innocent people always suffer.

I have been in touch with my Congressman, and I have asked him to vote "NO" on H. Res. 867. Perhaps you will, too. It's one small gesture. Voting "no" is not an endorsement of the report's findings; but it is an endorsement for reading, listening, thinking about the violence of governments, and the suffering of innocents.

Because I think the late Harold Pinter was correct: seeing the real truth of our lives and our societies, including certainly the use of our armies, is mandatory.

[Photo: "In war, innocent people always suffer." Here is one of many children massacred in Operation Cast Lead. Behold, behold.]