Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Insomniac Productivity

Insomnia would be less awful if one could actually use the time for other things.

Alas, there is no such dividend. It's been going on for half of April, although it got better for a while. I do sleep, but it is the kind of constantly interrupted sleep where waking life begins to feel like a dream within a dream within a...

Tried reading, but found myself too tired to focus. Kept reading the same sentence over and over.

One night, sipping chamomile tea and sitting on the floor of the kitchen, I passed some of the time doing origami, experimenting with different ways to fold a letter so it can be sent through the mail without an envelope.

(Found a neat fold, by the way, here. Try it out -- it's also a neat way to hand someone a note. You can use your junk mail for practice, so as not to waste paper.)

I'm holding myself together for school, and preparing for a film shoot in Las Cruces this weekend. My mind is hamburger though. When I sit, my body feels like it's sitting on a moving platform or a hovercraft floating around; thoughts come in shreds. I had a peculiar waking dream on my cushion where I heard Mu Sang Sunim's voice speaking to me, sounding half asleep, saying, "Don't go to California." That's the sort of phenomenon people spin into metaphysical stories -- I heard a voice! It told me to eat my underwear! I'm not crazy, it was the angels, I swear it! No, kid, you just need some sleep.

Need. Sleep.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Our Landlady Knew We Were Moving

Our landlady frequently drops by the three kit houses she owns on our block, watering the lawns and so forth.

Yesterday, my wife saw her and gave notice that we are moving. By her report, our landlady was positively sherlockian, saying, "Oh yes, aren't you buying that house on Spruce and Nickel?"

Stunned, my wife asked, "How did you know?"

"I saw you hadn't planted the flower boxes here," she explained. "I figured you were tending flower boxes somewhere else. When I drove by that house the other day, I noticed the flower boxes had been planted, and God told me, that's their new house."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Your Emails: Prophets, Politics, and Dharma

Some responses to emailed comments. Commenters remain anonymous, as I assume they would post their comments if they wanted attribution.

A friend writes:

I'd be interested in a column about the death threats South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have received regarding the airing of many religious Prophets in absurd outfits. One of these characters happens to be Mohammed disguised as a bear.

That being said, I certainly do not want to see any death threats of the same kind
to you or your family. Apparently the group responsible for these threats, have a website called on which they posted their threats, as well as pictures of the murdered Theo Van Gogh. They also have long arms throughout the USA.

This is not as serious as the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence to the British novelist for blasphemy in The Satanic Verses. That pronouncement carried with it far more weight, and when large cash bounties were placed on Rushdie's head, he went into hiding for a decade. Compared to that event, which made a lasting impression on me (I was 18), this just seems foolish and pathetic.

On that website, which has recently been taken down, somebody posted a coy and vaguely threatening message that the satirists Stone and Parker "will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh" for depicting the prophet Mohammed on their show. Van Gogh was a Dutch documentarian who was murdered by an Islamist nut in 2004. The website posted address information for the show's production company and for the offices of the Comedy Central network, ostensibly so people could write letters of protest.

For a while, no doubt, these offices will enhance security. Having worked for a Jewish political organization in Los Angeles, I know what that's like. Most of the time, these things are just bluster; yet you prepare for the instance when someone tries something.

We push back. We refuse to be afraid. We write, speak, and think freely. Mohammed is a sacred figure to muslims; he is also an historical figure, and a few people speaking in the name of a religion don't get to declare any historical person off-limits.

Also in the e-mail bag, we have this from a long-time and respected friend:

I like your blog and I usually agreewith your opinions, but Im a little wary of saying publicly: if you practice like us and attain clear mind, you will see this, this and this. Maybe it wd be better to say, here's the rd up the mountain and if you go there you will have a really nice view. Public and private, or, as someone said : thought is shameless, speech is prudent.

So to put it starkly I wd have a blog about politics or about practicing but not both together. U probly won't like this.

I've asked my friend to provide context for this comment, but haven't heard back yet. If anything written here has implied "if you practice [Zen] like us, you will see this, this, and this," I would very much like to correct that.

In fact, on March 2, I wrote the opposite, in this post:

Buddhist practice invites us to investigate our beliefs and their source. The second noble truth of Buddhism is that our suffering is created by various kinds of craving, one of which is called bhava tanha in Pali, the craving for "becoming." We want our identity to be substantial, weighty, impressive. Defending our opinions, seeing our ideas vindicated, is one way we do this.

The post included a link to an excellent talk by Zen Master Dae Kwang about returning to "no point of view."

This is a personal blog, a repository of doodles and drivel. It includes personal reflections on practice, the community where I live, the arts, and world affairs. These things all intertwine.

This blog does not presume to speak for the Buddha or anyone else. I do not write from the perspective of enlightenment. The blog has little influence or appeal, though it may amuse my friends from time to time. (On an excellent day, 60 visitors drop by this blog.) It is the equivalent of chatting with friends at a pub. There's nothing very serious about it; and certainly no expectation that anyone necessarily agrees with me, or should.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The New Tough Guy

This is going to be a rare "actor" post.

By the time I moved to New Mexico, I had pretty much given up on doing much acting anymore. Got a kid and need to make money, after all; and besides, not a whole lot of interest. In L.A., I got as much work singing as acting -- which is a bit of a joke, since I'm really not a singer but spent so many years training as an actor. So I gave up, and tried to make my peace with it by teaching theatre classes and directing.

So now the phone starts ringing.

It started when I auditioned for a filmmaker in Las Cruces, who is making a horror feature out in the Bootheel this summer. He cast me in a small role as, essentially, the runt of a motorcycle gang: the skinny guy who drives the van and talks in a high voice. The kind of part I would be considered for in Hollywood.

After that, I got called to test for a short film by a graduate student at NMSU's film school. The film is a good theatrical piece: a drama with two guys at a diner. The character is sort of fun: a vaguely mystical hit man, a guy who likes to talk to his marks before he kills them. I'm not a bulky guy, but I played him very professional and contained, the sort of guy who might have a wife and child somewhere. Got the part, and we are set to shoot that one in Cruces next weekend.

This graduate student is working on the forementioned horror movie, and he suggested to the director that I read for a larger role: the head of the biker gang, written as a pretty standard bad-ass tank of a guy. The director was dubious (as I would be), but the graduate student showed him the audition tape of me being sort of cold and spooky, and director got intrigued.

So last night we found an empty room at the film school where I sat backwards on a chair (my motorcycle!) and read the scene. Mind you, my body is 5'11'' and 160 pounds; my voice is a high tenor. Without going into too much boring technical detail -- I made a choice, tried it out. Played him as super intelligent, possibly military trained, not bulky but speedy and crazy mean. The kinda guy who doesn't necessarily look like trouble, but will cut off your hand without thinking twice about it, before you know what's happening.

Director loved it. Found the character weird and scary in a way he hadn't had in mind when he wrote it. Now I'm playing the head of the biker gang. Going to spend the summer with a shaved head -- nice to have an excuse. "Sorry, honey, it's for the part!"

Same night, I auditioned for another independent film, a science-fiction thriller to film in El Paso this summer. Another guy with a gun!

So what's up with this? I move to New Mexico and suddenly I'm playing tough guy roles? Now that's funny. As an actor, our roles change as we age. I'm not the 20-year old kid falling down the stairs anymore. I'm 40 and a bit more beat up. Pretty soon I'll be too old to play Hamlet. Moving into Macbeth territory.

None of this is earning much money, by the way, but that's all right. Acting is fun.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is Violence Ever Truly Political?

Yesterday marked the anniversary of Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. McVeigh chose that day because it was the anniversary of the 1993 siege, by federal law enforcement, of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, an event that caused 81 deaths.

In turn, right-wing political activists chose this date, in 2010, to stage an armed political demonstration at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. [[EDIT: No no no, Algernon. The D.C. protest was NOT an armed event, because they cannot legally carry in D.C. The armed demonstration took place in Virginia.]]

(By the way, it was also the anniversary of Pope Benedict's election, but there were no events to commemorate it as far as I know.)

I spent yesterday evening listening to a program that aired some of the 45 hours of recorded interviews with McVeigh from death row, detailing his plot and motivations. Using McVeigh's own words, a portrait soon appeared of McVeigh that differed from the impression we had of him in the 1990's. Admittedly, both portraits are media-created and should be considered skeptically. In these tapes, McVeigh often returns to the theme of bullying, and hitting back at bullies: from the bullies that picked on him in high school to larger bullies, like the Japanese government of World War II -- McVeigh refers to Hiroshima as if it were bloodying the nose of an aggressive jock on the playground.

At a time when there is much speculation about the violent rhetoric and symbology of political demonstrations -- the guns that show up at political rallies, the signs alluding to soaking the "tree of liberty" with the "blood of tyrants," the inflammatory rhetoric of talk radio sensationalists who make tons of money with no accountability for the events they incite, and the reminders of our nation's legacy of assassination and political violence, I am left wondering: is violence really political? Or is politics just the organizing myth?

Was McVeigh striking against the federal government, or against all of bully-dom?

Was the man who flew his plane into the IRS building this year striking against government, or was he insane with anxiety and frustration?

How much of the loathed terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was really just young Ahmad Fadeel from the slums outside Amman, Jordan -- unfathered, drunk, lonely, finding companionship at last in prison? The more I learned about this person (and yes, seeing him as a person), the less I believed he was intellectually committed to an Islamist political vision, or that he even understood what he was talking about. He was a young man who led a gang. I've known young men like that. Perhaps I am projecting, but perhaps not.

There are some parallels in the biographies of young Ahmad and young Tim -- sadly, Tim did not even find companionship, except for one or two idiots like Terry Nichols.

How much of this passion really arises from political convictions? Passion arises from wanting something. The most visceral passions are deeply personal. We might get excited about an idea for a better world, but the person blowing herself up on a subway is expressing something else.

And while I would never suggest (nor has anyone) that all criticisms of the current administration are motivated by racism -- after all, I've been highly critical of the Obama government myself -- when I see the raw emotion being poured into investigating his (proven and confirmed) place of birth, his supposed secret religious identity, his alleged disloyalty to his own country, his "socialism," to conspiracy theories that he is out to dismantle and destroy the United States, and with openly carried weapons being displayed at political protests, with grifters stoking the crowds with calls to arms (that they later claim to be metaphorical), with the familiarity of signs that say, "We come unarmed THIS TIME..."

...from all that, yes, I dare hypothesize that there is something emotional, not intellectual, going on. And it's not implausible to suppose some of it has to do with him being our first black president.

Readers of this blog know that I find politics interesting. I find the business of making policy, representing working people (or failing to do so), and distributing services and goods, to be an important matter. On the other hand, political philosophy is also a masquerade for human aggression, ambition, and greed; it is also, occasionally, an arena for more positive or virtuous human behavior. We don't often recognize it, but it is there.

Underneath the politics is good old, timeless human dukkha -- the suffering and passion that arises from wanting things, and living isolated inside an idea of self that is shaped by craving.

THAT, in the end, is really the compelling topic of the blog. Our politics are about human relations and, within those relations, human passion.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mountains and Dandelions

On Saturday, our local group hosted its largest retreat yet, with a dozen people sitting. The turnout was largely due to a large group from Silver City and Hurley, as we were retreating jointly with our friends at Silver City Zen Center.

Out at a ranch south of town, we sat in Maria's beautiful stone chapel and took our walks outdoors, bowed to the Florida Mountains, ate lunch together in silence, and at the closing circle talk the reflections were brief, sincere, and full of gratitude for this passing life.

The following day was about pulling weeds at "the new house," where we have been given permission to start planting and composting. The dandelions have taken full control here, with root systems thick as utility cables. It has been snowing mulberries all month, so by quitting time we were sniffling and itching.

Gabriel busied himself with a little game whereby he picked up small stones, threw them as hard as he could, and then shouted, "Apple!!"

I tried it myself. It was oddly satisfying. "Applesauce!!" is not a bad cuss word, actually: it includes plosive and sybilant sounds, along with lamenting vowels. Oh, applesauce!!

Ah, and it is now Monday morning. Time for school -- but first, let's post your Monday Morning Gabriel...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tax Day

This morning I am still in recovery from a momentary shock I received earlier this month. My wife informed me that our tax preparer told us we owed $1,800. No one told me that that was before deductions. Why would she not tell me this part of the story, if she were not trying to kill me? The deductions reduced our tax bill considerably and all is well, yet I have not settled back into a full night's sleep since.

Happy Tax Day.

A day of grumbling about "gummint," when some exercise their favorite cherry-picked quotes from our founders about taxation even if, in those quotes, the founders were actually addressing British taxation and their oppression by the crown. Others bring out their threadbare legal arguments against taxation ("it's unconstitutional!") to see, once more, if there is any legal defense against the evil government coming to take their money.

My beloved Thomas Paine is sometimes taken out of the museum, and the dust blown off of his early American writing, in protest of taxation by the British. He wrote of British taxes as an instrument of social control, and protested the notion that basic necessities should be taxed at all. (Something of which the New Mexico legislature might take note, since they recently voted to tax groceries again, only to have the measure vetoed by Governor Richardson.)

What my right-leaning friends and Glenn Beck fans might want to take into account -- and they won't like it very much -- is that Thomas Paine was a proponent of progressive taxation. Those who have the most, i.e. the rich, should be taxed, according to his Rights of Man, Part the Second (1792).

Around Luna County, there are road projects going on. People grumble about the detours but will ultimately appreciate driving down Spruce Street without tumbling into cavernous potholes, or walking to the post office without having to negotiate sidewalk stones that move underfoot like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Out of town, there are less prominent but equally important infrastructure projects, such as upgraded water drainage, going on -- all funded by public money.

Not every dollar is spent well locally, and certainly not every dollar is spent well federally. I won't be making any arguments in support of massive taxpayer-funded bailouts of "too big to fail" financial institutions or debt-financed wars or massive military contracts to bozos who run amok in foreign countries without discipline or accountability. We can have lots to argue about with respect to how public funds are spent.

The notion of public funds itself, however, is important. There are things we cannot do alone that we can do together. We must pool resources in order to deal with human waste, trash, distribution of water, lighting of public areas, and agencies that protect the peace and contain fires, and more. The notion that taxes are inherently evil is overstated and silly. Very few of us would truly elect to live in a society where everybody paid only for themselves and there were no commons.

So happy tax day, to my neighbors and fellow citizens.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Bombs, Blow, and Barbecue: Life in Deming

Flowerbox in front of our home, last spring

A barbecue grill, a bag of coke, and some grenades. Just another spring in Deming, New Mexico.

Our neighbor, Waldo, had his grill stolen a couple of weeks ago.

Report the theft or not? He wondered whether to bother. It was an old grill, not very valuable. It had sentimental value, though -- an early gift from his wife. He filed the report. The police wrote on pads, said they'd get back to him. The loss of his grill was reported in the police blotter in the Deming Headlight.

A couple of days later, a pickup drove slowly down the block and stopped. Waldo was in the front yard. The visitor said, "You lost your grill, right?"

"It was stolen, yeah."

"I might have your grill." They talked about it. Waldo described the grill. The driver kept nodding and said, "Yeah. I'm pretty sure this is your grill." The driver went away and came back a short time later, with the grill. It was Waldo's.

"So where did you find this grill?"

"I bought it from a bum."

And off he drove.


We've had wind storms in Deming, lately. This is typical of the arrival of spring. We get blasted from the west steadily at 40 miles per hour with gusts up almost to 60, sometimes picking dirt up from the desert floor and spraying it into everything. It also picks up all the loose trash and blows it everywhere. You would almost think plastic shopping bags are the state flower around here.

(Sidebar: Win Mott, local columnist, reminds us how we can help contain the dirt storms.)

Our next door neighbor is a city cop. He rents the house and lives there with his wife and two children. Recently, the wind deposited something extra special in their backyard.

A bag of cocaine.


A guy who lives on property way out on the Old Lordsburg Highway was getting ready to raze a couple of old sheds, and he was cleaning them out. Never know what you're going to find in these old sheds -- especially in Deming.

He discovered World War II-era grenades and some dynamite. The police had to call in an explosives unit from Fort Bliss.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Poppycock Rappin'

A new one from the geniuses at "Auto Tune the News!" I love these folks.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Tea and Tyranny

A couple of days ago, we had a bit of fun here at the Burning House with some of the goofier signs that have cropped up at "Tea Party" rallies here and there. Previously, a year ago, we had a good laugh about "teabagging." This was mostly me being a juvenile male, not so much about political philosophy.

Apart from this railery, I have refrained from bashing the Tea Partiers. These are, after all, my neighbors -- figuratively and even literally. Some of my actual neighbors here in Deming have staged protests outside of government buildings. Well, more power to 'em. Bless them for getting off their duffs and making a scene in order to communicate a point. It gives me a dash of hope to see a protest. After all, I've been in quite a few of them myself and I respect the exercise, if not always the particular message.

Having spent some time trying to pay attention to what they are saying, to discount the more idiotic scene-stealers, the loonies and the racists, and to find a consistent underlying thesis or a theme, it seems to me that the Tea Partiers who are sincerely interested in politics are concerned about tyranny. A broad area of concern for them is that political power is being removed from the citizenry and transferred to large powers that are not accountable to the people.

Are they wrong to be concerned about that? Oh, I think not: if anything, they're waking up a bit late.

(There is also a libertarian philosophy being expressed here, but I'm going to stick with the issue of political power and tyranny for this post.)

My criticism for them would be in their analysis; or, rather, their lack of independent analysis. This is why they have been so easily manipulated by media figures and the corporate lobby, and even the Republican Party. Too many of them trust Dick Armey is telling them the truth, without asking themselves who he works for, who is paying him. They are too easily led to believe easily debunkable lies about, for instance, the Affordable Care Act ("They're gonna kill your grandma!").

Becoming a political actor means you have to do some homework; the man who looks and talks like Walter Cronkite could still be lying to you, so you have to verify things independently. Otherwise you might find yourself parroting a lie -- and next thing you know, Rachel Maddow is making fun of you.

The Tea Party is also right to be skeptical of executive power, but who is it they are afraid of? They are getting all worked up into a lather about the Congress, about Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama. This is rather naive. These actors possess limited political power. There are things they can do, yes; yet there are things they can't even talk about.

I'd like to know what the Tea Partiers think about the I.M.F., the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. Talk about lack of representation! Talk about political power without accountability! Political power has been transferred from the ballot box to remote board rooms, and these folks thought sending Scott Brown to the Senate was going to change that?

Instead of making fun of the Tea Party or portraying them all as ignorant honkeys, I'd like to see the left try to engage the more serious-minded citizens among them in some education about who's got power and how it is being used.

Because some of the Tea Party folks are right on one basic, important thing: the people are not in charge. The problem is, they're blaming the courtiers, not the real kings.

Stand with the Prophets

It seems fitting, for this blog, to promote conversation on religion and human life on Easter.

We have Tony Benn again -- a former member of the British parliament from the Labour Party, a self-described "committed socialist," and lifelong Christian. He is seen here on a British talk show engaging in a friendly debate with a scholarly atheist.

It can be done! Some spirited argument that remains decent and compares ideas.

And I love how Benn begins his participation: "The thing about religion is, it's about the teaching... My mother said to me as a child the bible is the story of the conflict between the kings who had power and the prophets who preached righteousness; and she told me to support the prophets."


Friday, April 02, 2010

Thursday, April 01, 2010


We at the Burning House cannot take the credit for coining the term. We don't know who did, but it's good.

"Teabonics" -- a term to describe a collection of funny, badly spelled, weirdly phrased signs on display at recent rallies. Here's a sampling, brought to our attention by Political Animal.