Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How to Digest a T-Shirt

Regard the cooking pot as your own head, the water your own life-blood.

In Zen monasteries, the cook (tenzo in Japanese) holds an honored position, not only for feeding the community but for managing the kitchen in a way that exemplifies the practical aspect of Zen practice. Every item has a purpose, every detail is important, and waste is to be minimized.

We honor life by metabolizing everything we can. When the bread goes stale, a tenzo makes croutons. Cooking water, cooled, feeds vegetables in the garden. And so on -- every detail is useful.

That can be a personal practice; it could also be a societal practice, if we wanted.

From time to time, I like to use this blog to promote individual ways to metabolize the stuff of our world.

Today, tote bags made from t-shirts.

This is nothing new, but we don't claim to be cutting edge here at the Burning House.

From the newsletter of the Silver City Food Co-op (we are proud members) come these instructions for converting t-shirts into tote bags:

Materials needed: Clean t-shirt, rotary cutter, cutting mat, thread, sewing machine, sewing needle, and possibly a stapler.

Wash and dry t-shirt.

Lay t-shirt out on cutting mat.

Roller cut sleeves and neckband off.

Turn t-shirt inside out and machine sew a seam along the bottom. (Note: depending upon size of t-shirt, it may need to be trimmed off along the bottom so the tote isn't too large as they do stretch.)

Flatten out bottom seam and sew a triangle across each end. (Note: this takes some maneuvering of the fabric to get it arranged and flattened to sew the triangle.) This triangle area makes a flat bottom shape in the tote and gives more strength to the fabric.

After sewing the triangle, fold it in toward the seam and hand sew, machine sew, or staple it to the bottom seam and secure it.

Fold t-shirt right side out.

Get your shopping list, collect your bag (s), and go!

(Click here for PDF of the newsletter that includes these instructions.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I, The Best Show Ever

Nathan has written another one of his wonderful posts, reflecting on how quickly we go from reacting to an event, to manufacturing a story around it. In "Anger As Entertainment," he quotes Pema Chodron describing meditation as "learning to stay still and going through what I always refer to as the detox period of finally connecting." This is in contrast to our habit of "entertaining ourselves" with angry thoughts, aggrieved thoughts, and so on. Nathan then writes:'s hard to stay with what's coming up when the world seems to be calling for some kind of action from you. In fact, even in situations like the street crossing, where you need to get to the other side, afterward it's terribly easy to get lost in stories about "those assholes" blocking the crosswalk. The opportunity to hang with what's coming up is there, and yet it gets lost pretty fast if you allow yourself to get hooked.

Amen! So true, and worth remembering over and over again. One of the best analogies for what's going on here was presented by David Brazier in his book The Feeling Buddha. (More on Brazier's work here.) He spoke of a stove, and the way it contains fire so that we can use this dangerous element for constructive purposes. Without a good stove, fire is a dangerous element, but when contained and handled properly it provides heat and cooks our meal.

I caught myself staring out the window of our living room the other day, trying to catch sight of one of the vehicles that frequently blast down Nickel Street at unsafe speeds. There are kids in this neighborhood, playing on these streets -- my own son lives here now.

What spreads a fire is wind, and my own hot air, my thinking, was blowing this up into a story. A simple and familiar story of "assholes" out there doing terrible things and making the world a dangerous place for "me." Indeed, as Pema Chodron put it, this is an entertaining fable: a fable that reinforces "I" and pleasantly puts "me" in a sympathetic position.

None of which has anything to do with keeping the kids safe. That's the actual matter to be dealt with, but instead of connecting with my feelings about the problem or addressing a solution, for a moment I'm off on my "I-land" feeding my sense of a beleaguered self. Nurturing anger, however entertaining, does not help the situation and may, in fact, make it worse if I am not clear and constructive.

Simply being with one's feeling is not entertaining, is it? It doesn't make good mental television at all. For good mental television, we need drama and conflict -- and without a suffering "I" you can't have all of that.

On the other hand, we don't always need entertainment. Like Zen Master Seung Sahn said frequently, a glass of plain old water is plenty refreshing when we are truly thirsty.

[Photo: from our back yard.]

Friday, June 25, 2010

Opening A Drain

Our kitchen sink drain was clogged. As far as drain clogs go, it was slow, steady, and stubborn: even after a bout with the plunger, the drain would still back up after only a few seconds of running water.

Before submitting to a poisonous commercial drain opener -- in general, I really try to hold off on using toxic chemicals in the home until the last resort -- I tried the old fashioned recipe:

1/2 cup baking soda

1/2 cup white vinegar

A fun chemistry project for the home, complete with a satisfying sizzle. Baking soda first, then the vinegar, right down the drain. Cover. Sizzle sizzle sizzle. Visualize grease buildup slowly being broken down into glycerin and slippery base molecules.

Get a kettle of water going, and when it boils, pour the boiling water into the drain(s).

Worked nicely.

Note: this probably won't work if your grease buildup is this advanced:

Thursday, June 24, 2010

On Strikes

Power concedes nothing without a demand.

What would it be like to live in a country where people are so politically active, that large general strikes occur frequently in response to policies that affect working people?

The government of France wants to raise its retirement age (and the age after which citizens are eligible for pensions). The current retirement age is pretty low: 60. The problem is, their pension system is already losing money and (as in the U.S.) there is a large generation of retirees starting to become eligible. So, among other reforms to deal with France's deficit, the Sarkozy government wants to raise the minimum retirement age of 62.

The purpose of this post is not to get into French economic policies or second-guess the government's solutions. (For what it's worth, the proposal seems mild compared to reforms in other european nations, and has the support of conservative and labor lawmakers.) What is of interest to me this morning is the reaction in France to this proposed reform:

Many French trains stood still, schoolchildren played instead of studied and post offices were shuttered as workers nationwide went on strike Thursday to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to raise the retirement age to 62.

Nearly 200 marches and protests are planned for several cities over a broad reform to the money-losing pension system, part of efforts around Europe to cut back on growing public debts.

In the capital, while some commuters were unaffected by the strikes, others had to cram into overcrowded buses and subway trains because of strikes by drivers.

Hundreds of passengers were stranded at Rome's main train station Wednesday when the overnight train to Paris was canceled because of the strike. Authorities were putting the passengers on buses instead. Swiss national railway company SBB said about 60 percent of trains between France and Switzerland have been canceled because of the strike.

The French civil aviation authority, DGAC, asked airlines to cancel 15 percent of their flights out of Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports because of strikes by air traffic controllers. Air France said all of its long-haul flights would remain unaffected.

What outrage would be required for Americans to strike on a scale like that? I've seen union pickets, I've seen anti-war protests, I've seen demonstrations against legal abortion. In Los Angeles a few years ago, I was personally inconvenienced by a fairly powerful strike by transit workers. But nothing like this one strike in France. Sixty percent of the trains between France and Switzerland canceled! 20% of France's teachers on picket lines! Dock workers, postal workers, airline workers, too!

Not that there is universal agreement over the issue, of course. The culture of protest can understandably get a bit uncomfortable, because that's exactly what strikes are designed to do.

Stephanie Larcher, a 29-year-old town planner, from Buressuryvette, in the outskirts of Paris, said she's had to add an extra hour onto her daily four-hour journey.

"I find it completely irritating, especially because train workers go on strike for any little thing," she said. "It's already the fourth strike this year."

Strikes are designed to maximize inconvenience and slow, or halt, economic activity -- "business as usual." If you don't agree with the strikers, it's understandably irritating. But wait a minute, did she say that's the fourth strike this year?

That is so -- well, foreign to me.

My own countrymen are excellent grumblers, myself included. And that's just those of us who pay attention to current events. Many of us don't at all, or very little. (Notice which posts get the most comments on this blog. The political posts elicit yawns.) It takes a great deal to get even the most ardent leftists to protest in mass numbers, although I should note some large actions in protest of the WTO. No matter how much Fox News tries to inflate the Tea Party phenomenon, their demonstrations are small and have been dwindling.

It is hard to believe in 2010 that only half a century ago, civil rights activists went so far as to build a temporary city near the White House, mobilized enormous numbers of people under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and won some huge reforms by filling American streets with human beings. It is hard to believe that little more than a century has passed since American workers seized factories and withstood deadly force striking for an 8-hour workday.

Compared to these generations, we resemble sheep.

From Robert McChesney and John Bellamy Foster:

Consider why rulers in other nations, like France or Greece, tend to have greater difficulty implementing cutbacks in social programs during crises: Because, when they look out the window, they see a mass of people who would threaten the perpetuation of their system, if the vested interests were to engineer a class war from above in an attempt to turn back the clock. This makes the position of the capitalist class in such countries much more tenuous...

From the birth of democracy in antiquity, it has been true that those with property will only concede fundamental rights to those without property when they fear for the very survival of their own privileges. "If there is no struggle," as Frederick Douglass said in 1857, "there is no progress...Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will...If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others."

In our republic, where we indulge the idea that we are a beacon of self-determination and civil freedom for the entire world, we are more content to make sarcastic jokes around our barbecue grills or during commercial breaks in our cherished football games, than to stop everything, to be uncomfortable, to make a clear statement and back it up with our own asses. Some of us go as far as writing a letter to the editor, maybe leaving a voice mail for our Congress-critter.

What does it take for Americans to break the rules, to risk a job, to risk making their neighbors angry, to block a street, when the cause is right? It is, honestly, not very difficult to contain our meek protests while wars are launched and corporations expand their rule at the expense of our rights and liberty. We fancy ourselves fighters, but for the most part, we roll over and put up with it all.

There is much more to be said about the right kind of strike, how to integrate a clear goal and maintain discipline on marches, to prevent violence and absorb the efforts of agents provocateurs, to preserve satyagraha and prevent a melee.

You can't even get into those questions, however, when your culture has been divorced from the idea of striking as a response to policy -- or when working people resent a traffic jam far more deeply than injustice, oppression, and unnecessary death.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Good For Reno!

From High Country News:

Give a cheer to Reno, the first city to install wind turbines on the roof of its city hall, says the Reno Gazette-Journal. The 17-story roof already has two 1.5 kilowatt "hoop" turbines and a third is planned, while elsewhere in the city, a handful of other turbines are being tested for their effectiveness in different environments. Reno Mayor Bob Cashell predicted that the fastest-spinning turbine is bound to be on the southwest corner of City Hall, right over where he works: "All the hot air is coming out of my office," he said.

[Photo: diagram of a wind turbine from Machinery Lubrication.]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Broaching the Larger Taboo

Nathan Thompson wrote a thoughtful piece at Life As A Human about taking responsibility for the whole of which we are a part. He asks, "Can Lifestyles That Are Unsustainable Be Moral?" titling his piece with a quote from politically engaged Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa.

Nathan writes,

Do we really want the economy to “turn around,” to go back to something resembling what it has been? In other words, do we really wish to continue to support, participate, and drive an economy that thrives only when there is over-production, over-consumption, and excessive amounts of greed? Is this really what we want, or are we just too comfortable with a way of life that will someday probably destroy us?

May I submit that it not merely a matter of comfort, but of ideological dominance: that the entire question Nathan is asking rests in the shadow of an overriding idea that Must Not Be Questioned?

An honest assessment and critique of capitalism, and its control of American politics, is still taboo in our mainstream media and political discourse, even among what is called our "left." Our two dominant political parties have their differences, but neither of them question the notion that effective government means preserving the surpluses and privileges of corporations, their executives, and their investors. This has not budged even in the face of scientific data pointing towards a mortally serious condition for the continued survival of the human race.

After examining his own life and daily consumption of resources, which is exceedingly modest by American expectations yet luxurious in comparison to the world's majority, Nathan continues,

We have to go deeper than simply talking about what we use or don’t use, or how much money we are going to invest in green jobs and new technologies. In my opinion, it’s really time to question the morality of our economic systems as a whole because they have gone global, for better or worse.
Where are we, and where do we want to go from here? It's going to require mobilization at our level. It requires satyagraha. It will not come from the top levels of government, and it certainly will not come from the board rooms and unelected bodies that overrule popular government.

Yet it needs to be a journey of personal inquiry as well. Replacing one dominant ideology with another "better idea," absent individual practice, misses the point. The Big Problem we are dealing with here is a human-made problem.

We are not fighting a "them." We are addressing delusion and ignorance.

[Photo: an old satellite dish attached to our new home, with a bird nest inside it. Discovered the nest was active when I started taking the dish down. It stays up until the birds move on.]

Tale of a Night-Time Shot

The work that goes into a shot that may last four seconds on screen is considerable.

What you will see in the film is a brief glimpse of a man dragging a body that is wrapped in a tarp. It is night-time, and he is dragging the tarp across the back yard of somebody's home.

In order to light this scene for the camera, the crew assembled a metal frame measuring twenty feet by twenty feet. This frame was then secured to two legs that have retractable extensions, allowing the crew to raise the legs high into the air. There is also a hinge permitting the frame to be rotated to any desired angle. After this was assembled, the crew carefully produced an exquisite and fragile swath of white silk, and tied it across the frame like a sail.

When light is aimed through the silk, it has a gorgeous effect, casting a glow akin to moonlight over a large area. It took over an hour to assemble this apparatus, and that's when things became interesting.

As the silk was tied down and they began to raise the frame up into the air, a powerful evening wind suddenly blew in, with frequent gusts over 40 miles per hour. It was then the crew realized that they had assembled a gigantic paraglider, and the nearest hands (including your humble correspondent) quickly grabbed onto the legs to hold the thing down before it literally blew away.

Rather than risk ripping the silk, the decision was made to take it all down, which required another hour of work. Actors were wrapped for the night and they didn't get the shot until the next night.

That's how much work often goes into an image you will see for all of four seconds on screen.

The next night, the winds returned, so they had to light the scene without the paraglider. The prop mistress assembled the tarp, stuffing it with pillows so as to look like it contains a corpse. I was in costume with my rifle, ready to shoot the scene. Just as we seemed ready to go, they sent me to the editing room to "check continuity."

What that means is, they wanted me to look at older footage from the same scene to make sure I was in the matching costume. Strange, but all right. Quickly I was escorted in to the room where the editor is already at work, putting scenes together for the trailer. As it happened the editor wasn't even at his post, and some people were instead watching the Lakers and the Celtics doing battle.

After tarrying there for a minute, I returned. The errand was unnecessary anyway, as I was definitely in the right outfit. Everything was ready and I got on my mark. The director had a word with me before the take, saying, "This time, I want to try this: before you drag the body, just open the tarp a little bit and check in there, make sure the body is secure."

Accepting my instructions, I got in place, the crew cleared away, quiet was called, camera and sound began rolling, and the director called action. I stepped in to the tarp and began to open it just a bit, when suddenly the tarp came alive with a terrible flailing and kicking, and a voice inside howled in protest. I squawked and retreated a step as a head emerged from the tarp. It was the editor, bursting from the tarp and howling, "Damn it, Algernon! You woke me up!!"

The entire crew rolled with mirth, including me -- once I had restarted my heart.

After a quick reset, it was time to go, and this time we finally got the shot.

[Photo: Neil, a fun-loving member of our crew, battles the wind on location in El Paso.]

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Ironically, the punch went quite well.

Mark, the young man engaged in fisticuffs with me, landed his punch right on target: several inches away from my face, at a convincing angle for the camera. I jerked my head in an appropriate response and staggered out the door with suitable grunts of exertion and pain, falling to the floor outside the room. We did this ugly dance several times.

On yet another take, the punch flew, I reacted, out the door I went, stagger stagger, grunt grunt. Mark came out of the room as choreographed. And then something different happened. My scene partner lost his footing, and his balance along with it. Time elongated, in that way it does when something unpleasant and dangerous is taking place, something that is likely to cause someone to feel sore for a long time.

Mark's weight fell on me -- on my face -- and pushed my head into the wall. There was a dreadful crunch and immediately I saw stars. Blood swiftly began to flow and I called, "Hold please."


Within sixty seconds, the crew had brought me ice as I assessed. Nose broken? Other injury? We broke for lunch and I reclined. The blood stopped and what little swelling took place went down quickly.

After lunch, back to the roughhousing. Got a movie to make, by gum. The morning after this incident, I am still sore. This was not, however, the end of this scene -- or the folly.

We were shooting the scene from a different angle, adjusting our fracas suitably for the camera's line of sight. Out I went, again and again, hitting the wall with my open hand to make a loud sound (in stage combat, this is called the "nap") and making with the appropriate "ooh" and "gah!" sort of sounds. As you do.

One take too many, perhaps: I lost my own footing, and instead of "napping" the wall so nicely my body twisted and my shoulder went through the wallboard. Another bad sound, another jolt of pain, and a visible hole in the set.

Crap again.

And oh, the jokes. The jokes flowed like blood for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

An Antidote to Harry Potter

Since the end of May, I have been spending a great deal of time on a film set in El Paso, Texas.

Yesterday, in particular, was a long day of waiting. Our location was a small roadside convenience store on a quiet road near the El Paso / Santa Teresa line. There was no room to hang around inside, so half the day was spent sheltering under a tree with members of the crew.

It was here that finally, belatedly, I sampled the first of Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events," a series of darkly-themed fantasy novels for younger readers. I found it quite amusing and enjoyable, a nice antidote to Harry Potter fantasies that are just made for a John Williams soundtrack. Whereas, this tale would have been well suited by, say, The Amoebic Ensemble. (Ah, how I miss them.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Mythologies and Naked Power

Who has power?

How are they using it?

Who pays?

A dear old friend, a rabbi in Los Angeles, sent me an op-ed about Israel and the recent raid on a Turkish ship that attempted to bring humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza. (Several peace activists were shot and killed in the raid, and the standing alliance between Israel and Turkey is badly strained at present.)

If readers of this blog are interested, maybe I'll ask the rabbi's permission to post the correspondence. It might be of interest to some -- maybe inspire some comments.

What I'll share here is that my own non-professional analysis of the situation is based on the idea that our political narratives are mythologies. There are Zionist narratives. Islamist narratives. Communist narratives. Capitalist (or "free market") narratives. A great many nationalist narratives. And many more. Beautiful, compelling stories.

Underneath the mask, I'm looking at power. Who's got it. How it's being used. And who is paying for it.

In Gaza, where children die of treatable disease even on peaceful days, it is quite clear who doesn't have power. I've got friends who see this from Israel's point of view, and I recently read a New York Times op-ed that actually claimed, "There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza." Wow. On the other hand, I also have friends who are very quick to make Israel the sole villain, who ignore her history and her human needs (which include security).

Reflecting on my recent letter to the rabbi, I drove to El Paso thinking about power and entrenched conflicts. And I recalled the feel-good moment at the end of the Clinton Presidency, when Rabin and Arafat shook hands. Remember that picture?

Both men were doomed after that handshake. Rabin was assassinated for talking to the enemy. Arafat lost much of his base for compromising with "the Zionist entity," and yet Israel did not trust him, either. Arafat was such a militant and revolutionary figure, he had no scaffolding from which to climb down and compromise. (This is why Hamas cannot negotiate a peace: they, too, have staked out a position from which it is impossible to make a trust with Israel.)

Here's the thing.

When truly committed and honest negotiators appear on both sides of this conflict, they will necessarily begin talking about concessions and compromises. In other words, there will be a discussion about conceding and sharing power.

On the rare occasions that people speak that way and mean it, what happens to them?

We know quite well what happens. When power is actually threatened, there is a murder.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Elton John Sings For Rush Limbaugh

We'll be saying nothing nasty about Rush Limbaugh in this entry, even though the man himself makes a lucrative career from saying nasty things. That's his gig. It has paid him well enough that he owns a pretty good piece of real estate in Palm Beach, and it is here that he celebrates his fourth wedding this weekend.

As human beings, the Burning House says congratulations and good luck to the bride and groom.

What's raising some eyebrows this weekend is the presence of Elton John, who sang for Rush's wedding at a reported fee of a cool million. Mr. Limbaugh, of course, is an inveterate gay basher, whereas Elton John has backed full marriage rights for gay people. Some are asking, would this not have made for a strange scene at Rush's wedding?

Oh, come off it. These guys are in business. Rush wanted Elton, Elton named his price, and Rush paid it. On some level, I suspect Elton John understands that Rush Limbaugh is a showman. He makes money bashing gays, among other things. Whatever Rush truly believes in his heart, he is not sincerely campaigning for an improved society. He's putting on his show and making his money. And Elton John needs money, too.

The only thing that makes this remarkable is the notion, a sweet notion, that people actually believe in what they say. How, then, could Rush invite this gay man to entertain at his own wedding? How, then, could Elton John go and sing for this figure?

Without sentiment, it's actually quite clear. Cha-ching. No other meaning.


In a chattier vein, if you had a million bucks, who would you bring in to play at your wedding?

I'm thinking Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys from L.A. That wouldn't even cost a million. I don't think Sarah would be happiest with that choice, but we'd probably fall together on Rodrigo y Gabriela:

Thursday, June 03, 2010

More Tales From Location

While we shoot footage in El Paso, there is a young man closed up in a small room surrounded by computers. He is the film's editor, already on the job doing rough edits of scenes. There is no film involved. It is entirely done on film-quality video. One day, having arrived early and finding myself with a bit of waiting-time, the editor let me watch him click, drag, replay, and put together part of a scene we had filmed a couple of days earlier. He was so expansive as to give me a little primer on the software and told me about well-known film editors he respected.

Amazing. We are so far past the days of covering the floor of an editing room with pieces of film, cutting it and splicing it together. I asked him if he had ever touched actual film: nope. He is wholly trained in the digital era.

There are some driving scenes in the movies and we have been spending time doing those. On projects with a larger budget, there are specially-designed cars mounted to trailers, or modified to accommodate cameras. We don't have those kind of toys. We do, however, have the means to rig up the photographer so that he can ride outside the car and film me driving down a deserted street at 15 miles per hour. For other shots, a camera is mounted inside the vehicle, and a camera man does the driving.

Late at night, in the dark, the first zombie moment was shot. A relative of the director submits to a lengthy makeup job. His skin is transformed and made horrible, blood around his mouth, and a special paste of oatmeal and stage blood is prepared and applied just before the camera rolls. A scene where the truck's headlights reveal a zombie in the middle of a road was filmed without incident. More late-night zombie scenes will follow this week.