Saturday, July 31, 2010

Listen to Dreyfuss

This morning, I had to wake up extra early, pour two mugs of coffee into myself, and make a long drive into Las Cruces and then north on the I-25 to a lonely rest stop where Folklore was filming for the day.

On my way up there, I listened to KRWG and heard the actor Richard Dreyfuss give a lecture and take some questions at the Commonwealth Club in California. His topic was his own Dreyfuss Initiative, a foundation pushing for a rigorous civics education in all our schools.

It is well worth some listening time. He is an engaging, entertaining, passionate speaker, with a keen mind and a patriotic interest in republican democracy. He senses, correctly, that republican democracy is in imminent danger of failure.

So have a listen. If you want, pour yourself some refreshing water with lime, or another beverage, perhaps a snack, and just enjoy the time. Here is the link again.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Cheap Is Not Cheap

It has been said before and needs to be said again, with the same persistence as the mysterious slogan "Freedom isn't Free." Cheap isn't cheap.

I pay too much for housing, movie tickets, and prescription medications. But paying too little for an umbrella that falls apart after one windy outing doesn't mitigate that. It only adds up to a hundred dollar a year umbrella habit. (Oh, and doesn't the store that sells them just know it?)

So writes Mary Elizabeth Williams in a brief and humorous piece for Salon today. She does not go very deep in her analysis, but she has a clue:

Our collective mania for low, low prices has been frothing for years now, fueled by morally dubious manufacturing practices, aggressive marketing and a crap economy. But as Stephanie Zacharek pointed out last year regarding Ellen Ruppel's "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," those bargains come at a cost – to workers here and abroad, to the environment, and to our own increasingly superficial relationship with our possessions. As your mom used to day, this is why can't we have nice things.

I recommend the 2009 Zacharek article linked in that quote, by the way.

How things are produced. Who produces them. What they are made of. How they are delivered to us. These things matter, and not only because they factor into the price we pay. Our involvement in the lives of other human beings, the health of our own home and community, and the ecological system that sustains human life, is far deeper than a swipe of a plastic card at a cashier counter.

In a 2009 post on this blog, I quoted from a Wendell Berry essay on husbandry to demonstrate the point that when we consume food, we are also consuming the way it was produced. This notion of husbandry could also be extended into other spheres of our economy.

Elsewhere, Berry wrote, "We’ve lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We’ve been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. That requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery. We will never clearly understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."

As it says in the Buddhist equivalent of saying grace before a meal, innumerable labors brought us our food, we should know how it comes to us.

It is the same with a $2 camisole, or the oil we run through our car's engine, or the sidewalk you might walk on during this day. The mail that is brought to you. The internet service that allows you to read this blog (thank you, by the way, for reading).

Cheap is not really cheap. Low prices disguise things that matter.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Zen Masters and Institutional Zen, Part Four

On July 4, 2010, Eido Shimano Roshi stepped down from the board of directors of the Zen Studies Society (ZSS). This was prompted by allegations of clergy misconduct. The ZSS is committed to fully investigating, clarifying and bringing resolution to this matter. Eido Roshi’s wife, Aiho-san Shimano, also stepped down from the Board at that time.
Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal.

This event ignited discussion of Zen and institutional oversight on a number of Buddhist blogs and other web sites. James Ford wrote of the need for "larger institutions that oversee teachers and communities," not just for each community or Zen school, but "a pan-lineage organization with some teeth."

Brad Warner, author of the popular Hardcore Zen blog and a very busy Zen teacher himself, wrote a response that included some polite objections: "I’ve seen too many instances where that has broken down to believe that the simple existence of a big institution with an ethical code with teeth will always prevent abuses, or even prevent most abuses, or even prevent the worst abuses. ... Institutions have to justify their existence somehow. They have to keep doing something. When legitimate problems fade away they tend to start making up new things and labeling them as problematic so that the institution has something to do."

There is also this objection, from the same article, and it represents a point of view Brad Warner has expressed before: "I feel that Zen teachers are more like artists than like religious instructors. If you bind artists to institutions, you kill their ability to create art."

One of my favorite Buddhist bloggers, Nathan Thompson, has explored some of the personal ramifications of power and institutions in Zen in a series of good posts, like this one, this one, and this one. See also my old friend Paul's take on transmission and community sickness. There have many other interesting contributions which I must omit from mention for now.

For what it's worth, I would like to respond to the Ford and Warner articles jointly, as these seem to have ignited much of the discussion that has followed. In conclusion, I will return to the case of this anonymous Zen Master to whom I've been alluding throughout.

In response to scandals involving Zen teachers, some of us have resorted to familiar modern habits: litigation, making institutions, almost to the point of corporatizing Zen. Years ago, an insurance agent even approached Cambridge Zen Center about liability insurance for koan practice. In case, you know, someone had a nervous breakdown while thinking about a koan and decided to sue!

A Holy See?

Instinctively, I am concerned about the idea of a major "Zen See" that can intervene in events within any Zen school or lineage. Very few people talk openly about this, but there are some deeply prejudiced attitudes toward other lineages, held by teachers as well as students.

For a "pan-lineage" organization to treat different lineages and teachers' individual styles fairly and with respect, these attitudes would have to be aired. There would also need to be open conversation about things like, oh, say, teachers who claim their deceased Zen Master gave them dharma transmission in a dream, and other claims of secret or private transmission. Would the "Zen See" have authority over these as well? I'd like to think we are ready to jump in and have these discussions mindfully and honestly, yet I wonder.

Would such an authority really limit itself to reacting to extreme cases, or would it gradually impose a homogeneous standard on teaching methods and rituals? For example, would the Korean yonbi -- a small burn applied on the arm during precepts ceremonies -- come up for debate, or even banned? Would we begin parsing the different cultural inheritances and force the creation of an "American Zen style" rather than let it distill itself?

Within the Kwan Um School of Zen itself, I have noticed some of Zen Master Seung Sahn's original methods have been quietly dropped. His system of breath and movement exercises, soen yu, are seldom taught or practiced in North America, although a few of our older monks have kept it alive and will demonstrate it upon request. Meanwhile, Seung Sahn's "special energy practice," which I have described as "dancing in tongues," has gone underground and to my knowledge is very rarely practiced anywhere. (Several years ago, some of us Dharma Zen Center folks went out to Tehachapi for a few days and tried this practice with Mu Ryang Sunim. I don't entirely understand why it freaks people out -- we had a couple of people flee the temple crying "shamanism" in Korean.)

Zen Master As (Martial) Artist

Although one of Zen Master Seung Sahn's famous catch phrases was "don't make anything [in your mind]," he was very spontaneous and creative, and sometimes I miss that. There is something to Brad Warner's analogy of the Zen Master as a kind of artist: perhaps a performance artist using the immediate moment as her material.

Soen Nakagawa Roshi's retreats in America were, by all accounts, loaded with spontaneity in the midst of the regimented zen sesshin schedule. There are anecdotes of him playing pranks in the interview room, waking people up to bring them outside to show them a blooming flower, putting on masks and dancing. Bernie Glassman went from traditional Zen retreats to introduce street retreats, contemplative retreats at Auschwitz, and clowning as an awakening practice. Daido Loori roshi did some beautiful work developing a strict course of Zen training that incorporated the arts and wilderness. These are just a few examples -- there are more.

Instinctively, I tend to think of Zen as a martial art with religious elements, that can interface easily with other traditional martial arts as well as different religions. Why do any of these things? Who is doing it? Whatever art you practice, are you willing to use it to enquire deeply into the truth of this moment? Can you let the grandiose sense of "I" and its greedy desire burn away completely until it is no longer "you" acting, but the universe (or God or Tao or whatever name you want to give it) doing its thing?

Proactive vs. Reactive

Whether the Zen Master is a priest or a martial artist or a clown, the question of oversight remains. The community needs recourse in the event that a teacher mishandles her authority and causes harm. But now we run into our culture's frequent confusion of "proactive" and "reactive." You can't prevent harm by thinking reactively. You can prevent some things, however, by working proactively.

A great deal of growth might be accomplished by encouraging local sanghas to build democratic structures and to practice the skills of conflict resolution, dialogue, listening, and other aspects of group dynamics. It would make sense to build zazen into these structures, to make sangha management an aspect of our awareness practice, not to mention practicing the noble eightfold path in a conscious and open manner.

I trust this far more than I trust some sort of overriding federal or corporate body, a "Dharma See" that would legislate over the heads of the local sangha.

One more thing on this. Blanche Hartman once said to me, touching on the Baker roshi fiasco, that part of the problem was that "Dick didn't have peers. He didn't accept peers." How clear and simple that is. The sangha jewel supports and enriches us at every stage of our practice; it is much harder to stay clear in isolation. The Zen Master is still a practicing person, and by associating with others in a position similar to his, there can be a healthy peerage forging proactive working relationships and dialogue. And "pan-lineage" associations of teachers are appearing.

A Conclusion of Sorts

Would any of this have prevented or remedied the situation with the Zen Master who went after my girlfriend back in the 1990's? He was initially part of an organized Zen lineage, an established school. When that community began asking him questions about his conduct, he simply left and formed his own independent lineage. What is to be done at that point? Does anything need to be done? One could spread the word, but then we invite litigation, as well as the possibility that unproven accusations and slanders would spread. None of that seems very skillful.

How much control and safety are really conducive to awakening? The universe is not under our control and not especially "safe." I don't welcome unpleasant or dangerous experiences, but there is yet some value in going straight into the belly of the whale. When someone pointed a gun at my face, I learned things about myself (and the person I was with at the time) that cannot be "taught." It was the same when I got beat up on a New York City subway and was left bleeding on the floor. In retrospect, would I want to be "protected" from these experiences?

That may sound a little dark, but I'll leave it there. Yes, there is a need to respond to abuse, and to prevent its recurrence where we can. At the same time, we do need some exposed nails and broken bits of glass out there around our path.

Inconceivable is the Buddha way. We vow nonetheless to attain it.

On Zen Masters and Institutional Zen, Part Three

The wildness that heals the world...

In Zen, using our awareness practice and mindfully applying Buddhist precepts to real-life complexity, we are trusting in the possibility of an intuitive moral compass. This is about shila paramita, the perfection of morality in Buddhist practice. It points to an internal and spontaneous awareness that discerns "correct situation, correct relationship, and correct function" in each moment. It is not just a sense of modifying our behavior to fit an external idea or another person's standards. It is not a process of suppressing "bad" stuff, but of understanding self and its substance, and letting go of the objects of mind and habits that control our actions (karma) and their subsequent results (vipaka). Cause and effect become our teachers -- our true Zen Masters.

It is an idea that western culture still finds unnerving: that when one's spirit is free, compassion and wisdom appear of themselves. The west is afraid of wildness, yet Buddhism suggests that true wildness leads to peace.

While the guidance of a good mentor is invaluable, the purpose is to grow up and stand on one's own feet. We have to "leave" the teacher in a sense, as we had to leave our parents. Zen Master Seung Sahn told his older students they had to kill Buddha, kill their parents, and then kill him. A good teacher helps you to become independent; other teachers prefer their students to remain dependent on them.

Besides the obvious harm done when a teacher abuses his power, there is the harm done to people collectively: reinforcing our fear of our true selves, and injuring our trust in the kind of "morality" that is spontaneous, creative, and innately wise. When someone who has supposedly "gotten it" and been authorized as a true "Zen Master" turns out to be a crook or a predator or both, you can't blame folks for questioning the whole premise.

It also opens up an interesting can of worms. Can you "revoke" dharma transmission? Does that mean the teacher who gave that transmission wasn't clear himself? We are still working with sticky ideas and arguments about "enlightenment," and these come into play when we start acknowledging the foibles of our teachers.

Perhaps all our Zen Buddhist sanghas, as a collective, have some work to do in putting down our attachment to Zen Masters, so that we don't elevate them so high in the first place and put that pressure on them. Perhaps we still have a ways to go in putting down the doctrine of impeccability that is attached to our senior teachers. Perhaps taking the piss out of the Zen Master position would obviate some of the need for new institutions and organizations, as bodies that might unwittingly blunt the creativity of good Zen teachers.

On the night I met the man whose cat had died, I watched a skilled Zen Master use his own resources to set that man back on his feet, like a true bodhisattva. Observing this, I felt greed: I wanted to have that kind of power. Me me me, I want to do that. Greed always sets the snare. And that skilled Zen Master himself proved to be a slave to his own greed, for which he eventually paid a price. I hope it woke him up. As for me, I prefer to remember him when he was at his best, forgetting himself and helping a human being who was in pain.

My own teacher has a conscious practice of taking the piss out of Zen ceremony and her own position as a "Zen Master." She is fearless about presenting the "unenlightened" thoughts and impulses that arise in her, because that is when the alarm goes off and wakes us up, if we are willing to do that. She wears the mantle of the "teacher" in a way that models honesty and integrity, holding herself accountable and returning to whatever the immediate moment requires. She doesn't do this in order to be a good Buddhist, or because she is a Zen Master, but because her heart leads her there again and again, and that's all. Personally, I feel so grateful for her "imperfect" style. It makes her participation in ceremonies that much more moving and memorable; ceremony is inherently theatrical, it is artifice that points at things essential and hard to notice with everyday eyes. Her "imperfect" style has helped and encouraged me, even if it is not a style that excites and inspires everyone. Another teacher might inspire and excite someone else.

So be it. As long as we kill off our teachers in the end and stand on our own feet.

On Zen Masters and Institutional Zen, Part Two

"My cat passed away."

He was a short, elderly man with thick glasses. Nobody there had met him. He had come to a public dharma talk presented by the Zen Master referenced in the previous post. This was the evening when my girlfriend and I met this teacher in person for the first time. It was a lively, dynamic talk, a delightful recipe of humor, Zen folklore, and personal reflection, served up by a charismatic speaker who seemed to radiate vitality and health. Through it all, the tiny old man had sat quietly in a kneeling position on a zafu.

Now it was question and answer time, and after the experienced students had asked questions about various points in the master's talk, or playfully challenged him with koan-style questions, this old man simply shared what had brought him here. "My cat passed away." What we soon learned is that this man lived alone and had no one in the world, no friends or family. He was a forgotten man, a pensioner, and the only living being he had for company was a cat. Earlier that day, the cat had died.

I'll never know what brought him, of all places, to a Buddhist temple with his grief. He was distraught and at a complete loss. In a dull, stunned voice he gave voice to despair so softly that people across the room leaned close to hear him. "I have nothing and no one to live for. I don't know what to do."

The Zen Master worked professionally with people in crisis, and he shifted modes on the instant, bringing his clinical skill to the situation with genuine compassion. No sutras, no clever "gotcha" Zen. He met the guy right where he was and kept him talking. In a few minutes, he had talked the man away from the abyss. "You say your life is over, but how do you know the alternative would be any better? How do you know?" He reframed the situation, celebrated the years that the man and the cat had been friends ("there are people in this room who have never known friendship like that"), got him laughing. It was a rare event to witness: he presented the dharma to a newcomer while assessing the man's personal crisis and addressing his pain. By the time we left, the man was sitting and eating refreshments, meeting new friends who would check up on him in the following days. He had finally permitted himself to cry, laughing at himself while he did so, the tears bringing relief.

It was the beginning of my girlfriend's innocent attraction to the man. He had made a positive impression on me, as well. I felt I had witnessed peacemaking in action, and along with appreciation, greed rose in my heart. I wanted to do that, too.

What is a Zen Master? I'll try to explain this briefly in terms that my readers who don't practice Zen can understand. Those of you who DO know about Zen realize this is a daunting task and I will likely fail. Here goes.

Zen is a long-term discipline, and very few people stick with it for more than a few years. (My own teacher has been practicing nearly 40 years, as long as I've been alive.) A great value is placed in people who mature in the practice, applying it through different stages of human life, and learning how to mentor others. It is a rare person who is willing and able to make a full-time commitment to learning the techniques of Zen practice, incorporating it practically into the whole of her life, and also exhibits a talent for presenting Zen teaching and practice in a way that inspires and guides others.

If only we could leave it at that.

Zen traditions differ. There are different schools that handle mentorship in various ways. Zen is practiced in different countries that transfer some of their cultural trappings along with their rituals. Generally, whatever title a "Zen Master" is given, there tends to be a formal ceremony -- usually public, but sometimes private -- wherein a recognized Zen teacher bestows that recognition to a long-time student. This personal transmission is considered very important, and people will often look to a teacher's lineage. "Oh, you're an old student of so-and-so. HIS teacher was so-and-so!" This is roughly analogous to the licenses and diplomas you will find on the walls of a doctor's office: sometimes we like to know where somebody trained, and to see some documentation that they are qualified to play this role.

Now we're going to add some complications.

In some places, a Zen Master is considered a kind of priest. The master might in fact be a Buddhist monastic, or have trained in a monastic environment for a period of time. Whether he has hair or not, the Zen Master is often thought to have attained something special, if not supreme enlightenment itself. A wide range of expectations are projected onto the "Zen Master." At its extreme, this can approach guru worship.

On the other hand, transmission has at times been a matter of politics, a simple business transaction. Suzuki-roshi's decision to come to the United States was, by many accounts, partly motivated by the routinization of dharma transmission in Japan.

In spite of that, the "Zen Master" or "roshi" is made into something special.

At Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Rhode Island, I was present at one retreat where a bird in flight struck one of the glass walls of the dharma room and fell onto the porch. It was right around that time that Zen Master Dae Kwang was leading walking meditation, with everyone in a line behind him. Dae Kwang Sunim gave the bird a gentle nudge with his foot to see if it was dead, and the bird -- who had merely been stunned, I suppose -- suddenly flew away. Much later, I heard this story told by someone else, but in his version, the Zen Master had resurrected the bird!

This is how Zen folklore develops. Tales of Zen Masters from ancient times crackle with magic and miracles, clairvoyant insights, and special powers. It is very seductive stuff for those of us still ruled by greed. The Zen Master is transformed into something special. She is expected to move seamlessly between various roles: priest, meditation master, organizational leader, fundraiser for their Center, motivational speaker, grandparent, therapist, theologian, contractor, cook, medicine man. And more.

It is difficult to live as a folk figure when one is, after all, a human being. A Zen Master is sometimes believed to have attained something beyond conventional understanding. In my personal experience, I have met people who seemed almost magical, but when I examine that for what it is, what I find is that they were remarkably perceptive, spontaneous, and resourceful. They expressed a kindness that was profound, and tirelessly creative.

When people desire to believe in a Zen Master's divine impeccability, they suspend critical judgment. An enlightened being's actions are taken, in aggregate, as an expression of enlightenment, even where they contradict our sense of right and wrong. Occasionally, people in the "Zen Master" position have themselves been seduced by this idea.

(For all the book's flaws, Michael Downing's 2001 work, Shoes Outside The Door, did an admirable job of exploring these dynamics as they played out during San Francisco Zen Center's crisis.)

A lot has been said about this by wiser people, and a lot of points are worth including here but I'm skipping them because this post is already a bit long. In the next post, I will air one point that doesn't get made as often, because I think it bears on the question of oversight and supervision of Zen teachers.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Zen Masters and Institutional Zen, Part One

He was a Zen Master, and he wanted my girlfriend.

I am not certain that he wanted to fuck her. Maybe so. What is certain is that he wanted her to move across the country to live at his Zen Center, work there for him full-time; and he fixed her up with a young postulant monk who was also living there. She disclosed to me that he said things to her like, "One day, I will give you inka."

(Inka is when an authorized Zen teacher recognizes your maturity and authorizes you as a teacher. It's considered a big deal, and the desire to become a teacher is a common pitfall in developing a consistent lifelong practice. Using that desire to hold students in place and get them to do things for you is rather awful.)

During the couple of days where she disclosed to me her sexual relationship with this young monk and her plans to move to that Zen Center, she received phone calls and emails from the teacher encouraging her to make a clean break from our relationship, hurrying her along, manipulating her and using her obvious attraction to him to his advantage. It was a weird way to break up with somebody. In hindsight, the lady was clearly ready to move on anyway. It broke my heart at the time but that's how it is with young love. (The lady's life took quite a few turns after that and although we are not often in contact these days, she appears to have a wonderful, happy life with a terrific husband and a baby.)

A short while after this went down, I learned that this man got into some serious professional trouble, which suggests his abusive behavior was not limited to his work as a Zen teacher.

It has been well over ten years since that incident took place. I have not written about it and have rarely spoken about it, for the most pragmatic of reasons: this Zen teacher has a following, and he or his organization could likely sue me. Talking about it all requires me to omit details that could be used to identify the person or his organization.

Preying on the vulnerable is pretty disgusting, and it is natural to feel some anger arise. The history of Zen Buddhism in the States includes several incidents where people anointed with the position of a Zen Master have abused their power, not limited to sex, although the sex scandals are powerful. (We so easily forget how much harm can be wrought by careless sex.) It also scares people away from the dharma, which perhaps increases the harm done by such actions.

In the west, this history gives rise to a natural question: is there a need for a large institution to hold Zen teachers accountable for actions like this? Can we leave this to the organizations that support a particular teacher's work? Or should the various schools and traditions band together and make one large institution that is empowered to act when a teacher gets weird?

This is something we are good at: making institutions and conducting hearings.

Over the last couple of days, a couple of Buddhist blogs that I read have been entertaining this question. I've been busy doing manual labor, and as I've worked this old incident and the comments I've been reading have danced around a bit in my mind. In the midst of trimming tree branches and other landscaping work around my new home, I thought I would take to this blog to explore the subject and maybe cross an unfinished "t" in the process.

To make this easier to read -- if anyone even cares to read -- I'm going to break this up over a couple of posts. One will deal with the idea of the "Zen Master" and another will deal with institutionalizing Zen. And maybe this will help close up a circle concerning this manipulative Zen teacher, who is still active, teaching many students, and -- I sincerely hope -- not doing anyone harm.

In writing about this, I guess I am erring on the side of open discussion, because Zen practice has been something of a salvation for me personally, and because the buddhadharma contains wisdom useful for all human beings, regardless of what religious identity people wear. I hope not to muddy the waters further.

Friday, July 23, 2010

God Hates Comic Books?

No, I do not know why the Westboro Baptist Church (the church that gives us Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps) went to protest at a comic book convention in San Diego.

What I know is, the comic book fans were ready for them.

Enjoy the results. Really, have a look. Pictures, video, and the story. The picture above is just the beginning.


One of the silliest rock 'n' roll songs ever, with a silly video to match, but the chainsaw solo about 1:30 in just takes the cake.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Feel Like We're Fixin' To Die (2010)

A simple update of this song might go:

Don't ask me, I don't give a damn.

Next stop is Afghanistan.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On Tools and Human Power

For the first time in my life, I bought a lawn mower.

Back in Rhode Island, my job as a teenager was to mow most of my family's quarter-acre using a gas-powered rotary mower. During college, one of my survival jobs off and on was landscaping and usually my job was to mow grass as quickly as possible. For these tasks I always used the power mowers, and thus I got used to them. The work was about clearing the territory as quickly as possible -- to move on to the next lawn, or just to finish the household chore.

Now I am using a manual-powered reel mower. It requires no gas, oil, or any fuel except my own energy. Its emissions are limited to grass clippings, which it deposits neatly on top of the lawn unless its grass-catching bag is attached. There is no roar of an engine, just the metallic whistle of its twirling blades, skimming the cutting bar as it shears the grass.

The engine is a man: feet on the ground, back lengthened, arms bent, breathing, sweating. And yet, I don't feel as though I am working any harder than I did with the power mowers. It isn't heavy. It does not jam any more often than the power mowers. The steps required to mix fuel additives, pour gasoline, and get the engine going are eliminated: just aim and go. Dealing with a jam is easy enough: push the handle and let the mower flop over like a dog going belly-up, and clear out the wheels and blades, working carefully with fingers.

For maintenance, I wipe the axles and blades down with some WD-40. There is a sharpening kit waiting for use if the blades get dull, but that shouldn't be for another year or two.

The results are different, as well. Although the height of the blades is adjustable, tall grass will always be more difficult. This summer was the first time this lawn had been mowed in a long time, so the first cut required a great deal of work. Also, the mower appears to be stymied by dandelions. Dandelions have a way of slipping through the blades unscathed, like little judo masters.

What I noticed while taming this old lawn, using what is essentially a big hand tool, is that my relationship to the work was different than when I did it with a power mower. Different kinds of machines put us in a different relationship to the work. With a power mower, one pays attention to covering ground and watching out for foreign objects in the path. With self-propelled mowers, it becomes even more a matter of steering and avoiding trouble. One does not need to notice the nap of the grass and adjust to it so as to get a better cut. The combustion engine just powers through it, the horizontal blades do their job, and one proceeds in perfectly straight slightly overlapping rows. You cut the grass in a mechanical grid.

Cutting the grass with a reel mower or a scythe brings one, perforce, closer to the lawn itself. It is a living, breathing organism under our feet, not just territory to be covered, a chore to be crossed off the list. Mowing the lawn is as close as most non-farmers and non-gardeners get to husbandry, yet few carry on with any sense of caring for a piece of living earth. The job is done as if one was vacuuming a rug.

In this heat, the work is hard going. After this first campaign, maintenance should go much easier, but for now it is hot, thirsty labor, accomplished with much sweat and with one eye on our son, who is playing somewhere nearby. (That's another thing: without a motor combusting near my face, I can hear what's going on around me.) When it's time to break for the day, a cold beer seems to fit well, sitting on this old bench we inherited with the house, admiring Sarah's work in the vegetable garden and breathing in the labor and fruits of this small patch of earth.

[Photo: our new mower at rest]

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Responding to E-Mail Forwards

It was the first I had heard of it: a proposal to build an Islamic center a few blocks away from the "Ground Zero" site in New York City, where the Twin Towers once stood.

I heard of it because of an email that was forwarded to me, urging me to click a link and watch a YouTube video. The video shows a British gentleman explaining his objection to the idea of building a mosque or anything associated with Islam in that neighborhood.

When I get these forwards, my practice is first to confirm them -- an awful lot of hoaxes get mailed around. When it's a hoax, I hit "reply all" and announce that it's a hoax and share the links I used to determine that.

When the forwarded email expresses bigotry, I respond to that as well. This sometimes causes awkwardness between myself and whoever sent the email. The discomfort, however, is less important than responding, civilly yet honestly, to hatred.

I clicked the video to check out what was being said. After all, this may well have turned out to be a sensible and well-informed objection to building a temple near this historic site. Sadly, less than a minute into the monologue, what manifested was sheer islamophobia.

Below, I share the email I sent to my friend and the entire distribution list. If this email comes your way, by all means check it out yourself if you are interested. This is simply one man's personal response to it:

About 50 seconds into this video, the gentleman refers to the Islamic religion as "the religion that murdered" the victims of 9/11.

This is wrong. Islam did not murder those people anymore than "the Catholic religion" molested all of those boys. If you want to blame Islam itself for 9/11, are you willing to blame Christianity for the murders that take place at abortion clinics? I would hope not. I certainly don't. Most Christians I know do not condone terrorism or murder; why should they be associated with unhinged terrorists? How do you blame one religion for being intrinsically violent, yet make exceptions for the other?

Putting an Islamic center on Ground Zero would not be my first choice, but this video is an expression of bigotry.

Can I imagine anything more outrageous than putting a house of worship up on or near "Ground Zero?"

My first choice for the site would not be a church, synagogue, OR a mosque. But of course the point here is that we are supposed to be more outraged by a mosque.

In light of this, my first choice for the site would be a center for reconciliation and dialogue, a place for anti-racism training, a center for cultural education, a place where human beings can learn and grow, rather than sink into scapegoating, ignorance, and fear.

My strong response, and "reply all," is because this sort of thing upsets me and dishonors our great country. The Islamic religion is not our enemy. It is not anti-American. The Islamic religion does not call for an act such as what took place in New York City. Many thoughtful critiques can be made about this religion and its text, the Q'ran (which I have taken the time and interest to read -- it is a provocative, intriguing, sometimes lovely, sometimes mystifying sacred book), but that is very different than this knee-jerk association of muslims, or people who speak Arabic, or people who merely "look" middle-eastern, with deluded militants living in caves (literally or figuratively).

Characterizing this act of terrorism as somehow intrinsic to Islam is offensive to me as an American with many muslim friends who are loyal, considerate, decent citizens and good friends. One hard-working muslim family back in Rhode Island taught me, by example, an unforgettable lesson about work ethic and determination. They are not the exception that proves a bigoted rule. Terrorism claims many religions and philosophies: but in the end, it is a lie. Terrorism is terrorism. Period. It is not Christian. It is not Muslim. It does not evoke the kingdom of heaven for the mortal, it does not bring salvation or justice, it does not make the world a better place. Let us reserve our scorn for terrorism, for senseless murder, for the hatred and bigotry that inspired the horrors of 9/11.

We fall far indeed when we embody the hatred and bigotry that were visited on us that day.

Your friend,
A day later, a question occurs to me I would love to ask those who object to building a mosque in lower Manhattan. Where would you draw the boundaries of your "no mosque" zone? Would you be okay with building one midtown? Anywhere in Manhattan? What about the other boroughs? Can a mosque be built anywhere in New York City without your objection?

Or is there an unspoken desire for a religious purge here? Just askin'.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Pen Is Mighty Indeed!

This is a frivolous post, sharing a rather delightful editorial error that I came across reading news on the internet.

The archived article, posted on, covers a libertarian protest in Havana, Cuba back on May 4. (Goodness gracious! Political demonstrations in Cuba? Yes, it's true.)

The following sentence demonstrates the value of a good copy editor:

Members of the Red Protagónica Observatorio Crítico...joined the main Mayday march, with banners promoting grassroots organisation and an end to bureaucracy, claiming that real socialism is democracy, as well as distributing a letter.

Democratic socialism now! And you should write more often!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Good Heckle, Excellent Comback

Having done a little standup, I enjoyed this clip and admired the comedian. The heckle was pretty good, and his comeback was a bullseye. I have no doubt that crowd was with him for the rest of his set.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Funeral For A Magic Marker, and Other Rites of Darkness!

It began with a spontaneous funeral for a magic marker.

At the Deming Learning Center, I am currently teaching two courses back to back for New Mexico's GEAR UP program. This is a college preparatory program, offering academic courses that count towards high school GPA and may also count as college credit as they experience college-level course work. Some of the students are also there on court orders, as a condition of their probation.

My courses are Theatre Appreciation and Theatre Production. The same eleven students spend the entire day with me. They are as young as 16 but I'm treating them all like college freshmen (with similar expectations).

On our second day, we were examining ritual and ceremony as part of our study of early western theatre. We learned about paeans and bacchic rites, and this evolved into a discussion of the uses of ritual and ceremony. Since my course is about the experience of theatre, not just history or literature, this led us to discussing why and how we might create a ceremony to mark an occasion, commemorate someone or something, and/or make visible something that is invisible (like, for instance, "gratitude" or "a vow").

All the elements of producing a play are present in producing a ceremony. As I was writing on the whiteboard with a dry-erase marker, providing a list of some essential steps for inventing and producing a ceremony, the instrument finally exhibited signs of being too dry to write any more. The tip was worn flat, and the thing was spent.

Very well then. I dictated the remainder of the list for them to write on their own, and then I demonstrated each step in turn, improvising a funeral service for the magic marker.

I had brought things to play with: a bunch of colorful sarongs that could be worn or used as altar cloth, a couple of drums, a rin gong, some incense, a candle. I had also gone to the snack room and picked up a sampling of the snack foods provided by the program: fruit, cheese, crackers.

Following each step of the outline I had given the students, I improvised the funeral service by creating a sacred circle, lighting fire and incense, bathing the magic marker in some water, saying words of tribute to the old and exhausted magic marker that had written so many words and drawn so many images to help open up people's minds and spread knowledge to the human realm. With tongue in cheek, other students volunteered to participate in the ceremony, making tributes of their own and ringing the gong. They also came up with the convention of draping themselves in one of the sarongs before entering the circle and speaking.

Once this was concluded, we had a discussion as a class about their thoughts for this summer, the season itself and the GEAR UP program, what they hoped for, and things they wanted to leave behind or release. This emerged into the following assignment: as a class, they would design a ceremony, a "Summer GEAR UP" ceremony, clearly stating what their aspiration was and their feelings about it.

One group was responsible for arranging the entire room, including the sacred area and where people would sit, stand, or whatever. Another group was responsible for deciding what symbolic actions would take place and in what order, the list of events. A third group wrote all of the text for a scripted ceremony. After everyone worked individually, we got together and reconciled the different ideas.

The photo above shows the altar they made, and how they arranged the room. Click on it for a larger view, if you like.

Since this was a ceremony about the GEAR UP program, we all went outside and took a walk around the building as a group, picking up whatever objects caught our attention. We collected flowers, interesting stones, and other relics. There was a discarded ornament from a quinceanera dress, for instance, among our finds. One student became interested in various bottle tops, and amassed a pile of them. A plastic red spoon. A battery. Coins.

These, the students arranged all over the altar table. Here's one view:

The script the students wrote was funny, spoofing formal and poetic language yet with a heartfelt sentiment beneath it, about achievement, personal strength, and transition. What also emerged was a desire to let go of things, which they decided to do by having everyone write something on a piece of paper -- the slips would be collected and disposed of after the ceremony.

What came together was a mix of humor with sincere feeling, and after a rehearsal of the ceremony the students decided they wanted to invite other classes (including their friends and other teachers) to come in and witness or take part in the ceremony.

The ceremony "committee" also decided it would be a good idea for participants to adorn their faces and arms with art. An art class gladly lent us water-soluble wax paints, and the students designed and personalized makeup for the ceremony.

After everyone had a turn disposing of the slips of paper bearing names of things they wished to release or leave behind, they had all participants gather around the altar to blow the candle out simultaneously and then "break the circle" by dancing away from the table and out into the hallway.

A day after this, someone asked my wife -- not me, even though I'm around and accessible -- what all of this has to do with theatre.

Goodness they get so sensitive (or is it scared?) here.

Possible answers:

"What doesn't it have to do with theatre, silly goose?"

"Evidently you should be in the class. He'd probably let you sit in."

or my personal favorite: "Nothing! Haven't you heard my husband is really a warlock with special instructions from the Grand Wizard of the Houha Knights of Wickedness to corrupt the minds of Deming's children and turn them away from JEE-zus??"

At least the latter would be telling them something they want to hear. But my wife won't tell them that.

Sometimes it is hard to leave the learning center, even though the days are long and I am tuckered out by six o'clock. They are smart, funny, inventive students, with open and curious minds. And with quite a flair for scenic design!

It is a Choice, and it Takes a Clear Commitment

Steven Hill writes:

During the past decade, as the US has resorted to increasingly desperate strategies to secure more oil - whether Middle East wars under Bush-Cheney or more offshore drilling under Obama - the European landscape has been slowly transformed by new conservation and renewable energy technologies that look like something out of a sci-fi movie. Picture windmills, tidal turbines and solar panels on rooftops, dotting the European landscape. Imagine large cylindrical "sea snakes" bobbing in the ocean, transforming wave motion into electric power. Or vast solar arrays with tens of thousands of panels that have tracking technology to follow the sun and "smart" energy-efficient buildings that monitor the temperature and sunlight to open and close window panels and blinds automatically. Imagine harnessing the body warmth of 250,000 daily commuters to produce heat for a nearby office block. Or how about high-speed trains circling it all, linking major cities, whisking passengers in carbon-friendly efficiency? All of these inventions and more are becoming reality in Europe.

What's that in the photo up above? From the same article:

Portugal is the first country to pioneer an eye-popping new technology known as a "sea snake" or "energy eel." Sea snakes are 100 meter-long floating cylinders that bob semi-submerged in the waves and convert wave motion to power that is then fed into underwater cables and brought to land. Portugal is planning a grid of 30 sea snake segments producing 20 megawatts of power, saving some 30 million tons of carbon emissions. Twenty-five of these grids could power a city the size of Lisbon.

Where's our spirit of competition? USA! USA! USA! Anyone?

Each country is deploying different technologies and acting as a laboratory for the others. Some countries have set ambitious goals: Sweden already generates 40 percent of its energy needs from renewables. In 2007, Germany generated 14 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, preventing 114 million tons of carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the United States generates a paltry 6 percent of electricity from renewables.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Liberty For All

Hon. Hillary Clinton, Secretary

U.S. Department of State

2201 C Street NW

Washington, DC 20520

RE: Your July 3 speech to the Community of Democracies in Krakow

Dear Madam Secretary,

On this, our Independence Day, a day we commemorate winning our sovereignty in a revolution, I must write in response to news coverage of your speech yesterday to the Community of Democracies in Krakow.

At this speech you warned of a “steel vise” applied by numerous governments against activists and civic groups advocating for democracy. You warned an audience of European leaders about crackdowns on dissent. You named a few offenders, such as China, Russia, Cuba, and Iran. You also named Venezuela, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and the Congo.

It is interesting that you did not mention Honduras, and so shortly after the first anniversary of the bloody coup there. It is fair to say we tacitly supported the Honduran coup of 28 June 2009. That event certainly featured, in your own words, “the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.” Following the coup, elections were conducted amid curfews, tightly controlled media, and continued oppression of civil activists. Against the majority of Latin American nations, you have been actively campaigning for recognition of the new Honduran government. (Your only takers are Peru and Columbia. Porfirio Lobo even had to cancel his visit to the EU-Latin America and Caribbean Summit in May.)

This sort of hypocrisy should not surprise me anymore, but it does. It takes my breath away that my government, while working hard to help launder a violent and repressive coup in Honduras, is lecturing Europe on the “steel vise” of intolerant governments.

There is still an atmosphere of terror and repression in Honduras, where nine journalists have been murdered along with dozens of non-violent democratic activists. The steel vise is there in force, and you, Madam Secretary, are exerting yourself to get other countries to recognize that very government.

And you made this speech on the eve of Independence Day, when we are encouraged to reflect with gratitude on liberty and democracy. It is, simply, stunning.


Saturday, July 03, 2010

Say That In Spanish, Secretary Clinton

From the Huffington Post:

KRAKOW, Poland — Intolerant governments across the globe are "slowly crushing" activist and advocacy groups that play an essential role in the development of democracy, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Saturday.

She cited a broad range of countries where "the walls are closing in" on civic organizations such as unions, religious groups, rights advocates and other nongovernmental organizations that press for social change and shine a light on governments' shortcomings.

Among those she named were Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, China and Russia.

Amazing. Utterly amazing. At the moment I read this, I cannot sit down and write a long and considered response, but a short post felt needed.

How astonishing to read this so soon after the first anniversary of the bloody coup in Honduras, at a time that Secretary Clinton has been pushing Latin America to accept the new President of Honduras, who was elected under the shadow of a coup and violent repression of activists.

This violent repression of activists and advocacy groups in Honduras continued through the election season to such an extent that a legitimate free election was a joke, and protests over the coup and subsequent coup-laundering continue to be subject to crackdowns.

And here is Secretary Clinton lecturing europe about "walls closing in" on civil democracy. This could not be more shameless even if Porfirio Lobo were by her side while she said these things.

After quoting Winston Churchill's warning about an iron curtain spreading across europe, she lectured her audience: "We must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit."

No kidding. Now, can you say that in Spanish, please?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Calling All Avant-Gardeners

The Balboa Motel and Restaurant are open for business on Pine Street in Deming, but it seems the pool could use a little work.

Seeing this, I have wondered more than once: since things are growing here, wouldn't it be neat if this could be deliberately converted into a sunken garden? It would be an unusual and distinctive feature.

The big problem to solve would be drainage. This might require drilling some holes into the bottom, which looks to be concrete. What's underneath? Hmm.

Any avant-gardeners want to brainstorm this one?