Thursday, September 30, 2010

Union Flap Over The Hobbit

You may or may not have seen this item a few years ago, when George Lucas was getting set to make the final Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Sith. Oldman was offered a role in the movie, to play the voice of the animated character General Grievous (remember the robot warrior with a bad cough?).

Oldman was set to do the job, but balked when he was asked to work overseas so Lucas could circumvent the actors' union. It was a highly principled stance and he gave up the job for it. It is one more reason I admire this actor: his respect for his colleagues, including this kind of professional solidarity.

There is now a growing stink over Sir Peter Jackson's much anticipated film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The union representing actors in New Zealand asked for a meeting to negotiate contracts, and they were refused.

That union works in solidarity with a larger union based in Australia, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. So the MEAA made a call, but got the same answer: No meetings, no contracts.

It has now escalated with a withering tirade by Jackson complete with threats to move production of the movie to eastern europe. Internationally, unions are calling for the project to be blacked by workers.

The actor Bruce Hopkins, who appeared as Gamling in the highly profitable Lord of the Ring trilogy, offers a voice of reason on this in this New Zealand news article. He is personally very sympathetic to Jackson, and points out that the Lord of the Ring trilogy was a risk at the time the films were made. It was a circumstance where actors might find it reasonable to invest in a project by working without a contract, for lower wages or other concessions.

On the other hand, it is pretty well assured that The Hobbit will be a great financial success and the case can be made that with this production, there should be standard union contracts for the artists making the product. It's not like this is some small independent film being made by unknown filmmakers who have no access to capital.

Actors frequently work for free in order to promote themselves and make themselves affordable for small-budget ventures. Of the three films I've made, all of them independent features, two were "profit-sharing" contracts that guarantee no payment at all. The third paid me a negotiated fee at the end of production. Actors slave away rehearsing theatrical projects in order to get themselves and their work before the public. The investment of labor is enormously high, and this makes the actor highly exploitable.

But as Hopkins says, "There are people making hundreds of millions of dollars through the industry here so why can't we have a sustainable living for actors and crews in this country? ...we can't keep treating the local industry as if we have to be grateful for the job and like we have to compete against eastern European countries by trying to be the lowest bidder."

In other words, treat "the talent" like professionals.

Indeed, the threat to move production out of the country and go to a country where the labor is even cheaper is simply offshoring. That's a problem we have here in the U.S.: companies moving jobs away from our country in order to exploit cheap labor overseas. Perversely, companies are praised for doing this and rewarded.

When there is such low financial risk and such a promise of profit, they really should meet with the union, establish a reasonable contract, and defuse this stink lest it follow the film around the world.

[Photo: a 1919 actors' strike]

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What Is Power For?

Good morning.

This week, Obama visited my fair state and yesterday held a big rally in Madison, Wisconsin, where he told a crowd: "Stick with me, you can't lose heart."

While I may not have lost heart, there are things going on that are very disconcerting, sir.

We apparently live in a time when the FBI is still targeting anti-war groups in "terrorism" investigations, a time-honored tactic of intimidation at the local level. And while that sort of thing is going on, I feel even more uncomfortable -- if that is even possible -- with your bold new assertion of executive authority: the power to order American citizens killed.

This is no exaggeration.

The citizen goes by the name Anwar al-Aulaqi (there are alternative spellings) and lives as an expatriate in Yemen. He is a muslim cleric who is said to have become radicalized and preaches against the United States. The President of the United States says that he is in fact a terrorist, which may be true. I don't know. There has been no trial, no evidence, no opportunity for the accused to defend himself.

Without a trial or any process whatsoever, my President has ordered the CIA to assassinate this person. This is not exactly new in American history, but I don't know of a time when it has been so done so brazenly: the President assumes, apparently correctly, that he has a blank check to kill anyone, including American citizens, if he calls them a "terrorist." Off with his head!

Yemen is not a war zone, even in our open-ended war against "terrorism." This might be a bad guy, but there has been no orderly process here. We just have a President pointing his finger and going "click." The citizen's father and the ACLU filed a lawsuit, naturally. Now the Administration has requested that the lawsuit simply be dismissed. Stonewalling, simply. You used the "state secrets" defense, Mr. President.

It's an open-ended, informal war, and you are willing to use war powers -- expanding them even more than George W. Bush did -- anywhere on the globe and claim a blank check to have people killed, including American citizens.

And I see the FBI raiding homes and offices of longtime peace activists, critics of war, critics of U.S. militarism and empire.

And earlier this month, the National Lawyers Guild issued a chilling report on unlawful police activity and suppression of free speech by demonstrators in the U.S. From the report:

Demonstrations at National Special Security Events1 and other mass assemblies of the last decade have met with widespread police actions -- many of them in violation of the law -- aimed at stopping dissent in its tracks. Offensive, rather than defensive, measures such as use of less-lethal munitions on passive crowds, pre-event raids of homes and meeting spaces of organizers, confiscation of journalists' cameras, video equipment and recorded images, unlawful containment of crowds and mass arrests without probable cause typify modern policing of protesters. Such aggressive actions violate fundamental free speech rights and undermine the concept of a democratic society.

Police preparation for mass assemblies routinely involves infiltration and spying on activist groups, sometimes years in advance, including the use of agents provocateurs. Time and time again, millions of dollars have been obtained by police departments for personnel and equipment at large events justified by confidential informant testimony that large numbers of "anarchists" are planning to attend and engage in violence. Closer examination of the facts often reveals the falsity of such allegations: numerous police informants, many with criminal backgrounds, admit when later questioned that activist groups they infiltrated never planned any violent activities. Indeed, millions more have been spent paying damages to the demonstrators victimized by these tactics.

New anti-terrorism legislation and prosecution practices have resulted in individuals being charged with conspiracy to riot merely by virtue of having helped organize a protest at which other individuals unknown to them were arrested. As evidence of conspiracy to riot, the government cites such First Amendment protected activities as attending meetings, writing about protests, organizing protests, and engaging in rhetorical or politically charged speech.

Faulty intelligence gathering and grossly attenuated criminal charges are accompanied by additional strategies to quell dissent. Asserting the need to defend against terrorism and protect national security, the government targets leaders of social and political movements, employs grand juries to search for evidence of political affiliation, stigmatizes groups of activists, and uses the mass media to denigrate demonstrators, reinforce negative stereotypes or publicize high-profile arrests on charges which are frequently later dropped for lack of evidence.

It's not just our country, either. In Greece, for instance, where people have taken to the streets in impressive numbers because of "austerity measures" that punish vulnerable people for a crisis invented by bankers (sound familiar?), anti-terrorism laws are reportedly being expanded for use against unions.

It might be a while before we see that here, since our unions have grown so docile.

No, Mr. President, I have not lost heart. We've seen this stuff before and no doubt it will continue. It is part of a trend much longer than your political career, and longer than your lifetime and mine put together. The technology improves but the use of power remains the same.

[Photo: from a protest in Brussels]

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Horrific Irony

A Green Party candidate for the United States Senate in Maryland has passed away after her bicycle was struck by an S.U.V.

Her state party's website pays her tribute. Ji Jang Bosal, Natasha Pettigrew.

A Bow To Our Mountain

As seen from the clubhouse at the Rio Mimbres County Club in Deming. (Click on the picture for a larger view.)

Gabriel was restless, so we took him out there for a walk. It was a slow day on the golf course, likely owing to the fair going on. Gabriel stormed about and I was treated to a gorgeous sky and the presence of the Floridas.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Chauvinism at the Foundation

Yesterday evening, there was a meeting of a new local foundation for the performing arts, an organization being created to partner with local business and community leaders and make a performing arts district part of the city's development plans.

We met at someone's house nine miles south of the city. Since it is within a 10-mile radius, I took my bike out there and was treated to some lovely views of the Florida mountains from Rockhound Road.

The meeting mostly went rather well, with everyone feeling inspired and satisfied with the list of tasks to do for next time.

Late in the meeting, someone asked whether we would be spelling theatre with the "re" or "er" spelling. Not exactly a hot issue, but we put it to a vote. I voted for "re" just because I have spelled it that way all my life, but didn't really have anything invested in it. It never occurred to me that this would be an important issue to some.

But oh my.

The heat and vituperative tone of those in the room who wanted to spell it "er" took me by surprise. They argued with such vehemence, you'd think someone was proposing a tax increase. "This is the United States! We're Americans! We spell it ER!" Grunted agreement around the room. And this from another: "RE is just too cutesy. Deming isn't ready for that." More nods of agreement.

So the foundation will spell the word theater. The United States is safe.

What followed should have come as no surprise. Someone suggested outreach to the county's latinos, as 60% of the county is latino and the room consisted entirely of white "anglos." There was quiet assent to this. We talked about some musicians we would like to see involved. I mentioned the possibility of staging a Spanish-language drama, since the majority of Luna County speaks Spanish as a first or second language.

The protests were heated and immediate. "This is the United States!" (Apparently I keep forgetting that.) "We don't need to cater to some other language! We speak English!! And I'm not a racist! I have no problem with hispanic people! But this is our country!"


Did I point out the irony of that sentiment, as we stood on land that once was part of Mexico? No, gentle reader. I let it go. There is a time and place, but this wasn't it. We had an agenda to follow and I was watching the sunlight disappear, thinking about the ride home. Even with a light on the handlebars, it gets really dark out here, and people let their dogs run loose at night.

That argument, by the way, is not racist -- at least, there is no evidence of it. The "R" word is popular, but this is actually an example of chauvinism: the idea of an inherent superiority to one's own language and culture.

On the ride home, many replies came and went through my mind, but the best answer will be to pursue the work. For the next six months, I have something of a leadership position in this new foundation. By then, they may be ready to get rid of me, and I'll have to find other places to lock up my bike.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Wheel Keep On Turnin'

The annual fair is going on at the fairgrounds in Deming, just south of the country club and down a road that staggers past a few trailers and a couple of empty warehouses. The children at my school have been looking forward to it all week. As an added bonus, the school district takes the Friday off as a "fair day," and as I look out the window this morning without having to prepare a day's lessons I think it is a fair day indeed.

The Spruce Street demolition and rebuilding passed our home. It was a bit of a nuisance, and the house shook enough to lodge some new, fairly minor cracks in a few walls and the living room ceiling. The thick slab that had been laid down in the 1950's was torn up, as two engineers of my acquaintance shook their heads in sadness. There was no need, they said. They could have resurfaced and been good for another generation.

The new sidewalks look beautiful. Many of the neighborhood sidewalks, those that actually exist, are in pretty bad shape. Many bear the imprint of the Public Works Administation and years of construction dating to the FDR Administration. Now, a new public works project funded by the state is pouring new sidewalks on Spruce Street. But who is getting the work, how many people are being employed, and are any of them local?

At a candidates' forum preceding our last mayoral election, I asked candidates for mayor if they would back a local sidewalk project, employing local people (we have very high unemployment here) and buying materials locally (we have concrete plants in Luna County that surely could use business). Two of the three candidates hemmed and hawed and seemed unprepared. The incumbent mayor (who was re-elected) told me that laws interfered with keeping it local. Government would be required to call for bids, and could not exert a preference for local contractors, local employees, or local materials. In other words, the city would have to choose the most "competitive" bid, the cheapest price, even if the winning contractor is a corporation based in El Paso, trucking in equipment and materials and workers from Texas. All while unemployed men in Deming looked on, wishing they had jobs.

Michael Yates, a retired economist traveling the United States and blogging his observations here, has been driving past a lot of highway work (and seeing signs like the one above). He writes, "On a long stretch of Interstate 90 in Western Montana, we kept being forced into one lane by construction barrels. We didn’t lay eyes on a single worker. What is more, the money the government has spent, on highways and nearly everything else, has gone to private sector business firms. Public works projects like those so common during the Great Depression (whose benefits are still being enjoyed by the public) are nowhere to be found."

And then this (emphasis is the author's):

The ethic of the government’s recovery program is one in which the working class is seen partly as a victim and partly to blame for its own sorry state. Enough help will be given to keep people from exploding but not so much that ordinary folks might begin to think that they have rights. The bankers and the great Wall Street capitalists have rights; the rest of us have to fend for ourselves. At the beginning of the last post, there is a photo of a sign in the window of a Portland dry-cleaner. It reads: “If you are unemployed and need an outfit cleaned for an interview, we will clean it for FREE.” Note the word “need.” Human beings have needs: for food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, comfort in old age, and many more. It should be the duty of a society to do the best it can to see to it that these needs are met. The greedy, swinish lords of finance have enough money to meet their needs and then some. Yet President Obama has seen fit to shower still more money upon them, while pretty much ignoring the basic needs of the people. Now his popularity is swooning, while the rich are turning against him because he wants to put in place extremely mild constraints on their “right” to steal our money. I wonder if he ever thinks that he would have been in a lot stronger position now if he had worried less about those at the top of the heap amd more about the needs of those who produce the nation’s goods and services.

Are we doing our best? That is the question. We get pulled into stupid debates about "right" versus "left" people, and whether a public sector can do anything to help human beings without being called names like "socialist." As Yates laments, there is no mass social movement asking why the state lavishes disproportional assistance to those who already wield so much privilege and luxury.

Who are we for? Are we doing our best?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Good Policy Is Sexy and Tastes Good

No verbose opinions this morning. Just something I want to share.

The article I would like you to read dates from February of 2009, but the story it tells is ongoing. Indeed, it began in 1993, when a new mayor of a poor Brazilian city declared access to food a right of citizenship -- a right. What a wonderful, bold commitment to make to one's citizens. How do they do it?

The how is important here. It's not difficult to understand, the photographs are neat, and it displays the kind of problem-solving we could embrace in our own country if we were willing. It did not take an enormous amount of money. It did not lead to government "taking over" and becoming "authoritarian." It was not a battle of "socialism" versus "capitalism."

This is a story about good policy, that's all. Not sexy enough for American news media to talk about, I guess, but it sure helped a bunch of hungry people down in Belo Horizonte.

Here's the story, written up by Frances Moore Lappe.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


This cartoon has a deeper and more tragic layer. The deeper layer has been in my thoughts.

It makes sense to me that citizens who are gay should be welcomed to military service and even have military careers. We have lost a great many talented people, and careers have been maliciously ended, over this baseless prejudice about "the gay." Our country is ready to grow up a tiny bit and start treating homosexuals as citizens who are equal before the law. "Don't Ask Don't Tell" will fall, and homosexuals will continue to serve as they have before, but without having to fear persecution.

Good news, right? After much hard work and and many disappointments, homosexuals will finally have the right to die in imperial wars and kill other human beings for the benefit of industry.

Will that be much of a moral victory? I just see coffins.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Late-Night Comment on the Retirement of Lawrence Summers

I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.

A cold thing, this "economic logic."

This former World Bank economist, proclaiming that a capitalist economy can grow infinitely on a finite planet, the idea that what is good for capitalist enterprise is always what is good for the world, whose cost-benefit analysis did not include ethics or compassion for human beings, nor even ecological limits to growth -- this man has been Barack Obama's chief economic advisor since before Obama's inauguration.

Indeed, among the many leaders whom Summers has trained to think as he does are two American presidents. (The other was Clinton, who brought us NAFTA.) He was a determined and successful deregulator, pushing the repeal of Glass-Steagall and defending derivatives from regulations. Despite the economic calamity that has befallen us, thanks in part to his own hard work, he was called to service by another American president to guide and shape economic policy.

During Obama's presidency, little has been made of the notorious 1991 memo Summers authored while the World Bank's top economist. It included the line quoted at the top of this post, and the rest of it is juicy, too. Unapologetically, he makes the case -- using this inhumane "economic logic" -- that polluting the third world is good to do because it makes the most economic sense, because it is to the advantage of business.

It was a rare document, with the worldview showing itself unabashedly: morality and ethics are piquant little dreams and worthless next to the necessity of accumulating capital.

This is desire, or greed if you want to be more blunt, divorced from any sense of human consequence. So long as there are profits and growth, an economy is called "sound." The lives of the poor, the collateral damage to their communities, their streams, their air, do not factor in to the analysis.

This is a sick worldview. What are people for? What is the real bottom line?

Going Slow, and A Call to Playwrights

Good morning.

There is a lovely spot in the back yard with a peach tree and a magnificent old stump. During the summer, I had occasional opportunities to spread a blanket out and sit there. These days, not so much. The to-do list opens like an accordion.

A creative announcement:

A call to all writers! Some friends of mine back home who started a successful theatre company have issued a call for plays, and there is even some minor compensation involved. Go here for the guidelines and have a ball, write something. Anyone can submit. Tell 'em I say hi.

My writing time is limited at the moment. When I'm a good boy and get my academic homework done, I work a little bit on a radio play that I was supposed to have finished by now. But like many things, it's a slow process.

Slow processes are fine. Good peppers don't pop up overnight.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Zen Porn

More than anything else, running a Zen group is about practicing publicly. That's what being a dharma teacher is about, too, for that matter.

Not knowing all the answers.

Not having beautiful and fancy supplies and equipment.

It's about showing up, welcoming whoever comes, and practicing even when no one comes. Doing it and, in certain situations, bearing witness to your practice.

There are folks who check the practice out and don't come back. There are folks are come for a little while and wander off, finding something else to do. And a few folks who have stuck around and keep showing up, even when it rains.

Somewhere, I can't remember, maybe on someone's Facebook page, someone was asking a question about daily meditation practice and whether there was a danger of it becoming rote, like brushing one's teeth. The questioner wanted to know how to keep the meditation vital and "dangerous" or something.

Wanting meditation to be vital, exciting, special, "dangerous," whatever -- that's a dream. It's Zen porn. It's like saying that if your Zen room doesn't look beautiful you can't practice. When you pay attention, you see vitality everywhere, you are breathing it in and out. You can smell the cedar the trees have contributed to the yard, feel your child alive in your arms, taste the tea. Rise from the cushion feeling rested, centered, awake, ready to walk on like a lion. Simply being yourself fully without any extra pressure -- that's not "exciting" but it's pretty wonderful.

And by the way, you've got to pay attention when you brush your teeth, too.

Below is a picture of the provisional altar in our Zen room, located in the attic above the garage. It is still pretty dusty and there is much work to do, but while it is "under construction" practice goes on. We advertise two practice sessions publicly, but when I practice up there at other times people can join me, too.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Suzuki's Stepladder

The most important point is to establish yourself in a true sense, without establishing yourself on delusion. And yet we cannot live or practice without delusion. Delusion is necessary, but delusion is not something on which you can establish yourself. It is like a stepladder. Without it you cannot climb up, but you don't stay on the stepladder.

--Shunryu Suzuki roshi

From Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On the Presumption of Innocence

Yesterday's newspaper headline came as a rude shock. I learned that a colleague of mine, an instructor at the Mimbres Valley Learning Center here in Deming, had been arrested on a morals charge.

He was arrested following a complaint from a 15-year old boy, posted bail, and will await trial. The police took his computer. His career is probably over even if he is innocent.

The newspaper website allows comments on the news stories and the comments on this story indicate, unsurprisingly, a prevalence of people presuming he is guilty.

The presumption of innocence is one of our republic's bedrock ideas, and sometimes difficult to put into practice. It's a highly sophisticated idea. It isn't common sense. Common sense is often expressed as something like, "He was arrested, he must be guilty of something." The notion that the person really is completely innocent, and must be treated as such, until there is a full trial and his guilt is proven with evidence, even when the charge is very serious or when the person looks guilty, frequently has to be explained and defended.

That's because it is not being taught. Civics and social studies have largely been cut from public education. We need to be introducing these ideas in primary school. We do not. These children have grown up in a society where people are kept in a state of fear and wage slavery, and are not taught these highfalutin concepts about justice and equality.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Waiting For The Next World

When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist. -- Dom Helder Camara

Yesterday's post presented a couple of arguments about "socially engaged Buddhism" and also the Catholic solidarity movement in the 1980's. I didn't have time to conclude that and anyway it was kind of long, so here is a short part two.

The fifth Buddhist precept, as translated in our school, is, "I vow to abstain from intoxicants taken to induce heedlessness." The application to alcohol and other recreational substances is obvious. We say "intoxicants," however. In our workshops we talk about "intoxication" and this opens up more activities to consideration. What about an excess of sugar? What about gossip? What are the activities or outside influences that cause us to surrender our power of decision or lose ourselves?

We can lose ourselves in work. We can lose ourselves, also, in activism.

This need not mean we have to wait until we are "enlightened" to help someone who is hungry. We have responsibility. We speak of the bodhisattva way: when someone hungry appears, feed them. Where there is an opportunity in our area to help, why not do that? I'm not going to go out and save the world from pollution, but there are things I can do in my own daily life to take responsibility for that problem.

Even Daido Loori roshi, who was pretty conservative about socially-active Buddhism, found opportunities to include some environmental education in the training regime at his monastery. The point is, there is a middle path here.

The next reflection may be more controversial.

Religion is considered wholesome as long as it doesn't shake up the present social order.

"Religion" can be an opiate of the masses, but it can also be the opposite, which is what Chomsky was talking about in his comments about Catholic activism in Latin America. There you had an example of religious people feeling inspired, by the example and teachings of Jesus, to assist the poor and oppressed in concrete and lasting ways: Not just by comforting them and telling them to wait for the next world, but by organizing them and helping them change the existing social order.

Christian pastors like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Lawson were praised highly by the political and media establishment as good, inspirational figures -- until their criticism turned from Jim Crow to institutional poverty and the Viet Nam war. When they started rocking the boat, mobilizing large numbers of poor and marginalized people, it made us uncomfortable. And when someone rocks the boat just enough, they are killed. (King knew that; listen to that last speech of his.)

Historically, the Buddha did not dabble in politics himself, but he did speak to kings and use the opportunity to ask questions about society. Yet there is a conservative impulse not to rock the boat. Buddhists are okay as long as we are cute and meditating quietly, not asking a lot of questions, maybe cleaning up a neighborhood street or volunteering at a soup kitchen. We let corporations use the Dalai Lama's face to advertise computers. We blend in; we're okay with the establishment.

But let a well-known Buddhist teacher start asking why the poor are hungry, and the checking begins. It's already happening among Buddhists: sit down, stop rocking the boat, this is not Buddhism. The best known Buddhist figures internationally do not, actually, make demands on those who hold power, but if a Buddhist MLK ever appeared on the scene, you watch. They will be disowned by some Buddhists first; and next, they will be killed. Guaranteed.

There is no simple answer here. Zen requires a large commitment of time and energy to personal practice and awakening, and there is a risk of that commitment getting lost in other things, especially careerism or political activism. Waking up has got to be the cardinal priority, learning to surrender desire and the desire to control the outside world (that we are making up in the first place).

On the other hand, we should also be wary of this idea that we aren't supposed to question what's being done to us. We are human beings, not doormats.

Middle path?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Engaging Religion

For whatever reason, the notion of religious activism has been popping up in my reading in different places.

One of the blogs I peruse is by a fellow who has a bug up his butt about so-called "socially engaged" Buddhism. The writer is concerned that some people are using their political activism, however inspired by their practice, to tie Buddhism to liberal politics.

I suppose when a few people in the position of teachers and mentors are involved, that can seem rather influential. One influential figure in Zen, Robert Aitken roshi, was politically active and a founder of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Another well known American teacher, Bernie Glassman, is known for engaging practice with social problems. Paul Haller, an abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, has done some peacemaking trips in Ireland, organizing dialogue between factions of people at odds. Aside from Aitken, who was cheerily photographed at demonstrations, I don't recall any images of well-known Zen teachers engaged in political campaigns or liberal causes.

Another very prominent and authoritative figure in American Zen, Daido Loori roshi, put the brakes on this sort of activity. Activism, he frequently argued, must follow realization; otherwise we are just commingling our desires and opinions with Zen, and -- at worst -- conflating them. Zen practice is about surrendering ideas and opinions.

The danger lies in acting on unexamined ideas. That's always been the point. Even a good unexamined idea is going to get you into collisions. If you want to feed the poor at a soup kitchen, go for it; but if you expect it to change the world in the way you desire, you are going to suffer. So maybe just do it because you want to do it and surrender the rest.

I know two Buddhist teachers who lead anti-racism workshops, but for them it is not a political activity, but a personal one. They are offering a space to examine one's own unconsidered ideas and beliefs and, where applicable, do some healing. Whatever political implications that work has, lie outside the room. Examining racism: not because it is "politically correct," but because it's good for ya. Optional. If you want.

Zen Centers in the Kwan Um School of Zen have bylaws that keep their organizations out of political campaigns, although individual members can pursue their own interests. I've lived at several such places and met some liberals, some conservatives, and some who don't talk or think about politics at all. The latter are the majority, in fact. I met a senior monk who discouraged other monks even from voting. I knew Zen teachers in 2003 who quietly but firmly supported the invasion of Iraq. Others didn't. So if there is any liberal conspiracy to define Buddhism as a liberal creed, I can't locate it.

The issue of religious involvement in public life also came up as I was finishing reading Imperial Ambitions, a collection of post-9/11 interviews between David Barsamian and Noam Chomsky. They got on the subject of religion and Chomsky offered an interesting observation of Christian activism in Latin America.

Central America was a very striking case, because the United States was basically at war with the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s had really shifted its traditional vocation. It had adopted aspects of liberation theology, and had recognized what's called "the preferential option for the poor." Priests, nuns, and lay workers were organizing peasants into communities, where they would read the Gospels and draw lessons about organization that they could use to try to take control of their own lives. And, of course, that immediately made them the bitter enemies of the United States, and Washington launched a war to destroy them. For example, one of the publicity points of the School of the Americas, which changed its name in 2000 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is that the U.S. army helped "defeat liberation theology," which is accurate.

The Central American solidarity movement in the United States in the 1980s was something totally new. I don't think there has been anything like this in the history of Europe. I don't know of anyone in France who went to live in an Algerian village to help people and protect them against marauding French paratroopers, but tens of thousands of Americans went down in the 1980s and protected people under assault from the United States. The center of the U.S. solidarity movements in the 1980s was not in the elite universities but in the churches, including churches in the Midwest and in rural areas. It wasn't like the 1960s. It was quite mainstream.

...Here's this supposedly very religious country, the United States, going to war against organized religion. And the reason was that the church was working for the poor. As long as religion is working for the rich, it's fine; but not for the poor.
I'm out of time. Some reflections on this later.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On The Dominance of the Automobile

While a serious politician here in the United States was arguing that bicycle advocates are secretly plotting for the U.N. to take over our country (or something), something very different was taking place in Montreal -- and as far as we can tell, U.N. forces were not involved.

The political party that won borough elections in Montreal's Plateau Mont-Royal viewed bicycles as adding freedom, not reducing it.

In the 10 months since the young Projet MontrĂ©al party won control of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough in the last municipal election, the new administration has embarked on a bold experiment in urban planning. Streets are being redirected to thwart through traffic. Some parking spots have been painted green and closed to cars. Noisy bars are being threatened with stiff fines, and in an initiative to combat “visual pollution,” a ban on all billboards was announced this week.

Since 83% of vehicle traffic is through-traffic going to and from downtown, cars are being steered toward two traffic arteries and away from neighborhood streets. Fines for violating the noise ordinance have been dramatically increased. And yes, the billboards: feeling they generate little in tax revenue, and a high social cost instead, they are going ahead and telling billboard owners to take them down by November of next year.

Not everyone is happy about this, of course. Here's a story in English about it (which includes the quote above).

These are bold steps. Some of the debate is practical -- how does a music club, for instance, assure that music cannot be heard outside of its walls at all, and is there wiggle room there? Some of it, however, is most certainly about class privilege. When a neighborhood says, through its elected government, "no more billboards here," are the precious freedoms of billboard owners being violated?

Back here in our own republic, we love to talk about preserving freedom and liberty. It is important to keep in mind whose freedom we are talking about. The Projet Montreal party is concerned with making the neighborhood "family friendly," a higher standard of living for a neighborhood of workers and their kids. They are using their mandate to do that and taking bold steps, taking inspiration from cities like London and Copenhagen.

The automobile has long been a status symbol in the United States. Once, just owning one was a major status symbol. The MRZine site has an interesting story sketching a political history of the automobile (the authors are releasing a book on the topic in 2011). It is by now largely unquestioned that transit funds and policy, and local infrastructure throughout the U.S., grant the automobile utter dominance. We are known as a country where people love their cars. We are also a country where people disproportionately depend on cars for getting around, resulting in great expense for lower-earners, pollution, noise, road rage, and other degradations on our standard of living. I enjoy driving, too, but not every day and not for every errand.

The dominance of the automobile has also made it possible to live way out in remote areas where it is difficult to contemplate reducing car use.

In urban areas, however, there are lots of things that can be done. Traffic-calming measures that slow cars down on streets where children play. Bike-sharing programs (like the one denounced as a U.N. plot in Colorado) that also promote human behaviors like sharing. Spaces that encourage walking and cycling. "No car" zones (which, one hopes, would include parking facilities on the periphery somewhere, so commuters could leave their cars and walk in). Taxis and well-funded bus systems.

These are things that benefit working class and poor, and therefore in our rhetoric constitute a violation of "liberty."

It is important to ask: for whom?

(Photo: Spruce Street renovation project in Deming.)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

In the Midst of Anicca

In a personal letter written during a trip to Great Britain, a friend writes:

This is a "champagne" trip. You may remember that Jillie and I have a tradition, we celebrate great occasions with champagne as everyone does but more importantly we celebrate bad days, setbacks, adversities & heartaches with champagne too. The idea is that if we can drink champagne -- especially if we can drink it together -- then it can't be so so so terrible. We use the champagne to celebrate how great our life has been & how lucky we are to be together -- so that the bad times...are being faced alive & together.

The occasion for the trip, you see, was a death in the family.

Anicca means impermanence, and here we see a couple who recognize that everything is changing. Actually, anicca is an illusion: everything is not changing; it only looks that way because we think things are things.


There is great wisdom and happiness in this recognition that bad times pass, as do good times. This couple has been together for many years, longer than most marriages last, and they have a little ritual to help them return to appreciation for life in the midst of impermanence.

Adopting such a habit, with or without alcoholic beverages, really helps.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

First "Folklore" Trailer

Here's the first tease for Folklore, to be released in 2011.

No, I'm not in the trailer. (I told ya it was a tease!!)

Sneak Peak Trailer Folklore 2011 from Folklore on Vimeo.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

How About Train Proliferation?

Good morning.

So help me, I could not read about Iran's ambitious new railway infrastructure project, which would connect its central cities and will eventually extend to reach Iraq and Syria, without giggling about covert operatives sneaking out to Kermanshah and putting pennies on the railroad tracks.

It would be nice if we were all competing to have the best trans-continental train system instead of other things.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Finishing the Movie

We got close.

One more long day in the sun this past Sunday (my scenes are almost 100% exterior shots), this time at Boot Heel, a fictitious ghost town here in Deming. It's not a movie set -- this man actually built a ghost town. The hotel is actually an old frontier-style hotel, with bedrooms. It is located inconspicuously down on Hermanas Road south of town.

The producers, the director, and the crew hauled ass to finish photography on Sunday, but the best gaffer in the world cannot hold the sun in the sky. We finally ran out of light with some motorcycle footage left to shoot.

So the beard stays a little while longer, and the restless spirit of "Mickey" (my slightly unhinged motorcycle-riding character) roams still.

Indeed, there have been hints that if a sequel is ever produced, Mickey may ride again.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Moral Survey, Part Two

An email to Eugene Delgaudio, president of Public Advocate of the United States, an organization that claims to defend "traditional values" or something like that. They sent me an email thanking me for participating in their survey (see last post), and here is my reply.

Some people would say this was a waste of time. With respect, I disagree. How much time are these folks spending spreading misinformation and hatred? I feel compelled to say something (and after all I type pretty quickly).


Dear Mr. Delgaudio,

Since I am a "pro-family" citizen (being a married father myself), I completed your online survey today with some difficulty. The difficulty had to do with the questions and their basic premises.

To begin with, equality under the law is not a "special right" -- it is a fundamental right under our Constitution, as applicable to homosexuals as any American citizen. The premise that homosexuals are up to something dastardly by asking for equal treatment under our laws is false and prejudiced.

The first question on your survey was whether employers should be "forced" to hire homosexuals or allow them to advance. What you are asking is whether employment-discrimination laws should protect homosexual citizens. My answer to that is yes. You can think of that as coercive and unfair if you like, but I don't see it that way.

The second question was whether I favor public money being spent to educate the public about AIDS and "homosexual research grants." I have no idea what "homosexual research grants" you are referring to, and would enjoy being educated about them if you know of any. As for AIDS, yes, I advocate good scientific information about this serious disease being shared with the public. Among other things, science shows us that the HIV virus does not have any sexual preference: it is not a "gay disease."

The third question promulgates the myth that homosexuality is being "promoted" in the schools. At the very most, I would wager that some teachers have advocated treating homosexuals with respect and dignity -- but this does not constitute a promotion of homosexuality. Real sex education does not get into the business of promoting ANY sexual behavior: the point of it is to curb the spread of teen pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. Young people are educated about the human reproductive system and the RISKS of sexual behavior. Such a program was very effective in my own high school, resulting in higher rates of abstinence. Not just "safe sex," but actual abstinence. What do you think of that?

The fourth question is based on a fantastic premise: "Should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn traditional marriage between one man and one woman?" The obvious answer to this is no, because they can't. What they can do -- and there is no guarantee they will -- is permit homosexuals to marry. This does hot harm my own "traditional" marriage to any degree. And if you are a believer in the stabilizing effect of monogamous marriage and settled domestic life, you will be hard-pressed to show how society does not BENEFIT from homosexual marriage.

I hope you find some clarity on these issues. It is not a matter of "special" or "preferential" treatment for anyone, it is a matter of equality and dignity. Please give this some thought and back away from this campaign of bigotry.

Sincerely yours,

Algernon D'Ammassa
Deming, New Mexico

Oh Boy, A Morality Survey!

American Morality Survey

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Radical homosexuals claim YOU support same-sex marriage, special job rights and promotion of homosexuality in schools. Please fill out the survey below and let your voice be heard.

Contacting and organizing pro-family conservatives costs a great deal of money. After filling out the American Morality Survey below, please consider chipping in with a donation to Public Advocate of the United States to keep this program running.

1. Should businesses, schools, churches and daycares be required by law to hire and advance homosexuals or face prosecution and multimillion-dollar lawsuits?

4. Do you support same-sex "marriage" or marriage-like benefits for homosexual couples, such as adoption?

2. Do you support the use of taxpayer dollars for AIDS-awareness programs and homosexual research grants?

5. Should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn traditional marriage between one man and one woman?

3. Should homosexuality be promoted in school as a healthy lifestyle choice rather than leaving education on such matters up to the child's parents?

Okay, the above internet ad gets cut off on my blog page, so you don't get to see their enigmatic use of the apostrophe. I'm a pro-family guy, so let's take it serious and try to answer these questions, which I will reprint for you below in boldface. If you would like to respond yourself, go here.

1. Should businesses, schools, churches and daycares be required by law to hire and advance homosexuals or face prosecution and multimillion-dollar lawsuits?

Omigod! Has this been happening? Can we name a single business, school, church, or day-care facility that has been forced to hire homosexuals? Oh wait. Oh, I get it. You don't like discrimination laws that require businesses to grant homosexuals the same rights as same-sex employees. In other words, freedom means "freedom for me to discriminate against them fags." So my answer is yes, I think employers should be required to follow laws against arbitrary discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. And if you think of that as coercive, then that's what you're going to think.

Do you support the use of taxpayer dollars for AIDS-awareness programs and homosexual research grants?

Do I think it's a good idea to spread reliable information in the public interest about AIDS? Um, sure. What in the heck is a "homosexual research grant?" Are the grants themselves homosexual? (Hmmm. "Grant." That is kind of a gay name.) And -- oh, WAIT! You folks still think of AIDS as a gay disease? That is sooooooo 1982! The HIV virus does not have a sexual preference, dahlink. It does not discriminate the straight from the gay -- it's very broad-minded.

Which means broad-minded is like being the HIV virus. Broad-minded, bad. So I answer "no" -- education bad! Broad minded bad! Gay bad!

Should homosexuality be promoted in school as a healthy lifestyle choice rather than leaving education on such matters up to the child's parents?

We teachers are kind of busy trying to make A.Y.P. so our schools don't get shut down. Kind of kills the mood for talking to kids about sex. When professional sex educators are allowed to speak to our children at all, they don't make it their business to "promote" sexual behavior, gay or straight. They teach children about the reproductive system and the risks of sexual activity.

Do you support same-sex "marriage" or marriage-like benefits for homosexual couples, such as adoption?

Well, yeah -- I said I was pro-family, remember? There is no research showing gay parents to be inferior, and no sensible reason that two homosexuals should not be allowed to enter into a legal marriage with full rights and benefits.

Should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn traditional marriage between one man and one woman?

They don't have the capacity to do any such thing. This is nonsense and needs to be called out as such.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Two Shoes

True 2-year old style.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Leaving Others Out

Sometimes I'll hear the statement "everything is Zen."

Last time I heard it, it was during a fractious board meeting at a tiny Soto Zen Center a year ago. Two of its members were adamant about adding a lot of extra-curricular programming. More yoga, more classes about the arts and other things, lots of things that weren't part of the Zen Center's central mission. When the priest pointed out that these classes already exist elsewhere, and the purpose of the Zen Center was zazen, that was the outraged reply: "Everything is Zen!" (The two members got angry and don't come at all anymore.)

The statement "Everything is Zen" actually leaves out something important.

The idea of "mindfulness" is used in the same way -- just be mindful, mindfulness is everything. Petteri Sulonen considered this yesterday:

The only point of contact between mindfulness and ethics is that it can—but does not have to!—direct your future actions. To paraphrase Markus "Uku" Laitinen, "if you want to be an asshole, be an asshole—just pay attention to what happens, and maybe you don't want to be an asshole the next time around." So mindfully torturing kittens is ethically meaningful only if what you learned from being aware of the motivations and consequences stops you from torturing kittens the next time you get that particular urge.

That's okay, but let's not forget one other point of contact: the other. People. Other sentient beings. Mindfulness is an important personal practice. Zen can bring about an exhilarating sense of personal freedom. But social function is an important grounding influence. If it's all about you and your freedom, you're not really being mindful.

Mindfulness is not about ignoring things.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Our educational aides work very hard and are entitled to a mistake here and there.

I noticed this bulletin board as I was receiving a, um, apo-liggy from a fifth grader at our school. Yesterday morning, as I was riding my bike along 2nd Street toward our school, a schoolbus passed me and as it did, tiny explosions popped around my head. The student had thrown a handful of "poppers," or what we used to call "salutes" in Rhode Island, tiny firecrackers that don't have to be lit. Damn near fell off my bike into the road. It was a lively way to start the day.