Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Don't Be A Buddhist

This morning, two of the blogs I follow have wonderful posts about real-life practice. Not the dreamy monastic environments of ancient Chinese lore, not the fortunate situations that allow some people to live in Zen Centers and practice some sort of quasi-monastic schedule around work or in retirement, or others to build beautiful Zen Centers inside or near their homes. How do you do it when you're far away from a teacher, how do you do it when you've got kids and jobs and other things going on, how do you adjust and adapt the external form yet know you are doing it "right?"

Adam at Fly Like A Crow shares the dharma of being busy. It's a lovely piece, and here I will share the substance of a comment I left on that entry.

Seung Sahn used to say, if you’re too busy to follow a Zen Center schedule, and struggling even to find half an hour for sitting meditation, do “action zen.” He was suggesting that in the midst of running around, picking up the house after your toddler runs amok, commuting to work, taking your seat at the dinner table, and so on, it is all a chance to find center as when you sit for zazen, to breathe as you do in zazen, to notice whatever crap appears as you do in zazen, and simply do what needs to be done next. It doesn’t have to look like formal zazen every moment (as helpful and even enjoyable as that is).

Your practice doesn’t ever need to stop but at times it might have to change form for a while. Whenever there is an opportunity for instruction or re-instruction, even a one-day or a half-day retreat, seize it with gratitude. Those are opportunities to ground ourselves in the basics, so we can implement them in the midst of all the chaos and disorder.

Zorba referred to family and work life as "the complete disaster" or something like that -- we are training ourselves to practice in the midst of the complete disaster.

Meanwhile, over at Dangerous Harvests, Nathan wrote a beautiful post about keeping a correct relationship with our own "delinquent qualities."

putting on that rakusu is an act of transfiguring all of that, without any agenda. It's moves all of this, as well as anything I think is a wonderful or beneficial part of who I am, beyond good and bad, beyond needs of removing or enhancing.

When I came to practice, I had lots of personal problems and things I wanted to correct. At the time I was encouraged not to go in with some idea and try to reform myself in that image, but rather to examine that project itself. What was this new model and where did it come from? And who was going to do the "improving?"

So I would simply pay attention as I noticed myself stealing other people's time, weedling for certain kinds of attention, organizing certain priorities around gratification more than need, and more. I would watch my actions play out and notice how it affected other people. After a while, some of these things I just didn't want to do anymore, and I stopped doing them but it wasn't about being a "better person" or banishing my "bad" qualities. Something shifted, and that was enough.

That's still my personal practice. It's probably an unending process. In marriage, with such closeness to my wife and child, the ripples from what I do and what I am grasping are very clear.

None of this looks like Buddhist art, and it rarely feels like I am doing it right. But as Zen Master Dae Kwang reminded me once, when you're bouncing a basketball or practicing a shot, you're still playing basketball. There is integrity to practicing, to making an effort and paying attention, and honoring the bodhisattva vow no matter what form the effort takes. You might be sitting early in the morning in your P.J.'s or your undies. You might be finding your breath while standing on the subway. It happens where you are. It happens the way it happens.

If it doesn't look like Buddhism or feel like Buddhism, chuck it. Don't be a Buddhist. Just wake up. And thank you.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Asleep At The Wheel

If you were a passenger in a car driven by me, and you saw signs that I was asleep at the wheel -- my head nodding, eyes closed, inattention to the road in front of us -- you would likely not wait until the car was headed off the road to do something about the situation.

One could argue that climate change, in concept, is much harder to detect and verify, and therefore our leadership and the leadership of other governments are not obviously asleep at the wheel.

In fact, to strain this metaphor a bit further: the car is off the road, heading towards a cliff at freeway speed, while most of us passengers are saying, "Gee, the road is bumpy right here. Some people say that's a cliff up ahead, but I think they are being alarmist."

The Guardian's John Vidal took a trip to Latin America and met some of the people whose lives are being affected right now by the accelerating effects of climate change, and has this compelling report.

With shrinking rivers, desertification, and glaciers on which we depend disappearing before our very eyes, you might think the deniers could easily be dismissed, but it is not so. Thermometers are not swayed by lobbyists, but our capacity to ignore bad news is indomitable. For the populations of less powerful countries, the effects are concrete, yet their voices are shouted down along with the scientists.

Beginning today, an important international conference on climate change takes place in Cancun, with nearly 200 countries in attendance and yet no determination to emerge with any binding treaty.

Our leadership still believes that some of us exist on a different plane than the rest of us. Pachamama, mother earth, has some hard teaching in store for us about Indra's net: the climate that sustains our life sustains all human life. Moreover, it is not a box, but a living process. Like the patient who will not stop smoking, we are undoing ourselves, all together.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Macaroni and Cheese

This is not quite how my mama made macaroni and cheese, but it's a close second, and it's how I've been making mac 'n' cheese ever since I found a recipe for it in one of my Italian cookbooks. Over time, I've parted from the recipe a bit for my own taste.

The base is a besciamella, a white sauce. I get 2 cups of whole milk and heat it up with a bay leaf. No boil, just hot.

Separately, I melt 4 tablespoons (half a stick, usually) of butter, whisk in 1/3 cup of flour, and cook it for a couple of minutes.

Time to add the hot milk (above) and whisk it up. I bring it almost to a boil, keep whisking it, and cook it for five minutes. At this point, I season with a little bit of salt, a liberal amount of black pepper, and just a dash of nutmeg.

Now it's time to lower the heat and add grated cheese. I use cheddar (you can experiment with others or blends) and for this stage I grate a cup and a half, adding it in two doses while I whisk, whisk, whisk. As it melts and becomes a nice, creamy sauce, I lower the heat as much as it will go and stir it occasionally so it doesn't form a skin on top.

Have you started the macaroni yet? By now, you should at least have the water boiling. You should also get the oven going for 400 degrees.

For this much sauce, I cook one pound of shells. Important: cook it until it is almost al dente, but not quite.

Now combine the pasta and sauce in a greased casserole dish. Stir that up really nicely. And then...

Grate some more cheese on top, and add bread crumbs to taste (for me, 1/3 cup or even a little more). Is that oven hot? Right. Middle rack, center of the oven. Leave it to bake for 20 minutes.

During these 20 minutes, you can do your kitchen clean-up.

20 minutes later, kaboom! You got yourself a macaroni bomb. Mangiate.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Truly Traditional Thanksgiving Feast

"I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land."

Jon Stewart

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lifting While Pregnant, Debunked

My wife was conducting a choir rehearsal at the methodist church and as she gently pushed the piano a bit to one side there was an uproar from the choir seats: two singers gasped and said, "No! Don't do that!"

It was not the piano they were concerned about, but the fetus in my wife's belly. (She is six months along at this writing.) "You can't do any lifting and moving heavy stuff while you're pregnant!" they protested. "You'll wrap the cord around the baby's neck!"

Before there were chain e-mails and internet legends, this stuff was known by the disrespectful term "old wives' tales." I dislike the term because husbands are often unequaled in their own foolishness, and regardless of our sex we can all be persuaded to believe, or half-believe, things that are not true.

So we checked around. First, I went to that eminently trustworthy resource of factual information, the world wide web. It was here that I saw an interview with a physician on the Today Show saying no, there is no link between physical exertion and damage to fetuses. The doctor indicated that in the last stage of the pregnancy, she warns mothers to back off the physical labor some, but even then it isn't about the baby but the mother. Makes sense, really: pregnant women are already carrying a lot of extra weight all the time. Lifting a chair over one's head at that stage is an invitation to back injury.

That was encouraging, but you know the internet. I also learned that Fred Rogers was a Marine assassin. And Obama was born in Kenya. Nostradamus predicted 9/11. And did you hear about Richard Gere's romantic link to a gerbil? A gerbil who, by the way, served with Fred Rogers as a covert assassin?

Anyway. Yesterday we went to Sarah's doctor, a live flesh and blood physician, and ran the cord-and-neck story by her. Nothing doing. The doctor laughed and said, "No no. It's about the mother's health, not the fetus. Just be careful."

So we'll consider that one debunked. And now I thought I would share it. On the internet, of course.

Now then. Did you know Lady Gaga is a hermaphrodite? It's GOT to be true. I saw it online somewhere.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Keeps Mankind Alive

While Gabriel napped today, I was reading Brecht.

So here, for you, a terrific cover of a Brecht/Weil song, by the inimitable Tom Waits. Lyrics are below the video.

You gentlemen who think you have a mission
To purge us of the seven deadly sins
Should first sort out the basic food position
Then start your preaching, that’s where it begins

You lot who preach restraint and watch your waist as well
Should learn, for once, the way the world is run
However much you twist or whatever lies that you tell
Food is the first thing, morals follow on

So first make sure that those who are now starving
Get proper helpings when we all start carving
What keeps mankind alive?

What keeps mankind alive?
The fact that millions are daily tortured
Stifled, punished, silenced and oppressed
Mankind can keep alive thanks to its brilliance
In keeping its humanity repressed
And for once you must try not to shriek the facts
Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cui bono? (Autobiographical)

WARNING: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL POST. Lots of "I" talk. Feel free to skip.

As promised in a previous post about Veterans Day celebrations at my school, here is the rarely-told tale of the time I considered joining the Navy.


Both of my grandfathers served in the military, as did my father. None of them were interested in military careers but they helped fight World War II and Viet Nam, although they rarely talked about it.

Approaching the age of 19, I was a bit of a mess. My first attempt at acting school (in Chicago) had been a disenchanting experience and I had spent much of that semester drunk. By my 19th birthday, in January 1990, I was living on Eighth Street in New York City, giving college a fresh start, and looking at a range of options. A period of military service, I thought, might be a win-win: national service meant something to me, and I also assumed I would learn useful things and perhaps open some doors for myself if acting did not work out. And so, despite not knowing how to swim, I had the Navy on my mind.

In world events, our invasion of Panama had just taken place.


The best thing college did for me was to bust open my tiny view of the world, shaped in no small part by Hollywood-manufactured fantasies. What news I paid attention to, I accepted from the major television news media without much critical analysis. Politics was mildly interesting to me but my analysis was superficial and my information came from homogeneous sources.

In December 1989, a week ahead of celebrations of the birth of Christ, President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama in something called Operation Just Cause. Manuel Noriega was a bad guy and we were fighting a war on drugs and defending democracy, the Panama Canal, and freedom, and all that. Thousands of innocent people were killed as we bombed civilian targets, many of them slums where poor people lived stacked up like dogs in a kennel.

The United States was condemned internationally for the action, which shortly followed the collapse of the Soviet Union as a balancing world power. Extending as much sympathy to the president's position as reason could allow, this still appeared to be an act of aggression. As I dug deeper into the history of Noriega's relationship with the U.S., I felt increasingly alienated.

And then came Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, more history, and deeper questions about how our military strength was being used in the world. I began to ask the question, as it is phrased in Italian, cui bono? For whose benefit?


An awful lot of reserves got called back to duty for service in the Persian Gulf War, in an ominous foreshadowing of the stop-loss abuses of George W. Bush's Iraq occupation.

My chess-playing friend in college, a Burmese-American named Sam, was a marine reservist who got called up and refused to go on political and moral grounds. Legally and socially, this is a very difficult and painful position to take. The law had a hold on him. Soldiers are not allowed to choose their wars. Socially, he was seen as a deserter, a coward, someone who had benefited from military service and now didn't want to go fight in a war. To top it off, he was an immigrant, adopted when he was very young. When his case went public, he was in real danger of assault.

Sammy did not, in my view, desert his country in anything but a legal sense. His crisis of conscience was rational and defensible. He did not flee to Canada or Mexico. After much anguish, he ultimately made his case in a court, was convicted for his action, and spent years in a military prison. Life was rough for him there, as you might expect. In letters he wrote to me from Camp LeJeune, however, he showed a certain peace with his decision to tell the truth and face the consequence.


The Navy stuff got filed away for a while. I ended up, instead, as an intern with War Resisters League. The particular issues I worked on were militarism and youth awareness. What I learned about the military-industrial complex shocked and offended me; the use of the lower classes in warfare also angered me. The remainder of college was a long period of nausea and disbelief. I gave some speeches to high school and college age audiences, urging them to make an educated decision before making a commitment to military service. I may as well have been reading the famous Canton, Ohio speech of Eugene Victor Debs: every word of it seemed current.


The political consequences of propaganda and delusion led me to a personal enquiry, which is how I came to Zen practice in 1993. As for the world around me, I stayed in touch with some of the intellectual socialists I had encountered through War Resisters League, in particular David McReynolds. The New York socialists I met had seen much in the 20th Century, were experienced in organizing people, were good listeners, and it seemed to me they were asking the right questions about our society.

In 1992 I cast my first vote in a presidential election. It was a write-in vote for J. Quinn Brisben, the Socialist candidate. I chose that vote after reading the platforms of all the candidates, and finding that only one of them -- and it was not the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton -- addressed the concerns I had about the use of force, the misuse of human beings in warfare, and the massive profits being made, or the appalling ecological damage being wrought, from war and death.

That was the position from which I began to view current events as history in progress. Meanwhile, my "why?" questions, and the strong emotions I was feeling about all of this, led me to the meditation cushion and deeper enquiries still. What was I doing here?
What was "I?"
I still feel a hearty respect for those who serve in the military, generally. People enlist for a range of reasons, most of them honorable, some of them noble. Some enlist because economically they have no other options. Once in uniform, they do not choose their missions. They go where they are sent. It is a moral outrage that this selfless service is abused in the interests of wealth and power, and I long for every person considering the service to be educated in realpolitik, divorced from romantic manipulations. In short, I view soldiers as workers and as our children. Human beings. Buddhas in progress. Not cannon fodder.
National service takes other forms, as well. Interestingly, many services that promote the behaviors of a functioning democratic society -- like organizing unions, voter registration drives, independent election monitoring, and the like -- are often held in suspicion and derision by the media and the reactionary right wing. These don't count as "service to one's country."
There is a long tradition in our nation, going back to our founding, that power should be reserved for a small community of well-connected people who are, so to speak, above the rest of the herd. "The herd" is just there to vote and grant legitimacy to the oligarchs. People who speak effectively against oligarchy tend to be marginalized as traitors; and the rare people who actually seem to organize numbers of people effectively enough to worry the oligarchs tend to come down with a sudden case of Death.
And so, with respect to "service," "patriotism," and "loyalty," and similar buzz words, I ask: cui bono? For whose benefit?
And thank you for indulging this long memoirish blog entry.

[Photo: The El Chorillo slum, bombarded by U.S. forces in the 1989-90 Panama invasion.]

Friday, November 19, 2010

Buddhists and Holidays (Reader Question)

Haven't had a reader question in a while. These are quite welcome.

A reader asks:

With the Christmas and Hanukah season coming up, I wonder about Buddhists celebrating holidays. And I realized, I know of none. Do Buddhists have holidays they celebrate? Do they celebrate other holidays of other religions? (I would think they'd have no problem with that).

My favorite professor in college was a contrary Frenchman who wore bow ties and was well known for entertaining digressions. I remember him snorting in disdain for holidays in general. He viewed them as social control. "They are just somebody's way of coercing us all into doing the same stupid thing at the same time."

So here's my own disclosure: I'm not very good with holidays. They stress me out and I'd just as soon disappear to a dharma room or a library. Take the following with a grain of salt.

Buddhism has sprawled across so many countries, and so there are lots of different days celebrated from Sri Lanka to the Tibetan diaspora to Japan, etc. What they have in common is celebrating major events in the life of the Buddha: his birth and his enlightenment are the big ones. Thailand celebrates the date of his first dharma speech (asalha puja, in the summer). Japan observes his death during rohatsu in December, and in Japanese Zen there is a traditional intensive meditation retreat at that time. My own teacher leads a rohatsu retreat every year.

In addition to those, each country will have its own traditional festivals for the new year and other occasions. There is a summer festival in Sri Lanka where they parade around with one of the Buddha's teeth (esala perahera). Tibet has its own historical holidays, and Japan has ceremonies to honor the dead, drive out evil spirits, and so forth. Japanese Zen brought full moon ceremonies over to American Zen Centers, and these are still practiced. Some of these countries have old shamanic traditions whose customs have survived in some form in these religious observances.

Also, different schools of Buddhism have their own holidays to celebrate important people in their tradition, like important lamas or Zen Masters. Jodo Shin Buddhists celebrate the birth of Shinran Shonin and his death. My own school has a sort of Thanksgiving every year around the birthday of Seung Sahn Dae Soen Sa.

The exact date of these holidays is very confusing. Traditional Buddhist holidays are on the lunar calendar, and thus fall on different days on our Roman calendar from year to year. There are also variations I don't understand. In December, some temples are honoring Buddha's death, and yet that is when the Kwan Um School observes Buddha's Enlightenment Day. The Japanese celebrate his enlightenment (nehan) in February. Buddha's birthday usually lands in April or May.

All this confusion may explain why western Buddhists have made moves toward combining these holidays into one festival, usually in late spring.

Okay, so what about Christmas and all that?

From what I've observed, Buddhists like occasions where they can eat and talk at the same time. (Since our retreats are usually silent.) Also, Zen Centers are warm, friendly places for people who are hungry for food or company. So Thanksgiving is often celebrated with a community dinner at the very least, and some teachers will make a little ceremony.

In the U.S., you have a very high percentage of converted Buddhists who grew up with Christmas or Chanukkah. In my days at Providence Zen Center, there was a Christmas tree in the lounge, and the residents would exchange gifts and drink hot chocolate or coffee.

We converts find our own way through the traditional U.S. holidays, doing whatever makes sense. Here on Nickel Street, we have a Christian-Buddhist household. We'll have people over for Thanksgiving, and do our Christmas thing, and these will include Christian prayers. There are also certain chanting services that I'll do, since I am so far away from Providence Zen Center, but my wife doesn't join me for those.

Maybe I had better say happy holidays in advance right now, because I am apt to forget or be too busy.

[Photo: Festival of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka]

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jevons, Roads, and Pants

Good morning, another short entry this morning as I did not notice my wife had changed the alarm setting on my clock this morning.

Back when we lived in Los Angeles, the state widened one freeway that was frequently clogged. This was presented as a way to reduce traffic, but as one commentator shrewdly observed, "Adding a lane to the freeway in order to reduce traffic is like letting out your pants in order to control obesity."

That joke refers to a concept in economics called the Jevons Paradox. In an economic system that is compelled to expand perpetually, any gain in efficiency is used for further expansion. In other words, energy efficiency leads to more energy use, instead of savings.

There is quite a good article about this paradox and its relevance to our current ecological emergency in the current Monthly Review. The question it raises is whether our present order even permits us to address the emergency, or whether the institutional logic of growth, growth, growth guarantees our destruction.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ukuleles and Seratonin

I'm sad. No no, everything is fine enough, don't worry. It's a -- thing. My brain has arthritis. We put up with it.

Time for music medicine.

Preferably including ukulele. Ukulele = good for seratonin. No, really, it's got to be true. Or maybe not. I don't care.


Hello, We Must Be Going

Good morning.

This morning's writing time has been taken up with a letter to the editor of our local paper, which has run an op-ed by Marita Noon, a spokeswoman for New Mexico's energy lobby. This one is a doozy, comparing the Obama Administration to the rise of Hitler under Weimar Germany.

Our paper relies on free content to fill its editorial page -- probably the only reason they run my letters. They are willing to run some astonishing stuff on that page, and it frequently falls to readers to fact-check and respond.

So we will simply take this space to wish everyone a happy week and mild weather. Fall has undeniably arrived here, and Gabriel has been terrorizing my piles of leaves. Some eager neighbors of ours over on Hemlock Street have their house dressed up in colorful lights already. Oy vey, the holidays are here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thomas Paine Friends

Saturday greetings. This will be a short post, as there are leaves falling here and a little boy who just might need to jump into a pile of them. Know what I mean?

Recently, I was elected to the board of directors of Thomas Paine Friends, Inc. This is an organization centered on interest in the philosophy and writings of, well, Thomas Paine.

Since getting elected to the board, I am now included on what is a surprisingly active email discussion about Paine, mostly concerned with reconciling Paine's ideas with the nation the United States has become.

I'm rather enjoying reading all of these emails, and discovering a diversity of political preferences among the participants. Thomas Paine serves as a center of gravity.

Many people try to claim Paine, but like a true independent citizen and thinker, Paine cannot be claimed. To borrow a metaphor from Zen, he is a cow with no nostrils, and cannot be led into anybody's pen.

Here is the organization's website. If you find Paine of interest, I recommend the organization. The newsletter, while low-tech, usually has some interesting reading material, and the annual dues are a paltry $10.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mixed Messages on Veterans' Day

This is about mixed messages and a personal reflection.

The kindergarten was led into the gym for the assembly, with all the boys wearing plastic military helmets and their faces painted in camouflage. It felt as though everyone in the room adored this, but I was reminded of child soldiers and my stomach sank. Did no one else find this a bit -- off? There were no girl soldiers. The girls wore blue or red paper vests and paper tiaras with little stars painted on their faces.

Taking my seat behind the kindergarten infantry, I viewed the hour-long assembly and sang along with all of the songs.

My question from yesterday was still present in my mind. What is the message of Veterans' Day? What is the message of our assembly? There was a mix of messages, in fact.

SERVICE. A great many veterans were present, with nearly all branches of the military represented. A police officer who is also a marine and a war veteran spontaneously had two children from each classroom find the veterans in the room and personally greet them and say thanks. This was well worth the time. For those individuals, this seemed to make a bigger difference than anything else we did at the assembly.

NATIONALISM. We are the best country in the world, was the basic message. These men and women joined the military because we are the richest and most privileged country and we need to keep it that way. I am crudely paraphrasing, but that was the gist of a short video presentation and two of the speeches heard yesterday.

WAR IS HARD BUT GLORIOUS. There were banners on the walls with the names of conflicts: World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Granada, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Interesting that no non-combat, humanitarian operations got banners. The wars are presumably more costly in terms of human sacrifice, and therefore not equivalent, yet this also creates the appearance that war is being celebrated. Most veterans I know who have seen combat do not celebrate war.

Yet the sense of celebration was underscored in the slide show of photographs from numerous twentieth century wars and our present wars, photos of explosions and combat planes and soldiers running around. The kids, predictably, oooh'd and aaaah'd.

Including the five year old boys who, I remind you, were dressed up in camouflage.

"Freedom isn't free" is the platitude spoken while these images are projected for the children. The venue does not permit anyone to raise their hand and ask, "Whose freedom are we really talking about?"

WAR IS PART OF OUR COUNTRY. War is presented as something that simply exists, not as something human beings do. It is not questioned. The assumption is that we live in a world where we will always need to wage war. Very little is said about why, but what is said -- reiterated all week long in the morning announcements -- is that we have a better situation than most of the world, and in order to keep that privileged position, we need people to fight wars to protect our privileges.

Wow. Points for honesty, I suppose, acknowledging the imperial nature of what's going on.

"Our Country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right; but it is still our country, right or wrong." But who gets to judge, and when our country is wrong, what is our responsibility?

BEING AMERICAN MEANS BEING CHRISTIAN. First Amendment, establishment clause, be gone. "The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in time of war for His divine guidance." And just to be clear: "The 11th fold represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon and glorifies in the Hebrews' eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob." "The 12th fold represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in the Christian's eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit." And there was more like that.

There is no pussyfooting here. This is about a declaration, and teaching children as early as age five, that while we may tolerate different religions, the true American citizen is one who believes and answers to one specific God.


I've been asked how I might react if my son grows up and desires to wear the uniform of his country. There is no way to answer with certainty. By the time he is eligible, I'll be 55.

There is a (mercifully short) story to be told: "How Algernon Almost Went Into the Military." Rarely told.

And it won't be told right now, because my boy is awake. And he is not wearing camouflage. He is wearing PJ's and asking for a graham cracker. This will need to be continued.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Veterans' Week

At the school where I work, Veterans' Day is a big deal. We have an all-school assembly, spend two afternoons rehearsing it, and then invite the community (especially our veterans and active servicemen) and press.

Last year, I posted here about our ceremony. My questions about the ceremony have not changed anything except that I was not invited to help organize it as I was last year. The Christian ceremony will again be part of the event.

Since I'm not involved, I have had some time to reflect on the contents of the ceremony, which includes singing the official songs of each branch of our armed services.

Is there a way (feel free to share ideas here) to thank people who served in the military -- without casting judgments on how they were used, since they don't get to choose that -- that expresses gratitude to them and their service, but does not involve singing songs that glorify violence, or paying tribute to imperial wars of aggression (like Operation Iraqi Freedom), or defining love-of-country as uncritical support for the current order?

A day to listen to veterans would be immensely educational for learning about the realities of military service, from the sacrifice involved in joining to the experience of war. Children should hear about that and adults should listen as well. People join the military for lots of reasons. Some of those reasons are quite noble. Other reasons, like lack of economic opportunity, are more tragic, and those truths must be heard as well.

Those are the kind of opportunities that get drowned out by military music, demonstrations of firepower, and mechanical behavior such as saluting, chanting allegiance to a flag, and singing happy songs about bombs and rockets.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Looking to Cancun

[A letter to Senators Bingaman and Udall of New Mexico. The questions below are questions I wish reporters were asking often. If you agree this is an emergency, dear reader, would you consider writing a letter or email to your own representatives? Calling their offices works, too.]

The United Nations is holding an international conference on climate change in Cancun, Mexico, from November 29 to December 10.

We are at a time when the international will to address our ecological emergency seems to be melting faster than an arctic glacier. No binding agreement on greenhouse emissions is expected to emerge from Cancun. Todd Stern, our negotiator on climate policy, has said as much in the press. Strikingly, even the U.N. climate chief, Christiana Figueres, has said there will be no agreement on climate policy in her lifetime. Many world leaders are expected to give this conference a pass altogether.

We are a major polluting nation. We have not participated in the Kyoto protocol which expires in 2012. We supported, instead, the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, which binds more powerful nations like ours only to voluntary pledges. President Obama has pledged to cut our emissions by 17% by 2012. The seriousness of our ecological emergency requires deeper and faster cuts in emissions. In order to approach the kind of reforms that are required to contain the effects of global warming, we need to fast-track energy policy to move us away from coal and toward an infrastructure for cleaner energy.

Here are my questions, Senator.

Will you embrace what climatologists such as James Hansen (of the NASA Goddard Institute) are telling us, and call for a global warming target of a 1.5% temperature rise or less? This would be bold, but that is where we are. Climate change really is an emergency.

Are you conscious of the Cancun conference, and if so, what are some outcomes you hope to see?

Will you stand and defend the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse emissions, a power affirmed by ruling of the United States Supreme Court?

Finally, a question going back to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. I am concerned by reports that the United States and the European Union have threatened African nations with cuts in humanitarian aid because they were opposed to Copenhagen. Similarly, we suspended climate aid programs to Bolivia and Ecuador. Why are we punishing these countries?

Your response to these questions, and an affirmation that this is an emergency, is greatly appreciated.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Actors versus Beautiful Know-Nothings

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be actors.

It's a tough profession. Very few jobs, and an awful lot of competition. You work project to project. If you are lucky enough to make a meager living at it, it's because you learn how to deal with feast-and-famine economics.

It is also a widely denigrated profession. It's not considered "real work." The work is misunderstood and suspect: it is regarded almost as a kind of witchcraft. Actors are all really good at lying, did you hear? Can't trust them. Besides, they get into character and forget who they really are. To them, the whole world is just pretend.

(Well, actually, the world is pretend, but the majority of actors don't really believe that any more than the rest of us.)


Watch the prejudiced reactions emerge whenever an actor runs for public office. Sooner than later, somebody who does not like that candidate will suggest that mere entertainers are beneath the seriousness of public office. Artists are beautiful know-nothings, pretenders, and clowns. Political enemies go right for the profession. Al Franken got ripped by Jack Cafferty on CNN, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Democratic rivals belittled him for being an actor and the website Arnoldwatch frequently does the same, along with Sonny Bono, Fred Thompson, and more -- they all got mocked for seeking election. Fred Grandy probably got jokes about his career on the Love Boat when he served in Congress. Despite the strong Republican contingent in Hollywood, show business is frequently played up as being a hotbed of liberal elitism. Anecdotally, I met more Dennis Hoppers in the industry in L.A. than Barbara Streisands, just saying. But this isn't about the liberal/conservative thing. This is about the question, "Are actors suitable for public office?"

Did you notice we have left out the most famous actor-turned-politician of them all? Also a Republican, by the way.

Yeah, him.

President Ronald Reagan's name came up this week in an interview with Sarah Palin, who might actually be a beautiful know-nothing. The way our country jumbles up entertainment, celebrity culture, and politics, it's not especially remarkable that a figure like Sarah Palin has gained such prominence for doing and saying so little. Even so, Karl Rove and others are casting aspersions on her political viability because she is starring in a reality television show. During an interview, she was asked to respond to this criticism. She tried to underscore the irony:

wasn't Ronald Reagan an actor, wasn't he in Bedtime for Bonzo -- bozo, something. . .

It was Bonzo.

Peggy Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter and not a fan of the Mama Grizzly, fired back.

Ronald Reagan was an artist who willed himself into leadership as president of a major American labor union (Screen Actors Guild, seven terms, 1947-59.) He led that union successfully through major upheavals (the Hollywood communist wars, labor-management struggles); discovered and honed his ability to speak persuasively by talking to workers on the line at General Electric for eight years; was elected to and completed two full terms as governor of California; challenged and almost unseated an incumbent president of his own party; and went on to popularize modern conservative political philosophy without the help of a conservative infrastructure. Then he was elected president. ... He brought his fully mature, fully seasoned self into politics with him.

I will not take the time here to refute Noonan's admiration for Reagan's legacy or his presidency. That would make a very long and potentially incendiary post. What we agree on is that Ronald Reagan was much more than some airheaded entertainer who made B-movies. It is true, he was a union leader, a worker in a difficult profession, and someone who engaged in politics and who (for better or, as I might argue, for much worse) influenced our nation's history and its political discourse, continuing deeply into the new century. And yes, he was an actor.

We elect lots of folks to public office, who come from lots of different professions. Lawyers. Teachers. Farmers and ranchers. Professional athletes. Doctors. Tom DeLay, one of the most powerful figures in Congressional history, was a pest control guy. John Boehner, the presumptive speaker of the house come January, has a background in sales. You get the point.

Here's my comment about actors serving in public office.

To succeed, actors cannot only be artists; they have to be successful as businesspeople. They themselves are the business. Unless they are born into Hollywood royalty (like your Nicholas Cages and George Clooneys), the actors have to know the trade backwards and forwards, and to be audacious and break the rules at just the right time, and be very lucky on top of it, just to get an opportunity.

A person like that will very likely succeed in elected office if that's what they set themselves to do. Personally, I just hope they are interested in serving the interests of people rather than -- well, you know, the interests that Reagan served. A figure like Reagan who was actually on the side of people would be a dangerous figure indeed.

Friday, November 05, 2010

A Green Roundup

Some countries have Green parties that participate in elections and hold legislative seats; they are accepted both in the process and in government.

In the United States, Greens have continued difficulty participating in the process, in large part because our country still views itself as a two-party country only. Electoral laws are in place that preserve this duopoly by setting the bar much higher for independents and "third parties." Such candidates are also routinely excluded from candidate debates, even though the candidates often make a big impression when they are allowed in.

Despite these challenges, Green candidates were elected to local offices in Arkansas, California (unsurprisingly), Florida, Maine, and Oregon. In other races, Green candidates did well enough to establish or maintain ballot status. This happened in Texas, New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, and D.C.

Once again, Rich Whitney did very well in a race for Illinois Governor, earning nearly 100,000 votes and some high-profile endorsements during the campaign. Illinois Greens also ran a strong candidate for their state legislature, among others. The Illinois Green Party gives one hope: they seem to understand the need for good, serious candidates, and are slowly gaining ground in a system that is stacked against anybody but Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, the vote was not high enough to maintain ballot status, and besides being shunned at the debates (despite being a recognized state party on the ballot), there were reports of irregularities with electronic voting, with voters under the impression machines had flipped their Green votes to the Democratic candidate. Investigations, lawsuits, oy.

Richmond, California re-elected its Green mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, after a tough campaign. YES! magazine has an interesting story that features some work she has done locally, promoting food sovereignty and a sense of community.

No grand thesis here. I have been registered as an independent (or "decline to state") for quite some time now, but I continue to watch the Green Party and enjoy the best of its candidates. They have, for quite a while, been holding local office all over the United States. It would be good for us to let this party participate in elections and debates.

Aren't these Democrats and Republicans always talking about the virtue of competition?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Forgetting Your Religion

The Deming Ministerial Outreach is seeking more participants, to bring different churches or smaller religious groups together to talk about local issues and to provide human services to local people. Membership is, shall we say, restricted:

As this campaign season graciously ended, the Deming Ministerial Alliance thought it only appropriate to campaign for greater participation in its effects by local pastors or their designated representatives in local Christian churches (Churches affirming the Apostles' Creed are considered Christian.).

In Deming, interfaith means different Christian churches working together.

Last weekend, my wife and I were present at a party here in town where there were muslims present, with the women wearing headscarves. It was a large party and I didn't get to meet them or get a chance to learn where they worship around here. Running a Zen group here for almost three years now, I've learned that this little city is more diverse and eclectic than some think.

My interest in interfaith conversation started a decade ago, while working alongside my old friend Ji Hyang Padma at Cambridge Zen Center. It was she who introduced me to faith leaders there, as she was very active herself in doing together-action with other clergy. This continued even after an evangelical group that was also a participant began agitating against inviting us because, they said, Buddhism was a "bad religion" that taught "humanism" and might actually be Satanic.

In Los Angeles, amidst the turmoil that followed the September 11 attacks, the need for interfaith dialogue seemed even more obvious, and I got involved there as well, working with ICUJP and doing some together-action with other ministers at UCLA. A big part of this work was engaging with muslims along with a host of other social problems that touched the people of our congregations during that decade.

It taught me a great deal. It was like getting a free seminar in American religion. It was also an opportunity to talk about Zen practice and Buddhism, as these remain by turns greatly misunderstood, highly romanticized, and orientalized. It's an environment I often miss, but for the moment the doors are not open.

That's okay. True interfaith work happens between human beings all the time when they aren't thinking about "my religion" or "that religion." When our minds are enthralled by our differences, then our minds are different; when we aren't thinking about that stuff -- like when you're helping me cross the street, or I'm picking something up that you dropped, or I'm holding your crying baby for a minute because you need to do something, or in a million other situations, then for an instant our divisions are at rest and we are the same.

That's true interfaith work, moment to moment. It happens when we just-about, almost, forget who "I" am because we're too busy being human.

[Photo: stations of the cross at Rancho de la Paz, Luna County]

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Impartial on Election Day

It was a long day in Anthony and the nearby townships of Chaparral, Vado, and Chamberino.

When I cast my own vote in Luna County, my mind held strong preferences about the outcome of the midterm elections. Then I had a long drive, over an hour through the desert hills, to release those preferences and focus on my job.

In the polling places, there are election clerks with an important job. They make sure the voters who turn up are registered, equip them with ballots, and make sure those ballots are handled in the proper way. There are also challengers hanging around. They work for the political parties. They are allowed to challenge voters if they see evidence of an impropriety.

Sometimes, there are also non-partisan observers. That was my job as a volunteer with Count Every Vote New Mexico. My job, similar to what I did in 2008, was to observe the process. I had been trained in the state's election laws and electoral process, shown how to handle certain situations that might interfere with a person's right to vote. My clipboard contained information on the rights of voters, the text of the state's election laws, phone numbers of our group's attorneys and the county clerk's office, and in the pocket of my suitcoat there was a camera in case I needed photographic evidence of anything. Oh yes, and a cell phone which I barely know how to use.

Happily, it was a pretty dull day. I filed reports on minor polling place problems. No one lost their vote, the challengers were not overzealous, there was no improper electioneering, and no intimidation at the places I visited. I observed a couple of challenges and watched the process. Same with a few spoiled ballots. The rules were followed. Everyone got to cast a ballot (and regular ballots, not the uncertain provisional ballots). Poll workers were well trained, and everyone was cheerful and civil.

Instead of churning the desired outcomes over in my head, wondering about the results of the election and what they meant, checking my opinions throughout the day, I spent the day intensely focused on the process itself. Because I was inside the polling place itself and was there as a non-partisan, it would not have been appropriate to discuss my opinions about the campaigns or my political preferences. So I didn't, and it was very refreshing to be unplugged from that.

It was a day of service. The election clerks and presiding judges I observed did their jobs beautifully, welcoming voters and assisting them generously. In a slightly different capacity, that's what I prepared for as well, if a voter became confused, had questions, or was turned away improperly. Happily, it was an uneventful watch.

[Top photo: Welcome to Anthony, the New Mexico/Texas border line.]

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Quick Note on Election Day 2010

I must put on clothes and get moving.

There is a line of thought that says voting "only encourages them." Voting, it is held by some, legitimizes and empowers a sham of democracy, a process that is really bought and sold and does not represent the needs or interests of the people.

Even if that is 100% correct, the elections we do have still make a difference. Imagine what the world would likely resemble in 2010, as realistically as you can, under a reactionary right-wing presidency.

The answer is not to abdicate and leave the ground to those powers that rule, but to vote and fight for reform. Not even reform, but an overhaul.

No one is too holy to vote. Your life is touched by the lives of everyone around you. It is touched by money and goods. It is defined by your access to those goods and services. Even if you sit a Kyol Che every year, even if your head is shaved and you are more familiar with the Pali Canon than the Federalist papers, you are involved and you have a job.

I'm heading out the door in a moment to cast my vote. I hate my choices. There is work to be done opening this process up to more candidates and a broader range of ideas, and to fight back the dominance of corporations. For today, however, I have two jobs. The first is to vote.

Second, I head to Anthony, New Mexico to volunteer as a non-partisan election observer. I have taken a personal day from my job in order to do this. (I also did this in 2008.) I have been trained in the state's election law and the electoral process. Mostly, my job consists of answering questions and helping voters who are confused. Occasionally, poll workers make honest mistakes in applying our election laws (which are somewhat confusing). And, slightly more rarely, there is hanky-panky at a polling place that must be called in and written up. When necessary, a lawyer is dispatched to the scene. Mostly I simply am a presence, to observe, answer questions when asked, and report what I see.

That's my day. Please have a good one.

And please vote.