Friday, December 30, 2011

On Hurqalya and Zen

A previous post about the imaginal world made reference to the concept of Hurqalya, and in case anyone found that interesting ("Hello, is this thing on?"), we briefly return with a little more on that subject.

First, some more definition:

Suhrawardi ("the Martyr," 1153-91)...took the pagan teachings known to him -- those of the real Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, and Plato -- and combined them with Shi'ite Islam. At the center of Suhrawardi's theosophy is the same concept of a spiritual body that is developed by prayer and meditation. In this body, the adept can explore an inner world of supreme variety and wonder. Suhrawardi calls it Hurqalya. His French translator and interpreter, Henry Corbin, uses the term mundus imaginalis (the Imaginal World), urging his readers never to confuse it with the "imaginary" world of fantasy and fiction. Hurqalya is a real world, only it does not have a material substratum. It answers to the requirements of the scientific method, namely that anyone with the right equipment will discover its objective existence. However, unlike the radio telescope or particle collider, which inform the scientist of invisible and almost unimaginable realities, the exploration of Hurqalya requires the special tool of a highly refined astral or spiritual body: something as rare and hard to obtain as any piece of expensive hardware.*

As I commented in the post linked above, the ontological essence (whether this is a "real" place or not) is not a compelling issue for me. Suhrawarti's idea is that intensive prayer and meditation prepare one to enter an imaginal world. Zen training, on the other hand, reveals the so-called "ordinary" world as imaginal, too. No special preparation is required to enter it -- we are creating "the world" moment after moment as we grope about this planet. Indeed, even our understanding of self, this "I" that we carry around with us day after day, even that is an imaginal work: an aggregate of perceptions and impulses.

Zen Master Dae Kwang used to tell us there are universes everywhere -- "and they are all created by you." On the other hand, he also used to refer to our plans, desires, assumptions, and so on as "dreams." Here I would parse his words. "I" is not a dream: I could prove it by slamming my hand on this letter opener on my desk right now. Something is here that is not imaginary; but it is imaginal. Our plans, assumptions, desires, and even "I" are all imaginal: created by mind, yet very compelling and "real" to us.

The story of Zen is that all of this is an imaginal world, created by unprepared minds. The preparation, in this story, is for seeing the essence of this imaginal world and its boundaries.

Then what?

* Joscelyn Godwin, The Golden Thread: The Ageless Wisdom of the Western Mystery Traditions. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2007.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quality Time

Pete is a Sicilian guy who frequently shows up at the International Delights Cafe in Las Cruces with a portable chess set. He rolls his board out across a table, leaving just enough room for coffee cups, cell phones, and perhaps an ash tray to the sides. He sets up his white and red pieces and waits, if he must; often enough, challengers are eager for a chance to vanquish Pete.
This is not blitz chess, played out in a few minutes over a cash bet. He's not a hustler. These games last half an hour, forty minutes, an hour. Pete plays position chess, considering all of the ramifications and possibilities carefully before making each move. Nonostante, Pete is not averse to a little competitive banter from time to time.
It becomes a spectator event, with strangers or coffee-shop-acquaintances looking up from their electronic devices to watch. Conversations unfold. Cigarettes are fired up. People duck inside for refills and come back. The scene is mostly but not exclusively male.
In a world that is ever more loud and impatient, there are still people who gather around a slow-paced battle of wits, speaking softly, watching, waiting. One man watched an entire game with scarcely a comment, occasionally checking his phone (it frequently beeped at him, like a nagging robot assistant), yet timelessly watching the situation change as he savored a black cigarette that smelled like toasting herbs. Not a word, just witnessing and nodding when he approved of the move.

Human beings speak of "quality time," a concept I find fascinating. "Quality time" as opposed to other kinds of time, thought of as a kind of time where we are not pressured to be productive or perform or meet deadlines. Perhaps that would constitute a vacation from "time" itself.
Strangely, we posit the idea of a special time that allows human beings to connect socially, as if something held us back from doing that the rest of the time. It's the familiar nausea of modern life: loud, fast, hard to focus on the person sitting right in front of us, much less our own selves. There is no "app" for that.
Last night, I had a peculiar urge to bring my own chessboard -- actually, my father's chess set, dating back to his high school days -- to the Mimbres Valley Brewing Company here in Deming. Filled my glass mug with their Pancho Villa stout, set up the board, and thumbed through a book waiting to see if anyone would sit down. A half hour or so went by before a young man named Jeremy sat down, a sweet guy one year out of college, passing through town on a long, meandering road trip throughout the United States, heading to Utah to earn some money so he can keep going, not even knowing yet what he's looking for, just looking around. Over the board and some friendly competition, we exchanged stories and information.
This morning, I imagine Jeremy is heading north in his beat-up van, with a notion of spending New Year's Eve in Silver City. I hope he is still savoring the roads and the mountains on his journey, going forward yet taking his time.

[Photos: Pete (top) and Johnny (below) playing chess at International Delights]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Digging out from under Christmas

As this photograph, taken earlier today, shall document: we are still digging out from under Christmas, but will resume publishing our boring and inconsequential thoughts, reflections, and whimsies very soon. Be patient, though: it's hard to see what I'm typing with this tiger mask on.

[Photo: your humble correspondent and his first-born, post Christmas. Click on it for a larger view.]

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Music Around the House

My wife is a woman who decks the halls the day after Thanksgiving. One day I wake up and on my way to the coffee maker I stumble through boughs of fake evergreen and I know the dread season has arrived.

It would be unfair to conclude that your correspondent is "grinchy." Christmas was always a very special day in my childhood, a time when family and friends gathered for food and wine and raucous laughter. I enjoy finding or making unique gifts for people I care about. It is not a religious day for me, of course, though I sometimes think about initiating a holiday tradition of reading the Q gospel out loud on Christmas morning.

Sometimes the ubiquity of Christmas-oriented music gets to be a bit much. After all, I don't go blasting Korean Buddhist chanting all day long, not even on Buddha's Birthday. Having performed in enough productions of A Christmas Carol, the familiar chestnuts (roasting on a fire or otherwise) no longer elevate my holiday spirit much, and some of my wife's more pop-oriented selection of Christmas originals occasionally tempts me to insert lit sticks of incense into my ears. Enough, already.

A solution to this problem has been found in combining our musical tastes with Sarah's religion. Voila, this year, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum, sometimes known as the "Christmas motets," of Orlando di Lasso. This lovely performance by Weser-Renaissance under Manfred Cordes now fills Sarah's house with rich chromatics and premonitions of the savior's birth -- actual Christmas music. A beautiful performance of a beautiful work.

And if it gets played over and over again, I can live with it.

The sample below is sung by different singers. Enjoy, if you like this sort of thing. Christmas is coming.

[Image: From a nativity painting by Lorenzo Lotto]

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Checking the Performance

It breaks my heart a little bit when actors speak disdainfully of live theatrical performance, complaining of its repetition. When we apply the craft for film, the camera and the editor record our performance forever, while live theatre is ephemeral, immediate, and less subject to our control. The live spectator may glance anywhere and react unexpectedly to the events they are witnessing. Its presence cannot be figured out and managed in the same way that an actor learns the camera, or senses how the camera perceives him.

It is natural to prefer the controllable and predictable, but it is also an adventure denied.

It breaks my heart a little bit to remember professional actors saying, "Nine shows a week" as if resigning themselves to repeating something canned, going through the motions, instead of coming alive within the structure of the rehearsed scene.

Performing Private Fears in Public Places suddenly became a drastically different experience when spectators began coming and they surprised us with their reactions -- and this is so often the case. The first performance or even the first few performances are usually vivid times, when what has been rehearsed suddenly crackles with fresh spontaneity and meaning.

It doesn't need to go away, but actors often lose that sense and begin checking the performance in a self-conscious way. "It feels flat tonight." That sort of thing. The comments reveal a changed attitude about the audience as well: suddenly they've become intruders, a hostile witness. Actors say things like, "They're not with us." "They hate it." "Why aren't they laughing?" "What a bunch!"

Zen Master Seung Sahn called this "checking mind." Evaluating what's going on from an alienated and insecure position, instead of immersing oneself wholeheartedly in the situation and acting. This is not just a problem for actors on a stage, it is how human beings often position themselves during their day, and end up missing out on their lives.

So it is with actors, missing out on the opportunity to fully embody their scene. Even worse, actors can infect each other with these comments, making backstage an incubator for increasing self-consciousness and alienation from the work. Once it starts, it can feel like the show is slowing down, shambling haltingly towards its grim conclusion, consigned to the locked vault of embarrassing memories.

It is self-sabotage and deeply sad to watch unfold, for one who loves and has always loved the live theatre -- and has seen what effect it can have on a room full of human beings.

[Photo: Edwin Soto and me, in a scene from Private Fears in Public Places, currently playing in Las Cruces, New Mexico]

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Stay In There

Many years ago, at a time when I felt my entire life was an Irish jig in a minefield, I had an opportunity to meet with Zen Master Wu Bong for a private interview at Brown University's Zen group.

"What can I do for you?" he asked. I remember his impish smile. We sat on cushions, facing each other, mere inches between us.

"You practice martial arts, don't you?" I asked. He nodded. I continued. "I feel as though I'm blind and might be attacked at any moment. What would you do?"

He said, "Please shut your eyes."

I did. I sat there with my eyes closed wondering what he would do. And...

...after a very long moment he said, "Thank you."

In the creative process (and in koan practice for that matter), the limitations contribute to a crisis: stay in there, and let the joriki grow and grow, and eventually something exuberant and true will explode.

What makes the rest of life any different?

On Censorship: Mama Mule Responds

On November 29, this blog addressed an online petition asking the dominant online bookseller Amazon to quit selling certain books about parenting that advocate spanking. The author of the petition is Milli Hill, who blogs from the UK as "Mama Mule." In the post, we expressed concerns about censorship, and Mama Mule took a moment to respond as follows:

First of all thank you for reading my blog and taking time to write about it.

I've thought carefully about this post and as a result I have changed the sentence in my post that you describe as 'chilling', (it was pretty chilling for me to read you saying you found my words chilling!) It now reads: "It may well then be that the question of whether the books should be banned becomes part of that debate, but this is not the aim of the petition."

I am not in favour of book banning, and I would stress that the petition is to ask Amazon not to stock titles that advocate the physical abuse of children. If the petition succeeds, and Amazon agree to this, these books will still be published. However they will be less readily available and hopefully this will cause people to question why this is and rethink this parenting approach.

Amazon themselves DO have a content policy, they say they do not stock 'offensive' material, they DO draw lines. I don't think drawing such a line - which you might call censorship - is a negative thing. Regardless of your views on freedom of speech there are some books I assume you would expect them not to stock, for example child pornography, or books that incite racial hatred.

The attitude to children and the treatment recommended in these books is utterly unacceptable and I felt I wanted to find some way to make a stand about this. The petition to Amazon was the best idea I could think of to raise awareness of the books and send a message that this was wrong. I love your idea of writing another book and I would love to do this one day, perhaps when my children are a little older and less time consuming!

Thank you for raising the interesting questions in this post and for making me think. I welcome your further thoughts.

Thank you and welcome! My further thoughts follow:

Marketplace censorship

It is quite true, let us acknowledge, that your petition is not an attempt to stop the publication of these books. It targets the distribution of these books after publication through the dominant seller of books on the internet. And granted, Amazon opens the door to this because it does, in fact, have a policy about "offensive material."

Though you pursue the distribution rather than the publication of the books you do not like, the end is similar: the books will be "less readily available," as you say. It is an attempt at censorship via the marketplace.

In fairness, you state very clearly that your intention is to raise awareness of an issue, and not to eradicate these books. (And I assume you are prepared for the possibility that publicity would increase the sales of these very books.) Let us suppose the petition is successful and Amazon refuses to list these books. Would you feel inspired to make a similar case, based on Amazon's capitulation, to Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Alibris, Abebooks, and so on and so on? Have you thought about where you would stop?

I don't want to be too hard on you: Amazon does have a policy about offensive content, you do find these particular books offensive, and so the rest follows honestly. You are playing by Amazon's rules and they are a private company. My objection arises to the suggestion that this is not censorship. Sure it is.

In theory, if you succeed it will be more difficult for a person to read the offending books and consider what those authors are presenting in comparison to your own case. Although you and I are agreed about the subject matter, I am not comfortable silencing those who are not yet convinced, or inhibiting them from communicating their view.

Which is what led to my suggestion that you use this time and energy to write a book instead, or edit one comprising material from parents, educators, and psychologists.

On Offensive Material

"Regardless of your views on freedom of speech there are some books I assume you would expect [Amazon] not to stock, for example child pornography, or books that incite racial hatred."

In general, my impulse is not to stop people reading things I find offensive or disturbing. There is nothing in my country's constitution, nor in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, suggesting I have a right not to be offended.

I'm open to the possibility that there may be information that should be suppressed. I prefer judicious redaction to outright suppression. For instance, I was fully supportive of WikiLeaks publishing leaked diplomatic memos that exposed various activities of my government, but I was equally concerned that certain individuals named in the documents be redacted for their personal safety. And I can imagine a book or magazine depicting murder, rape, mutilation of animals, things like that, being out of bounds.

But we must be careful and rigorous, because the definition of what is "out of bounds" tends to broaden.

Despite my country's greatly vaunted "first amendment" right to freedom of speech, we have a long history of curtailing that right with sedition and obscenity laws. There are persistent conflicts to this day about the difference between "pornography" and art, the difference between journalism and espionage (as with WikiLeaks, The Guardian, and the New York Times), and balancing freedom of information with national security.

Child pornography seems like an obvious "no!" and yet in my lifetime the definition of child pornography has broadened under U.S. law. I recall a beautiful book that once was stocked by the Providence Public Library, reproducing photographs taken by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). There was a fashion in Victorian-era photography of using children as models, sometimes partly-naked. Dodgson frequently used such models in his photographs: clothed, partly clothed, or nude. The photographs did not depict sexual conduct, nor were they alluring in any prurient way to my eye, but the children were indeed nude and depicted as objects of beauty and innocence. If a photographer did such a series today, Anderson Cooper would be hounding them on television and they could be prosecuted for taking the pictures, mailing them anywhere, posting them on the internet, or publishing them. And a publisher would at least think twice about publishing that old book today; and a book collector would think twice about owning it.

This is my problem with the idea of censoring "offensive content." A book advocating spanking a child with a switch or a belt would likely offend me and I'd be moved to refute the book's claims, but the idea of stopping someone from selling or reading that book also offends me.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Mundus Imaginalis

Terry Gilliam's wonderful 2009 film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, introduces us to a traveling theatre troupe that invites people to take a walk into the mirror seen in this picture. When you walk through this fake mirror, you emerge into the world of your imagination. A place fewer and fewer people choose to visit in the modern world where the film takes place. For those who walk through (or stumble through inadvertently, as the case may be), there are many surprises, valuable lessons, and dangerous temptations.

The idea of an imaginal world, a mundus imaginalis, is old and has been taken quite seriously in times past. This is not the "collective unconscious" of Carl Jung, and not simply a world of fantasy made concrete; it is not even the personal cognitive realm Zen Master Seung Sahn placed at 270 degrees on his circle of awakening and enlightenment (an intriguing notion in itself, as it was thought possible for those sufficiently prepared to bend some of the rules of the material world), but an actual place. In Persian theosophy it was called hurqâlya, as Henri Corbin described: intermediate world, which our authors designate as 'alam al-mithal, the world of the Image, mundus imaginalis: a world as ontologically real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect, a world that requires a faculty of perception belonging to it, a faculty that is a cognitive function, a noetic value, as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with "fantasy" and that, according to him, produces only the "imaginary."

A realm that is accessible through preparation, not to walk through a mirror or some other material gateway, but through the senses, past the particular personality and into an imaginal world that can be accessed by those whose faculties are prepared. Here, there is perennial inspiration, a riot of mythologies and images that speak in whispers intelligible to ears that are attuned, though they be fewer in number now than in other ages...

...especially in a world of men and women bent over personal electronic devices. In the dressing room of the theatre where I am currently performing in Alan Ayckbourn's Private Fears in Public Places, I'm damned if I did not witness the bewildering spectacle of two actors thumbing away at their little telephone computers simultaneously. One said, "I'm trying to find you on Facebook. Where are you?" The other spelled her name and the first said, "Nope, still can't find you." Were they seeking each other in some mundus electronicus, perhaps? Where would this be, in relation to the hierarchy of the material world, spiritual world, and the intermediary mundus imaginalis? It was a little bitchy of me, but I said out loud, "You know, she's right here in the room with you."

Yet minutes later, we were at play in a space shared by a playwright we have not met, we (a bunch of American artists), and those who occupy the audience. Fourth wall or none, what is the space that is viewed through the prism of a performance area?

Personally, I am not much interested in the ontology of these worlds. I don't literally believe much of anything about the world. I don't literally believe the ideas of Buddhism or acting or magic, tarot, or even ego. So much of my self is created by thinking, what would be the ontological basis of "I?" Much less a character I would play on a stage, a story, an image.

More important is our relationship to these things and how they affect us. Because in this world, regardless of its ontological "existence" as an independent place or a "collective unconscious" or whatever, there is ancient shared wisdom. There are also traps.

This is a beautiful, strange universe. There are also dangers. Make good friends, listen to old stories, and pay attention. And sing.

[Photo: Heath Ledger in "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." He was working on this film when he died in January of 2008.]

Sunday, December 04, 2011


"Hi," a sort of half whisper, falling gently as a snowflake. Hi. Like the blanket against the skin of a sleeping child. Hi. That's all it is, hi.

Hi. Here you are, and in my sight you are excellent. On your messiest day, I'll take you all over again. Hi.

Such a plain greeting, but from Regina's breath I dearly wish this could be the last word I hear on this earth. "Hi."

[Artist: Agnolo Bronzino.]

Friday, December 02, 2011

Donatello and Gabriel

Gabriel dashes through the house in his favorite slippers, slippers that come up above his ankles and flare out ever so slightly. He wears no pants, to facilitate potty training. He runs about as an olympian force, much to the terror of the furniture and the delight of his baby brother. Occasionally he pauses, and in an instant as he stands languidly collecting himself or merely surveying his environment, or simply being like a magnificent cat, I catch glimpses of Donatello's David.

Donatello's David may actually be Mercury -- look at that hat and that pose. And Goliath was not slain with a sword. No, this looks like Mercury, perhaps just after slaying Argos as a favor to Zeus.

The natural sensuality that Donatello brought out of this bronze is truly a wonder -- it has been provoking diverse reactions in viewers for just about six centuries.

I would write more about this, but Mercury has just approached me and asked me to hang him upside down. You know how it is.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

It's Not Censorship because I'm Right!

One of the more popular posts on this blog is this one from April of this year, on the topic of spanking in schools.

For some time, this post was featured on the web site of Parents and Teachers against Violence in Education. After asking my permission to reprint the piece, which had been published as an op-ed for The Deming Headlight, the spokesman wanted permission to make changes. My piece advocated a ban on spanking in schools, but he felt I had left the door open for parental spanking -- indeed, I had even disclosed giving Gabriel a swat or two -- and this was a problem for him. I said no to rewriting my piece and he ran it as is, but he argued the point passionately for an hour.

At some point during that hour, having established that he considered spanking to be child abuse that merited government intervention in the home, we talked about privacy and individual discretion. I remarked to him that, to me, he was willing to go pretty far in policing individuals in private, and he didn't bat an eye. He said that while he respects individual liberty, what was also true is "I am right!"

The conviction that "I am right" winks at tyranny, which is how popular revolutions turn into dictatorships and liberals turn into neocons, and how we justify things like censorship and other infringements of liberty. Has not every parent said, at least once, "BECAUSE I SAID SO!!"

It is also how we persuade ourselves that censorship sometimes is not really censorship.

PTVE sent an email alert yesterday about a petition addressed to the CEO of, the dominant internet bookseller. The petition pressures Amazon not to stock three specific titles and similar books, on grounds that the material is "offensive" (and thus a violation of Amazon's guidelines) and, further, because the books advocate methods that might violate legal bans on corporal punishment in some countries.

The creator of this online petition is Milli Hill, a citizen of the UK. In August she wrote about the petition on her personal blog. She has given the subject a great deal of conscientious thought and I find little to argue with in her position about violent parenting. She is justifiably assured of the rightness of her position.

But then, there is this:

Let's be clear, this is not a petition to ban books. It is simply to ask Amazon to cease to stock parenting manuals which advise the physical abuse of children.

Oh boy. It's not censorship when I do it? All right, let's give the writer a chance:

...this is not a petition to ban books. It is simply to ask Amazon to cease to stock parenting manuals which advise the physical abuse of children. What is the difference? Well, to ban a book is a very big move, with implications on freedom of speech which need to be debated at high levels before such a move is made. I'm not saying that this shouldn't happen at some stage, but for now, to call for Amazon to review their policy to sell the books seems a smaller and more manageable step. With a petition with thousands of signatures, Amazon will be forced to take some kind of action, even if it is to simply respond and say that they are going to continue to sell the book. As such a high profile retailer, whatever action they take will be news worthy, and will raise awareness world wide of these books and their content. This will then open up the question of whether such books should be allowed at all to a far wider group than I can reach through this blog.

I don't like censorship, but these books really are bad and need to go away. Because I said so! I am right!

Calling for censorship on moral grounds is still a call for censorship. There are circumstances where censorship may be appropriate. If there is a case to be made, by all means make it. But attempting to argue that this censorship is not really censorship is disingenuous.

Asking a book seller, particularly such a dominant one as, to "cease" stocking certain titles is a request for censorship. And yes, it is "a big move with implications on freedom of speech." When you ask for a book to be taken off the shelves, you are engaging in such a move and need to take responsibility for that.

Later in the paragraph, she seems almost to backpedal by suggesting this is only a call for Amazon to "review their policy to sell the books," but this is clearly with the aim of inhibiting sales and distribution of the book by pressuring Amazon either to comply or to defend its marketing of the books. Even if the censorship does not succeed, it might raise awareness about the issue and the petition's cause. And, chillingly in my view, it might "open up the question of whether such books should be allowed at all to a far wider group than I can reach through this blog." (Emphasis mine.)

This is straightforward, consumer-led censorship. Just because you think it is the right thing to do does not mean that censorship magically becomes something other than censorship.

No one asked me, but instead of censoring books that present opinions on parenting we do not like, there might be more value and impact in writing a book refuting those opinions. There are books about mindful parenting, but not that many books on effective parenting that spares the rod.

We know as parents that sometimes the best way to get baby to drop a dangerous object is to offer her something better to play with. Maybe a compelling and better guide to parenting is a better response.

And Milli, if you are reading this, you might be just the person to write it, judging from your own blog.

[Photo: young Lucca D'Ammassa in the arms of his father]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Our Infrasonic Child

We are pleased to announce that our son has a job.

We need to get with our times, when a serious candidate for President of the United States is advocating child labor. Gabriel is three. Time to get him to bloody work, that's what I say.

And a bloody job, indeed, we have found for him: a way for him to contribute to the stability of this, the best of all possible societies.

Gabriel, you see, has perfected a whine that shames the entire arsenal of sonic weapons the military has developed for suppressing civilian populations. Gabriel's whines, screams, and keening do not merely threaten the structure of our eardrums. That ability is common among three-year-olds. No no, Gabriel is exceptional.

Gabriel's infrasonic abilities actually incapacitate grown human beings, inducing nausea and distorted vision due to vibrating eyeballs. He can whine at 7-12 Hz first thing in the morning, before he's even had his milk. Prolonged and repeated exposure to his temper tantrums, when he is rested and fed, exposes the central nervous system to intense distress.

We've been taking bids from various municipal police departments, and this morning we must return calls from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. We are going to be set for life. Gabriel will, in very short order, be deployed to disrupt and silence civil protest, and he will not require much in the way of expensive technical maintenance.

All he requires is juice, peanut butter, and a bubble bath around 6:00 PM.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What Happened to You, John Pike?

What has happened to a man who can do this?

The students are obviously peaceful, seated on the ground, arms linked, participating in a protest action on the campus of their university, U.C. Davis. It was on Friday that this event took place. It was a demonstration of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement and its grievances.

Let us dispense with one lie. It was not an act of self defense, as is clearly shown on video. Watch:

Let's assume the university had a compelling reason to clear this protest. The campus police are clearly prepared to make arrests, they've got their plastic cuffs ready. The protestors are certainly prepared for this. They are seated on the ground not presenting any resistance or threat. The crowd watching the scene is presenting more hostility than the protestors themselves.

And we see Lieutenant Pike of the UC Davis campus police calmly approach the ring of protestors, produce his can of military-grade pepper spray, and walk down the line spraying them point blank. It is perfectly straightforward and unambiguous. This cannot be blamed on "resisting arrest" or bomb-wielding anarchists or any of those classic defenses of police brutality, defenses that worked quite well in an age when people didn't walk around with video cameras embedded in their cell phones.

No, what we see here is an officer of the police deliberately inflicting pain and suffering on people simply because they are protesting.

And for this reason, Lieutenant John Pike is going to become a celebrity, and he will be subject to an investigation of some kind for what he did. The purpose of the investigation will certainly be to look for some justification or defense of the department, to re-legitimize the authority figures in question (there are already calls for the university's chancellor to resign after she defended the use of pepper spray), and to assess whether Pike needs to be scapegoated or whether a slap-on-the-wrist will make the public pressure go away.

This was the predictable result of the Anthony Bologna incident in New York. The result of the NYPD's investigation of Bologna -- a man who walked up to a small group of defenseless young women who had been corralled peacefully and were not resisting, and pepper sprayed them directly in the eyes simply because he was angry -- was to take away some of Bologna's vacation days, and re-assign him to Staten Island.

These are not isolated incidents, and therefore I am loath to denounce this man as uniquely monstrous. Over the past dozen years, since the WTO protests in Seattle and the September 11 attacks in particular, we are seeing militarized police departments responding even to disciplined, passive civilian protest as if it were a riot. People have been arrested standing in line at the bank in order to close their accounts. Writing a political message on a sidewalk with chalk can get you arrested, at the discretion of the heavily-armed officer nearby. A veteran of two tours of Iraq was standing still at an Occupy Oakland protest and was nearly killed by shrapnel from a tear gas canister that fractured his skull. When protestors moved in to help this man to safety, an officer threw another tear gas canister directly into them from a few feet away. Citizens singing songs in a public place can look around and see themselves surrounded by sound cannons, tazers, stormtroopers wielding batons and flash grenades. More and more, citizens seeking to be active participants in civil movements must seek information about tear gas and other military-developed technologies now being deployed against civilians.

But returning to the original question: what has happened to men who can do this? This is not even an example of "chase rage," the anger that can arise in a police officer when a suspect physically resists arrest -- something we can comprehend without condoning. What happened in this man's training that he felt it necessary to do this? Is this an individual act, or the act of a policing paradigm? And even if this is viewed as the outcome of a paradigm, it is still a man's finger on the trigger of that can of pepper spray. What was going through his mind? He will be compelled to say, I suppose, that it was a tense situation and he was concerned for his safety. The video evidence would not support that story. So what is the truth?

Alexis Madrigal is also wondering, and he writes about a few sociological studies of police tactics and civil protest for The Atlantic. I recommend his article, which can be read here.

I'd like to write more, but I have somewhere to be in a little while.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Don't Be "Interesting"

My scene partner in two recent plays has an acting teacher who reportedly tells her she needs to find ways to make a character "interesting."

I noticed that word, "interesting," again the other day, when I volunteered to be an actor for a directing class at NMSU. The student director was to direct a rehearsal, and then solicit feedback from us on his procedures as a director.

Generally he seemed great, so they are definitely doing something right in this program. Yet this issue of how to make things "interesting" kept cropping up. "Maybe what would make your character more interesting," he said to one actor, "Is if he had a very demanding father growing up, and every time [the other character] says that you are hearing your father's voice again."

The actor nodded and then asked, "Er, is this father a character in the play?"

"No. Just thought it might make things more interesting."

Going so far as to invent characters that do not even exist in the play and whole storylines? Much better to investigate what's going on in the actual play, don't we think?

So there are two things going on here. One is the concept of a "back story," or what used to be called "the spine" of a character. The other is this issue of being "interesting."

First, spine. The concept of a character's history has its uses and misuses. When you walk on stage in the guise of a character, it is critical that you are not walking in from a vacuum. Your character is in the midst of a life. Being a good actor, you have made specific choices about where your character was the moment before entering, what she is expecting when she arrives, what she wants in this moment of time and how she's going to go about it. This will change from moment to moment, and in rehearsal you practice embodying every moment and fulfilling each action completely.

Sometimes, that process is helped by making a few creative choices about a character's biography. It is important, however, to go to the text first. Here is an important operational rule: most of the time, the text will provide what you need to know to perform that play. You need to go there first. Examine the text. This is why "table work," where actors and director sit and read the play aloud and look for answers to their questions, is so important (yet so frequently skipped because "we don't have time," so sad).

After scouring the text, it may be helpful to the actor to make a few choices for himself in order to personalize the character's experiences. Sometimes this is elaborated into a full-out biography of the character that may or may not have anything to do with what the playwright invented. To the extent that these "spines" divert from the playwright's creation, I feel rather wary. Again, most of the time, what I need to know in order to act out the play is in the text. Making up new stories and new characters presents the danger of straying further and further away from the actual play. The play's the thing, yes?

Second issue is this pressure to be "interesting." What is the concern here? What makes live theatre compelling is a living presence. When you take your seat in a theatre and the doors close behind you, you are occupying a room where human beings behave truthfully in dramatic circumstances. When you achieve truthful acting, this is plenty interesting. If you've ever seen a really good evening of theatre, you know what I'm talking about. It doesn't need to be kooky or explosive and full of bells and whistles to be compelling. In the presence of truth, tears fall, palms sweat, laughter is released, compassion arises (and don't forget about catharsis), the whole range of human experience becomes present. Good theatre makes you feel alive.

Adding a bunch of actor-ish bullshit doesn't make things more "interesting." It just makes the performances more fake, and it also induces a paralyzing anxiety in young actors: that they themselves, and truth itself, are not enough, not worthy of an audience's attention.

Quite the opposite. They themselves, and the truth itself, are exactly what makes live theatre compelling and worthwhile. Sadly, I think fewer and fewer audiences experience this, and this has something to do with the dwindling interest in live theatre.

Fuck "interesting." Be completely awake and act fearlessly by investigating and embodying truth in dramatic circumstances. That's plenty interesting.

[Photo: Yours truly performing with the Pan-Twilight Circus in New England in 1997]

Friday, November 18, 2011

And hast thou slain the mustache? Callooh! Callay!

For much of 2011, a beast has occupied my face, a rover of the upper-lip border, a mustache creature that has perched there, taunting family and friends. It was the one who had made moor, fen, and fastness of my visage. The mustache! The mustache! O furry creature baring my own teeth! The time finally came to slay the monster.

With a god-forged blade I nicknamed Beowulf, I approached stealthily in the early morning while the beast was sleepy. First came the soaking in hot water, which momentarily confused and lulled the creature, who enjoyed the hot water and the thorough soaking. The creature had regularly submitted to grooming, vain beast that it was, and assumed it was going to receive more loving care. It languidly stretched and writhed with pleasure as I applied the shaving soap, rubbing and massaging the creature down to the skin.

And then, with little announcement or fanfare, I wielded Beowulf and proceeded to attack. I suppose to be true to Beowulf's duel with Grendel, I should have plucked the beast by hand, hair by hair, but there was no bearing such torment. No, I am not made of Beo's mettle. I wielded my vorpal blade and snicker-snack it went. One two, one two, and through and through!

The beast twitched. Then it pitched. It moaned and it bitched. It yelled a blood-curdling yell as one bewitched.

Much to my surprise, it then mobilized and launched its counter-attack with a leap and roar.

"'Struth!!" I cried as the mustache brought me to the floor, and I lost my grip on the blade. Prickly hairs proceeded to launch the death of a thousand little stabs as I screamed and rolled over with the loathsome creature in my arms. It tore my flesh as if I were making love to a yucca but I was undaunted. The weapon, my trusty brand new razor with the truest edge a hero would ever need, came back to my reach and the upper hand was mine again.

It ran for its life, cowering in the pantry, and I chased it to the laundry room. It vaulted the laundry machine, made its way to the hall and was headed towards the front door when I hurled myself at it, trusting courage and providence, and with a terrible crash that shook the house I had the creature pinned.

Out came the blade once more, glinting in sunshine tinted by the stained glass above, and stroke by stroke the beast fell. I rose to my feet, blade wet with water, soap, and lifeless bits of hair, bedraggled, unsure even that I lived still. Was this the underworld? Did I live?

It was the fresh air on my clean lip that restored me, a fresh fall breeze. In a looking glass I spied my face again, free. The beast was gone. But the true epic hero knows that the great beasts are timeless and may return at any time.

The blade Beowulf takes its place in the green cabinet of the bathroom, restful yet ready for the next confrontation.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Few Minutes with Richard D. Wolff

This post consists of two YouTube links. They are actually audio, although you will be treated to a photograph of the speaker laughing. This is appropriate, because the speaker is perhaps America's funniest economist, Richard D. Wolff.

Richard D. Wolff is an impeccably trained economist, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and a visiting professor at my alma mater, The New School.

He is perhaps the leading proponent for the idea that the time is ripe, in our country, to examine our economic system intelligently and, once we are done laughing about it, consider systemic reforms. In other words, it is now okay to critique capitalism as a system and stop worrying that you are going to be derided as a Stalinist or a pedophile or a terrorist or whatever people want to call you.

It is okay to learn and think. Especially when lives depend on it. Y'know?

Plus, Wolff is hilariously funny. Who knew, an economist who could describe economics as if it were a standup comedy routine? This man is a treasure.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stepping Away from OLC

In the early hours of this morning, just a couple of days short of the movement's second month-iversary, the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York's Zuccotti Park was cleared by police in a pre-dawn raid.

At the Burning House, we have a feeling this will galvanize the movement.

Meanwhile, we have sadly stepped back from the local solidarity movement, Occupy Las Cruces. The infighting and personal dynamics have driven several participants and organizers away, amid numerous complaints of being shouted down at meetings or simply ignored and excluded from activities.

There has been some tension around the jurisdiction of the General Assembly, between those seeking to make decisions based on consensus and those who simply want to do what they wish without having to go through a process. (This was clearly illustrated by the man who turned up at one of our meetings and announced, "We'll be over here occupying while you all talk about an occupation," and stalked away brandishing his cardboard sign.) One or two personalities gave it a chance, but took a dislike to the GA process when decisions did not go their way, or when they were asked to refrain from interrupting and let others speak.

We won't even get into the multiple email lists and the long fights taking place in cyberspace.

Still, there are hopeful signs.

Some of the more positive minded members have found a facilitator and are attempting to institute teach-ins on nonviolent communication and conflict resolution. That's a useful thing, even if those who maybe could learn the most from it are opting out of those classes.

No other teach-ins seem to be on the schedule, possibly because there has been resistance to the idea of someone being in the role of a "teacher" and others in the role of "learner." At an early GA meeting, a facilitator said, "We're all teachers." That's lovely, but are we all well-versed on the ABC's of the financial crisis, how the recession took form, what a recession is, how banks work, and other processes relevant to the Occupy movement? What about labor history, the history of civil movements in the United States? Do we have nothing to learn from people who have specialized knowledge in such areas?

Among many things, this movement has been a catalyst for an examination of capitalism by those who favor it and those who oppose it. This is an educational opportunity. How does this system work in the first place? What is its history? Great topic for a teach-in. But not if you're against the idea of someone coming in and teaching it. "We're all teachers." Interesting. Everyone has something to say, everyone wants their voices heard, and the movement seeks to create a space for that. On the other hand, what about "we're all learning?" If everyone is broadcasting, who is left to listen?

Still, returning to the positive aspirations of this local movement, maybe the arrival of teach-ins about communication and dialogue are a step in the direction of learning as well as talking.

There are several tents at a small city park outside the Branigan library on Picacho, which are rotated frequently out of concern for the park's condition. The camp has designated a smoking area and they keep the park clean.

At one point, the Las Cruces police department announced it would clear the park because the campers did not have permits. The occupiers were somewhat chagrined when numerous benefactors began purchasing permits for them. Permits?? We're occupying! This is supposed to be civil disobedience!

It was a moment that recalled Henry David Thoreau's consternation, when he was put in jail for refusing to pay a war tax, only to be released because someone paid his tax for him. He was outraged that his act of civil resistance had been defeated.

So a few tents remain at Branigan, the GA meets while some protestors abstain from it and do not wish to be governed by it, and unpleasant emails zip back and forth.

We will stay apprised. There is still hope. This is a new kind of movement, and at its best it represents a commitment to occupying a space in human solidarity, to education and a slow process of discerning collective goals and tactics for achieving them. Potentially, this could have the impact of the eight-hour-day movement and similar civil movements. Las Cruces, too, could emerge from being a fractious camp-out to part of a disciplined, fully engaged movement of citizens forcing the political system to transform in durable ways.

[Photo: Occupy Las Cruces at the Branigan library]

Sunday, November 13, 2011

First day of the workshop!

Some of the topics covered in our first class today:

Using imagination and the body together at all times

Connecting breath to movement (walking series)

Directing and transmitting intention (which is a better word than the vague "energy")

Reframing "strength" (the miracle of the unbendable arm)

The vocal apparatus

Consonants and how they help you act

Sidebar: the sensual phonetic pleasure of profanity (not about the content of the word, but rather the emotional release of short vowels and chewy consonants)

After a break, ensemble movement/theatre exercise (team collaboration)

Reading Moliere scenes

Acting: peeling away the onion layers that make "I." Sharing fully-realized humanity with an audience.

Sidebar: catharsis in tragedy

Contact sheet, other business, and see you next week.

Eight wonderful students, four men and four women. I love this.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sketch poem for the beginning of an acting workshop

today begins, our end
to burn language into the between
ignite language, self
will burn between voices
today, our breath our voices

Friday, November 11, 2011

Please Use Their Service Well

A powerful photograph floats around Facebook on this Veterans Day.

It depicts a woman in uniform, apparently arriving at a U.S. airport, scooping a young girl in her arms. The woman is weeping.

The caption shakes its finger at civilians while praising those who serve in the armed forces:

While you carry a $450 purse, she carries a 45lb rucksack. While you shop with your girlfriends, she cleans her rifle with her Battle Buddies. When you wear heels, she wears her combat boots. Instead of the make-up that you wear on your face to make yourself look pretty, she paints her face for camoflauge [sic]. You kiss your husband and kids goodbye for the day, she kisses hers goodbye for the year. Don't forget about the Woman in Uniform! Thank you for your service!

This is usually how it goes. The underlying message is: the people in the armed forces are defending your freedom to live the way you live. They sacrifice so we can go shopping and play video games and do all the things we do (like posting facile patriotic messages on our Facebook pages). When they fight wars, they are fighting for your "freedom," not for imperial aggression.

The truth is, the image gets to me and actually conveys my gut reaction to militarized patriotism. I am, as a matter of fact, grateful to those who serve. Most of my friends and family who have served were genuinely inspired to service, and genuinely felt that they did so in the defense or maintenance of a great nation and her people. It is a beautiful aspiration that I respect and honor. This faith on the part of young citizens makes it all the more despicable when government officials send them to faraway lands and put them in harm's way for imperial concerns, as has been our history.

Whoever this woman is, I want her to be home with her little girl. I want fathers to be home with their children. This is not patriotism, this is shared humanity. When that soldier must leave home, let her be deployed on humanitarian missions, to serve and protect people, so that she can return home with stories she can tell her little girl.

I appreciate those who wear the uniform -- to the extent that as a parent I forbid clothing that mimics the uniform for my children. It is one matter on which I put my foot down. If they wish to wear that uniform when the time comes, I will be proud of them, but it is not a game.

For the most part, I want our children in the armed forces to come home, training and being ready to defend against real threats and serving in real emergencies, home or abroad. It is inexcusable when a Hurricane Katrina devastates the homeland and our resources are spoken for in imperial wars abroad. When the soldiers must be called to endanger themselves, I want them home as soon as prudently possible, and I want them to be cared for. They should never worry about access to medical care--none of us should in the first place, and certainly not them.

The social pressure on Veterans Day is to put these concerns aside and, in a way, pay homage to military strength. The social pressure is to praise sacrifice without reflecting on what our soldiers should be sacrificing themselves for.

I won't. I won't wave a flag and ignore the problem. I want their service to be honored by taking better care of their lives, using their service well, and providing well for them once they have served.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Myth of the Bad Meditator

Meditation is not difficult. There are plenty of ways to sit so that you won't suffer pain. There is nothing cognitively difficult about it. It's so simple one might think the whole thing is a joke. Come over here, I'll show you some ways to sit. If it's not working out using the cushion, you can even sit in a chair. No biggie.

When does meditation become difficult?

It doesn't.

You, on the other hand. You might be a little difficult from time to time. I'm not pointing fingers, because I'm plenty difficult myself.

We are difficult because even when we are drawn to meditation, when we feel some tug to sit down and wash off our minds by doing some very simple awareness practice, holding hands with our pulse, ahhh the difficulty arises: "I'm a terrible meditator. My attention goes everywhere. My thinking is out of control."

Translation: I don't waaaaaannnnaaaaa!!

Sometimes it feels like going to the dentist, and sometimes it feels like soaking in a hot tub. But that isn't really the meditation - that's coming from you and me.

You aren't a statue, brother. Thinking comes. If you and I bounce a basketball around, we are playing basketball. If thinking comes while you are sitting and then you let go and start over, you are doing meditation. "Good" at it? Who cares? Are you "good" at walking? Just go.

Don't compare yourself to meditation athletes who sit naked on mountaintops and eat nothing but dandelions for five years. I hate those guys. I hate them for making you feel inadequate and discouraging your practice. Please kill them and then sit down. Meditation is for everybody. Let it be as ordinary as a hot shower.

Bad meditators are as rare as unicorns. We use them as an excuse not to sit. "This isn't for me." How could it not?

Sit next to me. Come here. We'll sit for 25 minutes. Let me see this bad meditation of yours.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Aikido and Drama

Conventional plays are built on combat. Two or more characters will engage in conflict; individual actors are engaged in internal conflict. There are goals, and characters struggle to achieve those goals, working on one another to change a person and get something they need, succeeding or failing. Success and failure both bring consequences. This is the structure of drama.

Thus when actors rehearse a scene they are practicing combat. Acting is a martial art.

Aikido students have to learn to work with complete commitment, while including the consciousness of their partner. Before every exercise, there is a bow, and a promise to care for the flourishing of that partner. Andrew, who served as Theatre Dojo's aikido teacher when we were working in Los Angeles, reminded our group workshops that the punch is real, yet at the same time you are responsible to watch for your partner's safety and well-being. Soon, students were working hard on one another, encouraging each other to work with real commitment and courage, and caring for their colleagues' progress.

This is how I envision an acting ensemble's function. A little bit of technique and a lifetime of commitment and bravery. By getting this into our bodies with our martial arts practice, we can awaken to the same relationship in the psychic workings of a scene, and play out the conflicts of human existence with conscious awareness and fearless honesty.

The most dangerous knife in the drawer is the one that isn't sharpened.

[Photo: From a 2007 Theatre Dojo workshop in North Hollywood.]

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Bonanza Creek

For people who love movies, Bonanza Creek Ranch is historic ground.

When we arrived at the location Friday morning, I doubt many of us were thinking about film history. The sun had just come up and it was cold. Many of us were probably wondering if there was coffee. I certainly was.

The project is titled Among the Dust of Thieves, a short film about the death of Albert Fountain and an investigation into his murder by Pinkerton detective John C. Fraser (played by your humble correspondent). The film is projected to run about 45 minutes in length, almost a feature.

Our first location was Bonanza Creek Ranch, a working cattle ranch sitting on thousands of acres a few miles south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has also been a prime location for filming westerns and other films since the 1950s. If you've seen Silverado, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the recent Cowboys and Aliens, and many others, you've seen the ranch. Gunsmoke and many other television programs have also filmed here. Actors walking around here share the same ground as cinema greats such as John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Mickey Rooney, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Jimmy Stewart, and the list goes on.

There would be plenty of time to walk around and think about all that, but not on Saturday. The first day of filming quickly fell an hour behind schedule, and there was a gunfight to film. The crew worked tirelessly at an urgent pace to make up for lost time.

We spent the entire day filming a scene where Fraser attempts to raid the ranch of Oliver Lee, his main suspect. The raid does not go well. Fraser and his two partners bust into the house only to be ambushed from the roof. Fraser's partners are both wounded in the battle, and Fraser is pinned behind some barrels. It was a day of running and climbing with compressed-air "gunshots" going off around my head, interspersed with periods of waiting while other actors were fitted with hand-sculpted bullet wounds and stage blood. The scene will ultimately be a few minutes in length, yet was filmed over two long days.

The weather also caused delays. Friday was a lovely, sunny day, followed by two days of freezing cold and bitter wind. Saturday was the worst, with snow and rain coming down and little shelter. There were problems with the power generators required for lighting equipment and amenities such as a space heater. The crew labored on in multiple layers of clothing, while actors languished in costumes with blankets draped over them.

The other scene I worked on during these three days was a scene taking place in the back of a saloon. The film was shot late at night, over two nights. The saloon set looks wonderful but it is not an insulated building at all, and the wind just blew right through all of us. My scene partner was Joe Meier, and at the late hour, after so many hours feeling cold, our bodies felt like they were in survival mode. We could barely manage our lines. Someday we will see how the scene looks; honestly I don't know if my work was any good or not.

It was a strange, beautiful, chilly three days. I met actors from Santa Fe and Las Cruces, a quick-draw expert who inspected our weapons and showed us things, real cowboys who moonlighted as actors, and some beautiful horses including a magnificent Belgian with hooves the size of Volkswagons.

What I will never forget is the astonishing sunset that turned the entire air a sort of shimmering pink that launched the director of photography into ecstasy, in which we filmed our closing scene and dialogue, getting in as many takes as we could before the light fell.

The shooting schedule is in constant flux. On Monday morning, after I had already layered up for another cold day on the set, I was cleared to go home. When I return for one or two more days of filming, it will be at another location further south. And so I left the Bonanza Creek ranch, a location of so many memorable movies, and apparently the last resting place of my cell phone, which fell out of my bag sometime Friday night and is likely frozen underneath a cow patty somewhere in that wide expanse.

The next location will be further south, and likely warmer.

[Photo: Arriving on the Bonanza Creek set Sunday morning with actors Tyler Robinson and Mitchell Russell.]

Monday, November 07, 2011

Actors, Be Not Timid

On Thursday night, I drove up to the northern end of Albuquerque in preparation for a few days of filming in Santa Fe county.

Before finding the house where cast and crew were being put up, I made a stop at the Clarion Hotel to attend an acting class that is taught by a casting director based in Albuquerque. In addition to casting New Mexico actors, she also teaches classes on auditioning and acting for camera.

The class began rather late, so I had an opportunity to meet several of her regular students, some of whom have been attending her weekly class for years. Many of them have flourished and are working fairly regularly in New Mexico's film and television industry.

The class sat in a circle of chairs in a conference room at the hotel, and after some business and routine procedures, the instructor moved on to the homework assignment. She had assigned the actors to come to tonight's class prepared to do five minutes of standup comedy. That's all she gave them: it was up to them to work something out, as if it were for an audition.

She went directly around the circle, asking each student to present their work. Several actors gamely stood up and gave it a whirl, bearing in mind this was a not a class in the art of standup comedy so much as a class on preparing and presenting an audition. More surprising, however, were the number of actors who shrank in their seats when it came their turn, saying, "I'm not prepared" or "I can't do this."

You can imagine what the teacher had to say about that.

I was the last one in the circle, had never been there before, and obviously knew nothing of any assignment to do standup. The teacher said, "Algernon, would you like to try?"

"Of course," said Algernon, "I'm ready." And he commenced to do five minutes of standup about first names, which is what came to mind at that moment. Nothing groundbreaking in the art of standup, mind you, but the spirit of the actor is to leap like a hungry cat at a prompt.

One of my teachers at conservatory sometimes suggested, "Start before you are ready." Jump into the water, move your arms, don't check yourself. It's great advice for actors. Don't stop and consult your personality -- your personality functions as a censor. So start before you are ready, before your personality has a chance to interfere.

Why not? This is the work. And gosh, it feels good.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Kill the Actor

The meaning of discipline does not change. The active meaning is always following.

To follow objects is to be ruled by desire.

In the early stage of a discipline we follow technique. Here, desire is used to fuel or inspire our discipline. Thus, a mythical notion of a path leading to some good end. A useful dream.

Later, discipline only follows situation. The mind cannot be placed anywhere because it flows like water.

Kill the actor and the river runs free.

From an old journal entry.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Feel Sexier By Reading A List of Tips!

For a few days, I am on a ranch somewhere south of Santa Fe working on a film. In my absence, this blog will now offer some general beauty tips. This is an area we have not covered well at the Burning House, and some who know us would say it shows.

Herewith, some tips we gleaned straight from Glamour Magazine, along with personal testimonies to how I implement them.

Classic Moves That Work

1. Crunches. No problem. When I eat Tostitos, they make a really good crunch.

2. Squats. I do a lot of these because I drop stuff all the time.

Keys To Finding The Right Routine

1. Start slowly. I am the slowest starter ever. Sometimes I never even get around to whatever is I am starting doing.

2. Work Out Almost Daily. Got it. I almost worked out today. I almost worked out yesterday. I will almost work out tomorrow. I've got a rhythm going.

3. Meet with a personal trainer - even if it's just once. I met a personal trainer once. I walked into a Bally's gym. Or was it a Gold's? Anyway, one of the trainers sent me away with some literature. Stupidly, I gave the dude my phone number. They called for months. I mean, months.

Secrets To Looking Slimmer Than Your Size

1. Focus more on the muscles that people see. Recently, I have taken to wearing the Afghan burqa. You don't see any part of my body. So far so good.

2. Stop obsessing about the number on your scale. I don't even have a scale.

Genius Eat-Right Rules

1. When you eat out, order whatever looks good to you. I'm on it!

2. Add something crunchy to your plate. Deep-fried noodles, check.

3. Watch your daily caffeine intake. Watch it with me. How many cups so far? Come on now, keep up!

4. Skip pre-gym snacks. No gym, no pre-gym snacks. All snacks are fair game.

This is easy. I'm feeling sexier already.

Friday, November 04, 2011

I Want Her

I began writing fictitious letters to the moon as an enjoyable exercise and for a while they became a regular column in a now-defunct literary magazine. To read more of these letters to the moon, click the "letters to the moon" tab over on the right.


Dear Moon,

It's something about her throat. I want to lower my head and rest my nose on her throat to feel her warmth - I don't know what comes over me. I want to rest my ear there and hear her breath become her voice. I want my face there when her sweat breaks through that lotion she wears that smells like berries. I want to feel her shudder when she gets tired. Yes, I like to see her tired. Then I will feel her weight and watch her eyes close.

When is she coming home? It's getting cold out here. Still, moon, give me time: I haven't thought of an excuse for being here.

Stop. I don't want a reason. When she sees me sitting here for no reason, she'll know the real reason and then I'll watch the awareness move up her spine. That's what I want.

I want to see the moment she surrenders.

I want to feel her instinct rebel and break free, choosing my breath and my embrace.

I want her throat on my lips when she says


So moon, let's you and me sit here for no reason and just wait.

Let her see us waiting for her.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

On Acting

Many people believe that acting is about pretending to be someone or something that you are not. Plato believed it: he wanted to kick poets and actors out of his ideal republic. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha warns us to avoid actors. Actors are often disparaged, psychoanalyzed, or infantilized. We are reduced to organ monkeys or barking seals in order to make a living, balancing beach balls on our noses.

A few old monks and dharma teachers have shaken their heads ruefully about theatre work because they associate acting with fantasy and delusion. You can't entirely blame them for this. They can believe this because many actors believe it, too.

The best acting, however, comes when the actor realizes that the characters that populate our mythologies are part of the atmosphere. Any role we may play - Hamlet, Medea, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Mother Courage - anything is present in our own karma. You can play King Lear only when you understand that you are King Lear. When you say his words and play his actions, King Lear is you. Good acting means digging into our own compost fearlessly and using it to tell these stories from our heart, using stories to connect all human beings.

I have not always been successful at this - not always brave enough or meticulous enough; but it is always my aspiration. Why be an actor otherwise? What would be interesting about it?

We blow our spirit into mythologies old or new, and the song is a call to wake up and consider the true source of human suffering.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


zug·zwang (tsktsväng) n. A situation in a chess game in which a player is forced to make an undesirable or disadvantageous move.

[German Zugzwang : Zug, pull, move (from Middle High German zuc, pull, from Old High German, from ziohan, to pull; see deuk- in Indo-European roots) + Zwang, compulsion (from Middle High German twanc, from Old High German).]

Count Fiducio Stronzo Manicotti della Pidated extended one bony finger to wick away a large drop of sweat that had landed in the bowl at the end of his pug nose. At the other end of the chess board sat the King, whose position in the game would be described, in chess terminology, as zugzwang.

It was late in the game, and despite Manicotti's best efforts to let his Sovereign vanquish him, the King had held off victory with enormous success. Each player was down to their king and a single pawn, jostled together at the center of a board in an untenable ring-around-the-rosey. The pawns blocked each other, which reduced each player to moving his king and losing his pawn. From this position, neither player had a single move they could make without worsening their position and losing the game. This is zugzwang.. Unfortunately for Count Manicotti, it was the King's move.

"Are you sure I can't pass?" asked the King for the ninth time.

"As I say, your Majesty, I would not object," Manicotti said with a brittle smile. "It is," he added, "only a game."

"But do the rules of chess allow it?" asked the King.

Here Monsignor Farfalle interrupted, withdrawing a long pipe from between his cracked lips: "Majesty, the rules of chess do not allow it. You must make a move."

The King stared intently over the pieces. "Fancy that. Any move is a mistake, yet one must move."

"It is often like this," the Monsignor purred. "To do nothing, even this is a choice with consequences."

The King's torturer, who was often on hand to dispatch those who aroused the monarch's frustration, parked one foot up on a stool in the corner of the antechamber and began sharpening his machete against a strap that hung from his waist.

The King's expression remained impassive. Count Manicotti, for his part, cringed with each gasp of the blade against the strap. The King calculated and recalculated despite the lack of options. His mind tensed around the problem, relaxed, and tensed again. To break the monotony, he opened his mouth and moved his lips around without paying much attention to the words that fell out.

"Sometimes, even for a King, it is as if we are chased to the top of a flagpole and have nowhere to go from there."

The Monsignor straightened in his chair. "Majesty, you have everywhere to go from there!" He set the pipe down in the ashtray. The ashtray, of course, was a dwarf slave who stood by the chair with a leather hat fashioned into a small bowl. "Have I told the story of Saint Simeon, the hermit who lived on top of a pillar?"

Manicotti buried his face in his hands.

"There he stayed, in continuous prayer, undertaking a life of loneliness and devotion," Monsignor continued without encouragement, "Because even though one's choices seem limited on top of a pillar, the millions of choices available to those people below all lead nowhere!"

The King frowned. "I don't understand. Are you saying he was freer where he was, on top of a pole?"

The Monsignor chortled with delight. "I remember when Count Manicotti here was very briefly a student at seminary." The Count sat up and stared at the craggy-faced vicar. "I asked the Count why he thought Simeon had taken his seat at the top of the pole. And the Count, who was an irreverent young man, said to me, 'I think he just had a stick up his ass so he made a vocation out of it.'"

The Monsignor's laughter sounded very much like a heavy door swinging shut. The King glared disapprovingly at the Count, then focused his gaze back on the chess board.

"All our choices lead nowhere," repeated the Monsignor, gazing into the blazing fireplace. "Until we put ourselves right up against impasse. From the top of the pole, how do you take a step?"

The King decisively grasped his king and moved it to the right, away from his pawn. Instinctively, he said, "Checkmate."

In chess terms, he was exactly wrong: he had lost. Yet, as the torturer stood on his feet, standing at a height sufficient to cast a shadow against the chess board, Count Manicotti knew that in a sense, it was he who had lost. In this victory, an inevitable and fatal defeat was confirmed.

The torturer approached the table without waiting for the order.