Friday, April 29, 2011

It Took Me Several Days to Think of This Joke!

Shall we now refer to Obama's long-form birth certificate as his "Trump card?"

Mind-Body Work with the Bad Kids

Good morning.

Every few weeks, it feels like the last day of school -- sort of. Every four weeks, the enrichment classes rotate and six new home rooms, grades K through 5, come to me for theatre. Today is the final day of one of these "rotations."

This rotation has been rough. A couple of my homerooms have presented significant behavior problems. My irritation has risen during April as I have had to enforce classroom rules and occasionally to be stern. It is my least favorite part of the job.

Still, amid the landmines there is treasure. The "bad kids" are full of surprises. Teaching theatre class, I have some freedom to try different activities -- and sometimes we discover unusual talents. For instance, a really horrible Kindergarten group that I taught turned out to be eerily good at playing mirrors.

Playing mirrors is one of the activities I might pull out to slow a group of kids down and ground their energy a bit. It is also an exercise in mind-body connection. If the children are able to concentrate at least briefly on a movement game, it is possible to transition to the lesson I had planned.

My third graders come at the very end of the day and this group has a tendency to be antsy and jokey. It was hard to get them focused before it was time for them to go. They were ready to go home. So one day, when they were particularly unsettled, I extended the physical warm-up and began doing some balancing work that required them to use breath and initiate movement from their tandien. I noticed they were picking this up pretty well, so I kept going with it to see what they could do.

Soon I had thrown out the lesson plans (we are not supposed to do that) and began improvising a mind-body unit with them. Essentially, it was a movement class using the underlying principles of tai chi, but not using those postures, improvising movements that explored balance and alignment.

By yesterday, all but two of the jokesters (I started calling them Heckle and Jeckle) had embraced the work completely. The kids were balancing books on their heads and executing all sorts of movements while keeping the books in balance, using breath and visualizations that trained them to extend their spines properly.

For teaching purposes, it helped me find ways to introduce some useful principles of tai chi and Alexander technique in a language that third graders and young ELLs can understand and implement.

This is how, ironically, teachers sometimes miss their "problem kids" the most.

In retrospect that is.Link

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Patting Down our Black President

Insert a photo of an elementary school playground here.

What a sad news day for the United States. Wednesday, April 27: the day we neutralized whatever pride some of us felt when a man with dark skin and an African name was elected President of these United States.

Today I feel as if I have watched the first African-American President get patted down on national television and it turns my stomach.

Never before has a President of the United States been asked -- by fringe activists at first, later by celebrities and journalists -- to show proof that he was born in the United States. There was never any legitimate question about it. When the Obama campaign issued the certificate of live birth, and the state of Hawaii confirmed its authenticity, all the way back in 2008, it was not enough for the conspiracy theorists. They began demanding the long-form certificate, which the state of Hawaii does not generally issue without a Freedom of Information Act request. The Obama campaign rightfully felt this was not necessary. The matter had been definitely settled.

One would have expected, knowing that this nation is still riven with racial disharmony, there to be fallout for the first black man to be elected President. One would expect the inevitable political attacks to exploit these tensions, just as they have been exploited in previous political campaigns. Negative politics, the politics of smear and character assassination, goes back to our colonial days. Partisans have stopped at little to undermine public trust and confidence in their rivals.

Today, Donald Trump professed himself "proud" that, by lending his celebrity status to the birther fantasy, he felt he had forced the President to present the long-form birth certificate. He is right: because of his celebrity status and the curiosity of his fake candidacy, legitimate news organizations felt compelled to report his allegations, ask him about it in interviews, and give him a platform to air conspiracy theories already long debunked. It is as if a prestigious science journal were compelled to give a monthly column to a flat earther, for the sake of "journalistic balance."

Presenting the longer birth certificate changed nothing, of course. What did anybody expect? Trump immediately moved on to questioning Obama's academic record, his fitness to attend Harvard, and demanding the release of college transcripts. Orly Taitz, the eccentric woman who has filed serial lawsuits alleging the President is not a citizen and therefore cannot be President, went on MSNBC tonight and would not comment on the birth certificate that had been presented. She has now moved on to introducing questions about his Selective Service registration.

All Presidents get to be targets of smears. The smears are designed uniquely for them. Kennedy had to make an unusual speech assuring the country that he would not be taking directives from the Pope. Generally, however, Presidents can maintain a dignified distance from the specious allegations. Bush did not have to answer to tabloid rustlings that he was complicit in the 9/11 attacks, that he had relapsed into alcohol abuse, or that he ducked out of his military service. Indeed, the latter story was Dan Rather's waterloo, when he ran an expose based on documents that turned out to be forged. Rather was fired, and polls showed sympathy shifting to the President.

As ugly as American politics are, there is something uniquely ugly in the tone of the attacks on Barack Obama. How could a guy like that be elected President? How could a guy like that be a real Christian? How could a guy like that get into Harvard? Is a guy like that a "real American?" Ask for the birth certificate. Ask for the college transcripts. Interrogate his teachers and advisers, ask for proof that Obama deserved his good grades, to be an honors student at Harvard Law, to be elected President of the Harvard Review. Ask for the Selective Service registration. It never ends. Eventually, the hope is that something incriminating can be found; and even if nothing is, the constant pat-downs of the first black President may create the sense, among passive and inattentive news watchers, that there must be something fishy with this President.

The courts have stopped giving audience to lawsuits based on this stuff. If only legitimate news organizations would follow suit.

And stop giving air time to Donald Trump, who just today alleged that Barack Obama is not taking care of the nation's business because he spends too much time on his basketball court. All that's missing is a reference to fried chicken and watermelon, Donald. Keep it classy.

And one last suggestion: every time someone goes on air to scream that the country needs to be taken back, ask them: "From whom?"

What a sad, embarrassing day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dust Storm

Deming does not have snow days. It has dirt days.

Deming has days where a 60-MPH wind blows from the west all day, picking dirt up from the surrounding desert and blasting the city with it. The sky turns brown. Highways are forced to shut down. On Tuesday, the kids were sent home early with just an hour and a half of notice. The poor kids are always excited to leave school, before they realize they are going to be cooped up at home.

The dirt comes alive in my imagination. How old are these particles? How far have some of these particles traveled and where do they come from? How long have they been here, blown back and forth?

My wife swears that the wind makes her and the kids irritable. They get stuck indoors, listening to the wind howl, getting into little spaces on the house that groan or rattle. They look out the window and expect Dorothy's house to fly by.

In Dante's Inferno, the second circle is where lustful souls go. It is a place of terrible wind, blowing the tormented souls around and around -- one might say, just as lust blew them around in life.

The Sixth Patriarch came to Deming and saw two people arguing about a dust devil. One said the dirt was moving, and one said the wind was moving. The Sixth Patriarch was all set to resolve the matter in his legendary fashion, by saying, "It is your mind that is moving," but when he opened his mouth to speak it filled with dirt and he had a coughing fit.

Not a bad answer, actually.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Scrubbing the Floor

One of our spring projects at the Burning House has been turning a little Zen group that meets in the room over our garage into a little Zen Center with a non-profit corporation and a bank account of its own. Sounds so ambitious, doesn't it? There is some talk of us renting a commercial space that is easier to keep clean, warm, and cool. In the meantime, we continue to meet in the room over our garage.

My first attempts at washing this simple wooden floor were lazy. There are layers of engrained dust, quite possibly original dust from the house's construction in 1905. Even when I got down on hands and knees to scrub it with a cloth, most of the dirt just got pushed around until it dried in paisley swirls all over the floor.

During this long Easter weekend, the scrub brush came out. Light incense. Hands and knees, very hot water. Five to nine boards at a time, moving lengthwise across the dharma room. First the brush, dip into hot water, scrub in a circular motion until the dust comes up into the water, floating over the wood like a little poisonous cloud. Then the cloth, wrung out, picking up the dirt and carefully wringing out and rubbing together to knock the dirt off. The progress is very slow, but the difference is amazing. We now have a two-tone floor. There is no question where I left off. The clean side is clean enough that a regular mop could handle it.

Or we could start a daily ritual for the floor, similar to what monks do at work period in Japanese temples. Maybe you've seen pictures of the hallways of these ancient temples, wooden floors shining like polished mirrors. Every day at work period, monks take cloths dipped in plain water and push them across the entire floor. It is an exercise adopted by Yoshi Oida in some of his acting workshops, because cleaning a floor this way makes good physical training. When a floor is cleaned this way every day for a thousand years, of course it will shine.

Similar advice for Zen meditation: ordinary as plain water, but try it every day for a thousand years.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Catching Happiness

Gabriel, not yet three years old, is now able to catch the ball. Most of the time. His pride, his sense of accomplishment, is immense.

It is no bitter thing to glimpse such happiness through his eyes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On Friendship and Forwarding E-Mails

Got another whopper in my email box today. This turkey came from a Deming acquaintance with whom I have served on the board of a local foundation. It was one of these emails in bold, large letters -- beware of forwarded emails in bold, large letters.

The bold, large letters (some of them in red -- for emphasis, not because they were the words of the Lord) expressed outrage over a recent news report that family members of Congressmen don't have to pay back their government student loans. The font then urged me to pass the message along to 20 people right away in hopes that a campaign may begin to shame those privileged members of Congress and their parasitic families, for taking advantage of this privilege while the needs of service members and veterans go unfulfilled.

In less than one minute, I looked up the claim and confirmed that that this is yet another hoax email that has been in circulation for a long time.

There are two "why" questions here.

The first one is: Why, oh why, can't people be assed to check these things on Snopes, Factcheck, or Politifact before passing them on?

A friend of mine responded to that question as follows:

You really think the people forwarding this stuff care whether it's true? These "facts" are tribal identifiers; they tell them to each other to confirm that they are the True Americans under attack from The Others.

There is some truth to that. And that leads me to the second "why" question: why does this bother me?

Upon reflection, it seems my irritation has to do with what is going on in the relationship. For the most part, emails like this come to me from family members, friends, people with whom I've worked in the community.

Perhaps this is old-fashioned, but lying bothers me, even if the lie is taking place with modern technology. It is more bothersome coming from people I care about. For someone who might expect me to trust them as family or friend, who might rely on my affection and confidence, to show such disregard for truth, to lack even the courtesy of checking when it takes less than one minute, feels like disrespect. At best, it is rumor mongering, and assumes I don't care whether it's true either; at worst, it is flat out lying. Lies depend on confidence or trust.

Which is probably why I still respond to these things, either to thank them for informing me of something that checks out as true, or asking them to cease forwarding something that has been debunked. Lies harm relationships; and with the terrible speed of the internet, they harm the nation's discourse.

Naturally, I have been told I am not playing this game properly. If I "disagree" with the factually incorrect email and its deceitful assertions, I'm supposed to hit delete and forget about it. No discussion, no corrections, no intrusion of fact. This, I am told, is the etiquette.

Really? Is it truly "polite" or "civil" to remain silent in witness to falsehood or slander, sometimes of a malicious nature? That is not an etiquette to which I am ever likely to acquiesce. There is nothing compassionate about permitting your friend to breathe deceits and bigotry into your face to be overheard by the more impressionable, so that you feel obliged to humor them or change the subject, and thus help them legitimize the falsehoods.

This has caused more than one person to cease pretending to be my friend, which is well in the long run.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Mindful Spanking?

Earlier in April, Governor Susana Martinez signed into law a bill that banned corporal punishment in public schools throughout New Mexico. (It was still practiced in many, but not all, districts.) The response to this has been lively and after talking to some local people about it I wrote the following piece for our local newspaper.

If you go to the newspaper link and read the comments, you will come upon a couple of interesting posts by one Julie Worley, who writes about the use of corporal punishment in Tennessee's schools.

[EDIT: By the way, the scriptural quote is from the Bodhicaryavatra of Santideva.]

Here is the piece.


Since Governor Susana Martinez signed HB 172 on April 6, banning corporal punishment in New Mexico's public schools, I have been learning a great deal about my friends.

Friends and family in Deming and Cruces have been opening up about their childhoods in ways I have never heard, revealing deeply-held views on parenting, discipline and the wisdom of spanking. The law changes nothing in Deming, where spanking was already forbidden in school. Even so, the topic often incites passionate responses. On Facebook, a lengthy exchange of written posts and ripostes by some of my Deming neighbors on HB 172 actually roused one person to cheer the armed policemen who recently used pepper spray on an eight year old in a Colorado classroom. "Kudos!" she wrote. "That kid will think twice next time."

It is remarkable to witness such enthusiasm for police violence, appropriate or not, even when the subject is a child, with no equivalent enthusiasm for social workers and counselors who heal children's hearts with listening and compassion. Children are not our enemies, but our deepest responsibility.

Our teachers know that children act out because of conditions, not because they are inherently bad. Children neglected or beaten at home, who are bored or feel helpless, will act out in school as surely as hungry children will hoard food. The proper question for educators is not how to make them suffer, but to engage them, keep them safe, and teach them about good choices while listening to their needs. Wise punishment reinforces good teaching.

To practice this, without giving way to anger, adults themselves need to be whole. An ancient Buddhist scripture says, "The mind does not find peace, nor does it enjoy pleasure and joy, nor does it find sleep or fortitude when the thorn of hatred dwells in the heart." Hate is a wound. Hate is the product of a rift in our own being. If the wound is repaired, hate has no use.

Clinical research refutes the widespread notion that blows from open hands, paddles, switches, hairbrushes, wooden spoons, or belts teaches children how to distinguish right from wrong or the meaning of respect. In fact, the research shows the opposite. Violence does not heal; it is not meant to.

Real discipline is not to be confused with mere obedience to physical strength. That might be a good way to prepare children for life in an authoritarian society, but what if we want to raise autonomous and happy adults who love themselves and others? What if we want our young ones to aspire to something more than surviving childhood?

Perhaps it is possible for a parent to spank with love and wisdom. My son's rear end has met my hand on two occasions. Was this parental firmness, did I get his attention, or did I lash out in anger? Parenthood is not a path of certainty. Every day we improvise, do our best, and pray that we aren't screwing up our children. Sometimes the course of love goes underground and out of sight.

In every human being there are locked rooms and dark corners. In the shadows, it is difficult to distinguish rage from self-defense or justified force. Have we illuminated the darkness in ourselves? Have we reconciled our own traumas so well that we can wield violence clearly and compassionately, as a teaching method? I barely trust myself to make that choice as a father. It is not likely I would trust my child's teacher -- or a teacher's aide I have not even met -- with that responsibility. How confident should I feel that staff members I don't know would pause to calm themselves or even check to see whether they have parental consent before striking my son?

It is too much to ask of our teachers, who are under impossible pressures themselves, to navigate these shadowy rivers. These are matters for the parent to consider deeply. It is not wise to place the burden on school staff.

Taking the paddle out of the classroom is no loss. The parent may still wield it, but let teachers teach. May all our children grow up to be whole and free.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Update From Busy

There has not been much time for blogging lately. I have missed it, and you all.

The baby, I am pleased to report, is healthy and doing fine. Gabriel, the older brother (almost 3 years old), is still working through some jealousy. He does not blame the baby for this, and even gives him kisses.

We are all in the same boat in one respect: with the arrival of baby, everybody's routine has been upended. For instance, my morning practice routine has been pushed later, and as a result Gabriel is often up and walking around the house while I am still sitting. He plops into my lap and asks for milk. The day begins.

Of the scarce time that is not taken up by school and family right now, I have been devoting more to the developing local Zen group, which is now incorporating as a non-profit so it can have a bank account and solicit tax-deductible donations. Deming has quite a few empty storefronts, some of them very small, and so we are doing some lazy shopping, seeing what's around, thinking what might be possible and how to pay for it.

Zen Master Seung Sahn gave advice to parents who practice long ago, and one of his recommendations was to remember not to divide "my time" from "family time" or "work time" or other things. This is a very dangerous use of mind. "My time" usually points to desire. I wish I could read that book that's been sitting on my shelf ("my time") but instead I have to go play ball with the boy ("family time") and then do homework ("work time"). Waaaah, I'm not getting "my time." The advice was to think of all of it as "your time."

Yet even this is an illusion. Time is an illusion. The next moment is not guaranteed by anything. The time to connect is right now.

Despite the interruptions in the morning, I've had an opportunity lately to notice some laziness that crept into my sitting. The body was not arranged quite as meticulously, hence not breathing quite as fully, hence not really giving myself 100% to zazen. An aspect of me was biding time. Getting on the cushion and staying there for half an hour is not the point.

As time appeared to become more precious, it became a useful illusion insofar as I desired to stop wasting time and do the formal practice with more care and respect. Doing it with care and respect means to put all the other concerns away and sit with meticulousness and ease, permitting superficial energy to find its base in the tandien and fill it up with the full power of the breath.

This actually makes sitting easier -- and it does feel good, although that isn't the point.

As school wraps up, there will be time for more writing and more blogging. These updates will become more frequent and, as always, your comments and discussion will be welcomed with gratitude. Take care.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Re-Casting Ben Kenobi

This is Takashi Shimura. He appeared in most of Kurasawa's movies, playing a wide variety of roles. He is sometimes referred to as one of Japan's greatest actors. Among his notable roles were the woodcutter in Rashomon, the dying bureaucrat in Ikiru, and the lead samurai, Kambei, in The Seven Samurai.

He also had a small role in The Hidden Fortress, a film that greatly influenced a young filmmaker from the U.S. named George Lucas. The 1977 film Star Wars owes much to Kurasawa, and The Hidden Fortress in particular.

In fact, it is often repeated that George Lucas considered Toshiru Mifune, another actor closely associated with Kurasawa, for the role of Ben Kenobi before settling on Alec Guinness (whose performance of course became iconic).

Imagining Toshiro Mifune (he played the crazy impostor samurai in Seven Samurai) in the role of Ben Kenobi is interesting, but recently I wondered about Takashi Shimura. Look at him. Go to YouTube and watch some scenes with him. That would have been an interesting performance, don't you think?