Friday, August 26, 2011

Prisoners Left to Drown like Rats

Today's blog was going to be about a lovely photo shoot in Albuquerque this morning and how much fun I had. That will have to wait. I'm upset about what I learned from the day's news once I returned to Deming.

As I write this, you see, New York City is being evacuated. It is unprecedented, an extraordinary precaution taken in advance of Hurricane Irene, which is threatening much of the east coast this weekend. At noon tomorrow (Saturday) New York's entire transit system will stop. 250,000 people have been ordered to evacuate from low-lying areas, especially the islands.

All except for one island.

Among the islands being evacuated, one island is being left exactly as it is, and there is no plan to evacuate its inhabitants even if their safety is indeed threatened.

Maybe you have already guessed. Rikers Island. There is no safety plan in place, as the Mayor tersely disclosed during a press conference earlier today.

Mayor Bloomberg's declaration that the inmates on Rikers will stay in place come what may recalls the horror of the Orleans Parish Prison during Hurricane Katrina. The sheriff had declared in advance of the storm that the prisoners would "stay where they belong," and stay they did: some standing chest-high in sewage as the waters flooded their cells and their guards fled their posts.

Despite all the advance warning, there was no contingency plan -- not even a last-minute plan -- for the safety of the inmates. In the aftermath of the storm, they not only literally wallowed in shit, they also went days without food or potable water before the state of Louisiana intervened and ordered their evacuation. Before then, chaos set in, including brutal violence.

The ACLU report has some details that Mayor Bloomberg should know about.

This is a human rights violation that ought to smell to the rest of us like the water those prisoners had to stand in for several days. Would we treat rats with such depravity, never mind human beings?

The reason we stand for these abuses -- the reason, indeed, that few of us even know about these stories -- is that our society does not regard prisoners even as second-class citizens. We scarcely acknowledge their humanity. That is why there is no moral outrage when the mayor of New York City evacuates all of the human beings around Rikers Island but announces with a tone of impatience that there are no contingency plans for the prisoners at Rikers. This shameful fact was confirmed by the NYC Department of Corrections.

For those who can muster a little moral outrage on behalf of human beings, and who do not want a repeat of what happened during Katrina -- even if it is too late to intervene this weekend -- there is an opportunity to contact Attorney General Eric Holder and demand that the DoJ order an accounting and review of the NYC DOC's disaster contingency plans, and that it seek an explanation as to why 12,000 human beings under the state's care were left to drown like rats while citizens around them were evacuated ahead of Hurricane Irene.

I'll even throw the phone number at you: (202) 514-2001. Email is good too.

[Photo: Prisoners grudgingly evacuated from the flooded Orleans Parish Prison after moral outrage forced the state to intervene and order local officials to do the humane thing.]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On the Merits of Work Sharing

Letter to my representatives, with a link to the paper mentioned in the letter. The conservative arguments in favor are important to point out, as my delegation leans right.


As I research the concept, I grow more convinced that there is great merit to the concept of job sharing as a way to stem the flow of job losses and unemployment. Moreover, I think this is a concept that can unite “right” and “left” in our politics.

Economist Dean Baker has been especially active this year in promoting a plan to use unemployment insurance funds to help employers keep more people working for fewer hours, rather than simply laying off workers in large numbers. This is better for employers, who can retain valuable employees instead of hiring new employees when demand increases. It is better for workers, who would generally prefer reduced hours to unemployment; especially true when, as we have seen, employers are more hesitant to hire workers who have been unemployed for a while.

There is much here to please conservatives:

• This is arguably a better use of unemployment insurance, as it reduced the number of people collecting funds while out of work.

• Keeping more of the workforce employed also contributes to economic growth.

• This can be implemented without any additional government bureaucracy.

I am enclosing a policy paper by Dean Baker outlining the concept, how it has worked elsewhere, issues of implementation, and its potential benefits for economic growth and employment.

I would be most interested in your thoughts on this concept. There is great potential for bipartisan action here that would help New Mexico, and through example encourage similar action across the United States.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dropping the Baby: Edgy Humor and Elephant Journal

This is a thought about "non-P.C. humor," secondary to a kerfluffle that has taken place at Elephant Journal's website. (Full disclosure: I have had two articles posted there, without pay.)

Elephant Journal publishes articles on yoga, meditation, and ecological living, seeking to integrate these things into pop culture, especially internet culture. A lot of the articles seem, to me anyway, to be designed to pull traffic to the website: provocative titles ("My wife told me to edit this -- I didn't") and a lot of "How To's." This is how they serve their advertisers and make money. A great many of their articles are sex-related. It's a peculiar mix of sincere material about yoga, meditation, and ecological living along with scatological and political humor. And some of it is exuberantly transgressive, impolite, what some would call "non-P.C." or "edgy" humor.

So here is what happened. The editorial staff chose to share a video from Funny or Die entitled Yoga for Black People. It is not my cup of tea. In this video, an Asian-American woman teaches a yoga lesson supposedly tailored for African-Americans. This joke is hammered hard and ruthlessly, and to tell you the truth I make it about 45 seconds -- truly, all of 45 seconds -- before I feel too uncomfortable to enjoy any of it. You can watch it yourself here. What do you think? Comments are welcome.

The video drew critics and defenders. Among the critics was an African-American yoga teacher based in Atlanta, Chelsea Jackson. (Here's something positive: I would likely not have discovered this woman's blog except for this incident.) Her response to the video touched a nerve, and EJ's editor in chief responded with this most unfortunate post, the so-called "map designed to be offensive to everyone on the planet." A defensive and reactionary bomb of a joke.

So we return to the matter of "non-P.C." humor, dangerous humor, transgressive humor, humor that plays on race and other sensitive aspects of human identity. I am reminded of that old rule of thumb, that Jewish jokes are safest in the hands of Jews, Italian jokes safest among Italians, and so forth. Who has not heard someone say, "I can say this because I'm ------," thus giving the listener permission to find the statement funny? Why does humor about race work in some contexts and not others?

I've heard reasonable theories about this. (We showbiz people joke about "the science of humor," but it's only half a joke -- there are theories about humor works.) What makes all the difference for me is locating the joke-teller's "heart." Where are they coming from? One reason an Italian joke might feel better when it is told by a wop like me (see? I can say "wop" because I'm a wop! ) is because the topic of my humor is "my neighborhood," so to speak, for which I clearly hold some affection. I can make fun of the accents, the food, the clothing choices, the family structures, and other aspects of Rhode Island's Italian-American culture, with obvious affection. This is not necessarily limited to my own ethnic background. My home town was heavily Portuguese and for much my childhood I played in the homes of Portuguese and African-American families. So there are places I can go because I know the neighborhood somewhat and I can establish a safe connection with an audience.

A safe connection with the audience is crucial. "Edgy" humor plays around with that safety, and that can be a lot of fun. "Edgy humor" is like pretending to drop the baby, only to catch her and release laughter. If you just drop the baby, it's not a joke anymore -- people just get hurt.

In my personal opinion, this video drops the baby. It is a bit painful to watch. The joke fails spectacularly.

At Elephant Journal, the unfortunate response to criticism was to drop the baby again, even harder.

From the perspective of Buddhist practice, there is an interesting area of inquiry here: the interaction of "right speech" and humor, which so often by its very nature transgresses social boundaries and expectations.

Friday, August 19, 2011

And now, for your viewing pleasure, the Drama-tizement

A few weeks ago I posted about the health services commercial I acted in, and now the finished product is complete and has been posted online. So you get to watch it, if you like. It is 7 minutes long. Someone on Facebook described it as the "Steel Magnolias" of health care commercials. So enjoy that. (Your humble correspondent plays the working-shmoe husband, white version.)

Procrastination (High Rez) from anthony dohrmann on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"I" is the problem, not the project

An interesting Zen-related blog I had not known about before this week recently remarked,

A distinguished Buddhist scholar told me that the burden of Zen teachers he knows is the need to act/be “enlightened”. How heavy! “I’m a Zen teacher, great! Now I have to somehow embody the premise that this way of life and practice makes people better, enlightens people.”

David Chadwick, after decades in Zen circles, hasn’t noticed that Zen practice works, which means that Zen teachers and Zen students everywhere could be off of the hook. If it’s not making us better than other people, it’s not because we’re not doing it right!

The late Rev. John King said that he loved so much going into our San Quentin Sangha because in prison – perhaps only there – “you don’t have to pretend that your life is working”. You don’t have to pretend to be a success, because it’s clear that everyone’s life is a failure. So you can just relax.

I’m feeling something like that about David’s observation. Great! Zen doesn’t work. I don’t need to pretend it does, or convince anyone else it does. I can just do it for the love of doing it, if I happen to love doing it, and forget that any good might come of it in the least. Forget the idea that I’ve gotten any better from it.

It bears reminding. Contrived ideas and object worship are not expressions of freedom.

And no, practicing Zen does not make "you" a "better person." Zen is not about "you." Your "you" is the problem, not the project.

To the first point, that many people in the role of Zen teacher feel pressured to act "enlightened" or embody some ideal of the outcome of Zen practice: Where does that pressure really come from? It's not in the teaching. The teachings contradict this idea going all the way back to Bodhidharma (see Red Pine's translation of Bodhidharma's "Bloodstream Sermon" -- if we assume Bodhidharma in fact existed, otherwise this dharma talk came from an ancient Chinese teacher -- the point being, this business is oooooooolllllllllld).

Sometimes I think books full of beautiful anecdotes about Zen teachers like Suzuki roshi and Zen Master Seung Sahn distract as much as they help. True, one can catch something in these real-life encounters -- even as anecdotes -- that might help. On the other hand, it is so easy to get caught up in the idea "this is how an enlightened person behaves" and start checking and pressuring oneself to be as "wonderful" as the roshi. This is desire: 100% bullshit celebrity worship.

Zen Master Soeng Hyang sometimes tells a story about watching her teacher cook a meal and seeing him kick onion skins under the stove instead of sweeping them up. She described a sense that her idea of what a Zen Master should be like got punched in the gut.

In 18 years practicing here and there, I have met one teacher who put that kind of pressure on himself, the need to resemble "a great Zen Master." Sadder still, I met two who got ensnared in ideas of "wild" enlightenment and gave themselves license to misuse their penises.

Observation: if you are acting out ideas about freedom, you're not really being "wild." True wildness is not contrived.

If my "mind" or my "personality" or my "soul" existed as solid things, they would likely smell like garbage because "I" am full of it. To the extent that I believe these things are real, I am crazy, and so I trip and fall into the garbage on a daily basis. Thus I have created my life. Maybe I'm getting a little bit better at getting back up quickly, maybe not. But my garbage isn't any better than yours, and neither is my practice.

So the conclusion isn't really that "Zen doesn't work." Making a better you -- a holier you, a calmer you, a new and improved you -- is not, and never has been, the point. Zen doesn't do that. That whole project is garbage.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

"Last Days" screenings

Last Days, a movie in which I performed last summer, had its first public showing at the Plaza Classic Film Festival on Friday evening.

The screening filled up the Philanthropy Theatre, a smaller upstairs venue at the Plaza, a beautiful old theatre on El Paso's Pioneer Plaza, recently restored. (If you find the history of old theatre buildings interesting as I do, here is the Plaza's life story.) The show was followed by some Q&A with the director, Andrew Jara.

It will be seen next at the White Sands International Film Festival in Las Cruces. On Saturday, August 27, I'll be there to participate in Q&A with Andrew. If you're in the area, why not come on down?

[Photo: your humble correspondent in a scene from Last Days (2010). Click on it for better view.]

Friday, August 05, 2011

A Blow against Islamophobia

Credit and applause where they are due.

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey gave a press conference in Newark on Tuesday, and we have only just heard about what he said there. He did something truly wonderful for public discourse and American politics. A few more speeches like this by a few more officials would improve our tone considerably.

Back in January, Governor Christie appointed a prominent muslim attorney, one Sohail Mohammed, to be a judge. The man organized meetings between American muslims and law enforcement in the wake of the September 11 attacks, and also defended muslims who were improperly detained by the FBI.

Cue the insanity. Anti-Islamic hysteria fills up the media with complaints that a muslim judge would undermine the U.S. Constitution, because the man would have no choice but to (1) sympathize with Islamic terrorists and (2) sneak in sharia law to supplant constitutional law.

Governor Christie is having none of it. In a stunning and passionate response, he spoke of his nominee's qualifications and character, the service he had done the community, and the honor he would bring to the bench. But there is more. Christie blasted the ignorance and irrational hatred motivating the controversy with unblinking, and even profane, bluntness. "This Sharia law business is just crap and I'm sick of dealing with the crazies!"

But there was more. Christie also proclaimed very loudly that the FBI did, in fact, inappropriately detain scores of muslims in the wake of September 11, and that those detainees were entitled to due process and a vigorous defense of their innocence. Wow.

There is video of his response here. It is rousing.

[Photo: Governor Christie's press conference on Tuesday, with the Mayor of Newark at left.]

Thursday, August 04, 2011

About Pants

Clothing choice is governed by a certain algorithm. The main factors in the equation are comfort, practicality, and messaging.

(Yes, messaging -- clothing sends signals, whether intended or not. You can't stop people from reading your clothing for clues about you. This is a lesson learned by all teenage nonconformists.)

Some of my favorite clothes to wear -- for reasons of comfort first and practicality second -- have been the sort of loose fabrics one wraps around oneself in Zen centers. Outside of that environment, it's hard to wear that stuff without people giving you a hard time. I could tell you stories, and many readers of this blog have stories of their own, I am sure.

One of my personal issues around clothing is trousers. The trousers I feel prompted to wear are tight around the waist and crotch. I often wear pants designed for meditation or martial arts because they have extra room in the crotch and are plenty loose. Loose-fit jeans, if any. My business suit has suspenders so I don't have to cinch a belt around my belly. I also favor the sarong for reasons of comfort and practicality. The problem with the sarong is, in the U.S. everyone wonders why you're wearing a skirt -- and some males respond with a surprising degree of aggression.

So I'm always looking to that algorithm, looking for pants I enjoy wearing that won't cause me too much social friction.

Which leads me to a product endorsement. Yeah, that's right: I'm endorsing a product.

The Mountains and Rivers Order, a Zen organization founded by the late Daido Loori, is selling Thai "fisherman" pants through their online store. And what the hell, I'm endorsing the pants. The style is nothing new, and the pants have long been available through other outlets. But the ones they are selling here are good: made from good quality cotton (or hemp, but those are twice as expensive). And the price -- again, for the cotton ones -- is low.

This is a terrific style of pants. Unisex. Simple. One-size-fits-all. This is the kind of clothing that conforms to your shape and form, rather than obliging us to "fit into" our clothes. Every pregnant woman deserves a pair of these.

They have the feel of a sarong but are more secure and versatile. I can wear them doing housework, I can sit Zen in them, and I can be seen in public in them without causing a spectacle. Doggone it, there's no reason a businessman shouldn't wear them at the office -- except that the corporate uniform requires uncomfortable suits that send certain messages about power and virility.

(And don't even get me started about shoes.)

That's all. I like these pants. Carry on with your day.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Theatre is a Social Activity

This is a newsletter piece I wrote for the Performing Arts Foundation of Luna County. For a while I've been serving as the foundation's president. We are working to establish a permanent venue for theatre, dance, film festivals, and whatever else the community wants to do. The theatre we hope to build will be named for Nacio Herb Brown, a famous songwriter who was born here in Deming.

Among my duties is writing a monthly piece for the foundation's newsletter. I'm convinced no one other than the Executive Director reads them. Even if that is true, writing them helps remind me of my direction and purpose.

Here is this month's piece. It's a bit terse, due to the newsletter's layout, but it speaks to a broader dimension of theatre practice that is important to me.


Theatre is a social activity.

It cannot be done alone. Even a solo performer requires feedback and assistance from others, if she is to be successful. There are people who toil away to make an evening of theatre possible, and often they are not even applauded. Someone has to turn on the lights. Someone has to take the tickets. Someone picks up the trash.

Even if you are simply a spectator, you are engaged in a social act. This is not Netflix streaming video. Whoever you think you are, you are sitting among other people and different people react to the same event in different ways. You may be offended by a joke I find hilarious. A decision a character makes in our play may make perfect sense to you, yet baffle me. This is true of our life as well.

For any of this to happen, people have to get along. It is such an elementary aspect we sometimes don't give it a thought, but all our social skills come into play when we do theatre. Cooperation. Taking turns. Teamwork. Keeping our commitment. Following through on what we say we will do. And so on.

The existence of live theatre is a microcosm of living in a healthy community.

The success of our mission, to establish a home for the performing arts in our county seat, requires us to be actively involved, to be fair to one another, and occasionally to abide by decisions we don't agree with, for the good of the cause. Of course we also have the choice to get mad, take our football and walk home -- this, too, is part of our community's history, and we know what it achieves.

Nacio Herb Brown's business was music. In music, we can hear the individual notes coming together to make beautiful harmonies. In theatre, you see people working together as an ensemble to make something that enriches all our lives. What a wonderful thing. Let's make some beautiful music together. What do you say?

[Photo: An old gas light in downtown Deming]