Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Post #1000: Cookies, the Universe, and Everything

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, "In a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they all taste the same."

Hello, and thank you for visiting Notes From a Burning House.

This is post #1000 and as you see the blog has a new look, which we hope is enjoyable and easy on your eyes. This is the first time we've changed the look of the blog since moving it to Blogger in 2006. (The blog originated on Friendster and lived on MySpace for a while.)

Earlier this month, we invited readers to suggest topics for this arbitrary milestone. In response to some of these requests, above is a picture of the author with his two sons -- a picture we assume will pass the family censors. Enjoy. The image was taken last week, on our way to see a parade in downtown Deming.

We have readers, so we keep writing here. Sometimes the blog is just plain silly, a testimony to humor as a way of managing the pain of being alive on this rock that spins interminably around the sun.

The blog examines this predicament through different kinds of lenses. There is the lens of contemplative Zen practice, the lens of Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching, and the unique lens of Zen Master Seung Sahn's teaching. There is also the lens of political economics, with many posts about events at home, in this community, or the greater communities of our nation and the nations on this planet.

It may appear that this blog addresses lots of different subjects. We could, however, identify one recurring metaphor as the broad subject of this blog: conflagration. It is present in the title of this blog, begun as an exercise in writing creatively to describe turbulent emotions in process. That's the origin of Notes From a Burning House. Those familiar with the writing of Antonin Artaud may be reminded of his image of the theatre artist as someone being burned at the stake and signaling to us through the flames.

The metaphor of conflagration -- as a process that transforms material and relationships between different materials in ways that are sometimes unpredictable -- prevails here at the Burning House. It is applied to the crisis of self, the problem of "I" in embracing a life of intimacy and clarity. It is applied to current events, viewed as history in process, a wildfire seemingly uncontained. It is a metaphor for the United States, a waning superpower despite its military aggression, whose political system is descending into madness while its economic system breaks down as steadily, and dangerously, as the gas-line infrastructure that periodically blows up U.S. neighborhoods. It is a metaphor for human society globally, unprepared for the end of the Oil Age and the system-wide ecological turbulence caused, in part, by human activities of production and exploitation. (The latter is what John Bellamy Foster refers to as metabolic rift.) It has been applied to revolutions, smaller social movements, and coups d'etat.

We zoom in on particulars, we zoom out looking for the widest perspective possible. What we find is material being transformed from one form into another, combining with itself in new variations, like Zen Master Seung Sahn's famous cookie dough metaphor, quoted above.

And yet, though form is of emptiness, emptiness is also form. When your correspondent found a dead bird in the front yard recently, work stopped, a hole was dug out by the clothesline, and the nameless bird got a few minutes of attention and compassion. The one who has seen past self may still wonder at the passing of the final gate. The one who has seen past time may still smile as a memory passes. The one who has seen past space may still participate -- compassionately -- in the dream.

So in that picture above, do you see three people, one person, or no-person at all?

We are signaling through the flames, passing notes from our burning house. Still here. Welcoming comments, suggestions, questions, whatever. Some of these posts are more formal than others, but the writing is just an offering, a practice. All free. Just to share, in hopes it is useful to someone.

Thanks for reading.

Mindful Citizenship

Just got off the phone with a former Healthcare Now activist in Albuquerque, investigating whether there are any solidarity actions taking place in New Mexico concurrent with the October 6 rally in Washington, D.C.

Nothing much going on, he said, although there is some good activism going on advocating a state-level public health system. We then moved on to other things and then came this:

"You know, my experience with Buddhism is with another branch, and they took no interest in politics. Their attitude was work on yourself first, you know."

Silence. A response was desired.

Okay then. "I'm sorry -- work on what?"

"Work on yourself first." He thought I hadn't heard him.

"My self? You mean, an isolated self that has nothing to do with money or property or a community? An isolated self that has no relationship to other human beings and has nothing to do with society?"

"Oh, right."

"Our practice is called 'mindfulness,' right? And that's something we do in the midst of all our activities. So there is mindful meditation, and there is also mindful parenting, mindful driving, mindful decisions with respect to money and home economics, and mindful citizenship."

"That's a balanced view."

"Thanks for all your work."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

On Police Brutality on Wall Street

The first video I saw was not that outrageous. Two officers of the NYPD were arresting a protester on Wall Street last week. The protester had gone limp, so the two officers carried him away from the demonstration to the curb so they could complete the arrest. Pretty much a routine arrest of a demonstrator doing civil disobedience: refusing the order to clear the street, then going limp as the arrest is made. In the confusion, he was set down on the pavement and then dragged across pavement, and somewhere in the interaction he sustained a small cut on his thumb. The suspect also remarked that his cuffs -- the plastic cord kind of cuff -- were a bit tight.

Eh. Unpleasant, but nothing rising to the level of "police brutality."

Then the weekend came, and it got a great deal more rough on Wall Street. There were scores of arrests, targeting people with cameras first, and for good reason: unprovoked police brutality was being used to divide and disperse the protest, chase away witnesses, and quash the action.

For the past nine or ten days, there has been a protest movement on Wall Street targeting the behavior of financial institutions and the investor class. The demonstrations have included marches and civil disobedience, including camping out.

The police have a job to do and the majority of officers appearing in the videos are seen handling the confusion with professionalism and even respect. Nonetheless, there is also footage showing police abuse: people holding cameras being targeted despite the fact that filming police in public is a legal right, including a young man taken down violently, head smashing into a parked car, and a PBS correspondent who was arrested for the crime of journalism. There is also the upsetting footage of NYPD supervisor Anthony Bologna approaching a small group of young women who had been corralled and contained, simply reaching in and pepper spraying them without provocation, inflicting pain and suffering without justification.

Were these protesters really causing anything more than an inconvenience down on Wall Street to make a broader point? Of course not. The point is to intimidate and discourage such actions.

The first amendment of our Constitution guarantees not only a right to free speech and freedom of religion, but also a right "peaceably to assemble" in order to petition government and air grievances. Although a right to civil disobedience is not explicitly guaranteed, organized protest including civil disobedience are forms of direct action that foster solidarity within a movement while hopefully attracting media attention. In the southern U.S., Jim Crow laws were eventually broken because thousands of citizens engaged in civil disobedience, breaking laws in minor ways to call attention to laws and policies that were far more harmful. Civil disobedience has also been employed to denounce wars, torture, unlawful detentions, unjust immigration laws, ecological destruction. It was civil disobedience, and the risk of arrest and police violence, that led to child labor laws and the eight-hour work day. It can be said that meaningful democratic participation in our governance and meaningful social change require action on the streets, require getting in the way, including even the risk of arrest or a blow from a truncheon. Clogging up the local system with arrests is another way of, so to speak, facing the tank and gumming up the machine. Personally, these actions are out of my own comfort zone, but I have participated because this, to me, is an aspect of citizenship.

Government and state powers, while charged by the Constitution to protect these rights (including also the fourth amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and fifth amendment guarantee of due process), have always pushed back against these popular rights using sedition laws, treating protesters as terrorists, federalizing local investigations, aggressive surveillance, infiltration and entrapment, and unaccountable violence and intimidation. The state has also invested heavily in a growing industry producing non-lethal weapons to use against civilian populations, something we have blogged about previously; while the government has passed laws that protect the operation of business from being disturbed by the protests of the citizenry.

Today's MLK will be doused with pepper spray, knocked to the pavement by water cannons, and perhaps struck with a tazer -- and will still be assassinated in the end if he does not quit.

J. Edgar Hoover, who once commented that justice is incidental to law and order, would like these developments very much.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Astroturf and Green Imperialism

An ancient master warns us to keep our minds alive and attentive, without letting it rest on any object. Years ago, a Christian friend suggested just the opposite when he said, "You know, an open mind is meant to close on something." To whatever extent that means reacting from preconceived assumptions, the Burning House would disagree. Especially when it comes to public affairs, where our ideological preferences may lead us to react without looking at a real-world situation with fresh eyes.

A lesson in this comes our way from Bolivia. But before we make that trip, let us consider the phenomenon known as "astroturfing" in politics.

The term astroturf plays on the idiom of "grass-roots politics," or activist movements coming from the very bottom of society -- the grass roots -- among the poor and working classes. To the extent our republic pretends to believe in democracy, grass-roots movements are looked upon as legitimate and authentic expressions of popular will.

"Astroturfing" is when financially-powerful interests, represented by private corporations and non-profit political organizations funded by corporations and investors, agitate and organize working class citizens, sometimes sending company employees to inflate crowds, to defeat legislative initiatives that are against corporate interests. In other words, "astroturf" equals fake grass roots.

It is perverse in that it manipulates and frightens people into demonstrating against policies that would actually benefit them. For instance, much of the opposition to reforming health insurance in the United States in 2009 was actually organized by corporate lobbyists and investors through non-profit associations like FreedomWorks and the Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights, among others. This was alongside the opposition and fear-mongering by private insurance companies themselves.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to the United States, which brings us to Bolivia this morning. Federico Fuentes offers some wise analysis of protests against a proposed highway through indigenous territory in the Amazon, including some 'astroturfing' on an international level.

While acknowledging that the Morales government has made errors in proposing this project, and the legitimate interest in protecting the sovereignty of indigenous communities in the Amazon as well as the ecological integrity of the land itself, Fuentes points to astroturfing of the issue by certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Among the players are USAID, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and other NGOs funded by U.S. and European interests working to privatize forests and energy production. Among other evidence, Fuentes points to diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks showing USAID's efforts to confuse and divide social movements in Bolivia in an effort to destabilize President Evo Morales (a socialist, which we know is a very very bad thing to be).

Okay, so Bolivia is being astroturfed. To what end?

Behind these very real interests lies a campaign by rich nations and conservative environmental groups to promote policies that represent a new form of "green imperialism." After centuries of plundering the resources of other countries, wiping out indigenous populations, and creating a dire global environmental crisis, the governments of rich nations now use environmental concerns to promote policies that deny underdeveloped nations the right to control and manage their own resources. If they have their ways, these groups will reduce indigenous people to mere "park rangers," paid by rich countries to protect limited areas, while multinational corporations destroy the environment elsewhere.
Sounds very familiar, in a country where a population that needs socialized health care have been taught to resist any reform of the private health insurance system for fear we would turn into Soviet Russia.

Highways are a good analogy for economics or systems of production and distribution. A highway is an expensive and dirty project. A well-built and maintained road, however, makes it possible to move things around quickly, to get medical care and other services into rural areas. It allows local farmers and ranchers to get their foods to market.

A highway is neither all good nor all bad. It has a function. Protecting the proper function of a road is a matter of design and regulation. Done right, the highway would offset the costs of increased traffic by promoting greater food sovereignty and access to important services for rural areas.

So the question, again, is cui bono? What purpose, and whose interests, should it serve?

[Photo: Rurrenabaque, on the Beni River, in Bolivia]

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the Burning House Archive

Post #996. What a fekkin' blabbermouth, eh?

Yet there are a handful of folks who enjoy these musings, some of whom have joined us more recently than others. That's why we added those labels you see to the left. We have slowly been editing and modifying these, and tagging old posts, so that readers can click on topics they find interesting and perhaps enjoy an old post. There are posts here going back to 2006, you know. (And the blog is older than that -- having originated as a Friendster blog, and migrating to MySpace for a while.)

So click away, and fritter away even more of your precious time in the Burning House archives.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

I Look Forward to Disappointing You

Some of our readers have enjoyed letters we write to corporate executives and elected officials. Today, we would like to share a letter written by someone else.

Meet State Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston, Texas. He's been serving in the Texas legislature since 1990. Not that everyone is satisfied with his performance in office. In particular, he has been a disappointment to a group called Empower Texans.

Now meet Empower Texans. Basically, a political organization promoting the interests of corporate monopoly capitalism. They are about empowering Texans so long as we're talking about Texan CEOs and investors. Among their positions is the claim that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme," and that the public sector needs to be reduced to the absolute bare minimum while all or most economic sectors and services should be privatized.

Like many advocacy groups, Empower Texans has a "report card" assigning grades to legislators based on their votes. State Senator Rodney Ellis did not fare well. He got an "F" from the corporate sector.

What follows is a letter written by Senator Ellis to the head of Empower Texans. It is witty, unapologetic, and honest. A fine example of an art form I have long loved: the personal letter. I have included some hyperlinks in the letter with references to the issues cited. Enjoy.


August 24, 2011

Michael Quinn Sullivan
Empower Texans
PO Box 200248
Austin, TX 78720

Dear Mr. Sullivan:

Thank you for your letter regarding Empower Texans 2011 legislative scorecard. Upon reading it, my first thought was of George Bernard Shaw, who responded to one of his critics thusly: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. Your critique is in front of me. Shortly it will be behind me."

Then I realized this thought was perhaps too harsh and too confrontational for, in fact, I am proud to have earned an "F" from Empower Texans for my work in the 82nd legislature. I know I am doing things right in Austin, and would seriously question both my judgment and values were I to receive any higher grade.

I am proud to have opposed Voter ID, which does nothing to protect the sanctity of the ballot and is designed only to limit the participation of the disenfranchised; I am proud to have fought against those who held the Rainy Day Fund hostage and to use an additional $3 billion to alleviate devastating cuts to vital programs; I am proud to have voted for other bills that would have reduced the impact of those cuts, and to get rid of tax loopholes that provide billions in tax breaks to huge oil companies even as we cut funding for our children's schools and health care; I am proud to have voted against hypocritical "look at me" votes calling on Congress to balance the federal budget while we failed to actually balance our own, and against the interests of the predatory payday loan industry. I will wear my "F" grade from Empower Texans as a badge of honor and look forward to further disappointing you in the future.

To paraphrase the greatest President of the 20th Century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: I welcome your hatred. After all, I'd much rather be a champion of the powerless than a lickspittle of the powerful.


Rodney Ellis

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Getting Away with Murder

Something must be said about the murder of Troy Davis by the state last night.

The Burning House is quite comfortable calling this a murder. Not an "execution," the word we are supposed to use to legitimize taking life when the state instructs us that a human being is worth killing. It's not "capital punishment," since no capital was harmed in the process and Troy Davis was not decapitated. Troy Davis was murdered by a series of lethal injections. The process may well have been extremely painful, but there would be no sign of it to a witness because of the heavy dose of sedatives used in the process. Read an eyewitness account of a lethal injection here.

Nineteen years ago, Troy Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer. His trial is not what we would hope for, if we desire justice. He was convicted on the basis of testimony of 9 witnesses, seven of whom later recanted their testimony under allegations of witness intimidation by another suspect (who might have been the killer). There was no physical evidence tying him to the crime.

We like to think we are a civilized people, and only execute the guilty. In order to maintain this illusion, we need to uphold a rigorous process for establishing guilt, and reserve the death penalty for cases where a rigorous trial has established guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. This is a bare minimum standard for accepting a death penalty in a civilized society, and even then there is a debate to be had about the morality or the wisdom of taking life.

Clearly, something was very wrong with the Troy Davis trial. His execution was halted four times, the last one taking place minutes before his murder by the state of Georgia. He was already strapped to a gurney awaiting the first injection when the Supreme Court considered a final, desperate appeal by Davis's attorneys. Despite the dubiety of Davis's trial and conviction, the reasonable doubt over whether his guilt had been proven in a fair trial, the Supreme Court decided there would be no recourse but to allow Georgia to proceed on its violent course.

The family of Officer Mark MacPhail made vengeful remarks perfumed with sentiments about "healing" and prayer. We wonder if they think they know what really happened in that parking lot in 1989, or if this blood vengeance really settles a score or brings them (or Mark) any peace. They cannot, for we cannot, even know if this was the man who murdered Mark.

The Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, was himself a criminal prosecutor and later a judge in juvenile court. Does he really think Davis got a fair trial? Does he feel justice truly was done?

Here is the inescapable problem with capital punishment. This is a case that is very hard to dress up in ideas of "justice," "healing," or "deterrence." To call this "an execution" is to dress the murder up in pieties that will never fit. No one can claim with 100% assurance that this was the right man without lying to themselves.

In the presence of real doubts, why did the state proceed to murder Troy Davis last night in Georgia? If we desire justice, this wasn't it. So what is the desire being expressed here, when government employees willfully murder a man with the full knowledge that he might be innocent of the crime for which he was convicted?

Who really got away with murder last night?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Slavery is optional: Filing Cabinets and Consciousness

Something we learn about in the study and practice of Buddhism is the nature of consciousness: how it shapes what we believe about ourselves and the world. Another lesson about consciousness is that it is shaped, not only by our own conditioning but also by social conditioning. The very aperture through which we understand ourselves and our world is shaped initially by family, by the company we keep, and by the society where we mature and live.

This has political implications, and indeed the hierarchy of power in a society depends on the consciousness of those who are governed. Democracy, while a beautiful idea, requires a certain consciousness across the body politic. For a republic such as ours to respond to the needs of the governed, and to promote equality and meaningful freedom for all her people, to serve and enhance the general welfare in an egalitarian manner, requires participation.

Government is not our problem, as complex a beast as it is. Here in my office, there is a filing cabinet I bought for seven bucks from my neighbor. It has four drawers. Depending on how I organize this filing cabinet, it can help me conduct family and personal business efficiently; or it can become a morass, a black hole where my important papers are lost forever. Do I blame the filing cabinet? Throw it away and vow never to use a filing cabinet again? Clearly, the responsibility is my own.

No, government is not our problem. Our politics is a problem. Specifically, the way we do politics in the U.S. There is good news, however: while it is a difficult task to reform our political system, it is easier to do that than to modify our institutions or amend the constitution. There really is no need to tolerate a politics that is so unresponsive to the needs of our people.

If you are one of those who has said, "A pox on both their houses," threw up your hands, stopped paying attention to politics or the news, gave up on the process, and maybe even stopped participating -- please know that this is the intended outcome of a deliberate strategy.

In "Goodbye to All That," a former Republican Congressional staffer by the name of Mike Lofgren writes a searing critique not just of the current Republican Party, but the two-party rule that shackles United States politics. It is a system entirely dominated by two national political parties that are heavily financed by, and thus under the influence of, corporate interests and wealthy contributors. This lock has been made stronger now that corporations can make unlimited political contributions.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn ("Government is the problem," declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

The most important choice before us people -- indeed, a choice that is overdue -- is not which millionaire candidate to vote for among the two national parties. It is time to stop buying into the manufactured cynicism and contribute a little bit more to the civic health of our communities and our nation. There is simply no good reason for our submission to a destructive politics. There is no reason to allow a political system to go unchallenged, retreating to what individualist battlements we can muster, and scorn any effort to demand a politics that advances our welfare.

From Michael Parenti:

Having discerned that "American democracy" as professed by establishment opinion makers is something of a sham, some people incorrectly dismiss the democratic rights won by popular forces as being of little account. But these democratic rights and the organized strength of democratic forces are, at present, all we have to keep reactionary rulers from imposing a dictatorial final solution, a draconian rule to secure the unlimited dominance of capital over labor. Marx anticipated that class struggle would being the overthrow of capitalism. Short of that, class struggle constrains and alters the capitalist state, so that the government itself, or portions of it, become a contested arena.

This is a matter of overthrowing a certain false consciousness (a subject on which Parenti has written much) and implementing measures with the express purpose of contesting the power arrangements that are wrecking what progress has been made here in this "beacon of democracy" and "shining city on a hill" on behalf of people who must work in order to survive.

Such reforms might include:

  • Implementing instant-runoff voting, also known as "ranked voting," a system that is inexpensive and allows more parties to participate meaningfully in competitive elections.
  • Public, rather than private, financing of elections, to curb the anticompetitive financial power of corporations and super-rich investors. Public financing should include the so-called "minor parties" and independent candidates.
  • Proportional representation rather than "winner take all" systems. This allows other parties to win some seats in Congress and in state legislatures. It also strengthens the power of the voter. This also suggests serious reform, or the elimination, of the electoral college. (The latter, however, requires a constitutional amendment, and thus difficult to achieve.)
  • No tolerance for voting laws designed to intimidate or harass certain demographics of voters. "Voter I.D." laws should be reviewed and modified as necessary so that eligible and registered voters can cast a proper ballot even if they do not possess a driver's license. (For instance, in New Mexico, a voter has several alternatives to showing an I.D., such as confirming their address.)
  • As much as we approve of saving paper use here in the Burning House, paper ballots serve a necessary function for verification of vote counts, and need to be preserved.
  • Nonpartisan oversight of electoral process by a public commission. Part of their charge would be to assure access to polling places in rural and impoverished areas.

These things are achievable. Even the amendment is achievable, albeit more difficult. It requires effort and determination, what we assume is meant by the phrase "political will."

It is as self-evident as suggesting to a person who is drowning that they try putting their arms and legs to use before they die, depriving their family and their community of their life.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Interdependence and Oil in the Americas

Interdependence (which is not only a Buddhist term, but also an economic term) is a politically dangerous idea.

We are supposed to believe that we are not interdependent. Our survival and happiness are always our own. If you need something, you should buy it; that is the only way to be absolved of needing other people. The notion of common wealth, the idea of distributing services in a truly egalitarian manner, is offensive to the prevailing idea that we are all in it for ourselves. There can be alliances, but alliances exist to help isolated beings achieve their own success and happiness.

The idea that "we're all in this together" and interdependent is mocked and scorned, even as it becomes more and more evident to anyone paying attention to world events. The notion that ecological crisis and the structural flaws of capitalism will compel us to turn our attentions to something other than individual prosperity is deeply offensive to the prevailing order.

Which is why we at the Burning House are highly amused by the idea of Cuba striking oil.

Yes, it turns out Cuba is sitting on oil.

There is an interesting struggle going on in the Americas over this. Since it won't be covered well by U.S. media (except to scare the shit out of Florida) we'll take a moment to relate the story in progress.

Robert Sandels lives in Mexico and writes about Cuba for various publications, on-line and print. His article in the current Monthly Review addresses the U.S. reaction to the possibility that Cuba is poised to become an oil state. The article will be available for free on-line as of September 19, and if this topic interests you we recommend you read it here when it is posted tomorrow.

Back in 1997, an agreement between the United States and Mexico allotted part of the Gulf of Mexico as an "Exclusive Economic Zone" for Cuba. In 2005, it was discovered that this turf sits on top of oil. Quite a bit of it, as a matter of fact. Not enough to make it another Saudi Arabia; not enough even to be another Venezuela. But as Sandels reports, "finding reserves even at the lower end of the estimates would make Cuba energy independent, and eventually a net exporter."

Oops. Game-changing development.

You see, the rule is, seeking alternatives to capitalism is very very bad. Cuba is very very bad because socialism is very very bad, and Cuba must be made to suffer so that its people will believe socialism is very very bad. This is the logic of U.S. sanctions and the economic blockade against Cuba, which have endured for generations. Our policy in Latin America generally is to dominate our neighboring states, and punish them if they lean too far left. Just ask the people of Honduras.

If Cuba becomes an oil exporter, it can buy greater freedom from the U.S. policy and strengthen Petrocaribe, the oil alliance that has been building an alternative to U.S./oil industry dominance in Latin America and the Caribbean. Petrocaribe makes oil available to member states at affordable prices. It deals only with states, not with private oil corporations.

Naturally, the United States has responded to this by throwing up its hands, deciding to live and let live, disagreeing with Cuba's socialist path but announcing it would no longer seek to choke and punish the state, and instead allow it full freedom of self-determination.

Just kidding.

Actually, several members of the U.S. Congress are working on a strategy to avert Cuba's oil independence. The plan would employ several strategies:

  • Punishing foreign companies for investing in Cuban oil or cooperating with Cuban oil production.
  • Pressuring the Spanish government to pull Repsol, the Spanish oil and gas company, out of any Cuban operation.
  • Stalling the process by any means necessary, in hopes that the Spanish conservatives take over government in the coming elections.
  • Instilling fear of oil spills. We must protect Florida from oil spills! This is a devious strategy, since we welcome Repsol's drilling operations in our own waters. Cuban water is different, you see. It has socialist cooties.

Oil is dirty energy. It is non-renewable, getting more scarce and thus more expensive and dangerous to produce. We are arriving at the final chapter of what will be known as the Oil Age. It is an interesting development, however, to note oil's involvement in building an alternative to imperial dominance. Oil had made it possible to conceive of strategic alliances that seek to strengthen states and foster real trade between American and Caribbean states, rather than exploitation and plunder of the weaker by the stronger.

Trying to achieve success and happiness for a nation by means of relationships and shared wealth is very very bad. It completely contradicts the idea that our happiness and survival are a matter of individual fortune.

Oil is a limited resource for funding revolution -- and this is revolutionary: trying to build a working alternative to the historic model of imperialism and corporate exploitation. They will have to build an alternative that does not depend on oil indefinitely. Can it be done? The obstacles are formidable, and here at the Burning House we are not betting against the alliance of international corporations and capitalist states just yet.

Venezuela and Cuba are not all good or all bad, but they are "very very bad" because what they have done well is very upsetting to the established order. The notion that anything can be done well outside of the "free market" -- such as distributing health care or education to people in an egalitarian manner -- contradicts what we are supposed to believe about ourselves and others.

Who tells you what to believe?

[Photo: Cuban coastline. One day I hope to visit this shore freely and legally.]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who does the actor work for?

Since my work for the public schools came to a close, I have had some time to polish my resume and CV, update my references, and all that job-seeking business. I have also had time to refashion some of the professional tools of an actor.

To be honest, pursuing that line of work is going about as well as anything else. The official unemployment rate nationwide is 9.1%. This does not count your humble correspondent, who is not eligible to collect unemployment insurance. It also does not count masses of others. New Mexico's official unemployment is 6.7% and the latest unemployment figure I've seen for Luna County is 15.8%, which is actually down from 23% last winter.

Some employers and staffing firms have also taken to discriminating against qualified candidates who are unemployed. There are job postings on Monster and Indeed including language such as "No unemployed candidates will be considered."

So in addition to submitting for office jobs and registering with staffing agencies and even calling around on some construction jobs I could do, I've gotten some updated head shots and begun calling on the local agencies and watching audition notices for anything that might pay.

The acting profession has changed since I was 25. Black and white head shots are a quaint relic in a world where actors are expected to have online demo reels, a professional web site, an IMDB page, and even a Facebook artist page.

While researching actor web sites and businesses that design and host them, I came across a promotional interview with an actor, Amy Russ, who now runs a prominent actor-website business. She spoke about the necessity of websites being interactive, including options for people to register as "fans." (Sometimes the Facebook pages are also referred to as "fan pages," where anyone who "likes" your page is referred to as a fan.)

A lot of actors say, “I don’t have any fans.” Or “I don’t need fans.” Or “Why would I need to have fans?” My answer to that is, “Well isn’t that the whole point? You are an actor and the fans are really who you are working for. So if you don’t have any fans, you better get some!

That's an interesting question: who does the actor work for?

Actors are entrepreneurs. Our tools consist of the body, voice, appearance, and all their skill and talent as performing artists. When we are in business, we are employed by film producers, theater companies, and sometimes directly by advertisers. In terms of business, that's literally who we work for.

A fan base does make a difference in an actor's marketability. No matter how pleased Johnny Tabor was with my performance in Folklore, if he could have gotten Gary Oldman to play my role I could hardly be surprised or offended. The presence of an actor with a large fan base obviously adds value to the film.

At the moment an actor thinks of himself as working for the fan base, they have embarked on a different profession, I think: that of the celebrity. I cast no aspersions on this at all. I could rattle off a long list of celebrities who are also very good actors. Indeed, those who manage to be both actor and celebrity are greatly blessed in this lifetime.

Can you be a successful actor without being a celebrity? Sure. I know quite a few such actors personally and know of many more. They work steadily enough to manage mortgages, raise families, and live quite well. Some of them, you've seen in commercials or supporting roles on television and movies. You've heard their voices without seeing their faces, in commercials and animated features. Some of them tour the country in live theatre. Some of them are lucky enough to work in a single region, doing plays and teaching to supplement their earnings.

I would like to think that the work is the thing. I'm not in love with Gary Oldman, but I'll watch anything he's in because I think he's one of the finer actors working in feature films. I'm reminded of Henry Fonda, who once said (and I am paraphrasing) he didn't care about being a "star," he just felt happy to be working.

I'm not celebrity material, and I'm getting too old for that anyway. But as an actor, I do a decent job. My feeling about the work is very similar to that of the excellent Japanese actor and teacher, Yoshi Oida, whose major book on acting is actually entitled The Invisible Actor. I like to do the best work I can, take my bow (acknowledging the audience's appreciation with dignity), and then disappear. It's about the work.

Yes, I may start a Facebook artist page in the future, and use it as a promotional tool. It will definitely not be a "fan page." You can call it a "swamp cooler page" instead, and I'll invite you all to be swamp coolers. That's what we use here in the desert to keep the air fresh and cool -- and it still gets hot here in September. If you ever "follow"such a page, I hope it is out of an affection and respect for this work and what it contributes to our world. It ain't about me.

[Photo: on set in Radium Springs, New Mexico, filming Folklore in 2010]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Buddha and Terror: It is still September 11

These are words I wrote in 2006, here on this blog, about the anniversary of September 11. I am reposting them this morning, on the tenth anniversary.


It is still September 11.

On a walk with her Zen Master, a woman was moved to ask, "Why is there so much evil in the world?"

Without missing a beat, her teacher said: "Because of you."

Earlier today, something very terrible took place in our republic. It had never happened here before, but it had been happening and has been happening ever since, around the world. The rage and violence penetrated our defenses and brought down our illusion of safety from the madness. No longer could anyone feel like they weren't involved.

This sense of security reminds me of the wall that once surrounded a prince named Siddhartha. He grew up and lived in a huge palace compound, a remote fortress within a land that knew much suffering and injustice. When this prince was born, there had been a prophecy suggesting the boy might become a spiritual seeker instead of a king. Papa wanted none of that and kept his son a virtual prisoner of luxury and wealth, for fear that seeing what life was like outside the palace would change his son's consciousness and drive him to religious life.

Indeed, seeing what was beyond the walls hit the prince's mind like a bolt of lightning. When he scaled the walls out of sheer curiosity, he saw a land where rich and poor lived separate existences, where humans languished in desperate conditions, a land of violence, disease, poverty, old age, sickness - and death, the appointment everyone has and no one misses. Death comes no matter how good you are, rich you are, righteous you are, or healthy you are.

The human suffering touched the prince as deeply as anything could: there was no separation, no sense of insulation from human life. Time, he saw, is limited. He was involved. Involved with all of it. All of it.

Getting past the walls and seeing life as it truly is, a prince's mind is transformed by an enormous question. What is this? And the great awakening begins.

This is NOT the story of a person who lived a long time ago and became known as the Buddha. Forget it.

This is our prophecy. Yours and mine. Yep, you and me. It's our story.

Another way to handle our question is to build taller walls, to instill a better sense of security. Walls look like they should do that for us, so we build lots of them. We build gates and fences around our houses, we take our religions literally, and we bask in the cold shade of nationalism. We try to build bigger and bigger walls keeping us uninvolved with the rest of the world - the enemy. We speak of "our way of life," we believe we are right, and we see no need to look critically at our lives or our history - and least of all, our consciousness itself. Oh no. As best we can, we must prevent our consciousness from being changed.

Just as many Americans have consented to believe that dissent is tantamount to treason, we also have come to feel there is no role for compassion or non-violence at all in confronting terrorism, fanaticism, violent crime, oppression and viciousness. We turn to familiar refuges - martial law, militarism, nationalism. Those who make decisions on our behalf promise bigger, better walls. They can be forgiven for this. Walls are their business and walls have uses. It is the walls we don't see clearly that need to be climbed.

Hammers do what we do with them. A hammer cannot wake up, only the person wielding it. I am convinced there is no sane response to September 11 except to wake up. Nothing will make sense from this point on until there is a shift in consciousness.

There is no "post-September 11" world, there is only this moment and our sanctuary has been compromised. The walls stand for us to scale. Our assumptions stand for us to look at in the light and question. What is a human being? What are desire, anger, and ignorance? The choice is to accept our utter involvement in the wholeness of all life.

It is as if the air we breathe is on fire and we are pissing gasoline, wondering why we feel so hot.

Generation after generation, we kill one another because we don't understand what we are. From the beginning, we have embraced the suffering that afflicts us and denied every opportunity to wake up and try a different way. Those who have argued for a different approach are ignored. Those who will not be ignored are dispensed with. The walls stand.

The best we could possibly make of September 11 is to treat it like a temple bell in the center of the earth that tolls so loudly we wake up. Then we climb the walls and explore the territory of good, evil, and everything else we have made.

We are all princes and it is time for the bad news: we made the walls, we made the country, and we made the suffering. We even made us. (And I am not your friend, because I am making things right and left.) We made the whole painful thing. If we don't understand our involvement, we don't understand anything.

There is good news, though.

This is not intended as poetry. It will remain September 11 until we climb the wall. Nothing else will work.

If you have made it this far, I thank you sincerely for reading. Let us practice together. Let us look into the sources of evil - we can begin with the greed, anger, and delusion and seriously consider "Who's asking?" We are involved. Let us wake up.

We best honor our dead by making a vow to wake up and, from wherever we stand, stop believing insane things. A small cup of water will extinguish a wall of fire, whereas no amount of fire ever will.

I am a youngster and cannot teach you anything; but I will gladly hold hands and walk with you. One step. One step at a time.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Head Shots

No income since July. It's cutting into the savings a bit. On the plus side, I'm less of a stranger to my family, the house and the yard are also getting more attention, and I've had time to try opening some new doors.

A few weeks ago, I went up to Albuquerque and updated my actor "head shots" for the first time in a decade. This is a chore I always hated doing when I was in the business. I'd have to find some studio in New York or Boston, trudge up flights of stairs with my numerous outfits, and sit around while a photographer struggled to light me. To be fair to them, I was a lot more uptight in those days, too. It was difficult to get good pictures out of the session. I often looked hazy, peevish, and deadly pale.

These days, perhaps, I'm a little more loose. It also helps that the Snowdens are so much fun to work with.

In fact, my photo shoot with Steve and Leah Snowden one early morning was the most fun I've ever had doing headshots. Our rendezvous was at 7:30 AM in Albuquerque's old town, whereupon we simply ran around outside, shooting pictures here and there before the shops opened, taking full advantage of the ample natural light. It felt loose and even mischievous, as when I found surreptitious places to change clothes and shave my moustache. Steve's a good photographer, Leah likes spotting places, and their sense of play is infectious. We stopped our photo shoot for a few minutes when Steve spotted a black widow, and got some pictures of her, too. (Wonder if there is an agent for spiders; she was a beauty.)

As a result, five good professional headshots, depicting numerous "character looks." There's a good businessman/dad picture, a blue collar guy picture, a menacing guy picture, a good leading man shot with moustache, and a cute smiling shot for comedies and light stuff. I was very pleased with these results.

So now I'm seeking representation. Several years after I thought I was retiring from this nonsense. There is some paying work here, so might as well submit.

[Photo: Yes, that's actually one of my head shots from the Albuquerque session in August]