Monday, October 31, 2011

My Mother Pets a Manta Ray

This post was actually written five years ago. While doing some housekeeping on my blog I stumbled across it, realizing I never posted it. It has languished all these years in the edit box.

It was written upon the occasion of the strange death of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin in 2006.


This may not be good P.R. for the Stingray Benevolent Society, yet marine experts have been quick to remind us that stingray attacks are rare, and that usually these stings are not lethal. (Just very, very painful.) Irwin's death was as likely as a lightning strike. The barb found its way between his ribs and pierced his heart.

On the other hand, stingray tours are continuing as scheduled and the operators continue to feed the creatures by hand. As one of them says, "They come in and play with us because we're offering them free food. ... They consider people to be another set of legs with a possible squid at the end, and they're very happy to see us." I feel reassured that manta rays will still be accessible at Sea World.

You see, I have a very fond memory involving a manta ray and my mother.

Manta rays are filter feeders and they have no stingers. At the age of nine or so, my parents accompanied me on a trip to SeaWorld in Orlando. We had just arrived for our day-long family expedition, and my father and grandparents left my mother and me to find a bathroom and find some confusing maps.

My mother and I found ourselves near a large white basin that came up about waist-level. Looking inside, we were treated to the sight of a large manta ray. We both exclaimed over how beautiful it was, and laughed at the way it swam right over to us. The little attention whore!

Our family raised Russian wolfhounds for many years and my mother is very comfortable around animals. She is no Steve Irwin, yet she has a quiet, brave affinity for creatures great and small. Something about the manta ray was communicating to her. What my mother said was, "He's acting an awful lot like a puppy."

Indeed, the manta ray was swimming back and forth, pulling back, and doing a roll in the water, then lapping right up at the edge nearest us and breaking the surface of the water.

My mother pursed her lips and looked around the park to see if anyone wearing a badge was around. "You know what, I wonder..." She put her hand in the water, and the manta ray approached. "Do you think they like to be pet?" She pulled her hand out. She knew that manta rays don't really have teeth to speak of, and can't sting. In any case, this one's behavior was not threatening in any way. What could it do? Shove you? My mother looked around again, shrugged, and stuck her hand back in.

Within seconds, she was scratching the belly of a very happy manta ray. It had no face, but it roiled about her hand and shivered. My mother laughed with delight. "It IS a puppy!"
We enjoyed this for a few more minutes before the rest of the family returned and my father saw his wife with her hand in a tank at SeaWorld.

Naturally, he asked her what she was doing.

My mother withdrew her hand and very innocently replied, "Nothing."

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pro-Wrestling and Candidate Debates

Governor Rick Perry of our neighboring state of Texas is running for President. He has stumbled quite a bit in the polls, and in part this has to do with his performance at televised debates with his rivals for the Republican nomination.

Recently, Governor Perry has hinted that he might skip some, perhaps most, of the remaining debates. Other candidates have seized on this to criticize him for depriving voters of the chance to see him tested, and questioning his ability to challenge President Obama.

We declare no harm and no foul. This is silly and matters not one wit, mainly because the televised debates are fake politics. It's a show.

They are highly profitable media events that generate high ratings and lure advertisers. An actual debate between candidates for the highest elected office in the land would be a public service, broadcast for free out of a compelling public interest by companies that have already profited handsomely from use of radio frequency and public infrastructure.

The debates are managed by media professionals who work with the candidate campaigns to design an event that will draw viewers and advertisers. This is not about testing the candidates' ideas or policy goals. This is about putting on a show that will draw viewers and give candidates an opportunity to broadcast their message for free. The content is of little importance.

It's a bit like pro-wrestling, and we cast no aspersions on that sport. There is some actual wrestling going on, but real wrestling is not that exciting to watch by itself; so there is some staged combat, plus characters, contrived feuds, and overall a great work of theatre. It's not "fake." It's a spectacle. It has a huge audience, and a great deal of money is made from it.

(One of the major pop culture events of my childhood was the rivalry between one Hulk Hogan and one "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, which cunningly included celebrities like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper, in a series of ingenious and highly lucrative media spectacles. All of it fictionalized. All of it fun to watch. Ah, the eighties.)

Consider this incident from one of the recent Republican debates. Anderson Cooper, a handsome celebrity CNN reporter embarking on a new venture as a talk show host, asked a question of Governor Perry. His question was about the high rate of children in Texas who are not covered by any medical insurance, despite the state's Children's Health Insurance program that Perry helped to establish.

This might sound like a very good question. In a real debate, that question would force the candidate to account for the outcome of his leadership, compared to his philosophy and policy goals. A credible answer would give a sense of how a candidate might govern.

Rick Perry made little effort even to pretend to answer that question. Instead, out of blue-sky-nowhere, he began talking about a very old scandal involving one of his rivals: allegations that Mitt Romney allowed illegal "aliens" to mow the lawn at one of his mansions.

Perry was allowed to do this. Cooper did not stop him and say, "You are not addressing the question, Governor." There was no follow-up. Perry was allowed to ignore the question and use his time to bring up something irrelevant for the purpose of attacking an opponent. That is standard practice. Many news stories unwittingly acknowledge how fake the debates are, as when a candidate's ability to ignore a question and change the subject is referred to as a "debating skill." If the debate mattered, that would not be considered a skill. It would be considered deceit.

The debates aren't about content. They are not about substance. They are shows. Rick Perry isn't very good at this part of the game, so rationally, he would rather focus elsewhere. Voters aren't actually any poorer for this decision because they aren't learning much from the debates anyway.

An actual debate about substance would likely draw a much smaller audience. More people might develop a taste for it, however, if they had an opportunity to see something real.

We deserve better. We deserve campaigns that are shorter and publicly financed. Strict caps on private money in the electoral process. Public funds should be available to more than two political parties. Likewise, candidate forums should be non-profit events broadcast for the public interest. In a shorter campaign season, there would not be a need for so many of these, and they do not need to be expensive spectacles. Just candidates talking, questioning each other and answering direct questions, moderated by serious people under clear and consistent ground rules.

Don't laugh. We deserve this and there is no good reason we can't have it. Go to any college parliamentary debate tournament, and you will see highly substantive debates on matters of public interest that leave professional politicians in the dust. Kids can participate in that kind of discourse, analyzing arguments and compiling data to make a persuasive case. A debate can be edifying, even entertaining, and educational. We deserve that when elections take place.

It is a disgrace to us, as a people, that we tolerate such brazenly fake politics and politely pretend that this is somehow a representative government. This acquiescence is far more disturbing to me than anything Rick Perry says on television.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Change Inside and Out

Years ago, working with the Interfaith Communities United for Justice in Peace in Los Angeles, some of us took an opportunity to do some non-violence training with the Reverend Jim Lawson, the man who trained Martin Luther King, Jr. and his generation and so many who followed them. The man is 83 years old today and still teaching.

One point he stressed has never left me. He emphasized to us that a potent social movement is a journey, a process which does not only change "society" (the outside situation to which people are reacting), but also transforms the participants themselves.

This is also a Zen teaching point: "inside" and "outside" become one.

Some kinds of change, some of the most important ones, come from waking up individually as a human being, becoming aware of conditions and ideas that shape how we perceive our world, becoming aware also of our habitual reactions to "outside" things, and using our selves more consciously and freely. That is a fundamental step yet it is widely overlooked, despite the popularity of "mindfulness" and best selling books by the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh. This is a lifelong practice and few stick with it that long.

Other kinds of important change come from being part of a family and a community. This is the basic link from the personal to the social. The way we are with our family and our community changes us and changes those around us. This is the power of human relationship.

Other kinds of change are in the political realm, and this where some people get uncomfortable. In the political realm, we confront disagreement and conflict, and deal with strong opinions and emotions. Sometimes Zen practitioners express an aversion to this realm of experience, viewing opinions and passions as snares to be avoided. But who makes it a snare? We can make decisions and follow through on them with wisdom and compassion rather than clinging and aversion. It just takes attention, honesty, and practice (see above).

Stepping a little further into the political realm (it's okay, come on in, don't worry), we should now address something honestly and frankly. It's about politeness.

Most of you are very polite people. I'm talking mainly to U.S. readers here: you like your political action brief, anonymous, and polite. You go to the polls on election day. Maybe you write a check for a candidate you like. You cast your vote. And you believe that is the true agency for correcting injustice and systemic flaws in society. You politely choose among the politicians who have been selected for you by the establishment of the two parties. Even if you vote in a party's primary, you are choosing among the well-funded and anointed.

You won't be found at a demonstration, at least not often or for very long; you would certainly not participate in a sit-in or block traffic or do anything so impolite. After all, you might get arrested. You see no need for this kind of agitation. You trust the police and the politicians, save a few bad apples, to keep you safe and protect your interests. You have wide open eyes and trust the system. You are probably white like me.

I love you, gentle citizens. I love your politeness. Yet some kinds of change do not take place at a ballot box.

Independence from Britain, not done at a ballot box.

Eight hour work day and the end of child labor, not at the ballot box.

Women's suffrage was not a polite referendum.

The end of Jim Crow laws was not won simply by voting in a new face or two.

There are more and better examples but this entry is getting long. Point is, sometimes citizens need to be a bit more brusque. Renegade, even. This is the realm of questioning authority and resisting it. If you are doing it right, authority pushes back and punishes you. When enough people stick with it long enough, absorbing the pain and suffering caused by this resistance, sometimes there is a tectonic shift.

It's just how it goes. No one is forcing you to do anything, but if you are wondering why people are being arrested and getting beat up by police around the world including many U.S. cities, it's because really, all is not well, and there is a need for this activity.

Still, see above. Hopefully we all stay clear amidst the struggle.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


The first thing I did was grab hold of Jason's tent. The wind was about to carry it away.

We were in the park next to Branigan Library, on the corner of Main and Picacho in Las Cruces. The first two tents had already been set up, and Jason was joining. Unfortunately, he was pitching his tent in the midst of a spurt of rain, brought in by a heavy wind. An Army vet and I had just arrived to attend a General Assembly meeting, just in time to grab hold of his tent while he tried to secure it. Without stakes, as he did not want to damage the earth. Another camper helped him shore up the structure of his tent with cinderblocks. We let go and, to our relief, the tent stayed in place.

We gathered for a General Assembly meeting beneath a tree in the park, situated near a couple of benches for those who did wish to sit on the ground. There were college students, retirees, and people all ages between.

It began with a polite struggle over who would facilitate the meeting. "I suggest Blythe facilitate tonight." "Well I haven't even been here for the last two meetings." "The more assertive people tend to facilitate a lot, I'd like to rotate it." "Do you want to facilitate it?" "No."

Once that receded, an older man who has been active with the group walked over with the sign and criticized us for having a meeting in the first place. "We're going to be over there occupying, while you all sit here talking about an occupation."

There is a fair amount of "I, my, me" in this "leaderless" movement. It is only to be expected. This is why actual democracy is rarely tried, and usually feared. A process like this requires us to hold our own ideas a little more gently and open ourselves to listening to each other. The way we conduct ourselves is part of the message. That means a little extra time to reach decisions by consensus, and a little less charging ahead.

This is harder for some personalities than others. One man frequently chafes at the "General Assembly" process, like it is some kind of government trying to control him, rather than an assembly of people getting organized to facilitate "together action." It is a simple personality conflict: some human beings are inclined to charge ahead and let the rest of the world catch up with them, and at the opposite extreme some people can get bogged down in deliberations and, to quote Hamlet, "lose the name of action."

Immediately after last week's General Assembly meeting, a man decided to pick a location and set up his tent even though the group had decided to begin the "occupation" Friday night and was still considering different locations. This unilateral move caused a momentary kerfluffle. On the one hand, who was to say that a man could not begin a protest on his own? On the other hand, what about working together, reaching consensus, and all that? Was this democracy, anarchism, or what? Oh, the emails.

To everyone's credit, patience and humor prevailed. The man had chosen a pretty good spot. The group convened there, discussed the location, took a quick vote, and chose the park. Unity preserved.

As we wrapped up our business, the wind picked up again and suddenly Mick, the woman facilitating, screamed, "The tent!! The tent!!"

Sure enough, it was Jason's tent. The cinderblocks did not hold it, and his tent was now flying across the park and into traffic. Four men frantically ran after it in the rain pursued by a small dog who was ecstatic over the game.

This has been one in an occasional series of disorganized observations and reflections of a local "Occupy" movement.

Occupy Las Cruces has quickly gotten itself organized and has been setting up camp this week at a location near City Hall. Your correspondent has continued to attend meetings and participate in one of the working groups (or "clusters") to support a demonstration in solidarity with the "Occupy Wall Street" and has written a few reflections on the process and the movement nationwide. Those posts are stacked here.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Process, Taboos, and lots of Coffee

Deming is not an "Occupy Wall Street" kind of town, although there were a few demonstrators in front of the Walls Fargo bank one afternoon last week.

Over in Las Cruces, the local movement is gathering more steam after a few demonstrations, one or two "learn ins" every week, and lots of meetings of small "clusters" of people, each cluster assigned to a particular task and pledged to operate democratically and on the basis of consensus. There is also a weekly "General Assembly" meeting that is open to all and fully participatory, which gets more challenging as more people gather.

As noted earlier on this blog, a democratic process is an integral part of the movement's message. Because of the commitment to listening and letting voices be heard, things move at a slower pace than is sometimes desired. There is a threshold where the urge to get things done more quickly leads to competition: who will grab hold of the process and take the lead? It can feel a little bit like those team-building relay races they made us do in elementary school: running a course with our legs tied to a partner, that sort of thing. If you try to be too assertive, the whole team falls over. Achieving the aim requires mindful attention to the process itself.

Your correspondent participates in a cluster group that is tasked with drafting statements: language we might use when asked what we're doing, and copy for a flyer that could be handed out during public actions to explain a little more.

The work takes place over group emails and occasional face-to-face meetings. These meetings are leaderless. Not a lot of actual writing gets done at the meetings, but the discussions are useful, and I have contributed my little bit by going over meeting notes at home, writing, and emailing it around for the rest of the group to use, ignore, cut and paste, or whatever they want to do with it. It's not mine.

There is a conditioned belief that an effective social movement has to fit into a television episode. It needs a leader and sound bytes. It needs a detailed utopian vision for how it wants the world to look, and it must succeed or fail on the basis of its results alone. This is the standard pushed by the major news media. Leaders, sound bytes, and instant results!

Preserving this as a movement of people rather than leaders (or even a council of leaders) is also a tactical choice. When a movement has leaders, it has clear targets. Ask MLK about that.

The media will continue to have a difficult time treating Occupy Wall Street and its solidarity movements because this movement is criticizing something that is a taboo subject in mainstream news, where critiques of capitalism are off limits; in addition to this, the democratic process is itself taboo. For one thing, it moves slowly and makes boring television. Far more serious, however, are the implications of Americans organizing and governing themselves in this manner. We're not supposed to be able to do this; this is supposedly why we need a specialized political class to manage our workplaces and institutions.

On Friday, the cluster mentioned above had a face-to-face meeting at Milagro, an independent coffee shop near the NMSU campus. We gathered around two laptops and legal pads, passing things around and hashing out a way to proceed on our writing project. Whatever we produce will be presented at a GA meeting and submitted for approval by all participants.

During this work session, we were interrupted on two occasions by visitors passing by. They had noticed us, eavesdropped, and while they did not wish to sit down and get involved, they wanted to disperse their higher wisdom to us. And truth be told, both men had sensible and valuable observations about the issues and the movement's response.

Both of these men, however, made their contribution by interrupting the proceeding and "teaching" us, pronouncing their wisdom about what we needed to do. In education, this is called the "banking method" of instruction by Freire, in which students are regarded as receptacles for a teacher's content. One man, in particular, was personally aggressive, interrupting and raising his voice over everybody at the table who attempted to converse with him. Both men, when invited to sit down and join us, declined. They didn't want to be part of a process. They wanted to speak without having to hear anyone else or answer questions. They wanted to make their points and leave. They both said they did not have time; yet one man was observed leisurely consuming a bowl of fruit by himself after he had finished teaching us all a thing or two.

The process itself is a distinguishing characteristic of this movement, and for a lot of people informed about these issues and sympathetic to the basic grievances (such as economic injustice and the rule of money in our politics), the process will seem strange. We are geared toward competitive debate, shouting people down, talking over them, projecting our better ideas and pushing down competing visions. That's what our Congress and our talk shows are constantly teaching us.

The skills for doing this process successfully will need to be taught, re-taught, and spoken about. Occupy Wall Street is truly on to something, which is why its methods are being emulated in more than 1,400 cities with similar movements underway.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Dogs of Deming

Earlier this week, a child was mauled while waiting for a schoolbus on Hermanas Road. The two dogs that attacked him were a neighborhood Rottweiler and Doberman. The boy was alone. The dogs went for the kill, puncturing his neck and around his ear.

As it happened, a sophomore drove by the scene on her way to school, saw what was happening, and made a heroic rescue. She leaped out of the car holding her car keys between her fingers, and proceeded to punch the dogs (who then went after her). The boy ran to her car and they both managed to get away.

This problem is not limited to the country. Just next door to our house here in town, a pitbull attacked two human beings and was shot by a sheriff's deputy. There was another pitbull attack a block away from here. On Hemlock Street, where I have sometimes pushed my sons in a stroller, there are mistreated dogs, aggressive dogs, including a young and aggressive dog that is contained by a low wire fence that is not going to corral him much longer. We don't walk down Hemlock anymore. Riding my bicycle around town, I have frequently been chased by aggressive dogs, and on occasion I have had to make risky moves in order to lose them and avoid getting taken down.

Gabriel is delighted when he looks out our living room window and sees neighborhood dogs investigating our front yard. Unfortunately, some of these dogs are hostile, and have charged me when I have arrived at our home. Right in our front yard.

One sight I saw last summer captures the whole problem. On Spruce Street, a man was walking his dog on a leash. Two aggressive strays, dogs familiar in the neighborhood because at least one household provides food for them without actually taking responsibility for them, attacked him and his dog. A city worker doing street work had to leave his post and go rescue him, holding off the attacking hounds with a shovel.

The city has ordinances about dogs but enforcement is lax. Before I gave up on animal control, I was calling frequently enough that they recognized my voice. The operator would tell me they were overwhelmed -- not enough people working enough hours. Sometimes they would send someone out, and we even caught one of the dogs in a trap. Two weeks after they took it to the shelter, it was back in our yard.

The city doesn't seem to think this is a problem. The story of a young boy's attack was presented in the local paper as a tale of a teenage girl's heroism but not the story of a city overrun by dogs: stray dogs, kept dogs allowed to run loose, mixed breeds with no socialization, dogs encouraged to be aggressive, dogs who are not cared for and fed, dogs left to roam the vacant lots and railroad tracks without vaccinations or medical care.

The city does not think this is a problem, and I am left to carry pepper spray if I want to go for a stroll in our neighborhood with my children. I've never seriously contemplated carrying pepper spray on my person in my life, and I am someone who has lived in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. I have been mugged at gunpoint. And yet, somehow, Deming feels like the least safe place I have lived yet. The city is not disposed to deal with this very real safety hazard, and I must decide whether to break the law myself in order to take matters into my own hands (as when a neighbor offered to let me keep one of his guns for a while).

My wife loves the house she bought, but the city around it is in sorry shape.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Acting Workshop in Las Cruces

This winter, we offer an advanced workshop in voice and movement for the actor.

There will be six Saturday classes in voice production, support, elocution, and the integration of voice with physical posture and expressive movement. But that's not all. The techniques will be applied through assigned scenework, and the course will culminate in a showcase to be performed at the Black Box Theatre in downtown Las Cruces.

But that's still not all.

The assigned scenes will consist of selections from Moliere's timeless farce, Tartuffe or The Impostor. The showcase will, in effect, be an abridged performance of a great play, calling on the technical skills we will address in the acting classes. The showcase will make a splendid performance for the public -- at which you should certainly invite film students and industry. The showcase will be directed with specific reference to the classwork.

Get some training, have some fun, and take the stage.

The classes will be on Saturdays, 11:00 - 3:00, November 12 - December 17. Due to the holidays, the showcase will not take place until the beginning of January, but we can arrange refresher rehearsals. (You will, in any case, be expected to work outside of class.) The tentative date for the showcase is a matinee on January 8.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Las Cruces: Practicing what we wish to see

On Sunday evening, the Burning House attended a General Assembly meeting for the newly-forming Occupy Las Cruces community. It had begun with some teach-ins on the NMSU campus and local parks and a demonstration outside of a Bank of America last weekend, and it was evident that interest is growing quickly. Thirty people gathered at the Milagro coffee shop near NMSU, and most of us were new.

What follows are a few observations and reflections, disorganized.

Part of the story here is the process itself. The meeting had two de facto moderators, individuals who had been instrumental in LC from the beginning and set a provisional agenda for the evening, but no one was "in charge." The group has adopted a vocabulary of hand signals that facilitate group communication while people are speaking, and allow for frequent measures of consensus. It was one of the most democratic organizational meetings I've witnessed.

When there is no chairman wielding a gavel, it is very easy for meetings to get bogged down, sidetracked, or filibustered. Keeping things on track and making decisions as a group required vigilance and patience by everyone present. These are skills that require practice and even some instruction. At times, I observed frustration and impatience arise among people at the meeting, and it was inspiring to see people rest those hostilities in mind of a wider purpose.

The process, again, is an important part of the story. The process is equally as important as anybody's eloquent ideas about history or politics. It seems clear that a critical mass of people is waking up to the fact that our political system is not representative of the people, and is in effect a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy). There are certainly conflicting opinions about electoral politics, the two major parties, and capitalism itself, but there is common ground with respect to representation: a sense that we are governed by remote institutions, indifferent to our welfare.

It follows that if people want to talk seriously about a more representative politics, or even a more participatory politics, citizens need to train themselves in the skills and processes of functional democracy. In other words, to practice what we desire to see in the world.

In New York City, the occupation of Wall Street is now in its second month. Its durability and its impressive discipline (considering its size, the violence of the NYPD, and the pressures of camping out and cooperating in this democratic style, etc.) are remarkable and owe much to its dedication to a different process.

We don't need to wait for another MLK or a Gandhi to lead us. We might not even want a leader like that. We may be ready for a different process of transformation.

[Photo: A sign posted at the Milagro coffee shop, where our meeting took place. You can click on it for a larger view and easier reading.]

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Returning to the Common Good

Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist writer and teacher based in New Hampshire, has offered a thoughtful response to the Occupy Together protest movement which can be enjoyed here.

He begins with some realities of the Buddha's lifetime: it was an age of kings who aggressively expanded their territory and their power, who spied on the populace and certainly did not stop at assassination to consolidate their power and preserve order. When the Buddha addressed political matters, it was often (but not always) framed in fantasy, which in light of the power structure was likely the most prudent way to hint at a critique or make suggestions.

One text cited by Bodhipaksa is the Kutadanta (from the Digha Nikaya, an English translation available here), a tale in which the Buddha makes some specific policy recommendations, including living wages and distributing capital to tradesmen and grain and feed to farmers. Downward distribution, in more modern terms. He makes these recommendations to a king who is concerned about crime and civil unrest. In this sutra, the Buddha links civil unrest with unequal distribution of surplus. What a dangerous radical!

Actually, this is ancient human wisdom, beyond east or west. Aristotle's Politics considers the problem of democracy and social inequality in considerable detail. In short, when some people are really rich and some are really poor, people will use whatever democratic freedoms are at their disposal to reduce oppression and level the field. If those means are not available, there will come a point when people rise up. Nowadays, the chattering classes in the US have lots to say about FDR and the New Deal. FDR was no Communist, but he was also no dope, and he saw the potential for large-scale civil unrest in response to the Great Depression.

Any society flirting with the idea of democracy has a major choice to make: reduce poverty OR reduce democracy.

"The corporation is now our metaphorical monarch," argues Bodhipaksa, with political actors completely beholden to the support of the moneyed classes. There is one point of historical analysis on which I part ways with the writer, and it is here:

Our corporations are king, but they shouldn’t be. I don’t believe the framers of the constitution had our current system in mind. They wanted government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Right now we have government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

We can only speculate on what the founders would have thought about corporations and their influence over government. What we do know is how they felt about "the people." This famous line about government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" does not originate with any of the founders of the United States. This phrase appears in Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in 1863. It describes what most of us are taught to believe about our government.

The notion of "government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich" would have sat just fine with many of our nation's founders. John Jay, definitely one of those "framers of the Constitution," often said, "The people who own the country ought to govern it." In the Federalist Papers, written in support of ratifying the United States Constitution, James Madison wrote explicitly that the primary function of government is to protect "the opulent minority" (as he put it during the debates on the Constitution) against the majority. In other words, government's cardinal function is to protect the rich from the rabble who might want to level the playing field.

This is not conspiracy talk, this is basic American history. Across the room where I type these words, a hardbound edition of the Federalist Papers sits on the bookshelf, faithfully documenting these sentiments for anyone's perusal. Another book on that shelf is a collection of John Locke's writing, one of the inspirational figures of the Enlightenment and the American revolution. Locke stated that the purpose of men "putting themselves under Government" was to protect property. It's about protecting the haves from the have-nots. He certainly was not concerned with spreading liberté, égalité, fraternité.

The "founders" were not democratic idealists at all, at all, at all. They were people who had colonized fertile land, having beaten down the indigenous population that was here first, and now wanted the freedom to be wealthy and independent of the English monarch.

That said, some were more socially-minded and concerned for the poor than others; there is, after all, another ancient concept: that of the "common good." This also goes back to Aristotle. The common good not as a utopian state, but as a direction that a society may continually examine and strive toward.

As Bodhipaksa says, this cannot stand as a struggle of the 99% against the 1%. It has to be about finding the 100%. In other words, the Common Good. That is not an easy discussion, especially since it is still virtually taboo in our culture to discuss corporate capitalism (or even capitalism itself as a system and a social order) in a critical light. That could be changing, however.

And at any rate, there are a few reforms that could move us sharply in the direction of a more popular rule, and reduce plutocracy (rule by the wealthy). That would at least clear a space for a more representative political process.

But bear in mind: this is something the "founding fathers" feared. Rule by the rich, government by the owners, was regarded by them as a good thing. What we are talking about here is a break from the founders. It flirts with an entirely new epoch in American history.

Are we getting ready?

UPDATE: There is a General Assembly meeting for "Occupy Las Cruces" taking place at Milagro, a coffee shop on University, at 6:00 PM. Depending on how things go today, I plan to be there and listen to what's going on. I'll endeavor to write about developments in this space.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Impermanence in the Land of Smiles

For some time, Thailand has been racked with dysfunctional politics and violent conflict. These divisions have been cooled momentarily by natural disaster: terrible floods that may become worse still if, as is widely feared, the Chao Phraya breaches and the river pours into Bangkok. For a moment, enemies have become colleagues and people are banding together to safeguard homes, evacuate low-lying areas, and plan for a possible evacuation of parts of Bangkok this weekend.

Ironically, there is an old Kammu fable about a terrible flood and the problem of diversity. In the tale, a brother and sister were chasing a rat, who warned them that a flood was coming and that they should save themselves. They sealed themselves in a drum and waited out the flood while others drowned or were washed away. Brother and sister lay together (at the suggestion of a coocoo bird -- beware of advice from coocoo birds!) and the sister gave birth to a gourd. Initially, they set aside this gourd and went about their lives, but one day they heard noises coming from inside the gourd. They burnt a hole into the shell and through this hole emerged people of different races.

Just to press the metaphor of adversity and human unity further, these people did not speak at all until they sat down on a tree stump together, the stump broke, and when they all fell on their asses they yelled and found their voices.

A number of temples are under threat and it is quite possible a few will be lost. The Buddhist university, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya, was flooded yesterday and monks scrambled to save priceless Buddhist texts, forming an assembly line to pass the books from the library to safety -- and still, half the collection was damaged.

In the U.S., there are no human structures a thousand years old. To see these ancient temples overcome is impressive from an historical standpoint, but our oldest stupas and our most precious books are marked with emptiness like everything else. Anicca, impermanence, all things being of a nature to arise and cease in constant flux.

Through our existence on a rock that is twirling through the heavens at high speed, building our civilizations on shifting plates submersed in water, the world improbably seems safe enough and predictable enough that we posit permanence. And thus it is part of the human comedy that we rest on tree stumps that fall apart and send us falling on our asses.

And even more absurdly, despite this we still find reasons to fight with each other.

[Photo: AP photograph of Lokayasuttharam, a Buddhist temple immersed in Ayutthara's flood waters]

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Here

We've had little to say at the Burning House about the Occupy Together protest movement that began on Wall Street over a month ago and has spread around the United States. It feels somehow untidy not to address it, since the protests share so many concerns with this blog and also because they are off to a promising start as a nascent civil movement.

The form itself is unique and something we have dreamed of here at the Burning House: actions that go beyond marches and rallies, while including these; a democratically organized and managed space, the occupation as a mini-city governed in the spirit of cooperation the way human beings at their best come together in times of crisis. And a time of crisis, this surely is.

"Occupy" events are starting up in Las Cruces and El Paso, connecting to the "Occupy Wall Street" protests and sympathetic events nationwide. Albuquerque and Santa Fe are already active, and on Columbus Day Albuquerque had its campground swept away by police, yet their presence persists.

These protests are an authentic protest from the bottom that is not managed by a top-down leadership style. It is also not being astroturfed by corporate interests, as the Tea Party has been. It is ironic to note, by the way, some common ground between the Occupiers and the Tea Partiers. If the latter examined its grievances with some better political analysis, they might be inclined to join the "hippies" in Zuccotti Park.

Finally, they seem wise to the nature of two-party rule: the Republican and Democratic parties, together, hold a monopoly on political power that prevents fundamental reforms our nation requires for the well-being of its people and its own future. Several prominent Democrats, the likes of Charles Rangel and John Conyers, have asked to speak to the crowds in NYC and Washington, DC, and have been turned down. The answer is: "You're not co-opting this."

"General Assemblies" are formed to organize teach-ins and protest actions. A diversity of views are present, judging from those who have addressed "the mob" (as one Republican House leader referred to them). There have been anti-capitalist speakers calling for fundamental change in production and labor relations; there have been pro-capitalist speakers who argue that capital has been criminally misused, to the detriment of the nation and her people.

The movement has wisely resisted the media's urge to define them as a political institution or a party. The Assembly has issued a manifesto listing grievances, all of which fall under the major complaint: the United States has become a nation under de facto corporate rule. This has lead to rampant privatization of public services, economic subjugation of the masses, and unchecked spoiling of the earth.

We will watch how this goes. We'll have occasions to visit actions in Las Cruces and Albuquerque, perhaps El Paso, and we'll report what we see. This is not yet the kind of civil movement that will effectively challenge the systemic crisis that has brought the people of the United States to their knees, but it is a promising beginning.

[Photo: From the Occupy Albuquerque protest.]

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Junkyard Stomp

Completed the second of two long days' work acting in a local commercial yesterday. The location where we completed the shoot was a large junk yard in Doña Ana, an outlying place north of Las Cruces.

The advertiser is a security services company, and the commercial depicts a sort of perfect storm: a small business owner is hit no less than three times by a pair of burglars in a single day. (The burglars are played by your humble correspondent and another actor from Las Cruces.) First, we steal his car from behind his store. From his vehicle registration, we get his home address, and hit his house. By the time he has reported his car stolen and his home burgled, we are hitting his store. We were told this script is based on a real event.

It was a race against sunset as we filmed the final moments of the commercial, the burglars selling the man's possessions at a dicey junk yard. A small house and a large camper housed a large family and a community of people who apparently live here in this graveyard of automobiles, many of them stripped for parts and left in rusting hulks as far as the eye could see. They were exuberant, talking and laughing loudly, smoking, telling stories and tormenting children with tickling fingers and teasing. They offered us beer but otherwise paid little attention to us.

The biggest laugh of the evening, as the camera man frantically worked to set up several shots while the sun disappeared over the mountains and the sky turned to black twinkling velvet, was when a woman who had not noticed us emerged from the house and saw the film crew. In a loud voice roused with surprise and hilarity, she bellowed: "What in the name of PISSHOLE is GOING ON here???"

Sorry, ma'am, but I really don't know. I have no idea what in the name of pisshole is going on. What a beautiful, anarchic evening. It was one of those moments when you realize no one is in charge. There was no more acting, no more worrying about the lines or the composition of the shots, it was just about getting something in the camera, anything, before the sun went away.

And it did go away, and that was a wrap.

Monday, October 10, 2011

And now for something completely human

Frequently I feel -- and will no doubt do so again -- that the best thing the human race could do is simply march into extinction, and that I would be willing to lead the way. And that is when something like this shows up. These people are satirical street artists with a breathtakingly sincere message about what it means to be human. Enjoy this video, and there are more where this comes from.

Goodbye, Richard Hannay

Well hello.

Oh hi. Fancy running into you here.

It's the forth bridge. I made quite a daring escape from a train here, you know.

Yes I know.

Come to say goodbye, have you?

It's time. I can't say The 39 Steps is my favorite play ever, but it was rather fun working on you.

Thanks awfully. Not much like you, am I?

Oh I'm in there, mixed up with Robert Donat and my grandfather. You're a little more "dashing" I suppose.

Heh. Cheers. I say, you're looking a bit sad. Is it always like this when you finish a project?

Not always. Some goodbyes are harder than others. Chemistry, you know.

Ah. Well I don't know much about acting, but I've had to say goodbye to people I cherish. Not easy.

Do you miss them?

Well, I'm a fictional character, more or less created by you, so I suppose I miss people the same way you do.

Hmm. You're sort of a "carry on" type. Do you feel this kind of sadness when you're missing someone you cherish?

Of course, lad. But there is nothing to do, really. Just miss them.

And now you're going to tell me to carry on.

Of course. You've got a commercial to finish. Go to it, fellow. You're needed in Las Cruces, not here in Scotland.

Right. Well, take care.


[Photo: The cast of "The 39 Steps" at No Strings Theatre Co. in Las Cruces. If you follow the link in the text above, you may enjoy some photos from the production.]

Prostrations on Concrete

Was locked out of the Zen center this morning. I had lent my key to Michael, one of our regulars, yesterday. A little before 6:00 AM, I showed up at the Zen center for morning practice hoping that Howard would come and let us in (he has his own key). Clearly we need a couple more spare keys.

At 6:00 AM, with no sign of Howard, it was time to begin. So practice took place in the parking lot.

In a way, that seemed like the obvious choice. It was practice time. Howard could arrive at any moment. Someone else might come, and it would be terrible for some newcomer to show up for morning practice and find the door locked, lights out, no one around. So the obvious to do was hold practice. So I said the four vows and began the 108 bows just as scheduled, facing Spruce Street.

While it may seem a natural choice from that perspective, I did look around a bit first. The U.S. is not like some countries, where people chant, pray, or even prostrate themselves in the midst of everyday hustle and bustle on streets, town squares, marketplaces, or anywhere. Here, doing some kind of formal practice out in public is likely to be regarded as very strange, and there is some chance it will become a spectacle, a kind of performance art.

This is not necessarily a terrible thing. In 2003, I partnered up with a teacher from the Shambhala Center in Los Angeles to give meditation instruction on the Santa Monica beach. It was part of a large anti-war demonstration in anticipation of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. To our surprise, seven hundred people showed up. We all made mounds of sand to serve as cushions and after a few words we sat by the ocean. This was our demonstration. It was not a vigil, and not even a protest. It was an act of peace.

On the other hand, there was another moment on that same beach. I went there all by myself, piled up some sand, and sat facing the ocean on my own. Some time went by and I felt a person approach me. I then heard a camera clicking. Raising my head to peer beneath the brim of my sun hat, I discovered that a tourist was taking my picture with his friend standing next to me.

Going home was an option this morning, but the purpose of parking lot practice was to fulfill the Zen center's promise to the community.

Spruce Street was pretty quiet at 6:00 AM. Dark. Cold. The ghostly sound of the freight train passing through town, the sound bouncing off the nearby buildings making it sound like the train was down on Maple Street instead of alongside the freeway.

Prostrations on the concrete are kind of tough and I didn't do too many of them, switching to standing bows, taking time with each one. I'm really not into macho Zen. Learning how to live with yourself is macho enough.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Joyous Pain

Feeling pain and it's bloody marvelous.

People who have suffered depression, can I get a witness?

There is no life without some pain. There is no intimacy without some pain. Saying yes to things means saying no to other things. Choices. I am feeling the pain of saying no to something I want. I am feeling the pain of saying goodbye to company I was enjoying. I am feeling love and sadness as people pass to and fro on this spinning rock, this human realm, this burning house.

For years, I felt nothing except disappointment and boredom. Yet what an interesting year has been 2011: passion, great sadness, great joy. Oh yes that's right, this is what life feels like.

Imagine getting used to playing a piano that only had two octaves and no black notes. After years of that, for whatever reason, you find that you have a complete piano again, more or less in tune and playing chords rich and delicious.

It is good to feel.

Can it be too much?

For me sometimes it almost feels like too much "information" is passing through, as though my wires might fry up -- has this ever concerned you? This is a good use for chanting. Out loud. Engage the voice. I use Buddhist chants because I know 'em. Different people connect to different words. Religious texts, love songs, the poems of Rumi or Neruda, or even the nonsense language of Hugo Ball. Whatever, but sing it out.

Have you actually read this far? You've been awfully indulgent, thank you. Feels right to close with a few minutes of George Harrison, joyfully chanting and playing. As far as I know, he is chanting names of figures from Vedanta mythology, but I don't know much about that. The meaning behind the stuff he's singing doesn't need any translation. Dae ja dae bi, great love, great sadness. What else could joy be?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Pai-Chang and Watching Paint Dry

Thanks to one famous anecdote, Pai-Chang may be one of the most famous Zen Masters ever. It is a story that has traveled far and wide beyond the Zen community at large, perhaps because it suggests to some a work ethic worthy of the toughest Protestants.

This is of course the story of Pai Chang, elderly yet still participating fully in the monastery's work period day after day until the younger monks hid his tools. Unable to labor, Pai-Chang declined his meals until the tools were returned. He said by way of explanation, "A day without working is a day without eating."

On his blog Last Sunday, Nathan Thompson wondered "how notions of productivity impact how you are in the world." Stubborn old Pai Chang came to mind, of course, but there is another story, less well known, that we'll offer to this discussion.

On a different occasion, a monk asked hard-working Pai-Chang why he always said there is hard work to do. If everything is complete and nothing is to be done, why was Pai-Chang always doing things? Pai-Chang said, "There is one who requires it." The younger monk said, "Why doesn't he do it himself, then??" Pai Chang answered, "He has no tools."

There is something here about fulfillment, as opposed to simple productivity.

Here at the Burning House, we've been painting our physical house: turning a pink house into a yellow house with white trim and slate-blue shutters. My wife and I both work on it when we have time. There is a good deal of scraping and caulking and all the prep work to do before we even get to painting. The materials and tools need to be cared for, brushes cleaned, slop water disposed of, and so on. Our progress is slow, for all the work going on.

Sarah has an uncle named Bo who is a preacher over in Amarillo, Texas. He came to visit his family in Deming recently and to us he offered some good advice from his experience in the house painting trade. He said you know this will go a lot faster if you get yourself a deep bucket, pour the paint in there, get yourself a roller, and just slap that paint up there and roll it around. Fix it up on the second coat. Another thing is, you really don't need two coats of prime, one'll do it, just get it up there.

Well there's nothing wrong with that. I've painted houses myself for money, and have done it that way (albeit usually on sections higher up where no one is apt to look closely). To say nothing of sprayers. It's certainly a way to be more productive: the house would get painted much faster that way. Yet I'm still using brushes, and I'm still putting up two coats of prime.

Work is an opportunity for awakening. It is not meditation in a formal sense, although it affords a parallel as I work in silence and pay attention to the task itself. The paint behaves in certain ways. Its behavior changes with different brushes and different weather conditions. The wooden siding of our house looks all the same, but the surface of the clapboards varies widely. I notice details about our house I haven't taken time to notice before. I am also settled in my body, feet on the earth, moving and breathing through every stroke of the brush. On a stepping stool or a ladder, I must pay attention to my weight and balance. There is no radio and no chatter; thoughts pass through my head quickly and cleanly; distractions settle.

This is why I enjoy cutting the grass with a human-powered mower. When mowing the lawn is like vacuuming a rug, there is no relationship between my body and the yard as a living piece of land.

There is no deadline. The house will get painted. There is no employer here and no customer. The house will be two-toned for a little while, but at least the two colors match.

Up in Bayard, our friend Steve is a carpenter. We have a table he designed and built in our kitchen. Steve needs to be conscious of time and productivity, since this is his livelihood; and yet he is not just slapping wood together in order to fill orders, he is fulfilling them. He has an intimate knowledge of how different kinds of wood behave, a mastery of his tools and the engineering that goes into building furniture, and an ability to express his creativity using these materials. It is dignified, creative human work.

This is about something wider than productivity. We might call it fulfillment. It has something to do with the work itself as a process of expressing one's life, interacting with the world of form. "There is one who requires it."

If our focus is on productivity, we are alienated from the process of working itself which means we are alienated from being present in our bodies, alive. When the productivity has some direction, and the work is a living process of fulfilling that direction, there is joy and fulfillment in working.

Pulling back from the individual level to a societal level, we live in a capitalist era that strongly emphasizes being a "good worker," producing goods and services that, when we work for an employer, we do not own ourselves. (Self-employed people, of course, have a different situation.) What employees produce is owned by someone else who is making a profit from our work. The conditions and expectations emphasize speed and productivity, often at the expense of safety and dignity. The description of work as fulfillment literally does not compute in this relationship, and this alienation is an historical human problem. As for the managerial level, it is possible for someone who does no physical labor himself to be praised all the same for his "productivity" (even if all the producing is actually being done by others). This is how investors come to be called "job creators," yet workers are somehow not considered "wealth creators."

Who is this "one who requires it," the one who has no tools, that Pai-Chang spoke of? It's not one person and not one conceptual object. Pai-Chang is hinting at something else.

Look at it from a different angle: If your life and your labor are an instrument, ask not what it produces, but what it fulfills in this instant. Who benefits from the freshly-painted house, a clean yard, a well-made table, a meal prepared with good ingredients and care? Who benefits from a thorough back rub, a well-tuned bicycle, a clean bedpan and fresh bandages?

When Pai-Chang said a day without work was a day without eating, he was not being austere, as so many people believe. At least, it was not austerity in the sense it is commonly understood.

Pai-Chang's austerity was a kind of lushness, a kind of inalienable wealth. Do you see this?

[Photo: our work in progress]

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

If We All Know What You're Saying, Just Say It

I really wish people would just say it... We have to get to a point where we're mature enough to understand when someone's saying the word as an insult and when you're actually just quoting something else. Those are actually two different things.

That was Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and one of their better writers. He was on the MSNBC show The Last Word on October 4, with guest host Chris Hayes discussing what is unfortunately the major political story of the past week. Texas Governor Rick Perry's family used to lease a hunting camp in west Texas that was commonly known by a name painted across a rock on the property. The word painted on that rock was Niggerhead.

If you are going to bring someone on to your political show to talk about this "story" -- that is, to pretend that there are new things to say about something like this -- Coates is a good choice. He frequently writes about the ways our nation's painful racial history bites us in the ass despite the widespread belief that we have put it all behind us. On this program, Coates repeated a point he has made in print as well: when a skeleton like this falls out of a politician's closet, the media focuses on the politician. As Coates wrote for The Atlantic, "I think this says very little about Rick Perry, and a lot more about the country he seeks to govern." He continues,

What we see on display [in interviews for the Washington Post story] is the insidiousness of racism, the way it gets in the blood, and literally alters the senses. A black woman in the county claims she was constantly addressed as "Nigger." A white man, in the very same county, claims that "Blacks were perfectly satisfied."

Several people in the story have no notion of why the name "Niggerhead" would be offensive. It's just what it is. I'm sure the people quoted recognize racism, on some level -- like say an outright lynching -- but if calling a hunting-ground "Niggerhead" isn't offensive to them, I think it's safe to say that white racism doesn't really exist as an actual force in their minds.

It also cannot be portrayed, in its own language, by journalists. MSNBC has a strict rule for its show hosts and guests: "the N-word" cannot be used even for the purposes of reporting this story. Hence, verbal gymnastics and euphemisms, as when Chris Hayes was forced to say that the stone at the hunting camp said "N-word-head."


Coates was visibly amused by this farce. Do we make the history go away by removing the ability to communicate directly and clearly about that history? When Hayes explained that he was forbidden to use the word, Coates said, "Well, can I use it?" Hayes said no.

The absurdity of this is that everyone in the room knows what is being said. Does an intelligent person need to be protected from the word everyone knows anyway? It's not a magical incantation that is going to summon Voldemort to destroy the earth. Or do we feel that no one understands the difference between quoting the term and actually wielding it?

It is a vile word. One should think twice before using it, such is its force and emotional impact.
Nothing above should be construed as encouragement to use that word freely. Yet the fact is that while mainstream media organizations ban quoting the term under any circumstances, it is in fact in widespread use and we have not put our painful racial history behind us.

All this accomplishes is to make it harder to discuss reality.

In a weird way, I am reminded of the tradition of covering inmates' heads with hoods when they were executed via the electric chair -- so that onlookers would be spared the sight of their faces twisted in agony.

The ban is phoney. It is, pardon the term, a whitewash. Coates is right. The indignity and degradation inflicted by this word is not diminished in any meaningful way by hiding the word, anymore than destroying photographs of slaves eradicates our history of slavery.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Theatre as a Humanity

As a career, many feel called to the performing arts and very few are chosen. Some actors might even say they weren't chosen at all, that they simply refused to quit before they had forced themselves in and refused to leave.

There is a wider value to the study and practice of theatre as a humanity. To study acting is to study the self: its nature and its uses. Many of the tools an actor uses in her work are located in the body itself, and the free use of voice, physical expression, and the actor’s imagination. The craft requires a sense of visual composition, a kinetic sense of oneself in space, and a clarity and discipline that become especially important to success when acting before a camera.

In addition to the study of self, the theatre is an ensemble art that practices the very skills essential to academic success and to engaged citizenship. Just as the theatre itself must engage the world, so must the study of acting, literature, design, and dramaturgy all engage in correspondence with our community and the larger society. In addition to building professional skills for performance, a good theatre teacher attempts to ground the study of theatre in the individual’s encounter with their world.