Sunday, January 29, 2012

Presidents are not Kings

A peculiar bit of political gossip made the rounds on the internet and political talk shows last week, and at the Burning House we sense in these reactions some unexplored historical emotions. It has to do with how we relate to the president, or the presidency itself.

The "incident" occurred on a runway at an airstrip in Arizona. President Barack Obama landed there for a visit and, in keeping with a common custom, he was greeted by the governor of that state, Jan Brewer. Such a meeting would attract press coverage anyway, but especially in this case since the Obama administration has famously crossed swords with Arizona over that state's immigration laws.

The press was not close enough to overhear what words were exchanged between Governor Brewer and President Obama, but the picture (seen above) suggests that the encounter was not congenial. She is seen in mid-sentence, chin pointed and mouth wide open, with a hand raised and jabbing a finger in the air near his face. The president is also speaking, suggesting they were talking on top of each other. He is leaning either in toward her or away to his right, head bowed, perhaps caught off guard. According to witnesses this was exactly what it looked like: a brief, hot argument between the two, in a public place.

The photograph was a sensation, arousing political commentary that predictably followed partisan preference. By some, Governor Brewer was seen as heroic for putting that uppity muslim marxist president in his place. By those with a different preference, this was considered one in a collection of embarrassing or astonishing stories about Governor Brewer, a collection we won't go into here.

At least two famous liberal media personalities, Lawrence O'Donnell and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, brought in their usual political analysts to discuss whether this behavior by the governor was some sort of affront to the presidency. And indeed, they found some support for this notion. Howard Fineman, in fact, criticized Obama for this incident, saying that a president should never "punch down."

We are now swimming in that troubled adjective, presidential. In the U.S., to seem presidential is synonymous with seeming regal. We relate to our presidents as temporary kings, with the power to wage war (for no one really believes Congress exercises that authority anymore), to set up a court of advisors who run federal departments and agencies, to represent the United States on an international stage, to make a show of concern for the plights of the poor and working classes and rally the populace in times of crisis or grief, and the power to veto legislation.

The cardinal articles of our Constitution portray an elected president as a more humble executive compared to the historic expansion of presidential power and "executive privilege," at the expense of Congressional authority. In 2012, it has reached the point where President Obama can, literally, order me arrested today without presenting any evidence of criminal activity, and suspend any right I have to a legal process of any kind -- I simply disappear, likely to the brig of a navy ship, a la Jose Padilla. The president may also dispense with that and simply have me killed. Detentions and assassinations have gone on before, of course, but now these actions are legal. They do not need to be covered up.

The president's family is called "the First Family," and accorded the status of a royal family in european countries. The family has extensive staff, dine on fine foods, and are expected to appear in beautiful clothing (Pat Nixon's "cloth coat" notwithstanding). First Ladies are expected to engage in good works that confirm the royal-- er, "First" family's love for the people. It was controversial when President Clinton attempted to put his wife into an official policy role, as people felt more comfortable with her in more ceremonial and royal functions.

The president himself (thus far, always a man) is expected to maintain a certain image, the bearing of a dashing corporate CEO, wearing tailored suits and always clean shaven and well groomed. He is part businessman and part king. He must look upper class. He rides in limousines and commands his own plane, ostensibly for security purposes and to allow him space to work while traveling, but also because the president is accorded luxurious amenities. Candidates for president are millionaires and must look like successful business people or aristocrats, i.e. people who do not labor for their living. In part, this reflects the importance of high-level donors, corporate money and "super PAC" funding, in a free-market national campaign.

Working class candidates do not rise high enough in the ranks of the two dominant political parties to stand for president. They may make it into local legislatures or even Congress, but not to the presidency. That office is reserved for the aristocracy. Partly because of image, as described above, and partly because a working-class candidate's ideology would always be suspect. The top of the business class will support the candidate most like them and most responsive to their interests. Thus, we have the aristocratic presidency, with ever expanding power. A constitutional monarch with a limited term of four to eight years.

In all appearances, the president is expected to maintain a sense of high status and decorum. Hence, to engage in an argument with a governor is considered detrimental to his status, or "punching down." It is considered distasteful for a president to be seen arguing or lobbying, and an elaborate system of protocols exist to distance the president personally from the bullpen.

And political writers, along with many citizens, feel awfully protective of "the presidency." There is a subjective line in the sand, and if you cross it, you insult the presidency and thus the country as a whole. It is an indelible, sentimental middle class value: always respect the president, and god save our king.

Speaking personally: bah humbug. I much prefer the spectacle of the British prime minister at the center of the House of Commons, being questioned and heckled by the lawmakers surrounding him (or her!), obligated to respond to their questions, and prepared to debate opponents and defend the government's policies in front of a hostile audience.

(Note: This is why I think one of the finest moments of Obama's presidency was two years ago, when he appeared before the House Republican conference on live television and engaged in spontaneous questions and answers, akin to a Prime Minister's Q&A. Obama did quite well in that venue, which is why the Republicans made sure it never happened again.)

Do not misunderstand, I do not suggest there should be no deference or respect, no decorum whatsoever, for an elected president. But what is up with this royal pedestal to which we elevate these fops? It seems a lingering vestige of our colonial identity, still tethered to an idea that we are subjects of a king (albeit one we vote for, even if the selection is tightly controlled by the wealthy upper class).

This is not an abstract concern. If the president were merely a man and not a king, would the people be so tolerant of the tyrannical powers that our presidents have accumulated, and so unquestioning of our presidents' loyalty to the wealthiest minority at the expense of those who labor?

We certainly wouldn't be making a great fuss over an elected governor lobbying, even arguing, with a president.

It is Thomas Paine's birthday today, and this is a worthy topic for the occasion, for Paine was clear and consistent in his view that the institution of monarchy, and anything resembling it, or the desire for "good kings" to deal with, is a complete bust. To this day, his case against monarchy and inherited power ridicule the present institution of the American presidency. As Paine wrote:

Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sutra-Bible Jive

"Lucca loves that Noah's ark toy. We might have to get him his own. They aren't cheap, though. They're like forty bucks."

"Noah's cost a lot more than that."

"Noah didn't--"

"Where do you think that lumber came from?? We're talking serious shekels here. He had to go to Foxworth-Galbraith and buy all that lumber, didn't he."

"No he did not."

"What else do you suppose he did? He had to go to the Foxworth Galbraith in his pickup truck and say, 'Hello,' or whatever that is in Aramaic, 'I am Noah, son of so-and-so, who was the son of so-and-so, who begat such-and-such.' He was probably there all day."


"Not that I'm making fun of the Old Testament, mind you. Have you ever tried reading the sutras? The Buddha liked lists. Long, long, incredibly detailed lists, just like in the Bible. But the sutras are even worse! Anything you say in a sutra, you have to repeat three times, five times, maybe more.

"Not that I'm making fun of the Old Testament, mind you. I ask for the second time, have you ever tried reading the sutras? The Buddha liked lists. Long, long, incredibly detailed lists, just like in the Bible. But the sutras are even worse! Anything you say in a sutra, you have to repeat three times, five times, maybe more.

"Not that I'm making fun of the Old Testament, mind you. I ask for the third time, have you ever tried reading the sutras? The Buddha liked lists. Long, long, incredibly detailed lists, just like in the Bible. But the sutras are even worse! Anything you say in a sutra, you have to repeat three times, five times, maybe more."

"Please stop."

"Should auuuuullllld acquaintance be begat....."

"I'm leaving."

"...and spelled out in long liiiiiiiists..... Hey, where'd you go? I was thinking we should get Lucca his own ark..."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Here's to 41 Years

41 years on this hunk of rock, held to the ground by the sheer speed and force of this orb spinning heedlessly around the sun.

Earlier this week, I gave my friendship and a listening ear to a man who was having a very bad night, who kept saying, "There is no foundation anywhere." A feeling I know so well. Almost as though we can feel the motion of the planet as we fumble around between one desire over here and a grand idea over there, tasting sweet sickness whenever we notice they don't add up.

Just last night, I was reading some of Petrarca's dream conversation with St. Augustine, his hero. Augustine says that in order to liberate his spirit, Petrarca would need to break the chains of love and glory.

They are pleasant though they injure; they deceive you by a false show of beauty. Have you forgotten that the climax of all evils is when a man, rooted in some false opinion, grows fatally persuaded that his course is right?

The happy news is we are not stuck with that. The sense of living a dream wrapped inside an existential nightmare is a mirage, even if it is persistent and sometimes convincing. The problem is attaching our identity and our happiness to these shooting stars in our surface consciousness. Augustine (at least, Petrarca's version of him) is closer to the mark in saying the problem comes when a person is "fatally persuaded" their ideas are the truth. Even love and glory, we submit to Augustine, have their uses; and pleasure without attachment nourishes our spirit.

Holding the hand of my love, I enfold for a moment her life in mine. A fragile and passing thing, this life in my hand, yet in this moment we are complete. The problem starts because we think we lose that: my love walks away, and I think we are separate. Really? What is the difference between the touch of my love's hand this second, and the pain of missing her at a different time?

The soft, internal revolution of awakening allows for what Joseph Campbell called "joyous participation in the sorrows of the world." May we all attain what those words describe, in joy and in pain.

The best birthday gift you could give me is your own awakening. Wake up, love yourself and this whole disordered universe together.

Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed – that is human.
When you are born, where do you come from?
When you die, where do you go?
Life is like a floating cloud which appears.
Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.
The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.
Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.
But there is one thing which always remains clear.
It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.
Then what is the one pure and clear thing?

--Zen Master Seung Sahn

New Kid on the Skype

Here at the Burning House, we admit to being behind the times.

We actually like listening to albums on compact disk, and don't understand downloading very well. There is even a vinyl record player here in this office. We like books. The kind printed on paper and bound on the side. Our can openers are not electric. We hang some of our laundry up on a line stretched taut across part of the back yard. We do not have cable television, and do not want it. It took us years and years to open Facebook accounts. We have no plans to use Twitter. We have acquiesced to a cell phone but held out for years -- and we embarrassed all of our friends with our recent joyous discovery at checking email on our telephone. Apparently, people have been doing that for years.

And it has been years since our friends gave up telling us to get on Skype. Which means, of course, that we have just gotten onto Skype and find it really neat and everyone else is already over it.

The timing was motivated by a couple of events, mainly our two children. Their grandparents in Rhode Island rarely get to see them except on photographs, and Skype began to look like a good way to dangle the children in front of their far-flung relatives. At my urging, my father also set up Skype on his computer, and on Monday afternoon I sat Gabriel on my lap in front of the computer.

"Who is that?" I asked, pointing at the screen. There was my father. Gabriel smiled and said, "Grandpa Row Aylin." (Grandpa in Rhode Island)

Then, "Grandpa Row Aylin" waved and said, "Hello Gabriel."

Gabriel was a bit spooked by that. The people on television had never spoken to him before.

This alone was worth the price of the webcam.

It was also on Monday that I was interviewed, via Skype, for the on-line news source Sweeping Zen. Whenever that interview gets published -- assuming it does not prove, in the light of the editor's desk, to be unutterably boring and unworthy of publication -- we will provide you the appropriate link.

Because we know how to do that, now.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Defense of Fantasy

Recently, my wife began reading the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling. My sister-in-law, a language arts teacher at a local intermediate school (what we used to call "middle school"), is paving the way, reading them and then passing the well-worn paperbacks along to my wife.

In the previous decade, I can remember being on a long drive across the mountainous western region of the United States listening to late-night talk radio because I was desperate for the company. In hushed tones, the D.J. invited listeners to call in with their experiences of witchcraft, demonology, encounters with the devil. In particular, he wanted to hear from anyone who had played Dungeons and Dragons or similar role-playing games, or who had read those sinister Harry Potter novels. Alone in my car, with the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains against the night sky, listening to this evangelical Christian talk show host practically whispering for fear that Satan would hear him and seep into the room like a sickly green vapor, I could taste juvenile terror. ("If we stay up til midnight and stand in front of this mirror and chant 'Bloody Mary' twelve times, the mirror will start to bleed!")

That drive took place during the years that people were trying to ban the novels from school libraries because they allegedly promoted witchcraft. These concerns were a bit overwrought, since stories about magic wands and flying broomsticks bear no resemblance to the Wiccan religion. Anyway, the controversy did not hinge on reason or fact. It was all about fear: fear of stories about magic, fear of pagan imagery, fear of thinking the wrong thoughts.

Harry Potter stories were held to be a gateway to interests in astrology, numerology, fortune telling, and the like. Oh, and Satanism, of course. In Alamogordo, here in New Mexico, an evangelical church organized a book burning in 2001 because the pastor felt these stories would inevitably lead to children studying the occult. There were similar events around the U.S. Polls suggested that among American Christians, this controversy was being fueled by a vocal minority, but there was sufficient activity to prompt suspicion about the content of these fantasy novels.

Why Harry Potter and not, say, MacBeth or Cinderella? In the 2000's, these books were enormously popular, helped along by the series of large-budget films based on the books. In response to this big cultural phenomenon, there were several ideas going on. Here, we will address two of them.

There is a theological idea, shared by some Christians and Muslims, that stories in which children cultivate magic (even the familiar, fairy tale kind of magic exhibited in the Harry Potter stories) are bad because they suggest we can cultivate personal power, as opposed to petitioning God and his son. This is an objection you might hear spoken to this very day about zen meditation, yoga, and even tai chi. It is considered bad to turn inward and use your own resources. Fantasy stories by C.S. Lewis get a pass because of his Christianity, and some have tried to make Christian interpretations of the Harry Potter novels so as to make them "okay."

Another idea is cultural. There is a persistent, fundamentalist idea that religion and culture should never be separate. Beliefs that are intrinsically Christian should dominate the entire culture. If it does not reduce to Jesus, it is not worth discussing or thinking about.

Magic and fantasy are indeed a kind of imaginative language for exploring the human experience -- ideas, fears, hopes, things repressed. So, for that matter, is all of mythology, including the mythology of our various religions. I do not, for instance, literally believe that Shakyamuni Buddha literally came out of his mother's side when he was born and started walking around and talking! It's a story.

I grew up with stories of ghosts and goblins and fighting evil with the aid of hocus-pocus. My father is a writer of horror tales, science-fiction, and fantasy. My childhood was steeped in such stories. I played role-playing games with other children, and in our play we sometimes saddled dragons, cowboys sometimes dueled with swords, animals frequently spoke, and Olivia Newton-John might rise from an ocean to stop a war. (That was Darlene, who lived on Angell Drive. She idolized Olivia Newton-John and would often assume her identity, especially when she was tired of playing war.)

Having grown up here in Deming, my wife recalls reactions among friends and family ranging from wariness to hostility to the popularity of these books. A decade later, she is doing the wisest thing: reading them for herself. And, as it happens, she is enjoying them enormously.

The imagination surely does have its dark corners: not all is sunny and beautiful in the human heart. It can also surprise us, and the unpredictability of our consciousness can be exciting or spooky depending on your disposition.

In 2001, a time when Harry Potter books were spoken of as a Satanic influence and being burned at public events, I taught a theatre day camp for high school students in Lowell, Massachusetts. I designed classes in acting and improvisation deliberately to let them experience the depth and unpredictability of their own imaginations. After several days of exercises in imagining space objects, they had progressed to a point where I could ask them to approach an imaginary bookshelf, pick an imaginary book from the shelf, feel its weight, open its pages, and actually read words on an imaginary page.

What they read came from a level of their imagination that they did not have time to censor (which is sadly what we learn to do without being aware of it). One student read two stanzas of a hauntingly beautiful poem, wise and beautiful beyond what you might expect from a 17 year old girl -- and then she got spooked and quit reading.

(I wrote that poem down furtively as she read, and kept it for years. I grieve that it is lost.)

It was coming from her lips yet it did not feel like "her." Well, it was and it wasn't. This is a dimension of our lives too few of us explore. Doing so might get you labeled as



out of touch with "reality"

childish (because it is "adult" to be out of touch with yourself)

possessed by Satan

A counter-argument to my fundamentalist neighbors is that the imagination is a God-given talent, if you like, a capacity for imagistic and conceptual thinking, a tool we would do well to understand so that we do not live under delusion and fear, but instead use it for expanding our awareness and maturity, enriching our enjoyment of life, soothing our fear and insecurity, waking up to the true ground of our being and loving ourselves and others.

I can't imagine God objecting to that. Nor do I see anything in it that is incompatible with a pious life.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reader Response: Thomas Paine and Government

The birthday of Thomas Paine (in 1737) approaches, and earlier this month we also observed the anniversary of his most famous pamphlet, Common Sense. It was this pamphlet that fanned the flames of independence in the American colonies.

In my post about Common Sense, I wrote:

Many of those who now attempt to claim Thomas Paine as an ideological ally have never read him. For instance, I have read some people who position themselves on the libertarian right who think Paine is one of them because of his lusty cry of "freedom!" yet do not seem familiar with his argument that society is necessary and that a need for government, in some measure, inevitably arises for the maintenance of a healthy society. The Reaganauts were fond of quoting Paine's line about the best government "governing the least," but Paine was not arguing that "government is the problem," he was arguing for a balance of power between government and society. It is right there in Common Sense.

Some of my friends and fellow board members of Thomas Paine Friends, Inc. attempted to leave comments in response to this post. For some reason, on that day, the comment interface was not working, and my friends could not contribute their thoughts. I am saddened, since this is the sort of interchange I am always hoping for on this blog.

Martha Spiegelman sent along her own response and I now yield her some space to respond, on the recent anniversary of Common Sense and passing of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Your words about "Common Sense" (at its 236th anniversary and 275th anniversary of the birth of its author) are right on the mark, Algernon D'Ammassa, pointing to the fundamental argument of the pamphlet, that is, government is necessary--because of the vices of the powerful in society. The right wing, tea party, oligarchs, corporate moguls, military-industrial complex, modern aristocrats, anti-taxers, profiteers, buccaneers, banksters, power-brokers---in other words, all who hold that "it's every man for himself", that profit rules, that government should be strangled---want it both ways: government when it's "good for us" (laws against abortion, against unions, against free assembly, etc., etc.) and no government when it "limits our freedoms" (taxes, regulations on corporations, etc., etc.). Thomas Paine knew better. Yes, society is positive, it unites our affections. Government is negative, it checks our vices. And, BECAUSE of our vices, government is NECESSARY---being negative it can be called an evil, but a NECESSARY one. And why necessary? BECAUSE "every man for himself" does not a good society make.

Paine did not oppose government---far, far from it---but he did find many forms of government inimical to the best interests of society, such as all monarchical and aristocratical governments. And what are we on the verge of today? Aristocratical, oligarchical rule, by the few not the many, by the 1% not the 99%. Paine would say, I think, take back our government. OCCUPY!

He did say, self-government is our right. And he did say, we have equal rights, and the right to vote prime among them. So let us take up the political task, to ensure a government that will do its very best for all, and that will be called good when the poor, the afflicted, the old and troubled have a decent measure of support in our society, when wars are not constantly threatened, when our environment has a chance to survive, when justice prevails.

Today on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., we can say, with him, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". And, "Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream".

[Photo: How would Thomas Paine be received today by those who try to claim him on the right? This is one of many political cartoons that assailed him during his life.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

Too Hard on Myself? Nah.

Have you ever been among people and noticed that you are doing a lot of talking?

Put me in a studio situation and turn the subject to acting, and I'm in danger of becoming a waterfall. I've been at this since age nine, I teach acting and find the process fascinating. I could bore you to death.

On Saturday, I took my seat in a conference room in a hotel on the south end of Santa Fe. Twelve of us actors got together for an all-day audition workshop with a local casting director. It was excellent: individual feedback on our headshots and resumes, tons of information about the evolving fashions and expectations of the industry, and simulated auditions with feedback about body language, presentation, and performing for camera. A great deal about this business has changed since I tried quitting the profession.

In the afternoon, we watched our audition tapes and gave each other feedback. Here we got into the process of acting, what we experience and how it plays on screen. First, the director would ask the actor, "What did you see?" Then she would open up the floor to the rest of us. And she would contribute her observations. Her feedback was especially useful because she herself was an actor and model at one time.

Another actor in the room, like me, had a long background in theatre and is now re-training for acting on camera -- which is a whole new ballgame. With respect to the process of acting, there was so much fascinating material to discuss, and the room was full of knowledgeable and supportive actors who gave great notes. It reminded me of scene showings in the whitebox at Trinity Rep, the discussions of process that would go on all day, an environment I often miss.

It was during this afternoon that a whiff of self-observation blew over me: I'm talking a lot. This was okay, I hadn't worn out my welcome or offended anyone. But I took a breath and remembered that I didn't have to say everything that came to mind. Who the heck was I?

Eventually we came to my own audition tape: three takes, with sides from an actual episode of a television drama that aired last year. After the first take, the director asked me what I saw. The take was not good or bad: good on technique, not the greatest choice for the scene, tried something that did not work very well, something weird with my mouth here, something weird with my eyes there. A few very good notes from actors in the room.

On to the second take. What did I see? "Much better in general," I said, and then pointed out a few details I need to pay attention to. One of them was a tendency to open my eyes wide "as if I'm going to eat you with my eyes." It looks very strange on screen. I also noted that I have developed a mouth twitch, and seem to be punctuating thoughts by doing this thing with my mouth. These are the details I find fascinating.

The casting director looked at me and said, "I think you are way too hard on yourself."

Was this true? I reflected on that as we went over the last two takes. Was I being unkind to myself, not noticing the positive? At Trinity, Brian always opened the floor by asking us, "What was good about that?" It is important to begin with what was working, and then move on to the areas for improvement. I could have sworn I had followed that while evaluating myself. It's what I teach to my own students.

What was true is that I did not dwell on what was working. I was eager to get to the parts where I can improve. After all, I did not pay for the workshop and drive three hundred miles to Santa Fe (actually climbing a mountain at night) in order to play footsie with myself.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hava, The Gila...

They chose this spot in the Gila national forest because her ancestors lived in the Mimbres Valley, and his ancestors came from the Black Range, whose runoff and snowpack nourished the Mimbres River.

By this stream, the groom would wash his bride's hands and the newly married couple would feed cornbread to their guests. To each person being served, the groom said, "Take as much as you like. This is our first meal together."

Their ceremony incorporated many elements of a traditional Apache wedding, and somehow the bride had found me -- she has been drawn to Buddhism in recent years -- and the couple asked me to officiate. Before giving my short dharma talk, I joked that we were "code switching" but the different voices were pointing in the same direction.

There were five guests, the married couple, and me. That's it. As part of the ceremony, we knelt before a rock on which a beautiful cloth had been laid out, and signed their marriage certificate there by the stream. Two fires burned, and we all smelled of sage from being smudged earlier. At the conclusion, we were smudged with sweetgrass.

I'm used to people bringing presents for the newlyweds. At this wedding, however, the bride and groom gave presents to their guests. Sharing this day with them was a gift in itself.

They met purely by accident several years ago. The groom and his sister had been stranded somewhere and were walking by the side of a road. The bride passed them in her pickup truck, and stopped to rescue them. He had resisted accepting the ride -- so the story was told over dinner that night in Silver City, over laughter and good food among old friends.

Much later, the bride was grieving a loss, and called on the groom's sister for comfort. The sister had an insight and said to her brother, "Bobby, you should go over there." And he did. And so it went. Here we all were. The sister nodded and said, "When you are sad and a man comforts you, he rescues your heart."

So they took turns rescuing each other; mutual rescue in a bewildering world. I know the feeling.

They invited me to pass the night celebrating with them, but the time came for me to go. I had to get back into my car and go back where we had come from, passing the very spot where the wedding had taken place. On Friday night, I was to travel that winding mountain road all the way from San Lorenzo to Kingston, through Emory Pass and the Black Range, climbing and traversing the mountain to find the interstate and head north for the long climb to Santa Fe.

My robes and blue ceremonial kasa, folded neatly on the back seat, smelled of sage and sweetgrass.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Days on the Road

Unpaid eight-hour workdays, and an awful lot of driving.

Part of the day is spent looking for employment: office jobs, teaching jobs, construction, anything I can do. Again and again I am told that I am "overqualified." At one non-profit organization where I applied to be an administrative assistant, the executive director said, "You're a good candidate for my job." I have had one offer in several months. That offer was for a part-time job that would just about pay for the gas it would take for me to commute to Las Cruces. I turned it down.

The only income I earned in the second half of 2011 was from acting: two commercials and a film role up in Santa Fe, plus a workshop I taught in Las Cruces. At the beginning of this month, I even got signed by a talent agent in Albuquerque. How richly ironic, to be coming out of retirement as an actor because the economy has no other use for me.

My wife and I have discussed the growing probability of me leaving Deming and spending time away from my family, to go where there is work for me. My car is going to fall apart from all this driving: to Las Cruces (60 miles east), to Albuquerque (250 miles northeasterly), to Santa Fe (over 300 miles). Potentially, I could be sent to auditions in Dallas, Phoenix, Atlanta, even back to L.A. I've got an audition lined up in Oklahoma City (700+ miles away) at a respected old theatre there. Deming is not making sense as a base of operations.

In the meantime, I drive across the New Mexican landscape almost daily. Fill up the tank and fire up the combustion engine, benefiting the oil companies as much if not more than my own family. What will happen during the next month, where I may end up by the end of this new year, I cannot guess.

And there really is nothing to know. The situation is perfectly clear, not mysterious. It is clear what each moment requires, no matter how I feel about it. (And oh, the feelings.)

Zen Master Seung Sahn frequently said, "Only go straight." Last weekend, Deming Zen Center had a retreat with Judy Roitman, who described "only go straight" this way: imagine a person who sees a child in the middle of the road with a car bearing down on her, and now imagine this person responding without any conscious thought, just running and knocking the child out of the way and themselves getting hit and killed by the car. Now imagine living every moment of your life with that kind of mind. That's "only go straight."

So, only going straight. There will be more time to spend in the car today: into the Mimbres Valley this afternoon to perform a wedding ceremony, then up and over a mountain for another trip to Santa Fe looking for work. Although I have an idea where the highway leads, there is no telling where "only go straight" leads.

Just go, move. Set the cruise control, chant "Kwan Seum Bosal," stop for coffee in Los Lunas, keep going.

[Photo: Approaching Las Cruces from the west]

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Zen Master Dae Kwang on Kong-an Practice

A lot of around and around and around and around lately. Making a living, trying to get things going, lots of do-this and do-that.

So instead of my blather, today I offer you Zen Master Dae Kwang, who was until recently the guiding teacher at our head temple, Providence Zen Center. This is a long video but worth a watch and a listen if you have some time. He begins by talking about this "around and around and around" phenomenon, what the Buddha said about it, and then explains what kong-ans (koan) show and what they do not show.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Running Against Massachusetts

At the Burning House, we have watched the Republican Party's primary process with moderate interest and little comment.

In our dual-party dictatorship, there is so little to watch that we end up watching the Republican contest because there is "nothing else on," so to speak. The Green Party will run a presidential candidate but will not select their candidate until July; and the press will mostly ignore them. The Libertarians will choose their candidate in May (and it just might be New Mexico's former governor, Gary Johnson); and the press will mostly ignore them. The Socialist Party nominated Stewart Alexander, and faithfully the press is mostly ignoring him. The Democratic Party will coronate President Barack Obama at their convention, whenever and wherever that is. And the press will stick to covering the two major party candidates.

So we are left with the media spectacle of the Republican Party nomination, which has the kind of exhaustive media coverage you would expect of the general election, because there is really nothing else to watch and commentate upon.

And a competitive party primary can be very interesting to watch. Surely it is, this year, when so many colorful personalities have vied to be the party's candidate -- and have stuck around, thanks to unlimited campaign spending. A major theme of this year's nomination has been the disaffection with many on the ideological right with the Wall Street approved frontrunner, Mitt Romney. Seeking ways to undermine Romney's candidacy, his rivals have taken a populist approach and criticized the activities of Romney's professional activity with the investment firm Bain Capital. These critiques of predatory capitalism have led some in the party to lament that Republicans are criticizing Romney from the left.

In an ideological contest, "moderate" becomes a dirty word, and thus one would expect the candidates leaning right to use it against Romney. This is a race in which being "moderate" is a bad thing. Got it.

Having reviewed all of that, we arrive at one observation that no one in the mainstream media seems to be pointing out. The phrase that is used against Romney repeatedly, seemingly as often as his own name, is "Massachusetts moderate." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich repeats this phrase the most often, but Rick Santorum has also taken it up. It's not enough to call him a moderate. He is a moderate from Massachusetts. This is something far worse to be, apparently.

The name Massachusetts is being used as an expletive, not as the name of one of our oldest states, where the first pilgrims landed; the location of our nation's oldest university and the first college for women; the home of Boston, the cradle of liberty, where the real "tea party" took place; a state that played an indispensable role in the Industrial Revolution, for better and worse; home to the pulpits where Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson preached, and the woods where Thoreau made his hermitage; and for pity's sake, basketball was invented there!

Oh, we know why Massachusetts is spat out as a profanity by the ideological right: it is portrayed as a bastion of left-wing ideology. It is home to the Kennedy political dynasty, and the first state to recognize same-sex marriage. Its current Governor is a Democrat. And Rachel Maddow lives there. In the discourse of talk radio, these pass for compelling arguments. Massachusetts is a foreign land, a liberal place.

Still, is it not a little bit strange to see candidates for President of the United States openly running against one of our states? Especially in a race where one of the candidates, a sitting Governor of Texas, openly talked about his state seceding from the union in 2009. "Hello, I want to be President, but my own state might secede."

It's an odd attitude to take in a presidential campaign. Granted, here in New Mexico, we have made our share of jokes ribbing our neighbors, the good people of Arizona and Texas, but in the end they rightfully belong to this union as much as we do.

And demonizing one or a handful of states, like demonizing a social group or class of people, in order to please an ideological base, is hardly becoming for a president. Perhaps this is so elementary that the political professionals do not feel a need to point it out; or perhaps we have dispensed with the pretense of being a united republic.

[Photo: Cambridge, by the River Charles, where I lived in 2000 and 2001.]

Friday, January 13, 2012

Theatre Workshops in Las Cruces, February - March

My most recent workshop was a bit of an experiment: a workshop for actors in voice and movement, applying the techniques to rehearsing and performing classical farce. The assigned scenes all came from one play: Moliere's Tartuffe.

On January 8, we presented a public scene showcase, stringing our scenes together in a sort of abridged performance of Moliere's great farce. 35 people came out and paid five bucks to see the show, and participated in a rather lively discussion afterwards. It felt great. The students did very well and the audience was quite enthusiastic, watching raw theatre and discussing the play afterwards.

Since this was a success and there seems to be interest in theatre training in Las Cruces, I am offering two workshops in February and March, at the Black Box Theatre. There will an "Introduction to Acting" workshop and, for actors with stage experience (including returning students), there will be another scene workshop, this time assigning scenes from 20th century American plays.

Both classes will meet on Saturdays from February 4 through March 10. The intro class will meet from 10:00 AM - 12:00 PM, and the scene workshop will meet 12:30 - 3:30.

And both classes will participate in a scene showcase at the Black Box Theatre on Sunday, March 11, at 2:30 PM. This will be advertised and open to the public.

The workshops are, I hope, challenging and engaging. The students seemed, at times, to be stretched in many directions at once...

...and that's just how it should be. Getting into our bodies, into the place where human needs create language, into the very place where "self" is conceived. During the Moliere workshop, we began referring to this as the "French Farce Fitness program," and so it was.

For information about these workshops or to register, email Come and play with us.

[Photos: Tracy Williams took many wonderful pictures of our class in December. These and more can be viewed on my Facebook profile.]

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Beery Black Beans and Cornbread

Chop up an onion and some garlic.

Heat up olive oil in your cast iron skillet, cook the onion until it softens and then add the garlic.

A minute or so.

Add black beans. They are so good for you. We have some really good chopped plum tomatoes, so let's put those in, too. And this amber ale from Colorado is delicious -- come to think of it, let's pour some of that into the beans, too. Bubble bubble. A little chili powder, and a bit of honey. Salt and pepper. Mix. Bubble bubble.

Fifteen minutes, some of the beer has boiled off, and we've got this delicious black bean lunch and supper. A little goes a long way. And it really goes well with cornbread. Fresh and home made, not too sweet, with oregano in it. Yes, oregano in the cornbread. Yes.

So easy and so good.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On the Anniversary of Common Sense

Yesterday was the anniversary of Thomas Paine's critical pamphlet, Common Sense. It appeared in the winter of 1776, when the political identity of these American colonies was still a matter of hot debate. Would we remain British or establish an independent nation?

Ironically, it was a pamphlet signed "by an Englishman" that persuaded the colonies to free themselves from British rule. Its arguments spread like wildfire, a master work of populist rabble rousing. It went through 25 editions in a year, an enormously profitable book; yet those profits were donated by its author to George Washington's army. Paine not only persuaded a people to fight for independence, he helped fund the struggle.

Many of those who now attempt to claim Thomas Paine as an ideological ally have never read him. For instance, I have read some people who position themselves on the libertarian right who think Paine is one of them because of his lusty cry of "freedom!" yet do not seem familiar with his argument that society is necessary and that a need for government, in some measure, inevitably arises for the maintenance of a healthy society. The Reaganauts were fond of quoting Paine's line about the best government "governing the least," but Paine was not arguing that "government is the problem," he was arguing for a balance of power between government and society. It is right there in Common Sense.

How many self-styled libertarians and "small-government" (read: anti-regulatory) conservatives read far enough in Common Sense to understand Paine's critique of tyranny? He not only denounced the tyranny of kings, but that of aristocracy. He spoke of them much as those in the Occupy movement speak of "the 1%," a peerage of inherited wealth and power, co-opting government so that it rules in their interests, while taxing the commons of its labor and revenue. In other words, an elite exploiting the common people. While he spent much more of the book critiquing monarchy, he also laid a foundation for a class critique.

Indeed, Common Sense addressed itself to commoners rather than the political leadership of the colonies at the time, and its indomitable popularity ignited popular pressure for independence.

Although the history of the United States is morally complex and some of it painful to reflect upon, the anniversary of Common Sense is a good occasion to reflect on the present state of tyranny, and the true nature of political power in the United States. Who rules, and for whose benefit?

In the 21st century, there are many people imitating Paine's plain talk about liberty, yet if you listen to them, they are actually cheerleaders for aristocrats. Here's a suggestion: read Paine.

And if you are already an admirer, and would like to help disseminate his ideas and his history, for a pittance you can join Thomas Paine Friends, a non-profit historical organization dedicated to Thomas Paine. (I am a board member.)

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Among the Dust of Thieves (trailer)

Among the Dust of Thieves Trailer 1 from Dust Thieves on Vimeo.

This is a trailer for the film I worked on earlier this winter; wrote a little bit about that shoot here. You'll see glimpses of me in the guise of Detective Fraser, with the coolest pair of spectacles this side of the Mississippi...

Wednesday, January 04, 2012


"You'll find, my friend, that what you love will take you places you never dreamed you would go."

It was an unforgettable moment of theatre. The line comes from Tony Kushner's epic play, Angels In America: Perestroika. In the production directed by Oskar Eustis at Trinity Rep in 1997, the character of Roy Cohn (in a powerful performance by Timothy Crowe) says this line as he stands in an elevator beginning his descent into hell. He declares this with head held high, as he sinks into smoke and burning light.

Following love where it takes me has led me through a twisty and bendy, frankly weird life so far. I could have been far more conventional and perhaps more comfortable, but here is where we are -- I'm not much for pondering alternative histories.

Love can take you weird places and sometimes it burns.

This morning I learned of the suicide of someone I knew a long time ago. We had not been in touch in a very long time, so I did not feel the shock and pain of those close to him. Someone set up a tribute page on Facebook. Lots of pictures and stories. The wave of surprise and grief is impressive. I learned a great deal about his adult life through these posts. It was quite an odyssey, a life of travel, of writing and searching, a life well examined and deeply felt, through which he touched many people and perfected many talents. Many speak of him as a person they turned to during their own darkest hours, someone with ample and generous supplies of love and compassion, someone who had been there himself. One person wrote, "Why didn't you call this time?"

Suffering, love, more suffering, more love. Round and round she goes. Opening your heart and exposing yourself to life. Awfully hard to do that alone.

Love has been called the burning point of life. The joy and the pain of being alive are combustible. We make tidy little structures out of our lives but the fire of life has a leveling tendency. Some of us seem to have figured out how to build a stove for ourselves and use the flames -- but fire is still fire. It is not awed by our structures and institutions, and cares nothing for wisdom and "spiritual practice."

Today I am feeling a bit raw and exposed, but all is well. Great tenderness for all suffering from life and love; to all of you who are messy and hurting, I am your friend.

[Photo: Remains of an old highway rest stop in Luna County.]

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Lucca's Police Dog Blues

Beautiful boy loves the blues, and after a difficult evening contending with three incoming teeth and a nasty cold, he finally fell asleep on New Year's Eve to Hugh Laurie's voice and bendy guitar. What does Lucca dream as he falls into sleep to a song about a dog?

"Come on!" urges Officer Dog, sniffing the cherry tree exploding with red blossoms and white tear drops, nose picking up information everywhere. Clues! Clues! Run run run! "Papa Squirrel is out and about," barks Officer Dog. "If we don't catch him he'll eat all the applesauce!"

"I'm hurting. It hurts. It hurts. Can you make this stop?"

Officer Dog looks fondly on the boy and tosses him one of his favorite bones. It is ice cold and covered with a fascinating little bumps and dimples. It is an amazing blue color. Lucca turns it over in his hands with wide eyes. "Chew on it!" says Officer Dog. "It'll soothe the pain. Come on, let's catch Papa Squirrel."

Papa Squirrel is up in a tree and indeed he is eating all the applesauce along with Big Brother Squirrel. Officer Dog and Lucca scurry up the tree -- what's this?? I can crawl! I can climb! I can move very fast! -- and they are chasing, chasing, chasing. Papa Squirrel and Big Brother Squirrel see them coming and both make furious squawk sounds and everyone is running, ha ha ha ha ha ha, running, running. Cherry blossoms fly everywhere making sweet chiming sounds while everybody runs up up up to the top of the tree.

Now Lucca loses his balance and he is falling with the cherry blossoms, rocking side to side, sweet chiming sounds, and he falls through the air slowly, slowly, slowly, scarcely feeling himself land on the soft warm skin of his mama's arms.