Monday, June 25, 2012


You know, I have a lot of shoes.

Yes, indeed. A lot of shoes.

And I have many kinds of shoes. 

Also true.

You know what kind I don’t have? 


No, this is interesting. Do you know what kind of shoes I don’t have in this collection? 

All right then, say it.

I don’t have any Italian shoes.

Is that a fact?

That is a fact.

Funny you mention that as I’m about to leave for Florence.

Oh, you’re going to Florence?

Yes indeed. Did you hear that? I’ll be gone for nine weeks.

Oh, I believe you did mention that. Well isn’t that funny. 

Isn’t it.

And you’ll bring back presents, won’t you. 

I was thinking of bringing you some olives.

Oh no. 

A bottle of chianti, perhaps.

No, no. 

Some local art. Or a beautiful glass pen.

No again.

You want shoes.

Oh! That’s a great idea! You are so thoughtful. 

Who knew? So -- you really trust me to pick something out for you?


I mean, since I’ll be there, if I’m buying, I get to pick them out. I’m thinking I might find something – novel.



Errr, in what sense? 

Something – unlike anything in your collection.

I don’t like the sound of this. 

Don’t worry. I’ll find a true conversation piece.

Then again, I really love olives.

I’m thinking shoes.

The wine! Some good local wine, that would be such a treat. 


No, really, you’d have to pack them and bring them back. It would be so much trouble. 

It would be so worth it.

Please, you mustn’t. 

Oh, I must.

If you buy me shoes, I might move away without telling you. 

My, you feel strongly about this.

I do. 

All right then. As you wish.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lungo un Giorno

Jason, the actor playing Capulet in our Romeo and Juliet and our fight choreographer, shares a room with me in an apartment complex in Oltrarno, the neighborhood in Florence south of the river Arno. Our hosts are a single mom and her ten year old son, Andreia.

Andreia’s father is a local sculptor by the name of Giovanni Erbabianca, and he invited us to come out and see him during “Lungo un Giorno,” a three-day exhibition of art, music, and cuisine at the Vecchio Conventino, a convent that is now a great big art center. In fact, being there reminded me of AS220 back in Providence, the art center where I lived in the 1990s. This place has the same idea, but it’s a bigger facility and has a magnificent courtyard.

On Saturday night, our Italian mom cooked dinner for us, stuffing us with food and topping it with a smooth chianti. Sometime after 9:00 PM, she packed up Andreia's pet rabbit along with its leash (they take him for walks, as if he were a puppy) and we all went out for a bella passeggiata to the convent.

The studios were all open: glass works, textiles, jewelry and clothing, mask-making, and numerous works in progress were on display. Earlier in the day there had been numerous workshops, some just for kids. Even at this late hour, there were children running about the courtyard. A flutist and pianist played music together outside in front of projected images. Indoors people were dancing tango. There was also an espresso bar and a bookseller.

Jason and I wandered the halls of the convent and visited studios, including Giovanni’s. His sculptures are assembled from found objects, many of which he recovers from the trash. He also built the gazebo shown below, which includes a lighting fixture fashioned from old wood pierced with lengths of bamboo.

At 11:00 PM we were pretty well spent, and dragged ourselves home, following our Italian mom, who wrestled the whole way home with a tote bag that contained one very livid rabbit.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


The director of  our Romeo and Juliet lives in the old servants' house on the grounds of the Palazzo Corsini, just a few kilometers from where we will perform the play.

During the run of the show in July, the gardens will open early to give folks a chance to enjoy them; there will be wine and treats; and there will be open-air Shakespeare, performed in English with Italian translation projected over our heads onto the wall of the lemonarium behind us.

A week into the quick rehearsal process, we are temporarily on our own, as our director's son is in the hospital with a high fever and an infection they have not yet identified.  She is at her wits' end.  (I understand.  We've had to bring Gabriel to the hospital a couple of times and it is an awful despair waiting for news knowing you can do nothing.)

We meet in the yard, rehearse scenes, work on lines, and choreograph our stage combat, which consists of some hand-to-hand, and fights with rapier-and-dagger, involving two or three or more combatants.

 With a cast that comes from so many places and backgrounds, there is a mix of techniques and preferences.  At the director's request, I've led some vocal warm-ups, the fight choreographer and I both lead physical warmups, and several members of the cast meet in the mornings for yoga.

In such a quick rehearsal process for a Shakespeare, there is a sense of frenzy at the beginning since there is so much to be done.  We do have enough time, especially with such capable actors, so we just get to it and push along. 

Today, there was some local press about the show and the Shakespeare camp we are teaching next week.  By all means, read about it here.  (The article is in English.)

After rehearsal, there is beer -- and this is also a time that I use Skype to have a look at my wife and sons back in the United States.  (We are eight hours ahead of them.)

[Top:  The yard where we rehearse.  Bottom: Garth Laughton and Elia Cittadini, two of the actors in our production.]

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cars, Phones, and Nymphs

In Firenze one of the places you'd go to get a wifi card and/or a local SIM card for your cell phone (so you can have a local phone number) is TIM-- or, Telecom Italia Mobile.

While negotiating for wifi service and waiting for the transaction to be completed, I had time to look around the TIM shop at all their advertising.  Most of the ads were for cell phone service, and the motif of the various posters is unified by the theme of attractive young women in swimwear on beaches, brandishing their wickedly excellent cell phones.  So men, if you want women to find you irresistible, just buy them a phone.

There is nothing new to say in this space about getting men to buy things using sexual images.  The readers of this blog know how that works, and have seen the pin-up calendars and ludicrous photos of women (either in expensive evening dresses or bikinis) draped over cars like fabric, and numerous other examples of how sexual attraction is used to pitch products and services.

It was, simply, amusing to see image after image of a woman on a beach in some exotic-looking location on an unnaturally beautiful day, so taken with their cell phones that they are turned away from the ocean entirely and looking at the customer with delighted laughter or else a subtly lewd smile.

Incidentally, the other day I ate a panino in the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, in view of the Hotel Roma, which is an expensive hotel.  Outside, there was parked a very expensive sports car, looking brand new and gleaming in the sun, shining in brilliant black armor.  A man with a shaved head wearing immaculately pressed dress pants (from a suit that might have cost 1000 EUR) was talking about the car in the company of a woman dressed in a similarly-priced pink dress with a hairjob that might have taken hours to complete.  She resembled one of those female models that are employed at car shows to show off the new cars, gesturing towards them while simultaneous distracting attention from them.  The hood of the car was up and the woman in the expensive pink dress bowed down and had a look underneath the hood.  Perhaps she would check the oil, or assess the power steering fluid.  Perhaps they were having car trouble and she was the car expert.  I wished I could hear their conversation, and even thought of sneaking around them with the camera, but thought it would be rude.  I am not paparazzo material -- and I have lines to learn, anyway.

Many of these expensive places are located very close to the city's sacred places because they also major tourist attractions.  This leads to incongruous sights of women slinking around cathedrals and churches as if they were the wayward dreams of ascetics, fabric blowing behind them just to accentuate their resemblance to fleeting nymphs in works of art, drifting away like fireflies as the church bells toll. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tales of the Strozzi

The tale that is told of the Palazzo Strozzi is one of self-consuming grandiosity. 

As the story goes, the Strozzi family were banished from Firenze due to their political opposition to the Medici. In 1466, however, Filippo Strozzi returned, having made an enormous fortune in banking elsewhere. He determined to show up the Medici family by building the largest palazzo in the city’s history.

He bought land. He bought neighboring palazzi and knocked them down: fifteen of them. In 1489, construction began. Only two years later, Strozzi was dead and his heirs were stuck with the massive project. And so were their heirs. The building was not finished until 1536 and it left the family bankrupt.

There is another story, which we heard from Shaun as she led some of us actors on a walk through the center of Firenze.  In this story, Strozzi wanted to build his palazzo in a style very similar to the Medicis' but did not wish to offend them.  So he had three drawings made -- the one that he wanted, and two very bad ones -- and presented them to the Medici, asking for their advice.  They approved the better design, which resembled their own, and thus Strozzi was able to proceed without offending the dominant family.  A witty parable, whether or not it is true.  

Today it hosts art exhibitions, institutes of learning, a library, and a courtyard. It also stands as a monument to resentment and self-destructive anger.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Girl with Boar

In Firenze there is this famous boar fountain.  People rub his nose and place coins in his mouth and let them fall into the fountain for good fortune. 

When some of us came upon the boar, it was quite crowded with visitors.  What caught my eye was this amazing girl who was interacting with the boar.  These are some of my favorite images from the trip so far.  She is wonderful, like a vision from a Fellini film. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Medieval Football and Santa Maria Novella

On Saturday Shaun collected a few of the actors in Romeo and Juliet – our Lord Capulet (my roommate for the summer), our young Romeo (an actor from Brighton), our Nurse, and me. The plan was to take our first walk around town, presumably just to andare in giro and get a feel for the center of Firenze.

We stopped for a beer outside Santa Maria Novella, the Gothic style church built by the Dominicans, just in time to catch a parade assembling in medieval costume. We were told this was the prelude to a match of medieval style football, quite violent and played without protective gear. There was a parade of grand costumes, flags, and weapons, until the players themselves marched. The players looked as though they could kill you with their stares alone. Inadvertently, we found ourselves in the midst of the green team, who disdained to push us out of the way and merely stomped like giants around us until we found a gap through which we could retreat towards the church.

We breezed into the courtyard entrance and strolled past the avelli, the gravestones at your feet as you walk through the contemplative suspense of the courtyard and into the church itself.

Stephanie, an actor in our troupe, was abashed to realize her shoulders were bare – which might prevent her from being admitted -- but was soon relieved to discover they have disposable body-coverings at the door.

The art in some of these chapels has been restored, and the colors are dazzling in a way that cannot be conveyed in the art books where I made their acquaintance. The scene of St. John resurrecting Drusiana (a fresco by Lippi) emerges from the frame with immediacy and life.

In the Tornabuoni Chapel, with Ghirlandaio’s frescoes swirling about us, Shaun (our local guide) admitted to coming on weekdays and lying down on the floor with her son to see the ceiling frescoes, until someone inevitably came along to say, “No.”

For students of art history, one of the critical pieces on display in this church is not in any of the chapels, but rather quietly presents itself on one wall. Masaccio’s Trinity is here, a step forward in the development of perspective and creating three-dimensional effect, and also humanizing the figures of Christ, the virgin, and St. John.

Photography in this and other museums is strictly forbidden. When I saw a pool of sunlight blazing through the stained glass above onto the exquisite tiled floor, I played the dumb tourist in order to catch the scene. (I was accordingly admonished.)

It was a fitting beginning to what will be, when I’m not rehearsing Romeo or teaching at one of the camps, a deeply personal tour of art and architecture I’ve read about from afar for such a long time. Indeed, at more than one point I nearly embarrassed myself, filling up with tears. This would also happen the following day, visiting the Galleria Palatina at the Palazzo Pitti with my fellow actors. This may call for some solo touring.

Fortunately, there will be time this week. The first performing arts camp will begin next week in the garden of the Palazzo Corsini; and our rehearsals will be in the evening, owing to the heat of the day and the camp schedule. At this writing, I am in high anticipation for our first rehearsal, which will bring together an international cast of actors from Italy, Britain, and the United States to perform Romeo and Juliet outdoors at the Palazzo Corsini in July. I play Tybalt, the ragazzacio who kills Mercutio and is in turn slain by the young Romeo. What I know in advance is that I will be costumed in black vinyl, and fighting with a rapier and dagger. Romeo will fight me wielding two swords. The stage combat is a major attraction here, and we are working with a professional choreographer to forge a spectacle.

But medieval football is a tough act to follow.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On the Road with Guda the Penguin

The journey began here.

It may not look like much, but this is the Greyhound bus depot in Las Cruces. Yet you are right: it isn’t much. A patch of dirt next to a gas station in the town of Doña Ana, north of Cruces. The strange odyssey of my first international flight begins here.

Finding the station – if “station” is what we call a few graffiti-spattered plastic bucket seats flung to the side of Chucky’s convenience store – was elusive and frustrating, entailing a long drive through the farms north on Valley interspersed with cell phone conversations with the convenience store -- because no one answers the Greyhound line during business hours. It just rings forever, as I found consistently in trying to reach them over two business days.

Having purchased my ticket online, I handed the driver my printed copy – which he took and then refused to stow my bag. “Do you have a baggage claim ticket like this?” No, I had bought my ticket at home online. “You gotta keep it with you.” My suitcase sat on my lap on the crowded bus ride to Tucson, Arizona, until a seat became available where I could stow it. He also kept all my paperwork, and gave me a “reboarding pass” that he told me I would use to get on the connecting bus.

At the Las Cruces border patrol checkpoint, a BP officer got on board and questioned every single passenger about their citizenship and place of birth. This took a long time.

In Phoenix at 2:30 in the morning, everybody got off the bus and I discovered I would need the paperwork my driver took in addition to the reboarding pass. The Greyhound terminal in Phoenix impressed me as first as rather dirty and grim, a place of grey and deep mauve tile, with sullen and unfriendly staff who address travelers as “hey you” and “stop!” When I went to ticketing and explained my situation, an inexplicably angry woman cut me off and said, “You gotta buy another ticket.”

I explained that I had bought a ticket, and she actually was able to look me up and see the ticket and itinerary I had purchased, but would not assist me in getting on the bus. “You gotta buy another ticket.” In vain, I appealed to her. They had me over the barrel. If I was going to Los Angeles, I would have to buy a whole new ticket -- which I did, surrendering another fifty bucks in extortion.

In two hours waiting at that terminal, I observed the staff – security, ticketing, baggage handlers, drivers – and did not observe a single one of them smile at a traveler or say “How can I help you?” Quite the contrary, there was an attitude that these damned people were nothing but troublemakers, animals to be herded into a controlled space and interacted with as little as possible.

Forty-five minutes after our scheduled departure, we stood in line staring at our bus, parked a few feet away from us. At 4:30 AM, we were seated and we met the man who would dominate our lives for the next several hours: Guda the Penguin.

“Guda,” he said, “Just like the cheese. If you call me Buddha, I will be upset.” He was a handsome bald man with dark sunglasses, dressed in a white shirt and black trousers. “I’m still a penguin,” he explained. He is new to Greyhound, and during their probation period this is their uniform. Guda is from Egypt. He wanted us to know at the outset that he was not “Indian, or Afghan, or any of those guys – including countries I won’t say because I don’t want to offend you.” He joked about having six wives and, addressing the women on board the bus, announced that he was looking for a seventh and would like the ladies’ cell phone numbers.

Guda’s job was to announce the rules. I can state these rules very simply: No weapons. No alcohol. No drugs. Producing any of these three ends the passenger’s right to be on the bus. Guda added a new rule on the spot: “No bad language. If I hear bad language, your ride ends here.”

Guda then spent several minutes reiterating that he could throw anyone off at any time, that there was no appeal, and implied that he would do it by force if there was any question. This also applied to people who were late getting back from the occasional rest stops. “I will leave you.” He then spent several minutes complaining about passenger behavior and reiterating his threats. The monologue played out to about twenty minutes, and it pretty much went threat, threat, threat, complaint, complaint, small joke, complaint, threat threat and threat. Then he encouraged us to go to sleep so we wouldn’t bother him.

At one point during the long ride on the I-10 through the California desert, Guda pulled the bus over to the side. The entire coach became tense as he stood up to address us once again. Was he about to kick someone off the bus here in the desert? Imperious behind his sunglasses, he said, “Do you smell that?”

Collectively, silently, we sniffed. A mild whiff of cologne, not too strong. I hadn’t noticed it.

“When I smell that, you know what that means?” You can’t be too sure whether Guda’s questions are rhetorical. “That smell says to me you are trying to cover something.”

“Like body odor?” (Was that me? Damn it. Shut up.)

“Like drugs!” Guda responded. “Don’t let me smell that again.”

Apparently he had now added another rule. Breath spray, deodorant, ointment – too risky. You could end up dying of thirst in Needles.

I have been in many transit situations. I’ve ridden buses, taxis, ferries, trolleys, trains, and flights all over the United States. Some of these trips were more pleasant than others. What they all had in common, until today, was some notion, however strained, of hospitality and customer service. Greyhound broke with that completely. They somehow managed to be less friendly than the TSA, which is quite a feat. We were subjects of a dictatorship, entitled to shut up and follow orders, and then maybe, if we were well behaved, we would actually reach our destination.

Is there something about the population of people on the bus that merits this degree of hostility and coercion? A passenger on Guda’s bus told me that he was five hours behind schedule because, earlier in his journey, the bus had to stop not once but twice to eject passengers – and one of these stops had led to an arrest. Looking around, I just saw people – students, families, guys in work boots, people traveling on a budget. If anyone on the bus had contraband, it was not clear to any eye but Guda’s (hidden behind his dark glasses). The only potential weapon I saw was the putter used as a walking stick by a guy who looked like he did a lot of manual labor.

It looked like a busload of people to me, but I don’t think that’s what Guda saw when he looked at us – and the company he works for doesn’t view us that way, either. It felt like I was under arrest. I’ve never felt this way during domestic transit, not even going through airport security. Guda’s driving, at least, was competent and safe. In no other sense did I feel that I was in good professional hands.

In contrast, a day later I was in the care of Lufthansa, flying first to München--a ten-hour flight across the United States, Canada, the ocean, and then over Ireland, the UK, and Denmark). The contrast in how we passengers were treated, even in economy class, is remarkable. It was cramped and uncomfortable, of course, and yet we were treated as welcome guests and customers. Even the TSA and the German passport control were courteous, if a bit hurried.

My plane landed at Vespucci airport (aka the Peretola) at about 9:30 PM. It had been a long, cramped twenty-four hours on buses and airplanes. My cell phone was useless – it has no international roaming, and it will not take a SIM card for use overseas. The wifi service on board Lufthansa and at the Munich airport are not free, and I discovered that my bank had blocked my ATM card despite my telling them about my trip.

At every point during the trip where I would present my passport or put a bag through an x-ray machine, I was waiting to be turned back – waiting for the opportunity to be snatched away. Maybe I’d learn I was on the no-fly list, or wanted for an unpaid parking ticket somewhere, or there would be some problem with the air fare. At which point Guda would show up in his black and white outfit and dark sunglasses and say, “Your ride ends here.”

Yet all was well, and even the ten-hour flight München was not so terrible in the end.  Eventually I landed at Peretola and was greeted with kisses on both cheeks by my director, and her filmmaker boyfriend.  And so it begins.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Hard Training and Macho Zen

Two blogs that I follow have been going back and forth on the matter of something that Zen Master Seung Sahn referred to as "hard training."  Hard training consists of long retreats with demanding schedules, periods of residential training with daily practice requirements, bringing formal practice and, informally, a conscious effort to practice in every moment of daily life.

He also warned students about "hero mind" (yeo hung shim).  

Zen mind is clear mind, always clear mind.  Clear mind means, everyday mind is Truth.  Cold water is cold.  Hot water is hot.  Not special.  So, somebody thinks, "I want to experience difficult practicing."  Then O.K.  But if they always keep difficult practicing, that is making something.  If you make something, if you are attached to something, then that thing hinders you, and you cannot get complete freedom.  Maybe you will get freedom from some things, but not perfectly complete freedom.  Then what is perfectly complete?  Don't hold "I," "my," "me."  Then you see; then you hear -- everything is perfectly complete.  Not special.

This, coming from a guy who did a famously severe, long solo retreat when he was a young monk.

How much is too much?  What is extreme?  Was the recent death that took place at a three-year intensive retreat in the U.S. an example of pushing practice to extremes?  How do we know?  Didn't Buddha push it to extremes before he found "the middle way?"  What about the legend of Bodhidharma, sitting and facing a cave wall in Sorim for all those years?  Or his student, allegedly cutting off his arm and handing it to Bodhidharma to prove his seriousness?

In a couple of recent posts, Nathan explored the notion of macho zen and examined the sexist dimension of this.  Mumon of Notes in Samsara declined the gender critique and offered a contemporary rinzai view of bringing what I would call ardor to meeting every moment of our life completely.  He had still more to say in a subsequent post.  Worth quoting: "you can't say 'how much is right' without addressing areas from which motivation comes."

So what is "training" in Zen?  What is training if "ordinary mind is the way?"  There is no glib answer to this.

Where does the motivation come from?  What are the ideas we hold about practice, and how much of them are other people's ideas about "how to practice" that we have swallowed?   Sexist conditioning, for example, is a bunch of inherited ideas.  A lot of our ideas about "what Buddhism means" also come from other people we decided were authoritative.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said that "hero mind" (or call it macho zen) is a kind of desire.  Whether it is an image we are trying to live up to, or whether it's more about making a certain kind of impression on people around us, it is practice deferred: we are still playing the game.  Why?

So if we address motivation honestly, "how hard is hard enough for practice" reduces to "why practice?"

I haven't tried particularly strenuous retreats myself. On our typical zen retreat schedule  (of 3 to 90 days at a time), I haven't pushed especially "hard."  I don't stay up all night doing extra sitting, don't do extra ascetic practices, don't fast -- things I've seen some other people do.  On the other hand, I've tried to show up very consistently and single-mindedly for every moment of the retreat. Sleep time, sleep.  Bowing time, do it.  Sitting time, plunk.  Service time, bow.  Nothing heroic or special.

Outside of formal retreats, I have experimented with additional practices, or simply gone for periods of consistent extra formal practice (prostrations, chanting, and sitting).  One time at Cambridge Zen Center, I joined Myo Ji Sunim in doing 1,000 prostrations over a period of three hours.  Giving instructions, she said, "When I hit this stick, go down.  I hit stick again, come up.  If you are thinking, this is not possible.  If you are not thinking, no problem."  The warning was right on.  Had I simply listened to that in a dharma talk, I would have laughed and nodded as if I understood something.  Tasting the experience and seeing how true that warning was, on the other hand, was intimate and instructive -- helpful for this guy, but not special or virtuous.  Virtuous?  Shit.  Doing 1,000 prostrations is stupid.  But this kind of stupidity might help a person see something useful.

So try a little hard training.  Push a little.  As Bobby has said more than once, go to your limit and then do a little more.  See what happens.  But if you're congratulating yourself about any of it, little has changed:  there is still a persistent "I" that wants something from practicing.

And the "I" and the wanting are the problem.  And of course it leads to injury and tragedy.  Which brings us back to practice.

[Image: Go drink tea.]

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Loss and the Prison of Time

We call it loss, and yet it hurts -- so it ain't lost yet.

Towards the very end of his life, Frank Zappa gave an interview for one of those morning tv shows -- "Today" or "Yesterday" or "Not Yet," whatever it was called.  By this time he was very sick and the interviewer was trying to draw some concluding statements from him about his career, his music, life itself.  She got around to asking him how he wanted to be remembered and he said, "It's not important.  It's not important to be remembered.  I don't care."

For someone with so little energy, he was wielding a sharp sword indeed.

Why do we remember people?  Why do we miss them?  That is an instructive thing to study closely, but it has nothing to do with them.  Why do we love who we love?  Why do we miss absent friends?  Why does a loss come back and sting us years after the event.  How do people and events get to be here and yet not be here at the same time?  That's something we're doing.

In one of Seneca's letters, he reports that he was doing a little "reconnaissance" and reading Epicurus, and came across a statement by the latter that a "cheerful poverty" is a good state of mind.  Seneca checked this statement, saying, "If it's cheerful it isn't poverty."  You're only poor when you are hankering.  He goes on to suggest that having what is essential, and then having what is enough, is the appropriate measure of wealth.

In these statements, Zappa and Seneca both destroy time.  And it seems to me that the notion of time and being subject to it is involved in most of my sorrows and dreads.  I want the person I knew -- but that person is neither absent nor present.  Absent is not yet gone.  Gone is just gone.  Not here, not absent.  The sword cuts cleanly.

What is essential about that person or relationship or whatever thing that's on my mind -- love, inspiration, courage?  Those are things we do, they don't happen to us.  We can lose someone we love and still love.  We can lose an inspiring situation and keep doing what we learned to do while we were there.  What is really essential can't be taken away.

My sword is not always so sharp.  It cuts yet there is loss. 

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Use it or lose it

On the heels of the 2008 general election, the Center for Responsive Politics published statistics strongly supporting the conclusion that elections really are about the money.  In 93% of the House races and 94% of the Senate races, the candidate with more money won; and Senator Obama won the presidency with a 2:1 financial advantage over Senator McCain. 

As Dylan Ratigan commented in January, these aren't elections, these are auctions.

A lot of this money is spent on media advertising, and so far it has been mostly negative -- much more so than this point in previous campaign seasons.

Polls suggest that the public doesn't like negative political ads, or at least that the public says they don't like them.  But they are effective.

An Obama ad lies about a prominent GOP donor. A recent Romney ad fabricated serious ethics charges based on purposeful lies.  And so it will go in this race and in smaller races, and even these smaller races are breaking records in campaign spending.

And here is where I turn to the voter.  Yes, the candidates are inferior, and they are bought by moneyed interests.  Yes, it's corrupt and we need to overturn Citizens United and enact meaningful campaign finance reform (I'd go so far as to suggest publicly financed and regulated campaigns, limited to a few weeks).  But you're part of this, too, honored citizen.  Why are you so easily led?  You stand there like an ox with a ring through its nose, pulled along by one lie after another.   The science of political advertising includes "going negative" as a legitimate tactic, and professionals in this business make cold calculations based on the utility of arousing "fear, uncertainy, and disgust" (or FUD) in the public.

In other words, they take your ability to be misled and manipulated as a material fact, to be incorporated in their strategic decisions.

A little national pride, anyone?  Some revolutionary spirit?  A sense of revolt at the oligarchs who legitimize these fake elections with our help by manipulating us? 

Or to put it another way:  Why overturn Citizens United?   Why bother instituting meaningful elections rather than these auctions?  Why not do away with the expensive exercise altogether and simply allow the corporate oligarchs to select our legislators and our executive?  If social legitimacy is regarded as important, they could simply have the acceptable candidates pose in business suits and military uniform, and we could text our votes like on American Idol

If we can't be bothered to think and then act accordingly, as responsible citizens of a republic, then perhaps this is the best we can ask for.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Last Days in Louisville

One of the more beautifully-filmed sequences in Last Days (2010) was this twilight campfire scene.  It was actually filmed in June of 2010 on a broiling hot day, and I was sweltering in a wool coat sitting in front of a fire. 

Anyway, this is to announce that Last Days has been accepted to the Fright Night Horror Weekend Film Fest, June 29-July 1, in Louisville, Kentucky. 

I can't make it, but you should go.  Our director, Andrew Jara, plans to be there.  And why wouldn't he! 

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Doing little things, unplugged

It is day four of Deming's performing arts camp, where we are hip-deep in a pirate-themed musical production. 

We work hard to instill good habits involving scripts and pencils, but often as the kids march into the church sanctuary for music rehearsal, they discover their pencils need sharpening, and sometimes I volunteer to round up the pencils and sharpen them in the church office.

The inhabitants of the office find me very odd because I insist on using the manual sharpener, bolted to the wall but long forgotten.  They urge me to use the electric sharpener instead and look at me oddly when I decline.  The manual sharpener is, of course, not as fast, and you have to play with the pressure to figure out how to get a good point; otherwise, you can stand there grinding away until there is no more pencil left.  A bit of skill is involved.  Most people would much rather stick their pencil into the electric thing and be on their way.

There are some electric appliances I cannot bring myself to use.  Hole-punchers.  Can openers.  Pencil sharpeners.  These are some of the little things in life I can accomplish without burning coal.  It is not that I live a life free from electricity -- far from it.  I'll use a dryer to wash my clothes if I don't have time to hang it on the line -- but I'll hang it on the line as often as I can. 

And if I am so dependent on electricity that I cannot punch holes in a piece of paper or open a can of soup without plugging in an appliance, it's time to bury me. 

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Pipe Dream

We do this terrible thing to ourselves.

We see a positive goal or outcome that would benefit ourselves and our world.  We assess how big a change it would require and if it seems like a lot of work, we decide we can't do it.  We shrug it off and say, "It's a pipe dream."  We deflate our aspirations and make ourselves small.

The phrase "pipe dream" is said to have started as a reference to hallucinations induced by opium.  Pipe dreams. 

Bring recycling to your rural community?  Pipe dream.  Raise private money and build an arts center?  Pipe dream.   Take a hundred days off to do a long retreat?  Pipe dream.  Address the ecological emergency and work to change energy consumption?  Pipe dream.  Reform Jim Crow laws?  Pipe dream. Ban child labor and establish an 8-hour workday?  Pipe dream.  End the reign of your country's military dictator?  Pipe dream.  Attain enlightenment and live for all beings?  Pipe dream. 

It is almost as if we look at every truly good impulse we have, and if it requires a lot of work, changes to our personal lives or danger, and/or asking other people for assistance, we turn our backs on it.  "It can't be done," we decide.  And we go back to what is familiar and comfortable, slipping back into our reverie.

That's the pipe dream.

If it needs to be done, it can be done.  It is a matter of will.  We are deciding not to do things.  It isn't can't, it is won't.   You might not know how, and you might make mistakes, but there is a way to do it. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Campaign Signs Part 3: In Brad's Corner!

Last month, we reported in this space the surprising and comical tale of a local political campaign, where both candidates asked on separate occasions to post a campaign sign on the most prominent corner of our property.

The first post was On Stealing a Sign from my own yard, in which there was a mixup and one of our friends posted a sign after we had already turned down another friend.

Then came Setting the Sign Free, in which we felt guilty about holding the sign prisoner, and gave it its freedom where it could carry on its function proudly and prominently.

This left our corner bare, and as citizens we wondered whether a space so prominent and visible -- the corner of Spruce Street at Nickel, across from an open lot on a well-traveled road -- should really be allowed to sit vacant in an election season.  In the campaign sign race, our corner was a valuable platform.  Were we shirking a duty by leaving this space vacant?  But then we return to the problem of familiarity: we know many of the candidates, are genuinely friendly with them, share a church with some of them.  The question was how to use our corner to assist a good campaign without creating a rift for ourselves in this small town.

Thus, we come to our first political endorsement of the 2012 political year.

Notes From A Burning House officially endorses Bradley Westervelt for County Council District 6 - in Ka'u, Hawaii County, the great state of Hawaii.

This means we are now, in effect, the Deming, New Mexico field office for Westervelt's campaign.  This may not mean as much to the campaign as, say, the UPW endorsement -- and we grant that our office is outside County Council District 6 by a few miles -- but support is support, and we are in Brad's corner.

Which is why he is now on our corner.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Conversation versus Tyranny

At a time when I was welcomed to interfaith groups and active in that dialogue (both in Boston and in Los Angeles), there was a basic ground rule to which all participants agreed: we weren't there to convert other people.  We gathered in a spirit of sharing information and ideas.

It's a good precept to borrow in discussing civil matters, where there may be disagreement; it is even a way to address controversial topics.  Assume you're not going to resolve the problem today; that today you're going to look at something from different angles; that nobody is there to conquer.  When people do change their minds or discover a solution they hadn't thought of previously, it's a decision they make themselves.  And it does happen. 

A community that is unable to take such an approach -- that cannot practice dialogue -- is unable to practice democracy.  This will even undermine a republican state, rendering our elections and political debate senseless.  The outcome will be tyranny.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

A monk in your own order

Monks and Zen Masters. 

These are the exalted models in zen.  This exaltation promotes status distinctions within a sangha. 

The monk is a "home leaver" who has "ordained" by taking the vinaya precepts, shaving off his hair, and wearing special clothes.  In older times, monks sustained themselves by begging for food, and people would give to them out of a belief, more or less conscious, that they were accumulating spiritual merit by giving to these holy people.  The zen master is a person who has become "enlightened" or at least "manifests" it, has had their "experience" validated by another master in a process called "transmission."  It is sometimes said that they have "completed" their "training," although many zen masters will reject that idea.  Around the zen master, there lingers a dangerous miasma of infallibility, such that even when doing something harmful they might be said to be demonstrating "crazy wisdom."  From that place, forming a cult is scarcely a leap. 

For the purpose of brevity, I'll have something more to say on zen master fixation in a separate post.  It's a topic I've addressed previously anyway -- see here

If we want to circumvent all the sticky concepts associated with monks and zen masters, let's cut to coda: monks and zen masters are accorded the status of special people, different than everyone else. 

But how so?  In what way? 

Just so there is no misunderstanding: I am writing with a deep respect for monastic training -- indeed, only a decade ago I was inches away from becoming a postulant (haengja) myself, when circumstances intervened -- and also for the tradition of legitimate, verifiable dharma transmission in zen.  A critique of these institutions is not going to be our business today.

There is an implied hierarchy, and sometimes the hierarchy is more than an illusion.  In the Kwan Um school, monks and zen masters have preferred seating at ceremonies and at all times, everyone waits for them to leave the room first.  Everyone bows to the zen masters in the morning. 
Respect for their status is very much a part of the customs and forms. 

Rather, what we want to address is undue concern about status.  It is a frequent distraction.  Who is a monk, and who is not.  Is so and so going to get transmission?  Is being a monk the "best" way to practice or even "the only" way to "really" practice?  I've heard these conversations so many times over 19 years.  It is pointless to spend even a second worrying about whether a monastic situation is "better" for practicing or not; at that point, you're not practicing anymore -- so what's the concern?  Your situation is your kong-an, your life is your zen center. 

Zen Master Seung Sahn was a monk.  It was very important to him, and he encouraged some of his students to become monks.  Most of his western monks now live in Korea or Europe, and there are still two or three living in North America.  As important as this tradition was to him, he also spoke in dharma talks and in letters of monasticism as simply a "situation" and a "job," reminding us that we are all practicing zen in the context of our own situation and job.  Later, he began a "dharma teacher" track for laypeople to train and take on responsibility for sharing the dharma and teaching our practice.  A different way of life, a different situation.

James Ford recently blogged an excellent reflection on what it means to be a "monk" in zen practice.  It begins when he notices his own name included on a list of zen monks.  In pondering this, he reframes the issue beautifully.  Whatever ceremony you've gone through, whether you're a "monk" or a "priest" or a "layperson" or what-the-fuck-ever -- how's your practice?  How's your life? 

Ford writes,

...I do count myself as someone who lives with a rule of life. The rule is the sixteen bodhisattva precepts used for ordination in Japanese Soto Zen.

Living within a rule of life.  The way I would put this is living in vow.  Using a framework that helps us regard each moment of our life as practice, yes, and keeping a great vow to awaken and live our life for the benefit of all beings.  Nothing is minutia: it all counts.  Every moment, every relationship, is an invitation to wake up,  simply and truly to be true self.

Ford again:

Sometimes I find the precepts the expression of awakening. And I walk easily with them.

At other times, they’re the container that help me through the hard times when I am off balance.

But, whatever, whenever, they’re my constant marker, constant companion.

They are what I am. Even when I break them. Maybe especially when I break them, as they point out correction, and provide a path of reconciliation…

So, does that make me a monk?

This cuts through the social hierarchy and brings it back to practice. This is about making practice an integral part of your life.  When practice and life come together into a conscious path, you've got vocation. When that vocation is as precious to us as our own children (an analogy Ford uses in his post), this for me is as good as any ordination. 

A monk at Su Dok Sa in Korea has a life that looks very different than mine or James Ford's -- we all have different situations, as Seung Sahn would put it -- but the purpose and the background are quite similar.

May we all fulfill that vow; and return to it quickly when we stumble.  That is what it means to be a monk in your own order.

[Image: me and Sherry after finishing a very small retreat at Deming Zen Center]

Friday, June 01, 2012

A Working Day for the Voice

The day began in Las Cruces, at a small studio off of Valley Street, recording the narration for a documentary.  An interesting film I hope you will get to see soon: it tells the story of the Han family in El Paso, Texas -- a father, two sons, and three sisters, who are all trained in martial arts and boxing.  Their story goes a bit deeper than any sport, however.  It's a story about character and discipline.  Very interesting and wonderful people. 

After a few hours in studio, settled down for lunch and a lemonade at a cafe.  After eating, unpacked the laptop computer to put in a little time at my IT job.  This is somewhat new: it's a part-time job and the work is entirely online.  It involves a lot of research.

While working away, local filmmaker Sean Pilcher called on the off-chance I was available to do some ADR today.  ADR stands, in this case, for "additional dialogue recording."  In the western film that we shot last fall, most of my scenes were outdoors and due to wind and other background noise, some of my dialogue needed to be recorded again, outdoors, as part of the film's post-production.

Wasn't prepared for an outdoor hike -- wasn't even wearing socks -- but soon I was in a car with Sean and Matt Wilson, navigating a dirt road up near Dripping Springs, at the base of the Organ Mountains (seen above), and then walking into the scrub to find a spot beyond traffic noise and airplanes, hoping the wind wouldn't blow too hard, and trying to place myself back into scenes that I rehearsed and filmed back in November.

It was a comedy of errors.  Cars would drive by occasionally -- a sound which, on a foley microphone, sounds like a jet plane about to crash land on your head.  Cows mooed.  Flies the size of smart cars buzzed. And the wind blew and blew and blew.  Sean held up a feeble piece of posterboard to try and block the gusts from the microphone.  The wind only laughed. 

Two and a half hours later, Sean decided we had gotten what we needed, and soon enough I was on my way to Deming.

Not to sleep, of course.  Tomorrow morning, there is a retreat at Deming Zen Center.  I got to the house and started chopping vegetables for tomorrow's lunch.

The soup is nearly done and the salad is in the fridge.  Now, sleep.