Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An Open Letter to Michael D. Brown

First, some background.  Michael D. Brown was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Hurricane Katrina arrived in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.  The federal response to the storm, including its failure to prepare for managing the well-anticipated catastrophic effects of that storm, resulted in unnecessary deaths and a scandal that led to Mr. Brown's resignation in less than two weeks.  Mr. Brown was a political supporter of President Bush, with no background in emergency management.

Critics of George W. Bush's presidency usually focus on politics.  Hurricane Katrina, as much as the disasterous war in Iraq, laid bare something about that decade that goes beyond partisan politics.  This was a time when federal government was shockingly incompetent.  Unqualified people served in positions of tremendous responsibility, standards for competent management of important agencies were disdainfully lowered, factual analysis was subordinated to preferred opinion and political ideology even in matters of science.  A disdain for government is what led to a horse guy running FEMA. That disdain had tragic consequences for our nation.

That is why Michael Brown's comments this week are newsworthy.  For those who missed this, here's the summary.  Michael Brown is now a media personality, co-host of a radio talk show based in Denver.  Earlier this week, Brown was interviewed in a local paper and criticized the current administration's hurricane response as being too quick.  The following day, on his own radio program, he kept talking.

Here is the letter I sent.  It might be one of the kinder ones he gets this week. 

Michael D. Brown
c/o 630 KHOW
4695 S. Monaco Street
Denver, CO 80237

Dear Mr. Brown,

You can easily guess what this letter is about. Let me begin on a note of compassion. I don’t know what it would feel like to be the head of FEMA in the face of a catastrophic storm like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There you were, called by your president to public service. It was not an appointment for which you were obviously suited: you had been a lawyer and a manager of the International Arabian Horse Association, and did not have a background in emergency management. Emails that were eventually released from your time as the director of FEMA suggest you felt, at times, over your head. How would I have done? Probably not much better.

While no reasonable person could ever blame you for a hurricane, or any of the deaths that resulted, you shouldered an awesome responsibility. As Shakespeare wrote in one of his plays, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. What he did not add is that sometimes, when that moment comes, men flounder. Some of the deaths in that storm could have been averted had FEMA been mobilized and ready to assist the states devastated by that catastrophe. There was plenty of time and warning to do that, yet FEMA did not; and you are responsible for that. It cannot be easy to live with that knowledge, assuming that you acknowledge it.

Having witnessed this history as a citizen, and knowing so many people affected by this week’s storm, I found your comments about federal response to Hurricane Sandy – first in an interview for the Denver Westword, and followed-up on your radio program -- painful, embarrassing, and worthy of shame. It is almost incomprehensible to me that you would attempt to make political criticism out of a competent disaster response, and suggest that advance preparations, including a prominent media presence alerting citizens that FEMA was prepared to respond rapidly to state requests for aid, was inappropriate or a matter of political calculation.

Perhaps it was inevitable, given the sad state of media discourse, that someone would politicize this natural disaster. But you, of all people? This is probably a topic on which you had better rest in a contemplative silence.


[Image:  President Bush and Michael Brown read a map.]

Monday, October 29, 2012

Watching LAST DAYS online

The link to watch Last Days online is now live.

Go get the popcorn. 

We'll wait.

Buttered?  Nice.

Okay, got beverage of choice? 


Click here to watch the film.

Showing up for rehearsal

In the first chapter of Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares (the bible of "method acting"), an inexperienced actor is late to rehearsal.  It is the first rehearsal of a project, and the actor blunders out of bed having slept late, rushes into the rehearsal hall, and says, "I seem to be a little late." 

The assistant director lets him have it:

"We have been sitting here waiting, our nerves on edge, angry, and 'it seems I am a little late.'  We all came here full of enthusiasm for the work waiting to be done, and now, thanks to you, that mood has been destroyed.  To arouse a desire to create is difficult; to kill that desire is extremely easy.  If I interfere with my own work, it is my own affair, but what right have I to hold up the work of a whole group?  The actor, no less than the soldier, must be subject to iron discipline."

For this first offence Rakhmanov said he would limit himself to a reprimand, and not enter it on the written record kept of students, but that I must apologize immediately to all, and make it a rule in the future to appear at rehearsals a quarter of an hour before they begin.  Even after my apology Rakhmanov was unwilling to go on, because he said the first rehearsal is an event in an artist's life, and he should retain the best possible impression of it.  

Is this extreme?  Perhaps a little.  I would not, for this reason, cancel a rehearsal, because rehearsal time is always precious.  Things happen, we're all human, and if someone is contrite and sincerely vows to be punctual, the work can move forward on a positive note.  It doesn't "kill" the art.  It seems strange to complain that the late actor is "holding up the work of a whole group" and respond by canceling the rest of that rehearsal.  Goodness gracious!

What is valid, however, is the seriousness of discipline.  It is not only a matter of maximizing the use of time.  When a company uses the old rule of thumb that being on time for rehearsal means being there early, and getting yourself ready to start working at the appointed time, you are fostering an agreement that the company will arrive prepared for creative work.  If anything is more important than making the best use of rehearsal time, it is upholding the right attitude about the work and the other people in the ensemble.  It makes a huge difference in the quality of the work. 

I remember this ethic even being part of amateur theatre when I was young.  In one of my college shows, a student who was late for a rehearsal was told to approach every single person in the cast and make a personal apology to them.  In the professional theatre, I could be fined by the actor's union if I was reported for coming late to rehearsals or shows. 

It felt strange, not long ago, when I turned up for a "first rehearsal" about 15 minutes early.  No other cars were parked nearby and the lights were off.  Since I had a key to the space, I opened up and turned on the lights, got the room situated, and since no one had shown up yet I got on the floor and began stretching, relaxing, getting ready to rehearse.  A few minutes after the hour, the person directing that rehearsal turned up, and the other actor arrived even later than that.  Well, hey -- things happen.  Strangely, though, neither person said a word about being late.  It wasn't deemed remarkable in any way.

And here's the thing -- being a few minutes late isn't remarkable.  Saying nothing about it, on the other hand, came to me as a shock.  From my earliest days in community theatre in Providence, Rhode Island as a kid, that would have been completely alien.  Rakhmanov's head would have exploded!

It's not about being late and losing a few minutes of rehearsal.  It's about setting the tone for the work and for the strength and mutual regard of the ensemble, from the beginning of the process.  Being on time and honoring those with whom you are working really does make the show better. 

[Image:  Constantin Stanislavski]

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Limited Time: LAST DAYS available online

This is a good weekend for Last Days, a film in which I play a lead role, filmed in El Paso in 2010.  The film is currently a selection at two film festivals.  It is playing this weekend in Albuquerque at the New Mexico Tri-Con and, starting Monday night, you can actually watch it on-line for $1.29 courtesy of the Midnight Black International Festival of Darkness.  I guess the time for an online film festival has come.

Oh what the heck, here is the trailer...

Last Days Teaser from andrew jara on Vimeo.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Third Party Candidate Debate

The Burning House is pleased to present a link to video of tonight's alternative party candidate debate, which included Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Jill Stein of the Green Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party.  Not participating, for whatever reason, were Stewart Alexander of the Socialist Party or Rosanne Barr -- yes, that Rosanne.

Still, kudos to C-Span for organizing and broadcasting this event.

Click here to view the video of the debate, and hear some perspectives and ideas outside the duopoly. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Video: Among the Dust of Thieves coming in January

Among the Dust of Thieves Trailer II from Matt Wilson on Vimeo.

Among the Dust of Thieves, an historical western filmed in New Mexico in 2011, is slated for release in January.  A premiere event will take place in Las Cruces on January 10, and a DVD release will follow.

Above is a new trailer for the film.   

Friday, October 19, 2012

Video: Appearance on "Behind the Curtain"

In this video, I appear on a local cable access program, Behind the Curtain, for what turned out to be a lengthy interview about being an actor in Las Cruces, writing for audio theatre, and the parallel between zen and acting.

The interview begins about nine minutes into the video, and goes for three segments.  The host says goodbye to me after the second segment, but I come back for more because they had a guest who didn't show up to tape her interview that day.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

In Review, Joseph Anton

Joseph Anton is a sometimes-rambling memoir of novelist Salman Rushdie's life between 1988, and the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, and 2002 after a decade of living under police protection, a time when he became an unlikely (and for some, unlikeable) symbol for the freedom to read and write literature.

Written in the third person because, perhaps, the author is writing at a distance from the events and the person he was then, this memoir is strongest when it sticks to its apparent subject: the life he led in hiding and its pressures, the campaign to defend his work and literature itself from state terrorism and religious fanaticism, the diplomatic inertia and the sad argument in the literary world over these events. It was a dangerous moment for the west and in some ways not a proud one. "Joseph Anton" is the pseudonym he adopted for the purposes of writing checks to pay for rent and all his other expenses, a name derived from the first names of two of his favorite authors. Frequently, Rushdie employs the metaphor of menacing birds gathering, as in the early scenes of Hitchcock's film The Birds and also as a symbol of death, depicting the fatwa as a prelude to the era of 9/11.

Later in the story, Rushdie finds some breathing room and spends more and more time in the United States, deliberately hiding less and going out in public more, and the book gets a bit fat in its descriptions of parties and movies and his mid-life infatuation with the young and beautiful Padma Lakshmi (who was his fourth wife from 2004 to 2007).

The memoir also depicts the dissolution of three marriages, two of which crumbled during his captive years. The reflections on these relationships is of course one-sided, although I found his explorations of his first and third marriages to be heartfelt and affectionate. The other two relationships -- his marriage to Marianne Wiggins and his stormy relationship with Ms. Lakshmi -- receive thinner treatment, and the treatment of Lakshmi as a "millenarian illusion" in the form of a siren soon grows tiresome. A bit cliche, and almost certainly a caricature. Was he bewitched by a beguiling female who held him spellbound?  Or simply acting on impaired judgment after being virtually imprisoned for a decade, tasting freedom, and finding lust and affection in the land of his dreams?

The writer does not, however, plunge too deeply into self-justification, and depicts himself very much as an accidental (and yes, sometimes unlikeable) champion for artists and the freedom to think, write, and read. He also celebrates and thanks the officers of the Special Branch and the authors and musicians and other artists who defended a crucial enlightenment principle by defending him.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hang a Right

During a weekend when I boarded no fewer than six passenger airplanes, I heard what was probably the most memorable "message from the captain" I've heard yet.

First, though, I must ask: are commercial pilots really "captains?"  What I've read is that the senior pilot is called a "captain" and the co-pilot is called a "first officer."  "Pilot" and "co-pilot" are not respectable enough.

Anyway, let's not be grouchy.  The pilot--err, the captain-- began making his overhead announcement as the plane was taxiing down the runway.  It was a big airport and apparently the system of runways was complicated, because the captain's announcement went something like this:

We do apologize for the long delay, and are finally cleared for takeoff on this flight to -- hang a right!  Hang a right!  Hang a right!  Hang a right!

At which point the plane lurched and made a sharp right turn onto a different runway.

The stewardess strapped into her seat nearby let out a loud whoop of laughter.  I turned to her and said,"Someone has just earned a new nickname."

"You bet he has!"

We did, for all that, land in Chicago.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Readers passing in the night

After the first of three flights and meeting such an interesting fellow passenger, I boarded the next flight wondering who might be seated next to me.  I made my way toward the back of the plane, looking for row 25.  5....12......17....  I looked ahead, and saw a sparsely populated zone on the pertinent side of the plane, with one passenger seated over there, head bowed.  20....I think that's my row....

My next-seat companion was already seated, immaculately arranged, and bathed in a reading light that lit her like a theatre spotlight.  It was a bit unreal: a glamorously voluptuous woman in full makeup and professionally styled hair, in a bright red and blue dress that stopped above her knees.  She wore fringed boots and thick Buddy Holly glasses.  And she was absorbed -- unshakably engrossed -- in a book.

My eyes sought out what the mind wanted to know.  No, not the contours of her body, silly -- we wanted to know what book she was reading.  This is what readers do.  When a reader comes to your house for the first time, he or she will seek out your bookshelf and check out your library.  When a reader sits next to you, they will furtively check out your book.  It is what we do.  (We might discretely check other things out, too, but your book is very high on our list.)

It was Some Girls.  Kristin McCloy.  An erotic novel exploring attractions between women.  The reader was in book-samadhi and she barely stirred when I stopped, stowed my suitcase in the overhead compartment, and took my seat next to her with my laptop finding its place at my feet.

Whereas my previous passenger-companion bent my ear, this passenger spoke not a word to me and acknowledged nothing going on around her.  She did not turn her gaze on the demonstration of safety procedures and how to operate the seat belt.  Her head remained bent over her book; occasionally she tugged at her hair, absently.

I opened my own book and yes, I sensed the movement as she furtively inspected what I was reading.  She went back to her Claire and Jade without any comment, and I continued to follow Rushdie in his struggle to breathe fresh air while confined to remote country houses, his blossoming friendships with the volunteer policemen who protected him, the dissolution of his marriage.  We may well have resembled a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bibliophile, traveling together. 

This was the kind of woman I fantasized about in adolescence and teendom -- voluptuous females who love to read, uncomplicated love with complex females, that delicious impossibility.  (Or not.  Love is not so complex, after all, but people vastly so.  Cruelly so.)  It is no surprise that I married a voracious reader.  In the household budget, her subscription to the New Yorker is in the "essentials" column with groceries and heat.  There are now two children growing up among our books.

And now I sat next to a fellow reader, and we shared zero conversation, zero interaction, just reading silently the entire flight from Atlanta to Charlotte. When it was time to "deplane," I allowed her to exit before me, and as she emerged from her seat and walked down the aisle, damned if the reading light didn't follow her like a spotlight: the glamorous reader in Buddy Holly glasses and fringe boots, hardcover book in hand, nails painted burgundy.  

What is the true center?

A quick memo from the Cleveland airport, where we have just learned of the death of Arlen Specter, the former United States Senator from Pennsylvania.  (Ji Jang Bosal.)

A piece in the Washington Post,  written by Paul Kane, opens with this accolade:

Specter, the five-term ex-senator who died Sunday, occupied a space in the Senate that no longer fits the current political environment: raging centrist. From the day he was first sworn in in January 1981, Specter spent his career finding ways to enrage both ends of the ideological spectrum, throwing his always sharp elbows at liberals one month only to do the same to conservatives the next month.
This praise emanates from the school of thought that often says, "You're doing something right if you've pissed off both sides."  I take some small issue with this.  Being in the "center" is not a virtue any more than aiming to be on the "right" or the "left." We make too much of our opinions and preferences -- we turn them into identities, and we then go to war with each over them.  These wars include literal wars.  We partition countries over them.  It's bloody awful and it's absolutely taboo to mention that this arises from confused thinking:  we attach to our opinions, instead of using them to help see the world more clearly.

The people who say, "You're doing something right if you piss off both sides" are often missing something. The point they might be making is that nobody has a monopoly on the truth, yes. And some of them do have the wisdom to see that point.  But this doesn't mean taking turns contradicting either side for the sake of being "balanced."

The only balance is to do our best to see the truth, tell the truth, and act on the truth. None of us get that right all the time, but our job is to try. Not be "in the middle."

The Fortress View

On the first of three airplanes yesterday, I was packed into a seat next to a man in a corduroy blazer who explained he was once CEO of a corporation in the auto industry, got sick of making "other people" rich, and decided to start his own private business.  He did not explain what line of business he is in, but I saw him peeking through some "confidential" data that included graphs and illustrations of changes in cells of some kind.

My current reading is Salman Rushdie's recently published memoir, Joseph Anton.  The book recounts his years living in hiding, soon after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses when the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran called for him to be assassinated by any faithful muslim.  The security measures undertaken to protect his life were quite extensive and completely up-ended the life of an established best-selling novelist. 

The passage I read during takeoff included this:

"If you succumb to the security description of the world," he told himself, "then you will be its creature forever, its prisoner."  The security worldview was based on the so-called worst-case analysis. But the worst-case analysis of crossing a road is that there was a chance you would be hit by a truck, and therefore you should not cross the road.  But people crossed roads every day and were not hit by trucks.  This was a thing he would have to remember.  There were only varying degrees of insecurity.  He had to go on crossing roads.

The business executive next to me recognized Salman Rushdie's name.  "Let me ask you a question," he said, eyes narrowing behind his narrow eyeglasses.  "Is that book any good?"

As a matter of fact, I was enjoying it very much, and talked a bit about the subject matter: his daily life in hiding while defending his name and reputation amidst the complex arguments that exploded subsequent to the fatwa (a term the business executive also remembered): was this an attack on fundamental human freedoms, such as the freedom to write and read, the freedom to discuss religions and their leading figures in historic terms, or did Rushdie have it coming, as if the state-sponsored terrorism presented in this extra-judicial "verdict" could be sanctioned by a modern society?  It was a very dangerous moment for the west and in some ways not a proud one.

The executive filled up at the first mention of Iran.  He launched into a long harangue about muslims.  It was ugly enough and violent enough that I could not help looking around the cabin for any obvious signs that a muslim might overhear him.  The only good muslim was a dead one, in this man's opinion.  And that included the current president of the United States -- the executive did not even bother to mention he believes Obama is a muslim, that goes without saying.  "Disgusting people," he said.  All of them.  All of them. He included a valorous anecdote about him confronting some Libyan citizens on an international flight, shortly after the Lockerbie massacre, warning them that Reagan "can and surely will bomb you into oblivion."  He smiled to himself and said, "They seemed alarmed."

Then he wanted to know:  who was paying for Rushdie's protection?  Again, a suspicious tone.  (Answer: the British government paid for Scotland Yard's time and resources, officers volunteered their time, and Rushdie had to find places to live and pay the rent.  When cleared to purchase a house, Rushdie bought a very expensive house large enough to accommodate a security team -- and then installed a safe room and a system of panic buttons, at the insistence of the police.) 

Then my traveling companion said, "I'd rather give a bullet than take one," and he was off on a new monologue about the world being full of creeping hordes of scum who cannot be reasoned with because they are not rational and want nothing good, the only thing you could do was segregate and destroy all groups of people who did not care for you.

There is something even worse than what Rushdie described as "the security view" of the world, a world we had both just visited, this executive and me: a world where you take off your shoes and belt and stand with your arms over your head as a machine takes a nude x-ray photo of you and you then get patted down anyway and you perhaps feel awkward and wrong about saying "thank you" after being subjected to such treatment.

Yes, it can get even darker than that.  It might be called "the fortress view" of the world.  Unlike "the security view," in the fortress view there will never be enough security.  There can only be force and surveillance and retreat behind high walls to protect whatever privileges you can claim for yourself.

There was no mistaking, however, in the softness of his voice and the wounded gaze with which he swiped his surroundings, never looking at the man to whom he spoke, the fear.

At the end of that flight, he stood up in the aisle and reached up for his suitcase, stowed in the overhead compartment, sending an elbow into the face of a female United States Army soldier who had been standing there.  She stepped back and he said, without looking back in her direction, "Excuse me. " She nodded patiently.  He never noticed who she was.

I wondered what he would have thought if he had elbowed a soldier in the nose and caused her to bleed.  As it was, he bade me goodnight and made his way down the aircraft, pulling his suitcase behind him into a dark world with enemies everywhere.

[Image: The Belogradchik Fortress in Bulgaria.]

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Mind the Gap

Back in August, I damaged a tooth. 

We were up at Camp Dynamo in San Marcello Pistoiese, in the huge glass-walled mensa where we ate three meals a day with all the kids and staff.  The children were encouraged to chant loudly and accompany themselves by banging on the tables.  In fact, the ritual of every meal was to clap our hands and chant in unison:

Buon appetito ragazzi, buon appetito ragazzi, buon appetito ragazzi, buon appetito ragazzi!
Se non avete capito, buon appetito, buon appetito; se non avete capito, buon appetito, buon appetito!
Buon appetito, piatto pulito!

Glass walls, concrete floor, extremely loud.  You could hardly hear the conversation at your table.  And yet on the day I was eating a bit of meat and bit hard into a piece of gristle, I imagined I could hear a ghastly wrenching sound.  I certainly felt it.  Not pain, but a sensation of the tooth shifting in a way it was not designed to shift.  Uh oh

In the bedroom I shared with another actor, I had a look in the mirror.  None of my teeth looked out of whack, and there was no pain, but I resolved to check in with the family dentist immediately upon returning to the states.  Especially since, soon after, the tooth began to feel newly sensitive to hot and cold, a sign of a dying nerve.  Crap.

The day before the flight home, the pain started.  Abscessing.  Oh, excellent.  Having been through an abscess once before, I knew what was coming, and come it did.  Maybe even worse this time.  The pain of an abscessed tooth cannot be addressed without professional dental help, and even then it can only be medicated while you take antibiotics and wait for an expensive procedure to be done. 

Plus, I can't take Vicodin.  In 2010, I wrote here about that problem. What I didn't actually come out and say in that blog post is that Vicodin made me suicidal.  I won't risk taking it again.  So I medicate by alternating Advil with Tylenol, which is pretty hard on ones body and not all that effective.  The thing about the pain of an abscess is that it can, in fact, alter your consciousness and  your judgement to the point that hammering a screwdriver into the space between your teeth seems like a reasonable way to ease the pressure; and, failing that, you might try laying in the alleyway behind the house in hopes that a garbage truck will squash your head and end the whole business. 

Antibiotics eased the pain of the infection, and on September 18 a root canal was performed, the old tooth used as a temporary crown.  It turns out it was very temporary indeed.  Driving home from Las Cruces one evening, I put a french fry in my mouth and bit something much harder than any french fry -- even a really really really super crispy one:  it was my crown, my old tooth, leaving a gap in a very prominent position among my upper teeth.  Absurdly, in panic and shame, I tried inserting it back into place, with nothing to hold it in position except the neighboring teeth.  The neighboring teeth had their own problems and weren't about to take responsibility for their unglued peer.  It soon came out again and I resigned myself to grinning like a jack-o-lantern until I could make it back to the dentist.

At this point in the story, let us remind the reader that our employment at NMSU is still very new, and at the time of the root canal the insurance had not yet taken effect.  There was, if you will, a gap in our coverage. The root canal was paid out of pocket (which was about as painful as the abscess). 

And the new, also-temporary crown that was put in today comes at a cost, owing to another gap: that which the insurance is willing to cover, and what we will pay ourselves.

After waiting several hours, I tried eating something this evening, and the "temporary" crown came loose immediately.   Unless I'm willing to fast until the 25th, I will once again be whistling when I speak, my tongue hitting the gap where tooth #7 once resided.  It even occurred to me that I could swallow or choke on it, coughing and sputtering in my state of decay, little bits starting to fall off.

What kind of wine pairs well with jello?

Monday, October 08, 2012

Illegitimate Jape

This is an open memo to Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell, two liberal MSNBC personalities, and many of their colleagues:

You love to talk about Todd Akin and the crazy thing he said a while ago -- and yes, it was very crazy.   The Congressman, who is running for the United States Senate from Missouri, claimed in a television interview that if a woman is raped her body can prevent itself from conceiving a child. This evening, O'Donnell was still talking about it. 

This is of course nonsense, and it is very old nonsense.  In medieval times, there was a belief that a woman can only conceive a child if she experiences orgasm -- and, therefore, if she gets pregnant after a supposed rape she must have actually enjoyed herself.  In the 21st century, some of us haven't gotten much more sophisticated than that.  There is a belief among many in the anti-abortion movement that if anti-abortion laws make allowances for rape, women would simply claim falsely that they were raped in order to rely on abortions as a means of birth control.  Incredible and nutty, and yet there it is.

Congressman Akin sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.  If you are disturbed that a legislator could sit on the committee despite the likelihood that he would flunk a ninth grade reproductive science exam, I strongly suggest you don't click this link to read about many of the other scientifically illiterate Congressmen on that committee.

It is therefore with some justification that news commentators like Maddow and O'Donnell et al make fun of what Akin said, and point out the fact that we are electing people to Congress who sit on important policy-making committees who appear to be badly educated.

Here's the thing, though.  You love to use that phrase "legitimate rape."  You repeat it a lot.  And I've noticed that you are contextualizing the phrase falsely.  You consistently imply that Akin was making the case that some rapes are justified.  You know and I know that that isn't what he meant.  What he actually meant was horrible enough, so I don't know why you would misrepresent it.  But it is dishonest and you need to be called on it.  So, we here at this little blog are going to do it.  Here's what Akin said in that interview he wishes he could take back.

The question he was asked was: “If an abortion can be considered in the case of, say, tubal pregnancy or something like that, what about in the case of rape? Should it be legal or not?””

Akin's reply was:

It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

In context, what he's saying is, "If a woman has actually been raped..."  He was not suggesting that some rapes are justified, which is what Maddow and O'Donnell and many other editorialists keep implying.

And the kicker is, what he IS saying is pretty offensive on its own face.  Akin appears to be suggesting, as if it were quite obvious and natural, that women might fake a rape just to get an abortion.  That's pretty ugly, especially when associated with that 14th century understanding of female biology (if you got pregnant, you must have enjoyed it).  It seems that the truth would give you plenty to talk about.

Maybe that wasn't incriminating enough?  I don't know.  But I'm getting awfully sick of the sly little cracks about Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin, suggesting he thinks some women have it coming.  What he said was different and your insinuations otherwise are dishonest, beneath the stature of serious commentators, and an insult to the intelligence of your viewers.

So cut it out.  You have plenty of material to work with just by telling the truth. 

[Image:  Rep. Todd Akin from his House website.]

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Minotaur's Nest

"Literary horror" is a category I find unnecessary and a bit snotty. What is that supposed to mean? Is this somehow more "worthy" than genre fiction, something more intellectually respectable than a mere horror novel?

The novel itself is not so pretentious. It is an enjoyable, suspenseful, and occasionally touching story about mental illness and captivity. Its metaphor is accessible and not overwrought. The setting is a hospital for the mentally ill that focuses less on treatment and more on sedating and warehousing human beings (and of course billing public agencies for their services). This is, at least, the social reality to which the inmates -- er, patients -- have become resigned. The story is told in jubilant, straightforward prose in a wry voice that occasionally prompted me to wonder who this narrator was. The default answer seems to be Victor LaValle, who interrupts the story two or three times to share real-life examples of the system's "failures" -- or are they successes? As one of the novel's unhappy characters notes: "Every system is designed to give you the results you actually get. If you understand that, you'll see that this system is working."

This novel emerges from a United States much changed since Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest appeared in 1962, ten years before Victor LaValle's birth. This is another novel in which an everyman winds up in a mental hospital. The Devil in Silver owes a debt to that novel but expresses a different kind of hope in the face of a more sophisticated adversary, embodied here as a monster with a bison's head and sharp horns. Interestingly, these authors have had very different personal experiences of mental institutions. Victor LaValle has witnessed mental illness amid his own family, has visited them in these places and seen their treatment; in the author's note, he has very harsh words for one place in particular, but does not elaborate on what happened there. The late Ken Kesey, on the other hand, worked in one of these places as an orderly.

The Devil's merits as a frightening horror story may be overstated. I did not feel, with the author of one of the blurbs, that this will "scare the living ^$%* out of the reader." There is a monster roaming the hospital and terrifying the patients, yes. The true monster, we discover, is one that is highly insulated from popular revolt.

A more notable achievement is its central character, a bit of a roughneck who calls himself Pepper. Again, from the author's note: "Being a kid from Queens means I grew up with people of every color, nationality, and faith. Among those were plenty of working-class white guys. They were my friends. But when I saw guys like them in books, movies, or television, they were usually depicted as: 1) drunks, 2) abusers, or 3) drunk abusers. The guys I'd known deserved better than those portrayals. They were as capable of goodness as anyone else." He achieves this remarkably well in Pepper, especially considering the character is heavily medicated for much of the book. The guy is unsophisticated and given to solving conflicts with his fists, and is at the same time funny, affectionate, a man who can be thoughtless but who also demonstrates incomprehensible kindness.

Friday, October 05, 2012

On the crisis (and its true guarantors)

Today we give this space to economist Richard D. Wolff, who trained at Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, and lately teaches at our alma mater, the New School

It's a lecture he gave to a church full of concerned folks about the economic crisis, how we got there, and who is being asked to pay for it.

The video is long, but it is (1) compelling, (2) surprisingly entertaining considering its implications, and finally (3) well worth your time.

Take it away, Dr. Wolff.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

One Downsmanship

On Monday's edition of the spoof news show, The Daily Show on the Comedy Channel, also known as "Jon Stewart," they did a brilliant send-up of the way presidential campaigns work to downplay expectations for their own candidate's performance.

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The skit, mainly performed by Aasif Mandvi and Wyatt Cenac, plays on a classic kind of sketch, in which characters engage in competitive "one downsmanship."  It is comedy gold.

Probably the textbook example of this kind of sketch is the "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch that originated on British television and is here performed by the Monty Python troupe:


Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Zen, Dada, Indifference

Practice at Deming Zen Center continues quietly and with little fanfare.  The biggest problem in our tiny community is how to keep up with the rent and the utilities.  After a dry and lonely summer in the dharma room (I was away for ten weeks and attendance dropped off generally), the bank account is pretty sad and sometimes we chat about meeting in Howard's shop instead, and renting space for retreats only.

On this blog, I haven't blathered much about the dharma lately.  No one seems to have missed it.  If there is anything new to say about the sutras or zazen, it's not coming from me.  Practicing together does not lend itself to much in the way of anecdotes.  We have a dharma talk coming up on October 7 and maybe there'll be a good question or something helpful enough that we'll post it here.   But I'm really just an old student, not a teacher, so we just practice.  Put on the robes, light the candles, chant, put 'em out, sit.  Sometimes we clear brush in silence.  Sometimes we drink tea -- with a side order of chat, or not.

Is this authentic transmission of zen to the west?  Sweep sweep sweep. 

Zen is not special.  It is so not-special that it opens doors and helps you taste what is truly special in this moment.  It is like the rare, really good dada art that actually transcends mere provocation and laughter and actually awakens you.  But "it" didn't do anything.

The traditional forms help create an atmosphere where one can put ones attention on this practice.  Sometimes we put our restless minds on the formal aspects or the wording of certain teachings, to a degree far beyond what is useful.  You can look at the debates on Dharma Wheel or even the comments on Sweeping Zen's Facebook page  or any of the good Buddhist blogs and note the range of opinions about zen and American Buddhism.  The extent to which it is commodified.  The influence of Buddhist writers and publishers who are, in the majority, white and bourgeois.  Approaches to race and sex in our sanghas.  The issue of "authenticity" and standards of training between the east and the west.  The signs of increasing institutionalization and corporate branding.

Some of these are topics well worth considering deeply, as a way of opening the door into our own set beliefs and assumptions -- towards a deeper awakening, undertaken among sangha friends.
And yet the opinions and disputes!  Are robes and incense too "Catholic?"  Is it inauthentic to chant in a language not our own?  Is it inauthentic to translate chants into English?   Is there enough emphasis on "enlightenment?"  Do we expect too much by putting teachers on a pedestal and expecting them to embody an ideal of enlightened behavior?  Some people have impossible standards, and seem to deny that anyone over here "gets it" or is truly practicing at all. 

Some of these arguments outlive their usefulness by a kalpa, serving to empower opinions and conflict rather than give us an independent perspective on our opinions.  (This is coming from a zen student who has opinions on many things; but I can also put my toys away.) That includes the people who have become very skilled at pretending they know the secret, and everyone else is missing the point.  "Zennier than thou." 

Formal zen is theatre.  It's play.  It's pointing at freedom through the artifice of ritual, costume, and formal interactions.  It's that old cliche of arguing about the finger that points to the moon, instead of grokking the moon.  (Yes, I just used the verb "to grok."  Feel free to lob a tomato.)  It's pointing at a truth that is impossible to transmit through words.  It is like art.

(Yes, this is a point that Brad Warner has also been developing.  No surprise, as we're both artists.) 

Seeing our opinions with an independent perspective reminds me of something Marcel Duchamp once said in an interview about dada: that it was working towards a healthy kind of indifference.  (I saw it long ago, but would not be able to locate it today.)  Not apathy or inaction, not denial or anti-intellectualism.  But a loose, maybe even a playful, perspective. The cliche term I am resisting here is "non-attachment."

I've struggled with whether to address recent scandals involving Zen Buddhist leaders in this space.  This post actually began as a response to one in particular only because it includes an additional level of oppression.  (Now I think I'll have to start over with a new post, sorry.)  But really, these scandals are well-covered in other blogs, and this blog has already offered a series of posts that pretty much exhausted what I might say on the subject of asshole teachers who think they are enlightened and clearly are not, as well as North American zen institutions and our adulation of the "zen master."  It's a topic I feel has wider significance than the repetitive sex scandals, but that's not to diminish the harm caused in these incidents.

Lately, institutional zen AND its discontents collectively make me want to don the red nose.  Much the way dada mocked, and shook, the walls of self-important institutions and traditions.  (Maybe you find it hard to believe that a poem consisting of nonsense words and whines and shouts could cause riots -- but under certain social conditions, it did.)    Even Bernie Glassman, the man who walks around starting zen-related institutions every time he has an idea (which then commence vigorous fundraising), sometimes wearing the Zen Master thing and sometimes throwing it off, even he felt the urge to put on a clown nose and focus on making children laugh for a while.

Making children laugh?  Is that how an authentic zen person behaves?

Ha ha ha ha ha.  

[Image: Duchamp's fountain.  A wicked awesome work of aaaahhhhht.]