Monday, December 31, 2012

"Among the Dust of Thieves" premieres January 10

Getting to film a good old-fashioned shootout in a western film was like fulfilling an adolescent dream.  For the record, it took two days, on a set that was also used for the HBO series Deadwood.  The scene represented by this still shot was actually my first day on set, shown here with Las Cruces actor Tyler Robinson in the center and Bryan Head of Albuquerque on the right. 

The film, Among the Dust of Thieves, premieres in Las Cruces on January 10.  After a brief theatrical run it will be released as a DVD.  For more information, click here

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The past and the future of awesome

A tale of carelessness and grace

‘twas the day before Christmas Eve, and I was almost killed right in front of my home.

As I was crossing the street to walk east on Spruce, a white pickup truck took the left hand turn onto Nickel very fast and the driver evidently was not looking. The truck was headed straight for me. I leaped to get out of the way.

Too fucking close. As the truck continued south, I screamed at the driver to watch where he was going. He went his way, I went mine. On the walk down Spruce, my mind turned to angry reflections.

For seven years, I lived in Los Angeles; I also lived in New York City for four years and spent periods living in Chicago, the Boston area, and Providence. Yet I have never felt less safe than I do here in little Deming, New Mexico.

In four and a half years living here, I’ve already been hit by a pickup truck (on the corner of Spruce and Silver, I wasn’t injured, the guy drove off), chased by dogs (and barked at on almost every city block I have walked), had small firecrackers thrown at me from a passing schoolbus while I was riding my bicycle, been physically threatened by neighbors when I asked them to turn their car stereo down (it was making the windows of our rental house rattle loud enough to wake our son), and I think there are more items for this list that I am simply forgetting. I have heard gunfire while hiking on state park land, and live knowing that people around me carry guns, with or without permits. Some of them are responsible gun owners – my brother in law being one of them. On the other hand, some of them probably aren’t the safest people to be walking around armed. Just saying.

So this was my mind as I walked down Spruce. The circle of complaint opened to the issue of Deming in general: the lack of job opportunity for me here, the history that stranded me here, and my personal desire to live in a larger city with more diversity, better services, more cultural events and activities, and more opportunities for meaningful employment. Perhaps Albuquerque – spent some time there earlier this year and liked it well. Or perhaps this place, perhaps that. Around and around my mind went, checking the situation and seeking better accommodation. As you do.

A few blocks east, I heard a few honks from behind me, and a vehicle pulled to the curb near me. A white pickup truck.

Oh boy.

Certain instincts deployed themselves immediately. I assessed the best route of escape. I let my bag slip from my shoulder onto the ground, freed my hands, assumed a balanced stance. There were some county offices on the other side of Spruce, I could head there if I got around the guy. If need be, I could defend myself in an altercation.

The guy got out of his truck.  Casting Central would love him: shorter than me, stoutly built, completely bald, white stubble on his chin and a few teeth missing. He shot out of his truck and headed toward me.

Except he was apologizing. Profusely. Almost abjectly. “My friend, I am so sorry!” he said, actually bowing his head and putting his palms together. “I wasn’t looking where I was going! I am so sorry! I don’t know what was the matter with me!”

Completely disarmed, I laughed and said, “Close call, but no harm done. Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas!” he said, and got back into his truck.

[Image: the corner where I nearly died]

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Winter business

A postcard from Deming.

The sun shone from behind a plate of grey steel in the sky, an overcast morning of the sort I've been told since childhood to consider dreary and sad.  Instead, I was eager to put my coat on and take a walk.  These overcast days bring out qualities in the colors that are for so much of the year burnt out in the glaring sun, these days where even Deming seems full of colors.

Off of Buckeye and near the methodist church, there is a complex of retirement apartments called Kingdom of the Sun.  This morning I came here to visit Geraldine, one of the few religious Buddhists living in Deming, who only discovered the presence of Deming Zen Center this fall.  We are new, but Geraldine has lived here since 1985, feeling lonely and without sangha for most of these years.  Recently she has suffered a stroke, sees very little, and is always on oxygen, so coming to the zen center is a tremendous effort for her.  Her eyes filled with happiness when I told her I'd be happy to make a "house call."

"I'm going to ask your name a thousand times," she says, "Because I have no memory.  It's so annoying."

"No problem."

"Thanks for understanding.  Um.  What's your name?"

Sitting at a small kitchen table in her one-bedroom apartment, she pointed to boxes and bags of things she was removing from her bookshelves and her walls.  "I'm suffocating," she says, but it's not just housecleaning: she is getting her affairs in order, as the saying goes.  She will, as energy allows, call on me to visit, as she still has plenty of questions about the dharma and finds comfort in hearing about it and sitting.

Her male friend, Bruce, is 81 years old and has health problems of his own.  Neither of them have family.  He helps her.  He saw me to my car when Geraldine needed to rest.  Standing on the sidewalk while the wind blew dried leaves in a swirl around his hiking boots, he told me that Geraldine is getting ready and will not have a ceremony of any kind, since he'd be the only guest.   Soon it will be his time, too, and he spoke about it as a simple matter of fact, the way a gardener speaks of the changing of seasons.  How they came to be here in the desert with no family and friends is not a story he is interested to tell.

An hour later, I was on the interstate, driving east toward Las Cruces.  The wind had picked up even more and was blowing enough dirt to cover the landscape and most of the distance in front of the car.  Traffic slowed for safety and we rolled through a dust storm that emphasized the complete indifference of the desert to its human settlers and their projects.  Yesterday's footprints are gone.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Red light green light

After reading the prevous post, "Violence in the name of reality," a friend writes in:

...It seems to me that you are asking people to jump directly from their conditioned experience right into full and complete enlightenment and independence. In my experience, that is not possible. Sometimes things need to happen in stages. For example, someone who has had terrible parenting might find it a great step up to first become a "good, obedient student of a Zen Master,"—that is, if the Master herself is truly wise, kind and compassionate and unattached herself to having the student be "good" or "obedient." Such teachers are rare, but they can exist. Then after some time of gaining confidence, the student will be ready to rebel against the Zen Master too and finally find her own true voice. A great teacher once said: "first you have to overcome your parents, then you have to overcome Buddha, then you have to overcome me."  (You know what I am trying to say here.) In other words, you have become completely independent, but you can't do it all at once. Asking people to do that is to leave them with an insuperable hurdle to jump over and no help, other than your words, to do it. Maybe some very strong people can do that—well, the Buddha did of course, and there are some strong, successful Zen students who were always quite independent of their teacher—but most of us need some mentors along the way. A lot more should be said—or shouldn't—but does this make any sense to you?

Yes, it does.

My quibbles with this are quite minor and I'll get them out of the way at once.  (1) I decline the suggestion that I've "become completely independent" or understand anything about "complete enlightenment."  But thanks.  (2)  I did not intend to suggest -- nor do I think the piece does suggest -- that we do not need mentors, learning, practice, discipline, etc.

Other than that, I agree with just about everything in this comment. Let me try to address the seeming disparity.

My son, who is four, has learned that the red light means stop and the green light means go.  Adults know this is just a convention: we agree to abide by the "authority" of the red and green lights.  This keeps the intersection a little bit safer while we're all driving around.  It works well enough so we do it.  And if someone decides not to play along, they get a ticket and pay a fine because what they are doing is unsafe.  I've even gotten tickets for not coming to a complete stop at the red sign that tells me to STOP.  I don't like it, but I pay the fine.  I'm agreeing to play along because in the end it's safer for all of us.  Discipline.

Being a "good, obedient student of a zen master"can also be quite useful and beneficial, when done from the right perspective.  As you point out, it's important that the teacher doesn't buy into the game too much.  (We both know teachers who have.)  It's especially important that the student doesn't buy into it too much.  This is the problem with some of the people around Eido Shimano and Joshu Sasaki, making excuses for them and protecting them from appropriate consequences of what they've done.

This past summer, I played a pretty convincing Tybalt; but I didn't actually kill the actor playing Mercutio.  Know what I mean?  

So my suggestion is not necessarily to rebel, but to play the game while staying conscious of the game.  To quote Seung Sahn again: "I go with the flow, and I watch where the flow is going."

And rebellion is an option, too, if it's needed.  Right now, Rinzai-ji could probably benefit from some rebellion.  But that's not my fight.

[Image: Gabriel's early lessons in wearing uniforms and listening to a coach.]

Friday, December 14, 2012

Violence in the name of reality

As news pours in of an especially horrific shooting massacre today, the instant reactions fill up social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.  So many stories are being told about what happened and what it means.  God is angry.  The media perpetuates this stuff.  It's too easy to get guns.  Gun rights advocates are to blame.  Or television.  Modern life is making people crazy and violent.  Stories uttered with great certainty even before we knew who did this or why. 

Everyone wants me to know how I am supposed to understand Newtown (a name that will soon be uttered with a shudder, much as Columbine still is).

Earlier this week over at Notes in Samsara, Mumon took up the issue of narratives, the story-lines defining how people interact with the world and other people -- usually unexamined, usually assumed to be the very fabric of the universe and unquestionable.

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion mentioned that he was the recipient of highly inappropriate sexual advances on the part of some clergy member.  But Dawkins makes a very interesting point, one that I heartily endorse.   That point is that the abuse of children by attempting - and succeeding often - at convincing  them they are fundamentally damaged goods who will suffer the fires of hell for eternity can be far more damaging and widespread than the incidents of sexual abuse by Christian clergy. 
He's right. 
He's so right.
I was never sexually abused by clergy, but I sure as hell was the recipient of various forms of abuse predicated upon the above narrative. 
We should be careful about the narratives we are prescribing for the harm we see around us.

In the struggle to make sense of a disturbing event -- the sudden death of a schoolteacher, the rape of a friend, or an event like what took place in Connecticut today -- a narrative is often asserted as the right way to process and integrate what happened.  In response to Mumon's post, NellaLou presented a strong example:

A lot of women who are abused/assaulted/"taken advantage of" are fed a narrative that disempowers them. I read a good piece on that in the New Inquiry by a sex worker. She wrote:

"If you are a woman, you can never move past your rape; you can only “learn” to live with it, as though it is akin to abrupt blindness or a paralyzed limb. If it does not ruin you, it will at the very least change you forever for the worse. This is the only allowable truth about rape. There are no alternatives."
...people have to stay in control of their own experience and not adopt narratives others want to shove down their throats. And it's mostly self-proclaimed do-gooders that want to do the shoving. 

Sadly, most of us do not even understand that that is what we are doing.  Adults impose their narratives on us this way when we are children, sometimes to traumatic extremes, but mostly it feels quite ordinary.  To this day, many educators still default to the view that knowledge is a thing they have to implant in the minds of their students -- what Paolo Freire called "banking education," and criticized for its tendency to reinforce social oppression.  In traditional pedagogy, knowledge is a thing that must be obtained from a more powerful party, instead of a dynamic process the student is doing

Imposing reality begins the moment adults begin teaching us about life, instead of teaching us to perceive clearly and practice knowledge-building.  So it continues with the healing arts -- be it pastoral counseling, psychotherapy, the 12-Step program (which insists you accept a reality in which you are powerless and unable to manage your problem), and even medicine.

Keith Johnstone, in his famous book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, tells a vivid story from his days as a teacher:

I once had a close rapport with a teenager who seemed 'mad' when she was with other people, but relatively normal when she was with me... I was gentle, and I didn't try to impose my reality on her.  One thing that amazed me was her perceptiveness about other people - it was as if she was a body-language expert.  She described things about them which she read from their movement and postures that  I later found out to be true, although this was at the beginning of a summer school and none of us had ever met before.

I'm remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a very gentle, motherly schoolteacher.  I had to leave for a few minutes, so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look after her.  We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: 'Look at the pretty flower, Betty.'

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, 'All the flowers are beautiful.'

'Ah,' said the teacher, blocking her, 'but this flower is especially beautiful.'

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm her.  Nobody seemed to notice that she was screaming 'Can't you see?  Can't you see!'

...Actually it is crazy to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by sane people as violent.
At a very early age, 'sane' people learn that this is simply what adults do -- so simply, we aren't even conscious of it.  To resist this is to be crazy. 

We don't have to go along with this.  And sometimes we shouldn't.

Zen Master Seung Sahn often told students, "Don't make anything." Practical fictions are basic facts of social life, starting with the most basic fiction of all: "I."  Yet most people are unaware how they have been taught to fabricate and re-fabricate this mutually occupied "reality," and to give other people the authority to define reality for us -- whether the authority figure is a parent, a school teacher, a politician, or a zen master. 

I could not manage a better conclusion than these words from a recent article by Giko David Rubin, reflecting on recent scandals in the American zen community:

Zen teachers often say a student should not be “attached to his own thinking.” This is good teaching. To experience merging into the great natural activity...we need to replace our own thinking with the sound of the wind, the floating cloud, the flower opening, the sun blaring, the moon slowly rising, our own heart beats, our breathing...

However, we do not need to replace our thinking with someone else’s thinking. We do not need to replace our past identity with a new identity as an obedient, good student to a Master.

And, also, even as we know our thinking is incomplete, we must keep listening to our own voices.

To illustrate this rumination above, I chose a photo of myself playing with my older son, Gabriel, and a box full of masks.  He's learning about the masks we inevitably don and hopefully doff freely.  May this boy know and trust his true eye  throughout his life, loving himself so that he may love others.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On paid book reviews

An author whom I know personally offered me a hundred and fifty bucks to review her self-published book.

Due to being busy and sick this month, I delayed responding.  She politely followed up more than once, explicitly offering me money to write a review of her book.  For where, she did not say.  This blog?  GoodreadsAmazonMy dad's review site? Or perhaps Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly and numerous other review sites?  All of the above, I suppose.

This summer, the New York Times ran an article about a man who worked for a company that provided marketing services for self-publishing authors -- for instance, helping get the books reviewed -- and moved into writing the reviews himself, for money.  At his height he was earning $28,000 per month and needed to hire employees to meet the demand.  He had a great thing going until Amazon started deleting his reviews. 

The value of a consumer review, after all, is that these reviews are perceived to be free of any conflict of interest.  These are not professionals or insiders, they are consumers just like you, giving you the straight dope on the product.  The knowledge that some of these reviews may be paid injects cynicism into that idea. 

This points to the basic problem I have with it: if I do not disclose that I've been hired to review the book by the writer (who is also the publisher), I am engaging in something dishonest.  The reader should assume that my review is my honest and un-hired opinion.

Once in a while, I've been sent review copies of books.  That counts as a mild solicitation, but it's a far cry from being paid cash for a review.  I am under no obligation to review a book just because a publisher sends it to me.  That said, I have reviewed some of the books sent to me, and done so honestly.

Yet it is also a problem when you know the writer.  A teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen sent me a copy of her book hoping I would review it, but at the time I lived at the zen center where she was a guiding teacher and that didn't sit right.  I did review a novel written by a neighbor of mine here in Deming, but he never asked and to my knowledge hasn't even seen it.  Moreover, I disclosed in the review that I knew the author. 

Accepting money from an author for a review, even if I disclosed it, seems a bridge too far.  It is not an innocent matter of one entrepreneur helping another in a very tough field (which publishing is, for sure).  The money is better spent marketing the book and connecting with the readers who will want the book.  This is hard work, but good work. 

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Judging the war, not the soldier

A friend of mine who leans libertarian wrote to me:

I know that [former senator Alan Simpson, co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Commission] is not your favorite, but I think I have a soft spot for him because of a few things in common: fiscally conservative, socially moderate or at least ambivilent, and rhythmically challenged!

My friend then included a link to a video of the former senator dancing "gangnam style" to encourage young conservative activists.  Here.  Enjoy it, if you like this sort of thing.

What follows is essentially how I responded, though I am expanding a little bit for this blog.

No, he's not a "favorite" of mine, but my reservations have nothing to do with his conservatism, his opinions on social issues, or his dancing ability. (On the latter, I will be the last to complain.) For the most part, my feelings about a person's politics are distinct from my feelings about them as a person, although that sentiment has reasonable limits. I do not hate the person.  I grieve for the person's actions and what motivates them.

Character is not our true nature, and my own view of the man's character is limited, but as far as I can tell, Alan Simpson is a liar (literally, one who tells lies) who holds the majority of his own countrymen in contempt. I certainly don't wish him ill on that account, and I don't believe this is his inherent or "true" nature, but how he tends to behave based on his perception of the world.  Because of his misrepresentations of fact, he should not be regarded as a serious voice on policies that affect the lives of millions of American citizens. Let him practice law back in Wyoming and retire when he wants and enjoy his personal wealth. I don't wish to see him on television or testifying before Congress or being treated as a serious person on matters of economics or social policy.

I call him a liar because he knows as well as I do that Social Security does not add a dime to the deficit and does not belong in a debate about the deficit. He was a lot more honest about his motivation when he made the following comment, a comment that shows his attitude toward Social Security has nothing to do with economic concerns, but about social class:

The man referred to Social Security -- a vital and useful, solvent and arguably a truly conservative program that benefits society and the economy -- as a "milk cow with three hundred ten million tits." Doing a cute advert dancing to gangnam music is not endearing enough to blot out the memory of his demeaning comments about a self-sustaining program that keeps our elderly out of direst poverty and provides a smidgin of support to the disabled.

For starters, the problem with this ridiculous analogy is that baby calves do not pay for that milk out of their earnings over decades of wage labor.  And what of it?  Simpson's contemptuous words demean the very act of nourishing vulnerable beings. What kind of inhuman sentiment is that? If this man thinks about what he's saying, how he can look someone in the face and utter that sentiment?  I can only conclude that he doesn't think about it very much, that his prejudice against those who are not wealthy is an entrenched and unexamined view, a fixed assumption that is part of how he constructs the world.  Consciousness is shaped by many things, and one of those determinants is social class. 

What I am left to wonder is why a person who makes such statements is elevated to a position of respect and seriousness on matters of national policy.  These are the words of a confused person ranting on a park bench.

Does that mean I dislike the person, as my friend implies?  We are of course not acquainted, and I doubt Alan Simpson would welcome me into his society, but I'm disposed to be personally indifferent towards him as an individual.  It is Simpson's world view, his non-factual presentation of Social Security as a contributor to the nation's deficit, and his contempt for the majority of his countrymen, that extend past him and affect the lives of other beings.  His own life, and mine for that matter, are not historically important. 

It is important to remember Alan Simpson not simply as a funny conservative who did an amusing dance to promote his ideas and enjoyed a good laugh at his own expense, but as a man of immense privilege elevated by the current president as a serious and informed statesman on economic matters, and who used that position to make a political attack on Social Security, a cornerstone of FDR's New Deal.   

Judge the class war, not the warrior. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

The hidden cost of cheap goods

The following piece first appeared in the Deming Headlight today.


While Americans shopped on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a factory burning far away shed a distant light on the human cost of cheaper goods and higher profits.

The fire consumed the Tazreen Fashions factory and with it the lives of 120 workers. Most of the dead were trapped in the building due to its lack of fire exits. There were three staircases, all of which led to the ground floor, which was engulfed in flames. A dozen people jumped from the building rather than submit to being burnt to death.

The factory was located outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. The country annually exports about $20 billion in garment goods. The Tazreen factory produced goods for Walmart, J.C. Penney, and other familiar suppliers such as Tesco and Carrefour.

In many ways, the incident was a repeat of a sad event in our own history: The Triangle Fire of 1911 in New York City. It was a turning point in American workplace safety although it was not the only or even the worst case of Americans dying at work. The Triangle Waist company occupied three floors of the Asch Building in Greenwich Village. About 500 workers worked there manufacturing blouses. The majority of these workers were women and girls as young as 15, mostly immigrants, who worked nine hours a day all week and also worked for seven hours on Saturdays.

Employees were restricted to a single exit where they were individually searched for stolen merchandise; other exits were locked. What could possibly go wrong?

The fire started in a waste basket and destroyed the factory in just half an hour. Fleeing workers discovered locked fire exits, and fire escapes that led nowhere or bent under their weight. As in Dhaka, some employees were forced to jump from the building and died on the pavement. The fire department arrived quickly, but their ladders did not extend high enough nor did they have enough water pressure to rescue people or fight the fire. The death toll reached 146.

New York's response to this horror was remarkable. Citizens, 100,000-strong, marched up Fifth Avenue in a grim vigil witnessed by 400,000 onlookers. For a moment, they were not consumers, but citizens outraged by the treatment of those who labor and produce our goods. An engaged citizenry then demanded improved fire safety, requiring industry spend some of its profit on safer conditions for their employees.

While there has been progress on behalf of workers, corporations have pushed back. We still have work-related diseases and deaths on the job. Regulations are being rolled back or simply not enforced. In recent decades, manufacturers have exported more and more of their labor to distant countries where wages are much cheaper and American standards for working conditions do not apply. Outsourcing has allowed industry to cut its labor and safety costs while Americans suffer unemployment; and subcontracting has allowed some of our most beloved retailers to deny accountability when workers die or become sick under conditions that would not be tolerated in the United States.

Even in these regressive political times, another Triangle fire would not be tolerated in the United States. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is far away. When a workplace massacre takes place in the third world, American consumers do not feel that this happened to them, the way New Yorkers felt about the Triangle fire. While the factory burned, Americans innocently shopped. We don't know these people, even though we may have tried on clothing they made.

For the most part, we act as consumers and do not think about the conditions under which our goods - our sweaters and kids' toys and electronic devices - are produced, or by whom. Yet we are capable of seeing this human relationship. Human history repeats itself as thousands of garment workers fill the streets of Dhaka to protest their treatment.

It is still within our power to address our private sector, including our favorite retailers. This is not about blame, but taking responsibility for a human problem. Like the New Yorkers who marched on Albany on 1911, let us address an economic system that boosts profits at the expense of American employment and worker safety.