Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dear USPS, why should we pay more while you're hemorrhaging money?

24 September 2013

United States Postal Service Office of the Consumer Advocate
475 L'Enfant Plaza SW, RM 4012
Washington DC 20260-2200

Dear Consumer Advocate,

Today I am reading reports that the USPS will seek a new increase in the price we consumers pay for postage. While I understand and support the need for the USPS to enhance revenue, we consumers have to ask the USPS (and its unresponsive Postmaster General) why the USPS does not call on Congress to repeal or amend the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA)? This law requires the Postal Service to prefund its retirement benefits 75 years in advance, in just ten years. Imagine paying a 30-year mortgage on an expensive home in just two and a half years, or all of your paycheck going into Social Security. The post office must pay a staggering $103.7 billion by 2016 for employees who have not even been hired yet; and this is on top of current pensions. No business could survive such a mandate.

Seeking relief from PAEA by the Congress is not easy or guaranteed success, but as long as consumers are being asked to pay more to buoy the postal service’s revenues, it seems irresponsible not to ask for this reasonable adjustment in policy as well.

Will the Postmaster General act on this?

Warm regards,

[A slightly sharper version of this letter was sent to the Postmaster General, Pat Donahoe, himself, at the same street address.  In that letter, I additionally called him out on calling for the end of Saturday delivery -- which only saves $2 billion, a comparative drop in the bucket -- and cutting union jobs, replacing them with 'permatemps' to save money without addressing the PAEA issue.]

[Image:  Ben Franklin can be heard whispering to Donahoe:  you are doing this wrong.]

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Where's my book? I'll tell you where...

Q.  So, where's YOUR Book?

My friends write books, my pop has written books for years.  So sometimes people ask me when I'm writing a book -- in particular, some suggest that a book on the intermingling of acting and zen might come out of me.  Sometimes I've had that thought, too.

So I wrote a chapter.  Put it away for a while, then picked it up and read it. 

It bored me.

Granted, a boring book can still be of value.  Volume I of Capital.  Husserl.  Stanislavsky.  The Lankavatara Sutra.  None of these are exciting reads, but I found them helpful.

My book, I dunno.  Maybe not.

Won't rule out trying another chapter or two and seeing where it goes, but I may be sparing the world a boring and useless book.

You're welcome. We accept donations. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Losing Buddha, finding true Buddha

For the second time ever, today we welcome a guest blogger, Ji Hyang Padma.

When I met her, she was Ji Hyang Sunim, a monastic in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  She was my boss when I worked at Cambridge Zen Center as Director (she was the Abbot) in 2000 and 2001.  We practiced together as dharma siblings there and, later, when we both ended up in California.  When she formally left the monastic order, she maintained a similar commitment to formal practice, a demanding schedule, and she did not even change her appearance much:  a little more variety in her wardrobe these days, but the hairstyle is the same.  And she adopted "Padma" in place of Sunim.  

She's got a book out And she blogs

One of the subjects that interested us both is interfaith work, and that's her topic today.  So I yield the screen to J. Pa!  (She will not like that nickname.)  I added some hyperlinks to her post, hope you enjoy. 


The beginning of my interfaith work: 1993. Working as the office manager of an acupuncture clinic for people with AIDS had intensified my great question.

I had just ordained as a nun in a Zen temple in Korea, and returned to the Boston area, offering pastoral support and meditation classes to AIDS patients through the Boston Living Center. In the course of this work, I met Jeannette Normandin, a Catholic nun who was also working the front lines of the AIDS crisis. She was dividing her time between Boston Living Center and Ruah House, which she’d just founded as a housing option for women with AIDS. With a quick appraisal of that situation, you may have guessed rightly that she was both deeply revered across Boston and courageously risking it all within her community.

She invited me to attend the Boston Clergy and Religious Leaders’ Group, a gathering formed to promote fellowship among downtown congregations. It had originally been an ecumenical Christian group, and was still warming to the presence of people of other faiths. It took me some time to break in, to build connections. People asked me about Swami Prabhupada, the leader of the Hare Krishnas (after all, aren’t all these Eastern religions alike?). They reserved certain social action petitions for those of Judeo-Christian ethics. This ice-breaking period tested my own commitment to the work: like many meditation teachers, I am not extroverted by nature. So, that experience of finding my seat and making connections brought me against the razor's edge of my own practice.

In that same time span, I regularly visited Carlos, an eclectic campy long- time dharma practitioner with AIDS who used art as a way of connecting with Buddha nature. Carlos was ordained in the Jodo Shu Pure Land tradition, but had been a Cambridge Zen Center community member in its early days, and still felt a connection with our sangha. He created large drawings of Amita Buddha, done with incredible precision using magic markers, so that his entire apartment became a Pure Realm. On the door to his apartment he hung a poster of Jean-Claude Van Damme, who served as the temple guardian. All of this served as my perfect teacher, mirroring back the ways in which I had unconsciously equated Zen aesthetic with realization. That taught me something about practice. It wasn’t based upon my aesthetic but upon one pointed try mind—just-do-it— and compassion. Even our ideas of correct practice, the temple Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are gold dust. To quote a great teacher, although gold dust is precious, when it gets in the eyes it hinders the vision.

When we release the quest for perfection we find Buddha nature everywhere. To quote my mentor, Maha Ghosananda, “The heart is our temple.”

Maha Ghosananda served as a member of the Peace Council, a diverse group of religious leaders, well respected in their countries, who came together regularly to support each other’s active work of making peace, wherever this support was most urgently needed. He knew from his own society how necessary it was to step outside the temple gates and practice in the “temples of human experience”. I recognized the opportunity to walk with him as my own initiation into a path of crossing borders.

It is valuable and necessary that those of us practicing meditation do engage with world. While we may not consider ourselves religious, it is a simple truth that people like Sister Jeannette Normandin are integrating realization and upaya in a way that our Buddhist communities can learn from. Also, in past generations, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other great teachers were in their countries, in the deep mountains. This is the era in which the environment and other social crises require a Bodhissatva path of engagement.

To truly attain sangha, we need to extend that sense of intimacy to Muslim women, to let the threads of her hijab be woven into our kesa and see the true breadth of that cloth. We need to bear witness with people “of faith” in a way that is true to our dharma.

When we release our grasp on Buddhism, we discover the Buddha everywhere.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

This boom is a bust

The following is this month's "Desert Sage" column for the Deming Headlight.  The slightly edited version that ran in the paper is here.  Below is the version I submitted. 


Some call this the “age of unconventionals.”

Imagine a very heavy truck is tearing down a road at high speed, and upon learning that the truck is moving towards the edge of a cliff at high speed, the driver shrugs and presses down harder on the accelerator. Point out to that driver that pretty soon it will be too late to stop the truck before going over the cliff, and the driver demands proof, and then more proof, but never slows while you plead for safety and sanity.

Our ecological predicament is something like that. The driver of the vehicle is an industry that is compelled to put profit over human needs, safety, and sustainability. An economic system based on endless expansion and growth at all costs cannot exist in a finite environment. Eventually, the cancer kills its host.

When confronted with the problem of “peak oil” and “peak coal,” the end of cheap and easily accessible oil and the cleanest types of coal, the energy industry had a face-saving opportunity to invest heavily in non-fossil fuels and reduction of carbon emissions that are leading to global warming. Maybe, after all, there was a way to capitalize on humanity’s need for renewable energy.

Instead, it has led to a new energy boom in non-conventional fossil fuels. Dirtier fuels, extracted by dirtier and more dangerous methods. We drill miles below the ocean floor; we explode bombs or use astonishing amounts of highly pressurized water to fracture rock and extract shreds of energy; we use natural gas to cook rock until sludgy oil drips out; we burn tar sands and dirtier, less productive coal. Some promote new nuclear energy facilitates that also consume vast amounts of water. The amount of energy required to produce energy ticks upward, and the energy produced is less efficient and more polluting. Despite the ‘energy boom’ that employs some Americans and makes profits for a few, the era of fossil fuel is still waning, and at the end of this candle there is toxic smoke.

Because fracking has been good for business, state governments tend to celebrate these new technologies for bringing new jobs to their regions. Usually, that line works – workers are vulnerable when unemployment is high, and people are willing to put up with extraordinary evils when politicians shout “jobs jobs jobs” enough. However, much to the chagrin of several states and their corporate patrons, local communities have started to push back.

Leading the way, right here in New Mexico, was Mora County. Mora was the first county in the United States to ban ‘fracking,’ the practice of using water pressure and chemicals to break rock and extract energy. In the case of shale gas, this leads to high methane emissions, some of the worst with respect to trapping heat in our atmosphere and accelerating global warming.

Out of concerns for its water supply, the people of Mora County did the unprecedented and said “no” to the practice, which effectively closed Mora County for business. Since then, 100 municipalities have followed suit, confronting states over who gets to regulate energy exploitation where they and their children live.

This will be a long fight, but local communities are organizing to engage the gas and oil industry, its spokespeople (Marita Noon and Paul Gessing are busy writing, no doubt), and its politicians in a fight over the policies that affect them where they live. The fight will happen in state courts to be sure, and in the political arena as well.

The passengers are revolting. Let’s hope we get control of the van in time.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Where is all this time you are counting on?

Nothing guarantees a single additional moment of this life. 

An old friend from my Providence days, about my age, began experiencing a heart attack but did not know it was a heart attack because the symptoms were not, at first, clearly recognizable as such.  The symptoms were flu-like and he assumed it was something like that until a nurse suggested it might be something else.  Good suggestion.  I'm glad to report Wayne is okay. 

One day many years ago, my teacher (Zen Master Soeng Hyang aka Bobbie Rhodes, or "Bascia" as her Polish students call her, a name she admitted she liked) woke up feeling irritable.  That's all, just irritable.  She went to her job as a hospice nurse and felt "off," literally off-balance, and she was grumbling about it to a co-worker who suggested she get examined.  The doctor did an initial examination of her and said, "I think you're having a stroke."  And she was.  They later found it was probably due to a hole in her heart, no bigger than a quarter, which no one had ever discovered.  Surprise. 

And today, we got an announcement from the Kwan Um School of Zen that one of our senior teachers -- one of Seung Sahn Sunim's old students -- has a serious medical challenge that crept on him, took him by the shoulder, and said, "Hello there." 

About 10 days ago Dae Jin Sunim wasn't feeling well. He went to a hospital to check. They saw something in his blood work and recommended a bone marrow test which was done last Friday. The preliminary results came Saturday. He probably has acute myeloid leukemia (AML), not clear yet what specific type. This is a serious form of leukemia. The specific type (there are at least three) determine the treatment course which in western medicine is chemotherapy. The lab work wont be done until tomorrow, Tuesday when they can say for sure which type he has and what they recommend.
.   .   .   .   .

His condition is quite serious but he is feeling much better since he has gotten a couple transfusions of blood. His immune system is compromised and his red blood cell count is very low. Whole thing came out of nowhere just in the last 10 days. We are getting a lot of information on alternative treatments both in Korea and the US and also combinations of alternative and western medicine together. Please chant.

The chronology of the story is a teaching in itself.   One day, healthy.  Next day, something that could easily be dismissed as flu or something else that is minor.  Or you find a little lump, something easy to miss.  And sometimes, that's the beginning of a chapter you weren't expecting to be part of your story. 

Deming Zen Center will join many zen centers in dedicated special chanting (to Kwan Seum Bosal, also known as Avalokitsvara, the bodhisattva embodying compassion) for Dae Jin Sunim.  But it's also for Wayne.  And for you and me.

Because that's the thing about time -- we order our lives around it, but it really isn't a thing we can spend well or waste; it isn't anything at all.  The time to give ourselves completely to our life is right here, right now. 

And that means I need to go read stories to two young boys who are coping with the disappointing news that it is bedtime. 

Some reading on ecological rift

This won't be a long essay on the topic.  Instead, I'm going to share some links as this matter seems to be ticking upward in various locations.

On Salon, Naomi Klein has a new interview during which she talks about green activism's embrace of corporate-centered solutions:

We now understand it’s about corporate partnerships. It’s not, “sue the bastards;” it’s, “work through corporate partnerships with the bastards.” There is no enemy anymore.

More than that, it’s casting corporations as the solution, as the willing participants and part of this solution. That’s the model that has lasted to this day.

I go back to something even like the fight over NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Big Green groups, with very few exceptions, lined up in favor of NAFTA, despite the fact that their memberships were revolting, and sold the deal very aggressively to the public. That’s the model that has been globalized through the World Trade Organization, and that is responsible in many ways for the levels of soaring emissions. We’ve globalized an utterly untenable economic model of hyperconsumerism. It’s now successfully spreading across the world, and it’s killing us.

For more about this problem, I actually recommend the current issue of Monthly Review in its entirety, or at least the two front articles.  MR's editorial perspective is Marxist, and the editor in chief, John Bellamy Foster, has actually written books focusing on Marx's theory of ecological rift under advanced capitalism.  The lead article (now available to read online)  is by Foster, and analyzes the boom in production of non-conventional fossil fuels and their economic as well as political consequences.  Foster is one writer who does not shy away from the grim consequences of continued inaction, the very real risk that we will pass the 2-degree threshold that sets uncontrollable consequences and feedbacks in motion -- the boulder getting away from us and rolling downhill.  While there are still options, governments and industry seem incapable of responding to the reality that confronts us.

That segues nicely into the next article in the current MR, "The Myth of Environmental Catastrophism" by Ian Angus (and also available online).  The truth of what is taking place is a little hard to take, and those who speak about it are experiencing pushback.  Those telling the truth about our predicament, like James Hansen, who recently left NASA's Goddard Institute and is now teaching at Columbia University, and who has been very active about the consequences of carbon emissions and coal production especially.  (See his TED talk here.)  The 'catastrophism' complaint is that if you tell the truth about an emergency, it will turn people off and they will resist doing anything about it.  While on the right, this is about belittling environmental science and positing conspiracy theories, there have also been denialism and conspiracy theories on the left -- either in resistance to the economic reforms that action would require, or in some cases as a proxy fight about Marxist theory which is beside the real point.  Interesting article.

For much denser, policy-oriented reading, the United Nations 2013 Human Development Report is available online (go here for the summary) which notes the ecological cost of global production as it interacts with climate change, and the implications for the near future.

The data are ominous but what really kills us in the end is human inertia.  As Angus writes,

If a runaway train is bearing down on children, simple human solidarity dictates that anyone who sees it should shout a warning, that anyone who can should try to stop it. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with that elementary moral imperative.

And yet some do.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Bloomberg and the Invisible Rules

In a new interview for New York Magazine, New York City's outgoing mayor, Michael Bloomberg offers a few comments about the election campaigns underway, including the campaign to replace him, where there is a competitive Democratic primary.

The leading candidate in that primary campaign is Bill De Blasio, who has made social stratification in New York a major theme of his campaign, calling it a "tale of two cities" (one for the working class and one for the rich).  He has also made an issue of "stop and frisk" policies that heavily target non-white races for spontaneous police questioning and physical searches.  De Blasio is taking the liberal position of addressing the inequality through taxation and other progressive reforms, and curtailing "stop and frisk."

To start off, Bloomberg bizarrely accuses De Blasio of running a "racist" campaign by making appearances with his family. "It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote," he says.  But surely Bloomberg would not ask a Jewish candidate to hide their Jewishness.  Candidates, of course, are known for campaigning with their spouses and children, but in De Blasio's case it is "racist" because his wife, Chirlane McCray, is black and they have two children.  See what Bloomberg is doing there?  If De Blasio was married to a white woman, his appearances with her would seem normal and pro forma.  But his wife is dark-skinned, and so Bloomberg views these appearances with suspicion.  This is, after all, Mayor "Stop and Frisk."  The man who insists that New York has been made safer by racial profiling.  But he's not racist at all: it's that De Blasio and his afro-sporting son (who made a potent criticism about "stop and frisk" that dramatically embodies the injustice of it).

Moving on, Bloomberg repeats this reversal with respect to class struggle in New York:

...his whole campaign is that there are two different cities here. And I’ve never liked that kind of division. The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people. They are the ones that pay the bills. The people that would get very badly hurt here if you drive out the very wealthy are the people he professes to try to help. Tearing people apart with this “two cities” thing doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a destructive strategy for those you want to help the most. He’s a very populist, very left-wing guy, but this city is not two groups, and if to some extent it is, it’s one group paying for services for the other. 
See what he's doing?  The guy who talks about the reality of class division is accused of causing the division -- by talking about it.  It's like accusing scientists of making up climate change -- oh right, that happened, too.  The taboo against talking about class and power in our society has loosened considerably -- thanks in no small part to the Occupy movements of 2011-2.  (A movement Mayor Bloomberg worked very hard to crush using police brutality.) 

The invisibility of class power was key to suppressing discussion of it.  Instead, the dominant ideology has been just as Bloomberg states it earlier in this interview:

If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.
Who’s paying our taxes? We pay the highest school costs in the country. It comes from the wealthy! We have an $8.5 billion budget for our Police Department. We’re the safest big city in the country—stop me when you get bored with this! Life expectancy is higher here than in the rest of the country—who’s paying for that? We want these people to come here, and it’s not our job to say that they’re over- or underpaid. I might not pay them the same thing if it was my company—maybe I’d pay them more, I don’t know. All I know is from the city’s point of view, we want these people, and why criticize them? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the Russian billionaires to move here?

There was, not long ago, a time when politicians would disguise this sentiment because the class bias would seem too overt.  But Bloomberg asserts the ideology quite earnestly:  the wealthy minority are the benefactors of society.  If working people continue to work hard all their lives and refrain from demanding higher wages and better working conditions or a more equitable society, then the minority will continue to be successful.

That's the order of things.  The mass of people work extremely hard all their lives, sacrificing financial security and quality of life and even the environment that sustains their life, so that a few 'benefactors' may live in opulence.   It is a curious arrangement, isn't it?  With the concentrated wealth comes political power, social status, and cultural prestige.

In order to preserve this arrangement, reformers who make an issue of class disparity are accused of "class warfare."  In this interview, the first assertion that De Blasio is running "a class-warfare campaign" comes from the interviewer, Chris Smith. The press helps maintain the social order by enforcing certain rules of discourse.

And so the interview continues, with Bloomberg minimizing the inequity or letting it remain invisible.  He claims the number of private sector jobs has gone up, ignoring the issues of falling wages, wage theft, and financial insecurity.  He chastises readers concerned about the working poor and the vanishing middle that compared to the rest of the world, our poor people are doing great.    More apartments have air conditioning now!  But never mind that it is harder than ever to afford the rent.  And he leaves invisible the structure of class power itself.

What is fascinating about this for me (and why I continue to subject readers of this blog to these little essays) is the invisibility of these rules.  When Bloomberg states that he doesn't think he has changed much from when he was a young man cooking his own meals (before he became a billionaire), I believe he believes that.   I believe that on an emotional level, he really does believe the gospel of trickle-down economics -- that society prospers if we all do what we can to make the rich even richer.

Most people still accept this as a natural order of things, not as a state of affairs created by human beings.  Many people don't see these rules or examine them at all.  It is a repressive order, and to a vast extent it is enforced from within our consciousness.  That's fascinating.

And this interview demonstrates how the media participates in maintaining this dream.  Although, on the surface, Smith challenges Bloomberg, he actually doesn't question Bloomberg on an ideological basis.  The basic premises of the ruling structure are maintained.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

On Mission Creep and Strength

Yesterday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations voted 10-7 to approve a resolution authorizing military action against Syria.  The language was a bit narrower than what the president would have liked, but the resolution (which you can read for yourself here) gives the president wide latitude and also includes amended language insisted upon by Senator McCain that significantly changes the policy from what the public was initially promised.  The president spoke only of sending a message, a "shot across the bow," that would not determine the end of the civil war, target Assad, or aim at regime change.

The resolution coming out of that committee, the resolution the Senate will vote on, says: "It is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria so as to create favourable conditions for a negotiated settlement that ends the conflict and leads to a democratic government in Syria."

In other words, regime change. 

Sure enough, mission creep: a policy that, once in motion, expands beyond the original scope proposed in defense of that policy. In foreign policy, it is all too common.

Just so we're clear:  not only are we unable to calculate the consequences of military action in Syria, we are getting contradictory messages about the scope of the mission itself.

Because it might not be mission creep after all.  Maybe this has really been the point.  In the spirit of "compromise" we get the real policy, in the guise of a representative process.

If this was sincerely about upholding international law, it would be more appropriate for this to be a diplomatic struggle, isolating Russia and China, highlighting the abuse of the Security Council veto, and calling for a multilateral and accountable process.  Wouldn't that be interesting?  

Every poll indicates that the public does not favor unilateral military action in Syria, and things are not looking good in the House of Representatives.  Some of this, no doubt, is craven: there are many in the majority Republican Party who are opposed to anything Barack Obama supports, no matter what.  There also seems to be an inter-party argument between neoconservatives who never see a problem they can't solve with cruise missiles, and those with a more isolationist pose.  (As I suspect it is mostly a pose.)

Is it significant that the policy being debated and voted on is significantly different than what the president proposed to the public?  Is there any point in tearing apart the Secretary of State's ridiculous claim that bombing a country that has not attacked us would not be "war in a classic sense?"  Was Senator Rand Paul basically right when he suggested this debate in Congress was simply theatre?   A lot of us on this side of the power gulf feel like it is theatre, and that the political establishment is just doing what it wants with respect to trade agreements, military action, monetary policy, labor laws, and the general expansion of neoliberal capitalism.

Now we get into popular ideas about weakness and strength.

When asked directly if the president would proceed to launch Tomahawks even if Congress rebukes his policy, and public opinion remains lopsidedly opposed, the Secretary of State does not answer directly, nor does any White House spokesman. Some members are openly calling for the president to act regardless of how Congress votes lest he seem "weak" -- and there are even claims that opening this up to a deliberative process was already a sign of weakness. 

The gulf between our political establishment and the public interest is not news to anyone.  What is the new is the extent to which that establishment openly disparages a deliberative process that involves listening.  Working in cooperation with other countries is weak.  Respecting international law instead of using force at will, is weak.  We are prompted to celebrate certainty and despise contemplation.  We have candidate debates that are not really debates.  We have a president in Russia right now who refuses to meet with the Russian president, the very man preventing a truly international response the president claims to want -- because talking is held to be weak.

Maybe it falls on cultural workers, in whatever part of the media spectrum we can influence, to uphold different ideas about strength.  

This morning, Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico -- one of my U.S. senators, as a matter of fact, and a member of that foreign relations committee -- was interviewed on National Public Radio.  Senator Udall voted "no" on the resolution. Asked about non-military options, he stammered a bit, but he also presented a rare contradiction of the rhetoric we're hearing about "America's credibility" and this idea about strength and leadership:

I think we gain credibility when we work with our international allies, when we build international support, when we focus in on Russia and China and shame them and say these two countries are supporting the use of chemical weapons, and we all need to unite and come up with a solution that brings this despicable war criminal to justice and moves us towards a more peaceful region.

History during my lifetime leaves me skeptical that the political establishment is interested in the public interest or "justice" in any accountable sense, but here on our side of the power gulf maybe we can resist -- with letters, tweets, our art, our conversation, and even our industry if and when they start sending our young people off to another unnecessary war -- and consciously uphold a culture that esteems knowledge, debate, and cooperation.

Because in a culture that considers those things "weak" and encourages leaving the difficult choices up for strong and willful leaders, fewer and fewer people can hold the idea that a different kind of power structure is even possible.

And THAT, dear friends, is a sentiment the political establishment hates.

[Image:  "You.....complete me."]

Backstage video: GREATER TUNA costumes

Greater Tuna is a big job for a costume designer, and for the actors it is all about the costume changes.  What goes on backstage is perhaps equally precise and critical to the show's success as what happens onstage.

Danny Wade, our light and sound operator, made a cool "behind the scenes" video lasting about four minutes.  It gives a glimpse of what it's like backstage during our show, with narration by the two actors: David Reyes and yours truly.  Enjoy:

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

GREATER TUNA is coming to Deming

Today, the producers of Greater Tuna, the play we are currently running at the No Strings Theatre Company in Las Cruces, came out to Deming along with my fellow actor, David Reyes.  We all converged on Voiers Park, also known as "pit park" because it is built in a large pit outside of downtown Deming, at the northern end of Country Club Road.

The theatre is an outdoor venue with the capacity to seat 1,000 people.  The place was built and dedicated in 2007 and has seen little use since then.  It has been rented for occasional events, and I hear about a musical performance there once or twice a year.  The city insists on calling it an amphitheatre.  It is not an amphitheatre.  But it's a very nice outdoor theatre. 

On September 28 and 29, David and I will perform Greater Tuna, without mikes, in this open air venue.  Today we tested the acoustics.  A little bit tough -- mainly for elocution, but there is also competing noise from nearby traffic.  The weather can make a difference, too.  But we'll risk it. 

Deming is a city where people love theatre, and they don't get nearly enough of it.  Assuming we don't have a problem securing the rights for two more performances, we'll be getting the word out right away.

If you're in the area, plan on coming by.  But you'll want to bring something comfortable to sit on! 

Flashback: George Carlin explains the "Bigger Dick" foreign policy theory

Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to approve military aggression against Syria as requested by President Obama.  One of the recurring assertions by the president and Secretary of State John Kerry is that we must violate international law and engage in an act of war unilaterally (over a moral principle we do not apply to ourselves or our allies) because if we don't we will be perceived as weak, that "American credibility" is at stake.

It sounds very much like what George Carlin, in a fierce and insightful standup comedy routine dating back to 1992.  Let's yield the screen to the man himself.  Here he is 21 years ago responding to Operation Desert Storm.

It was a bug, not censorship: A brief follow-up

In a post yesterday, I wrote about censorship on Buddhist blogs, a phenomenon I have experienced on several occasions. 

However, there is a different explanation for the most recent weirdness with Buddhist blogs on the topic of Syria.  In that post I wrote that a problem with the platforms could not be ruled out, as both blogs happened to be on the Patheos platform. 

And today, both those bloggers reported that, indeed, they had a bunch of comments awaiting moderation that they had not noticed.  It sounds like Patheos might have changed its platform a bit and caught these users by surprise.

Blogger does that, too. 

Once again, computers make fools of us.  

Anyway, James Ford very sportingly linked to my reply to him.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Interacting with the Burning House: Sharing posts, submitting questions/topcs

How can I share posts on my favorite social media?  

Recently, I've been trying to change the code on this blog to add a more prominent and user-friendly 'share' bar so you can re-tweet, Facebook, Reddit, any post on here that you like. Blogger, it turns out, is very resistant to these changes, but I'm still working at it.

In the meantime -- there IS a share widget.  It's just clunky.  If you look up on the top and to the left, there is a G+ share button, and to the right of that you'll find a pull-down menu labeled "more."  Click on that and share away! 

And hopefully, we can get something cooler up soon.

Also, at the bottom of every post is a little envelope icon.  Clicking this will allow you to email the post to others. 

Thanks for doing that! 

Sometimes you post in response to reader questions.  Where can I send a question?  

At the top and left, by the goofy photograph of your humble correspondent with a little bio, you will now find an email address where you can send questions or topics you'd like us to write about from here in the Burning House.  It's written in a devious format to thwart spambots.  Use the @ for the [at] and of course you can figure out that's a phonetic spelling for gmail. 

Or do you pronounce "gmail" with a hard G?  Hmmm.

In search of the least evil (A response to James Ford on Syria)

As introduced in the previous post, I would like to reply to James Ford's recent sermon and essay on the Syrian conflict, and the question of military strikes there by the United States. 

His piece is entitled "One Continuous Mistake," and I'll begin with an appreciation.  It's an honest testimony, a transparent talk about his personal struggle with a complex issue.  He writes:

Our issue, the real deal for us here in this community, is how to act in a sacred manner in this mess of relationships that are our lives. Faced with the complexities of war and peace and never having enough information, but being the eyes and ears of the world, and the mind and heart, too – what do I do? What do we do?

For me the reality is that it is impossible to be right. As the Zen tradition often notes, its [sic] all one continuous mistake.

As a matter of fact, I have no major disputes below with any statement he makes, even where my viewpoint is different.  For the response, I am going to submit a few things I think are simply missing from his analysis. 

In the following paragraph, he arrives at a stance:

Me, I’ve decided, for the moment, the least evil stance is to not oppose these called for attacks that might degrade the Syrian dictator’s forces, to demonstrate that poison gas must not be reintroduced into modern conflict. Out of respect for the Kurds. Out of respect for those others who’ve been victim to these horrors, to prevent the reintroduction of this terror. To finally, finally draw a line in that one small regard, at last.

It may well be true that we never know the entire truth, just as Mind can never contain the Absolute. 
With respect to the state, especially concerning war, some information is always kept from us citizens.  There may well be more information than one person can assimilate.  We must, however, continue to listen deeply and learn, and with respect to community and country we must also remember.  On this note, I would like to point out a few things that James's essay seems not to consider. 

The policy does not make sense as presented.  We are getting mixed messages about the policy.  Initially, the president promised military strikes that would not make a difference in the Syrian war or target Assad directly.  The only stated goals are vague:  what does "punishment" really mean here?  The policy leaves Assad in place to continue targeting non-combatants and the war to continue.  In the meantime, no matter how 'surgical' the strikes are designed to be, more non-combatants will die.   "Killing your people is unacceptable!  To punish you, we will kill some more of your people!" 

The policy, and James's defense, do not evaluate the obvious risks of retribution, both against Syria's people and against neighboring allies of the U.S. -- like Israel.  (In Israel, gas masks are being distributed to civilians who don't already have them, and the military is on full alert for possible retribution.)

Who pays the ultimate price as dictators and governments duke it out?  Can we really call that 'the least evil?'  Have we really decided that is the best human beings can or should do?  What does this really uphold? 

We do not uphold international law by flouting it.  Although Syria never signed the international convention banning chemical weapons, there is still a multilateral consensus that this is intolerable.  The red line has been drawn and it should be up to an international coalition, not one superpower, to police it.  There are obstacles to this, as everyone following this understands: there is, I think, a strong case here for the U.N. Security Council to debate reforming the use of veto, because what's happening here is that one superpower -- Russia being the main heavy in this case -- has the power to prevent the rest of the world from acting if somebody uses sarin gas on their people.  While the veto may yet have an important purpose on the Security Council, it is clearly being abused here.  This effectively breaks the United Nations and powers like the U.S. simply act on their own.  It escalates military conflict and the impulse to solve every problem with force. 

Even if our Congress votes to authorize military aggression against Syria, it is still a violation of international law to start bombing a country that is not attacking us.  In order to cover this problem, there is a lot of rhetoric about "defending America's interests" and America's "credibility."  We are, in fact, getting mixed messages:  is this about defending an international norm, or is it about maintaining our own reputation as a superpower and global cop?  

International laws need to be enforced by international coalitions and multilateral institutions.   When Barack Obama was a candidate, he upheld that point eloquently.  It was a selling point of his candidacy. 

Selective outrage.  Respect for the kurds?  Really?  The general public in the U.S. and its political class have been eloquent in their horror over Assad's attack on innocent people using sarin.  But before we presume any right to act unilaterally as the enforcer of 'international norms,' we must confront our own use of non-conventional weapons.  And this is not just in Vietnam with Agent Orange.  In our current wars in the middle east, we have used white phosphorous and depleted uranium.  These have lingering and non-discriminatory effects on human life.  There is nothing "surgical" about the use of such weapons.  Civilians suffer.  In birth defects in Iraq, we are seeing human beings suffer who were not even alive at the time of the conflict, due to our choice of weapons. 

Okay, fine, we've done bad things in the past, and even the very recent past.  Does that mean we can't change course and do something now?   Is this relevant, or is it just America-bashing?  Fair question.  Let's answer it.  

Let's be honest.  Is this about justice or dominance?  Since the U.S. is being selective in its outrage about these weapons, the search for truth compels us to ask what is really going on here.  Is the U.S. really just enforcing an international norm, or are we asserting the power to decide who is subject to international law and who isn't?  It's one thing to fight for justice, and quite another to fight for dominance.  

And I'll close with one more omission.

Other approaches.  When there is no really good option, and even doing nothing seems intolerable, what is the least evil we can do?  Can we actually do better than 'the least evil?" 

Depends on what we really want, don't you think?  Are we clear about that?

We cannot attain "the least evil" while agreeing to ignore some of the truth. We cannot attain "the least evil" without pushing back against deception and omission.  We have no duty to accept, or passively "not resist" the deeds of our elected representatives; and if we choose to let them do as they will, we don't get to pat ourselves on the back about choosing the 'least evil.'  If we are sincerely interested in the least evil, there are certain activities consistent with that: asking questions, applying critical thinking, speaking up. 

The least evil may, indeed, entail resistance.

But more importantly, it may involve something other than just dropping bombs.  It's a stereotypically American bias that the recourse seems to be limited to launching missiles.  What about pursuing veto reform at the Security Council to make truly international action possible even when Russia or China are being resistant?

And what about non-military options?  Since I've already written an awful lot today, I'll point you towards a good post about this written by Nathan Thompson over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship blog.  

James's "one continuous mistake" reminds us that we human beings have limited capacities, limited knowledge, conditioned habits of constructing reality and behaving reactively based on deluded ideas about reality.  This means, inevitably, we struggle -- humbly or not -- with our conscience and our passions. 

There are also non-continuous mistakes.  We can wake up, so the Buddha's third noble truth declares.  We can stand up after falling down.  We can assemble more knowledge as completely as we are able, and take responsibility for our participation or resistance to evil. 

Through questioning and dialogue, may we support each other in our practice of awakening with all beings, and on the way may we uphold sincere practice and truthful speech. 

Syria update, Buddhist blogs, and dialogue [UPDATED]

In selling a war to a skeptical public and/or Congress, one needs to move swiftly.  The President and the Secretary of State are very eager to drop bombs on Syria, nominally in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Ghouta a couple of weeks ago.  Many suspect this is also a proxy war with Iran.  While the President has, commendably, agreed to allow Congress to debate and vote on authorizing the military strike, he and Secretary Kerry are campaigning hard for political support, making an emotional public case and securing the endorsement of congressional leaders among Republicans (Senators McCain and Graham are on board, as is Speaker of the House Boehner) and Democrats (Nancy Pelosi is IN).

Curiously, the president initially described the policy as one that would not change the military balance of power in Syria.  Yet Senator McCain is now claiming that the president's plan would, in fact, have the affect of holding down the regime so the rebels can win.  So it is not clear, at this point, whether the policy is to intervene in the civil war or not.

And who do we believe, anyway?  It's hard not to feel like these people are just going to do what they want regardless of what their words say.  In which case, it doesn't really matter whether the battle plan is open ended or has clear objectives, right? 

If it seems that a conversation with power is impossible, we can at least, talk to each other.  But sometimes that's difficult, too.

One man who has been struggling with what to make of this is James Ford, a Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister who blogs at Monkey Mind.   On Sunday, he blogged his sermon on Syria and the case for a punitive military strike on Syria, "One Continuous Mistake." It's a good piece, both as a sermon and as an essay, laying out his personal struggle with the information and the moral question in a straightforward way.  Although I do not agree with his conclusion, it is a piece well worth reading (click that link).

Here is where James arrives by the piece's end: "I’ve decided, for the moment, the least evil stance is to not oppose these called for attacks that might degrade the Syrian dictator’s forces, to demonstrate that poison gas must not be reintroduced into modern conflict."

I submitted a reply in the blog's comment section which was polite and on-topic, but refuted that conclusion.  In fact, I did not even contradict anything he said, but only wrote about some aspects that he omitted from his analysis. 

[UPDATE:  Here, I wondered if this was deliberate or not, noting two possibilities.  One: "for whatever reason, he has declined to 'approve' [my comment].  He has allowed four comments to appear, as I write this, three of which agree with him and a fourth one that "agrees and disagrees."  But another possibility was a problem with the blog's platform, noting that I had commented on two Buddhist blogs, both on the Patheos platform, and on both these blogs my replies never surfaced.

On September 4, both bloggers report that it was the latter.  Patheos apparently changed how the user handles comments.  I am pleased to know it was that, and not part of the sad pattern I've experienced previously on Buddhist-oriented blogs that censor comments in order to control the discourse on their pages.  About those previous experienced, I wrote the following in the original post, which we now resume...     -Alg, 9/4/13]

By the way, what is it with Buddhist blogs and censorship?  Years ago, I had this experience on Barbara O'Brien's "About Buddhism" blog and gave up bothering to participate in comments there.  This week, TWO Buddhist blogs defended a U.S. attack on Syria, and my comments (which I promise were friendly and on-topic) were properly submitted yet never appeared.  There are three other Buddhist blogs I haven't even bothered to follow lately that exhibited a tendency to control the discourse on their comment pages the way Barbara did on hers.  Which they can do, of course, but what's up with that? 

As a matter of fact, I have only run into this behavior on Buddhist blogs.  I'm sure it goes on elsewhere, too, but this has been my experience. 

But hey, I have my own blog, so I'll respond here.  I did not keep a copy of the comment I submitted to James's blog but I can re-summarize the points here.   The next post will be a response to James's blog, which -- I want to say again -- is meant in the spirit of dialogue.  Because here at the Burning House, while we have a few general ground rules, we encourage dialogue. 

Monday, September 02, 2013

On opening for Rush

How did y'all spend your Monday morning? 

Interesting day for me.  Got together with David Reyes, my fellow actor in a show called Greater Tuna, and the two of us opened for Rush.

No, not that Rush

We were guests on the inaugural broadcast of a talk show on Las Cruces A.M. station KOBE 1450 along with our show's director, Ceil Herman, to promote Greater Tuna.  First, we improvised a little bit in the guise of radio hosts Thurston Wheelis and Arles Struvie, then they interviewed Ceil, and came back to us later to interview us and hear some more from our other characters.  We can't actually use dialogue from the play, but David and I are comfortable with improvisation, so we played it as if the characters were visiting Las Cruces.

After we were finished, I discovered that we were followed by Rush Limbaugh's program.  I found this amusing simply because one of my characters (I play ten) has a voice modeled on Limbaugh's.  The character doesn't behave like Rush Limbaugh, but I've always liked Rush's voice so I imitated that sound with some additional Texas twang.  I'm sure no one recognizes it, but I always had Rush's voice in mind.  It's actually a nice voice -- unfortunately employed to say vile and stupid things. 

 The show is enjoying a popular run at the Black Box Theatre in Las Cruces.  For photos, local review, and show information, you can visit this page on No Strings Theatre Company's website