Saturday, August 16, 2014

A bit of fun for a cause

I've been enjoying seeing posts about the "ice bucket challenge" to benefit the ALS Association, the organization dealing with the disease known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease."

And it was closing day of Unto These Hills.

And there was this amazing prop...just....sitting there.

So I made a volunteer PSA.

And I also donated. If you enjoy this, please share it. And also donate.

Monday, August 11, 2014

People around you are hurting

This post ain't really about Robin Williams, but we'll start with him.

Tonight I remembered a photograph I saw in a magazine from the 1980s -- People magazine maybe. A stupid television show called Mork & Mindy had made its young star, a comedian named Robin Williams, famous very quickly. A few years later after he became famous, he became a father for the first time. It was the kind of story for which People existed.

And this photograph I remember was very beautiful. It was the famous comedian looking like an ordinary young father, walking hand in hand with his toddler son, away from the camera, down a pier towards a pond.

That photograph was the first thing that flashed into my mind tonight when I heard about Robin Williams being found dead this morning. I didn't think about his movies or his drug use or the way he smiled at the camera in the music video for "Don't Worry Be Happy."  I thought about that picture of him with his son, a small boy reaching up to hold his hand.

We lose more people in our country to suicide than car accidents. I've lost an alarming number of friends and people I know to suicide. More people suffer from addiction and/or depression than we seem to realize, and even those who ask for help and get the care they need have a rough and uncertain road ahead of them; too many suffer in silence. Their friends and family often don't know what's happening, or don't know what to do. Sometimes the person in our midst who takes their life is someone we never knew was suffering that much. Sometimes, it's the person who seemed to have come through it and seemed to be doing great.

And I've noticed suicide is very hard on those left behind, who are often bewildered by the loss and surprised by their own reactions. It is easy to understand why some people feel very angry at people who kill themselves. Suicide usually isn't like a candle being snuffed out, but more like setting off a bomb in the middle of one's family and friends.

Instead of binge-watching Robin Williams movies, maybe we can think about this. Maybe the media can write about human suffering and how we can help each other instead of trying to delve into the lurid details of Mr. Williams's death.

Something as simple as checking in with somebody we know, somebody we know has gone through hard days, or we just haven't spoke with in a while, just "hi, thinking of you, how are you?" might make a bigger difference than we realize.

[Image:  I couldn't find the picture I was talking about. The boy's name is Zack, and I found a picture of him as a grown man standing next to his father.]

Friday, August 08, 2014

4th of July in Cherokee

One more "Desert Sage" post this week: I never posted my July column, a letter to Deming from Cherokee, North Carolina, about the strangeness of passing Independence Day on the reservation. It appeared in the July 10 edition of the Deming Headlight. So here's that.


This year Independence Day arrived while I was working on a reservation. There were fireworks and beer -- purchased elsewhere, for this is a dry county -- and the usual assortment of delicious unhealthy foods, and yet I was not exactly in the United States.

Cherokee, North Carolina is the home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who live on a portion of land that was once their nation -- land purchased from their conquerors, the United States government, or lands held in trust by them. Here by the Qualla Boundary in the Great Smoky Mountains, in the shade of a large casino and souvenir malls, there are historical and educational sites such as the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, an interactive replica of an 18th century Cherokee village, and a seasonal outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills,” that has been in repertory since 1950.

Frequent readers of this column can guess it is the latter that brings me here for the summer. Your correspondent plays a role in the history play – an historic Cherokee chief, no less – among a large cast, music, dance, and pyrotechnics. We perform six nights a week, typically for four to seven hundred people at a time. We are also rehearsing a brand new play that is in development, and some of us are working at the replica village as well.

The play dramatizes the relations between the old Cherokee Nation and the United States, especially the devastation of Indian removal and the Trail of Tears. A more direct description of the policy would be ethnic cleansing. Sixteen thousand Cherokee were marched to Oklahoma and a great many died on the way. A fragment of the Cherokee was able to remain in North Carolina and their descendants live here.

Even before the 4th of July came along, it had been a curious job. One of the historical criticisms of this play was that too many white actors were performing in “redface,” rather than having Cherokee performers play the major characters in their own history. This has improved, and now there are several Cherokee actors in the cast, as well as a mix of other ethnic backgrounds. Even so, today I share a dressing room with a distinguished Cherokee man, painting my face and donning a black wig. There is no avoiding the strangeness of the situation, and we share a great deal of laughter.

The streets are lined with gift shops and people dressed more like the Hollywood image of the American Indian, great feather bonnets and dance costumes, razzling and dazzling tourists and accepting tips for photographs. Generally, I stick close to the river, enjoying the children and dogs playing and people fishing, easing my mind’s grumpy chatter about all the disrespectful profiteering.

Before our 4th of July performance, the Cherokee Historical Association made a presentation. Combing out my black wig I wondered what kind of presentation this would be, considering the tale we tell – of Andrew Jackson, numerous violated treaties, land lotteries and Indian removal, of conquest and enclosure by the United States. Would they talk about the Declaration of Independence, the document that declared their conquerors’ independence from an older empire? A document that, for all its strengths, refers to natives as “merciless Indian savages?”

What they did, instead, was turn the 4th into Veterans Day, celebrating several area veterans. This may have been the most tasteful approach, to recognize service without additional commentary.

There were fireworks later at night, but after re-enacting Horseshoe Bend and the Trail, many of us were content to sit by a campfire and enjoy the mountain sky.

[Image: Soco Creek, Cherokee, North Carolina. Took this picture in July while I was looking for Yonaguska's burial site.]

Thursday, August 07, 2014

"Desert Sage" announcement

"Desert Sage" is a local editorial column for the Deming Headlight, originated by Win Mott in 2001. For nearly 12 years, Win wrote the weekly column himself, appearing on the Thursday editorial page. Beginning in 2013, the column was shared by Win, me, Lynn Olson, and Richard Thatcher -- all residents of Luna County, New Mexico, writing about national and world events with a viewpoint grounded in the place where we lived. I've been sharing my own monthly "Desert Sage" pieces on this blog.

Today comes the announcement that I will take over the column entirely, starting immediately.  Read Win Mott's transition column here.

So now it begins. What the heck do I write about this week?

[Image: Writing session at Cherokee Coffee in Cherokee, North Carolina. Here for another 9 days before driving home to New Mexico.]

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Magicians and Radicals

I've been forgetting to post my "Desert Sage" columns here during the summer. This was the June column, appearing in the Deming Headlight on June 12 of this year.  

"Desert Sage" is a Thursday editorial column originated by Win Mott for the Headlight years ago. In 2013, Win began sharing the column with four writers, including yours truly. My column appeared regularly on the second Thursday of each month. 

Changes are taking place with the column once again, and there will be an announcement about that later this week.


“What you are about to learn may disappoint you.” 

The magician brought out an array of handkerchiefs and small props in preparation for my first lesson in magic. This was not actual sorcery but the human art of illusion. Trickery. Fooling the eye into believing it sees something that is not real. 

It was disconcerting to learn how easily a human being can be fooled. 

One of the essential skills of a magician is that of misdirection, luring your attention elsewhere. When a magician makes something disappear, it is often hidden in plain sight. A magic trick is a small story and the audience will accept the tale and gasp in amazement. It’s fun. Yes, there are those who hold back and try to catch the trick, but they are just party-poopers. 

There is an analogy here to politics. Societies are held together by stories, and usually these stories take a kernel of fact and embellish them, improve upon them by adding memorable details, dramatizing events, and celebrating individual accomplishments. 

Last week, Desert Sage Win Mott wrote about one cherished American myth, that of the “rugged individualist” who built the west. Despite the libertarian fantasy of solitary frontiersmen, “they worked together,” wrote the sage. “Not just to help in crisis, fire, flood or the like, but in the everyday life of planting, irrigating, harvesting and even marketing. clearly functioned better when people banded together.” Moreover, government played an active role in the settlement and development of the west. As an example, Mott wrote about the Homestead Act, to which we will return in a moment. 

Some historical myths present us as we wish to see ourselves; some teach moral lessons - recall George Washington’s cherry tree. The mythos of the rugged individualist celebrates positive values such as perseverance, ingenuity, and self-sufficiency. 

Another use of myth is misdirection, like the magician’s sleight of hand, drawing attention away from the actual power relationships that direct our economy and our laws. Of the romantic, rugged individualist, Emma Goldman wrote, “Their ‘rugged individualism’ is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion.” 

The Homestead Act of 1862 is often remembered as an example of good government action, helping the commonfolk. As Desert Sage wrote, “Its impact on individuals was to make essentially free land available to poor people willing to live on the land and farm it.” This was formally the intent of the law, and Desert Sage’s point is valid, yet even here there are onion-like layers of myth and misdirection. 

Looking deeper, that land wasn’t really free – it had to be ‘discovered’ and ‘liberated’ from previous occupants, with enormous violence. Moreover, freed slaves and agrarian families often could not raise the needed capital, and it was wealthy speculators and landholders who snapped up the conquered lands and pushed the frontier westward, enacting a great new myth, that of “Manifest Destiny.” 

Just as one can learn to spot what a magician is doing, one can begin to notice the misdirection in our national myths and rhetoric, the friendly masks placed over those who rule. As my magician friend warned me, this knowledge can be disappointing. And looking into these matters will get you called names much worse than party-pooper. 

Exalting rugged individuals keeps us divided and conquerable. There is little an individual can do about a powerful and organized ruling class. A resilient and activated community, on the other hand, can unseat people, change the power structure and write a new storyline. 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Long Run Fatigue

At this writing, we have completed 54 performances of Unto These Hills if I count correctly, with 13 to go.

The last time I had a run this long was probably my last show as an Equity actor, when I played Bob Cratchit at Trinity Rep in 2005.  Since then, when I work at all, it's at smaller theatres with much shorter runs. Every performance is precious and rare. Long runs don't feel like that. Since May 31, we have been performing six nights a week, and we continue through August 16. For many members of this cast, many of them undergraduates in theatre programs here or there, these 67 shows are their first experience with a long run.

And for some actors, 67 shows isn't even a long run. Just ask Broadway actors, or actors in touring companies. They'd call 67 shows an interlude.

Be it 67 shows or 670, we have to deal with the familiarity and the fatigue of repetition, the conundrum of doing the same show as rehearsed while experiencing each moment fresh as new. This is a problem that turns some actors away from live theatre and toward the camera. (Besides the money, that is.) I've heard actors I really admire, who gravitated away from theatre toward film work, complain about the repetition in live theatre.

One way actors keep it fresh for themselves is by pulling small pranks on each other. Audiences might be amazed by how much goes on, even onstage. To a degree this is actually healthy, as long as everyone understands the golden rule, which is that the audience must never catch on to the mischief. The scene must remain intact. But if actors are in a little bit of danger of laughing, it keeps us alive, listening, breathing. I would never wish to sabotage a scene partner outright, but I'll vary what I'm doing, surprise them, tease them a little. It's fun and keeps us from becoming automatons, lifelessly repeating the same lines the same way, with no semblance of life or passion.

Another way is to keep going back to scenework. Even within the confines of the scripted lines and blocking, there might be new discoveries, a way to use a line more clearly, a gesture, a point of contact with another actor, something in our use of breath, moments we hadn't noticed or heard before.

Besides new discoveries, there is an art to re-discovering things, noticing them again as for the first time. For this, I find cham soen (zen meditation, also known by the Japanese term zazen) helpful. Generally I don't like to talk about meditation in terms of practical benefit  - "if you sit zen, you get this and that" - but this is a rare exception. For the actor's discipline it happens to be tremendously useful, a way to gather ones energy, release the crap on the surface consciousness, bring our attention and our breath together, and wake up listening throughout our senses.  Leaving aside the broader discussion about our vow to practice, it happens to provide tangible benefits to how we do this particular job. (I've also found useful ways to merge chanting zen with vocal warmups, but that will be for another entry, maybe.)

In formal zen, there is a lot of repetition, and a lot of opportunity to practice repetition as not-repetition, to experience it freshly again without forgetting or pretending or "knowing" what comes next. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, "Just do it," which is very concise yet the sense here is much deeper than it may sound. Similarly, my acting teacher used to say, "Just say it," but that means something more realized than the sentence might suggest.  (But dear god, please don't ponder that. Just do it. Ha ha.)

Anyway, it's a useful way to wake up and live the piece we've rehearsed again, top to bottom.

It's a practice and we have just about a dozen tries left. The following morning, I'll be on the road back to New Mexico. On the weekend of August 22, Randy Granger and I will be performing An Iliad in Albuquerque.

[Image: dress rehearsal from Unto These Hills, back in May. Your correspondent is on the far left (of course) playing Yonaguska.  Photo by Wylder Cooper.]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Meet and Greet

A few years ago in this space, I wrote a bit about the curtain call.

After the curtain call, I am used to disappearing. After giving my best performance, and then sincerely bowing to those who came to watch, my job is done. It's time to mop off the makeup, get into my own clothes, and leave the temple -- er, the theatre -- with dignity. If I know there are friends coming, I'll go out and see them, of course. I'm grateful to them for coming and waiting to see me. However, even here, I prefer to keep a low profile so as not to put myself on parade.

(The rest of that post can be read here.)

At the time, I was working on my first role in Las Cruces, and had recently learned about a local custom that seemed strange to me: meet and greets with actors, in costume, immediately after a performance. Years later, it is still extremely uncomfortable for me, whether I am an actor in the show or sitting in the audience.

From the audience, what I see is the actors doing something like a traditional curtain call, but instead of fading into the wings they run out -- still in costume and makeup -- to form a reception line in the lobby and receive compliments in person.  (If you actually clicked the link and read my post about the curtain call, you may understand my nausea at this.)

Members of the audience are then put in an awkward position, having to decide whether it is mandatory to stand in line and greet the actors in person, or whether it's okay to head straight out to the car and risk seeming rude. At the Las Cruces Community Theatre, the reception line often creates a backup all the way into the theatre, to the point that people have to sit in their seats or remain standing, waiting to leave, including elderly people. To be blunt, it strikes me as rather awful. I have been told that some patrons enjoy this, and from my unscientific observations, I concede that some do, yet I suspect a slight majority either don't care or find it uncomfortable.

Meet and greet is also part of our show here at Unto These Hills, and I'll come back to that in a moment.

As an actor, I have tended to despise the meet and greet. At the end of a show, I am likely to be sweaty, in need of a bathroom, or simply wanting a moment to calm down. Casually gadding about in costume and makeup also feels, internally, a bit disrespectful of the illusion we created. Or just awkward. When the performance is done, the mask is to be removed and put in its place.

Going further, I don't like members of the audience feeling like they are obligated to greet me personally; nor do I want to project the image of the actor basking in praise. As I wrote in the aforementioned post, I'm a singer in the choir, and the glory is not for me.  Sure, it's nice to hear a compliment when I've done something well, but that's a gratuity. It's about the work, not about Algernon.

At the Black Box Theatre, I usually agree to do the "greeting line" on opening night. The other nights, I go backstage, calm down and get out of costume, and then come out to say hello to friends or thank the volunteers. (Thanking the volunteers is very important.) Also, I am very happy to do post-show receptions - just let me pee and towel off, get a glass of water, and I'll be happy to come out.

Unto These Hills is a different kind of venue. The Mountainside Theatre is part of the Cherokee Historical Association, and our show could be described as a sort of living exhibit and tourist attraction. Elsewhere on the hill is the Oconaluftee Village, a living replica of a Cherokee village up to the 18th century, and at the bottom of the hill is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and a craft cooperative.

We do meet and greet in rotations. Each night, immediately after the curtain call, a group of cast members ascend the steep hill to the very top of the house, by the exit, where the departing spectators cannot avoid us. By the time we get up there, our hearts are pounding. I sit on a stone wall in costume (including a long wig). Historically this show has taken some criticism for casting white actors as native characters; in recent years they have been sure to cast more Cherokee actors in important roles, yet here I am in a wig, feeling rather conspicuous at meet and greet. I felt so grateful the night an elderly Cherokee man, beaming, having bounded up the many stairs without breaking a sweat, smiled one of the warmest smiles I've ever seen and greeted me, in Cherokee: "O sta!"

The show has an educational purpose and these "meet/greets" have the potential to spark an interest in a subject that is badly taught, or simply missing, from most public education.  One cast member wrote on her own Facebook page:

Tonight at Meet and Greet a man, I'd guess in his 60s, asked if the play was based on a true story or a legend.... I don't blame him I blame the severe lack of Native American education in our country. I'm at least proud that we can spark some interest in the subject, but the widespread ignorance and apathy for a whole race of people, my people, really breaks my heart.
For that, I can take the stick out of my ass about meet and greet. Maybe it really does help. So it's okay to be there and also okay to feel weird about it. And eventually someone from stage management emerges from the shadows, dressed in black and wearing a headset, and says, "You're released."  Off I go, taking the most invisible route I can, hoping our presence helped someone connect to the story we are telling.

[Image: Lobby area, Mountainside Theatre, Cherokee, NC.]

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Writing: A Blog Hop

My friend Ji Hyang, who blogs at Natural Wisdom, invited me to participate in this "blog hop" thing. Oh, what I will do for my friends.

What are you writing/working on?

Honestly I have no work habits established as far as writing goes. I manage to hand in a column every month for the Deming Headlight. Supposedly, during this summer in North Carolina I am revising The Chess Play (a play I wrote to be performed by children, workshopped in Deming this spring).  I haven't touched it.

For my son, I have been working on a personal, handwritten storybook. The book pictured above is a blank book, and I've persuaded several members of the cast of Unto These Hills to contribute illustrations from which I take inspiration for the story. It is a whimsical fantasy tale incorporating many things that Gabriel likes, including some of his friends and his little brother.

Here is the illustration for the book's title page (which is untitled for the moment):

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm.  Well.  It's handwritten, and my handwriting is not like anyone else's. Which might be a good thing.

Why do you write what you write?

For pleasure. For communication. For connection. It's true of letters, editorials, plays, and even Gabriel's storybook.

I've no professional aspirations, but it feels good when I do it well. Last year, I wrote a couple of chapters of a book on acting and found it so boring I quickly abandoned the project. The world will be fine.

How does your writing process work?

I don't know. My father, a professional writer, is very disciplined about his work. Me, well, I can usually meet a deadline, but it may or may not follow an all-night writing binge splashed in wine. Language is an instrument and I am a noodler. It helps to be in an environment where I am not interrupted and can play appropriate selections of music. Sometimes it useful to sit (aka zazen) before and/or after writing practice.

The List of Wars

Randy Granger and I had hoped to perform An Iliad together in the Asheville area this summer, but things kept falling through. Two venues in Asheville canceled, and then some of Randy's gigs went away and he could not make the trip to North Carolina. Just as it seemed the play would be on hiatus for the summer, a conservatory connection living in the area helped make a show happen, and so it was that An Iliad came to Black Mountain.  (I also gave a free show in Cherokee back in June.)

The White Horse is a former car dealership which has for several years been a performance venue serving beer and wine. For a show like An Iliad, it works very well, offering easy interaction between the actor and the spectators. Not my strongest run at the beginning, mainly because I was trying to play with a very different space, but the performance found its groove.

Afterwards, I enjoyed a long conversation with a couple of people about The List.

One of the memorable features of this play is a long recitation of major wars and revolutions around the world, starting with the conquest of Sumer and going up through the current civil war in Syria. For several minutes, the list goes on, a solemn litany of major conflicts in human history.

In Las Cruces, a combat veteran told me that as he listened to The List he had been enjoying it as theatre, but when I named the war he himself had fought (Vietnam) it took him by surprise, like a button had been pushed, his experience had been recognized and united with human history past and future. Similar testimonies taught me that The List is an important, almost sacred part of the play, pointing a way toward reconciliation and healing, however imperfect.

Last night, in Black Mountain, the conversation raised an interesting question about The List: what about veterans of non-military conflicts? This was raised by a woman who had gone through Hurricane Katrina, the chaos and the turmoil that followed, the destruction of her home and her society. Her recent decision to leave her home city, the city her family had lived in for generations, for the safety of her young son and to recover from PTSD, was clearly one that had cost her personally. As powerful as The List was, she said, she wanted to be included. She had never worn a uniform or been trained or deployed to a war zone, but she had been in one and felt herself altered forever.

Joining our conversation was a man who had helped counsel first-responders after the attacks of September 11. Here was another occasion when civilians, people not trained for battlefields, were abruptly plunged into The Shit.

9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are not included in The List. The List focuses on military conflicts and a few major social revolutions. I took the liberty of adding "Indian Removal" to The List, as it seemed improper to exclude that horror - the long walk, the trail of tears, let's just call it ethnic cleansing. Especially here in Cherokee country. It feels appropriate to include it since at least one side was in uniform, while on the other side civilians were killed or forced to march, many of them unprepared for conflict with a large army. The line between soldier and civilian is cruelly fluid, and this is not just a feature of modern warfare. Still. The List is, for practical reasons, limited to military conflicts and does not include the suffering of those plunged into warfare unprepared, or those whose lives are stripped by natural disasters with consequences similar to the effects of war.

And those folks need healing, too.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rain Pace

No matter how well you prepare, in outdoor drama there is a critical factor that is under no human control whatsoever, and you already know what we're talking about: weather.

It rains frequently here on the hill and our stage, as you see above, is made of sand. The "eagle rock" set, visible in the top right of the picture, pools with water. There is also a cabin that rolls out on stage left, on which we perform on a flat wooden deck that becomes slick. Meanwhile, when that deck of sand is saturated, it turns into a muddy soup. For the fighters, it becomes dangerous. You don't even need to be swinging a war club or a saber to slip and fall. There are adjustments we make for rain, but wet is wet, and we must tread carefully while, at the same time, moving the performance at "rain pace."

"Rain pace" basically means speeding up the dialogue and whatever else can be sped up safely. Not fights. Not dances. And not scenes that are timed to recorded music (for instance, the scene in our second act, depicting the Trail of Tears.)

The show goes on in the rain. We have, this summer, canceled two shows: in one case, a storm knocked out all power on the hill, and in the other case management held the curtain until after 9:00 PM in hopes a lightning storm in a neighboring valley would move away. Lightning will cancel a show but rain will not. For the hearty patrons who stay, there are rain ponchos for sale, and a rain shelter from which the show can be viewed (though you mainly see the tops of actors' heads from up there). 

There is a blue light downstage, visible to the actors but not the audience, that may be activated at any time if a storm is approaching. There is a similar light backstage. If the light comes on, we're at rain pace.

Moving at regular speed or rain pace, as it may, we are all sodden, cast and crew alike. Our shoes are wet. Wet sand is caked to our skin, smeared on our costumes and our own clothes. Wigs, masks, and microphones need to be protected as best as possible. It rained much of yesterday -- the show went on, performing for an audience of 136 stalwarts in a 2,000 seat theatre, fully exposed to the rain -- and it rained through the night and at this writing it continues.

Time itself seems to be moving at an accelerated pace. Time itself is an illusion, and perceptions of its speed have to do with where our attention is. Nonetheless, it is breathtaking to sit at the fire pit by our dormitories (when it is dry enough for an evening fire) and remember the date, to think more than two months have already gone by. In the two months plus that we've been on this hill, we've mounted a large-cast outdoor drama, workshopped a full-length musical that is in development, some of us (including me) have undergone 60 hours of stage combat training and gone through an examination process, and I've also continued to book and perform An Iliad. (This Sunday, I'm performing it in a tavern in Black Mountain. Click here for details and come by if you're in the Asheville, North Carolina area.)

Meanwhile, in just a few weeks here, two theatre friends back in Las Cruces, New Mexico have died unexpectedly: one of illness, the other murdered. Being so far away, there isn't the time or space to touch other friends and help each other digest such loss and confusion.

The blue light is on and we are packing in the projects, also making time every day to touch the dharma in some formal way -- often finding some quiet place on the hill for zazen, using chant to warm up my voice.

For the last month, I'm hoping to be a bit less industrious, always putting something out there, and to take in and listen to this land where I am privileged to spend some time, the Cherokee reservation and the Great Smoky Mountains. It is so refreshing to be in a different kind of climate, where rain actually falls from the sky so frequently, and it is not just a work-related problem but a natural function of a living place, a nourishing force that can also be a destructive force, doing itself blithely while human beings run around and call to each other through the fog.

[Image: Fight rehearsal on the set of Unto These Hills in Cherokee, North Carolina.]

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Plea for Indigenous Realism

Red Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous KnowledgeRed Alert!: Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge by Daniel R. Wildcat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our climate emergency (the author calls it "global burning") is becoming impossible to ignore, and it is already too late to avert some catastrophic effects in 2014, and yet there is much to do and important reasons to do it. This book is an argument for important principles to be learned from indigenous peoples: "American Indian and Alaskan Native wisdom is a cooperative construction built on generations of attentive interaction between humans and the diversity of life found in the unique ecosystems and environments we call home."

This is, as repeatedly emphasized, not a call for a rejection of technology or a reset to some idealized past stage of development, but an argument for an "indigenous realism" in which "the value of technology is...a function of the symbiotic relationship between environment and culture."

It is effectively an extended introduction to an important topic, with some historical detail and a cursory presentation of some guiding principles that can be learned from Native approaches to technology and ecological balance, from the past and also the present. It is, however, not an academic work and does not go into these in depth, but urges the reader to consider and study this perspective more deeply.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Replace your damned timing belt!

I'm not the first motorist to put off replacing the timing belt, and I'm not the first to pay the price.

It happened smack in the middle of a long road trip, too, just to emphasize the lesson.

On May 8, I made a final stop at the university and then hit the interstate to begin a drive from New Mexico to North Carolina. My route would take me across Texas into Louisiana and then Mississippi, veering north across Alabama and Tennessee into the Cherokee national forest and up, up, up onto the reservation to begin my summer working for the Cherokee Historical Association.

My business here is playing a role in their annual summer show, Unto These Hills.  The show takes place in a 2,000 seat outdoor arena in the Ocunaluftee Indian Village, and most of the cast lives in dormitories on a hill behind the theatre.

My beloved Honda Civic was running as perkily as ever.  In Shreveport, Louisiana, I stopped to replace two worn tires and continued on my way. I was enjoying the tall trees and smells of Louisiana when suddenly, without any alarming dashboard lights or ominous noises or any premonition in my mind, the engine simply stopped.  I coasted to the side of the freeway, brought the car to a stop (its final stop), and tried to start it again.  It made a whining noise but there was no engine.

It was late in the afternoon, a Saturday, with hot sun blaring. I waited two and a half hours for a tow truck, hiking to the nearest overpass to sit in the shade with the bottle of water I had in the car. I did not get a choice of where the car would be towed.  The nearest town, three miles away, was Delhi, Louisiana -- it does not rhyme with "deli" but "well hi," with the stress on the first syllable, DEL-hi!  The town had one mechanic, and that's where we went. We dropped the car in front of the business, which would not open until Monday morning.  Then I walked across town looking for a motel.

This ended up being an expensive two-day delay in my trip, and I feared for my job. For the rest of Saturday and Sunday, I more or less hung out in the motel room, taking a few walks around town.  Like Deming, Delhi has a freight train running across town several times a day. Unlike Deming, the train goes right through the center of town. It could well be passing within a few feet of you.

On Monday morning, it took the mechanic all of a minute to confirm that the car was totaled. With an interference engine such as my car had, a timing belt failure is very likely to destroy your engine (click here to read why). So replace your car's timing belt, okay?

At that point I had several problems to solve.  What to do with my car. What to do with stuff in the car (I was on a three-month trip, and had also brought a few props and costumes for my Iliad performance). How to get to Cherokee, North Carolina. How to pay for any of the solutions available to me. How to get home if the show decided to re-cast my role.

The business where I had been towed is called Auto Doctor, and the mechanic who pronounced my car dead (unless I wanted to replace the engine) was the owner, Robert Denman. He and his wife, Vicki, were most helpful and generous. They made helpful suggestions, and Robert took time away from his business to run me to the motel and back while I figured out a plan. Even more generously, he took an hour out of his day to drive me into Monroe to rent a car. While I was heading back, he negotiated with two different wrecking services to get the best price for my car.  He was hesitant to accept any money for his services, but I insisted. He saved my summer, getting me back on the road quickly even if it wasn't in my own car.

The feeling of sadness as I emptied out the Civic was surprising and even amusing.  I don't personalize machines or project personalities onto them.  When talking to mechanics I tended to refer to the car as a she -- not sure where I picked that up. Still, it's a machine, not a pet or a person. All the same, it is a machine I relied on heavily for twelve years.  I began leasing it when I was Abbot of Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles. It went coast to coast several times, across the country a few more times, and traveled heavily all over New Mexico the last five years for work. Somehow it deserved a kinder send-off than this hasty, rushed transaction, abandoning it to a wrecker on the side of the road. I felt a sadness on the level of having to put down a pet, and shame at how messy the event was.

By lunchtime Monday I was back on the road in a rented Camry, with half the drive left to go. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I arrived at the site on Tuesday.  Within 45 minutes of my arrival, I was rehearsing.

And that's pretty much what I've been doing ever since.  It's a large production with a cast of 45 or so, elaborate battles, pyrotechnics, dance, moving sets, and more. The stage has no deck; we are performing in sand. We open in just a few more days. Our days are long.  Although I have combat experience, I don't fight in this show, nor am I dancing, so the physical demands on me aren't as intense this summer. I get to concentrate on my scene work, and just try not to fall on my ass onto the rocks.

In posts to follow, I hope to share a bit about the character I play and things I've seen and learned out here. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Thomas Paine discussed at Left Forum

Hello from Cherokee, North Carolina.

The tale of my journey here and the project on which I am working has yet to be narrated on this blog, although some of you have heard I ran into severe car trouble on the way and was stranded for two days, arriving late to the reservation in a rental car and rushed into a scene rehearsal within 45 minutes.  Quite a travel story. 

For now, I'm just popping on to share a link to an article by Chris Hedges calling attention to our dear ancestor, Thomas Paine, as it seems that this year's Left Forum has dedicated a panel discussion to Paine.

As Hedges writes (and I've added links to his references):

"Thomas Paine is America’s one great revolutionary theorist. We have produced a slew of admirable anarchists—Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day and Noam Chomsky—and radical leaders have arisen out of oppressed groups—Sitting Bull, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Cornel West and bell hooks—but we don’t have a tradition of revolutionists. This makes Paine unique."

Hooray.  Click here for the whole article.

I would be shirking some responsibility if I did not take this opportunity to plug Thomas Paine Friends, an historical organization dedicated to Paine and his writings, with which I have been involved for several years.

And I'll return to tell the tale of my road trip.  It was a rough one.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fooling with Democracy

Here is the April installment of my monthly piece for the Deming Headlight.  It appeared in the paper on April 10.


Perhaps we should change Election Day to April 1.

In a stunning follow-up to its 2010 ruling in the case of Citizens United vs.  Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court struck down more limits on private funding of election campaigns this month.  The rulings were announced on April 2, one day after April Fool’s Day and certainly no prank.

The case of McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission was about aggregate limits on campaign funding – the total amount an individual may spend during an election cycle.   In the current cycle, by law you can spend $123,200 on candidates, national party committees, and certain political committees;  with a limit of $2,600 to specific federal candidates, and a total limit of $48,600 on direct contributions to candidates.  

These limits date back to the Watergate scandal that engulfed the presidency of Richard Nixon.  To fight corruption, these aggregate limits were enacted in 1974 and survived a Supreme Court challenge in 1976.  The limits were later indexed to inflation in 2002. 

In our era, the Supreme Court is rolling back limits on private funding of campaigns.  Citizens United rolled back bans on corporations and organizations from using company funds for direct advocacy, and McCutcheon rolled back aggregate individual limits.  It won’t stop there.  Justice Clarence Thomas complained that “limiting the amount of money a person may give to a candidate does impose a direct restraint on his political communication.”  There is explicit support on that bench for doing away with any limits on campaign spending. 

The rationale is that spending money is equivalent to speech, and therefore it is “free speech” for a billionaire to bankroll campaigns and dominate the available media.  What this means for the rest of us is a politics further dominated by wealthy individuals and corporations. 

Amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth, we do well to remember that this is a political struggle that has been going on since the founding of the United States.  It is a struggle between the conflicting ideals of political democracy (rule by people) and plutocracy (rule by wealth).  The struggle is not hidden and was once written about in plain language without embarrassment.

James Madison, in an essay recorded as Number 10 in the Federalist Papers, acknowledges class conflict in the year 1787, writing, “The most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”  Madison, however, was no communist.  His purpose was to argue that government must preserve these inequalities, to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” as he put it in a debate that year.   For him and many of the other founders of the United States, political democracy was something dangerous, noted for its “leveling tendencies” and its vulnerability to “unruly” passions. 

John Jay, another of our founders and our first Chief Justice, was even more explicit:  “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”  Chief Justice John Roberts may well concur. This idea is very much in practice in our politics today, as the way is cleared for lobbyists, political action committees, corporations, and wealthy individual donors at the same time that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act has been struck down and new restrictions on voting are enacted. 

The purpose of political democracy is precisely that “leveling tendency,” for people to share power and fight for their social and economic interests.  The struggle for political democracy in America is ongoing, and one side is highly organized, well funded, and effective.  Plutocracy is winning.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Regarding the White Gaze

A week ago, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge paid a visit to New Zealand and were greeted by Maori dignitaries, and a contingent of dancers in traditional garb and tattoos.

CNN reporter Jeanne Moos filed a story about the occasion that went dreadfully awry and quickly went viral, widely shared and villified across the internet.   It seems like a natural topic for a soft, humorous "human interest" sort of story, right?  Here is the future British monarch and his family, in western-style formal clothes including a dark suit and tie for the Prince, and they literally rub noses with their hosts as part of a customary greeting.  Two cultures saying hello.  That could be nice and fun.  

Unfortunately, Ms. Moos decided to push the joke.  The tipping point seems to be the bare-buttocked male dancers.  Moos indulged in juvenile puns, calling the event a "royal bummer," and making peculiar comments like, "Is this any way to welcome a future king and queen?"  

Oh, but it got worse.  Ms. Moos then dug up archival footage of First Lady Laura Bush being greeted in Afghanistan by New Zealand soldiers doing traditional dance -- which is a rather high honor -- while Ms. Moos compares the dancing to a Chippendales routine and the mating ritual of an emu.  

And so on in that vain.  Watch it if you wish: 

Pretty soon, there were petitions circulating on-line demanding an apology.  Jeanne Moos acknowledged the criticisms and stated, "I do humour and satire, and I am truly sorry if the tone of my story offended anyone."  It feels a bit like a standard procedure.  Outcry, followed by an indirect, not-really-apologetic apology.

I think something may have gotten lost in the demands that Moos apologize and the standard non-apology.  Saying sorry is nice, I suppose, but it's not about offending, taking offense, or apologizing.  My two sons have latched on to the phrase "I'm sorry" as a magical phrase for getting out of trouble, making a bad situation go away.  The point is -- as I often tell my own children, but it certainly applies to us adults as well -- has anything been learned?  Is there anything in this situation that helps us grow an inch wiser?

Words matter here.  This piece didn't "offend" me.  I wasn't insulted personally.  I am not Maori; in fact, I am a white Euro-American male.  My response to this piece, broadcast by one of my country's major news organizations, was embarrassment.

The moment I heard my older son, at age four, mutter something about "brown people" I dug out the National Geographics and began negotiating play dates with children who don't look like him.  We are trying to introduce both boys to people and cultures foreign to ours so that they feel comfortable and curious about people who are different, about foreign customs, and so forth.

Surely these differences between cultures can be reflected on with humor.  In fact, a sense of humor really helps.  The intent to find humor in the difference between two cultures is not in itself a problem.  What makes me cringe when I watch the Moos piece is something underneath the content.  The entire commentary is based on the assumption that Anglo is normal and what other cultures do is weird.  The object of humor is the non-white, and this is how a dignified Maori dancer in traditional garb and markings becomes the target of botty jokes.  This is embarrassing.  If Moos did not catch this, a producer should have.  They failed.
I don't think a personal apology is adequate or necessary.  What could be helpful and repair some journalistic faith would be to acknowledge this unexamined "white=normal, non-white=ridiculous" dichotomy and consider doing stories about that.  That's how CNN could make this, if you will pardon the clichè, a "teachable moment."  That would probably go much further in repairing journalistic trust and provide a positive example for how we can all look at our unexamined attitudes and widen our perspective.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Princess pre-production

My next film project, set to shoot later this month, is entitled Princess.   It is a short film in which I play a single father whose daughter grows up to enter military service.  This photo is from our rehearsal, where I met my "daughter" for the first time.  Looking on is the film's director, Ross Marks.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

KTEP interview with Randy and Algernon

Please give a listen as Monica Gomez interviews Randy Granger and Algernon D'Ammassa on KTEP's "State of the Arts" program, regarding our performances of An Iliad next week in El Paso.

In this seven-minute conversation, Randy talks about the musical inspirations for his work on the piece, and I talk about my interest in this play, my origins at Trinity Rep, and the Theatre Dojo project.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Latest interview with Randy and Algernon

El Paso's Latin-American-American blog has just put up its interview with Randy Granger and me, regarding our upcoming performances of An Iliad in El Paso next week. 

For the full interview, please click here

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tony Benn's voice will be sorely missed

"If one meets a powerful person - Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler - one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system."

-Tony Benn (1925 - 2014)

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Who are the good people?

Some digressions are wonderful.

In the course I teach at the Creative Media Institute, we were discussing David Lindsay-Abaire's wonderful play, Good People.  This is one of my picks for important plays of the decade.  While it is set in Boston, the true setting is the United States during the Great Recession, the tale of a South Boston woman who loses her job and visits an old friend from her neighborhood in search of help.  Thus the play squarely examines the conflict of social and economic class against the backdrop of a competitive economy.

Two fallacies the story portrays very clearly are (1) the tendency to view poverty and unemployment as necessarily the consequence of moral weakness, and (2) the tendency for those who have "made it" to believe in a mythical equality of opportunity, and to forget about help or advantages that some have.  Refreshingly, the playwright does not strain the point by contriving any characters of unblemished virtue.  Indeed, the ambiguity of the characters' ethics and virtue is part of the point.

I'm not sure how the digression began, but a student in the class spoke up about his experience working in automobile sales and financing.  With some encouragement from me, he revealed some vivid details of how salesmen and managers view customers, assessing their buying power and credit-worthiness, the negotiating tactics, and after horrifying the students with all of that he started to talk about the competitive pressure on these staffers, motivated not only by greed (the rewards are great for the successful ones) but how disposable they are.  In other words, the cynical handling of customers is driven by the pressure to survive.  (Just as, in the play, Margie sometimes may lie or manipulate in order to survive however she can.)

I could not have contrived a better illustration of capitalism's human problem.  In an economic system that sets people's health and welfare against one another, short of a revolution against that system people do what they do to survive.  Who are the sympathetic people, the "good people" in an economy that does not provide sufficient employment and rations essential needs and political power based on financial power?  What do we think about an economic system that obligates people to behave the way auto salesmen behave -- and worse? 

It's the perfect title for the play.  "Good people" is a phrase that emerges in many discussions about political economy and social policy.  The good people, as opposed to those deemed non-virtuous.  When I lost my full-time job in 2011, due to circumstances out of my power, I would sometimes hear people remark that people should have to pee in a cup to receive an unemployment check.  Although I have not yet had to collect an unemployment check, I see no shame in utilizing a benefit that working people pay for while they are employed, and so I would tell them that I was unemployed and ask them if they felt I was suspicious and should take a drug test.  Usually, I would hear something like this:  "Oh, I don't mean you."  Am I among the good people, then?  What makes me so?  As opposed to whom?

Who are the good people in a system where opportunity is rationed by money and social class, and where the strong feed on the weak by design?

The salesmen and the customers are an example of how the competitive economy pits working people against one another.  Are not managers subject to similar survival pressure?  And while CEOs seem to enjoy a great deal of power and freedom, what is their experience as they sit on top of these corporations responsible for delivering the goods to their investors?  What happens to them, as human beings?

Does anyone really feel they have a reasonable degree of freedom or control of their lives within this system?  Maybe successful entrepreneurs do, or some of them.  Maybe retirees who have plenty of money.  But no one is beyond the reach of the system's problems.  In one recent, amusing example, Exxon's  CEO, who has defended fracking in accordance with his company's interests, has personally joined a lawsuit seeking to keep fracking away from his own ranch, and he might lose.  

In a system that does this to us -- a system that cannot even protect the victors of perpetual class conflict -- what does a phrase like "good people" really mean? 

Thursday, March 06, 2014


This is the poster for the first show I ever saw at Trinity Rep, my hometown theatre and where I eventually trained to be an actor.  It was 1982.  I was 11 years old.  My schoolteacher arranged a field trip to Trinity just so I could meet her friend, the late actor Richard Kavanaugh (he passed away in 1988).  Subsequent to that meeting, my supportive parents brought me to see the show and thereafter made sure I had season tickets.  Through most of the 1980s I saw almost everything there, at a time when some amazing actors were part of the company.  Kavanaugh, Richard Jenkins, Anne Scurria (who is still there), Barbara Meek (also still there), George Martin, Peter Gerety, Daniel Von Bargen -- too many to name.  There were some young up and comers during those years who later became my teachers and friends, like Brian McEleney and Fred Sullivan and a bunch of others.

It started with this production.  It was the American premiere of Harold Pinter's "new-old" play, a play he had drafted in 1958 but threw into a desk drawer, as he felt at the time it had no hope of success.  By his own account, he found the script twenty years later, rather liked it, and produced it himself in London.  Trinity Rep introduced the play to America, in a production I remember as gripping, wildly funny, and mildly terrifying.  It set a very high standard for live theatre that I have been trying to live up to ever since.  The cast of this production was amazing:  Kavanaugh, George Martin, Amy Van Nostrand, Peter Gerety, among others.

The production moved to Broadway, where it won a Tony nomination for Kavanaugh's performance as Gibbs. 

In 2012, I read the play again and was astonished at how relevant it seemed for a play written in the fifties.  Sadly, its major themes remained relevant in the twenty-first century, of dehumanizing bureaucracy, corruption, and sanitized brutality.  There is something timeless about the play, and it does a very deft job of combining humor with a terrible sense of gathering menace.  It's young Pinter and one of his better ones, if you ask me.

This was one of several plays I suggested for the No Strings Theatre Company here in Las Cruces, where I have been working regularly since 2011.  It is also just about the only play everyone agreed upon.  It is a thrill to announce that I will be directing a new production of this play at No Strings for the 2014-5 season.  Opening night is a year away. 

Monday, March 03, 2014

At the feet of the Oscar

A friend and frequent reader submitted a question:

I do not care about the Oscars - or awards shows in general. As someone in the business, what do you think about these shows, and am I abnormal for not caring and almost resenting these things as a huge waste of time and energy?

To be honest, your humble correspondent is not a good spokesman for "the business."  The people involved with the Oscars have a career profoundly different than mine.  The only person I can speak for is me, so the following is a personal reflection on the spectacle of the Academy Awards.   

My indifference to the Oscars can be explained in a few simple categories, and it might not be of much interest to anybody, but you never know.  And it's my blog.  So here we go.

Commercial vs. Artistic achievement

There are some very exciting films being screened at festivals around the world, and you will never hear about many of them.  I enjoy good movies, and even some of the bad ones.  It would be wonderful to go to Sundance, Cannes, Vienna, et al.  Good movies might also be nominated for Oscars, but artistic achievement is incidental.  This is about business.  Films and artists rise in commercial value with awards or even nominations.

This is not to suggest that the Oscars have nothing to do with art.  Good movies do get nominated and win awards.  It is nice when actors who are not A-list celebrities are recognized for their performances.  This year, for instance, Bruce Dern's nomination brought attention to his performance in Alexander Payne's Nebraska.  And I was very thrilled in 2008 when Richard Jenkins, an alumnus of Trinity Rep, was nominated for his performance in The Visitor.  He did not win in 2009, but his work and a good small-budget drama got some deserved attention.

The event itself is a commercial product, a televised spectacle with an audience of multi-millions.  In order to capitalize on that attention, the event is a lengthy media spectacle and a platform for expensive advertising. It is a platform for fashion designers as well, with much media attention on the red carpet and the attire of the celebrities -- we ask not only what they are wearing, but who they are wearing.  Celebrities can rack up quite a bit of goods and services in the form of swag (amounting, this year, to $80,000 per basket).

And guess what?  By watching the show, by clicking on news articles about it, by tweeting and posting about it on social media, we are helping millionaires and corporations make even more money.  Just as some of these celebrities willingly become billboards for fashion designers, we become billboards for the Oscar brand.

...oh yes, and also Class achievement
These are industry awards, voted upon by a group of six thousand industry insiders.  You can read about them on the Motion Picture Academy's page (click here).  Apparently, the three faces on that page are representative of the Academy: mostly male, mostly white, and rich.  That is changing, but turnover at the Academy is slow and it will take some time for the body to become more diverse.  At any rate, there is little prospect for more working-class representation, who might lift up films showing life at other margins of society.

The politics: what we can talk about, what we cannot.

It is fitting that some popular political shows give coverage to the "races" for Best Picture, et al, because these are in fact political campaigns.  The six thousand Academy voters are lobbied heavily to support this or that nominee, and the stakes and arguments are often overtly political.  For example, there was some suspense this year about whether Cate Blanchett's nomination was in jeopardy, not because of her performance or competing nominees, but because of recent controversy about director Woody Allen, which had nothing to do with her.  Ms. Blanchett's public appearances (including other awards shows) were scrutinized for any reference to Woody Allen.  It could not be just about her own work, because this is not primarily about art.   These are political campaigns and decisions are made with concern for the image of the Motion Picture Academy and for individual professional concerns.

Because the Oscar ceremony has such a large audience, it is hard for the participants to resist the opportunity to work political messaging into their appearances.  When Marlon Brando was honored for his performance in The Godfather,  he famously sent a surrogate, by the name of Sacheen Littlefeather, to receive the award and make a speech about the plight of indigenous people in America.  Video hereMediaite has a collection of other such moments.

Overt political messaging can also be part of the event itself and of course embedded within the nominated films themselves. During wartime, there tends to be more flag-waving, and when an honoree criticizes a current war they tend to get booed -- even when the war is unpopular, as was the case in 2003. This shows the utility of the Oscars as a propaganda tool: patriotic and pro-capital films can be celebrated, while messages criticizing mainstream culture or government are unwelcome.

We could have a very interesting discussion about whether Scorsese's nominated film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is critiquing capitalism or celebrating it.  That discussion will not take place at the Academy Awards or anywhere in the context of the Academy.  It is irrelevant. 

On one of these political shows, a host recently admitted that Gravity, for all its remarkable visual effects, left him a little cold as a human story and he felt suspicious about the veiled religious messaging.   The panel shrugged off these artistic concerns and asked him, "Did you see it in 3-D, though??"

Our latent affection for royalty.

Hundreds of years after the Declaration of Independence and the American and French revolutions, modern concepts of republican or parliamentary democracy, notions of civil equality or social democracy, have never diminished popular affection for royalty and aristocracy.  The spectacle thrills our senses with beautiful clothing and uniforms, magnificent architecture, music and pageantry, and the cult of personality about these titans who occasionally consent to walk among the commoners.

Overheard once at the Cafe Tropical in Silverlake, Los Angeles:

"You know, sometimes you'll see Tom Waits here!" 

"Well sure -- the coffee's good."


It is not my intention to be a grinch and rain on anybody's fun.  A lot of my friends really love watching celebrities turn up on the red carpet, to see what they are wearing, to see how they are aging -- and it is very much as if these are extended family members, people with whom we are familiar.

Fine for them.  It just isn't my thing to make titans of men and women and celebrate the lifestyle of an opulent minority.  Some of these A-listers are genuinely talented people who have the freedom to make good movies or at least movies they like; but for me it is about the work, not about them.  I'm happy for people who work hard and become well-known and well paid for their labor in such an exploitative industry -- it is a rare thing, and most of us will never achieve it.  However, the culture's fascination with fame and riches seems, to me, to reinforce and legitimize class disparity, the idea that some people are intrinsically different:  beautifuller, smarterer, better endowed to lead, more naturally suited to holding power and reaping the profits of common assets and other people's labor. 

Which leads, among other things, to this annual financial whirlwind for the Oscars, as so many of us voluntarily function as unpaid promoters of a commercial event, dutifully tuning in to this long infomercial for the entertainment industry and cult of celebrity, rewarding its advertisers with ratings, internet clicks, and social media posts, all to the additional profit of the production companies and the numerous associated industries. 

Clever, isn't it?

Me, I would much sooner have a movie night and invite some friends over to watch, discuss, critique, and invent.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Harrowing Cynicism

2 March 2014

John F. Kerry, Secretary
United States Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Mr. Secretary,

In remarks you made on broadcast television today regarding Russian military aggression in the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine, you made a rather startling statement, which I quote: “You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.”

 Generally, when someone commenting on the day’s news makes me laugh, it is a comedian such as Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. It is a rare day when an elected official or cabinet officer gets my funny bone, and this remark is all the funnier in that it was delivered without a hint of irony and seemingly in earnest.

While I uphold a policy that defends Ukraine’s rights to self-determination against aggression by Russia, a remark like this sadly reveals why the United States has no moral ground with respect to military aggression. I am sure you know what I am talking about, but I will proceed with the following points all the same.

In 2002, while you served in the United States Senate, you voted to authorize President Bush’s (and Vice-President Richard Cheney’s) controversial rush toward the invasion of Iraq. You did this in spite of controversy and alarming questions that were raised at the time regarding the pretext for that war.

 In 2004, when you were a candidate for President of the United States, your criticism of the invasion and occupation of Iraq was not to state that “You just don't in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.” Instead, you criticized President Bush simply for not carrying out his aggression properly, and made the case you would have done a better job of it.

We invaded and occupied a country on a completely trumped up pretext, in the face of mass opposition all over the world. That memory is fresh in the minds of citizens of conscience and our own corruption in this respect undermines the moral case you are trying to make. And there is the ongoing folly of our invasion of Iraq, besides the human devastation and economic ruin it has caused: we lack solid footing for opposing similar behavior by other powers.

While we must oppose Russian aggression against Ukraine, we do so as a giant hypocrite on the world stage. Thus, even a good foreign policy may be undermined – as we were warned in 2002, during the heated rush to a war against someone who had not attacked us. This will, incidentally, come back to haunt your colleague Senator Clinton, if she runs for President as is widely expected.

It might be well for the United States to work within a coalition and allow one of the nations that opposed the invasion of Iraq to be the spokesman. I would at any rate beg you not to make unintentionally hilarious statements about military aggression and trumped up pretexts – for after the laughter, comes the harrowing cynicism.

Sincerely yours,

Friday, February 21, 2014

Program note: An Iliad

What follows is a draft of the program notes for our production of An Iliad, opening tonight at the Black Box Theatre in Las Cruces.

*          *          *

Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time. 

This is an original play inspired by tales from Homer’s Iliad. Focusing mainly on Achilles and Hector, the play addresses human rage as a recurring theme in history, from antiquity right up to the current civil war in Syria, and the uprising underway in Kiev this very week.

The show is typically performed with one actor and a musician, usually a cellist. Randy Granger has boldly re-imagined the role of the musician in this play. Are the Poet and the Musician different people? Or are they aspects of one timeless bard? The musical performance and our interactions are improvisational, and the collaboration has been inspirational for us both.

Another musician working on this project is Autumn Gieb. She is working on an original score using a variety of instruments she is inventing herself, and developing a unique take on the Musician as a character. We hope you will consider seeing this Iliad at another venue to enjoy Autumn’s unique contribution.

Theatre Dojo is a project founded in 2006 by Algernon D’Ammassa, Christopher Nelson, and Jen Bloom. Theatre Dojo supports cross-disciplinary approaches in the performing arts and personal disciplines including yoga, martial arts, and meditation. Its mission is the growth of artists and works promoting compassion and social awareness.

Although we do not have dates at this writing, we are working on bringing this show to Deming’s outdoor arena at Voiers Park, to Albuquerque, El Paso, and Tucson, and possibly to North Carolina during the summer. You can follow our travels at

We thank Ceil and Peter Herman for welcoming An Iliad at the Black Box.

[Image:  Rehearsal photo, with Algernon the left and Randy Granger on the right, playing his amazing three-string cigar box guitar.]

Thursday, February 20, 2014

An Iliad

One reason I have not been updating this blog lately is that I've been preparing one of the scariest performance projects of my life.  It is an original play entitled An Iliad, written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare, inspired by Homer's Iliad and focusing mainly on the confrontation between Hector and Achilles; and, even more centrally, on the theme of Achilles and rage.  The play won an Obie and is currently seeing production at regional theatres all over the United States.  I am, as far as I can discover, the first to perform it in the southwest.  

The play is typically performed by one actor with a musician in accompaniment.  For this production, I have collaborated with Las Cruces musician Randy Granger to create a performance by two bards -- one (me) using the language of storytelling, the other using the language of music.  Randy plays a variety of flutes, stringed instruments, and percussion, improvising music throughout.  Our rehearsals crackle with creative energy and spontaneity, and the three onlookers we've invited to have a peek at the show say the work is very good indeed.

During the past few days, I have moved from feeling very scared to very excited.  But I am still a little scared, still improving my own work, and -- as is typical in theatre -- wishing I had just a few more days to prepare better.  

But it is time.  The show opens tomorrow night for its first three performances in Las Cruces, at the Black Box Theatre.  Randy and I hope to tour the show to venues elsewhere, and we have set up a Facebook page to organize updates and announce new dates.

Meanwhile, local writer David Salcido interviewed Randy and me for a lengthy preview article about the show, which you can enjoy by clicking here

Sunday, February 02, 2014

You have enormous potential

Dear Sir, Our company is looking for serious buyers of Au Gold Dust /Bar,We are local community miners here in Ghana West Africa Region.We the community local miners are into mining activities here in Tarkwa, Obuasi, Kenyasi, village here in Ghana, but our head office is in Accra city the capital of Ghana. We are pleased to let you know that we are searching for genuine buyers that are capable to go into long term business relationship with us and also looking for partnership to improve our mining activities to mega mining.Presently we have enough quantity of gold dust and gold bars for sell at a very good price, but we required our fist time buyers or buyer’s representative to visit us here in Ghana and have a meeting together with the entire community. Again we are ready to take the gold along with the buyer or his mandate to refinery or a security company for assay to his satisfaction before any payment for the gold.we welcome any buyer interested to do business with us, if you don’t have visa to enter Ghana let us know as soon as possible we the community miners will issued automatic letter of invitation immediately,You will only go to any of our Ghana embassy in your country and they will give you visa within 24 to 48 hours, and it’s ourobligation to be at the airport to welcome you with respect and honor for long term business relationship with us. Please feel free to contact us with the details contact bellow for further inquires that will enable you open full communication with our company personal email address: Thanks, Shanda Kupesi.

Dear Shanda,

You have enormous potential, and if you are looking to take your fraudulent business scheme to the next level, you have found the right man.  This is what I do!  I offer consulting and training to offshore scam artists and pretty soon I will actually be opening an office in Accra.  If you act quickly, I can offer you a very special package of consulting and services in exchange for investing in our Ghana expansion.  Our business is called Trust U.S. and if you would kindly wire me your personal bank account information and authorization to withdraw funds, I can set up your first monthly payment.  You will be helping bring Trust U.S. to Accra and we, in turn, can help you design and execute an effective e-mail fraud campaign.  The world no longer trusts badly spelled emails from personal yahoo accounts offering implausible stories – these are the signs of the amateur.  For true professionals, you need to cook up a plausible business scheme, set up professional-looking business email accounts and web pages, and pay attention to little details like being consistent about which name is on your account.  We can also help you with your Facebook marketing, including profile photographs that are in focus.  Little details matter.  For more ambitious grifters, we also offer political consultation, guides to starting a career as a lobbyist or a candidate for elected office.  So don’t delay!  Send all your personal financial information to me right away at