See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bonnaroo Bound!

Sixteen days from now, I'll be in the thick of it.

If you'd told me when I was growing up in Manchester, TN, that one day it would be the regular annual home of a huge music festival that regularly brings 80,000 people to a town with a population of about 7,500, I would have told you that you were full of it. Of course, I wouldn't have expected to see buffalo in the pastures nearby, either. But both of these things are true, and starting Thursday, June 12, I'll be there to see for myself for the first time.

The site where Bonnaroo is held is about three miles from the house where I grew up from age 5 on. When my mother was alive, she could hear the music from her carport, and I think sometimes she used to sit out there, listening. The site was first used for some badly-conceived dinosaur rock circus before Bonnaroo, which was doomed to failure -- how many people wanted to go to bumfuck to see Moby Grape? So I sneered at the first Bonnaroo, which sold out immediately on the internet, and then, after it sold out, proceeded to add act after act which I'd have loved to see. So I resolved that if it kept up, I'd go.

But then the last few years there haven't been line-ups that would've made it worthwhile for me; Bob Dylan played, but I'd seen Dylan several times in Nashville the previous few years and wouldn't pony up the bucks or the time for him. This year, with Pearl Jam and Metallica headlining, we (I and my friend, who will remain anonymous -- let's call him "Joe") decided it was now or never.

So hopefully, my tickets will be mailed out tomorrow. Just getting our hands on the damned things will be the first hurdle. But enough of that -- I don't want to curse the process.

Lately I'm afraid I'm seeing patterns which may be only constructed in my head. It's been clear for me for some time, this year that I'm in a period of change and redefinition. For a while there, it seemed everything was in flux, and a lot of it still is. I'm anything but unique here -- the world is going through momentous change right now, and we're all living in it. But coming through the darkness of April, I feel stripped down and redefined in a way that makes events like this, which for most people is just a mini-vacation, seem important and pivotal. For some reason, I feel that a four-day period of sleep deprivation and disorientation is just what I need.

Which is probably what I'll get. Mind you, my dad has a house five minutes away which is mine for the asking during the festival. But Joe, reasoning we'll only do this once, wants to camp out with the herd, so here we go (although I do reserve the right to reconsider in the case of extreme weather or other dire events). Now bear in mind, the last time I did anything like this was in the late 1970's, when I was about nineteen. Being thirty years older is gonna make a big difference. Whereas the bluegrass festival I'm thinking of in North Carolina was for me fueled by little other than Scotch, beer and hallucinogens, that's not an option at this point. Further, I don't sleep much these days (witness the posting time of much of these blogs), and I don't expect that trying to sleep in a borrowed tent on an air mattress, in heat, amidst a horde of noisy people, is going to help.

So I have to throw myself into this at full strength will all options open, and just try to relax and float. The required What the Hell attitude is much harder at fifty, I tell you.

Luckily, I have a lot of friends who've been at Bonnaroo before and I've been collecting information and advice. Unfortunately, none of those people are going this year; interestingly, most of the younger ones don't like the line-up this year. Dates me, I guess. Anyway, I'm looking forward to it, with a mix of eagerness and dread.

SO, if you are going to Bonnaroo this year, or if you have any advice for me, post it here or email me. I'm anticipating from this, one of a series of transformative experiences to come in the month of June. I have some other topics to address in this blog, before, during and after, and I'll see you on the other side.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Double Meat Palace

If anyone were to ask me for my favorite TV series of all time, there's no doubt, it's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I admit that these days, I don't watch TV at all; my friend routed my TV out of my cable hook-up while he was checking for trouble spots after the great computer and phone crashes of April, and although I could do it in two minutes, I haven't hooked the damned thing back up. It's a combination of my aversion of commercials and propaganda and the fact that I've never bothered to get a DVR and the few things I'd watch come on at the wrong times. I do watch TV series, but on DVD. Most of those are through Netflix; Buffy is about the only one I'd buy, and I'm up to Season Six.

There was at one time a decent amount of SF and fantasy on TV, but it all died in the early years of the new millenium (although it's back to some extent; Heroes, at least as far as Season One, is really good). But's it's not the supernatural elements of Buffy that make it worth watching; it's the brilliant writing and ensemble acting that make it the best of all time. Whedon and his people always managed to stay on track with essential truths abou the human condition; the more surreal the events on the screen, the more we can identify with the characters. Some of the story arcs on Buffy (the death of her mother, the unexplained appearance of Dawn in Season 5) are the some of the smartest things I've ever seen in fiction. The show just refused to insult your intelligence, as opposed to most of the "realistic" drama on the tube (if you're a CSI or ER fan, this is probably not for you).

And re-watching the series as I am, I'm occasionally gripped by some truth I missed or with which I couldn't identify the first time around. Season Six is all about a lull, a low spot in the lives of the characters after the grand drama of Glory (and Dawn) in Season Five. In Season Six, the only recurring villains are three low-rent geeks who are more annoyance than threat, the characters' stable relationships all fall apart, and Buffy has to deal with a new antagonist: the economy.

The early seasons of Buffy were set in, and ended with the destruction of, her high school. Season Four has her in college, but by Season Five, after her mother's death and way too much missed class (fighting monsters, saving the world, etc.) she drops out. By Season Six, she's out of money, and is forced to go to work. Having no education past high school and no marketable skills, she wind up working fast food, at the Double Meat Palace. Hence the hat.

I don't know why I never identified with that the first time through, but last night, watching Buffy confronted at the order counter by Riley, her boyfriend from Seasons Four and Five (who needed her to go kill some monsters and to incidentally get some closure on the character, it seems), it hit me. Now I've never worked fast food, but finally, I could identify. Heavily.

OK, it's partially the economy, which is grinding everyone to their knees. But I've been under-employed for at least the last fifteen years, and it's getting very old. Occasionally I get some dipshit reminding me that my income should have been in the high six figures for most of my life, and although it never would've happened, when money is pinched, yes, it hurts. I never could have been a big corporate lawyer. To this day, I hate the legal system and the courts, and the more legal my job gets, the more I dread it. Right now, it's Monday morning and I feel like I have an 8 a.m. ticket for the gas chamber. When I was making money, it was tolerable. My job at that point was so easy I could check my mind out all day, and do the job a taped loop of my personality. And I could afford to live pretty much like I needed to. Now the money has gone to shit, and the work is harder and more frustrating. If the situation doesn't fall apart altogether.

It's not my current employer's fault. After all, they don't know who I am. I took my education after my B.A. off my resume because I was so obviously under-employed, no one was hiring me. And no one ever thinks to ask me what I did between 1983 and 1993.

But these jobs one does to eat, to live, at whatever level, never were me. I just do what I have to do; all my important work is done on the evenings, on the weekends, and in these early mornings. They make my life worth living. I know, I'm supposed to find acceptance and gratification in every moment. But these days, from 8 to 5, I fail.

It's only the fact that the last few years have been so rewarding outside of those dreaded hours that inspires me to keep on slugging. My involvement with Zen and its adherents has redeemed me these last years, and I have to say I've accomplished a lot there. And I'm proud of a lot of what I've done in these Ratzaz Diaries, and person to person, I have to say I'm pretty damned sure I've made a big improvement in some people's lives. And some of what I've done, I've been recognized for, I'm known for. And sometimes, yes, I admit I feel like a superhero working fast food.

Yet I can't find decent employment, and right now I'm not making even enough to live on. Something's gotta give, and soon. There are changes coming in every aspect of my life right now; some of them are voluntarily, but some are brought in by the tide. The work/money thing has to give. I hear people say this every day and I'm just one of them, a microcosm of what's happening in the world, right here, right now. Peak oil? Right here, right now. Results of overpopulation and its concurrent globalization and the end of the American Century? Old news. Right here, right now.

But until and unless something breaks, I have to go back to the Double Meat Palace today, and hope I don't wind up in the grinder. Living for the weekends and for the future is not a very Zen attitude, but I'm stuck in it right now. Maybe I'll work my way out of it. There is, after all, worse happening all around me. Businesses failing, workers going unpaid; the owner of the scumball company I used to work for needs to be put in jail for using the trust account like her personal piggy bank and leaving the clients and employees hanging. I may just have to contribute to that.

But for now, just survive. Hang in there, everyone. World Salvation comes in Season Seven. Maybe.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Clear Your Head: Witchblade and Cassandra Kressnov

For the last couple of weeks, I've had the strong impression that my job,at which I spend most of my waking hours is quite a brittle situation. Brittle on both ends; I think at one point they liked me a lot, and now don't know what to make of me. Brittle on my end, because a lot of the work I've done is being credited to other people. Now this or any job is not something I put a lot of ego into, except for some pride in being good at what I do, no matter how mundane or meaningless that activity is. But when I say "credited" I mean "paid", and my income has gone into the red for the first time in quite a while, so something's gotta give (to quote Johnny Mercer via Frank Sinatra).

So. Sometimes you have to wait for things to fall into place. Everything else in my life is going well now, as opposed to last month, and I have, as I intimated in the last post, a feeling that change is coming. I said "something good" but I'm not sure that's the right word. "Powerful" maybe.

But until that happens, I have to just face into the wind, do what needs to be done, and be patient. But I do have meaningful activity every night of the week; with other workout options gone I've had to get more serious about yoga (which I'll never be good at, but in this, more even than most activities, it's all relative), plus the Zen stuff finally taking off (though if if I don't get this Jukkai ceremony set up soon I'm gonna kill something), plus I've finally solved the omnivore's dilemma (more later on that).

So with forty hours of dead zone behind me and forty more to come, what do I do? Witchblade!

Actually, I just finished two really, really good SF series this weekend; the Witchblade anime, above, and Joel Shepherd's Cassandra Kressnov trilogy of novels (which I do hope turns into a longer series at some point; actually I'm thirty pages from the end but I don't see him killing off these amazing characters).

Witchblade, as you can tell from above, has great visuals. Most of you probably recognize the name, I hope. Witchblade is a long-running and very popular series from Top Cow comics. The witchblade itself is an enigmatic entity that is very, very old and attaches itself to one female wearer at a time; it grants immeasurable power, but its desires and motives are its own. The featured wearer in the comics was one Sara Pezzini, a NYC cop (also featured in the short-lived and well-done if underbudgeted TNT TV series, which ended when star Yancy Butler went to rehab and the series was cancelled). The anime series is set in Tokyo in the near future -- the next wearer, I suppose. The series is powerful not just because of the witchblade, but because its makers go into great human depth; the driving force behind the series is the relationship between the witchblade's bearer, Masane Amaha, and her young daughter. I won't give you any spoilers; you should watch this one. It has everything, including a good dose of humor.

As to SF novels, all the books I like these days are the godchildren of William Gibson. Shepherd's Cassandra Kressnov is an artificial human who is created too complicated to just follow her programming and joins the opposition; her well-written development takes place through the novels Crossover, Breakaway and Killswitch. Shepherd is a young author; he appears to be about 33 at the time he finished this series, and you can watch him evolve as you read the three books, his first published. Much like the works of Richard K. Morgan, when he starts writing in the first book, his ideas are better than his writing, but it all catches up (as also in Morgan's case) by the end of the series, and Killswitch is just excellent. The only thing that bothers me is that all of these new writers are obviously angling at movies; whereas in say, Gibson's case, the novel is the ultimate expression of the work (which is probably why Neuromancer has never become a movie, why Red Rose Hotel was such a lousy film, and I have mixed feelings about Johnny Mnemonic).

Anyway, this stuff is how I clear my head. Good Zen, good food, good anime, good books, and a weekend thankfully devoid of human voices, as much as possible. Now it's time to gird my loins, as they say (which sounds really painful).

But I have to leave you with my favorite quote from Killswitch. Kressnov, a sophisiticated artificial human who's been considerably refined by contact with humanity and real-world experience confronts Jane, a stone killer of an artificial human running on tape learning and blind loyalty. Jane is mocking Cassandra for what she considers her humanistic pretentions and says, "Happiness is accepting your true nature."

I really can't find anything wrong with that. So if your true nature is to be a killer android, be the best killer android you can be. And survive for forty more hours.

I'll let you make your own links on this one. Surely if you've gotten to this point you can Google just as well as I can. Or not. And no, I didn't make that AMV video; click on it to follow the link to YouTube and its rightful owner.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


As I mentioned previously, on April 27, Ana and I conducted the third editon of a "Zen Meditation" segment at the Middle Tennessee Anime Convention. This year, like last year, it was the first "panel" up on Sunday morning, replacing some sort of nondemoninational service that apparently hadn't been working too well at previous conventions. The above is apparently the only extant picture of the session itself; it shows Ana and I but unfortunately doesn't show the twenty to thirty people who were in the room at various times; at least twenty of them did zazen and kinhin with us, which has to make it the largest Zen session I've ever led, or co-led. And no, I'm not checking my email in the picture; I was using my PDA as a timer.

The MTAC presentation honestly won't do a lot for Zen in Nashville as a whole (although the first one two years ago made Ana's connection to our group, which makes it worthwhile, and we do seem to have gained another sitter this year), mostly because most of the people who show up are from out of town, or out of state. MTAC reportedly had about 4,000 attendees this year. But the growing attendance, and the growing degree of maturity, genuine interest and understanding in the attendees, seems to be indicative of something. Likewise, the Tuesday night Nashville Zen Center sits at the Barn, reintroduced in January for new members and the Soto Zen protocols, are taking off. Of course, most people who are shopping Buddhism or "spirituality" in general won't stay with Zen. Zen is sort of the end of the line, the giving up of all spiritual pretenses, and most of the people who are out looking aren't ready for that. Nevertheless, I am coming to recognize the kind of people who come to stay; they simply aren't having any of anything else. And finding these people is as encouraging to me as it is, hopefully, for them.

And honestly, as the world falls apart around us, it's nice to have something going well. On a personal level, having finally come out of the funk I was in for most of April, I find that (surprise!) the problems I wasn't facing very well are still there, but now have to be faced. My economic future at the moment seems to be a microcosm of the country as a whole; the income at my present employment seems to have gone to shit across the board, and I'm faced in the next month or two with figuring out how to make a living wage, whereas I'd thought this was all worked out a year ago. Another surprise: problems continue to arise. Yet I do find from past experience that these periods of crisis are more productive in important ways than the times when I have the illusion that all is going well. So having my brain chemistry back, as well as probably the best social support I've ever had in my life, I do feel ready to deal with the next problem. Thanks to Shawn's yoga class Monday night, by the way, which finished bringing me "home" (warning for locals: avoid the Downtown Y like the plague right now, it's a mess, and the best yoga is at Green Hills anyway).

Anyway, it's amazing to me that what I envisoned for the Nashville Zen Center years ago is coming to pass. Whereas I had hoped to be involved in a Soto Zen group which started to evolve inside the NZC, enough of the old NZC seems to have fallen away that the old group seems to be evolving into a new one with an actual lineage and teachers. Hardly anyone (maybe one or two) seems to have been driven away by the change itself; but life takes its toll on those without firm convictions. And as the country song says, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. If you're currently reading The Secret, please take note.

So, life right now is some good stuff, some bad stuff, just like always, but I have a deep feeling that something important and good is happening. And as darkness descends upon the world, that's a very powerful feeling to have.

By the way, my post on last year's MTAC is here. And then I couldn't leave without showing you this picture of Ana (on the right) and her friend in costume. No, I don't know who they're supposed to be.

And by the way, there's a half-hour video of the MTAC presentation out there somewhere. If I can figure out how, I'll try to post all or part of it if and when...

Monday, May 05, 2008

Empty Bowls

I think a lot of people misunderstood that last post. For someone who's tried to adopt Hunter Thompson's
"Never apologize, never explain" as a credo, I seemed to be doing a lot of both there for a while. My little 2 1/2 - week period of dysfunction in April impacted some people, and I had to apologize for that, and assure them that I'm back up to speed (which at this point, I think I finally can say that I am).

The explaining part is a little harder, really, and I'm somewhat ambivalent about it. But I think some people read that last blog entry to mean that I was devastated by the death of my cat and would never recover. It ain't like that. Ms. Johnson has passed on, with my help, and I've accepted that. Yes, I'll always miss her. I just took her bowls to Manchester and ran them through a dishwasher (which I've personally never seen much use for) to sanitize them. She used them for over ten years, and I can't see throwing them away. I'm going to be putting her ashes (seen in the final pic on the preceding blog) on my little Zen altar along with pictures of my mother.

And people keep trying to give me kittens. I'm certainly not ready for a kitten at this point, and I probably never will be. My mother died five years ago; I don't want a kitten at this point any more than I want some other old lady pretending to be my mother. Lifetime attachments are just that. Paul McCartney should have learned.

No, that last post was supposed to be a little poetic, a little sad, a little philosophical. The point was not that everything will never be alright, not because Ms. Johnson died, but because that's the way things are. Things are never alright. As Gildner Radner said, I think, it's always something. There's always something keeping you from that perfect happiness you think you deserve. And the something is your own desire for perfect happiness. Trying to get from this real place to that imaginary place of perfect happiness is what keeps you unhappy.

But I'm not going to waste any more time regurgitating obvious truisms here. Go sit zazen and figure it out for yourself.

And developing the trust in your own perceptions that one develops from zazen can take you to very interesting places. I know for sure that my mother visited me after she died, and since; and that Ms. Johnson came to me the night she died and gave me a meaningful dream. There is no place for such happenings in the philosophy of Zen, if there is such a thing. But I know what I know. And I apologize to those whose beliefs and perceptions as to such things, I mocked a few years ago.

April is over, and I hope not to go back there any time soon. I'm not sure what caused or encouraged my temporary descent into darkness; I just know I'm through with it. Obviously, there was something I wanted or needed to learn, or to do. I did acquire a deeper realization as to some things I already knew, at least on a surface level. There is no normal "my life"; its's just a story I tell myself. "My life" is in eternal flux. I actually came through relatively unharmed. Maybe some people think less of me, as I told the truth about the incident; I feel like I cleared the air. If anyone out there hasn't figured it out, I'm far from perfect.

But I did get a fresh perspective on what's meaningful for me, and what's not. And I do need to look at making some changes in the sets and settings. But I did my first yoga class in a month yesterday, and I've realized that what's important to me, to reduce it to a physical level, is my own brain chemistry. From another perspective, this is the spirit. But I maintain this by:

1. Abstinence from intoxicants or toxins;
2. Meaningful physical exercise;
3. Spiritual practice.
4. Creativity.

Those all would take a little explaining; part of me gags on including zazen as "spiritual practice", but honestly other practices have worked in the past, just not as well, and they inevitably led to some sort of cognitive dissonance. Zen is what works for me. I don't insist anyone else try it, though I do my best to make it available when I can, and where it's wanted. "Creativity" includes a lot of things people may not see as creative at all; like wrapping myself up in good sci-fi. Yeah, someone else was creative. But my appreciation can be all I need to keep moving on.

Meaningful exercise? It just has to be something I like, and makes me feel good, in and about myself. Yoga works, but so do the few remaining step aerobics classes which are correctly done. Anything I don't enjoy doesn't work here (i.e., weightlifting, jogging). It has to be meaningful activity.

Intoxicants? This one is totally explainable on a chemical level. When you put chemicals in your brain to make it happy, it stops producing its own "happy chemicals". I've tried both, and the ones my brain produces are better.

So, moving on. Will the job produce enough income for me to survive? Dunno; I hope so, I actually like the people I work for and with, for the most part. But we're moving into a time of economic collapse, and we'll all share in that, one way or another.

My dad is 85; he's always raised cattle, but he hasn't kept any the last few years much; he tried last year, but it was so dry here that there was hardly any pasture for them. This year he's keeping four steers for a cattleman down the road. Yesterday morning, two of the four mysteriously vanished; the fence had been broken or cut. I suspected cattle rustlers and wanted him to call the Sheriff. But hours later, a Sheriff's deputy and someone else, along with eventually their owner, found the steers standing in the middle of a busy highway, and drove them home. So my dad, at his age, was out fixing fences yesterday afternoon. And I'm sure he was thinking, 'I thought I was over this....'

Tomorrow surely brings changes, but I no longer fear them. I should have known better, and I went through what it took me to learn. I keep thinking of Natalie Maines singing "Taking the Long Way Around."

The fences are mended, and the cattle are back in the field, for now. Next!