Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Monk-y Business

Many of you know my deep and abiding ambivalence towards on-camera acting (what? being in front of the camera is not an ideal career for an introvert? Imagine!), as opposed to the almost-constant pleasure of voiceover acting. I say no a vast number of times more than I say yes to TV auditions. And yet, there is sometimes the case where I've got to go. There is a kind of role that I have a particular affinity for: Buddhist monks. I played one for "Family Law" about seventy years ago and have always hankered to put on the saffron robes once again. I maintain that it's because it puts me in touch with an inner stillness; Doug insists it's because it gives me license to shave my head. Both, I must admit, are correct.

This monk was of the Shaolin variety, for a  tween TV sitcom (rather foreboding non-disclosure rules prevents me from being more specific). You know, one of those after-school shows, ubiquitous on the Cartoon Network, Disney and Nickelodeon featuring a uniformly pretty and/or geeky cast genetically designed to make you feel REALLY REALLY OLD. Luckily, I was auditioning for one of the higher-up, senior monks, which on this show meant I was over thirty.

I had a good laugh at myself driving to the audition because of a particularly egregious oversight I had made. I was going over my sides— I had a really good voice for this elder, all gravelly and crusty— when I happened to look into the rear-view mirror. Ten blocks from the studio, I remembered: this isn't a voiceover audition. You can't sound like a 65 -year-old wizened sensei when you look like you're in your 40's. Oops. I adjusted accordingly. Ten years younger!

When I got there, there was the usual panoply of Asian men, all shapes and sizes. A few  of them were wearing full martial arts regalia, some had on the traditional Chinese frog-buttoned jackets. I had opted for a simple T-shirt and white pants because, well, Doug had made me change out of a more character-driven yoga pants and peasant-brown sweatshirt. I have to admit (yes, get out your scorecard, Doug) that he was right: if you get too costume-y in these general auditions, it tends too look a little... desperate. I don't know where everyone else stands on this issue; certainly I've known some experienced people to pull on a lab coat when making the "CSI" rounds...

The auditions were run by kids who I swear were not much younger than my son Benjamin. They seemed amused by my character, or, to put it more exactly, they liked my eyebrow-arching, which pretty much sums up my character. It was silly, and it was fun.

And I got the part. 

I'm going Telly Savalas, Doug! Who loves ya?

Speaking of monks, here's my contemplation of the Buddhist precept on gossip:

Precept #6: Do not Talk about Other's Errors and Faults
so sweet.
The tastiest morsels dripped
into eager mouths
gaping like baby birds. 
Huddled groups
of two, or three adults
on the school playground
after the kids have left
the playing field.
We're wide-eyed, listening 
to the latest parental downfall: who 
has slipped down the slope this time?
Heads shaking, frown-smiles
like we were saddened,
not delighted, by the news. 
A sharp intake of breath:
"Did you hear?—"
and onto another round. 
"Can you believe it?" we ask,
feeling better about Ourselves, 
for not being Them.
With a friend, I recount
the latest bulletin from Crazytown:
"Wait til you hear WHAT
my mother did THIS time!" 
We bond over the sad state
of affairs known as Family.
I'd like to think it helps,
this sharing, to make sense
of chaos, to make us feel less
Our small coffeehouse table
affords a space to release 
woes, make them manageable—
humorous even— with a chance to hear 
a different perspective, lovingly laid out, 
a lesson learned, together. 

Sometimes, though, 
I feel like Homer, trotting out
the same epic saga, again
and again, for entertainment,
never letting it go. 
In the Meditation Hall
we learn mostly by mistakes.
What to chant, how to walk,
where to bow and when.
There's a lot to remember.
In the beginning, I was like
the new dancer, always two steps 
behind the rest of the chorus.
I'd get a lot of corrections:
a tap on the shoulder;
a finger pointing to the spot
I should be standing in;
sometimes a quiet voice
from across the room
cutting through the silence :
"Wait to stand!"
These directions were given,
never sweetly, never angrily,
just given.
At first, I would feel shame rising, 
I thought it was a black mark
against me; now I see it
for what it is:
a correction of a mistake,
a teaching given in the moment,
and then dispersed, 
allowing me to better join
                  the wholeness of the sangha, 
                  contemplating a formless field 
                  of benefaction. 

Next: On the set!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Poaching Coyote Tales

Man! I was dreaming!
An email: another literary agent had heaped praise on my book, This is How it Begins, calling it emotionally moving and superbly-written. And this after two other offers of representation-- how was I to choose?

Ah, it was such a good dream.

Meditating this morning, I had a sudden pang because I suddenly realized it was only a dream.  Ah well, it gives me good impetus to continue my search for an agent. And it's much much better than the dreams where I'm lost in an abandoned hotel, pushing aside body parts and looking for spiders.

In between shopping my manuscript around and precept-writing, I've been able to get a wee bit of new writing done. I'm in that beginning stage, where most everything is possible and it's all going to be just spectacular. That will soon make way for the "what a bunch of crap why am I doing this?" stage, so I should just enjoy it while it lasts.

My new book involves coyotes. Urban coyotes, to be exact, inspired by the ones that I see trotting up and down our street most nights and mornings. They really are the most adaptive of creatures. Here is a video of an interaction between wild and the domesticated creatures that conjure up all manner of story possibilities...

I have to say I side with the coyotes on this one...

My friend Sally one at Sal Gal Central (writer of YA novels and preserver of lemons) has given me some true stories of her interactions with coyotes and groundhogs, which I plan on incorporating shamelessly into my narrative. Which bring us to you, gentle reader— have you had any interactions with coyotes that you'd like to share? Include them in the comments... I'd be happy to steal them...

Speaking of stealing, here's my take on the Zen Precept of the day—

Precept #2: Non-stealing, give generously
My 10-year-old son is angry
with the thieves
who've raided our car, twice.
They've stolen headphones,
navigational aids,
beeping, chiming Gameboys
left carelessly behind.
Why do they do this? he demands
—outraged, betrayed—
Do they want to play with my stuff?
I tell him it's for the money.
Mostly they're wanting to buy drugs, I say,
but we don't always know that.
I sketch out a portrait,
an urban Jean Valjean
stealing to feed his family,
but my son's unmoved.
It's ours! he insists,
It's our stuff!

We are stuffed with his stuff.
Piles, Bins of it,
all of it was absolutely, crucially necessary
at the time. 
Not that I'm any better:
we sit side by side
flipping catalogues,
he for the games
I for the gizmos,
the latest
HD bluetooth-capable wi-fi-enabled internet-ready 
3-D touch-sensitive mega-pixeled
All of it made 
in a foreign country
where they pay workers more
than they've ever made before, 
but less than a decent wage.
Little enough that, were they living here,
they might still have to walk a street
on a moonless night,
looking for an unlocked vehicle
loaded with electronica
looking to cram their pockets
with absolutely, crucially unnecessary
It's not right, I tell my son,
but it might be fair.
We need a little less.
Someone needs a little more.
Who builds it? Who buys it?
Who steals it? Who loses it?
We are the same hands
dipping in the same stream.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Buddha Head

Last week, I mentioned that I was studying Buddhist precepts at the Zen Center I go to. It's taken a surprising amount of my time, given that we have to write two essays a week for five weeks, each about our reflections on a particular precept. And I wonder why I'm not writing more? 

What are precepts, you may ask? WELL...

"Had an extra copy, and gave it
to that Indian feller
down the street."
There are ten "grave" precepts, given by Buddha to his students, about how one should conduct themselves in life. It's  the Zen version of "The Ten Commandments," without the Red Sea and the Plagues and the Burning Bush. 

What I like about the Buddhist's take on these guidelines is that they're not rigid. You're asked to view them in three ways: Literally ("Do not lie" means don't lie. Ever); Relationally (What is the context of lying or not lying? Will your action cause more suffering or less?); and Intrinsically (in the wholeness of the universe, there is no lying). The interplay between these seemingly contradictory views (absolute, conditional and holistic) makes for some lively head trips. It's kinda like a debate between a Billy Graham, Barack Obama, and the Dude from "The Big Lebowski."
Just Abide, Man.

Since I'm putting a lot of time and effort into these essays, I thought I'd give myself the creative challenge of doing it in free verse. Yeesh. How highfalutin, I know, I know. But the Sensei did say that you could render these essays artistically, if so desired.  I don't know how artistic these will turn out to be (remember, two a week, handed in!) but it's been nice stretching those writing muscles. We're asked to consider each precept from the three perspectives, and also taking into account body, speech and mind. 

Here's my first precept. Enjoy!

Precept #1: Non-killing, affirming life
Breakfast is rife with death.
Pork sizzles in the pan.
Opening a cabinet releases
a cloud of moths, marauders of grain,
too many for capture; instead
I swat, directing towards the defilers
murderous intentions, pellet-sized, 
with the wave of a hand.
My son is upside-down, again, loudly
Enacting a Jedi's demise,
oatmeal untouched.
My hand slaps 
the wood table like a war drum:
Sharp words 
cut the air,
shattering the morning
into a thousand jagged pieces
clattering down into
Breakfast is the most important meal.
He will eat little else the rest of the day
once the meds kick in. 
Animal protein, they say, is important.
It sustains him. His mind. His focus.
His growth. 
Thank the pig.
The farmer's too, who grew the grain,
the grain itself, reaped and threshed,
deserve thanks.
My son is the pig, and the grain.
The moth is grain, too. Sometimes,
if I'm not careful,
we are the moth.
I'll seal the bags of rice, and wheat,
minimize the waste
and insect carnage.
My son bends over his food,
eats the pig, and the grain,
accepts a penitent kiss
pressed against his forehead.
"Don't be so yell-y" he says.
"I know," I say.

from my cupped hands
a moth into the garden,
where it will disappear
in the white air, or join the ground.