Thursday, 31 March 2011

Good Movie: The Truman Show

I recently watched this again, for the first time since it came out 'way back in 1998 CE. I liked it then; the cultural themes were timely and important, and the plot, performances, and cinematography were excellent.

Then it disappeared from cultural radar, and I seldom thought about it again. In the intervening years I became a monk, and The Truman Show became a completely different film.

The Truman Show's premise is simple enough: a production company builds a giant set, peoples it with actors and advertisers, and drops in a real baby. Hidden cameras then broadcast Truman Burbank's entire life, public and "private", and the resulting 24-hour soap opera becomes the highest-rated show on the planet. The prescience is eerie; reality TV at that time was still limited to MTV space-fillers, watched mainly by high school kids. Imagine. Just thirteen years ago, the notion of a TV market dominated by voyeurism was still dystopian.

When we come in, Truman is a twenty-something insurance agent, raised on a steady diet of fear: fear of the new, fear of risk, fear of the unknown. The news juxtaposes reports of distant tragedies with glowing accounts of the seamless perfection of Seahaven, Truman's island fishbowl. (American friends encouraged not to read anything into this.) But the kid isn't happy. Sure, he smiles a lot. He's cheery, funny, upbeat. But something's wrong. For one thing, Klieg lights occasionally crash to the sidewalk, almost killing him, and the media's explanation ("airplanes") only works if you want it to.

And that's just the beginning. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the film, or haven't seen it recently, but anyone who's tasted alienation will relive Truman's travails: being forced to participate in advertisements for no apparent audience; the odd feeling, laughed down by one's peers, that choices are rigged off-screen; and the readiness of the world to break its own laws when convenient. And the more insistently our hero questions all of this, the more desperately, even violently, he's smacked back in place.

Much of director Peter Weir's genius is in the casting. I'm not a big fan of Jim Carrey's trademark burlesque, but his Truman is so understated, so believable as a good-hearted schlemiel surrounded by users, that he quite won me over. He's just eccentric enough to be real – seekers are eccentric. Ed Harris similarly nails Truman's "God," the intense, soft-spoken, beret-ed and bespectacled TV producer Christof. Self-important artistes are not Harris' stock in trade, but his grasp of this one is almost creepy. And Natascha McElhone, in a small but pivotal role, does one of the best jobs of playing an actual woman I've seen in a long time.

Like the main character in The Matrix, a film ingrained more deeply in cultural memory, Truman is driven to confront a reality that is, if not exactly illusion, at least bowdlerised and rationalised to the point of absurdity. The great strength of The Truman Show is that it delves into the process of coming to that realisation, and the courage required to step beyond it.

In short, The Truman Show is great companionship for those of us who have been there, one that will keep you mulling and meditating its metaphors for months. (Not bad, eh? I just made that up.) Whether it will mean anything to others, I can't say, but at minimum it's a Feast of Good: good writing, good acting, and good directing.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Street Level Zen: Tuesday Night Kyôsaku

Spring comes to the
leeward garden

"The only appropriate attitude for Man to have about the big questions is doubt."
Bill Mahrer

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Hermitcraft: Nettles

Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica.
(Adapted from The Neighborhood Forager, by Robert K. Henderson. Copyright 1999 Chelsea Green Publishers, White River VT. Available in bookstores; signed copies available from the author [me] for $24.95 plus shipping.)

The Eatin' O' The Greens is hard upon us, so to kick off the bacchanalia, I propose a pæan to that prince of the pot: Urtica (stinging nettle).

Mediæval monastics, greatest scholars of their time, lived on nettle broth, tea, beer, and greens. Nettle root soup was virtually the only dish served in the severest orders. They also wore habits of nettle fibres, sowed it in fallow ground as green manure, boiled the whole plant for fertiliser and organic pesticide, and whipped their backs with bundles of fresh nettles to strengthen their spiritual discipline. Today, banks of nettle veil monastery ruins all over Europe, an ever-faithful servant shielding the bones of the once-great monastic system from the mocking view of the profane.

On the other side of the planet, the North Pacific tribes slurped steamed nettle shoots and nettle root soup while building their own highly-advanced culture. They used fibres from pounded nettle stems to spin cordage that made industrial-scale salmon fishery a reality, which in turn formed the basis of the entire coastal economy. The Harpooneer, central figure of the whale hunt and an important religious figure, plunged his hand into a bag of nettles to prevent his thoughts wandering as he searched the misty ocean.

But it's nettle’s food value that makes it central to my own practice. Few vegetables, wild or domestic, approach it. Protein-wise, nettle outperforms beans. It also packs a significant wallop of iron, fibre, vitamins A and C, calcium, magnesium and a long list of others. And it seems the monk-physicians of old were right to put their patients on nettle broth, since in addition to being sustaining and easily-digested, it's also hypoallergenic.

When in doubt, simply pet the plant
you're looking at. If the experience
is unremarkable, it ain't this.
Nettle shoots start coming on about this time of year in the northern hemisphere, generally in moist, rich soil with partial shade. A single square stem bears heart-shaped, deeply toothed leaves, so that the plant closely resembles a big, hairy mint, to which it is a close relative. The "hair" is actually a million tiny, needle sharp spines that sting like the dickens when touched. (They lose this power with thorough steaming.)

Food also has to taste good to get on my menu, and nettle brings plenty of that kind of "food value" to the table as well. The greens have a complex bouquet, mingling faint mint overtones with a hint of the seashore. Boiled shoots are a good bed for steamed or baked salmon, and fresh ones can form a bed for steaming clams, then be eaten as a side dish. I call the blue-green water left over from steaming “nettle nectar,” because it tastes something like clam nectar. It can be mixed with tomato juice, eggs can be poached in it, or you can just drink it hot. To make delicious, nutritious broth, boil shoots until soft with onions and garlic, run through a blender, and strain. In its day, this concoction enjoyed as much prestige as chicken soup for healing the sick.

Wild greens generally excel supermarket produce in savour and sustenance, and nettles are among the best of the already best. And they're only available now, for a few weeks. So go eat some.

But don't make a salad from them.

Bad idea.

Cereal box prize:
An uplifting teisho from one of the great Zen masters of our time.

"Anything is possible when you smell like a monster and know the word 'on.'"

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Growing Up Home: Swimming Lessons

My nephew fishes in the lake I grew up on
(The following is an excerpt from "Growing Up Home." Copyright RK Henderson.)

In Olympia, Washington, where I grew up, people who couldn't swim were considered physically, if not mentally, disabled. So to avoid small town censure, and perhaps save our lives, my mother enrolled my brother and me in swimming lessons at the age of six and eight.

Back then, self-respecting Puget Sound kids swam in lakes, and on really hot days, the bay. I still abhor pools, reeking of bleach and God knows what else. But this was pushing it. I don't recall the precise month the course began, but my graphic memories of icy grey skies place it closer to the previous Christmas than the next. The venue was Capitol Lake, a former mudflat of the Sound, dyked off in the 1950s to make a freshwater reflecting pond for the state capitol dome. The black marine oobleck, stagnated river water, and municipal effluent also made it a fermenting cauldron of corruption, one whose temperature hovered just above freezing in that season.

Before our abject refusal even to undress in the dank bathhouse, much less enter the water, my mother bribed us with a Mountain Bar a-piece, payable after each session. And so we fell in with the blue-lipped, shoulder-hugging damned lined up in the pea gravel. The only sound was the ominous lap of waves, from which we reflexively pulled back our toes; we were all shivering too hard even to complain.

Eventually a teenager appeared, in dry trunks and thongs, carrying a clipboard. A whistle was slung around the hood of his sweatshirt. "Everybody in!" he ordered, stepping onto the L-shaped swimming dock. Nobody moved. As he rounded the corner a whistle blast split the air. "I said IN!" A girl of similar years appeared behind us, urging us forward with menacing pushing gestures.

I don't know where Parks and Recreation got those instructors. Possibly they were young offenders working off their community service. At any rate, when push came literally to shove, we found ourselves knee-deep in glacial sewage. Our tormentors ordered us to grip the dock and kick, to tread water, to swim across the boomed swimming area. We strove to move as little as possible, and not to put our faces underwater. Or, God forbid, get any in our mouths.

And so it went, week after week. Few images survive today beyond wretched misery; the rest have been firmly repressed. But I do recall once huddling with another boy as we numbly contemplated some grotesque, B-movie invertebrate clinging to the dock's slimy undercarriage. I've spent my life on, in, and near water, but I've never seen its like again. Mostly, I remember how we vaulted out of that arctic slough at lesson's end, clutching beach towels around waxen shoulders and simply savouring the terry cloth nirvana. It's amazing how a slight shift in location can make a cold, soggy morning feel like an August afternoon.

I learned nothing about swimming that spring, but is that really the point? Capitol Lake is off-limits to swimmers now, condemned at long last by a lethargic county health department, and today, my nephew takes his lessons in a heated indoor pool. I worry about his moral development. Sure, he'll learn the side stroke, the dead man's float, the Australian crawl. But can the boy truly become a man without spending nine consecutive Saturdays waist-deep in a freezing mudflat, while Colonel Klink snarls at him from the dock?

And will he ever know the sheer, ecstatic bliss a guy can get from a single Mountain Bar?

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Power Below

In the wake of the recent earthquake in Japan there were widely-publicised tsunami warnings for the coast and several friends contacted me with fears for my well-being. They didn't know we get tsunami warnings every third Wednesday; it's our version of the Mauve Alert. It's just that this time it was newsworthy.

And the experts say our waves were in fact a whole 1.7 feet higher than normal. Of course we were also experiencing a winter storm at the time, so whatever the heck "normal" means, in the North Pacific, in March...

Anyway, next day I found this on the beach. It's old. It's big. It's heavy.

It's a whale rib.

So maybe something powerful did surge up out there.

And maybe I don't know everything. 

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Knee-Deep in Dogma

Some time I ago I found a bottle with a message in it on the beach after a blow. This happens more frequently than you might guess; I've got a large campground north of me and an even larger vacation house development to the south. People on holiday like to put messages in bottles.

But surf is a dogmatic mind, and almost always spits the offering right back into the launcher's footprints.  Which is what happened this time, as I learned when I emailed the address it bore.

The bottle was crammed with folded paper, and one dried rose. I didn't open it, because a note visible from outside advised the finder to email its position and toss it back. Since I found it very near the campground, I suspected it hadn't got far, and my suspicions were confirmed by the response I received. This read in part:

(My wife) and I were married just this 1.11.11 at 11:11, a crystal clear cold but beautiful day, under the canopy of plum trees at Seattle's Volunteer Park. We invited all the wedding party to post their own hopes dreams and wishes into the bottle. We then enjoyed a walk along Alki beach to throw the bottle but the current was not right. (We) headed to Golden Gardens Park... again wrong tide.  We sent off the bottle with parents going to the ocean. It was tossed this weekend into the ocean.

Hmmm. I have long experience with drift bottles, and told my new friend I'd give this one the benefit of same. First I threw it in the river; sometimes that will get it past the surf. The next day I found it right back where I'd been standing. It was time to stop playing around.

The best way to lodge a bottle in the grey Pacific is to give it to an outbound fisherman and have him dump it overboard when he reaches the horizon. Unfortunately the nearest fishing terminal is quite a distance away and I had no foreseeable plans to travel that far in that direction.

So I took up my stick and humped the bottle out to Damon Point. This long, low spit of sand stands well into the harbour's throat, where it confronts open ocean swell to the southeast and shelters still bay water to the northwest. On a stormy, rain-soaked winter Monday I slogged its two miles of soft sand to the end, to the mighty pushing and shoving of colliding seas.

With an east wind at my back, on steep shingle beach and a turning tide, I pitched the bottle over a single line of surf. And it came right back. So I pitched it again. And left.

I got soaked to the skin in the process, and caked with grit. That's how I know the job was done.

The bottle probably came right back, but that's OK; from Damon Point it will soon be sucked out to sea. It's the best beachcombing in the county; but for a hundred feet of sand, you could be adrift on a raft in the middle of the harbour's mouth. Any wind save a true NNW will sweep anything off that beach, and the entire contents of Gray's Harbour busting back into the main will drive it away for good.

And if it comes back again, by God, I'll drive to Taholah. The Tribe'll get it done, you may count upon it.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Don't Waste Time

The unedited version of this photo documents two vultures eating a human body in a Tibetan burial ground. I use it for asubha. I've edited out the scary parts and declined announcing this post in other fora so as not to impose on anybody.

I look at this picture every day. In fact, it's the desktop picture on my computer.

Sometimes when I look at it, I see the woman who used and abused me and left me for dead. I got bad news, babydoll: you ain't all that and a bag of chips. Just ask my friends, here. You're just the bag of chips. Same as us all.

Sometimes I see the man who worked violence on me to get his own way. It's hard to hate you when I see where all your scheming is going to get you.

Sometimes I see someone I love and cherish, someone without whom I might not have made it this far. The time to love is now.

Sometimes I see the Buddha, because this is precisely what happened even to his enlightened backside.

But mostly, I just see me.

Brothers and sisters: don't waste time.

Monday, 7 March 2011

That's Right, We Bad

Bald eagles like to roost in the trees in my front garden, as they're the highest point on the ridge. They have a clear, clarion scream they like to loose up there, a slide-whistle aria like a loon singing opera. As near as I can tell, it means, "Check it out, dawg: I'm an eagle. And I'm 'way up high."

Giant birds; they glide in just over the eaves, casting a shadow like a pterodactyl on the sitting room rug. They're also devoted spouses, rarely apart from their mates. The bond seems more emotional than evolutionary; eagles seldom hunt coöperatively, and they certainly have no need for mutual defence.

When I was a kid, seeing one of these was a rare treat, never to be forgotten. Today it's extremely illegal to kill them, calling down a force of judiciary second only to homicide, and the logging and agricultural activity that undercut their ability to survive have been regulated in their favour.

So now such sightings are commonplace. Even boring.

But not for me.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Rough Around the Edges: Choice

(The following is an excerpt from "Rough Around the Edges: A Journey Through Washington's Borderlands." Copyright RK Henderson.)

Because the choice is ours.

Many years ago, when I was a student, I entered a supermarket. A lady stood out front with a coffee can, collecting for charity. She was a cheery sort, a plump, maternal woman with a rosy Anglican face.

Ahead of me strode a man in a green coach's jacket. "Would you like to give to the Church relief fund?" she asked.

His voice had all the silk of a snow shovel on wet asphalt.

"I was poor all my life, nobody helped me!"

The churchwoman bobbed, taken aback, and he stalked past, shoulders hunched, fists jammed in his slash pockets.

I never saw the man's face, but his greying comb-over and spare tire are stamped on my mind.

I should have pulled out my grocery money, a single twenty, and handed it to her right there. I should have said, "Here's ten for me," and dropped it in her can, "and ten for him." But I didn't. In the moment, all I could think to do was raise an eyebrow, as who should say, "No good deed unpunished, eh?", and keep walking.

But the guy bothered me. He was rude. He was ungrateful. He was angry. It was years before I solved his riddle.

You decide what it does to you.

You don't decide what happens. When you're born, where you're born, who you're born, how you're born. Land slides, fields flood, markets crash, families fail, houses burn, dogs bite, lovers leave, people die. Dashboards dash and draught boards draught.

You pick a number and you watch the wheel. Same as us all.

But you decide what it does to you. Whether it makes you hard or soft. Hot or cold. Mean or mindful.

Poverty doesn't do that. Pain doesn't do that. Heartbreak doesn't do that.

You do that.

Cereal box prize:

Vulcan meditation for humans. Learn the way of kya'shin, or "thought controlling emotions rather than emotions controlling thought." Something many humans could really use. And those in their vicinity.