Beyond estimation of toast


I (like many people) am a user of several IM networks (AIM, MSN, Yahoo, GTalk) in order to allow me to chat with friends in each of these networks. (As a side note, I use a really nice single application called Adium to connect to all of them at the same time.) These networks each have their strengths and weaknesses, but Yahoo’s seems the most prone to being hijacked for spreading spam or viruses or whatnot. Being on a Mac, I am mostly immune to this sort of thing, but the rare messages popping up in Yahoo IM windows from complete strangers are annoying anyway.

This morning I got a message sent to me in Arabic. It was several paragraphs long and since I don’t speak the language, completely incomprehensible. Curious nonetheless to investigate the cultural differences between Arabic and English spam, I headed over to Google Translate to try to decode the message. What resulted was pretty nonsensical. Although there were a few words that alone had meaning, almost none of them taken together mean anything at all (at least in English). However, one phrase did stand out to me as pure poetry: “beyond estimation of toast”.

Thank you, voice from the ether. I will be pondering the mystery of this koan for some years to come.

Proximity is ownershipLa proximidad es propiedad


I’ve been noticing an interesting phenomenon here in Mexico City related to parking. And I’ve noticed it in just about every neighborhood I have been to. In residential areas, the parking space next to the curb in front of people’s houses is very often blocked with some object to prevent anyone other than the owner of the house next to it from parking there. This is not legal in any way (and perhaps not illegal either), but it is a culturally sanctioned practice. Many times I have been with friends circling for parking when there have been many free spaces around. By social contract, no one sees these spaces as anything other than owned or spoken for, even though in reality they are part of the public space and it would be perfectly legal to move the objects and park there.

I am fascinated by this type of appropriation. What are the rights of those in proximity to public space? Are they, or should they be greater than the rights of anyone else? If the rights are greater, should not the responsibilities as well (for maintenance or cleaning for example)? What about people that live on the edge of a park? Do they, or should they have greater use rights than those that live elsewhere? I suppose it is just part of the human condition to claim space, wherever we happen to be.
He notado un fenómeno en la Ciudad de Mexico relacionado con el estacionamiento. Me doy cuenta que en casi todos las colonias, los espacios para estacionamiento en frente de las casas son bloqueados con objetos puestos ahí para los dueños de estas casas. Lo hacen para guardarlos. Probablemente no es algo ilegal, y lo curioso es que se ha vuelto una práctica culturalmente aceptada. Los mexicanos no lo ven como algo extraño que los dueños reserven estos espacios, y nunca van a moverse los objetos para estacionarse ahí.

Esta apropiación del espacio público me ha dejado impresionado. ¿Cuáles son los derechos de la gente que vive próxima de estos espacios públicos? ¿Tienen más derechos que los demás? Si tienen, también tienen más responsabilidades (como por ejemplo, limpieza y mantenimiento)? ¿Y los que viven cerca de un parque? ¿Deben tener más derechos de usarlo que la gente que vive lejos? Supongo que es parte de la condición humana reclamar territorio en cualquier lugar.

What I’m reading at the momentQué estoy leyendo en este momento


El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude) by Octavio Paz. This book is incredible. The language is beautiful and lucid. For some reason this is a much easier read for me in Spanish than the other book I had begun (and put down for now) Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquival. I am only a couple of chapters in, but Paz has an amazing way of describing in clear yet poetic terms the essence of Mexican identity in itself and as contrasted with American identity. Although the book was published in 1950, the essential character sketches still ring substantially true. El laberinto de la soledad de Octavio Paz. Este libro es increíble. El uso del lenguaje es bonito y lúcido. Por algúna razón, este libro es mucho más fácil de leer (en Español) que el libro que había empezado a leer, Como agua para chocolate de Laura Esquival. He leído solo dos capítulos, pero pienso que Paz tiene una manera muy sorprendente describir en términos claro y con poesía la esencia de la identidad mexicana (solo y puesto en contraste con la identidad americana). Aun y cuando el libro fue publicado en 1950, esa esencia me parece todavía verdad en muchos casos.

A little chat oddity


I am used to online chatting (via AIM and the like) being an exercise in reduction, contraction and abbreviation. And for the most part that holds true here in Mexico, with one little odd exception. The word for “yes” is “si”, but in IM conversations a lot of people will write “sip” to mean the same thing. I guess it is kind of like saying “yeah” or “yep”, but it seems odd in the context of an IM to go for longer rather than shorter words.

Grains of sand


“It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out, it is the grain of sand in your shoe”

It is funny what sticks with you. The above quote I actually heard from a world civilization teacher in 7th or 8th grade. I could swear that he told us it was an old saying from Confucius, but a quick look on the web appears to verify its author as Robert W. Service. Whatever. It is a great quote, and one which has come back to haunt or instruct me on so very many occasions in life. We humans are like that, really. We let the most petty annoyances turn into giant stumbling blocks. And the really big things, the really big questions in life, glide by with such little weight and such little notice.

These thoughts were occupying me this afternoon after my Monday meditation group. It seemed that the entire environment was conspiring to pull me out of “the zone”. Random honking from the street below, the floors being resurfaced in the next room, the giggling group in the hallway, the guy in the room who shifted his place three times, while loudly sorting his pile of keys and change.

There is a mostly unspoken tension that exists among meditators that revolves around environment. What is a suitable space in which to meditate? Almost without fail, the goal is to pick a tranquil environment that involves a simple room that is mostly cutoff from outside sound, with a low light level and comfortable temperature. The idea is to have the fewest distractions possible, thus allowing participants to concentrate and focus more deeply on the meditation at hand. Whenever there is an extra stimulus (which is very often), the individual or group is confronted with a small dilemma. A major goal of Buddhism after all is to accept all things with equanimity and not to cling to cravings (such as for an “ideal” space) or run from aversions (such as a chaotic environment). Therefore, it is ideal to simply “deal with it” and find a way to notice and accept without judgement. Ultimately, we all live in the imperfect world (even Buddhists) and the goal is too see clearly and find peace in the present moment, and the present being. This of course includes the chaos that is life.

The great lesson I keep coming back to is that these little things are not only the grains of sand in my shoe. These grains of sand in some ways ARE the mountain ahead, in that they are as much a part of the totality of existence as the mountain. And neither the mountain nor the grains of sand are much without our acquiescense to their power. All things hinge on our attitude towards them, and our willingness to reach out and accept them, to touch them and let them touch us without craving or aversion. To appreciate and experience them, and then let them go.

Luis Barragán was that way


That’s right, it is time for another of my thrilling exposés, digging deep into the private lives of (semi)famous dead people, based on nothing other than my own sense of gaydar.

I just came back from a visit to Casa Luis Barragán, which was his home and now serves as a museum of sorts. I say of sorts, because you can only visit by appointment and tour, and they will only show you portions of the house. The quality of what we did see was phenomenal and the tour was conducted in a pedagogical manner, taking care to point out the motifs and themes present in the work in a clear way. You can go on either an English or Spanish language tour, although you will need to reserve a place several days in advance. It was a little upsetting that photos of the interior are completely forbidden. We were only allowed to take a few snapshots on the roof and in one of the interior courtyards. I was however blown away by the architecture and design, and even more fascinated by how much the house tells you about his private life. It seems pretty obvious to me after the visit that Luis Barragan was gay, closeted, conflicted as hell about it, and more than a little paranoid.

One of the first things one notices about the house is the intensely private nature of everything. This was a house that turned its back completely to the street, only opening up to its internal garden. All street-facing windows are either translucent, obscured or very small. Even the large roof terrace, which would have afforded a lovely view of the park and surroundings, was circumscribed by high walls to maintain privacy. The rather extreme lengths that Barragán went to in his own house to maintain this privacy is a bit suspect.

There is high tension in the house contrasting the simplicity and monastic quality of the architecture with the splashes of color and sometimes erotic and exotic objets d’art that permeate (penetrate?) the house.

The house itself (and other works) take some inspiration from colonial architecture, especially the architecture of churches and convents. There is a simple, monastic quality throughout the house and an attempt to recreate the massive feel of these older buildings with details that present a thicker, heavier and more permanent-seeming environment. Also taking inspiration from religious settings and Barragán’s own sense of belief, one finds the motif of the cross represented in almost every area of the house, along with many artifacts that are religious in nature (such as carvings of Jesus on the cross, paintings of The Passion, etc).

In addition, it was interesting to note that Luis probably had a bit of the prude in him, as the only guest room in the house contained a single bed in a room resembling a monastic cell. Either he didn’t approve of couples sharing a bed under his roof, or this wasn’t the only spare bedroom in the house. When I noticed that there was also a single bed in Barragán’s own room, I asked our guide about it, and whether Barragán had ever had a wife. His response was that no, Barragán did not have a wife, and that there in fact used to be a larger bed in his own room, but in the last years of his life he was stricken with Parkinson’s, and it was easier for his attendants to move him from the single bed.

There were a number of places in the house that were off limits. When we asked about them, we were told that they were “in use”. When pressed, our tour guide explained that parts of the house were still lived in, by a man in his late 50s who was “a friend and collaborator” of Barragan. Apparently the house was left to him when Barragán died in 1988. Interesting, no?

At one point in the tour we were in one of Barragán’s various private offices, and on the wall was a picture of the architect as a young man. He was a bit of a dandy, I could tell that much from the photo.

Since coming back from the house, I have combed the internet for biographies of Barragán and not a single one mentions anything about his personal life. The closest we get is that he was friendly with various artists and collaborators. His biographies are as obscure and protected as his house. From the various clues, what I can piece together is that this man was very guarded about his private life, and was probably not a little conflicted and tortured by the tension between his deeply held religious convictions, his homosexual desire, and his public or professional persona.

I wonder, if he had been born many years later and had been able to live an open life, what influence that would have had, if any, on his work. It is clear that, personal issues aside, his art was very much a product of his particular worldview and his particular place in the history of modernism. He has had an amazing impact on a great number of architects. The formal language he left behind is of incredible value, and the spaces he created impart a simple, meditative peace to those that experience them. It was most likely his personal search for this meditative peace, for a way to reconcile the disparate parts of his life, that led him to create in the way that he did.

Coffee achiever


Good news about my addiction to coffee. According to this article on the BBC website:

Caffeine is a safe and readily available drug and its ability to stabilise the blood brain barrier means it could have an important part to play in therapies against neurological disorders.

Note: And before anyone goes about trying to correct the spelling of “stabalise”, remember that this is from a British publication.