Crosswalk conundrum


All over the US, many crosswalks will have a button on them. The purpose of this button is to alert the system that you wish to cross. I have long wondered whether these do in fact link to any system, or are merely there to make the control-happy residents of this country feel as if they have some measure of power over something when in fact they have none. Perhaps it is just the equivalent of the “barber pole” progress bar prevalent in so much software. The bar doesn’t do anything other than alert you that a process is happening (and often times is totally faked), but it does give the illusion that progress is being made and thus calms the user. Similarly, perhaps the button is false comfort, but comfort nonetheless since it supplies the illusion of input or control. What do you think? Does the button actually do anything? image

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.

Bad Moon Rising


I had another great meditation course at Tushita this morning. Then we were informed that because it was the full moon, there would be a special reading of the Sanghata Sutra. Interested in hearing the reading of the sutra (upon discovering it would be read in English), Juliette and I decided to stay for it. When we got to the gompa, they had laid out copies of the sutra on several low tables in front of the meditation mats, and Hedwig (yes, again Hedwig) explained to us how the reading would commence and how being a full moon day this was more auspicious than other days in which to read or chant, and that it would disperse more “positive energy”(her words) than on a normal day. We were told that we would each read the sutra aloud simultaneously but at our own pace.

A couple of months ago I was in Bhutan and on a few occasions was in a monastery in the presence of many monks who appeared to be mumbling, chanting, reading — the composite sound was quite nice and unique to the environment, but I remember having no real idea what they were doing. As we began to read, that particular mystery was solved and although the composite sound was still quite nice to my ear, it no longer contained the question I had posed. I knew now that we were doing the same thing, only in English.

As I got several pages into the text however, I was not so happy. The sutra is full of hellfire and brimstone, reward for good behavior and punishment for bad in a way very similar the Hebrew Torah and Christian Bible. In other words, just in the ways that religion likes to motivate people, by threat and promise. I certainly didn’t come all this way in life just to pick up that old bag. I put down the sutra after skimming the rest, mildly off put.

It was interesting how at odds this sutra was from the lovely odes to universal compassion for all beings that are at the center of our meditations. And to me, how at odds with the core of Buddhist ideas involving awareness and release from craving or aversion. Oh well. The meditations are still great, and compassion is still great. As always for me, the imagery and ritual get in the way of the big ideas.

Beijing, Forbidden


Beijing has been very interesting, and raises a huge number of questions for me.

The city is spotless and there seems to be new construction everywhere (probably in prep for the Olympics). I can’t get over how shiny and new everything feels (even the old stuff). The air pollution, while not great, is way better than Xian.

The Forbidden City is OVERWHELMING. There is no other way to describe it. It is massive and impressive as hell, but very difficult to integrate in a 3 hour visit. It is the kind of place that needs to be visited piecemeal over many months. It is so extensive that one really gets overloaded and loses the awe of the place. By the end of 3 hours, we just wanted to escape.

Taxi hailing is a mystery in this city. There are taxi stands that one can go to and SOMETIMES taxis will stop, sometimes not. Outside of that, one SHOULD be able to hail a taxi anywhere, but they take one look at us and mostly keep on going. Can anyone enlighten me? I do seem to be able to get them if I wait in front of a hotel and ask the doorman to hail.

Gay life seems pretty open here, much more so than in India. We went to a nice bar last night called Destination. I met a sweet guy from Los Angeles and we hung out. (I did feel a little guilty I admit, like I should be more focused on local, ahem, cuisine.)

Day 2 (Are we eating the same food?)


What is the sound of the meditation room (or “Dhamma Hall” as they called it in Igatpuri)? Burping and farting mostly, with some coughing, sneezing and smaller helpings of unidentifiable cracking or wheezing. I am finally able to concentrate mostly on my breathing, but interrupted often by the massive amounts of flatulence in the hall.

Today I am supposed to further refine my concentration by focusing on a small triangle defined by the top of my nose and extending to the two corners of my mouth. I am supposed to notice the flow of air within the nostrils. I watch this for hours (and hours) and by about 4 in the afternoon I start to feel that the inside of my nose is all tingly and feeling a little numb. I am worried that this will interfere with my ability to feel the air inside and that I am a doing something wrong, perhaps forcing too much air back and forth and that I have caused some odd muscle twitching that will impede my progress. At least the throbbing and shooting pain in my back has now transformed to just regular pain. On the other hand, all of this cross-legged sitting is starting to do a number on my knees, the right one in particular.

On a side note, I have finally understood something that has long confused me about meditators. In the past I never understood (if the goal of meditation is a kind of tranquil calm and relaxation) why meditators would drink tea which has caffeine in it. I realize with this practice that a mind that can focus is of utmost importance, and caffeine is a big help in sharpening the mind. Mystery solved.

At that evening’s DVD discourse entitled (surprise) “Vipassana 10 Day Meditation Course: Day 2”, I am thrilled to learn that the odd feeling in my nose is exactly what they were looking for and a sign that I am becoming aware of subtler sensations. For some reason I find total elation in this and am able to think of this as the very rational, scientific, experience based technique that Goenka tells us this is. Goenka starts to explain the reason for the conditioning we are going through, with the goal being to train the mind to notice ever subtler sensations within the body. He gives us a little preview of day three telling us that we will further restrict the area of study to the trapezoid defined by the corners of the mouth up to the bottom of the nostrils. I can’t wait.

Bye Bye Bangkok


Hard to believe it has already been a month that I have been in Thailand. What started as a serious case of culture shock is now a fairly strong satisfaction over the wonder of travel here and what I have learned. I plan to be back (for my birthday bash) next June, and hope to see even more of the country at that time.

In an hour I leave for the airport, where I will catch my Air India flight to Bombay. Stay tuned for a whole new round of culture shock (or not).

By the way, I mostly figured out the hose thing next to the toilet and how to use it to clean one’s ass. As with most things, it just takes a little practice. With the right angle and pressure control, one can get very clean with almost no water splashing about. I still needed at least one square of TP, however to dry off.

Enjoy folks, I’ll be here all year.

Random thoughts (Bangkok edition)

  • No one seems able to read a map here. I used to think of maps as universal b/c they are graphic representations of the world, but reading a city map is definitely a type of literacy. And the people you would expect to have it here (taxi drivers for example) simply don’t.
  • Why are there so many people on the subway and skytrain and on the street with Vicks inhaler sticks shoved up their noses? Is this some great high that I am missing out on?
  • The mosquitoes here are teeny tiny and you don’t see them until it is too late. At home I was used to the large kind that make a buzzing sound.
  • Although this country is supposedly Buddhist, damnable Christmas music and Christmas displays are EVERYWHERE.
  • Eating here is mostly done with a spoon and fork. You are meant to use the fork to shovel food to your spoon, and somehow cut everything with your fork or spoon. Good luck with the hard stuff.
  • Rich or poor, cheap street market or glitzy shopping mall, this is a country that loves to shop and go to market.

How do they do it?


Look at the photo below:

Above you see a picture of a Thai toilet, one of many I have photographed. They may be sit-down like this, or they may be squat, and they usually don’t have toilet paper and the Thais are used to all of this and make great use of the spray hose next to these toilets to apparently wash their ass (always with the left hand, the right is for eating) before emerging from this experience unscathed.So here is my question: How the hell do they manage to clean themsleves with no toilet paper and yet come out of the bathroom with no apparent wet marks anywhere? I thought about asking a monk or two, but it seemed somehow inappropriate after a discussion of the noble eightfold path. Gentle readers, any ideas?

You say Chedi, I say Stupa, let’s call the whole thing off


Seriously, trying to figure out which is which can be confusing. I was told by a guide the other day that stupas are meant to contain a relic of the Buddha, like a tooth or a bowl he used or something. This strikes me as very much in the vein of catholic churches and their obsession with relics. In fact, I have been surprised by how…iconographic the whole of Thai Buddhism seems to me. I guess from my readings I was hoping to find something more abstract, but people around the world love an idol i guess. I find all the imagery really distracting and oftentimes bordering on kitch. Seeing them as cultural, or art objects I can find a great appreciation. Seeing them as divine turns me off.

Anyway, I arrived in Ayutthaya this morning from Bangkok, and I have to say, it was a breeze compared to my last few days. I just went to the train station, looked at the times and bought my ticket. Just like that.

Ayutthaya is an AMAZING place (albeit hotter than hell. Is this REALLY the cool season? wtf?). The ruins are incredible. And I definitely recommend renting a bike as I did, as the whole town is easily accessible in this manner. So, without further ado, I present the pics:

From Ayutthaya