Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Invisible Hook

If there's one Amazon review you read this season, let this be the one!


Last week, Garrett and I began an exploration of Zen meditation. We're enrolled in a 5-week introductory class at the Houston Zen Center. In the first class, after leaving our shoes and our worries at the door, we shared our reasons for being there ("Garrett made me come!") and learned a little bit about the history of Zen. We also had the opportunity to practice meditating on some cozy pillows.

The first week's "homework" is to meditate each day for 15 minutes, and to practice "mindfulness." To practice mindfulness, we are to pay full attention to the activity of opening and closing a door (in the natural context, not as an autistic activity): reaching for the knob, turning the knob, crossing the threshold, etc. It sounds silly, but it is actually a great example of the spirit of Zen. Rather than focusing on where we've been or where we're going (which the brain is very good at doing), we are to focus on the here and now. Oh, meditation! Where you Zen all my life?

Friday, July 10, 2009

My Kind of Town

After writing yesterday's post, I was surprised to read an article about Chicago in the New York Times today. Apparently, people from the suburbs are buying up condos in the city as their second homes! Not only that, but people from Europe (Europe!) are snatching up homes in Chicago. One family from Switzerland "wanted a modern American counterpart to the slower European country life." I wonder if this same family would be willing to swap residences with someone who would prefer the slower European country life?

I think Kunstler would be very pleased with the "revitalization" going in downtown Chicago (homes! parks! art! dining! entertainment!), but would argue for a more democratic rebirth of the city -- one in which people who do not have $300,000 to spare on a second home could also find a place to live, work, and play.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily on our way to nowhere in particular

I recently read "The Geography of Nowhere," by James Howard Kunstler. It examines the landscape of America, from the earliest settlements until today. Kunstler details the rise and fall of small-town America, in particular the demise of our physical and cultural landscape in the 20th century. Since World War II, America has been on a slippery slope to ruin, he argues, because of the automobile. The rise of suburbia means the death of communities. We are leading empty, isolated, destructive lives. Developers, car companies, zoning laws -- all are contributing to our "geography of nowhere."

Midway through the book, after extolling Portland, Oregon, as one of the few exemplary American cities, Kunstler visits three places that serve as an escape from the modern landscape crisis -- Atlantic City, New Jersey; Woodstock, Vermont; and Walt Disney World, Florida! You can imagine my interest in this chapter. Kunstler does not hide his hatred for Disney World. While some of his critiques have merit (turning over real dollars for Disney Dollars! rides that empty out into gift shops!), others are somewhat outdated (Fast Past has helped with long lines, and Tomorrowland received a makeover). He wrote the book in 1993, so it's amazing to read that it cost him only $32.50 to get in to the Magic Kingdom! (Today it will cost you $75.) Other observations of Disney sound like a high falutin undergraduate term paper: the ferry ride across the Seven Seas Lagoon is like crossing the River Styx, and the entry procedure into the park is like a Protestant's vision of entering heaven. My favorite was his obsession with "the theme of death and mayhem" as seen in attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean, the Jungle Cruise, and the shoot-outs of Frontierland. We can only imagine the ranting that would have ensued had he chosen to go on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

Overall, the book was enlightening, if somewhat depressing. He likes the idea of Main Street U.S.A. but is disappointed by the souvenir shops behind the architectural facade. Disney guests say that Main Street makes them feel good. Kunstler writes, "Disney pretends so hard to be wholesome. The customers go along with this falsehood, because it makes them feel better about themselves, the same way that Main Street U.S.A. makes them feel better about the scary places where they actually live." Hear, hear!

If you too are intrigued by Kunstler's theories, I would recommend his new novel, "World Made by Hand," as a more accessible work. It speaks to all the same ideas, but with engaging characters and a gripping plot. It's the story of a not-too-distant future in which there is no more oil, no more electricity, and no more order. It's the end of the road on which we're currently driving.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Happy Fourth of July!

Armed with bottles of water, sunscreen, and battery-powered handheld fans, Garrett and I set off to Bayou Bend to celebrate Independence Day 2009. The thermostat read 102 degrees.

Bayou Bend is now part of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts but used to be the home of one Ms. Ima Hogg (yes, that's really her name and not a Moe Syzlak joke). The house was built in 1928, but Ms. Hogg had a penchant for all things colonial America. Since 1966 it has been a museum for the decorative arts, with items dating from 1620-1870. The land also boasts a large garden with winding paths and a somewhat wobbly but fun bridge that crosses over the bayou.

Today the museum offered free admission, free fans, and free snacks. There were crafts for the kids (paint fireworks using watercolors and straws! make your own drum from a coffee can!), tours of the house, people in period costume, and a brass ensemble.

A giant copy of the Declaration of Independence was posted for everyone to sign -- with quills, no less!

After a rousing performance of "Stars and Stripes Forever" by the brass ensemble, with the small children providing back-up on their newly made drums...

...the Declaration of Independence was read out loud. Afterwards everyone celebrated with a birthday cake for America. Yum! Freedom is delicious; it tastes of buttercream.

We returned home to refreshing patriotic showers. Now we plan on curling up next to the AC and spending the evening indoors. Happy Holiday!