November 30, 2007

Two Sides of Stubborn

As I advance in my graduate studies, slowly and painfully, I am looking forward to my thesis project. That is to say, I look forward to the project itself if I can ever move past the approval stage. Last time I checked, I was not a poodle, so I don’t know why they keep holding up hoops.

I invited my studio professor, Rumiko, to sit on my committee this week.

“What is my role?” she asked.

“Kicking my ass?” The good thing about Rumiko is she understands certain realities and so can laugh at them. “I’d like you to help me work on the philosophy and theory,” I told her.

“Oh, that sounds like fun!” she replied.

She pointed out I am stubborn, with which I agreed.

The thing about being stubborn is that generally I genuinely don’t intent to be so. The thing about being stubborn is that I’m stubborn even against my own will a good portion of the time, let alone anyone else’s. I can even feel the onset, like pushing, hackles rising, tension building.

Sometimes it serves me well. I draw ambition and tenacity and patience out of my bottomless well of obstinacy. Yet when it comes right down to it, when I’m being stubborn I feel almost as if I’m simply acting ‘in spite of.’ In spite of reason. In spite of logic. In spite of my professors. In spite of my family. In spite of society. Certainly, in spite of myself. And spite, it turns out, is not a pretty thing. Spite is malice, nastiness, and malevolence. None of these things would I identify with myself. Yet, I am undeniably stubborn.

True, I’m fairly easy going, cooperative, flexible, helpful, and more than willing to compromise. If the matter at hand is where to go for dinner or what verbiage to use in our team paper. The people who know me and know me well see past that. Rumiko certainly does, at any rate. Heaven knows it drove my mother insane (still does) and never ceases to amuse my father. I also have a sneaking suspicion that both side of the coin are inseparable – the perseverence I cultivate, which keeps me moving through the hoops, and the obstinacy I struggle with, which keeps me stading still.

“I bend,” I protested weakly, “sometimes.”

Rumiko just smiled.

November 26, 2007

On Writing

The glorious steel trusses throw pale pastel shadows on the ceiling from the cool up-lighting of the florescent fixtures. The windows are dark mirrors, bouncing both light and shadow and revealing as much as they conceal. The hum is steady, of the lights, the computers, the ventilation system, with only the occasional footsteps to penetrate it.

Sometimes I don’t know what to write, so I just write. I describe the world around me – the rain, the wind, the light, and from there I inexorably find myself circling back around. Sometimes I do actually have a point, a purpose, a subject, but more often than not I merely have a question or a trouble or a random thought. I write quickly, with little pausing, following my mindstream wherever it leads me.

Usually, I circle and ponder, and sooner or later I discover what I was looking for. Generally it is not an answer, but it could be called a conclusion. More often it is a new question, a new direction, a new thought, something to be pondered some other time. Sometimes it is just an end. I become tired of writing, bored with feeling sorry for myself, uninterested in my own false eloquence, or sometimes just a little too punchy to make much sense.

I generally publish what I write. I can count on one finger the number of posts I have deleted without publishing. I might give it one quick read through to check the spelling and the grammar, and often I don’t do a very good job at that. Then up it goes, into the cyberstorm of the internet, before doubt can get the better of me.

I re-read my posts almost as often as I post, usually getting a flavor of my mindset from the past week or so. Sometimes I go back farther, delving into memory, and sometimes I just read the last line, looking for a quick reminder.

My meditation instructor once told me that though the contemplative arts are numerous, encompassing painting, film, photography, archery, horsemanship, flower arranging, and tea ceremony, there is no “contemplative journaling.” It helps us buy into our own storyline. It strengthens our ego, gives us too strong a sense of “I” and “me.” Ever since I have been on guard against such a possibility, watching my mind, watching my writing as the quick and chaotic thoughts solidify onto paper.

Either my ego is very, very sneaky (which it is, to be sure) or I approach journaling from a very different vantage point. There is something of a desire for attention in it, that is undeniable, otherwise I would not publish what I write. Perhaps I would not even keep it, or ever reread it either. Yet mostly I write for the same reason I think, to figure things out. And I write to keep some record of my own folly, some proof that “I” am not, in fact, “me.” Besides, when I’m feeling bummed I’m often good for a laugh.

You see, I grew up in a household of bibliophiles (book-lovers). I started on Nancy Drew and the Black Stallion. When I was thirteen my mother handed me Anne McCaffrey and six months later my Dad handed me Tolkien. Due to the nature of my tastes (science fiction and fantasy with a few trashy romances thrown in during my teen years) I have a very healthy appreciation for the nature of fiction. Just because it was written did not mean it was real. On the contrary, the written word was subject to interpretation, thus was in many ways less real than almost any other medium, and certainly less so than direct experience. As my faith in the Christian church began to wane, those sentiments began to include other books, including The Book.

I allow my thoughts to solidify on paper (or the computer version) and I see them for what they are, just thoughts. Constantly shifting and changing, incorporeal and insubstantial. I think writing helps me take myself less seriously, not more.

So my thoughts have circled round at last, even here, sitting in the library, with the glorious steel beams and the soaring ceiling and the steady hum. Surrounded by books, I wrote about writing and sure enough I found the end of it. Like the wheel of samsara, it is always thus, until it isn’t anymore.

And just because I wrote it down, doesn’t make it true.

November 21, 2007


The first snow has come, riding the wings of the northwest wind. It was pulled out of the warm ocean to the west and lifted up across the mountains. Now it fights the wind, swirling madly this way and that, skipping across the land to be lifted up again until finally it is caught on a blade of grass or in the lee of a building where it cannot escape. It piles with its fellows, lying sullen upon the ground, bereft of the dancing wind. The grey clouds slide placidly by, indifferent, steadily shedding their burden upon the land.

Two days ago the south wind and the sun smiled across this land. They said their grinning goodbyes and fled in the twilight while the north wind swept stealthily down upon the sleeping cities and towns and farms. It was barely a whisper of a breeze in the fading evening light, but grew in the darkness and dragged with it the uncaring grey sky to hide moon, stars, and sun. At dawn it rattled the trees, stripping them of their few clinging leaves, reminding the waking people winter is come.

The fat squirrels, who just days ago could almost be trampled underfoot with every step they were so many, are now tucked away, snug and hiding from the biting north wind. The world is quiet, but for the wind. People hurry about and do not linger, not where the wind can find them. They seem to be holding their breath as the first snow falls.

The great oaks still wear their crowns of rust, stubborn as only trees can be. The pines shrug with nonchalance as both wind and snow slide through their slender fingers. The maples, birches, cottonwoods, and willows all stand as skeleton sentinels, their naked branches knocking like old bones. The last of the fall flowers, mums and roses still blooming, give up the fight and turn into their winter beds. The happy fountains stand silent and empty and the pigeons no longer wheel in the sky but tuck themselves safely away under eaves and soffits.

It is the first winter snow, the day before Thanksgiving. The people hurry home, trying to out race the wind. They make for the warm embrace of their family home, perhaps where they were raised, or spend summers of their youth, or just call home now because of the people who dwell within. They gather around a warm kitchen with parents and children, siblings and cousins, and tell tall tales of what mischief they have been up to during the fading days of the Indian summer just past. They fight and bicker and tease and ask inappropriate questions about boyfriends and girlfriends and possible grandbabies. That is what family is for, after all.

Outside the north wind runs along the forested river valleys and dances on the open plains. It sweeps the grass topped hills and ruffles the leave filled dales. It carries the scrambling snow and lets it settle upon the land and bites the unwary traveler to drive them indoors, where they should be. It keeps them warm and safe and snug, together with their loved ones, beyond the reach of the lonely night. The wind chivvies them home when they would linger over some unfinished bit of business not nearly so important as the card game for which their fighting great-uncles need a fourth player.

So thank the north wind, as it sends you on your way. Thank the sullen snow for finishing its dance early. Wish the stubborn oaks a good eve and settle around the kitchen table. Smile and laugh and chide those troublesome uncles and hug your family close.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving and the first snow is falling.

November 20, 2007

Buddhist In the System

So, the other day I mingled. I actually did a fairly good job too, by my own standards. I went to a big fancy house, crowded full of people I didn’t know, and I chatted, I networked, and I politicked. It was the University of Nebraska Student Leaders’ Dinner at the University President’s house and every senator and student executive from all three campuses, along with deans and professors from various colleges, were invited.

I discussed vegetarianism with Corina, a nice senator I have seen at our meetings but never spoken to. She said was vegetarian for several years but decided she wanted to be “more like Jesus,” who ate a little meat from time to time. I can’t argue with that. I wish more people aspired to be like Jesus. Not to say that the comment didn’t leave me feeling a little awkward, but that’s definitely my issue.

On a side note - I still have to decide how I’m going to ‘handle’ our team project of decorating the Osborne Athletic Complex for Christmas (they say “the holidays,” but they mean Christmas). It seems my strategy lately has been to simple not mention that I’m not Christian and entirely avoid the mention of Buddhism. After all, no one ever actually asks. But somehow that seems less than authentic, like I’m hiding something when all I’m really doing is not announcing it to the world. It bothers me sometimes.

Anyway, back to mingling. I found it somewhat indecent that the University President lives in such obvious luxury when his students are declaring bankruptcy and counting the pennies of their grocery bills, but I dutifully complimented the hosted on their beautifully maintained 100-year old home and expansive collection of original art. Again, I think I may just be trailing a little of my own baggage here. Maybe.

I chatted up both the candidates for Student President. Adam was all about bringing me into the fold (of the party) and making the maximum use of my voice representing graduate students (who are typically under-represented) and simultaneously ensuring that I get the kind of appointments which will keep me engaged and enthusiastic. Emily was concerned about sustainability and promised to send another senator my way so we could pool our resources in regards to a specific project which I would love to make a pet of. Both were good conversations.

Here’s the rub: should I join a political party? My choices are “Bright” and “Ignite” parties and I have no idea what either platform is, but the entire idea of joining one at all seems divisive. I take a bizarre pride that my conservative little state is the only one progressive enough (at its founding, at least) to enshrine a non-partisan unicameral legislature in its constitution. Even if one or the other of the student parties seems to be a better match to my own goals, is better able or willing to support me, and seems more likely to get me re-elected (or just elected since I actually got appointed to this term) it still seems like joining would immediately create an “us” versus “them” scenario. If I am for/with Bright then I am automatically against Ignite, right?

Our student newspaper reporter recently did a poll to breakdown demographics of the student senators, including political affiliation. He used Democrat, Republican, Independent, or No Answer. The first thought that entered my head when the question came up was “None.” I wouldn’t even go so far as to call myself Independent because that implies I have something to be independent of.

I’ve never been one for trying to dismantle a system from the outside, especially a (nominally) democratic one. I would much rather work to reform from within. However, as much as that applies to government, I’m not sure it carries through to the parties. I would prefer if that system did not exist at all, therefore I think I would be happier working outside of it. I will have to weigh my options here.

In the meantime I smiled, stole more than my fair share of the cookies, and did my best to reconcile feeling both energized and engage with feeling absurdly out of place.

November 13, 2007


Understand population and city growth with Cool graphics which make me think. (Thanks to Owl Monkey for the heads up.)

Dharmic Architecture: The Stoics

I find all kinds of lovely things in the most bizarre places, including exceedingly dry, excruciatingly technical, architectural theory texts which insist on debating the meaning of almost every Latin word (and its Greek counterpart) found in Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture until one would beg for mercy had one the breath left to do so. In any event, this is what I found there:

Arrian (Roman writing in the 2nd Century AD): “Some Indian sophists, the story goes, were found by Alexander in the open air in a meadow, where they used to have their disputations; when they saw Alexander and his army, they did nothing more than beat with their feet on the ground they stood on. When Alexander enquired through interpreters what their action meant, they replied: ‘King Alexander, each man possesses no more of this earth than the patch we stand on.’”

More to the point, there was also included a chapter on signification in Vitruvian thought.

Vitruvius (Roman architect writing in 44 BC or thereabouts): “These two things are contained in all matters, but above all in architecture: that which is signified and that which signifies. What is signified is the matter set forth by what is said. What signifies this is a demonstration developed through the principles of learning.”

McEwen (theorist writing in 2003 AD exactly): “It is important, first of all, to understand that significare in Latin means to ‘show by sings,’ no ‘represent.’”

Sextus Empiricus (skeptic philosopher writing the 2nd or 3rd Century AD): “The stoics … [say] that three things are linked together, what is signified, that which signifies, and the existing thing. That which signifies is the utterance … what is signified is the specific state of affairs indicated by the spoken word … the existing thing is the external reality … Of these, two are bodies, the utterance and the existing thing. But the state of affairs signified is not a body but a lekton.”

McEwen explains: “Lekta are not bodies. Like void, place, and time, lekta are what the Stoics called ‘incorporeals.’ Lekta, things signified, mediate between the words of significant utterances and existing things.”

Am I the only one who thinks that sounds an awful lot like the Buddhist idea of concepts. Like the preconceptions and ideas we build our world on but which may or may not have much resemblance to that which is. This is the first reference I have found in any of the literature of a third entity in the previously dualistic relationship of signifier and signified, sign and thing.

I cannot help but be a bit guilty of stereotyping as I attribute McEwen’s ending phrase with her probably eastern background given that her full name is Indra Kagis McEwen. However, I take genuine delight in her closing sentence, which sounds too much like a koan to me:

”You cannot chisel ‘Imperial Ceasar’ onto water.”

November 12, 2007

Groundlessness (or The Train is Coming)

I had a dream. I returned from a trip, a happy, carefree trip, and drove by my home to see only a burned out shell where my apartment building was. It wasn’t so obvious at first, because the brick still stood, but it had crumbled a little near the roof. Then I turned the corner and I could see all the way through the windows and to the sky showing through. I had left the heater on, forgotten the stove, something, and now the building had burned down. I was terrified for my cat and rushed in to find her hiding under a little overhang of the foundation. Nothing important was really lost. I was relieved, but still afraid.

I called my parents to tell them my building had burned down. They didn’t seem to care. Worse, they didn’t even really understand what I was telling them. I tried to make them understand. I wanted so badly for them to help me and surely if they only understood, they would help me. I was alone with my cat, trying to figure out what to do and no one would help me.

I know what it means. It means I’m afraid of dropping the ball, one of the balls, and everything will come crashing down around me.

There is a train rumbling up behind me. It has been there all the time. I’ve always known it. As long as I kept moving, I could stay ahead of it. As long as I faced forward, I didn’t have to be afraid of it. I could ignore that slight vibration in my feet. That is just nerves, or exhaustion, or malnutrition. But when the whistle blows, I can’t ignore it anymore. I have to turn around and face it. When I do I realize that no matter how fast I run, I won’t escape it. I’m alone on the trestle a thousand feet in the air and no one will help me. After all, I knew it was coming.

So I just stand there, paralyzed into immobility, my feet nailed to the track. Why try to escape when I can’t see any way out? I can look in all directions without finding a safe path, so I just stand there.

That is how I feel today. I have so much to do, it seems insurmountable and I seem totally immobile. Whatever energy and motivation I might have maintained before I turned around and saw the train is gone, as surely as if my feet were nailed down. So maybe the train will get me this time. Nothing important would really be lost, right? I would survive (my cat would survive) and I could keep going. I might even be relieved to have it over with, but I am still afraid.

I ignored the train for so long. I planed and organized and wandered along. I deluded myself into forgetting it was even back there. I paced myself to prevent exhaustion and now I chastise myself for being lazy and then I become angry because I’m not lazy! None of it matters, because the train doesn’t care. All of my little games amount to nothing. There is nothing to hang on to. That’s what I’m afraid of.


November 08, 2007

Dharmic Architecture - The Wisdom of Glenn Mercut

Juan Pablo Bonta warns in his 1979 book Archtecture and Its Interpretation "Architects are deluding themselves if they believe that they are addressing submissive audiences, eager to communicate; that their public wants by all means to understand (even to decipher, if necessary) the meaning of architecture as seen by the designer…What people want is to see their own meanings in the environment – with their own systems of values, from their own frames of reference, shaped by the expressive systems that they share with their community but not necessarily with the designer."

Perhaps then, there is something very, very important to learn from the 2002 Pritzker Prize (the Nobel or Pulitzer for architects) winner, Glenn Mercutt. The New York Times author Jim Lewis writes in his 2007 article "It may be easiest to explain who Glenn Murcutt is and what he does by explaining what he isn’t and does not do. To begin with, he doesn’t build outside Australia — never has — and so many of his fiercest fans have never actually seen his work. He has no staff, no draftsmen or model-builders, not even a secretary."

“Think of the building as an instrument that’s picking up all these sounds. So it’s addressing the hydrology, it’s addressing the geomorphology. It’s addressing the typography, the wind patterns, light patterns, altitude, latitude, the environment around you, the sun movements. It’s addressing the summer, the winter and the seasons in between. It’s addressing where the trees are, and where the trees are will tell you about the water table, the soil depth, climatic conditions," Mercutt told Lewis. “Our early survival was entirely related to observation. Listening, seeing, smelling, touching. We learned to read the water [when swimming]; to read the depth of the water, the way our bodies work in water. And air and water work in very similar ways. So to understand this was to understand currents and wind patterns. Then you understand topography, because topography defines the way wind will go.”

This is why Mercutt has turned down numerous offers for projects outside Australia, urban projects, big, flashy office compexes and skyscapers. In his 70's, he claims to only just started to understand the rural outback where he practices, and couldn't dream of trying to design elsewhere.

This semester I have met architects from firms which have thousands of employees and hundreds of offices. They boast opportunities to travel, in the US and internationally, which I would dearly love. Yet, Bonta's warning rings in my ears. The sollution I see is the path of Glenn Mercutt - as he quotes Thoreau: “Since most of us spend our lives doing ordinary tasks, the most important thing is to carry them out extraordinarily well.” Coming to know my client so as to intimately understand those meanings, values, and references they desire to see in their environment. And, more importantly, discovering a client with whom I share those values. That is a driving force behind my exploration of a "Dharmic Architecutre."

Mercutt: "Any work of architecture that has been designed, any work of architecture that has the potential to exist, or that exists, was discovered. It wasn’t created. Our role” — and the “our” seemed to refer to everyone on the planet — “is to be the discoverer, not the creator.”

November 05, 2007

Hate Crimes

The Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas has spent the last several years of the Iraq War picketing the funerals of slain soldiers. They are not protesting against the war, trying to bring our troops how, or even protesting against the soldiers for participating. Instead, they are picketing military funerals to tell people that God is killing American soldiers to punish American for tolerating homosexuals.

Recently, a Baltimore federal court, handed down a judgment of $9 million against the church for picketing the funeral of a fallen Pennsylvania marine. Many applaud the decision, but the church has emphatically stated it will not stop their activities. A classmate of mine, equally outraged at their behavior, recently reminded us that if they had been found guilty of a hate crime, they could have been jailed.

So the questions are these: Is it a hate crime if it is driven by hate but the subject of the crime (families of fallen soldiers) and the object of the hate (homosexuals) are not the same? Is it enough if a crime is carried out because they hate homosexuals? Or would they actually have to harm a homosexual person? And – If this can be considered a hate crime based on the motivation, why wasn’t it prosecuted as such? Is it possibly, as my classmate wondered, a case of Christian judges (and police) protecting a Christian church, however repulsive it’s actions? I sure hope not.

Here in Nebraska and around the Midwest various motorcycle clubs have taken it upon themselves to counter picket military funerals – acting as an unofficial honor guard by lining the route between the fallen’s church and cemetery and keeping the Westboro Baptists away. So far it has worked and not incidents have been reported between the two, so far as I know.

I feel bad for the Westboro Baptists – to be so filled with hate and blindness and so unhappy.