Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Houston – Major and Minor Museum Highlights

Disclaimer:  To get Perfect Days in Houston, it helps to  have a Knowledgeable Friend (KF) with a pied-a-terre smack in the center of town within walking or biking distance of the most beautiful neighborhoods, interesting locations, and good eats. Unseeasonably perfect weather helps also.  Of course, this is true of any city…

So, that condition satisfied – off we go!

Up, shower, tea, yogurt, on the bikes by 9:30 – to the Cafe Croissant- Brioche, home of excellent croissants almost up to Rue Cler standard. Lingered over cafe latte, then biked through the leafy lawny street of the Rice University neighborhood (the trees really do meet over the center of the street – though many died in last year’s drought) and along a bike trail through Hermann Park, into the Museum District. The Houston Fine Arts Museum spreads across several large buildings – we parked alongside a medical building and negotiated our way across the light rail line (much fancier cars than the SJLR), past the bag checkers, into a subterranean tunnel with a light sculpture effect which was quite magical (an optical illusion which created walls of color where none existed) and up and down and up until we reached the “Tutankhamun: the Golden King”  installation.

There were very few people on a Friday morning well into the exhibit’s run, so we saw everything at our leisure. The National Geographic (show organizer) made up in presentation what was lacking in content – Harrison Ford as narrator, a breathless Egypian archaeologist to comment in awestruck fashion on every artifact (“When I found this statue, I felt I was holding the universe in my hand.”), videos, photomurals, and special effects galore. But the golden guardians of the coffins, and the coffins themselves, were present only in pictures – I missed them.

Next, to the Museum’s Express Cafe, which like most Museum Cafes offered excellent Ladies Luncheon type food, but unlike most, offered it in Large Portions, so that we were obliged to leave a lot of King Tut’s Trio (an appetizer plate of Eastern Mediterranean dips and pita bread) behind.

Next to the Impressionist Gallery – a very competent collection of B pictures by every artist you ever heard of – refreshingly familiar after we had worked our brains being taught so much about King T.

Next to the Gift Shop, again like most Museum Gift Shops with a collection of interesting and expensive items more or less inspired by the art available, but since this is Texas, bigger and more. Friday afternoon is evidently Field Trip Day, and we arrived at the Gift Shop just as the kids did – the clerks were going quietly mad trying to keep track and keep order. I managed to get away with only a couple of post cards.

Back to the bikes, and off to the Hermann Park Rose Garden. Houston is ahead of Northern California in this respect and we saw a very respectable number of blooms.

Then to the small but interesting Weather Museum, where we learned more about hurricanes and tornados. I had seen a lot of information on the Great Storm which wiped out Galveston in 1900, but this museum filled us on on some of the other titanic storms since. (Sample trivia: Tropical Storm Allison is the only Tropical Storm to have its name retired due to its impact although it never reached hurricane force. The Houston Airport registered 37 inches of rain in three days.) Some bemoaning that the areas devastated by Ike didn’t get nearly the same degree of celebrity and other response that New Orleans got for Katrina – I remember towns in Mississippi made the same complaint.

Then to the Menil Collection – an amazing private collection of modern art open to the public free of charge, hidden away in a Houston neighborhood near Rice, filling a large central  building plus a warehouse, two bungalows, and a few other out-buildings with modern art – lots of Magritte, some Braque, some Royko, and other artists too arcane and indecipherable to mention. The photo is  of one of the outdoor sculptures which reminded me of Stanford’s “Stone River” – a channel about 8 inches wide and 6 inches deep, lined in rusted steel, running across the lawn now straight, now curliqueing, now invisibly coming up into the air, then bouncing down again… oddly fascinating.

Dinner at a bustling seafood restaurant, Pappa’s Seafood Kitchen. I had spicy Crayfish Etouffe, KF had Texas Redfish, and we each brought enough home so that we did not have to cook the next day.

Alternating Universes

I have been slowly posting my travel notes from Nepal, and will continue to do so.  I have just returned from a four-day trip to Nepal’s polar opposite – Houston, Texas  – and will also be posting notes and photos from this alternate universe.  Hope it doesn’t make you dizzy!

Houston is a place which I associated with gray skies, unbearable humidity, overblown sports facilities, and oil refineries.  Who knew it has stately homes, miles of bike trails, masses of blooming azaleas, dozens of interesting museums?

On a day trip I visited Galveston, which I associate with destructive storms and polluted oceans.  Who knew it has dozens of meticulously maintained Victorian and Edwardian homes, an old downtown area strongly reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter, miles of friendly beaches, and people to match?
Stay tuned for “Four Perfect Biking Days in and around Houston”

Day Three – Kathmandu

Three major World Heritage Sites, all within a few kilometers of our hotel.  This happens because the Kathmandu Valley was formerly cut up into a number of little fiefdoms, each of which had its royal family, royal palace, and religious centers, so we get a bunch of World Heritage Sites all balled up in one touring package.

Other World Heritage Sites I have seen, – the Taj Mahal, the Forbitten City in Beijing, Chitchen Itza – seemed  ruled by a sense of order – the rigid geometrical symmetry of the Forbidden City and the Taj, the graceful balance of temple sites in Japan, all seemed to reach toward some ideal perfection.

Nothing remotely orderly about either of the public spaces we saw in Kathmandu and Patan – I felt as though I was seeing some sort of divine rummage sale – Hindu, Buddhist, Animist shrines all jumbled together in one space with no attempt to organize.  I was dazed by the clutter.

Patan Durbar Square:  Durbar means “palace” and indeed there is a palace on one side, now transformed into a museum.    The square is packed haphazardly with buildings and monuments and plinths, some topped with gilded statues, some ringed with stone lions, some of brick, some of white stone.  The whole effect is something like a garage sale of religions.   Shaku pointed out that the general architecture of some of the buildings echoed the pagoda idea of China, and she seemed to say that a great architect of Nepal went to China and influenced this style there.

Swayambunath -The “Monkey Temple” – The biggest stupa yet, perched on a hillside high above the valley, ringed by yet higher hills unfortunately obscured by valley smog on this warm day.

Kathmandu Durbar Square: yet another jumble, of stupas, temples, and shrines, plus a schizophrenic palace-now-museum with one huge wing in the old style of Kathmandu (red brick trimmed with heavily carved dark wood doorframes, window grilles, and balconies) and the other a glaring white Doric-columned wedding cake in the style of a very pompous British bank – grafted onto the old palace by a turn-of-the-century king who unfortunately visited the UK and came back with Modern Ideas.

In the evening, Shaku had arranged for us to attend an “authentic Nepalese” dinner/folk dance performance at the Kathmandu Kitchen.  She does well with restaurants.  The outside looked dubious, the bar above the street deserted, but on the third floor a banquet hall was set with tables of various sizes with room for about 80 people, and at one end a mural depicting Patan Durbar Square and a raised platform.  We got good seats at the side front along the wall;  by the end of the second course the room was nearly filled by two large tour groups (one German, one maybe Australian), a party of French people, and a few others whose languages we didn’t catch.

The performance was high-spirited and varied, four young people dancing in the mode of the Sherpa, the Tibetan, the Pathan, the Nepali – some seeming influenced by Mongolia, some by India.  The highlight was the Peacock Dance, in which a dancer arrived in a giant peacock costume, complete with bobbing head and a tail which rose and spread into an impressive fan at the conclusion of the dance.  The last “dance” was actually a comedy routine involving fire breathing – the one Nepali speaker in the room laughed a lot at the dialogue, but I think she was a girl friend of one of the performers. 

Dory and I ended the day triumphant – we were able to guide our taxi driver back to the hotel with no glitches.

Nepal – Day 2 PM – Culture-hopping

You know World Heritage sites – the Pyramids, the Great Wall, Chitchen Itza, Macchu Picchu, the Taj Mahal – but you may never have heard of Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu’s Durbar Squares, the Buddhist stupas of Swayambu and Boudha, and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan.  Tiny Nepal is the home of ten World Heritage sites, of which seven are in the valley of Kathmandu.

On our first afternoon we saw

Boudha – a huge stupa (Buddhist temple) surrounded by Buddhist schools and monasteries.  The stupa consists of a very large square structure with a staircase at the center of each side, decorated with prayerwheels in niches all around at elbow height.  This is very convenient for the pilgrims who orbit the stupa, always going clockwise, as they constantly reach out to keep the prayer wheels spinning as they walk. (Do you think they get Prayer-wheel elbow?)

On top of the square structure, which symbolizes the earth, is a very large white dome decorated with faded yellow paint in lotus petal designs – this symbolizes the air.  Atop the dome is another square structure painted gold, with two huge eyes looking out from each side – this symbolizes the all-seeing Buddha.  Atop the Buddha block are 13 more blocks, gradually diminishing in size – these are the 13 steps toward enlightenment.  And on top of these – a golden umbrella, symbolizing the cosmos.

And everywhere are flags, fluttering prayers into the breeze.

I compare this structure to the great Gothic cathedrals with their cross shape, and the huge symmetrical mosques of Istanbul carefully oriented toward Mecca – the attempt to embody the universe in a building takes my breath away.

Pashupatinath – this is a very holy Hindu site in Nepal, along one of the sacred rivers coming from Tibet.  We saw several cremations in progress in various stages, from the dipping of the body into the sacred river, to the preparation of the pyre, the covering of the body with straw, the burning, the sweeping up of the ashes afterward – all from a distance from the other side of the river.

The temple is a favorite destination spot for Sadhus, the holy pilgrims who smear themselves with ashes, leave their hair uncut, and wander in from India with only a cloth for decency, a trident, and a begging bowl – right out of Rudyard Kipling!

And for monkeys – we saw a few hanging about on the fences and steps, but suddenly at the ringing of the temple bell at 4:30 they came over the steps in a wave, screeching, scuffling, carrying babies clinging to stomach and backs of the mothers.  They all headed across the bridge nearest us, and within a few minutes the opposite side of the bank nearest the temple was scrambling with monkeys on every step and protuberance, where there had been none before.  Our guide swore that no monkey-feeding goes on – what could have happened in the monkey-mind to drive this impulse?


We ended the day at an Israeli-run vegetarian restaurant called, obscurely, OR2K.  Or2K is a fallback to the 60’s – no chairs, low tables, lots of cushions, black light causing white shirts, socks, and various decorations about the restaurant to glow fluorescently.  The food turned out to be both excellent and abundant.  It was rather restful to sit on the floor against the cushioned backrest, eat mostly with our hands, listen to music inspired by George Harrison, and try to figure out which of the young trekkers coming in and out were connected or likely to be.

From reminders of Rudyard Kipling to evocations of George Harrison in a few hours – I had the sense of being in a berserk time machine skipping from century to century and culture to culture. This would recur to me a lot during my time in Nepal.

A Community of Kindness

A community is more than streets, stores, schools, and the people who occupy and use them.  A community is built from countless threads of connection, woven of myriad small and large gestures of kindness and caring.  Here are some recent examples of how a community is constantly being renewed in our own town:

At a concert being presented by a group of local high school students, the director of the group took time in his introduction to acknowledge the presence in the audience of two people who had helped him early on – one a volunteer who chaperoned one of the early trips made by the group in its first day, another a former school administrator who had worked with him early in his career at the high school.

Why was this important? Of course, the pleasure given to the two audience members was considerable.  More importantly, the young people who are now part of the singing group  were made to think about the past  history  of the group, and the people who had contributed to its success.   Moreover, they could see that those early supporters are still in their audience, still supporting them.  Community comes from continuity.

An octogenarian friend of mine parked her car at the Ranch lot and walked across the Foothill expressway to attend an event at the church on the opposite corner.  This section of road has no sidewalk, and she slipped and fell on the gravel aggregate.  (Our pretensions of being a rural community do have their drawbacks.)   A young man whose truck was stopped at the light saw her fall. Rather than continuing on his way, he went through the light, made a U-turn in the Rancho lot, and came back through the light to  stop and make sure my friend was all right and able to continue on her way.   He didn’t know her, but he went out of his way to make sure.  Community comes from caring.

Another friend is a student in a painting class for cancer survivors, taught by a local artist who volunteers her time.  This teacher went to see the production of “The Pitmen Painters” which appeared recently in Mountain View and thought it would inspire her students.  She  wrote to the producer,  told him about her class and asked whether a group discount could be arranged for her students.  The producer responded by sending her 20 free tickets for the class.  Community comes from kindness.

There are many areas where we disagree with our neighbors, many topics which are contentious, and unfortunately many harsh words said. Fortunately, for every one of these stresses which frays the fabric of community, there are actions like those above which strengthen and reweave the fabric which supports us all.

(Published in Los Altos Town Crier March 7, 2012)

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