Friday, December 21, 2007

Barbershop

The shop was located at a busy Asian strip mall, between an ethnic deli and a herbal medicine practice. A glass door opened into a cheap glittering interior created by the mirror-lined walls, glass counters, and neon tubes.

The barbers plying their trade inside were far from glittering, except the chubby lady who wore various twinkling jewelry all over her neck and other customary body parts. The rest were three men whose blooming youth had long departed into many sunsets, including a thin one whose rough skin looked like tanned hide and who always wore a black turtleneck with black pants to match; a short and bulky one whose eyes and complexion oddly reminded me of a fish; and a tall, slim, sallow-looking fellow whose top priority in life seemed to be his clothes. The sallow dandy was from Indonesia and did not understand Vietnamese, which was spoken by the other three.

The lady was the chatterbox of the lot. She had cut my hair the first time, but she had made me so uncomfortable with her incessant jabbering that I had switched to the short guy for my regular barber. She still talked, of course, but at least it was more bearable not having her right behind my ears.

Her match, if any, would be the man in black. He was not as talkative, but always ready with a rejoinder which could be quite biting sometimes. My barber was the quiet type, usually called on to take sides in an argument by the other two but always managed to emerge neutral. The dandy, due to the language barrier, did not participate in any conversation around him unless it was in English, but if he thought he was out of it then oh dear he was sadly mistaken.

I thought it was not bad a setup with two vivacious characters to keep the scene lively and one subdued personality as a shock absorber. However the scene must have become too lively at some point, because one day I noticed the absence of the man in black and was told he had quit after a big row. The chubby lady seemed still upset and her voice rang with indignation.

"He called me a busybody. He dared to tell me to mind my own business. I was just wondering why on earth that guy would want plastic surgery for his nose, he's not a woman for heaven's sake, and it's not like his nose was broken or anything."

It turned out the guy who had had a nose job done was the Indonesian dandy.

"He said I was so meddlesome I couldn't get a husband, and he called me fat, which I'm not! Is he any better? He's so rude, so wicked that his wife has left him, the old jerk!"

It seemed the word volleys had spinned so out of control that the shop owner had had to intervene, with the result of the man in black collecting his stuffs and storming out of the door.

The barbershop became much quieter. Business continued as usual, but a certain awkwardness appeared to hang over the atmosphere.

One day I came and saw the man in black again. The owner had cajoled him into coming back, and even the chubby lady seemed happy about it. The scene became lively again, but with less contention and more good nature.

Then another day I showed up for my usual biweekly haircut and did not see the man in black. Immediately I noticed that the lady was very, very upset. "Oh no, not again!" I thought. But it was not like I thought at all.

The lady had just come back from a hospital to visit the man in black, who was suffering from a kidney problem. Since he had no family, she had been taking care of him as much as her time allowed.

"He isn't getting any better," she said in distress. "He was never good-looking to start with, and now he looks terrible. But he's sweet, a lot sweeter than he was before."

But the man in black did get better and returned to work. A couple of months later I left the area. I came back on a business trip after about a year and stopped by the old barbershop. My guy and the dandy were still there, but the chubby lady and the man in black were not. They had got married, pooled their resources, and opened their own barbershop somewhere else.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

One in Six and a Half Billion

It came to my attention today that the world population was currently at more than six and a half billion. That is not just a sea, but an entire ocean of humanity.

Six and a half billion people, either corpulent or malnourished, exquisitely attired or destitutely ragged, all drawing life from the same earthly resources, carrying the same flesh on the same bones. I wonder how utterly trivial each of us would look in the eyes of some transcendent being whose view encompasses the billions of light years across the cosmos.

Even from a human perspective, the significance of an individual miserably shrinks in a crowd. A person receives far more attention in a village than in a big city. Hercule Poirot, my favorite fictional detective, once looked at a sunbathing crowd on a beach and remarked that they were nothing but meat. There is indeed something demeaning about a crowd, not to mention the phenomenon contemptuously termed "mass psychology" by social scientists, which sounds like it is sheep or cattle they are talking about.

One in six and a half billion, there is nothing like that to make one feel depressingly cheap.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Two Calvins

Our eyes had met a few times, and this time I nodded a greeting to the quiet black man sitting at one of the leg extension machines at the gym. He was small and frail, the type who came to exercise on a doctor's recommendation and not from a desire to get some brawn.

His name was Calvin, a computer engineer of the foot soldier category who had been kicked around during the stormy post-bubble years. He was now settled at a small firm surviving on subcontracts and got the jitters at every cough from their main client. His worn face looked kind but tired, and his manner was self-effacing. We chatted about work, family, and what's happening in the wicked wide world.

Another day I came to the gym and saw a new face, white, doing a chest fly. He seemed likeable, I thought. A few minutes later, looking up from my own exercise I saw the new guy standing near me with an engaging smile. He was a bit taller than me and as fit as a fiddle. His name incidentally was also Calvin.

The white Calvin had a boyish, intelligent face, and his bearing was more assertive than his black namesake. He worked at a national institute just outside Washington. We talked a bit about how life was treating each of us while exchanging brief comments on the news flashing on TV.

I found both Calvins similar in many ways, including a ready sense of humor. Yet I noticed the two men never came into contact. When I mentioned one to the other, like "See that guy over there? His name is Calvin too." I got a vapid "Oh yeah" in one instance and a cold "I don't know him" in another. So I continued to talk to the white Calvin at one corner of the weight room then move to another corner to shake hands with the black one.

A few months later I left town, leaving my two friends behind at that club. They were still toting that painful historical baggage which a newcomer like me couldn't even aspire to understand.

Two Sexes of Rain

The sky outside my window turned gray, then it started drizzling.

My mind drifted to the mystery novels by Tony Hillerman, which had acquainted me with the Navajos in Arizona and New Mexico. The mysteries themselves were quite enjoyable fiction, but the Navajo culture was a uniquely fascinating reality.

To the Navajos, there were two sexes of rain. The male rain was intense with thunder and lightning, but it was also short-lived. The female rain was softer, but it was also a cold, nagging drizzle that could last days.

I had no idea how the Navajos had come up with their crazy rain sexes. But from now on if I ever encountered a man who looked like a wet rat, I'd know that he had been soaked by a female rain somewhere.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Every Drunk Must Have His Drink

Sometimes I feel bothered by my own sensitiveness. My senses seem to pick up more than those of the average guy. A little wild flower hiding in the grass by a roadside delights me with its unassuming beauty, the rustle of leaves in the wind talks to me of ephemeral lushness and the ensuing cold deprival. When I lie on a hilltop staring into an immense blue sky, the fear of loneliness is so overwhelming I have to clutch at the earth around me the way a shipwrecked sailor would clutch at a piece of flotsam.

Then there are snippets of forgotten days, which emerge from some dark recesses in my memory when least expected. Just trivial impressions from the past, but somehow they manage to retain the vividness that makes me feel with them and laugh or groan accordingly. Like the time I won all the marbles of a neighborhood kid and he came to the back door of my house crying until I put the whole loot in an old sock and returned it to him, or the moment a lovely girl smiled radiantly at me and I was so dumbstruck I just stood there staring at her like a bonehead.

I feel old each time I catch myself dwelling on memories as if I had no life in the present, and sometimes I feel embarrassed for possessing a sensitivity which is almost feminine in its delicateness. Surely an average guy should be planning for his next exploit and not supposed to notice a maple leaf in autumn or to reminisce of a childhood game. But then I don't go bawling in a bar nor exchange dirty jokes with my buddies over a beer either. As Billy Joel put it in one of his songs, every drunk must have his drink. Maybe I'm a drunk in my own way, so I might as well have my drink when it comes and be happy about it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Puppet Stage

My family had just moved from the mountains to a sandy town by the sea. I did not like the sand, and I did not like the heat. I refused to take off my favorite jacket and insisted that we moved back to where it was cool, green, and sandless. They put me in kindergarten instead. I did not cry, I simply followed my mother as soon as she left the classroom.

One evening my older sisters took me to a nearby park where a tower stood among a lot of trees. The park was filled with an excited and noisy crowd, but there was a breeze from the river to cool me off. We stood expectantly within view of a platform with curtains, and soon the wonder began.

It was a puppet show. For what seemed to me a long, magical dream, I stood mesmerized by the exciting sight and sound magnified by a young imagination set loose. I was transported into another world. The show ended and I was hustled home, but the enchantment stayed with me throughout my nightly slumber.

The next morning I found my way back to the park, sure in my mind that I would find that puppet stage and be able to rejoin the wonderland it opened to. To my puzzled disappointment, it had disappeared, and in vain did I run back and forth inside that park searching for the thing that had brought me such happiness.

Sometimes, while strolling in a park, I still look around in faint hope that my puppet stage would show up again for me. You see, all these years I've been searching but couldn't find it yet.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fifteen Years

I gave my ticket to an attendant on board the hydrofoil, settled in my seat and looked ashore through the window. The riverfront boulevard looked quite prosperous with its graceful French colonial hotels and agressive high-rise office buildings, in contrast with the haggardness of the working-class crowd milling about on the wharf with their cheap scooters.

The engines started, and soon boats and wharves, parks and pavilions, ships and warehouses were gliding past my view. The river became less crowded, the sky less obstructed, then the hydrofoil emerged into a vast expanse of vivid blue and green, whipping up white foam in the deep murky water. I could not resist stepping out of the cabin to feel the wind pushing hard against my face.

About an hour later, the wetlands covered in nipa palms and mangroves gave way to the sea. Waves turned into billows, and the boat was rocking harder. From afar the rocky peaks of my destination were looming. I pressed a few keys on my cell phone and told a friend that I would arrive soon.

The man who was going to meet me at disembarkment had gone to high school with my younger sister, and fallen in love with her too. He had been a nice young lad, and we had all liked him except our mother, who had looked at his relationship with her youngest daughter with apprehension. I could hardly blame our mother's attitude, considering that his father had been a full-time drunk. He had understood that and resignedly accepted his poor standing in our mother's eyes.

I stepped onto the pier and glanced around. It was a pretty place of sea, mountains, and new money. I was wondering about the chance of recognizing someone I had not met for fifteen years when I heard my name called. His voice was the same, his build unchanged, the difference was his prematurely worn face and his new shining black luxurious sedan.

His family had not supported his education, so he had had to work through high school. College had been out of the question, though he had tried but had been unable to make it through the prep courses on an empty stomach. After my sister's marriage to a suitor favored by my mother, he had left town and got a job in construction.

He gave me a tour of the coastal boomtown, where new roads and buildings were ubiquitous. The town itself was charming enough with its winding roads squeezed between mountain and sea, dainty hillside villas, and beaches filled with merry vacationers. But it was his construction sites that he was all eager to show me, from which I could tell he was doing very well indeed.

A diligent worker with ambition, he had worked his way up until he had caught the attention of a young woman with heavy-weight connections in the local communist cadre, and had married her. He had started taking evening classes, eventually got a degree, started his own construction firm, and thanks to the connections of his wife's family had won many lucrative contracts. Ah yes, his wife...

It was while we were having an excellent seafood dinner at a seaside restaurant that he broached the subject of his wife.

"My wife has left me," he abruptly said, sipping on his beer.

I looked at him in silent sympathy.

"She took my daughter with her," he added matter-of-factly.

My look was now encouraging.

"It was complicated," he said with embarrassment.

Then he changed the subject. He talked at length about the maze of corrupted bureaucracy he had learned to navigate to protect his business. He talked about the painstaking way he had to entertain the people who mattered. He explained why sometimes he had to bid to lose a contract, not to win it. And he insisted on paying for the expensive dinner.

He took me home to a four-storied townhouse with iron gates and elaborate façade embellishment typical of new money in this part of the world. For some reason he put me in his daughter's bedroom, which was cozily furnished and decorated. Everything here was in spick-and-span order as if ready for the little girl to come back. He was lingering, looking at his daughter's portrait on the wall.

"I don't even know where she is now," he softly said.

Before I could say anything, he turned and left, wishing me good night.

The next morning he took me to a picturesque hillside café for breakfast. We listened to American oldie music while watching ships passing by in the sea below. Our conversation was just a long silence broken by laconic phrases and utterances.

We shook hands at the wharf entrance. It felt exactly like when we had shaken hands fifteen years ago after my sister had been married and he had decided to leave town. Our hands were connected, but our understanding was held back by pride on his part and discretion on my part, and neither of us was willing to do anything about it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Memory

Once a doctor told me that our memory remembered only what it wanted to. He might have been poking fun at my negligence to follow his instructions, but I agree with him that memory is a weird thing.

Take my own memory for example. Of all the events in many years past, it chooses only the more pleasant ones to remember. True, the unhappy memories are still there, but they're all blurry like faded, unloved paintings discarded to the obscurity of an attic. All due to a trait called selectiveness.

But memory as I know it doesn't just select, it also distills the past down to a handful of choice sensory remembrances, which when evoked could trigger an acute nostalgic emotion. For me, these remembrances could be a sudden stillness at noontime on a sultry day, or the rustle of a broom sweeping in the yard amid the pungent smell of burnt leaves. They all belong to the baggage I'm taking with me till the end.

Through my window I can see the opposite house painted white and green with a pot of yellow chrysanthemums blooming by the front door. I can hear birds chirping in the morning and insects chirring at night. They are just ordinary things my senses pick up everyday, yet years from now they may become one of those precious impressions my memory will have retained.

Like that doctor said, the way of memory is unpredictable, and who knows what it will choose to remember.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Peonies

Today I was rummaging through my old photos and found this one that I took in spring 2006 at Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Where I Hang My Hat

I was born in a vehicle rushing its way to the hospital. I suppose that signaled the ambulatory type of life I would have later on.

Throughout my childhood, my father's job took our family from place to place, each stay lasting three years at the longest. While most of my classmates never ventured out of their little neighborhoods, I already counted on my fingers the towns I had called home. The flip side was that I usually had to leave the friends I'd just barely got close to, but as a kid I adjusted quite well to a new environment.

It was not so easy when I grew a bit older, when friendship meant more than just a playmate, took a longer time to forge and acquired new emotional significance. Plodding through my teen years and early adulthood in a geographically diverse manner, I knew the pain of disruption and the burden of starting from scratch, but I also learned how to deal with short-term attachments. It was all right, I guess, except that I was still stumped whenever someone asked me where I came from.

Then came the big move to another continent, where I changed my sleeping place almost as often as a restless vagabond. By this time I had streamlined my material baggage to a state that would get an approval from any hardcore ascetic, and my friends often expressed their astonishment at my meager belongings. However, what occasionally aroused some regret in me was not possessions, but the sense of rootlessness.

That feeling of drifting still follows me like a faint malaise, and I doubt it will go away any time soon. I haven't quite settled down in my new country, and in the old one I never really belonged to any place. I don't have an old family home, where in the musty attic I could dig out a teddy bear I used to hold or a sample of my first scrawling. I don't have a hometown, where the elderly people in the neighborhood would still remember me as a child clutching at my mother's hand for that first walk outdoors. Without roots, the memory of my innocence is so scattered it's as good as completely lost.

I suppose the bright side of rootlessness is that there is no attachment to hold me back, and I can truly embrace the liberating spirit of home being where I hang my hat. Still, just once in a very long while, I wish I could hang my hat somewhere that goes back a longer way.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Tears of an Old Soldier

He was already old when I was still a small kid, a Chinese who had been with Chiang Kai-shek's army. When his general fled to Taiwan, amid the chaotic retreat he crossed the border into Vietnam and journeyed all the way southward to a small mountain town where my family would move to much later on.

He was all alone in the world. His Vietnamese was practically non-existent, and his stutter didn't help either. Still he attended the same church as we did, and that's how we came to know him. After a few years my family moved again, and soon my tender mind forgot all about Mr Yang.

Twenty years later, after all the upheavals that had shaken our country to the core had subsided, he showed up at our door in another province, accompanied by my sister who lived in a big city. Mr Yang during all these years had been eking out a living by collecting recyclables and once a month taking them to the big city to sell. One day he stopped by a church, bumped into my sister, and that's how he showed up at our door all smiling, to the delighted surprise of my parents.

Mr Yang was still alone but his health had been on the decline. Worse still, now that land had increased in value, his neighbors started to encroach on his property, taking advantage of a shaky justice system and his own inability to communicate in our language. He had told all this to my sister's husband in Chinese writing, because nobody could understand what he said.

The only person who had been able to figure out the meaning of his impeded speech was my father, who unfortunately had become deaf for some time. After all these years Mr Yang most probably had loads in his heart and mind to pour out, but now even that consolation was denied to him. He turned to the rest of us but was only met with helpless smiles.

Mr Yang has since passed away, but sometimes I still see him sitting by himself at the back of our house that day, tears rolling down his face.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Run-Run-Run Away

The cluster of tall buildings I was about to enter looked imposing and dominated a whole neighborhood in a Washington suburb. Inside, everything asserted wealth and might, from the security guards looking razor-sharp in their smart uniforms to the plush carpet and elegant furniture in the lobby. I gave my name to the receptionist, received a visitor's badge, and was invited to sit in a comfortable armchair while waiting for my escort.

A tall, smiling man came to meet me, his hand extended for a shake. I followed him across the spacious lobby to a bank of shiny elevators. Soon I found myself taken to the seventh floor, guided to a posh conference room and greeted by another man. We had a good long chat about the job, about my personal background and professional experiences, all the standard fare expected at a job interview.

These two managers were not bad, I considered. Mark was game while Rick tended to play safe, but they were both sensible, and there was unmistakably a warm understanding between us. Then I came with Rick for a tour of the facility, and that was when I had a complete change of heart.

The sterile corridors led me past offices and cubicles where Indian tech workers could be seen toiling their souls away in front of computers, and I felt seized by a strong revulsion. The familiar sight immediately reminded me of ruthlessly long hours leaving little room for a life, the frantic pressure from an incompetent management faced with a deadline with nothing to show, the game of taking the credit and passing the blame played by scheming individuals. This was the life I had left in disgust to protect my sanity, so why come back now?

The problem with me was that I forgot too quickly. This place might not be so bad, but when quitting my last job I had been determined to steer my life to another direction. Rick continued to give me the tour, unaware of what was going in my mind. He proudly showed me their lab with racks of expensive sophisticated equipment, and I uttered the proper sounds and posed the right questions, but my heart was not in it any more.

We shook hands at the security desk in the lobby. Rick warmly and confidently said he would see me again. Sorry Rick, that wouldn't happen. The next day when they called and asked me to come back to discuss the terms, I politely declined and told them an urgent matter required my presence in New York, which incidentally was true, but the entire truth was that I was running away from what I had come for.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach, on the coast of South Carolina, is no different from most other Beaches in America. A beachfront boulevard lined with expensive tacky hotels and cheap shabby motels, interspersed with gaudy beachwear shops and restaurants that sell location rather than food, swarmed with tourists taking an unoriginal way to spend a late summer weekend.

The house looked unpretentious but comfortable amid the green growth of palmettos, magnolias, some decorative shrubs I didn't know the name, and a well-tended lawn. An old car was parked in the driveway. I rang the doorbell and was warmly welcomed inside by an aging couple. Some pleasant conversation followed by a simple meal, then we were off to the beach while the night was falling.

We walked on the sand to a pier that jutted out into the dark sea under a dark sky. People were strolling or fishing on the pier, their murmuring voices periodically drowned by the sound of crashing waves. Under the amber artificial lights, faces acquired a rigid, waxy look. Then the moon rose out of the water, big, red and lopsided, like a monster leaving its pelagic lair.

The next morning we went to the Sunday service at a nearby church. The congregation was a small one, the service was old-fashioned, the pastor was dressed in a very modest suit. In the middle of his sermon I was astonished to hear him say we is twice, then he laughed and admitted that "the redneck's coming out." Still his sermon was neat, relevant and genuinely admirable.

I said goodbye to everybody then got into my car to head back home, which was six hours away. I got to the highway, then pulled over in front of an abandoned house where an old pick-up truck was parked with a load of sweet potatoes in its bed. An old man was standing by, the white hat on his white head couldn't quite protect his wrinkled red face from the hot sun. I pointed to a bag of sweet potatoes and asked how much. "Six dollars," he replied. "How many pounds in it?" "It's half a bushel." So he didn't sell his sweet potatoes by weight, but by volume instead. His accent was so thick I had to ask him to repeat everything he had said.

The old man also had a few jars of honey and molasses for sale, all came from his one hundred acre farm. I asked him how he could manage so much land, and he said he had help from a crew of Mexicans. He took my six dollars, emphatically told me to spread the freshly dug sweet potatoes on the floor when I got home to keep them from turning green inside, then we wished each other a good day.

And so Myrtle Beach will stay in my memory not with its beaches and boulevards indistinguishable from other seaside resorts, but with the ill-clad redneck preacher who delivered a heartfelt sermon, the old farmer who sold his sweet potatoes from his pick-up truck on a roadside, and most of all the aging couple who slipped the email address of their beloved daughter into my hand with warm and encouraging words.


Boys playing at Myrtle Beach

Saturday, September 22, 2007

iLonely

In my opinion it'd be a more appropriate name for iPods, now I realize that they are actually devices that promote loneliness.

There was a time when people at a gym would smile to each other, introduce themselves and engage in some sort of conversation. A casual discussion of the latest news, comments on sport events, an exchange of workout tips or just a banter for a laugh - all that would give a warm-up for the spirit, as much needed as a warm-up for the body before a workout session.

Now everyone has an iPod clipped to their outfit with wires running from their ears. Suddenly they all seem preoccupied and aloof, their attitude seems to tell the world to leave them alone. When you think about it, it's astounding that such a small gadget can make such a big statement.

I would call for a boycott of iPods. Problem is, I also have one.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Three Hits

I rang the bell, the door opened, and the sun was right behind it.

I was fifteen then, and my older brother had asked me to bring a package to his friend's place. So I came, rang the bell, and was struck speechless. There she was, all smiling and radiant while I stood utterly dazzled. I mumbled some words and she took the package from my hand, her smile warm and earnest. But I was too young and too timid, so I just kept the wonder to myself and let it gradually slide into memories.

The second hit came while I was riding a bicycle under the fierce sun of a sweltering day. A motorbike zoomed past, and she was sitting at the back. I barely caught a glimpse of her profile, but my heart rate raced up a notch or two while she was vanishing from my sight and reach, like a shooting star that passed so quickly I didn't even have the time to make my wish.

Years later I was in Southwestern Virginia at mid-fall, that delightful time when entire mountains were covered in golden resplendency. I had just finished lunch at a Cracker Barrel and got into my car to head back to the highway. Another car was slowly pulling into the parking lot, and for a split second my eyes met those of the other driver. It was quite a jolt, my spine was tingling, my heart was beating funny.

My mind was a jumble of conflicting thoughts. I was wondering how anyone could look that good while telling myself it was wrong to feel that way when someone else was waiting at the far end of my trip. With a trembling hand I pulled the visor of my baseball cap lower on my face and drove away.

In the song The Three Bells Jimmy Brown got three bells in his entire life - one at birth, another at marriage, and the third one at his death. Sometimes in my loneliest moments I idly wonder if I would ever get a fourth hit.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mr Monk Takes and Gives

I enjoy watching the Monk show on TV. Mr Monk is a fictional private detective and former police officer who suffers from the obsessive compulsory disorder, whatever that means, but basically he's a nutcase with impossible antics, and a cheapskate to boot. He's afraid of milk, can't stand anything asymmetrical or counting to an odd number, fastidious to a criminal extent, requires a wipe after touching no matter what but doesn't want to pay for it.

But Mr Monk is also surpassingly brilliant. He picks up clues and interprets them in a way no one else can, thus able to solve the most bizarre mysteries. The police count on him whenever they run into a wall, which they have a tendency to do.

Sometimes I feel so aggravated by Mr Monk's crazy oddball behavior that I wonder how his friends and colleagues can possibly put up with him and not relegate him to an asylum. But right there and then he always gives me an answer: he solves the mystery. Mr Monk does take a lot from his friends, driving them all nuts, but he also gives back a lot by catching the criminals.

So it all boils down to an accounting of taking and giving. The more you take, the more you have to give. After all, c'est la vie.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11

That morning I was in my office when a colleague burst in with the news. "Yeah, right!" was my skeptical response.

Then came the realization that it was all real. We all dropped what we were doing and tried to access news websites, which were all blocked due to heavy traffic. Finally an old-fashioned lady turned her radio on, and we huddled around in disbelief.

At lunch break I went home to find my Mom in front of our TV, which was showing the Twin Towers in smoke. My Mom didn't understand English and thought she was watching an action movie.

From that day on our hearts grew heavier, first for the victims, then for ourselves. Each of us became more aware of the precariousness of our own world, and our psyches shifted accordingly.

Vicarious Thrills

My high school years were sad and dull, mostly. It was a gloomy time, people were impoverished and scared, and we teenagers didn't fare any better. The only form of entertainment we had was cheap tickets to see movies from the Eastern Bloc shown in drab state-owned theaters.

One day while walking home from a downtown theater I told my friend that after watching the movie I couldn't help feeling my life was so boring. He said he felt the same way too, the difference was that he felt it not just after the show but also during it. We both fell silent all the way home.

We continued to get our thrills the only way we knew, sitting in the dark, vicariously living the life of fictional characters from faraway lands, all the time acutely aware that something was seriously missing from our lives.

It was the same feeling that much later on made me stop reading fictions. One day after finishing the last page of a novel by A.J. Cronin, I was suddenly overwhelmed by anger and shame, a sentiment I knew had been unconsciously built up since that little conversation I had had with my friend on our way home from a movie a couple of years ago. I knew then that I had to get my own thrills and reject the cheap vicarious excitement I had been so used to. It was my own life I was living, and I had my own pride to keep.

I've been staying true to that vow ever since, but it took me a long time to get back to pleasure reading without feeling guilty, now that I have my own stories to tell to whoever wants some vicarious thrill.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Train Whistles

Whenever I hear a train blowing its whistle, I think of Marcel Proust's Du côté de chez Swann, where a train whistle in the night evoked in the boy's imagination an empty stretch of countryside, the excitement of new places, conversations with strangers, even the sweet anticipation of a return trip.

I certainly can relate to Mr Proust's run of imagination. Where I grew up there was no train, but I used to watch buses carrying passengers to faraway places and yearn to be on one of them, the desire being so strong it would shoot a pang through my young heart. I would fantasize about leaving my lethargic small town for good, treading unfamiliar roads, taking in novel sights and sounds, encountering interesting people and hearing about their experiences.

Recently I moved to a new house with a railroad in the proximity. At night I can hear train whistles blowing. To my dismay, these whistles do not arouse any romantic longing in me, but make me feel annoyed instead. I don't want my sleep disturbed, you see.

How did I ever become so jaded?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

A Window into Minds

Of all the numerous benefits of the Internet, the most interesting to me was that it provides a window to look into other minds. I said was because I do not find it interesting anymore.

I've always been curious about the experiences of other people and what's in their mind. However the opportunities to satisfy my curiosity had been very limited before the advent of the Internet. There are only so many people you can meet face to face, not all of them are inclined to talk, and when they do talk they tend to hold back some, out of discretion or consideration or whatever reason it may be.

The Internet has changed all that. A multitude of online forums have sprung up, allowing people to anonymously talk to strangers regardless of geography. Hiding behind a nickname people now can chat freely with someone next door or an ocean away, and boy oh boy do they talk - if you could find a way to translate the jabbering in cyberspace into real-world vocal conversations, the noise level would be quite a health hazard.

My initial excitement was quickly replaced by disappointment though. I had expected to see a multicolored, multifaceted, sparkling display of intelligence. Instead what I saw could be charitably described as pervasive inanity, which really left me agape.

Most people, I found out, have the problem of conceit, justifiable or not, whether they realize it or not. And it is this conceit that makes them woefully mulish. When we hear something new, we all measure it against our own knowledge and experience, which are inevitably limited. The trouble is when people hear something that doesn't quite fit in their scope of mind, instead of reaching out to see if they can learn anything new, they too readily dismiss it as baloney, being too cocksure of their own smarts. How these folks ever expand their horizons beats me, but it makes their jabbering such a bore.

So the window into minds is wide open, but mostly to reveal close-mindedness, which is really very uninteresting.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Beach

At the beach in Nha Trang I rented a chaise lounge to while away my last afternoon in town. Before my eyes were various shades of blue - the sky, the sea, and the distant islands in between. A strong wind was blowing inland, easing the heat of a sun-drenched day.

On the chair next to mine was an older white man whose tanned, rugged face and bleached blond hair indicated prolonged exposure to the outdoors. It turned out that he was from Miami, owned a boat, and had been traveling extensively. His name was TJ.

The boy who rented me the chair came to collect his money. In broken English he told TJ he couldn't find what the man had asked him to. TJ definitely did not look happy.

A youngish woman was approaching us. She was carrying two baskets, each attached to one end of the pole on her shoulder. She's slim, and her movement was quite graceful because of the load she was carrying, strange that might sound. She wanted us to buy seafood from her, which would be broiled on a red hot little coal stove in one of her baskets. After some half-hearted haggling I bought a lobster, so did TJ. The woman swiftly broiled our lobsters, peeled them and handed them to each of us on a plate complete with salt, black pepper and a slice of lime, all the time smiling broadly. While munching on the rich, delicious meat, I found out that she had six children, got up at four every morning, went to a fishing port to buy the freshly caught seafood that she would later peddle at the beach.

Another white man with long silvery hair came by to give us a flyer. It advertised a new laundry facility at a tourist neighborhood, operated by a Jean-Claude. What on earth did a Frenchman do here running a laundry business? "He's probably running from something," TJ offered his opinion.

The chair boy came again with tools and a piece of wood to fix the back of one of his chaise lounges. TJ had left somewhere, so I asked the boy what TJ wanted that he couldn't find. I didn't get an answer, just a polite evasive smile. The lobster lady had reappeared, busy selling to another group of tourists, her smile even broader than before. She was having a very good day indeed.

TJ came back, looking irritated. He wanted some marijuana but could not procure it, the chair boy couldn't help either. He complained that it was a lot more available in Phnom Penh and Saigon. Sorry, bud, can't help you there.

I dozed off, lulled by the wind and the sound of waves. It was already dusk when I woke up with a slight headache. If I had stayed on the beach well into the night, I would no doubt have seen a different set of activities. Unfortunately my bus was leaving in an hour, giving me just enough time for a quick dinner. Farewell then, beach of Nha Trang!


View of Nha Trang Bay

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Early Ride to Manhattan

At exactly five-thirty in the morning I climbed into the van with Joe and Eddie. It was still dark, but my friends wanted to start early to avoid the morning rush traffic into New York City. Joe, with his customary ironic humor, told me that today I would see the illegal side of New York. Big deal, I shot back at him, but secretly I was as curious as twenty cats.

I was relaxing in the back seat while Joe was dexterously negotiating our way through the maze of highways between Philadelphia and suburban New Jersey. Eddie and Joe were chatting but I was only half-listening to their conversation, chiming in once in a while but mostly looking out of the window at the dark landscape dotted with white lights.

Contentment was my state of mind. Here I was with friends from a totally different walk of life. Everything about them was a far cry from the corporate world I'd been submerged in for so many years. I felt deliciously refreshed by their free and independent spirit. Not that my friends were wealthy - they earned their livelihood hawking cheap Chinese goods at flea markets, campgrounds and parties, which was the reason we were heading to Manhattan at this early hour to buy from some shady Chinese dealers.

The conversation up front shifted from gambling in Atlantic City to poverty in West Virginia, where Joe had spent some time. Joe was talking about a girl who had been telling his wife about a date she would have that evening with a man who would let her "spend all twenty dollars just on myself." The girl had been extremely impressed by the perceived generosity of her man, and had entertained some hope that a proposal of marriage would follow. I couldn't help laughing so hard at Joe's perfectly mimicked hillbilly accent, then I felt bad for having had fun at the poor girl's expense.

We arrived at 26th Street about twenty minutes before the stores opened and stopped by a deli for breakfast. Sitting at a small table, we old friends looked at each other and smiled, so delighted we were to be together after all these years, and after a cup of hazelnut-flavored coffee I knew I would immensely enjoy this day away from my regular days.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Palace in the Clouds

Time does scamper away from us, and I am not getting any younger for sure. My face is no longer so fresh, my skin no longer so smooth, and my body is starting to show a bit of embonpoint. Sometimes I look at younger men with their good looks and glowing health and feel a pang of regret, but then I think that they are most likely full of wrong ideas, wasting time and energy to chase after illusions. A couple of centuries ago some Frenchman -- how come it is always these darn Frenchmen who said wise things, in this case Victor Hugo if I'm not mistaken -- said that it was the young who had good looks and the old who had wisdom. I am right at the middle, neither young nor old, does that mean I'm both good-looking and wise? It could be the other way around though, meaning that I am not young enough to look good but still not old enough to possess wisdom. Quite a comforting thought.

Just the other day I was riding in my buddy Joe's SUV passing a racetrack in a suburb of Philadelphia, and he remarked to me, "I've wasted a lot of time at that racetrack." "But Joe," I protested, "you were young and you made mistakes, it just comes with being young." I wasn't entirely truthful to Joe, because in my younger days I'd rarely made that kind of mistakes, but then I'd also missed out all the fun and the opportunities to learn from life.

Which brings me back to last Saturday, most of which I spent at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. There was a set of paintings by a nineteenth century American artist named Thomas Cole, which is called "The Voyage of Life". This set has four parts, sequentially named "Childhood", "Youth", "Manhood" and "Old Age". In each part man is depicted being in a boat, but the interesting thing about "Youth" is the guy raising his arm as if in salute towards a magnificient palace hanging in the air.

That palace would come down in the "Manhood" painting, but of course the fresh-faced guy in "Youth" wouldn't know about that.


"Youth" by Thomas Cole (1842)

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Misery in Da Nang

I was in Da Nang, visiting a city that had been home to my parents but a totally alien place to me. I had planned to stay at a hotel, but my relatives had insisted that I should stay with them, and I had yielded to them out of courtesy. That was always my problem, too much courtesy.

My room was on the third floor on one of the busiest streets of the city. The deafening din was too much to bear, and I was in an unflagging state of irritation. I longed to be relieved of the heat, the noise, and the tacky affluence of my cousins. As if punished for feeling miserable, I fell sick for two days, lying exhausted on a pink bed with matching pink pillows and blankets in a pink room complete with pink curtains, while the strident cacophony was constantly rolling in from the street below.

At last I recovered enough to continue my trip to Hanoi, where I had never set foot to. I could have flown there, but in a fit of adventurousness I decided to take a train. It was going to be my first train experience in Vietnam, and later on I would wonder if the novelty somehow could compensate for my discomfort. But then it was another story.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

William on a Tower Top

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the City of Brotherly Love the first time in ten years. I drove through the familiar streets lined with typical Philadelphia rowhouses, old and often dilapidated. The churches here were numerous and looked imposing with their lofty timeworn Gothic steeples.

Broad Street, Temple University, old buildings, rundown storefronts, people with faces of all colors, and there appeared the city center with its shiny skyscrapers. Still, instantly recognizable was the City Hall with its tower and the statue of William Penn perched on top.

Walking around the historic city center I always feel the constant presence of William from that tower top, which is only fair considering that he was the one who founded the city. To me, that presence is a permanent fixture of the most beautiful part of Philadelphia, one that was there when we left and is still there when we come back.

Twelve years ago I had walked under the shadow of William, penniless and lonely, yet full of excitement and expectation. Now I came to see William in a new car, my wallet bulged with cash and bank cards, still lonely, but the excitement and expectation were gone, how and where I don't know. I don't even know whether I am better or worse off.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Passé, Alive and Well

The house in the picture was small and simple, painted in white and blue with a couple of olive shrubs growing in the front yard. It looked nice and bright under the clear Mediterranean sky, except that it was abandoned.

My friend Suat's family was forced to abandon their house when the island of Cyprus was divided. Being of Turkish extraction, they had to resettle in the Northern part of the island. Recently the political barrier was lowered enough to allow for visits between the two parts. My friend and his siblings had eagerly made a trip across the border to visit their childhood home, and taken the picture that was shown to me.

The attachment of my friend and his family to their old modest home, even though they currently own much more valuable properties, in a way parallels my feeling when, a few months ago, I made a little emotional visit to a place I had not seen since I was ten. I climbed the hill, sat down on a stone step, felt my heart sink at the sight of negligence while my eyes were registering the familiar details etched in my childhood memory yet oddly unfamiliar now that I was viewing them through adult eyes.

The past, despite being the past, still resides somewhere in our present, all alive and well. Like a dear old relative who refuses to pass away.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Moving Question

I can't help feeling sad each time I move, as if I were leaving a part of me behind.

Could it be that a wall, a door, a flower pot on the deck, a patch of sky visible through my bedroom window have absorbed elements of my soul and become an extension of my own self? Or could it be that my spirit has been subtly reshaped by everything that makes me a home, and I have become a part of that environment?

Mysticism aside, the pain of parting has made me, upon moving into a new place, keep telling myself not to get too attached to my new home. Which is impossible, of course, and I always end up feeling sad each time I move.

Still over the years the sadness in my heart has become lighter and lighter each time I turn my head for one last look at the place I've called home. I wonder if it's good or sad not to feel sad.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Performers

It always troubles me that people do not pratice what they preach, especially when it is God they talk about all the time and yet their actions reflect something quite the opposite. It seems to me that the more from the vocal chords the less from the heart.

When in church, I watch these people preach, lead prayers, sing hymns, and I tell myself I am watching a performance. Then I ask myself why on earth I would want to see bad actors perform while at home I can always turn on my TV, pop a disk into my DVD player and watch Matt Damon play Jason Bourne.

Then I have to remind myself that I go to church because of my faith in God, not because of people. But it is so hard to ignore such noisy performers around me.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Pretending Angler

It was a summer afternoon, the sun was fierce, the air was hot, and there was quite a crowd by the lake at Black Hill Park for the cool breeze from the water.

I was standing on a pier leaning against a wooden rail, chatting with a friend, when we were distracted by some commotion at a shaded corner of the lake shore. A man had just got off his canoe, carrying a huge fish he had caught with his fishing rod.

The fish, I was not sure of which kind, was so big that everyone, my friend and me included, got all excited. I could clearly see that while its tail touched the ground, its mouth rose above the waist of the beaming tall man holding it.

A young guy approached the angler who was busy tending to his impressive catch, said something and got a nod and a smile from the other man. Then he took off his shirt to show off his muscular torso, took the fish and held it in a pose for his girlfriend to take a snapshot.

I thought of those who later on would look at that photo and admire the guy's fishing skill. Well, it's just another manifestation of a very common ailment.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

In a Movie Theater

Last week I took my young nieces and nephews to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It was the first time for them to be in a movie theater, so I let the youngest one, who is seven years old, sit next to me to soothe any anxiety he might feel.

Surely enough, a few minutes into the movie the kid started to cover his eyes with his small hands, then he clutched at my arm as if his life had depended on it. So I told him to sit in my lap, put my arms around him and whispered explanations of what was happening on the screen. Reassured, he stopped squirming and followed the movie through some quite frightening scenes until the end.

On the way home, the little boy solemnly told me in his soft voice that of all the world he loved me best. No kidding.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Interested in Interests?

Do you currently have any interest in your life, anything at all? If not, I know how it feels - it feels dead.

There was a time when my life was stripped of all interests. Lethargy like a smog permeated everything around me. I went about doing my daily business almost like a zombie, people felt like robots, trees and flowers might just as well have been plastic, and the moon and stars were just pale dots on a dark canvas. The worst thing is that you might not be aware of your predicament since your mental faculties could also be gripped by the same torpidity.

So get yourself an interest if you don't already have one, because to be interested is to be alive.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain rises among the hills between Frederick County and Montgomery County in Maryland. A narrow country lane winding through fields and meadows, horse farms and vineyards leads to the foot of the mountain; then another road twists its way through trees and shrubs, skirting numerous crags and cliffs up to the rocky top.

The mountain is beautiful enough in summer with its lush green mass of tree crowns lit up in the hot sun, but it is in fall that it feels like a golden fairy tale with bright yellow leaves all around you, above your head and under your feet. Each step you take, each sound you make, each breath you take in brings you closer to being part of an imagination come true.

I like to sit on a boulder at the mountain top looking down at the countryside below. Fields and groves, farmhouses and barns, men and horses all appear in another perspective. The things that normally can swallow me up now look like toys, and the knowledge that I have the choice of rising above them all fills my heart with peace.


View from Sugarloaf Mountain

Monday, July 16, 2007

Parallel Universes

A few days ago I met a man with a remarkable story.

This man is an Amerisian, born to a Vietnamese mother and an Italian American father. He came to the U.S. to learn that his father did not want to see him, and that he had a mafioso for an uncle.

He became a gang leader and a drug dealer, shot people and got shot, saw people die from the drug he had sold them, and eventually got caught and jailed. At some point while behind bars he found God. After he was released, he entered a seminary, graduated and became a pastor.

His old life was something I'd only read in fictional novels. Having someone who had actually lived that sort of life sitting in front of me and telling me about it was a startling experience. I felt I was looking through a spacecraft window into a totally alien world.

Then I thought of the other worlds that I knew nothing about, all lived by the people I saw everyday in shops, streets and other places. Each has his own world unknown to others, like soap bubbles floating near each other but floating separately, like those multiple parallel universes - each with its own space and time - dreamed up by theoretical physicists.

The world is such a complex place and our experiences are woefully limited. How far can we stretch our imagination, how open can our mind go to empathize with each other? Like the wormholes that connect the hypothetical parallel universes, true understanding between people is just as rare.

I guess that's how loneliness happens.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

Sorry, Mr Proust. I like your book too much not to borrow the title.

In my own way I've also searched for my lost time, traveling halfway around the world back to the places of my childhood and adolescence. My feet started pacing the same old sidewalks while my heart was fluttering with memories and expectation. The sights and sounds being registered to my senses were not quite the same but still familiar, so how come I felt like a stranger among these familiar surroundings?

Could it be because my psyche had shifted a long way and no longer in tune with this land, or the spirit of the land had changed and no longer accommodated an estranged native?

I went to an old friend's home. The gardens in the neighborhood had disappeared, replaced by garish townhouses. I was relieved to see my friend's house still standing even though the white walls and brick-colored windows looked old and blemished. I could recognize the attic where I'd often spent hours rummaging through the used books which had opened my eyes to a new, fascinating world despite being stacked away in a narrow, dusty space.

Only strange faces greeted me when I walked in. My friend's family had left, renting the house to some students of a nearby college. I turned back, my feet less light and my steps less brisk.

Hours later I was ringing the doorbell of another old friend. She opened the door and did not recognize me. I couldn't help it so I grinned and immediately heard she call out my name. Twenty odd years had passed and she still remembered my grin.

So I did find a bit of my temps perdu. What I had not realized before was that I did not have to travel that far to find my lost time. A part of it had been residing in my grin all along.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Across the Mississippi from Memphis

Across the Mississippi from Memphis the land was flat and wet, and there were rice fields just like where I came from. Unlike where I came from, the fields here were not segmented into small plots but ran uninterrupted over large tracts of rich soil. There was no sight of water buffalos and toiling peasants either.

Still the rice fields looked and smelled so familiar that my eyes unconsciously searched for a coconut palm or two among the hickory trees in a nearby grove.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Jim

I was in the gym working on my adductors, meaning my inner thigh muscles, and that's why Jim broke the ice with a remark that it's a good exercise for riding a horse.

Jim hailed from Montana and did a lot of horse-riding in his youth. He talked to me about life with horses in the prairie under a vast open sky. That life had been a tough one, so tough that he had left, leaving his brother behind to farm their father's land.

Sometimes while we were rowing his boat on a nearby lake, I could see Jim's prairie in his eyes. I should know, because a nostalgic yearning had also been gnawing at my heart until I made a trip back to the place I had left; it then dawned on me that the world I had been holding dear only existed in my selective memory, and reality was a lot less poetic.

That was what I wanted to tell Jim, and I often wondered why he never returned to Montana for a visit. After all, it was only at the other side of the country, while my native land was halfway around the world and I had managed to come back all the same.

Maybe Jim didn't want to find out what I did. Maybe he cherished his memories so much he wanted to keep them intact, joy and pain alike.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Noses Around a Table

The meeting was so boring I could have fallen asleep, so I started looking for something entertaining to focus my mind on. Around me were the faces of my colleagues, all wearing the same dazed expression except one or two who were making an effort of showing interest. I turned my gaze to the table but it was just a bland piece of office furniture, so I was looking up again when my entertainment hit me in the eyes.

It was the noses, positioned around the conference table. If I kept my eyes down at the right level I could watch them as much as I wanted without the embarrassment of staring at anyone. I had never realized that there was quite a diversity of noses in terms of shape, size and shade of color. Some of these noses were bulbous, reminding me of the garlic bunches hung at counters in Italian restaurants. There was one that looked lopsided and beaten; I wondered if it came from a fight. Another was thin, sharp and twitching; it surely belonged to Greg, not a nice guy by any measure. And this one, elegant and just a trifle upturned for a grain of humor, had to be...

I looked up from that nose and saw Amy smiling at me, an amused twinkle in her eyes.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Impression of a Scent

It all started when I was a child living on a hill by the sea. The nights were warm, the sky was clear, and the scent was gently wafting through the air from a couple of michelia trees standing quietly in a dark corner of the front yard.

Years later I was riding a bicycle in a big city late at night, feeling all the weight of a hard life on my young shoulders, when the scent suddenly struck all my senses. In a flash I was a child again, sitting on a bench on a hilltop, watching the stars above and the lights from fishing boats in the sea below. Silently I thanked a michelia tree which rose behind a wall, visible under the streetlight.

More years later and an ocean away, I was driving along a country lane in a Southern state when the scent hit me again. I stopped my car to a screech, avidly looking for an old friend in a strange land. There was no michelia tree this time, just a lot of blooming honeysuckle vines growing on the roadside. Still the scent was unmistakably the same, and I slowly filled my lungs with an ami retrouvé.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Peanut Girl

I met this little girl who was selling boiled peanuts at a wharf in Can Tho, Vietnam.





Friday, June 15, 2007

Animal Circus

A cable car in Nha Trang took me to Bamboo Island where an amusement park is located. Ten more minutes and an animal circus started performing, dogs doing maths and monkeys acrobatics.

Adults and children alike were delighted and clapped their hands, except one little girl. She was looking at the emaciated, haggard monkeys with sorrow and winced at the occasional use of a whip by a trainer.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Rolling Hills of Pennsylvania

The rolling hills of central Pennsylvania with their picturesque tranquility quietly beckon to anyone passing by. Amid the lush green fields rise farmhouses complete with red barns and tall, grey silos.

When I look at these hills, there's a strange urge for me to walk barefoot into a field to feel my feet sink into the rich soil. I even long for a simple, natural existence where I sweat on the land during the day then come home for a good meal, hold my children tight, make love with my wife then sleep soundly with her in my arms.

Well, it's just daydreaming, but one can't help daydreaming when looking at the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Change

I always think I have changed a lot since the day I left the old country, considering the drastic circumstances I had to go through. Sometimes when I look back at my own mentality or behavior many years ago, I wince at the immaturity, the narrow thinking, even the stupidity of my old self.

One day I met an old college friend for the first time after many years. She told me I hadn't changed a bit. I talked to a high-school friend on the phone, he chuckled and said he could still detect my old self at the end of the phone line. Just recently I exchanged some e-mails with a high-school teacher of mine, and she told me she still could see my old personality reflected clearly in my messages.

So what's going on? Is it true that I didn't change at all after all these years? Somewhere in the Bible it is said that the leopard cannot shed the spots in its skin, and the Ethiopian cannot change his color. Is it ancient wisdom that I'm contending against?

Maybe it's just the software of my personality which has changed while the hardware remains the same. Hmm, I kinda like that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Oak Tree at Lake Ouachita, Arkansas

It is not straight, tall and proud like most oak trees. In fact, it's dwarfed and bent due to the lack of nutritious soil. You see, it grows on a high rocky cliff that makes a very steep drop into the lake.

Yet no other oak tree in the vicinity commands a more magnificient view of the lake and the surrounding mountains. While all the big trees jostle against each other in the ground below, this small and crooked oak tree stands high on the top of the cliff by itself, embracing the wind and the sun, looking down on the world. You could almost say it'd traded comfort for a fulfilling life by choosing to grow at that rocky spot.

Would you make a similar choice?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Mailbox

The messages in my mailbox today include a few from friends, one from my former high school teacher, some from job recruiters, a bill notification and several spams which somehow managed to escape the mail filter. It's amazing how a big part of my life can be summed up within a little window on my laptop. Just one click and an old friend is there saying Hi and teasing me about my single status. Or another friend wanting to know why I haven't written to her for a while. Or a long-lost teacher inviting me to her house all the way in the West Coast. Or my niece confiding her thoughts to me. All just one Internet connection away.

I imagine myself a convergence point where all these connections meet. In fact, each of us can be pictured as such a convergence point, like a spider at the center of its web. The denser the web surrounding you is, the richer life you have. But it'd be so sad if you have too few lines converging on you, in which case you'd be said to be lonely.

Still sometimes, despite a large number of converging lines, loneliness just sticks to my heart the way a shirt sticks to my sweaty back on a hot and humid day.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Windows on the Sidewalks

There was a time when all the bookstores in Vietnam sold only books serving the ideology of the ruling party. Books of all other thoughts and ideas had been destroyed years ago, but a number of them had survived and later resurfaced on the sidewalks of Saigon.

I was very young and always hungry for a good read. It was my favorite pastime to browse sidewalks for used books, on which I spent nearly all my meager earnings. It was on the sidewalks that I encountered big names and smaller ones in a variety of categories, from classic literature to philosophy, from hardcore science to UFOs and vampires.

I still remember the pleasure of finding a tattered copy of Moby Dick or Jane Eyre, the thrill of Le comte de Monte Cristo, or the shock when exposed to mysticism, parapsychology and UFO tales. But particularly dear to my heart was A. J. Cronin's The Green Years, where I found pieces of myself in the young Robert Shannon and his buddy Gavin Blair. Most Cronin's books were then available in French translations though, and my copy of The Green Years actually bore the title of Les vertes années.

Many years have passed and some books I once was so fond of have lost their appeal to me. Les Misérables, for example, now seems to me lengthy and over-sentimental. Is it because I'm now older, wiser, or simply more insensitive? Nevertheless, I'm forever grateful to the used books of Saigon, which opened my eyes to the outside world. They were my windows on the sidewalks.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Five Thousand Miles Ago

Today I had my car serviced, which I do every five thousand miles.

Last time I took my car there I was still in love. While waiting for the car to be ready, I called her and engaged in a silly, trifling and very long conversation.

Five thousand miles ago, my heart was full of affection and tenderness. Now it's just plain barren.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Field

Across the back road from where I work was an empty field, filled not with crops but with grass and wild flowers. At a corner there were some trees and a shed with a rusty tin roof and crumbly wooden walls. During lunch breaks I liked to walk over for my eyes to embrace the green open space and feel a breeze caressing my face.

Then one day I saw a couple of bulldozers working in the field. I guess, just like the rest of us, fields also have to die sometime.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Ersatzes

On the outskirts of Saigon there's a park where rural scenes are replicated for the relaxation of stress-ridden city folks. Oxcarts and lotus ponds, thatched cottages and bamboo benches are carefully arranged to delight visitors.

Unfortunately the banana trees are too young and skinny to bear fruits, so a banana bunch is hung from a dried bamboo pole. The dragonfruit trees look sumptuously green, but the deep-pink fruits are plastic and attached to the trees by pieces of metal wire.

How many things surrounding us and inside us are ersatz? Artificial flowers and trees are quite common in America, and have you heard Edith Piaf sing about "fabriquer des souvenirs"?

I refuse to have ersatzes. It's either the genuine thing or nothing at all for me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

I Didn't Catch It

My dorm room window looked down an alley between my building and the next one. There was a desk by the window, and one day I was sitting on that desk playing a Viet song on my guitar.

Suddenly I sensed the weight of a gaze and turned my head to look out of the window. A girl was watching me from the alley below. She's a Viet, I was sure. In her eyes, in her posture I could read loneliness and homesickness. I knew she saw in me a piece of the homeland she had left behind, and I knew she wanted to be my friend.

But I hesitated. I hesitated a tad too long, so she turned and left. She was throwing something precious into my lap and I didn't catch it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Wild Flowers

I'm very fond of wild flowers. There's something particularly endearing about those who are left to fend for themselves and still manage to attain such beauty. I took this picture a few months ago at Black Hill Regional Park.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Wendy and Her Geese

The view from my office window included a green patch of trees and grass, and a pond where white geese were either frolicking or napping their time away, quite oblivious to the hectic human world surrounding them. Among the blessings they could count was Wendy.

Wendy was a security guard who had been working there for more than fifteen years. Twice a week she would walk over and feed the geese, which got so used to her that when she was still at a distance they would shriek, clap their wings and rush forward to meet her.

Then Wendy was laid off. The pond became quiet, too quiet.

One day I was distracted from work by a noisy ruckus. It was the geese welcoming their Wendy back. Wendy had decided to drive fifty miles every Thursday afternoon to visit her geese.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Joe Redman

Redman is what he calls himself, not his real name. He has red hair and likes to wear red jackets and T-shirts. He also has a red baseball cap. It's a relief to me that his predilection for the red color doesn't go lower than his waist.

Joe befriended me when I was new, alone and penniless in the City of Brotherly Love. I was struggling to find a foothold for my new life in a strange land. His marriage was in tatters and he had left home to make a new start.

Joe liked to take me with him in his dilapidated, fusty van to the New Jersey shore on his fishing trips. He took me to racing courses and horse farms. He brought me to the neighborhood bar to throw darts. I learned my first American bad words from him.

Life had never been easy for Joe. At ten, he had run away from an abusive father, mingling with picnic crowds to get food. He had drifted from place to place, taken all sorts of odd jobs to survive. Luckily enough, his hard life had made him tough but wise, kind and funny as hell.

Years went by, my life has changed for the better and so has Joe's. We remain friends and stay in touch, and I certainly hope that we'll still be friends for many more years to come.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Wilted Flower

Recently I attended a small show by a Viet artist couple from France. The husband is a well-known musicologist, the wife a singer.

The lady has had a long career , having performed with big-time American entertainers in the 50's and 60's , according to the bio I got. I'd never had a chance to listen to her when she had been in her prime, but the last show was a major disappointment. There was no juice in her voice, just the dehydrated pulp so to speak.

On my way home I thought of her and other performers whose heydays have long passed. Well, everything has to come to an end, the cosmos included. Still I wonder how they feel watching their careers dry up.

In other words, how does it feel to be a wilted flower?

Friday, May 18, 2007

First Flower

It was early springtime. I was slowly driving out of the apartment complex where I lived when I saw a very small boy, so fresh and beautiful, clutching his dad's hand and bumbling his way straight to a colorful flower bed. He squatted and touched a yellow pansy, his little hand clumsy, his expression grave and fascinated. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was his first spring and he was meeting his first flower.