Thursday, December 25, 2008

My Ghost of Christmas Past

I am no Scrooge, but now that Christmas is here and I still have some holiday time left, I am invoking my hypothetical Ghost of Christmas Past to see what it would show.

The earliest Christmases I can remember were full of joy, the kind of absolute joy that only a child can possess. The church was filled with music, bedecked in colorful lights and tinsel, the air was subtly pervaded with the pungent smell of the big pine tree towering in one corner, and we kids sang at the top of our lungs in honor of Baby Jesus. But my pinnacle of bliss was the two bags of candies I received after the celebration, one for being just a kid, and another for being a choir member. In those days candies were a special treat not to be taken lightly, and I remember falling asleep with the bags of sweets still clutched against my chest.

All that came to an abrupt halt when communist soldiers swarmed our land and local lowlifes rose to meet them. The next Christmas found our church closed down, my father taken away, and us moved to a shack in the middle of nowhere with just a small kerosene lamp making a feeble attempt to light up the surrounding darkness. That did not dampen my spirit one bit though, and I asked my older sister who had a good voice to sing a few Christmas songs with me. She was dilly-dallying, but I could tell she was warming up to my idea when our mother made the mistake of urging us on, to which my sister flatly refused out of spite I could sense. I wasn't interested in that mysterious mother-daughter friction, all I wanted was some holiday music, and for the first time ever I felt sad on Christmas night.

A few years later, I was all alone treading the streets of another town. It was Christmas Eve, and I was shivering in my threadbare jacket while watching other people having a merry time. I stopped in front of a church, looked at it the way I suppose a wounded man would look at his amputated arm. For a fleeting moment I thought I was going to cry, but then I laughed at the idea of crying and walked on. Late that night, back to the tiny room I called home, I stood very still when my nose caught the familiar pungent smell coming from a twig of pine I had taken from a nearby hill early that morning. I picked up the little twig, walked out into the dark and flung it as far as I could.

After that one, Christmas no longer excited or bothered me, and from an eager participant I became an indifferent spectator. In the meantime I grew up into a young man, life started to take new shapes and meanings, pushing old priorities further back into the cobwebbed crannies of my mind. I had some good Christmases, such as those when I had someone I could call my own next to me in a church listening to old songs sung by young children. I also had some bad Christmases, like the one when I stretched my body on a sagging cot staring at the stained ceiling of a dorm room and wondering whether I should take a sleeping pill at eight p.m. to forget my unbearable loneliness. In any case, Christmas had long retreated from center stage to mere backdrop for my own activities on that particular night.

This year I went to church on Christmas Eve. What brought me there was a simple "why not" when someone asked. I listened to the old hymns of my childhood, sang along a bit and found the antiquated lyrics somewhat funny. The church was old and there were signs of dilapidation. My aesthetic sense cried in protest against the decoration in poor taste and the sadly flawed music. The guitar was out of tune with the piano, and did they really have to play both instruments at the same time? The choir didn't start their song in sync, and that guy's solo number sounded very much the same as Pierce Brosnan croaking in Mamma Mia the movie. Then suddenly it dawned on me that I got it all wrong. This was not a performance, but a group of people doing their very best to express how they felt towards the Savior despite their limited talents and resources. I had also got it wrong when I had turned my back on Christmas because I had been hurt, and I'd been getting it wrong all the way back to the time I had gone to bed with two bags of candies pressed against my chest on Christmas night.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Old Man Doing an Old-Fashioned Thing

Just a couple of days ago I was driving home from work. It was nearly dark, and while inching towards the intersection between Telegraph and Huntington I noticed the left-turn lane was devoid of traffic, which was very unusual at that rush hour. Something was happening there, I thought.

Indeed, something was happening there in the form of a man standing in the middle of the lane, waving the traffic away from it. He wasn't wearing a police uniform nor the neon vest characteristic of road workers. A deranged man, I thought, maybe some victim of the current economic slump.

As I drew nearer I saw that it was an old black man in an old black coat. His decrepit Ford was broken down in the middle of the lane, so he'd not only raised his trunk lid to signal trouble but also stepped out of the warmth of his car into the bitter cold of a windy winter afternoon to keep other drivers from getting stuck behind his car. What a lot of trouble to take just so other people wouldn't be inconvenienced.

As I was easing my car past the old man and feeling grateful for his consideration, I watched him closely and thought that somehow his appearance went well with his action. Both were old-fashioned, and both were incongruous with these hustling modern days.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Forgotten Photo

Recently on a website a group photo showed up, which showed yours truly of a quarter of century ago. The photo was blurry, still I could recognize long-forgotten faces.

I was the emaciated, shabby-looking boy standing at one edge of the group next to my then best friend. There were some other classmates, both close and not so close, and a few teachers as well. All looked both familiar and strange, the kind of strange familiarity one encounters when going back in time.

In a flash the Dark Age of my life came back, that slice of space-time continuum which I would rather relegate to the oblivion of a black hole, preferably a big one. Let's just say there was nothing remotely happy about it, when one cold night I stood on a hill looking down at all the cozy lights in the valley below, acutely aware that there was no place for me anywhere within sight and beyond.

Naturally I was not pleased when seeing that old photo, which brought back unwelcome memories. Then I confronted myself with the question whether deep down I was a coward. Pleasant of not, that period was a part of my life, even a formative one I might add. If at the back of my soul there's always this faint note of sadness the way the relic radiation is ever present in the cosmos, it's largely because of those years. If I grew up a kind man instead of an insensitive egoist, those years were partly responsible too. I realized I could not reject something that had put its print inside me so deep it had become part of me.

At least now I can look at that old photo not with aversion, but with a reluctant appreciation of my appalling state of want in those long gone days.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

They Do Not Linger

Fall is almost gone, and so are its colors. Just a week ago the trees were still wearing their thick golden crowns that lit up the whole landscape in fiery splendor. Now suddenly they look as if they all just got a terrible haircut.

The hasty departure of the beauty of fall has caught me by surprise. I was planning for a long hike in the mountains to submerge myself in an outlandish world which was visually intense yet mellow and soothing like a pleasant dream. I was looking forward to following the meandering paths paved with fallen leaves which would make tiny crackling sounds under my feet; listening to the rustle of the playful wind among the shuddering trees; or sitting by a quiet lake which would reflect a blue piece of sky, some white patches of cloud, and a glow of red and golden from the forest in its clear and tranquil water. Only a few busy days, then it is already too late, and I will have to wait for another year to catch up with this marvel of nature.

I suppose the best things in life never linger around. They are like a passing train which you have to jump onto, otherwise you would be left alone in a cold and dreary place smack in the middle of nowhere, with regrets nibbling your heart away.

Late fall near the Potomac River

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Good Old Hairy Days

Today at work I attended a lecture given by a man who looked like Bruce Willis but spoke with a thick British accent. While talking about how the computer technology had evolved, he mentioned the good old days when he had hair. Funny guy, and bald of course.

I suppose I am among the few who do not reminisce about the good old days or wish we could turn back the time and be in our twenties again. My new job has put me in contact with many new college graduates, and I often smile sadly at their naiveté, their clumsiness as well as their bad haircut; but then my smile turns wry when I remember my own unsophistication when I was at that age. So even though I enjoy moving about in the spatial dimensions, I would rather stay right where I am in the temporal dimension, thank you very much.

The point is that everything comes in a package, or a bundle as marketers are so fond of saying these days. If you want a woman then you have to put up with her possesiveness and nagging. To hang on to your freedom you have to accept loneliness. In the same way, youth carries beauty and stamina and a bursting love of life, but it also comes with severe cluelessness.

I am sure the witty lecturer I listened to today was just joking about his good old hairy days, and I doubt that he would trade the bundle he possesses now for the one he had in his youth. But then I could be wrong, knowing naught about being bald when my hair, thank goodness, is still intact.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

An Orange Rose

Today I saw a friend's photo of an orange rose and felt a bit sad, thinking of another friend way back in my high school days.

My friend was good-looking, played violin, was an incurable romantic and got the most beautiful girl in our class for a sweetheart.

One day I was with him in a rose garden, admiring the orange roses when he suddenly reached out and picked one. I was shocked then I was scared, timid boy that I was, but the guy was as cool as a cucumber. We walked out of that garden, him jaunty and me as furtive as a thief even though it was he who had stolen that orange rose.

To get back at my friend for scaring me, I tried to snatch the rose from him, so we had sort of a scuffle. He managed to run away with the rose but without his sandals, which did not stop him from walking barefoot to his girl's place to give her the rose. It sounds corny, I know, but we were just kids and in the context of our innocence it was cute.

Twenty years later I came back from twelve time zones away. My old friend's family lived in a big city but he himself was working in a nearby province. I met him at a riverside café in the city and saw a faded shadow of the handsome, debonair friend I had known. Definitely life had been tossing him around, and he told me his violin strings had been broken a long time ago. That very night he rode his motorbike fifty miles back to where he was working in the province without stopping by to see his wife and kids.

And before you ask me, no, he did not marry his high school sweetheart.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Reaching Out for a Tune

Last night I watched a movie, an Italian production named The Orange Thief. It was a mildly interesting movie about a guy who stole oranges for a living, a thug who was in jail, and a wild girl who could really sing.

The orange thief was caught and thrown in jail. He shared a cell with the thug, who wanted him to sing a song. The guard had left a guitar outside the cell, but the bars were too close together for the prisoners to get it inside. So the thief put his arms through the bars, picked up the instrument, and played.

The scene of a man in jail reaching outside to play a guitar was an inspiring one to me. It didn't matter that he was singing about something as humble and quaint as a little donkey. If I could reach out from my own jail just to strike a cheerful tune, then maybe I could bring a little more sunshine into my life and hopefully someone else's life as well.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Chopin on the Road

When I crossed the border from Georgia into Tennessee, one side of the road was still slumbering in a long dark shadow; but on the other side the morning sun was spreading a thin layer of gold on the pine trees, and those needles at the top were sparkling in response.

My mind was as calm and contented as the landscape was still and bright. These long drives could be tiring, but they also helped me to unwind. My past few months had been stressful with frustration and anger accumulated but undealt with for lack of time. Just three days ago, when I had started this trip and my car had just reached the countryside outside Washington, pent-up emotions had suddenly broken loose and created such a storm inside my mind that a whole CD had finished playing on the car stereo without me hearing anything. As the miles had rolled by one after another, the commotion in my head had subsided and finally died down, and I had realized with shock how tense I had been.

Stress therapy aside, I was still a sucker for road trips. I supposed they appeased the restlessness and the curiosity in me, or maybe it was simply my kind of fun. As a child I had accompanied my parents on road trips occasionally; and I still remembered the rush of excitement at the appearance of the blue shape of a mountain faintly visible in the horizon, and at the thought that before long I would reach that distant, unfamiliar place. Since then I had passed beyond a great deal of blue mountains, but the excitement had not diminished, for which I considered myself a fortunate man.

I was not so fortunate in one particular aspect. Since leaving my childhood behind, the more I had learned about humanity, the dimmer my view of it had become. Sometimes while mulling over my own existence, I felt as helpless as a seabird trapped in the body of an earthworm. Thinking too much was certainly a bad idea and made my life terribly lonely, but it was in my disposition and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

I shook my head to dispel the gloomy thoughts, then popped a CD into the player. The brisk, bright, and exquisite piano sound of Chopin enlivened my mood. Outside, the sun was cheering up the lush but quiet landscape. White farmhouses and red barns, green meadows with black-and-white cows grazing or just lying around, then a river full to the brim with a big country house half-hidden behind a bend. This part of Tennessee was less developed, and there was no strip mall or big box in sight.

Presently I hit Interstate 40. My first trip on this highway had been on a Greyhound bus before starting graduate school nearly thirteen years ago. To the west and across an area of spectacular rugged mountains was Nashville, where I had changed to another bus to Memphis and had sat between a drunk and a cowboy carrying a guitar. The memory brought me a grin and a chuckle, but I had to turn east to get back to my current place in life. No time for wandering now.

Chopin was still playing, the sun was still shining, and my mind was drifting from one small thought to another until I noticed that lining the roadsides were cypresses instead of pines. I was approaching Bristol, where thirteen years ago a Canadian journalist had got out of that Greyhound bus after giving me a long talk on the corruption of the wealthy and politically influential. I had changed from an earnest greenhorn who would have swallowed any story back then into the hardened skeptical man of today, and I wondered if it was really for the better. Naiveté could hurt, but without trust life would be just a desert of dead rock.

I left Bristol behind and crossed the border into southwestern Virginia. The hilly countryside here was picturesque, basking in light and covered in green grass. Farmhouses, cows and horses attested to a slow pace of life. I turned on the radio and caught some country singer telling the world that he was a common man driving a common van, and something about highbrow people losing their sanity which made me burst out laughing.

I supposed it was possible for me to live a normal, happy life. I could cast aside my weltschmerz, get a good woman, and occupy myself with whatever husbands and fathers normally did. Suddenly I found myself yearning for a suburban home filled with light and affection. There would be a couple of kids playing around, orchids in the kitchen, and the sunlit sound of Chopin.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Roosevelt Island

I was not feeling well, so I decided to pretend to be feeling well. I grabbed my hat and backpack and was on my way to explore Roosevelt Island.

I parked on the bank of the Potomac near Key Bridge, then took a short walk to a footbridge. Behind me were hordes of zipping cars and the slick highrises of Rosslyn. In front of me was the quiet, slender bridge ending at an expansive wealth of green foliage so lush it spilled over into the surrounding water.

A few steps into the island I stopped where the gravelled path split into more paths. I hesitated a moment then followed the widest one, which also looked the most trodden. Soon I came to an eyesore, a jarring implant in the middle of graceful nature. It was a memorial to Teddy Roosevelt, massive, ungainly, and about as feeling as the plain concrete it was built with. I thought of taking a picture but skipped the idea, for I did not want to offend my camera.

I backtracked to where the trails branched off. Mindful of the deplorable effect of following the crowd, this time I picked a trail as thin as a thread that swung to the lower ground along the shoreline. This was a rough one, blocked by fallen trees some low enough to climb over, some not so low I had to crouch to pass under. A couple of red birds darted about then disappeared. Through a gap in the foliage I saw the river, so I picked my way across the wild growth until my shoes almost touched the water. I looked out and my eyes caught quite a pleasant scene.

Right in the middle of the river rose a rock, resting against which was a kayak painted blue and white. A guy was sitting on the rock watching his girlfriend swimming in the sparkling emerald water. I had to admit it was a swell idea to take your lover in a kayak to a lonely rock in a river for a swim on a sultry afternoon. The only thing that seemed a bit odd to me was that the guy did not strip and jump in to swim with her as I would have done.

I got back to my trail and resumed the hike. Eventually I emerged from a tangle of twigs and vines onto a small stretch of sand bordering the river on the island side that faced the District. It was low tide, and beyond the stretch of sand there was an additional stretch of mud. This part of the river was busy with motorboats and kayaks, with the arcs of Key Bridge and the spires of Georgetown University in the backdrop.

View of Key Bridge from Roosevelt Island

The view was picturesque, so I sat down on a drift log to take it all in. After a while, the noise of the motorboats and the neon-orange life vests on the kayakers started to grate on my nerves. I found a new trail and plunged back into the more subdued colors and sounds of the forest.

Soon I came to what I thought to be a footbridge, but the bridge kept going on and on until I realized it was really a footpath constructed from wood that ran above a large tract of swamp. It was such a pleasure to walk on that clear path under a thick canopy of green leaves through which the fierce summer sun was metamorphosed into a soft, diffusing emerald glow that tenderly wrapped around you and caressed all your senses. I sat down on a bench, relaxed and contented. It did not matter that the faint humming of a hustle-bustle life still reverberated to this haven or a passing airplane was rumbling above my head, for what I was getting was precious enough for me.

A couple of joggers passed by and gave me a smile. That reminded me that someone would be waiting for me shortly, so I stood up with reluctance and walked the rest of the trail. At last I arrived at the footbridge that led me back to the riverbank, only this time the island was behind my back and in front of me was a tall glass building bearing the name of a company that fed on military contracts. That was the world I was returning to, just another bee in one of those beehives. But I promised myself that I would go back to sit on that bench again when the magic breath of autumn would turn Roosevelt Island into a mass of red and golden enchantment. As to that hideous memorial, I would just ignore it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cock Your Head

There was a ding, the elevator door opened. A woman stepped out, followed by a small boy of maybe three or four years old. The boy was speaking with excitement, “Mom, Mom, it’s a vee!” to which his mother replied, “No, it’s an el.” I could still hear him protest that it was a vee and his mother firmly assert that it was an el on their way out of the building.

The overheard conversation intrigued me, and when inside the elevator pressing on the button to my floor I suddenly understood what the boy and his mother had talked about. On the control panel there was a button with the letter L for Lobby, and the boy must have cocked his head to see a V instead.

Smart little fellow, I thought and couldn’t suppress a grin. Too bad his mother didn’t see it that way, but that’s exactly how a virgin mind was stripped of its originality and molded into seeing things the way everyone else did. Too bad we reduce ourselves to a bunch of horses with blinkers.

How about this for a change. When you get stuck or simply get bored, just cock your head when looking at whatever interests you. Like that boy, you might see a V instead of an L, and that might give you a whole new set of eyes to see the world with.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

You Win, Pal

Yesterday was the second time in less than a week that Joe called me with the news that one of his horses had finished second in a race at Philadelphia Park. I was genuinely glad for him and said my congratulations.

There was unmistakable glee in his voice when he said to me, “Hey, you’re sitting all day staring at your computer in an office while I’m having thrills at the racecourse. So who’s smarter?”

Damn, the brute couldn’t resist rubbing my nose in it. We went back a long way, and he’d always had a healthy respect for whatever existed inside my skull. For my part, more than once I had turned up my nose at his predilection for gaudy clothes and Johnny Cash music, so maybe he’d been carrying a little grudge against me, and now was his chance to get even.

My first reaction was to retort with something like, “You wouldn’t happen to know the phone number of the owner of whatever horse that finished first, would you? I really want to congratulate him.” But I remembered in time that he was a sensitive guy in spite of his tough looks, so I just kept my mouth shut. Besides, he might be right. He might not be the brainy type, but he was his own man, and while I was scratching my head trying to be productive enough to satisfy my employer, he was having fun at the racetrack, huddling with jockeys and trainers, probably telling them his horrible jokes and roaring with laughter.

So I answered, “You are, Joe. You win.” I heard a loud whoopee at the other end of the phone line and could not help smiling.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lone White Sail

Back in high school days I once read a novel by a Soviet author whose name has slipped from my memory, neither can I recall what it was about except a faint impression that it was idyllic and a bit sad. But the title was firmly stuck in my mind because I thought it was beautiful and evocative: A Lone White Sail.

During a recent excursion along the Potomac River, when the hiking trail I was following emerged from a dense growth of verdant summer foliage, I saw a lone white sail in the distant shimmery water towards the far side of the river. It struck me as vaguely familiar yet elusive, like something that had come to me in a dream.

The trail continued to meander along the rugged river bank through marshes and woods, crossing narrow footbridges that hang above patches of water plants dotted with violet flowers, plunging into the thick green shades of huge old trees where a faint smell of rotten wood was lurking in the cool air, cutting between luxuriant hedges of shrubs and vines adorned with bright orange blooms. Whenever I came out to an open view of the river, that white sail was always there as if it had been waiting up for me.

I stopped at the top of a cliff, standing beside a boulder between two smooth, sturdy maple trees, staring out at the lone white sail in the distance. I could feel rising in me a yearning to be on that boat and glide away to another world. Suddenly I understood why the image of a lone white sail had long been appealing to me. It was in fact a projection of myself.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Live a Life, Play a Part

Occasionally I ask myself whether I am living a life or just playing a part. I know I know, Shakespeare wrote somewhere a line about the world being a stage, but my pondering really has nothing to do with that antediluvian hotshot. It simply occurs to me, once in a while, that I do what I do because it is expected from me and not because I want to do it. Just like an actor who acts according to the role he has been cast in.

I suppose we all have carved out a part for ourselves in life and grown so accustomed to it that eventually it shapes our behavior instead of the other way around. If a guy thinks of himself as respectable then he will not gamble or hang out in bars or get associated with women of dubious reputation, even though he might want to do these things once in a while. If a girl views herself as hip then she will have to dress smartly, go dancing at the hottest clubs and talk the newest gossip in town even though the topic may not be really that interesting. Inevitably, people around us see only the part we represent and expect us to act accordingly, plus we are too entrenched in our own habits to summon enough will and courage to behave otherwise.

Years ago, in a chatroom I met a man who had quit his white-collar job in Paris and moved to a mountain village to be a carpenter. We hit it off pretty well because we both liked Das Glasperlenspiel by Herman Hesse, but most of all because I appreciated the fact that he had the guts to break away from his role to live his true life. Later on when I resigned from a high-paying job at a large company to travel, all those who were close to me called me crazy except a friend I had met only in cyberspace.

While jotting down these lines I realize that most of the people I am fond of put freedom at the top of their values. Like Heidi and Josh whom I met last Sunday, when I came to Lake Fairfax Park with the intention of joining a church picnic there. To make a crooked story simple, I ended up not being with the folks from church but giving a ride to a young couple barely into their twenties instead. Josh and Heidi were from Maine and had been hitchhiking for two months just for the sake of traveling and having a blast of a time. They did not seem to have much money or creature comfort, but from our brief conversation I knew they were having their own lives filled with authenticity, free from playing any part. They are cool in my book.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dark Patches

I woke up in the predawn stillness, put on some clothes then stepped out of the bedroom. Nobody was up yet, so I walked very quietly to the glass sliding door at the back of the beach house. I drew back the blinds, held my breath for a moment, then slowly and with relish drank in the view before my eyes.

The first word that came to my mind was serenity, then I thought of purity but stopped short. The sea, the sky, and the glowing horizon were decidedly nature refreshed and pure. The white wooden deck was covered in untouched morning dew. But those mats on the deck were nowhere close to purity, in fact they looked definitely shabby and dirty. Joyce had told me the day before that they had used the mats to wipe off the sand before getting inside whenever they had come up from the beach. Those mats might form dark patches in an otherwise immaculate setting, but they were a part of it all the same, and I had to include them if I wanted to shoot an honest picture.

I thought about the dark patches of my own life. My flaws, my mistakes, my regrets, the people I had hurt because I sometimes might act like an arrogant bastard. I could not just wipe these unflattering blotches off my slate. Whatever my life comprised, pure or soiled, noble or sordid, I would have to carry them all in one bundle. And whoever loved me would also have to accept the whole package deal.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Stuck People

What prompted me to write this entry was a guy I saw at a deli in Rockville a few days ago. A million years back when I first moved to the area I already saw him as a pale, scrawny kid doing small chores in the shop. He was nice and bright, and gradually I became quite fond of him, always gave him a warm smile and a decent tip.

After a gap of several years I stopped by that deli again last week, and I was taken aback when I saw the same kid, now quite a handsome young man, still doing chores there. I could not help staring at him, so he recognized me and grew a bit embarrassed. He knew what I was thinking. You're killing me, kid. What have you been doing all this time? Ten years from now if I come back here and see you as a middle-aged man still with a broom in your hand and a towel around your waist, I swear I will give you a smashing punch in the stomach.

There is this girl who works as an all-purpose helper at a tiny restaurant in Falls Church I used to come for a quick bite. The first time I saw her she was new to the country, and even though her sauciness was not exactly to my taste I still could appreciate the eagerness in her sharp eyes and her slick manner. She won't be here for long, I thought. She will get herself either a good job or a guy with plenty of money. Recently I came back to the same tiny place and she was still there, her sauciness a bit sour, her eagerness a bit worn, and there was a hint of worry in her slick bearing.

Whenever I think of these stuck people, a Beatles song always pops into my head, the one that asks where the lonely people come from. Only the lyrics in my mind ask where the stuck people come from instead. Of course I sort of know where they come from, the point is that they make me feel depressed exactly the way Eleanor Rigby invariably does.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


There is no doubt that doubt is one of my major issues, and it did spoil many possibilities for me. I do not quite know how it all started, but by the time I was fifteen I already doubted my family faith and questioned everything that I had learned up to that point. It was quite a crisis really. I was away from home or what was left of home, tender, vulnerable and badly hurt, and now this big-time dubiety which jerked the rug right from under my feet and left me with nothing to cling to.

But in retrospect it was actually a good thing, shaping my thinking and keeping my mind open ever since. My own conviction in any issue only goes up to ninety-nine per cent at most, the remaining part invariably reserved for doubt. This sort of attitude has been serving me well by keeping ignorance and bigotry at bay, and because of it I feel a distant camaraderie with the brilliant minds of the world. After all, great ideas started as a doubt in the incumbent system of thoughts.

Still, doubt generally seems to be considered a weakness in modern pop culture, where blind positivity is often encouraged by charlatans with magazine space and television time. Back in college I used to know a guy whose massive ignorance was hidden in a tower of solid confidence which caused people to see him in a firmly positive light. Just like in the corporate world, where the gung ho type is usually more appreciated than the thoughtful one.

Anyway, I do not let the fools out there change my hard-earned philosophy, and I will be likely to harbor doubt wherever intellectual matters are concerned. Problem is that doubt also seeps into your heart, wreaks havoc there, then leaves it a painful mess. Even a tiny grain of sagacity comes with a hefty price tag, I suppose.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

My Crutches Are Better Than Yours

It always seems to me that pride is a very quaint phenomenon. It is not essential to survival by any stretch, yet people would lie, make sacrifices, or even commit crimes to hold on to it.

I am often baffled at the smug satisfaction many people derive from having something deemed superior to one possessed by someone else, or at the discomfiture they feel when whatever they can claim does not match up with what the other person has. Pride is mean when it trumphs and quite bitchy when it fails; odd that people should embrace such a tyrant.

The source of pride is another matter for the curious mind to contemplate. It typically starts with personal achievements, and if no claim can be justified in that regard then most people will resort to “pride by association," at which point pride starts to take some quite bizarre twists.

It is common enough to hear people rave about a child, a relative, or a friend. If they feel they are entitled to basking in the glory of someone they are associated with, no big deal. However I really got a kick out of the following one. My cousin is married to a woman from a nearby town, which traditionally has sort of a rivalry with his own, and boy oh boy how proud she is of the place she came from. Last year I visited her city the first time ever, and while we were on a kitschy tourist boat chugging up the picturesque river, she came to me at the bow, where a gaudy wooden dragon head placidly showed off its tackiness, to remark that there was no way their river could be as beautiful as her river.

During my travel last year I also found myself struggling to take in another perverted twist of pride while in a capital city, where one could not turn on the TV or open a newspaper without being screamed in the face that the citizens there took a humongous pride in their burg. Problem was, for the sake of my life I could not figure out any justification for that outsized chunk of pride. The only possibility that occurred to my mind was that, since pride was so hot there, it was probably their pride that they were proud of.

In any case, pride in my opinion is as necessary to an individual as the vermiform appendix. Still most people are so misguided that they think pride is needed to assert their significance, so they cling to it like a cripple hanging on to his crutches. When a bunch of cripples eye each other and think “my crutches are better than yours", then one has to admit it is truly pathetic.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


There were eleven years between us. He was the big brother, I was the baby boy of the family, and all along I had been looking up to him. When my family disintegrated, it was arranged that I came to live with him.

He turned my next few years into a living hell. I even forgot how to smile, which was no triviality, considering that I had been known as the kid whose eyes had been quick to disappear behind a broad smile.

At the end of these tormenting years, words could not describe how much I hated the man. The loathing was so overwhelming I felt quite helpless, and for that reason all the more resentful of him. It was lousy baggage to take with me on my own bumpy road of life, but it did feel like part of me, and oddly enough I wanted to reject it and embrace it at the same time.

Years went by, many things happened, and I became a man who stood tall and spoke for himself. One day we were sitting at a table together for the first time in a very long time. Suddenly I realized I could look at his face without any anger. Astonished, I did a thorough search of my heart, and all I could find was just calm and peace. I then gingerly held his baby son in my lap, who felt soft and cool to the touch and smelled like spring still lingering around. It shouldn't be hard to love this kid, I thought.

I had never felt such a strong relief in my life as on that day.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Counting My Heartbeats

A watchmaker once remarked to me that each ticktock a watch made was just like a heartbeat of a body, both wearing the mechanism inside toward impairment and failure. So it occurred to me that if ticktocks were meticulously counted, then why not heartbeats?

Counting my heartbeats is an exaggerated way to say that I became keenly aware of them, thus living each moment I have in life as fully as I ever can. Thanks to an owlish old watchmaker.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lake Gaston

Lake Gaston is on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. Seen from Interstate 85, it is a large silvery expanse of water bordered by pine forests, boat docks, and attractive vacation homes.

I used to drive that way a few times a year, and Lake Gaston was invariably one of the highlights of my trip. Whether the sky was cloudy or clear, the sun's rays slanting and mellow or vertical and blazing, it always offered something to refresh my spirit. It was so pleasant just to stop there for a few moments.

Then one winter day I drove by Lake Gaston and was astonished to see it had dried up, leaving only caked mud at the bottom. However, what really stunned me was to see how ridiculously shallow it was. Such an expansive lake, yet a man of average height like me could not have drowned in it. Such beauty and charm filled to the brim, yet at the first sign of trouble all that was left was barren ugliness.

I don't blame you for what you are, Lake Gaston. It's just that you reminded me of a wound that was supposed to have been forgotten.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Old Damp Bench

The old wooden bench was damp but I sat on it all the same. I wanted to be just outside the crowd gathering in the picnic shelter. The sky was overcast with a promise of rain, and the bursts of wind from Lake Lanier made me shiver a bit, silly me who had come to the woods dressed for a hot day on such a gloomy morning.

I crossed my legs and started looking around. The whole place was overwhelmingly green with patches of gray where the clouds showed through. A recent drought had severely reduced the lake level, leaving large swaths of barren ochre soil between the grassy banks and the water, and the boat docks hanging high with only mud and rock beneath them looked forlorn and irrelevant. Sure, I thought, when the times get tough someone is bound to become forlorn and irrelevant.

I directed my attention to the bustle inside the shelter. It was a gathering of two congregations for an outdoor Sunday service followed by a picnic. Already one end of the shelter area was busy for the worship music while the other end for the cooking, which reminded me of the story of Mary and her sister Martha when Jesus visited their home. According to the Gospel, Mary stayed at Jesus' side to listen to his teaching while Martha was totally occupied with preparing the goodies in the kitchen. Guess who got the approval from the Lord.

Soon the Mary camp was quietly attentive to the sermon and prayers while the Martha camp started to grill meat and deep-fry eggrolls. Not sure about the Marys, but it looked like the Marthas were enjoying themselves a great deal. They were chatting and laughing while their hands were deftly performing magic on the raw food. The resulted delicious smell was wafting towards the other end of the shelter and more than once turned heads in the Mary camp.

I chuckled and studied the crowd more closely, and it was then that my mood turned sober. Despite the merry occasion, most of the faces I saw looked drained, strained, and very much unattractive. Except for the very young, the mark of a hard life was unmistakably stamped in those lackluster eyes and sagging mouth corners, in the sallow complexion, and in the expensive best clothes that somehow managed to look wretched. Amid nature's lavish manifestation of vigorous beauty, this group of its highest form of life seemed twistedly incongruous.

At the spiritual end of the shelter, the preacher was urging his audience to rejoice in the Lord. He too did not look exactly like Mr Joy with his long, droopy face and a substantial paunch awkwardly sagging inside his shapeless suit. I wondered how many people would be convinced that eternal joy was possible by such a dreary messenger.

My dark reflections somehow made me more conscious of the chilly dampness of the bench, so I stood up in annoyance and strode downhill towards the lake shore. On a stretch of yellowish sand by the water some kids were engaged in rod-fishing. With this kind of wind I doubted that they would ever catch anything, still I stood watching them for a while. Then to my surprised delight, the sun was peeping out from behind the scattering clouds and the water hesitantly changing from gray to turquoise. The wind had also weakened to a breeze, and I was startled by the triumphant yell of one of the fishing boys.

It looked like that old damp bench would have a chance to dry after all.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Nicol Said to Jonah...

I am normally leery of anyone or anything that smells of moralizing, and "words of wisdom" usually sound gratingly hollow in my ears. A side effect of having grown up where noble words were routinely manipulated to serve sinister purposes, I suppose.

But I do like what a young amateur jockey told an ex-jockey one afternoon at a racetrack in the novel Knockdown by Dick Francis, one of the rare detective genre authors I genuinely admire.

And so Nicol said to Jonah:

"I'll tell you...I learned something from you. I learned not to go around squealing when things weren't fair. I learned to shrug off small injustices and get on with the next thing and put my energies in the future instead of rabbiting about the past. I learned not to mind too much when things went against me. And I reckon I owe you a lot for that."

I will try to remember that.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Trailer Park Woman

Today I saw you looking out of your window, chin in hands, your lined face encased in a mop of lackluster gray hair. The old paint coat on your trailer matched the color of your hair, while its shabbiness matched the sadness in your eyes.

I knew why you were sad. The trailer park was deteriorating, families had been leaving, and the place had more wild growth than people. I myself was there to help one of your last neighbors to move out while you were watching.

You must have felt lonely, or worse, abandoned. For others, the trailer park was just a temporary phase, and there was always a future elsewhere. For you, it was the end of the road which you had to live all by yourself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


When I think of you, I think of something bright and cheerful, like a postcard. For your colors are still vivid in my memory -- ivory complexion, blond hair, scarlet lips. You looked so striking that everyone and everything else more or less faded into the background.

Ironically, it was an ardent suitor who brought you close to me. For he became so obsessed by you, following you around with that besotted puppy look in his eyes, so you got scared and came to me for advice. I still remember the night you knocked on the door of my dorm room, as badly frightened as a child woken up from a nightmare. I led you to my chair and comforted you in my very correct gentlemanly manner, but at the back of my mind I was idly wondering why girls kept coming to me for advice and comfort but not so often for love.

I found your sweet disposition pleasant, I was also astonished by your complete lack of worldly wisdom. I listened to your many reflections and ponderings and sometimes was even more confused than you were, but we got along all right.

You asked me to go to church with you one Sunday morning. It was the first time I ever set foot to that respectable-looking United Methodist edifice downtown. The congregation inside was dressed up to the nines, and I was feeling a bit embarrassed in my threadbare jacket when you told me you were proud to be seen there with me. Needless to say that my affection for you went up a few notches.

In the meantime you had considerably softened towards the suitor who had once scared you into knocking on my door. You were moved by his persistence and started to accept his gifts. You excitedly told me about your visit to his home and the warm reception his mother had given you. You so anxiously sought my approval that grudgingly I gave it to you.

You left the campus to spend six months in Spain to get your exposure to its culture and language which you studied. Once in a while you shot me an email describing your amazement at the totally different lifestyle you were witnessing in some small village outside Toledo. Once in a while I felt like I might be missing you.

You came back in spring, and while I was taking your pictures with dogwood flowers blossoming above you and colorful tulips blooming at your feet, I thought you were exactly where you belonged, right in the midst of nature's spring beauty. I started toying with the idea of courting you myself, but I was afraid that you would have been so confused with two concurrent suitors that you would have sought out a third person for advice and turned the whole situation into a convoluted farce.

I graduated when summer showed up that year. Armed with my degree, my youthful earnestness and a job offer, I moved to Washington to start a new, fast and zestful life. As time went by, our exchange of messages was reduced to a trickle then ceased completely. I had no idea about your life after college.

It's been ten years now, yet I am sure you are just as sweet as you used to be. Thanks for a memory that always brings a tender smile to my eyes.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Another Suitcase

Last night I re-watched Evita and was struck by a couple of lines from the lyrics by Tim Rice:

Another suitcase in another hall
Take your picture off another wall...

It is an astonishingly apt description of the end of a stage in life. In me, it evokes a mixed bag of emotion ranging from regret, reluctance, uncertainty to eager expectation and elation, depending on the circumstances under which I removed my pictures from a wall to pack them in a suitcase. Regardless of particularities, change is the theme.

Not necessarily a change of physical location. Losing something and gaining something else, it happens all the time. Family and friends, job and relationship, health and wealth, all are subjected to time-induced fluctuations. For better or for worse, change is intrinsic to life.

And so whenever I start feeling settled and comfortable, I know it is about time to get me another suitcase.

Monday, March 3, 2008


I love peaches, but buying them from supermarkets is tricky business. Supermarket peaches may look ripe, fresh and succulent, but inside they may be dry, stale or even rotten. After years of selecting peaches, I still depend on luck to get some good ones.

Just like my haphazard relationships. They all looked beautiful at the outset, but there was really no way to tell of the outcome, which could be heartening, harrowing, or simply tasteless and a waste of life.

I wish I could do as a band plays in their song:

Moving to the country
I'm gonna eat a lot of peaches
Peaches come from a can
They were put there by a man
In a factory downtown
And if I had my little way

I'd eat peaches everyday
Sun-soaked bulges in the shade.

But in real life one cannot move to the countryside just to eat a lot of fresh peaches, neither is there any warranted peachy relationship growing in some orchard waiting to be picked. I suppose I still have to try and hope that luck will eventually bring me my "sun-soaked bulge in the shade."

Quite unlike my buddy Joe, who depends on no luck to get his tasty peaches. Recently I was with him at a supermarket in Palm Coast, Florida and he was eyeing a box of peaches on display, so I remarked to him how tricky it was to pick out the good ones. He looked at me like I was an idiot, wiped a peach on his sleeve, and to my consternation bit right into it. "Very sweet and juicy," he declared while happily chewing. "I'll get some of these."

On our way home he kept smirking at me while I was asking myself how come I had never thought of that simple solution, at least for peaches.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Kids Who Rang My Doorbell

It was Halloween night. I had made a last-minute rush to the local supermarket to get some bags of candies, emptied them into a big glass bowl, put the bowl near the front door and turned on my porch light.

The doorbell rang. My first visitor was so small I had to sit down on my heels to talk to him. He was wearing a superman custom without a mask, for his dark glasses had fallen to his feet and each of his tiny hands was already busy holding an orange pumpkin-like lantern. He did not answer my greetings, just gazed at me with his solemn blue eyes, so of course I obediently stood up and put two fistfuls of candies into each of his pumpkins. The two ladies escorting him thanked me and led him away while my eyes were longingly following his small figure in the red cape.

Little Superman had started an unusually busy time for my doorbell. In the next couple of hours my porch was full of laughter, girls giggling and boys bantering, and I had to refill the glass bowl with more candies.

Gradually the doorbell sound became fewer in between then stopped completely. Only a few candies were left in the bowl. It was late, and I was thinking of turning off my porch light to signal the end of Halloween night as far as I was concerned. Then the bell rang again.

Waiting at my front door was a little boy in a wheelchair, looking pale and tired under the yellowish light. He uttered "Trick or treat" without much enthusiasm while his parents were anxiously watching him. I could feel the love and sorrow for their son emanating from the middle-aged couple standing aside in the dark.

I gave him my last candies, squeezed his hands and said "Have fun." I was startled to see his downcast countenance lit up with such a bright sweet smile when he said thank you to me. His parents gave me a grateful look and repeated their thanks, while I was still amazed at how little it took to give someone a happy moment.

Later that night I was still wearing a grin to bed because of the kids who had rung my doorbell.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Should I Have Chased That Robin Away?

The weather had been unusually warm for winter, and early one morning looking out of my window I had the pleasant surprise of seeing the slender twigs of the little cherry tree in my front yard laden with pink blossoms. In the middle of a dreary winter landscape, it was a sight for sore eyes indeed.

Then a robin came alighting on a cherry branch, its red breast gleaming in the morning sun. It was the perfect picture -- the bird, the cherry blossoms, the sparkling dewdrops against a limpid blue sky. It was breathtaking.

Suddenly I realized that the robin was plucking the dainty pink flowers with its beak then dropping them to the ground. Soon one twig after another became bare while pink petals were strewn all over the dark mulch below. Indignant, I was about to step out to chase the robin away to protect my flowers. Then I had second thoughts and hesitated.

If I shooed the bird away then I would have my cherry blossoms intact for maybe a week, their beauty would delight me for a few more mornings. But it was the robin that was making the picture lively and perfect, albeit short-lived. Between the ephemerally perfect and the durably fair, what should I choose?

I sat down, let nature take its course and enjoyed the scene as long as it lasted. Still sometimes I wonder if I should have chased that robin away instead.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Old Fir Tree

The old fir tree was still standing when I came back, but the ground nearby had been asphalted and used as the parking lot for a new, upscale-looking restaurant. Years ago this had been a dirt spot where the montagnards had usually gathered to spend the night when they had come to town to sell resinous pinewood and wild orchids collected from the remote forests tens of miles away. I wondered if they still came here, and if they did where would they spend the night?

These montagnards had been dirt-poor, illiterate and looked down by most townspeople, but they had had one thing they had not minded sharing with me: the warmth of their fire. For I had been homeless for some time, attending school in the morning, walking the streets or sitting in a park in the afternoon, and at night when the chill had descended I had always returned to the old fir tree, drawing comfort from the fire, trying to cope with what had been happening to me, glancing at the dark, silent and stoic faces in the flickering light. We had never talked, we had just shared the warmth against the ruthless cold surrounding us.

The montagnards were gone, surely they were no longer allowed to light any bonfire in the middle of this prosperous, gentrified neighborhood. I myself now looked well-fed and well-clad, quite at home with those fancy hotels and upscale restaurants.

Only the old fir tree remained and knew.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Mansions We Did Not Have

The first day on my new job I met a fellow Viet in the lounge, who insistently asked me to come to his office for a chat. It turned out he was itching to show me some photographs of his house, which was also his pride and bliss.

It was an imposing colonial house, more like a mansion, surrounded by five acres of woodland. A pair of wrought iron gates, flanked by two marble lions, opened into a spacious front yard with a marble fountain in the middle. The man had ordered the fountain and lions all the way from a village famous for its marble craftsmanship in Vietnam, then laboriously put the pieces into place by himself. The effect was grand, I told him so and saw the man's face brighten with pleasure. "Yours must be a big family," I added and was astonished to learn that he had only one son who was already away in college. "Then why do you need such a big house?" I asked and received only an enigmatic smile for an answer.

Later on I believed I got the answer when he told me where he had grown up in the old country. It was a humble working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of a big city, and in my mind I could see this man as a poor boy walk past those haughty villas where the privileged resided. I imagined him wishing that he had belonged to that world behind black iron gates and whitewashed walls covered in bright coral vine flowers instead of the slum he had been born into. The big house of today was not just a big house to live in, but a dream attained.

Occasionally I meet people who seem to carry an exaggerated dignity the self-conscious way a young person wears his or her formal outfit for the first time. I guess in their past they never got much in the line of respect and now try to make it up. Though it may seem strange or even weird sometimes, it is also natural to indulge in what we once yearned for and did not have. I know a man of nearly fifty who collects toy cars. Watching him fondly caress the little toy cars that kids today take for granted, I could see his deprived boyhood somewhere in the rural Mekong delta several decades ago. I am glad he has his toys now, but I am also sad he has his toys now.

For me, I do not need any mansion, but I have my collection of the Tintin and Spirou comics. They came all the way from France and are now sitting in my bookshelf, fulfilling an old wish and reminding me of an innocent time where even dreams were simple.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Multifaced

A few days ago a friend let me read a few lines that she had written about me. Although it was all very nice and flattering, I was astonished because I never saw myself that way. Then I remembered about another friend whose idea of himself remarkably differed from my opinion - the man thought he looked like a movie star while I thought he's most suitable for a monster role.

So it dawned on me that each person I encountered in life certainly had their own perception of me. I might appear sharp or dull, nice or creepy, remarkable or forgettable in the eyes of different people. Even the image I see every morning in my mirror is just my own perception of myself. Does the real me even exist, or is it just as elusive as these subatomic particles which change their state by the mere act of observation?

In that sense, we are all multifaced, not by deceit but by how we are viewed by those around us. Our true face probably can never be fully known, and I suppose that's how sometimes we can surprise even ourselves.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Last week I spent a day in the horse country near Ocala, Florida. I visited a couple of farms and attended an auction where breeders sold their horses for between ten and thirty thousand dollars.

While watching the auction it struck me that the horses were a lot more beautiful than the people in that auditorium. I wondered, if the roles had been reversed and if the horses had been auctioning off the people, then probably there would have been no bidder.

Here are some pictures of the horses I saw. They are beautiful, and sweet too. All I needed was some carrots to become their friend.