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.