Saturday, December 26, 2009


The day before Christmas I drove to a Barnes and Noble bookstore to buy a DVD copy of Andrea Bocelli's My Christmas. The morning was gray and cold, yet there was quite a crowd in the nearby open space. A large group of young students with violins and a couple of cellos was gathering around a teacher, who appeared to be giving them some pep talk and final instructions.

When I came out of the store it was drizzling and the bare trees were shaking in the chilly wind. I was shivering and hurrying towards my car when the music suddenly started, sonorous and cheerfully filling up the air. People stopped what they were doing to listen to familiar tunes such as Good King Wenceslas and Away In A Manger. The music was not skillfully played, but the joy in it was more than enough to keep the bitter cold at bay.

I went to church on Christmas Eve. As usual, bad music was superfluously presented and a bad sermon was solemnly delivered to the audience. To them I was giving just a fraction of my attention, the rest being bestowed on a boy of four or five sitting next to me. He was handsomely dressed in a small three-piece suit complete with a red tie for the festive occasion, but he seemed to care neither for the suit nor the occasion. He was totally absorbed in drawing with his pencil on a blank church offering envelope nicked from a slot at the back of the pew in front of us.

When the kid finished his masterpiece I saw that it was a head with donkey ears and a big tongue hanging out of the mouth. It was so comical that I almost burst out laughing, and I wondered if he had pulled the image out of his own little head or he had been inspired by the uptight and eloquent preacher at the pulpit.

One more song by the choir and he was already in deep slumber, mouth opened, suit askew and hair tousled. I was musing that a mischievous little boy sleeping in a church might be the perfect image for Christmas when the congregation was asked to stand up for a prayer. I stood up, glanced down at the boy and was astonished to see another one, smaller but also suit-clad and asleep with open mouth, until then hidden from my view by the other boy whom I presumed to be his big brother. The two kids were leaning against each other, happily lost in their dreamland and completely oblivious to the fussy celebration surrounding them.

Now when I think of Christmas, I think of two little boys fast asleep in a crowded church instead of Santa Claus or bright decorations. That, and the clumsy yet sincere music played by those schoolboys and girls on a cold, gray, windy and drizzling morning. In my reckoning, they are more to the point of Christmas than any sleek performance or display.

Monday, December 21, 2009


I woke up to the sound of knocking on my door and my landlady calling out my name. Snow is falling now, she said. It was the first snowfall in my life, so I hurried out of bed to look through the window.

Outside was an eerie spectacle. The night sky was milky white, and myriads of white butterflies were descending to the ground en masse. Old houses, bare trees, dead lawns and broken sidewalks strewn with trash were rapidly disappearing under an enormous white blanket. Everything ugly was hidden, and under the pale streetlights lay the purest, most unblemished landscape I'd ever seen.

How I loved to walk under snowfall when the wind was absent and the air soft, white and mute. Even my footsteps were noiseless on the snow that felt as fine as sieved powder. Everything around me was transformed into a pure and flawless wonderland where I could lose myself and submerge in an outlandish beauty.

It was also snow that once sent my car flying off the road over a ditch during a blizzard. The car slammed into an embankment, was wrecked beyond repair, but miraculously I got off without so much as a scratch. I walked home in a daze, snow all around me but I certainly saw no wonderland anywhere.

I suppose all the things that bring pleasure can also hurt. Like snow, which enchanted me then sent me into mortal danger. Like fire, which gives comforting warmth but can also burn to death. Like water, which quenches thirst but can also drown. Or love, which can make life paradise or hell.

This winter where I live there is no snow, and I miss it. Not that I don't remember its detrimental side. I just think that while its charming beauty is a sure thing, its danger is just a possibility which may not happen at all, and I'm willing to take that chance.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Tomorrow is my birthday. Funny I even notice that, since my family never celebrates birthdays. It's not as strange as it seems, for my native culture originally did not celebrate birthdays, and my parents refused to adopt that frivolous imported custom. Besides, didn't King Solomon in the Bible say that the day of death was better than the day of birth?

My whole life I received only two birthday cards. One was from a girl in high school, the other from a young woman in graduate school. Both of them cared enough to ask me when my birthday was. Both of them faded out of my life a long time ago. I know the high school friend is happy, and I think the graduate school friend has found her own happiness too.

On this day before my birthday I'm still wondering why I was born at all. Was it simply the result of a biological process or was there more meaning in it that I joined the billions of thinking bipeds who strive for survival on this small planet in this particular four-dimensional universe?

My weltschmerz again. Fortunately the sun is shining outside so I'm going out to get some warmth on my face.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From a Lightning-Struck Fountain

Lake Eola near downtown Orlando is a pleasant sight, blue with water, green with the kind of light greenery found in a warm climate. Swans swim smoothly in the lake while white ibises stay close to the shore picking food with their curved long beaks.

A man standing by a Chinese-style pavilion was smiling at me, so I smiled back and we struck up a conversation. He was middle-aged with a kind, intelligent face. The fact that he was hanging out in a park in shorts on a Tuesday morning and idle enough to watch me taking photos of birds and palm trees told me that he's probably out of work. My hunch was right, he'd just been laid off from a position with the county after nineteen years of service.

I noticed his red University of Maryland T-shirt, so we found out we used to live in the same county in suburban Washington, which gave us some more fuel for further conversation. Then I called his attention to an unsightly structure hulking in the middle of the lake. John explained that it was a big fountain which had been adorning the lake scene for many long years until struck down by lightning in a storm just a few months ago.

"Isn't it amazing that something beautiful when functioning should become so ugly when it no longer does its job?" I remarked.

A moment of hesitation, then he replied in a voice tinged with sadness, "I guess so."

I cursed myself for being such an insensitive jerk. Of course I had touched his pain of no longer performing a job. Hastily I changed the topic.

Lake Eola in Orlando, Florida

Last week I accompanied a woman who needed help in English to an unemployment office in suburban Atlanta. It was a cold, wet, windy and gloomy day. The parking lot was chock full, and there was a sign announcing that extra spaces were available at a nearby church. Inside, the office was so packed with tired, depressed faces patiently and resignedly waiting for their names to be called that there were not enough seats to be had. A few smiles here and there, but they were all strained. The civil servants here were considerably less than civilized as attested by the rudeness they were dispensing to the people who were unfortunate enough to end up visiting their office -- people like John, kind and intelligent, who have been struck by a different kind of lightning but with the same devastating effect as the one that struck that fountain in Orlando.

I wish, oh how I wish them the best.

Monday, December 7, 2009


It's raining outside my window. It's also dark and cold, and the feeble yellow street light does not add any warmth but rather emphasizes the desolation of a winter night.

I've been going through a tough period of my life, and I'm not feeling exactly rosy inside either. So the gloom inside and outside reminds me of a text from Heinrich Heine's Reisebilder that I studied in a German textbook many years ago: es regnete dann immer stärker, außer mir und in mir, daß mir fast die Tropfen aus den Augen herauskamen.

I always find it embarrassing that my mood heavily depends on the weather. When it's bright and sunny, no matter what my circumstances are, I am always happy. And vice versa. I have friends who enjoy walking in the rain, and I envy them so. I wish I could be nuts like that. I love warm and sunny beach towns and more than once thought about moving to Miami Beach in Florida or Carlsbad in California, but somehow I always ended up living in places where cold rains exist to drag me down.

Sometimes I wonder why the way I feel depends so much on the whims of nature. Is it possible for me to be happy on rainy days? There's a song about letting it snow as much as it will since the man is with his love and doesn't care about the weather. Maybe the warmth in one's heart can beat any kind of adverse atmospheric condition. Interesting prospect that I have to try, again.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Squirrel

The Squirrel is one month short of four years old, my youngest nephew. He came to live with me two months ago, and has distinctly changed the whole household ever since.

The first morning he climbed on my bed and snuggled against me and we watched TV together.

The next morning while I was still in bed he opened my door, stood my guitar upright on the floor, haphazardly struck its strings and sang loudly in gibberish. The dreadful cacophony jerked me wide awake from my cozy slumber. I was mad then I burst out laughing.

He is a strong-willed kid, spoiled by his dad, and can be very agressive when things don't go his way. When that happens I am not sure if I like him very much.

Still, while he's sitting beside me playing a game on my computer or watching Coyote chasing Roadrunner on my TV, I feel a tender warmth for him and a mild regret for what has been missing from my life: a child of my own.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fall Colors

I went hiking a few days ago. I had been impatiently waiting for the right weather to take my camera to the mountains to get some pictures of the fall colors.

Piedmont Park

I went to Piedmont Park in midtown Atlanta the other day. The fall colors were just beginning to show. A lot of tents were being erected for some kind of fair, so it was pretty messy around the lake. Still it felt nice to breathe in the fresh air in the middle of a large open space with skyscrapers in the background to emphasize the contrast.

A group of teenage students were running around a field under the exhortation of a teacher. The leading boys looked lean, fit and a bit smug. Lagging at the very end of the group was a girl who was somewhat chubby. She looked very tired and was panting heavily, but she didn't give up.

Fall Road

The roads are gorgeous near my home this time of the year.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


A few wet, overcast days, then the sun comes out again. Only this time the sky is bluer, the sunshine is softer with more gold in it, and the air is noticeably cooler. The breath of fall can be felt, even though there is no shred of yellow in the trees yet.

September always has a subduing effect on me, as if amid the course of everyday hustle-bustle it tells me to slow down and contemplate. The beauty of fall, albeit resplendent, carries a melancholic note probably due to the winter desolation that lies waiting round the corner. For that reason I always find fall colors sobering despite their fairy-tale quality. In contrast, the beauty of spring is boisterous and inebriating because of the connoted full-blown life of summer. Trite but true, spring is a callow youngster while fall a mellow adult.

Oddly enough, while deservingly compared to the downhill part of life, fall also marks an important start for the budding young, which is back-to-school time. I can still recall the thrilling smell of new paper, the excitement of scanning the new textbooks to see what will be learned in my new grade, the first notes of the first lesson that I wrote down with extra care. Every year I grew up with new knowledge, starting in September.

It's now almost the fall of my life. Regardless of what's imposed by nature, I know there is still enough room for me to start something new in September. Like a new relationship, a new field of interest, a new project. Winter may be close, yet spring is just a bit further down the road, and by next September I will be holding something ripe and mellow in my hand which I do not have today.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Life is too often, hence unoriginally, compared to a journey, though I am sure that people are a lot happier at the end of a trip than when they reach the end of their life. Also no one can pick the starting and ending points of their metaphorical journey.

Still, between departure and arrival there's plenty of different terrains. The road could be anything between a slick expressway and a rugged narrow path twisting among stunted, thorny bushes. However, especially troublesome to me are the crossroads.

Decisions are always tough since one can never be sure of what lying ahead. With hindsight, it's really tempting to pat oneself in the back when things go well or regret one's own choice when the going gets rough. Either way I would say it's not the right attitude to take.

So far I have faced a few crossroads, the most recent ones being quitting a good job, rejecting another good job to accept a position which was poorer paid but of a totally different nature, then becoming an entrepreneur. It hasn't been all roses to follow the path I had chosen, but I had a blast spending several months to travel, gained some insight about a new line of work (then quickly got tired of it), and got to be on the employer's side of a business which opened my eyes to quite a novel view.

I admit that I've got my knees skinned and my arms pricked since at my crossroads I veered from highways to follow dirt trails, but at the same time I have immensely enjoyed the scenery. Never once did I feel compelled to revisit my decisions, for on this journey of life I am more interested in accumulating experiences than in the more popular sorts of achievement. It's my journey and my own life, after all.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Shadow That Lurks

I had just finished watching the episode Broken Souls of the fascinating British TV series Foyle's War, and sat very still for a long while.

Who would have thought that Dr Novak, a very kind psychiatrist who had gone a long way out of his way to protect his patient, could commit murder? He was a Jew whose family in Poland had been killed in a Nazi concentration camp. While still stunned by the enormity of his loss, he ran into a German POW and in a flare of rage mortally struck the captured soldier on the head with a rock.

Is there also a sinister shadow lurking inside me, unbeknown to me, waiting for the right moment to strike? What I find the most disturbing is the fortuitousness of the circumstances that led to the good doctor's fatal action. He had gone to see a Bing Crosby movie, but the print of that film had not arrived so they had shown something else including a newsreel about the camp where his family had perished. Unable to continue watching, he had left for a walk and encountered the German POW on whom he fatefully unleashed his rage.

If the print for that movie had come on time, then Dr Novak would not have committed murder. With a dark shadow lurking inside a man, all it takes is a ridiculous, chancy circumstance for tragedy to happen. It's scary, and it also reminds me not to rush into judging others.

By the way, if you haven't seen Foyle's War, I would cordially recommend it. Here's a link to its official website:

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Father's Mandolin

I had always thought that there had been barely any love in me for my late father until one day at a concert I saw a mandolin. My father had had one, though it had been dark yellow in color and the one on the stage was deep brown.

It had been there, my father's mandolin, since as long as I could remember. Its pear-shaped body was kept in a blue gig bag with white pipings and hung on a wall when my father was not plucking its four pairs of strings with a small amber plectrum. He used to do quick, crispy trills which made the upbeat tunes even more cheerful.

Still the cheerful trills were not attractive enough for me to pick up the mandolin when I grew a bit older. I fell in love with the harmonic sound of chords, which led me straight to the piano in our nearby church. I can still remember the thrill when for the very first time I hit the middle C, E and G keys simultaneously. An indescribable joy flooded my whole little body, and my father's mandolin trills were immediately pushed back to the dusty corner of my abandoned interests.

During my father's long years of absence, his mandolin was languishing desolately on the wall. I once took it down and attempted to do a trill, but soon returned it to its lonely place after failing to make even a decent sound from it.

When my father came back, I was already a headstrong young man with my own values and convictions which often clashed with his, so we were just silently drifting apart. For lack of access to a piano I had switched to playing guitar, which could still give me my chords. My father picked up his mandolin once in a while, but the trills he made did not sound so cheerful any more. One day he suddenly gave the mandolin to a visitor who was expressing a keen interest in it. I felt a mild regret but quickly dismissed it from my mind.

My father died of cancer nearly ten years ago. I had all forgotten about his mandolin until one day I went to a concert. The man on stage was playing a cheerful tune with trills, and I felt humidity creeping into my eyes.

I have a mandolin hanging on a wall in my bedroom now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Touch of a Smile

It was Friday morning and I had a day off from work. When I came out of the building the sky had been washed to a fresh limpid blue, while the mellow golden leaves of mid-fall were still holding a few scintillating raindrops.

I felt happy for just being there. Everything around me struck my senses with a cheerful chord. In return, I smiled at them all.

At the doctor's office everyone practically beamed at me, including a nurse whom I had sometimes called Ms Grouchy behind her back. On my way out, people in the waiting room were smiling, and a kid handed me my jacket which I had left on the coffee table next to him.

The same stretch of pleasantness accompanied me to the nearby supermarket. I got smiles and cordial greetings from strangers. Two men in front of a barbershop even stopped their conversation just to say hello to me. When finally I sat down inside my car to drive home, I heaved an impressed sigh. Whew! Where did this torrent of good will come from?

From the smile I was wearing on my face, of course. I remembered watching a Swiss movie where a retired man wrote love letters to women and birds and blossoming plum trees then tied them to balloons to be carried into the sky. Basically I was doing the same thing, not with letters but with my face, and immediately I reaped the happy results.

There's a song by Helmut Lotti that I particularly like. It goes something like this:

Take it with a smile
For with a happy face
The world's a nicer place
Take it with a smile
Whether you win or lose
You got to show some style...

Smiling at the world might sound a trite idea, but it certainly worked for me at least on that beautiful Friday morning.