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.