Thursday, December 30, 2010

End-of-Year Reflections

On this penultimate day of the year I feel compelled to write down some thoughts on the dark side of life. I guess once something in my mind has been clearly expressed in words and tucked away in a file, then I can drop it and move on to newer pastures.

It already occurred to me, a long long time back, that at the core of wickedness is destruction - the destruction not just of objects, but also of freedom, dignity and happiness. Since destruction, i.e. the rise of disorder, is a natural tendency as stated by the second law of thermodynamics, I've come to accept wickedness as a natural propensity of existence. While good things require constant energy to create and maintain, bad things generally do not need any effort but prosper on negligence.

In my view, life is a mixture of construction and destruction fighting each other for supremacy. If I let down my guard then darkness will sneak right in and make my soul miserable, like weed eagerly waiting for neglection to take over a garden.

I could write hundreds of entries telling about the bad things I've encountered in my life, but what good would that do anyone including myself? Nobody wants to be dragged down by being reminded of negativity, for the world's already abundant in it. On the other hand, by choosing to focus on things positive, I refuse to be subjected to any influence by wickedness or destructivity, whatever name one might prefer to call it. That way I can keep the light in, the dark out, and win a small battle.

And on this note I'd like to put my mind at rest regarding the inevitably unpleasant aspect of life.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

White Christmas

Something unusual happened this year in Atlanta - it snowed on Christmas Day. I didn't pay attention to how many inches we had, but it was enough for the kids to build snowmen. My nephews made a crude one wearing a black hat and a pair of red gloves, but a few doors from us a neighbor sculpted two solemn statues which reminded me of those of the ancient kings in the movie The Lord of the Rings.

The snowstorm completely deprived me of the lukewarm will to attend an evening church service held twenty miles away, so I stayed home in my cozy recliner watching an old movie, a hot cocoa glass on the small table nearby. Outside my window a mute and white spectacle was taking place under the feeble streetlights, all the more accentuating my own comfort, and my thoughts inevitably started wandering.

So I didn't go to church this Christmas at all, neither did I feel any qualm of any kind about it. It looked like the psychological divorce from my religious upbringing had finally been completed. While I was still clinging to a tenuous belief in God, I'd been feeling more and more estranged from institutions and their artificial trimmings. The large number of charlatans claiming to be God's servants whom I had met did not help either.

And so it looked like there were now just God and me and a quiet, deserted, purely white Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Into the Mountains

The train depot was small and picturesque, a quaint wooden structure painted in dark gray, originally built a century ago, located in what looked like the heart of the tiny mountain town. Everything surrounding it was neat and pretty in a cute little girl way, from the antique-looking storefronts, the powerwashed boardwalk with decorated handrails, to the cheery welcome signs on wrought iron lampposts.

I walked into the crammed ticket office and asked a smiling young woman behind a bulky, outdated computer monitor for two adult tickets.

"Closed car or open air?" she inquired.

I hesitated. It was not too cold outside, but wind chill was certainly to be expected on a moving train.

"The train won't be going fast, so it'll be just a breeze," she said helpfully.

Open air then, I decided. Car number twenty-nine seventy-five, near the end of the train, she said. Like most girls I saw in this area, she was a bit chubby with rosy cheeks, pleasant with an underlying recalcitrance.

The train was imposing, huge and silent, like a dignified monster. We followed the track to the designated car, where a big bearded man with a profuse belly was waiting. His face was ruddy, his name tag read Jack, and Jack warmly welcomed us aboard.

The car was almost empty. We sat down on a long bench facing a row of open windows, next to a middle-aged couple. They were both plump, the woman very chatty, the man less so but willing to join in with an occasional remark or two. They hailed from Augusta, seemed to lead a small contented life, and were quite excited to spend a few days sightseeing away from their neck of the woods.

"Augusta?" I said. "That's where all the good golf courses are."

"Yes, yes!" The woman beamed. "But all we've ever played is miniature golf, isn't it, Eddie?"

Eddie seemed embarrassed and looked away. To my surprise, people were quickly filling up the car. A resounding horn blow, then the train shuddered and started moving. Outside, the neat business district promptly vanished, replaced by a shabbier part of town.

The countryside appeared, shaggy and pale. The grass here still showed a faded green, but most deciduous trees had already shed their leaves, their bare arms looking like dry bones. Now and then a rugged farmhouse appeared with horses grazing behind white fences, lending life to an otherwise drab and lonely landscape.

The train was chugging along a narrow valley, between steep hills and a meandering little river. Abandoned dingy cabins well into decay and a disused rusty bridge attested to a hardscrabble past, while newer homes dotted the wooded area across the stream. This place was known for recreational trout fishing, and back at the station I had picked up a brochure on rental cottages catering to those who loved the sport. My guess was that at least some of the well-kept properties half hidden among the denuded trees were occupied by renters wearing waders with rods in hand.

I stood by an open window, the crisp cold air pressing against my face, lifting layers of stress from my mind and dullness from my body. Elation was swelling in my heart, and for the first time in a long time I felt confidence rushing in my veins again. We had hoped to see the fall foliage on this trip, and had been disappointed to find all the leaves gone and a bleak view of denuded forests awaiting. Yet now on this train moving through a scenery I had not cared to see, I felt invigorated and happy. The gray bare trees now looked silvery in the sun, and in the stiff shape of their unadorned branches and twigs I found unexpected beauty.

The conductor in his black uniform came to punch our tickets and signed a souvenir book I had purchased outside the ticket office. The river was getting wider, patches of its surface were gleaming in the sun. Presently we saw a curious V-shaped barrier in the water, crudely constructed from rocks, spanning across the river. The conductor explained that it had been built by American Indians approximately five hundred years ago to catch trout. He said the trout swimming from upstream, obstructed by the barrier, would gather at the tip of the V only to be caught by fishermen. "Does the trap still work today?" I asked. "Sure," he answered. "If you come this way in summer you'll see people using it." Five centuries old and still working, what an ingenious contraption.

A few more miles, then the train was crossing a bridge and we were asked to stay clear of the windows; sometimes sticking your neck out for the scenery was not such a hot idea. The bridge rumbled in thunderous menace, then became silent once we were out of its reach.

The train ended at a little town straddling the border between two states. A line, purported to be the state line, was painted blue in the asphalted surface of a parking lot adjacent to the station, ran to a street corner and ended up a lamppost where a sign declared Georgia territory left of the post and Tennessee territory on its right. Like thousands of tourists must have done before, I posed for a photo with the blue line between my feet. For a brief moment I actually believed that each of my feet was in a separate state, then I realized that it was just a gimmick to excite the unthinking tourist. A geographical border determined by a two inches wide paint strip on the ground? Yeah right.

The town had just a few blocks with a languorous limpid river running through, the same river we had seen on our way here. Buildings were modest but spruced up enough to be picturesque. Strolling around the business section it occurred to me that the lifeline of this place was visitors like us, who came on the tour train and spent a few bucks on food and souvenirs.

It's lunchtime. We picked a BBQ place called Georgia Boys, which had caught our attention by some teenagers jumping and waving in front when the train had been pulling in. There were tables in the front yard and on the veranda, where a few customers in thick jackets huddling over their food in the chilly air.

The interior was unexpectedly small and spartan. Three little tables and a few flimsy chairs on a utilitarian linoleum floor. We joined a line at the counter, all fellow passengers from the tour train. The woman who was taking orders, like most women we'd seen in this area, was overweight with a look of shrewdness underneath the polite demeanor.

We sat down at a table and a tray was brought out, on which barbercued chicken, toasts, coleslaw were served on paper plates and tea in paper cups. A pink lady apple, said to be freshly picked, was offered to each of us. The tea and coleslaw were too sweet for my taste, but the chicken was moist and passable, which sort of explained the numerous notes of compliment from customers cramming a bulletin board on the wall. Crude but adequate was my impression of the joint, and inexpensive as well.

The same could be said of the whole bite-size town. There was nothing visibly sophisticated or expensive here in the few narrow streets lined with small stores and modest homes, yet enough vigor existed in the air to make one feel pleasantly alive.

There was much less excitement on the return trip, probably because there was nothing new to expect and people were also a bit worn out, like in an old marriage or a job held for too long. Only the chubby woman from Augusta was raving about how wonderful the trip had been for her, and how surely she would tell all her friends back home about it. I couldn't help smiling and mentally sent my best wishes for luck to her friends.

The hilly landscape was gliding by while I was musing about being carried as if on a train through the vicissitudes of life. The places I was passing through might be warm with sunshine or cold and gloomy with rain, insipidly familiar or disconcertingly outlandish, I had no way to know for certain beforehand. One sure thing though, if I took chances to venture out then I'd have a fair chance of getting something worthwhile. It also dawned on me that every location I saw along my way had already been seen and likewise every situation I might find myself in had already been experienced by other people who had come before me. Like King Solomon had once said, there was nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Full Life

On the recommendation of a friend I recently watched an Argentine film named The Secret in Their Eyes, where the remark "a life full of nothing" cropped up a few times.

Which set me thinking, what do we want our life to be filled with? There was a time when I thought I knew, now I am not sure anymore. Not very long after my life has been filled with something that I thirst after something else. It's nice to feel smug for a while, then that very satisfaction becomes an itch that begs for another kind of satisfaction.

For many years I've been having these dreams, the details being different each time but the theme always the same: I did not finish whatever I had set out to do and consequently felt overwhelmingly distressed.

I suppose that being full with something is not the same as being full.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Last night a friend called, seeking advice on how to find someone who had been lost for thirty years. She wanted to help a man she knew in Australia.

Thirty years ago that man took his four small children on a perilous journey to escape the brutal regime in Vietnam. The rickety boat carrying them was wrecked at sea, the man upon regaining conscience found himself rescued by an Australian ship without his children. For many long years he had searched for them in vain; eventually convinced of their being perished he gave up and entered a monasterial life. Just recently he met a psychic who told him that one of his sons was alive in the United States. Clinging to that vague, flimsy ray of hope he started his quest again.

Communist crimes have spawned untold tragedies among my former countrymen, and most of us are determined to put them behind to move on. Still a heartrending true story would pop up once in a while, reminding us that this world can also be a very dark place.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Could a Thinking Brick Be a Happy One?

A brick, if it's lucky, is part of a wall, which is part of a building, which in its turn is part of a city, and so on. What would happen when a brick starts asking questions about the wall, the building, the city and beyond?

Could the wall be broken and covered with moss, the building abandoned, the city in ruins, the planet lifeless, the universe in its dying throes? Or could the wall be smartly designed and maintained, the building a masterpiece of architecture in a world teeming with energy and life? There could be a dozen of different scenarios, but there's no way for the brick to know for sure.

Poor thinking brick, and poor thinking me, agonizing over questions way beyond our minds. Better get back to the things of our own level and be happy with what we can grasp, the way a cow happily eats its grass while blissfully unaware that the local butcher has set his eyes on her.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Old Friend

The Florida sun was pouring down too much brightness, but I disliked wearing dark glasses so I just squinted my eyes for a better view of the highway on which my middle-aged car was dutifully rolling its middle-aged wheels.

I was on my way from Orlando down to Tampa Bay. The country here was flat, dotted with small lakes looking pretty but probably infested with alligators. Strange life here where those big reptiles might come crawling on your driveway anytime.

Was it any less strange that I should now be crossing this pancake-flat, sun-drenched country to visit this old friend with whom I had shared my early youth in a misty mountain town half the world and more than two decades away? Memories rushed back, and the road seemed less than a road and more like a bridge over a chasm of time with a face from the past waiting for me on the other side.

The Tampa skyline was visible now, looking pretty much like any other mid-sized city skyline, with just a few tall buildings clustering in the center the way big shots gathering among themselves, separated from lesser people. I drove past downtown towards a bridge crossing the bay. Near the beginning of the bridge I saw a sign urging motorists to make sure there was enough gas in their tanks. It must be a very long bridge indeed.

I drove over the immense sparkling blue water and felt my spirit lifted. I always have a soft spot for the sea, feeling much more alive when I'm close to it. On the far side of the bay was St. Petersburg with less traffic, more modest buildings, and a whiff of small-town atmosphere.

Definitely provincial, I thought when exiting the highway onto one of the narrow streets laid out in checkerboard. The houses looked somewhat dilapidated, the yards not well trimmed and the trees encumbered with dry twigs and dead leaves. They must have been dainty once, and like a bunch of tired old housewives had let themselves go at some point.

I parked in a gravelled driveway, next to a gaunt palm tree with droopy fronds half-heartedly waving in the lazy breeze. The house was painted in white and turquoise, in good taste but with overgrown weed lining the walls. Some bright flowers were in full bloom, lending a certain cheeriness to the place which would have felt neglected otherwise.

The door opened before I rang the bell, and I smiled into the eyes of a fellow I had known throughout my callow years.

Pelicans in St. Petersburg

Monday, July 26, 2010

Moonlight Sonata

I was listening to a renowned artist playing Moonlight Sonata on my CD player when Annie remarked that the classical piece sounded too creepy for her.

I looked at her, astonished. By way of explanation she said she had heard the sonata the first time in a movie where a man had been calmly playing it on his piano while the whole house had been on fire all around him. Creepy indeed.

For me, the music invariably brings me back to those childhood days when lying in my bed, looking out of my window at the moon casting its pale light into the cold darkness, I was listening to my older brother playing the mesmerizing piece in the next room and feeling awed at its unspeakable beauty. The memory has always been among my most cherished ones.

And so I realized that the way we feel about something often depends on what we associate it with and not necessarily on its own quality. Each individual mind has its own lenses to view the world with, which makes the world both rich and troublesome.

Now whenever I listen to Moonlight Sonata, I know that I am blessed being able to enjoy it. In fact, I am blessed being able to enjoy anything.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

On the radio a country singer started crooning about being all dressed up with no place to go. I smiled weakly, for I caught a glimpse of myself in the song.

Sometimes it happened that on a Friday evening, from force of habit I dressed up only to realize that there was no one to see and nowhere to go. A subsequent aimless cruise through busy streets, a dinner for one, browsing through the bookshelves at Borders, all helped me pass the time but also sharply accentuated my solitariness. Yes, I might look nice and turn a couple of heads, but what good did it do for me?

A fat lot of good could my other qualities, whatever they might be, do me either. For without that special someone to share my life, I was just a guy all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Monday, May 24, 2010


The weather is getting hot. Magnolias are blooming. At night, under the moonlight, their stark whiteness stands out sharply against the dark leaves while their exquisite scent is discreetly wafting in the warm, summerly air.

This picture was taken behind my shop.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Guitar in the Moonlight

It was another time in another land, when I was living in a poor, remote village. When darkness fell at the end of a day, there was no light switch to flip on. Instead a couple of smelly kerosene lamps were brought out, their glass chimneys wiped clean and their wicks burned, giving forth a yellowish feeble light.

The night was quiet, only the sound of an occasional breeze rustling in the trees. The air smelled fresh, pleasant to the senses. Only a few bicycle riders and lonely pedestrians disrupted the silence of the dirt country road.

It was a good time to bring a chair and my guitar to the front yard to play a couple of songs, especially when a full moon was soaking the whole countryscape with its mellow, almost tangible luminosity. Thatched roofs, tree tops, shrubs, even the white dust on the ground, all would seem acquiring a certain charm. The stillness of the night would caress the music and carry it far, and invariably a few friends would stop by for company.

It is a different time and place now. Modern fluorescent lamps have replaced primitive, smelly ones. Country lanes have been asphalted with motorbikes roaring day and night. When the evening comes, TVs start spewing out violent American or maudlin Korean movies.

No more place for a guitar in the moonlight.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The First Lesson

On the very first day of my tenth grade at a new school, I was sitting in a large hall attending the ceremony of starting the new school year. Officials were giving one hollow speech after another, kids were crammed together and bored to death, while teachers were anxiously watching for any sign of disorder.

On stage was a tall man with receding hairline, face puffed with self-importance, manner dignified in a self-conscious sort of way. Presently he was announcing in a solemn, modulated voice that a political big shot was going to do us the honor of making a couple of drumbeats to start off the new school year.

This announcer was going to be my history teacher as I would soon discover. For now, I was horribly shocked by the expression on his face. It has abject obsequiousness for the big shot, and it has overblown pomposity for the rest of us. Never before had I caught sight of such ugliness.

And so, unbeknown to him, before I even sat in his class, that teacher had taught me a big lesson, which was never growing up to be like him.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


It is with a heavy heart that I am writing about Aline, wondering what has become of her. One afternoon a decade ago I parked in front of the old rowhouse on Emerald Street, rang the bell only to be informed that she had left for nobody knew where. I never quite understand the circumstances which caused her departure, except that she had had a serious row with her housemates, but then I only got to hear their side of the story. Whatever had happened, I felt as if I had lost a second mother.

The last time I saw her she kissed me on the cheeks, sending me off to a new life. She had wanted to come to the university to see me wearing cap and gown, but it was a five-hour bus ride away and I had been in no position to take care of an elderly lady. I had told her so as gently as possible, and she had graciously dropped the idea.

A few years further back I was frantically looking for a place to live after the original arrangement had been abruptly cancelled leaving me hung out to dry in an unfamiliar city, all alone with less than a hundred bucks to my name. Following an ad in a local newspaper, I ended up rooming at her place in an old shabby neighborhood with a few faded churches and rows of gnarled old trees.

She herself fit nicely into that neighborhood, a petite, white-haired, bespectacled old lady, smelling faintly of dogs since she kept three dachshunds for permanent company. Her living room was like a relic from a bygone era. A bulky television set probably dated from the RCA heyday, a lace-covered sofa, bric-a-brac all over, small photographs on the coffee table. Of the two big framed photographs on the wall, one portrayed a blond, laughing young man and the other a dark, solemn one -- Jerry and Peter, her two late sons.

Her sons, or rather their memories, were the bracer that kept her head high and her back straight. Peter had been a psychologist and Jerry a medical doctor, raised by their widowed mother on the earnings of a nurse doubling as a part-time hotdog vendor in the streets of Lower Manhattan, and of whom she made a firm point of having everyone know. Others might have found her pride a bit annoying, but I felt she had earned her right to it.

I quickly fell into an everyday routine, carpool to work at night, subway to school in the morning. She gradually grew fond of me and slided into the role of a surrogate mother. In my free time I would sit at her kitchen table and we would talk about Italian food, President Roosevelt who had signed Social Security into law, her church across the street, her doctor a few blocks away, and naturally Peter and Jerry. Sometimes if the weather was right I also helped with her plants, mostly tomatoes, in the backyard. That Christmas Eve she asked me to accompany her to church, and when we set out to the street, all dressed up, her hand on my arm, I got the impression that she had not been that happy since quite a long time.

One day I fell badly sick. She accompanied me to the hospital, then visited everyday for a whole week I was there, something totally unexpected, so used I was to being on my own and fending for my own. As I was lying there, exhausted, looking through the window at a gray sky, worrying about the obviously hefty medical bill, her arrival and cheery greeting stirred in me something nice but long forgotten, the feeling of being cared for.

I finally got admitted to a new school and had to move to another town for my study. I took a bus to visit her once in a while, for she was the closest thing to a family I had within a radius of one thousand miles. The last time I saw her was just before my graduation, when she kissed me on the cheeks and gave me twenty dollars which naturally I could not accept.

When I think of Aline I always feel weighed down by one of those unfathomable injustices in life. She had started out as an early orphan and reached her old age with her husband and children all gone, a lifetime of hard work being left with nothing but forlornness. All the more reason for my heart to sink seeing that whatever has happened to her, to this day I still have no idea.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Flow Along, River

If life is a river then my river is a long one bouncing through numerous sorts of landscape. They say all rivers and roads have bends which open to new views, but my bends so far have seemed a tad too close together. However it is only fair to admit that I have had a busy hand hastening the advent of the next turn in my course of life, so I am not entitled to complaining. Not that I want to complain, since by nature I am as curious as a puppy who sticks his head into every nook and cranny of a decrepit, rambling, mysterious mansion. In other words, I have been enjoying almost every bit of scenery along the banks of that metaphorical river.

Sometimes in my quiet moments, when the daily fuss lulls for a while, nostalgia like a midnight thief sneaks into my mind. Just a vague feeling, longing for that fleeting nanosecond when my heart had been content with some wee bit of beauty which I had managed to grasp, and which I had left somewhere so distant in the haze of my forgotten past.

Seen from afar through yearning eyes, everything seems beautiful. That is how time does its trick, sprinkling a dreamy tint on whatever one chooses to remember. I once talked to a man, a friend of my brother who had left the old country when he was barely into his twenties. Life had been hard for him in America, and he was thinking of retiring to the very same old town which he had left thirty-five years ago. In his mind it was the same quiet, easy-going, pretty place that he had known in his student days. I knew that it had become a harsh, corrupt place, but there was no way I could talk him out of his obsessing idea.

The only cure for him would be a trip to his cherished town in the present time. I know because that was exactly what I did. Five years ago I came back to what in my mind would be an idyllic village. Instead of green, spacious gardens brightened with bougainvillea and flame vines, my eyes were sickened by pitiful gaudy houses vulgarly squeezed against each other. Instead of a breeze rustling through the shady trees on a quiet afternoon, my ears were tortured by the din and clatter of fiendish motorbikes bouncing up and down the newly paved roads. My nostalgia was instantly cured by shock therapy.

Not only places, but people are even more helplessly subjected to the change brought by the inexorable flow of time. I recently got in touch with a few former high-school friends, out of some inexplicable sentimentalities, only to find out that having started from a common base over the years we have diverged so sharply we barely understand each other. The attempt to resurrect the friendships acquired when we were kids was a flop, leaving everyone disappointed. Like a mummy disintegrating soon after being exposed to the open air, memories will be hopelessly destroyed when touching reality.

And so the river keeps flowing forward, sweeping all places and people in one single direction. Whatever it brings, c'est la vie.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Snow Photos

Two weeks ago it snowed for the first time this winter in our area. Everyone was delighted. I took some photos around the house.