Monday, December 26, 2011


December came with my birthday and Christmas, both I met with indifference. It was for something else that I really felt.

The weather has been acting erratically this year. We had a warm spell in mid-December, pleasant enough for me to walk around in shorts and sandals. Then my astonished eyes caught bits of bright yellow standing out in the drab winter landscape, and I realized that a few forsythia shrubs were starting to bloom. Poor things, tricked by the unseasonably warm weather into blooming too soon. In a few days those tender flowers would be exposed to frigid air and prematurely wilt away.

I thought of the way my friends and I had grown up, not unlike those flowers which opened to life only to be met with cold harshness. We had been children of a country that had just lost a bitter war, and had not been spared the ignominious status of the vanquished. Our fathers had been taken away, our means of subsistence reduced to hardscrabble meagerness, our values and beliefs maliciously derogated. And growing up we had been faced with no prospect for education or jobs, regardless of competency.

Life had moved on, each of us had found our own way according to our own mettle as well as chance circumstances. Nevertheless, we had all shared the same experience as those flowers that had the misfortune to be blooming in mid-December.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Scent of Cypress

I crush a piece of cypress leaf between my forefinger and thumb, let the pungent smell reach my nose, and my mind is right back when I was a boy of eight.

My world was small, confined mostly to my family and a few playmates from the neighborhood. Life was easy and fun; a few tears were shed once in a while but they dried as quickly as dewdrops in the sun. Then one day came the scent of cypress.

I came home from school, first noticed a sharp smell reminiscent of a fresh Christmas tree, then saw piles of cypress leaves on the floor. They were there, I was told, to be made into funeral wreaths. "Whose funeral?" I asked. "Mr L's son from church," came the answer. "He was an army captain, just died in combat. The funeral will be held tomorrow."

Of course there was a war raging on, but its echoes when reaching my little world became so faint I barely noticed. Even on that day, when death had touched someone I knew, I still could not grasp its significance. All my young mind could register was that acrid smell pervading our living room, rendering it both cold and unfamiliar.

The next day everyone went to the funeral, including the neighborhood kids. I stayed home alone, forlornly wandering through the empty house. The scent of cypress was still lingering in the air, and I was feeling strangely lonely and sad. In a subtle way, death had finally touched me and marred my innocent world.

It's been a while now that when I see a cypress tree, I feel compelled to break a leaf for its smell. Just to remind me of my own mortality.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


During the time we were housemates, Joe's favorite pastimes were throwing darts, fishing, and horse racing. The order might change from time to time, but it was always in those three that he was enthusiastic and even collected trophies.

At a time when fishing was on the top of his list, Joe invited me to join him on a fishing trip. I didn't care much for an activity that involved mostly waiting then waiting some more, but to cheer him up I agreed to come. We went to a quiet cove on the New Jersey shore, where the slate water was gently lapping the brownish sand in the afternoon sunlight. A hundred feet inland was a long fence built from wooden slats and metal wire, beyond which tall grass grew abundantly.

Joe took out his gear and handed me a rod. We cast our lines and waited. A few minutes later, to our excitement Joe got a bite and reeled in. To our disappointment it was only a sand shark, which looked like a shark the size of a catfish. Joe made a face and threw it back into the water.

The sun was sinking low, our shadows on the sand were stretching longer, and the pleasant cool breeze was now crossing to the chilly side. Still no bite. I had already given up, but Joe was persistent.

"I'm bored," I said after repeatedly walking up and down the deserted beach.

"Hey fish!" Joe yelled at the water. "Come and bite, 'cause my buddy's bored!"

There was a tug at his rod. Joe smiled broadly and reeled in another sand shark. We burst out laughing, then decided to quit. It was probably my presence that had put a jinx on our endeavor today, for Joe always brought home a good catch when he went fishing.

It was already dark when we arrived in Atlantic City. Since I was new there, we went to the boardwalk for sightseeing. Then for the first time in my life I entered a casino.

Later on, thinking back I realized that the place was a time trap, not by some extraordinary manipulation of the time fabric, but by shrewd business acumen. It was a world in itself, a strange one where time came to a standstill to anyone who was captured by its wicked seduction. At the time I just walked in innocently, my senses striving to take in all the novel sights and sounds. Joe dragged me from game to game, playing a bit just to show me how, at least such was his intention. For the first time I learned about roulette, blackjack, craps and whatnot. Gradually, Joe's self-appointed job of tutoring me mutated into serious gambling, and I watched him with increasing unease. Several times did I nudge him to leave, and the same answer I got was to give him a few more minutes.

My interest in the games had waned, so I started strolling about. Around the game tables, players and spectators all wore a look of concentration, more intense on some than others. Maybe among them there was even a math genius trying to beat the house, but most looked normal enough. It was at the slot machines that I saw what scared me stiff.

Rows of people, mostly overweight women, sat facing those one-armed bandits, mindlessly repeating just the two motions of inserting coins and pulling the lever. They looked almost like robots, except that robots did not have that fiendish obsession of greed frozen on their faces, which I watched in shock. That this place could make humans sink even lower than machines was too dark and scary for me to bear, so I made my way back to Joe's table to insist that we should leave. He was a bit annoyed at first, then looked at his watch and his face registered consternation; for unknowingly we had been in the casino for nearly seven hours.

Joe profusely apologized to me for having lost track of time, but I knew it hadn't been his fault. The consolation was that he had won two hundred dollars. We got back to our home in Philadelphia at three o'clock in the morning; and I knew that no temptation could ever lure me back to a casino again, not after seeing those benumbed, obsessed, pathetic faces at the slot machines.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Early Fall Morning

One morning in early fall, while dewdrops were still sleeping on leaves and the leaves were just turning to a pale shade of yellow, I was on my way to meet an elderly gentleman and his wife. The previous evening they had called to let me know of their arrival in town and express their wish to see me, with which I had been eager to comply out of my affection for them.

They were staying with their daughter, who had just moved to the area with her husband and three kids, and who had once been expected to become my wife. Good for her, I thought while driving into an upscale neighborhood with extravagantly big houses.

The heavy front doors opened immediately when I rang, and I was cordially greeted by the couple who had once treated me like their own son. Amid the enthusiastic catching up, I looked up the stairs and there she came, even more beautiful than I remembered. She smiled the same old sweet smile when I said hello, but there was a hint of reservedness in her manner.

Over coffee and conversation at the breakfast table in her spacious kitchen, my mind was hovering between reality and memories. I listened to anecdotes about her kids, and I thought of a promise that I had made, which had been to take her traveling with me around the world. Such a trip to this day I still hadn't made, and she certainly wouldn't have wanted me to take her anywhere anymore.

I hugged her parents on the driveway. She stood by the door, waving hesitantly. I drove away, quietly, in the soft sun of a morning in early fall.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Putting Two and Two Together

This morning I realized that I had again forgotten to buy new toothpaste and had to squeeze the tube really tight to get some on the brush. The flat, bent empty tube reminded me of a movie scene where a detective looked at such a tube in a bathroom and concluded that its owner was of parsimonious character. How wrong that detective would be if he drew the same conclusion about me, for all I was guilty of was simple forgetfulness.

How many times have we jumped to wrong conclusions because we've been too cocksure, causing damages sometimes irreparable? How willing are we to listen to what lies outside our own entrenched way of thinking?

As for me, whenever I find myself putting two and two together, I have to keep in mind that the result can either be four or twenty-two.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Searching for Home

As far back as I can remember, I've never felt quite contented anywhere. No matter at home or work, school or church, I've mostly been putting up with whoever and whatever surrounding me instead of feeling that I belong, the way a drop of oil feels in a pool of water.

On my pathway through life with loneliness as the only companion, I've been carrying a yearning for a place where my mind no longer feels hungry and my heart no longer feels cold. Sometimes flashes of home, triggered by a chance melody, a view opening up before my surprised eyes, or a vaguely familiar scent wafting in the air, zip through my mind as if projected from another life in a forgotten past or maybe an unsuspected future, filling my whole being with fleeting exhilaration. Then I know that my true home must exist somewhere in space and time.

In the meantime I'm just trying to cope as best as I can.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Greatest Hits

My favorite guy in the TV series Lost is Charlie Pace. He might not be of very strong character, but he's kind and brave without knowing it. Having learned that he was destined to die, Charlie made a list of five happiest moments in his young life. Being a musician, he called them his greatest hits.

Learning from Charlie, I tried to make a list of my own greatest hits. Sadly, my list was even shorter than his. Has my life been really that lacking in these magic moments when everything in the world feels so right and a glowing warmth fills up my heart? Have I really been that unfortunate?

All I'm wondering at this moment is whether I'll be able to put together a longer list of my greatest hits five years from now. And I'm wondering which plays the major role in this game -- fate, free will, or just chance.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Counterfeit Money

On my desk is a counterfeit detector pen. A couple of months ago my sister bought me one after the news that a woman in Conyers had been caught trying to use counterfeit money to pay for cupcakes. Criminal as her action was, it was at least rational because she deceived other people for her own benefit.

What baffles me is when people knowingly keep counterfeit money and circulate it among themselves as if it were real. Of course I'm not literally talking about money but about values. Too many people hold on to empty values and build their worlds around them without stopping a minute to think. Dogmatism, prejudice, pride, vanity, conformity, even cowardice and fear, whatever the reason may be, the point is that life is invariably wasted when it is built on a hollow foundation.

It's a shame when one person deceives another for gain. It's a weeping shame when people deceive themselves into collective foolishness.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Moving On

It's time for me to move on again.

The past two years I've tried my hand in entrepreneurship, and after much toil and pain my small business has gained traction and is yielding a modest profit. Now that the thrill of building something from scratch has subsided and the daily work has been reduced to drab routine, I yearn for more activities. Well then, I will move on.

If there is something I have gotten used to in my life, it must be change. At one point in my boyhood my family moved to a rural area where simple cottages lined dirt lanes except a few bright brick houses surrounding the market place. Ten miles away was a little town with narrow asphalted streets and small stores, yet an occasional trip there to see their relative prosperity was always a special treat for me. I used to stand at the edge of a footpath on my way home from our little patch of hardscrabble land, gazing at the late afternoon sky across a meadow of tall grass, dreaming of faraway places where excitement and sophistication made their presence tangible.

Since then I have left behind many places, near and far. When I returned to those places that had impressed me as a boy, I was astonished at their puniness. Many things I used to admire and with an intense heart long for, now I find them pathetically unnecessary. Many values I used to hold dear with no questions asked, now I view them in a skeptical light. Dang if what you're feeling isn't change, as Bobby Darin sang in one of his songs.

After all, life is about changes, for better or for worse. The thing is, when you make changes and the people around you refuse to budge, you will end up being a solitary traveling figure on your own path, which I don't mind anyway. For had I stayed in one place then I would have steadfastly believed the only three-storied brick house at that tiny market place of my childhood the most magnificent building in the world.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Just a Song at Twilight

Beautiful old Irish song performed by Celtic Thunder:

Just a song at twilight when the lights are low
And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go
Though the heart be weary, sad the day and long
Still to us at twilight comes love's old song...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Randy the Welder

I googled for a welder and found Randy. Contrary to my expectation, the address in the listing was not for a shop but a private home in a shady neighborhood at the edge of town. It turned out Randy operated his welding business from his garage.

The split-level house was old, shabby and showed an obvious lack of care. The lawn was shaggy, strewn with dead leaves and brown pine cones. The few decorative bushes near the doorstep were covered with dust and in dire need for pruning.

Rock music was blaring from the opened garage. Cobwebs lined the door frame, piles of disused tools and electrical cords cluttered the floor, all lying mute under a thick layer of hoary dirt.

Randy set up his workstation at the back of the room. A medium-sized man in blue jeans, worn flannel shirt and a red bandanna that covered most of his sandy hair, he looked fiftyish with a slightly lined face and pasty complexion. I explained what I needed then started looking around, spurred by the thing that killed the proverbial cat.

Everything about and around Randy told me he was a lonely man. There was that look of mild desolation permeating the whole place, and Randy fitted right in with his appearance that showed some half-hearted attempt at care. In one corner of the garage, under the ubiquitous layer of dust, stood an old stained drum kit with cymbals spotted with rust. As if reading the question in my mind he said he used to belong to a rock band.

"What happened to your band?" I asked.

"Broken up and gone, like all good things are," he replied.

There was a faint timbre of resignation in his voice. Better change the subject.

"Business been good?" I asked.

"Very slow lately," he replied. "It has its ups and downs though."

"Like everything else in this world," I said.

"Exactly," he heartily agreed.

His job done, I paid and left, feeling moody. Would I end up like Randy, ten or twenty years from now? He was being philosophical about it, but the fact remained that he was lonely and living in a dump with a broken dream.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Late April by Bato Dugarzhapov

I came across this painting by Russian artist Bato Dugarzhapov and felt attracted immediately. I think it pretty much summarizes what appeal to me most in life, which are sun-drenched flowers, blue sea and an overall simplicity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Riley and Spring

The weather was unusually warm this February. One night I woke up to the sound of rain on my roof, the subdued pitter-pattering was so soothing it lulled me right back into pleasant slumbering.

The next morning, looking out of my bedroom window, I saw the cherry tree in my front yard sprouting with reddish young buds. A few days later it was in full glorious bloom, a mass of lively pink against the limpid blue sky. Across the street, the old gnarled dogwood tree transformed itself into a huge saturation of pure, tender white.

Then I met Riley for the first time. His parents and grandma are our regular customers so we knew he was coming into the world. His story we already heard from his granny one day when her daughter and son-in-law weren't there, that not so long ago a police officer had stopped a speeding car driven by an attractive young woman and given her a ticket, that the girl had been furious but the police officer had been so badly smitten that eventually they became Riley's mom and dad.

And now his mom had brought Riley for us to see, a beautiful four-month-old baby boy. His whole face was one huge smile, his big blue eyes were saying that being with us was his absolute pleasure, his gurgling mouth was declaring that he would love to discuss everything in the world with us. He also made it clear that he considered my finger a delicacy and kept trying to have a bite.

Seeing Riley was just like seeing spring. Both bring a happy smile to anyone they touch.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Another Old Friend

It had been nearly twenty years since we had last seen each other, and now he's stepping out of his white rental car, crossing my front yard in the light rain with a grin on his face.

We greeted each other without profusion, as if it had been just yesterday that we had parted. The café where we had met that last time no longer existed where we had lived half the world away, and added to our belts were two decades of assorted accomplishments and failures. Yet between us, it felt as if no interruption had ever taken place. He was now sitting in my chair, talking in the same peculiarly accented voice, showing the same insouciance towards everything in life.

We went out for dinner despite the rain that was getting heavier. I noticed that he still had his trademark gait, an awkward one caused by his feet kept too far apart resulting in an exaggerated swinging of his upper body. He remarked that I still had the same slightly lopsided smile and way of tapping my fingers on the table. The rest of our conversation was strictly current -- not much sense in reminiscing about the past when there is so much of the present, we tacitly agreed.

We said goodbye just as casually as when we had said hello. No big deal having been apart for twenty years or meeting again for just a couple of hours, for we would always be at ease with and understand each other no matter what.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lone Tree

I saw this lone tree near the top of Stone Mountain outside Atlanta. I came here a few days after the big snowstorm, when the thaw had begun, to stretch my legs. The ground was still covered by snow, and I was surprised to see quite a crowd at the park.

For safety reason, a yellow tape that said police line do not cross blocked the entrance to the trail to the mountain top, which however didn't stop anyone from going around the tape to continue their climb. I simply followed the crowd and found out that the trail was indeed a dangerous mix of ice, snow and running water on slippery rock. Still it was wonderful to be outdoors again and breathe in the cool fresh air laced with a delightful dose of pine scent. Halfway to the top I had to sit down and panted like an old dog on a hot day. Boy, I had no idea I was so out of shape, but the view was totally worth it.