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.