Saturday, January 27, 2007

Pirate Invasion a la Tampa

As promised here, today’s blog features a Spanish pirate, José Gaspar, aka Gasparilla, the "last of the Bucaneers who is claimed to have raided the west coast of Florida, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries", purportedly it seems, according to wikipedia. "Though he is a popular figure in Florida folklore, no evidence of his existence appears in writing before the early 20th century. His legend is celebrated every year in Tampa with the Gasparilla Pirate Festival", the same wikipedia text continues.

Today is our fourth encounter with this festive extravaganza, but it’s the first time I’m blogging it. The first encounter in 2004 occurred just a few days after we landed in US after a nine-year hiatus, and we didn’t know better then.

We made it to the Bayshore Boulevard on our second encounter, jostling through the crowd for a vantage position to grab the beads that were being sprayed from the passing floats. And we did not leave emptied handed. My “bountiful” wife here is the incontrovertible proof.

Last year, our friends visited us from Gainesville on the day of the parade, and as gracious hosts that we aspire to be, we gravitated to Bayshore Boulevard, and were contented to stay behind the crowd this time, which was actually thinning as we were there toward the end of the parade. But we did come away with our fair share of the “loot” consistent with our laid-back attitude.

This year, though, we decided to adopt a home strategy, staying home to watch the live telecast of the event that is, minus the rowdiness and with the unparalleled advantage of enjoying the on-going in “close range”, through the telescopic lens of the TV camera crew of Channel 8, WFLA-TV of Tampa, the local TV station covering the festivity live. So the images you are about to see below are actually TV screen shots, which explain their grainy look (with apologies) and the number 8 at the bottom right corner. The event announcement to the left is courtesy of the website of Gasparilla Pirate Festival.

With live commentary and recalling the at-site environment that we had experienced during the last two years, we felt as it we were there, lining along Bayshore Boulevard, without the accompaniment of beads/blings/trinkets landing in our laps of course. You too can log on to Tampa Tribune/WFLA, St. Pete Times, and the Gasparilla Pirate Festival to view video coverage and photo gallery of the event for an experience of the sight and sound peculiar to the pirate invasion of the City of Tampa .

The first image is the armada of pirates ships making their final sea-borne assault on the City of Tampa, forcing the Mayor to capitulate and hand over the City’s key. I’m sure it’s a spectacular taking, reminiscent of the historic raid by Gasparilla and his marauding crew on the west coast of Florida more than a couple of centuries ago, its folklore-like aura notwithstanding. This is an instance where a picture is truly worth a thousand words, which more than made up for the disappointment of not actually witnessing the "momentous" occasion.

The second image shows the newly minted State Governor, Charlie Crist, fresh from his gubernatorial victory late last year, being interviewed by a dressed up pirate. But the cover-up did not fool us, despite his use of pirate slang. We recognize instantly him as Bob Hite, one of the regular members of the newscast team at WFLA [I guess there is no way to camouflage the microphone]. Charlie Crist is the first state governor from the Tampa Bay area, but it’s too early to tell what that particular provenance will foreshadow for Tampa.

Next up is a shot of the City Mayor, Pam Iorio, being interviewed. She didn’t seem distressed at all by the “fact” that she was the one who surrendered the city to the invading pirates. In fact, she looked relieved, and a hearty laugh to boot. Well, after as many years of repeating the ritual as she has been the mayor, she ought to know what she is doing, that she is facing an impending mayoral contest does not seem to bother her.

Now that we have dispensed with the celebrities, let’s settle down to the parading krewe (pronounced identically to English "crew" and is an organization that puts on a parade and or a ball for the Carnival, according to wikipedia) members with their floats.

The left depicts a float hemmed in by parade spectators on both sides of the route while the right shows is a group of bagpipers, entertaining the reveling crowd. Both suffice to give you a general flavor of the carnival atmosphere that celebrates, of all things, a pirate invasion.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chai Found Music Workshop

I enjoy listening to music, and have a particularly liking for instrumentals. My early favorites were the Shadows, who provided music accompaniment to many a Cliff Richard song, and the Ventures. Later on I caught on to symphony music performed by the likes of Mantovani and James Last. Then I migrated to the more contemporary music of Richard Clayderman and Kenny G. But I’ve never cultivated a ear for classical music and the most I did was to hum along to the tune of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

My liking for Chinese music started actually earlier. Back then my favorite group was the Stylers from Singapore who has a wide range of repertoire: from traditional to popular tunes, coupled with some English hits in between. Through the years I have also collected tens of CDs on Chinese traditional music, some solo performances based on yangqin (hammered dulcimer), erhu (spike fiddle), pipa (Chinese lute), and guzheng (zither) [ I never knew the English terms for these Chinese music instruments until last night] and others, chamber music.

Also, I prefer the warm comfort of home to listen to audio CDs and have almost never attended a live performance of instrumental music. Of course those trips to DisneyWorld and Splendid China where live performance is part of the admission deal do not count.

So last weekend I came to know about a performance by a Chinese music group at USF. That was followed by announcements in this week’s newspaper where we learned that it was going to be an instrument group from Taiwan, Chai Found Music Workshop.

At first we thought Chai Found is short for Chai Foundation since Chai is a popular Chinese last name. It was when we were at the venue, the Music Recital Hall at USF, and read the program sheet (partly shown above) last night that we realized they are actually phonetic translations of two Chinese words that have nothing to do with a typical Chinese last name nor foundation.

It was a six-person performance divided into two halves of five performances each separated by a 10-minute intermission.

Of the ten, I’ve only heard of one of them (Black clouds in the Sky) before last night. Two were composed by USF faculty. The audience was varied, about half comprising student-age patrons (a good guess would be USF students, seeing that the admission only cost $4/= a head for students). I would say close to half (my wife estimated the total turnout to be more than a hundred) were non-Asians as far as I can tell, which perhaps says quite a lot about the appeal of Chinese music, or maybe just any good music regardless of the ethnic qualifier.

That precisely fulfilled the aim of the Chai Foundation Music Workshop, it being “to perform and promote Chinese Music within and beyond the Chinese part of the world". In that regard, the group has quite a credential, having “played numerous concerts of Contemporary Music at festivals in the US, Europe and Asia. [The phrases in quotation marks are taken verbatim from the Program sheet.]

The spontaneous applause after each performance bore testimony to the fine performance by the group of music talents, each handling a different instrument that in combination produced a well-orchestrated ensemble of sound and melody.

However, from my personal perspective, I did not seem to be able to be “in tune” with most of the performances, primarily because I don’t know the tunes. I’m one who needs to know the tune and be able to hum along before I can appreciate the performance. So “falling in love at first listening” does not apply to me as far as music goes.

Frankly, a couple of the performances sounded like discrete notes strung haphazardly to my untrained ear. It just goes to show that music appreciation, of the serious kind as opposed to the popular genre, does require some level of understanding of the fundamentals of music on the part of the listener to enjoy the concord rather than be distracted by the apparent discord.

Fortunately, it was a live music performance, which afforded the opportunity for visual appreciation of the total immersion by the performers, each with his/her own manifestation of blending in body and soul with the music: eyes half-closed, head shaking in unison, hand motion, foot tapping, etc.

For me, seeing these performers so absorbed, seemingly lost, in delivering the maestro-like rendition of the auditory delight made last night a night well-spent.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Are You Feeling Down and Out, My Friend?

Chinese New Year (CNY) is around the corner. And for the year of the Boar (2007), the first day will fall on Feb 18. CNY is always a festive occasion during which propitious greetings are exchanged, and wishes of prosperity in the New Year dispensed.

However, it’s also an opportune time for sagacious advice for a variety of emotional uplift: happiness, relief of depression, getting over grief, etc. Thus, the advent of the Internet age has promoted the widespread circulation of these so-called motivational messages via emails, whether solicited or not, which tend to peak around festive seasons such as CNY, Christmas, and the like.

And yesterday I received just one such email from my brother-in-law, who has been temporarily assigned to a project in Qatar. The email is a slide show of several anecdotes aimed at making one walk out of the shadow of one’s depression, whatever the cause, in Chinese. So here I’m at it again, doing an English translation in an effort to share the contents, which I find easy to relate, and simple to understand. In the end of it all, it brought smiles to my face and a conviction that indeed all things will come to pass, and spring will descend upon us. Here it goes, somewhat verbatim because it is an English translation, but I have endeavored to stay true to the core of the message.

My friends, are you feeling down and out?
Here are several anecdotes and phrases that could lift your spirit out of the blues.
Please thrust me, everything will come to pass, and spring will arrive, again.

1) There is a shop that is always awash with bright light. Somebody asked, “What kind of light tubes do you use? They are so durable!”
The shopkeeper replied, “We do have our fair share of burnt out tubes. But we always make it a point to replace it when it does.”

So the way to maintain brightness is actually very simple. All we need is constant replacement.

2) On his/her way to a job interview, an applicant spontaneously picked up a shred of paper on the ground, and disposed it in a trash bin, not realizing that his/her casual act was witnessed by the passing interviewer. So the applicant got the job.

So to be recognized and rewarded is quite simple. All we need to do is to cultivate good habits.

3) A child said to the Mom, “Mom, you look great.”
“Why so?” the Mom asked in surprise.
“Because you are not angry today.”

So to look great is really simple. Just don’t be angry, that’s all.

4) A young apprentice was repairing a broken bicycle where he worked. In addition to finishing the repair, he also cleaned up the bike so that it looked new. Other apprentices ridiculed him for doing extra. The day after the bike owner took back the bike, the apprentice was recruited to the owner’s firm.

So to be able to advance one’s career is really simple. All we need to do is to go beyond the call of duty.

5) While breaking through its shell, a chick saw a turtle passing by. From then on, the chick carries the shell all its life.

Actually letting go of a heavy burden is quite simple. All we need to do is to change our stubborn way and abandon our prejudices.

6) Frog A in the field advised frog B, which is perched at the road side, to move back to the field as the road side is a dangerous place. But frog B declined, saying that it is already used to living at the road side, and is lazy to do so. After several days, frog A came visiting again, but discovered that frog B was already crushed, another road kill statistic.

So the way to determining our own fate is really simple. All we need to do is to avoid being lazy.

7) Several kids yearned to be angels. God gave each a candle holder, and asked each to maintain the candle holder in a sparkling clean condition. Several days passed without God came acalling. Almost all the kids stopped giving their candle holders a daily rub. Then one day God appeared. All the candle handles were covered in thick dust, except one, one held by the kid who has earned the nickname, the Dumb Kid, because he was always rubbing the candle holder, even in the absence of God. And the Dumb Kid became an angel.

So to become an angel is really simple. All we need to do is to put our heart in what we do.

8) A gold prospecting expedition was moving through a desert. Everyone was trudging along, feeling sore all over, except for one. When asked why he was so at ease, he replied, “because I carry the least.”

So to be happy is really simple. All we need to do is to crave less.

Where is life’s vibrancy?

In the morning when you wake up, the vibrancy is on your face, ready to embrace the future with a smile.

In the afternoon, the vibrancy is in your gait, spotting a straight back to live for the moment.

At night, the vibrancy is in your steps, firmly on the ground when bettering yourself.

Actually to live is really simple too. All we need to do is to appreciate our blessings, and to face up to our challenges. Then the vibrancy of life is all ours to keep.

Our Smiling Declaration:
A smile is your own only.
Two smiles are yours and mine.
But N smiles are from all of us.

On this special occasion,
A smile can bring us a gesture of caring, a sense of love, and a feeling of thrust.
Relax a bit, smile to each other, and spring will be in the air.

My dear friends, we do not have to be afraid of depression as we are not alone. In facing up to our problems together, we will prevail.

So take care. Here’s wishing you good health and be happy, and smile always.

End of message.

Some parting words.
The difference between being a sage and being a clueless sentient being is only a thought away. In other words, for mere mortals like us, to become a sage is really not that far away. You can do it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Azure with Zest! Or Not

That makes Azzure. Lake Azzure, to be exact. That’s the community we have set our eyes on: to live, to relax, to frolic, and to grow for our next phase of life in America.

After three years of life as a renter, we have decided to plunge headlong into what appears to be a commitment of sort. The switch, or rather the change of heart, was prompted by the sharp rise, at least from our perspective, of the apartment rent.

So in the past two weeks, we have ventured northeast to just outside the USF Campus (SunRidge Condo, first image), then east to Palm River Road (Palm River Townhomes, second image), South to the GrandKey Condo (third image), and finally settled at Lake Azzure Condo (Sorry, no image here) to the north-northwest, but all on different days.

It’s a combination of factors really: cost, commute distance, proximity to stores, tolls (yes, there are tolled road here too), and …

The above was written just after we inked the purchase agreement but 48 hours since, we have had a change of heart. One half of us felt the process was too fast, before we have exhausted other options. The other half started feeling apprehensive about the new place, no matter how imaginary it may seem. What if it’s not a good neighborhood? What if the commute takes longer that we have been clocking in the last few visits, which are not exactly in the thick of rush hour? What if the sale is not as good and the neighboring units failed to be populated? What if the monthly maintenance charges skyrocketed? What if the property insurance, judging by what Floridians have to contend with following the last two hurricane seasons, is only available from the provider of last resort, which by itself is ominous sounding enough?

In the midst of these uncertainties, perceived or otherwise, staying put seems a viable option, though we may have to go on some sort of austerity drive: the Blockbuster monthly pass is the first to go (in fact it’s already cancelled at the end of last year). Then there are the magazine subscriptions (but we are already down to only Reader’s Digest).

Familiarity with the surrounding is a great ally, and a great obstacle (for want of a better word) to overcome too. Some call it the inertia, some call it the comfort zone. Others may refer to it as routine. Whatever it is, never underestimate the effort needed to overcome it. It seems familiarity breeding contempt can only occur at a higher plane.

Or is it the fear of the unknown? Are these two both sides of the same coin? Like the proverbial push and pull factors? But what about when we first moved here? Didn’t a bigger unknown exist then? Well, I guess one can analyze until the cow comes home, but the feelings and the perceptions may be what ultimately drive any decision making in the social context …

Well, the above, being the second installment, was penned last night. But this morning something else happened that precipitated another about turn.

So just by looking at the four images (the last one being an imaginary one), would you make any this your dream home?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Gators’ Bulls-eye = Buckeyes Black-eyed

I knew I could not blog last night. I needed to focus on the BCS National Championship Game between the favorite, the Buckeyes of the Ohio State University, and the underdog, the Gators of the University of Florida, my alma mater.

If you followed the college football ranking, you would have known that the Gators just squeaked in to gain a shot at the national title game, after the Trojans of USC self-destructed in the last regular game against the Bruins of UCLA.

When the Buckeyes’ star quarterback ran away with the Heisman trophy, it seemed that its 7th national championship was already set in stone and all the team had to do was to descend on Glendale, AZ, on January 8.

And when the score read 7 to zip in the first 16 seconds of the game following a kickoff return right into the Gators’ end zone, we (meaning the denizens of the Gator Nation) were all in shock, except for Urban Meyer and his lots.

In the Gators’ first possession, the team, led by the much maligned Chris Leak as the quarterback, evened the score. On the Gator’s second possession, they took over the lead, and for good. The Gators defense was ruthless, and the offense was fast and creative. Thus an urban legend, minus the distortion and sensationalism often attending to it, is born.

The headlines and radio talk shows are replete with catchy phrases playing on anything that has to do with the Buckeyes, and the buck, and the eye as well. Here’s a small collection:

The Gators delivered a black-eye to the Buckeyes (from the free tbt)
The Gators bucked the trend.
The Buck in the headlight (frozen stiff).
The mighty Buckeyes was plutoed.

The last one was borrowed from the radio morning talk show at Magic 94.9 today by the husband-and-wife tag team, Chad and Christie. Apparently, in the aftermath of the decision by the astronomy fraternity to drop Pluto from our solar system, the word has crept into everyday usage such that it will soon become an official word that means, what else, to be dropped, floored, relegated, or diminished in important as in becoming minor.

Our S from Gainesville sounded hoarse over the phone just after midnight, presumably from the screaming while watching the game on a large screen in the O'Connell Center. A colleague, a Gator alumnus, came to work in a Gator jacket. And another colleague felt really vindicated, for bucking the trend of doomsday scenarios painted for the Gators.

Last night was the longest stretch I have ever been a couch potato, but seated erect at the edge and not slouching in comfort save during the commercials when I briefly settled back into a restive mode, not since I started blogging. But the excitement and the elation at the end of it all is all worth it. At the beginning of the 4th quarter, my wife kept on saying it’s a sure win for the Gators. The emotional me wanted to agree with her there and then, but the rational me kept thinking up of all kinds of lapses that would reverse the fortune.

And I was glad my doubts were all misplaced for there was no denying the Gators their rightful place at the pedestal as being the only college that enjoys the double championships in collegiate sports (basketball and football), a kind of Grand Slam, in the same year. Actually it’s more like a Gator Slam as the two championships are actually back-to-back, unless the basketball team repeats as champion come March Madness.

Go Panthers! Go Gators!

(The pictures are all taken from the University of Florida website.)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Townhouse Comparison: All in A Day's Work

We decided to devote some time today to check out some of the townhouses offered for sale. So we called up a friend who has been living in the vicinity of Temple Terrace and New Tampa, two areas that we have in mind, to accompany us on the mission, but more importantly, to offer a perspective from one who has gone through the process and is familiar with the areas. The friend, Ling, gracefully agreed to be the site guide. And we arrived promptly by her house at 12.30 pm to receive some house buying tips. Unfortunately, Bill, Ling's husband, had to work at the USF Library for the day. Otherwise his experience on looking out for structural defects would be most valuable. But we were comforted by the fact that these are not individually owned homes that we would be looking at. So the chances of any structural defect not attended to are likely slim to non-existent.

We first had lunch at the Lin Garden along N 56th St., which was packed with patrons who had just finished their Sunday morning church service. It was a buffet lunch, and the restaurant offered a variety of Asian and Western cuisine in the form of prepared dishes. A unique décor of the restaurant is this repetitious design on the ceiling, which features a dragon and a phoenix, two legendary Chinese animals that signify prosperity and serenity. This was supplemented by paintings and designs depicting nature with chinese calligraphy celebrating the various virtues hung on the wall. All add up to render a feel of ancient chinese aura.

The food was OK, not unlike those that we have tasted at South Tampa. But the pot of tea that we ordered was something else. At first my wife was apprehensive about the darkish color, but Ling explained that it is characteristic of the Pu Er tea from China. And it tasted good, with a lingering taste, and was effective in reducing the oily feel of the typical food cooked the Asian way. And the smiles said it all.

The first site is the Sunridge Condominium along N 50th St just across from the USF campus (the image is courtesy of the project website). This was a former apartment complex for rent, built in the late 1980s, that has been upgraded to a condominium, a process called conversion. It is an ungated community fringed by a woody area behind. The houses comprise two-storey townhouses and 1-, 2, and 3-storey villa homes but we only visited two show units, both 3Bed/2Bath, one is an intermediate (Solaris: 1,161 sq.ft) and the other an end unit (Crescent: 1,244 sq.ft).

Ling helped us to locate the potential units, guided by the time-tested criteria that it’s away from the main entrance and that it does not face the afternoon/evening sun. As a practical matter, my wife added that it should not be within sighting, or rather smelling, distance of the garbage disposal unit. We soon narrowed down to two potential units, taking into account that hardly ten units were left.

Being next to USF, the site enjoys a busy setting, but not to the extent of crowdedness. Most shops are within easy reach, with MOSI (Museum of Science and Industry) of the body parts exhibit fame, and Busch Gardens Theme Park another stone-throw or two farther away. According to Mapquest, it’s about 13 miles from my office, via I-275, which can be quite a harried commute, especially the after-work traffic. After we were given the contact number of the lenders, we bid farewell to Amanda, the sales agent who showed us around and who has previously worked at my current apartment complex at South Tampa. Talk about a small world!

Then we cruised along the Bruce B. Down Blvd., heading for the Equestrian Parc at Highwoods Preserve, just beyond I-75. The first thing that struck us when we reached the site was the plentiful greenery surrounding the site. On the way we passed the Tampa Palm development comprising many phases, which contributes perhaps to the notorious gridlock along the Bruce B. Down Blvd. We will have to think about that.

Karen, the attending sales agent, explained that the development is not associated with any horse-riding activity despite the name. It’s a sprawling gated community comprising 3-storey apartment complexes (the image is courtesy of the project website). Similar to the Sunridge community, it is in the process of conversion to apartment homes, but it’s much newer, being four years old.

The 3Bed/2Bath homes are featured in the Clydesdale floor plan, at 1,386 sq.ft. The show unit looked positively inviting, and more pricy too compared to the first site. But you pay for what you get. The downside is it adds another 8 miles to the traveling distance to my office, and via the much dreaded Bruce B. Down at that. We will have to discuss further the logistics with our D who would have another one and half months of long commute to her school at South Tampa at the end of our current lease and before she is done with high school, if we decided to take up the unit.

Each of the site advertises a saving galore for potential buyers comprising price rebate, closing fee incentive, etc., reflecting the fierce competition engendered by the sluggish housing market. The agents added that the saving package changes month by month, perhaps with a slight hint that good things may not last.

Buying a home is an important decision and requires comparative shopping the depth of which is beyond any other purchase that one could have made in a lifetime. This is just the start of our house hunt and already I’m feeling the fatigue, some of which was considerably ameliorated by a pot of Earl Grey tea brewed by Ling, our ever gracious host for the day, before we headed for home. Considering that my wife was wearing a Polo shirt, and that I belong to the Chinese Zodiac sign of the Horse, we do take a special liking to the Equestrian Parc site. But that’s hardly any rationale on which to base the purchase decision of a home.

We came home close to 6 pm, almost 6 hours of mission time but with only two sites to show. I think we have to be more efficient if we were to close one before our current lease runs out. Otherwise, it will be more of renting, and with that, more money down the drain as far as building a home equity is concerned.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Respecting the Law, On the Road

The last vestige of the lingering winter holiday season was locked permanently into memory today when we sent our S back to Hume Hall to begin the 2nd semester of his freshman year. First our elder D returned to Oregon on Dec 31, then I went back to work on Jan 2, followed a day later by our younger D back to school. And the return of our S back to Gainesville today completed the holiday ritual.

So long, 2006. You have been kind to us. Now we have to focus on 2007, but you will occupy your rightful place in our treasure trove of nostalgia.

We left Tampa just before 1.30 pm. Earlier in the morning, I had seen a "condo for sale" poster as an insert in today’s Tampa Tribune. It’s the Equestrian Parc at Highwoods Preserve located at New Tampa. It’s located off exit 270 of I-75, which is along the way to Gainesville. So we thought we would check it out since the deal offering great winter savings seemed attractive enough. Who knows, our apartment hunt may become a house (to own) hunt. A check using Mapquest says that it’s about 22 miles from my office. Errrr, there may not be ideal. But what the hack, I can always listen to an audio book or something if the commute turns out to be a long one.

As if fate would have it, the intention became moot as I had taken the I-275 North, thinking that exit 270 of I-75 is after the I-275 Bypass North junction on the way to Gainesville. It turns out that the bypass junction is at about exit 275, which means I will have to go south on I-75 to reach exit 270. Well, there will be other days, so I rationalized.

Just before the junction of I-75 and the Florida Turnpike, we came up behind an ambulance traveling on the outermost (passing) lane. Its lights were flashing, but no siren. And it’s moving at the posted limit (70 mph) of I-75. OK, slightly beyond.

Now, here was the dilemma. Can one overtake the ambulance, flashing light but no siren at this instance? It did not appear that the ambulance was in any great hurry, meaning on an emergency flight. Other cars too appeared to slow down and kept behind the ambulance, which continued to stay on the passing lane.

After some time, some adventurous drivers seemed to get impatient and decided to test the waters, so to speak. The vehicle first moved to the middle lane, drew level with the ambulance, and kept in pace for some moments, then inched forward ever that slightly. Then it accelerated further and soon was out of the “magnetic pull” of the ambulance for good.

Emboldened by this dash of audacity, others vehicles started to do likewise. But some were more circumspect and chose to use the innermost lane to overtake the ambulance, laterally distancing themselves from the ambulance to the maximum extent possible, and gradually moved their way back to the middle and then the outermost lane, and disappeared from sight.

There was a car that sped by so fast in front of the ambulance that it received a honking from the ambulance. Probably the car driver did not realize that the line of cars he had just overtaken in a hurry was kind of anchored to the back of the ambulance.

Since I was not sure what the highway code has to say with regard to the situation at hand and I did not want to assume that the other drivers who had left us in the dust knew what they were doing, I decided to play safe and followed the ambulance dutifully for the remaining journey to Gainesville. And yes, that’s where the ambulance was headed too.

So if anybody knows whether it’s a traffic violation to overtake an emergency vehicle, let me know. But I’m sure if it were a police car, then no driver in his/her right mind would attempt what I saw today.

And as if to test that, that was exactly what happened on my return leg. Along I-275 after Exit 52 (Fowler), I was traveling on the outermost lane when I noticed that the car in front of mine slowed down. Then I saw the reason: the car was behind a police car, but this time not even a trace of flashing light. Unlike the earlier episode with the ambulance, the police car seemed to hold an imaginary barrier across the remaining width of the road as all cars remained behind the police car.

So the police car seems to serve as a psychological deterrent to would-be speedsters. On the other hand, some are willing to take chances with other emergency vehicles the mission of which is life saving rather than crime busting, or in this case, netting traffic violators.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Apartment Hunt: Let the Chase Begin

Around the middle of last month, the bombshell dropped. We were slapped with a 25% increase in the apartment rent should we continue with the status quo, i.e., staying in the same apartment unit, the same fate that has befallen our Korean neighbor as blogged here. After a couple of “negotiations” with the management, they are willing to budge by only about 5% less.

Obviously, we feel that the quantum of increase, even at a reduced rate of 20%, is excessive from our perspective. With the average rate of salary increase barely outstripping the rate of inflation, it will translate to a net salary decrease, and a big one at that. By our reckoning, this also runs counter to the general depressing housing market that started last year which you think would entice more renters to own homes instead, hence, the oft-touted description of a buyer’s market being bandied around. That would surely put a dent in the market for rented homes. Or not.

The other argument proffered is that we had been enjoying the low rent in the past few years, as if now is pay-back time. Note that I’m not against a reasonable rent hike as managing an apartment complex is just like any business operation, and subsidizing any cost increase is definitely too altruistic a notion to be entertained.

Sometimes, you would think that perhaps being a relatively long-term (I hesitant to use loyal because that would be taxing the system too much) tenant, one with an impeccable record of timely rent payment, and with the barest of maintenance requests, would count for something, something akin to a quantity discount being offered in a purchase. OK, I’m being naïve.

So after more than three years of enjoyable stay in one of the prime apartment complexes in South Tampa, during which we went through our “formative” years of getting used to the life in Tampa, we have to uproot ourselves, succumbing to the reality of life.

However, personal feelings really have no place in a laissez-faire economy. There are only economic choices, dictated by the supply and demand of market forces. The apartment management has every right to set the rent structure, except when it becomes price gouging whence it can be countermanded by law (as purportedly happened during the height of the hurricane season when some room rates shot through the roof). On the other hand, the consumer can always exercise his/her right to walk away and try his/her luck elsewhere.

That’s exactly what I’m going to do, not that I relish doing it. Moving house is a big hassle: the logistics, changing the address, getting used to a new environment, etc. But when push comes to shove, metaphorically speaking, one just has to endure the fact that reality bites, sometimes.

So these past few days, we have been on the lookout for potential new homes, albeit a rented one, to move to. Even while I’m driving, my eyes will be sweeping both sides of the road for the proverbial “to rent” sign. We also picked up a few apartment guides freely available in SweetBay and BlockBuster Video as night-time study material. Then there is the online listing, e.g., here, to browse or plow through, depending on one’ state of mind.

A question that naturally comes to mind is why rent? Why not own, especially when it’s a buyer’s market as some would like to characterize the prevailing sentimet? I’m sure many a renter has debated the relative merits of renting vis-à-vis owning a home, which calls in a whole slew of other considerations not pertinent to finding a apartment to rent.

Firstly and foremost is affordability. Typically a 20% down is a pre-requisite. Now there are advertisements boasting “no money down” but invariably the “20%” is paid for on a second mortgage, which can be several percentage points above that charged for the first mortgage. Then there is the property tax, the recent hike of which in Hillsborough County has met with a chorus of protest. The best argument for owning one is building up equity, unless one is unfortunate enough to pick a home where market slump is the order of the day. Also coming in on the plus side is the income tax exemption on the housing loan interest paid.

Secondly, the issue of location. Unlike renting a home, owning a home makes one relatively immobile. Neither is one in a position to abandon ship when situation becomes dire, say in the event of a hurricane-induced storm surge. So the mantra "location, location, location" is germane to both buying a home for life or buying one for investment.

Last but not the least, there is the question of changing demographics, either one is part of it such as changing office location, or is affected by it, say a high density redevelopment of the neighborhood. This would require having a keen eye for development trend into the foreseeable future.

Suffice to say that at least for now, it makes more sense, both economically and otherwise, for us to continue to rent, which means let the apartment chase begin. Yeah, I’m feeling better already.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Family Get-together, Farewell, and the Next Reunion

We spent the remaining minutes of 2006 glued to the TV, watching the live telecast of countdown at Time Square, NY. Dick Clark, the host, appeared not to be unduly handicapped by the heart attack that he has recovered from.

“Ten, nine, eight, …” While the countdown continued, I was in a mad rush to get my digital Cam to freeze the passage of the momentous occasion, but failed. It’s not easy to get shots off a TV display as attested to by my several shots of either a bright blob that masks everything or streaks of wavy lines criss-crossing the image. So the best we could do was to commit the flashes of the frolicking celebrations around the world to our memory, knowing too well that they will fade away, just like memories of the misfortunes, injustice, and suffering attendant to the tumultuous year that was 2006.

On the other hand, good memories do linger on. Especially when they are chronicled, which my blog is meant to do. So on this particular day, the penultimate day of 2006, we decided to capitalize on the advertised sale in JC Penny. This one is at the Westshore Mall, at the end of a concourse shown here. Once in, we each gravitated to different corners of the store but my role was strictly restricted to one of browsing, and the more onerous one, the pay master. But I did get something for myself from the Mall, a pair of slip-on leather shoes from PayLess.

The purchasing mission at JC Penny completed, we adjourned to the food court for a quick lunch. There was plenty of food to choose from the food vendors lining both sides of the foot court, with the central area reserved for dining tables and chairs. We ordered Chinese fastfood.

While seeking more bargain goods in the deep bowel of the Westshore Mall, which comprises a labyrinth-like network of branch alleyways, we bumped into this self-advertisement monolith, the Bath Fitter. Hey, there’s where Dan works, but over at Portland, Oregon. According to Dan, the Portland store that he helps manage, one of the many franchises throughout US (mostly along the East Coast and Chicago areas, for now), uses exactly the same bath model with worded advertisements on all sides.

On the way home, we decided to make a detour to drop by at the Tampa store listed on the brochure. And after some trial and error navigation, we found it. But it was closed for the day. Otherwise who knows what kind of networking that could have been struck up by Dan ...

After close to a week of sunshine, warmth, sand and surf, Night at the Museum, not to mention the great variety of culinary delights (Chinese, Italian, Thai, and home-cooked), CY and Dan bid us goodbye yesterday to return to the fold of the familiar Oregonian winter. But I have a strong feeling that they shall return ...

So there goes my first blog for 2007, fittingly one of family get-together, farewell, and looking forward to the next reunion, which will include WJ who has been holding the fort in Malaysia, and doing an admirable job at that.