Monday, August 27, 2007

Expanding the Lee's Blogging Family by One

Just when I was thinking about what to blog today, the what presented itself in the most uncanny manner. You know our family’s blogs are now endowed with nice looking headers, the result of an outpouring of creativity from our elder daughter.

Then our elder son also put in his own request, alluding to his new blog, Living in the Present, in the process. I guess this is his own way of letting us know that he has come of age. And he is now confident enough to share his thoughts in the blogosphere, thoughts germinated by his avid reading of English books ranging from Buddhism, martial arts, to philosophy, and now bearing fruits after some period of gestation.

From a young age, we know that his forte is English, his foundation having been laid through his four years of elementary (Williams) and middle (Lincoln) schooling here in Gainesville. I can still recall looking at his English class assignments on vocabulary building through such exercises as filling the blanks to giving synonyms and antonyms. I can tell you that each time there would always be a couple of words that I had not come across, even though I prided myself on having a respectable repertoire of English vocab honed through constantly matching wits with the Word Power gang of Reader’s Digest.

So welcome to the blogosphere, Wei Joo. But that also means his Mom has to do double duty in making sure that we exercise self restraint in voicing out against injustices. She believes in the Buddhist way of disseminating good deeds but refraining from washing dirty linens in public nor publicizing harsh criticisms on unfair treatments meted out by short-sighted bigots because she believes each of us would have to bear the consequences of our individual karmic accounting.

I think she does have a point, seeing how people can be blinded by irrationality and driven by mass hysteria. Often times, the adverse reaction originally targeted at the “guilty” party can unexpectedly be diverted to target those around the said party, even though they may have nothing to do with the furor except sharing some blood ties.

At the same time, keeping silent can be misconstrued as submissive, capitulating, even condoning, hence, perpetuating the injustice. The western way is to encourage speaking out, like what the Chinese bloggers are doing in China, though the cloak of internet censorship is widening its grip.

Each will have to tread this volatile business of speaking out and potentially incurring the wrath of those who feel “targeted”, perhaps with unintended backfires that bring harm to the innocent.

Fortunately, our lady of the house would see to it that we are not in harm’s way nor unwittingly channel harm to others who we care through our blogging.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Walking Tour of USF

Our younger D will start her very first day as a college freshman (girl?) at USF tomorrow. Since USF is really quite a sprawling campus, we decided to conduct a familiarization walking tour in the afternoon with her so that she does not waste valuable time transiting from one lecture hall to another, given that the turnaround time in between periods is only 15 minutes. While she has been to the orientation, the walk-around then was confined to specific buildings only and she did not emerge any wiser as far as the spatial relations among the other buildings are concerned.

Fortunately, three of the lecture halls are clustered together close to the main library, which serves as a strategic reference point. There is the Cooper Hall, which she has already visited several times, and the Social Science Building and the Behavioral Science (BEH) buildings close-by. So we covered the ground with her, telling her to use a Burger King outlet in between as the guidepost. We showed her the main entrance to the BEH Building that I would drop her off tomorrow morning for her first period and also told her to exit the other side of the same building but at the 2nd level in order to get faster access to the Social Science Building for her second period. This modus operandi is dictated by the fact that BEH has split-level access, a fact pointed out to us by a friendly American lady who was getting into the building.

The remaining lecture hall is another story. It’s at the Department of Psychology and Communication Science (DPCS), her major department. From the campus map in our hand, we see that it is located beyond a vast field, next to a lake. Since there is no direct road connection between the main library and DPCS, we had to drive around to DPCS and trek back on foot to the main library (bottom right corner of the image) in order to help her get her direction and to remember the walking route. Also, I might add that we were not the only threesome doing the last-minute orienteering. But we all share one commonality: there was at least one middle-aged person in the group with a campus map in hand looking more like a tourist.

As indicated in the image below (sourced from here), the most direct route is still through the field lined with a geometrical design of paved paths which looks like the UK flag from above. My wife said the layout of the paths reminded her of the circular paths carved out by some alien visitors in the movie, Signs, directed by M Knight Shyamalan, but minus the spooky feel since it’s a grass field with unimpeded vista in all directions.

While there, we spotted a lop-sided tree with one side of the branches practically supported by the ground instead of cantilevering out from the trunk like the other side. Wonder what could have precipitated that asymmetry as there is no tell-tale sign, at least to our naked eyes. Another natural occurrence was the swarm of dragon flies that seemed to circle around in the vicinity of the leaning tree of sort. And here’s Mom and daughter sauntering along the paved path, bottle in hand ready to quench the thirst. Did I mention that it was a hot day?

But the weather can be fickle this time of the year. The next moment, an ominous looking cloud loomed large in the horizon like so. So after our D assured us that she has the routes and the spatial layout of the various lecture halls committed to her mind, we bid a hasty retreat to Publix to do our weekly grocery. And until I finished this blog around 7.30pm, the rain that threatened to drench the earth a few hours ago still managed to stay up in the atmosphere as water droplets. The vagaries of weather!

But the other daughter of ours over at Oregon is much more predictable. And she delivered her creations for my new blog header as promised. The new header that graces this blog from now on is a fitting testimony to her creative bent, a sort of run in the family, on the maternal side. It’s a collage, or montage of pictures taken from her collection that feature a bit of our roots, Malaysia (the 2nd image from the right depicting a top corner of the Petronas Twin Towers), and another bit of where we are now (a Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame in LA) , and a lot more of the natural setting in between. Hope it appeals to you as it does to us.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A New Header is Born

Yey, I have a new header, courtesy of my elder daughter. Taking up her offer of her newly developed skill in header design, I have challenged her to come up with one that is relevant to the theme of my blog, one full of atypically pleasant surprises.

And she has proffered four alternatives here for our selection. Since my favorite color is blue and the white lettering contrasts well over the blue, like a painted tapestry fluttering in the sky, soaring over the tree tops, the choice has not been difficult.

So until the next whim hits, this header shall stay. And stay it will for a while, since the old one (actually it consisted of some texts only) has been there for about eleven months.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Cherish When Conditions Arise; Appreciate When Conditions Cease

Like a flash (OK, a long one), summer is over just like that, maybe not the torrid heat as yet though. That reality hit home when I saw much more traffic on the way to work, and a lot more yellow buses (the ubiquitous color here for school buses) plying the road. That translated to a near 7 minutes later arrival at my office based on my experience over the past several days.

It also means that the imminence of a hurricane strike is gaining pace, prompted by the realization that the Katrina debacle occurred in late August two years ago. And as if to prove that beyond the shadow of a doubt, Hurricane Dean slammed the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 5 earlier in the week.

For a change, the CD player in my car was playing Chinese Buddhist songs, the melody soothing, and the lyrics, gleaned from sutras (Buddhist scriptures), uplifting. But that did not prevent my mind from revolving around the conversation I had with my wife a few days ago, trying to make sense whether I have shown enough gratitude to my benefactors, whoever they might be, for my blessed professional development. After all, displaying appreciation for, and evincing thankfulness are highly desirable character traits for Buddhist practitioners.

As the Chinese saying goes, always think of the source when drinking water. We don’t just arrive at what we are today by ourselves. Yes, we work hard, we toil, we persevere. But who can confidently say that he/she has not benefited from a helping hand? Whose success is not enabled by an interplay of conducive conditions, even luck?

Buddhism teaches that nothing ever happens by chance. Not when the score keeping goes back before one’s present lifetime. Everything happens because conditions are ripe at the particular moment, and the balance of karmic stores (in mundane terms, the merits and the demerits that have been accrued thus far through our deeds) posits that our paths should cross. It could be a flourish, or it could be a whimper, meaning that it is not meant to be.

Since one could amass merits and reduce demerits by doing good deeds and refrain from committing unwholesome deeds, it stands to reason that we could tip the balance of enabling environments one way or the other. Conceivably then, we could forge out a path of virtue for ourselves and for others. However, most of the times we are not in a position to dictate the type of environment that we find ourselves in as long as we live in this mundane world, nor can we determine the type of people that we run into whose thoughts are always aligned with ours.

So the important thing is keep the right perspective, one that does not change with the environment and the people, both of which are best described as in a state of constant flux. And I find that one of the Buddhist songs captures this outlook succinctly in its lyrics that go something like, after translation:

When the sun rises in the east, it’s already a foregone conclusion that it will set in the west …
When the conditions arise, we must know how to cherish the moment.
When the conditions cease, it’s even more imperative that we know how to appreciate …

So cherish and appreciate.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Lessons from the Gainesville Trip

This morning we sent our younger son back to UF for the start of his sophomore year. He still stays in the same residential hall, but another wing. Perhaps because the Fall semester would only start on the coming Wednesday (or is it Thursday?), there were not too many cars taking up the road side parking in front of the Hall when we arrived. We managed to ease into a vacant lot close to the Wing he has been assigned.

Nothing of note occurred along the drive from Tampa. Traffic was smooth, weather was hot, and no surprises from the State Troopers looking out for speedsters. With the help of his elder brother who decided to come along, we managed to put all his things in his room within an hour and off we went to Buffet City for lunch. After having made two trips to Buffet City (read here for our first experience), the novelty began to wear off and my wife decided that this probably would be our last visit, seeing that there are yet unvisited places to sustain our gastronomic adventures.

Next stop was CVS to pick up a new laundry basket, the old one having been inadvertently taken away from the laundry room, for him. Then my wife spotted the open sign at the OMNI books next door (it was closed the last time we were here before the summer break). So we split party, me and my elder son sauntering into the Omni books to quench our literary thirst.

I first scanned the 5-for-$9.95 collection located right after the entrance. No, nothing popped out. Moving to the New Fiction section, I saw a title. The Cold Moon (I have forgotten the name but managed to look it up in the online library catalogue of the Hillsborough Public Library System), by Jeffrey Deaver, a thriller novelist that I’ve just developed a liking for (read here about my chance encounter with the writer, or rather with his works). It’s considered new (published in 2006), but I’m not a sucker for new books, especially novels. It makes more financial sense to buy used books since they are aplenty in supply or to check them out from your friendly local library.

So I asked the proprietor if he has any used books by Deaver. He started toward the central repository of used books, nicely laid out in book shelves like a labyrinth, asking, “Mystery?” “Thrillers,” I answered without hesitation, but really not knowing whether such a category exists in the lexicon of booksellers. If it is not, he did not evince any indication. I followed, and was led to a shelf-full whence he pointed at one by Deaver, Twisted. Oh good, I have not read this one. And it’s for $3.95, written in pencil on the first inside page, meaning that it’s used. “Anymore?” “It should be here if there is.” So let’s start the hunt.

The first thing I noticed is that the books are not arranged in alphabetical order by authors’ names, but rather in groups of the first letters. I saw titles by Tom Clancy, and also John Grisham on the shelf. And by inference, Deaver should be bracketed somewhere, which means from the top to the bottom (on recall, I think it is 5 shelves high). I realize then that these paperbacks are not meant to be searched fast. For one thing, the book covers and the vertical binds are colored, and the words appearing thereon are not in sharp contrast to the background color. Squinting hard and not helped at all by the less than desirable lighting, I only found another title by Deaver, the Bone Collector, which I (or rather my younger daughter) already have. So after 15 minutes of seemingly interminable ordeal, I quickly straightened my back from a half bent position, giving up on the bottom most shelf. Deaver or no Deaver, this ain’t worth the back exertion. So, Twisted it is.

The last stop was the Reitz Union for my younger son to have a haircut. Both the Supercut outlets near our home were too filled with waiting customers for a walk-in when we tried at Tampa yesterday evening. Just to show that last minute chores are destined not to be done. And the barber shop at Reitz Union was closed, perhaps because the semester has not started. Anyway he will try on his own first thing tomorrow morning.

After depositing him at his dorm, we drove home, reaching Tampa before 5pm. The only thing that bears mentioning on the drive home is this particular driver, who kept turning to talk to his front seat companion (I could see that through his back window), with his car showing the same tendency as well. So a minute he was in the lane, the next minute his passenger half of the car would cross the median line. From the back, he appeared to be doing a minor zigzag, but somehow he had the sense to keep to his lane while overtaking. So I maintained a respectable distance, until, mercifully, he exited the Interstate. Lesson: When you are driving, always look straight when talking to your front passenger, if your head-steering coordination is always synchronized, in the same direction.

So the place downstairs vacated by our younger son will be taken up by his sister, who is proud to show off her new laptop, except that we would have to buy a longer Internet cable to connect to the router, which is shared by another two users, me to write my blog, and his elder brother using the old laptop bought in 2001 but still good enough for surfing. We have earlier bought a 7-ft cable that turned out to be too short (the younger son wanted to take along his long cable to UF even though I reasoned with him that he could use the 7-ft one for his dorm room. I have seen the room and a 7ft length is definitely doable, at least on his side of the room).

So more lessons here. When in doubt, always measure. But then we must have doubts first. Also, reasoning with one’s kids must be followed up by putting the foot down, so to speak.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The 7th Meditation-cum-Dharma-Discussion session MWBA: Happiness

I never realized I could sit through (I would not even begin to claim it as meditating) about 40 minutes without changing my posture, eyes closed, mind seemingly still. But that’s what I did this morning at the 7th Meditation-cum-Dharma-Discussion session organized by Middle Way Buddhist Association (MWBA) held at its St. Pete venue, without sensing the passage of time.

Led by Bhante, the attendees found their individual relaxed positions, either sitting on chairs or cross-legged on the raised floor, each delving into his/her inner world of mindfulness. Here I could only relate my own personal mental journey amidst the sensory assaults on my auditory organs. In between chanting silently Namo Amituofo, I perceived, through hearing, the background humming of the air-conditioner interspersed with occasional cacophony from cars passing by, even a plane (or was it a heli?) flying by, coughing noise, even exhaling. When the humming stopped due to the thermostat setting, I could even pick up the sound of the wall clock ticking, and a periodic beeping sound from somewhere outside.

My mind drifted among the plot of the Jeffrey Deaver’s novel that I was reading, the planned drive up north tomorrow to send my son back to UF for the Fall semester, my blog on compassion, and perhaps others that escape me now. These fleeting thoughts arose and vanished, each time mindfulness being attained by chanting anew. And before I knew it, Bhante’s voice came through, announcing the end of yet another meditation session.

In the ensuing Dharma discussion, Bhante chose to focus on happiness, the pursuit of which understandably has become our primary preoccupation. Through a series of stories and personal anecdotes, Bhante imparted the following messages (from my perspective) that exemplify the Buddha’s teachings:

  • Happiness comes from within.
  • Don’t cling to the past. Don’t jump into the future. Otherwise we would lose the present moment.
  • Whatever happens, put it in the reality basket.
  • Just like a car that requires periodic oil change, we too need to tune up our mind, to see the mind mindfully and wisely, by using our own mind.
  • Sugar, while it is sweet (and hence appeals to our palate), is harmful to our health (think diabetes). Herbs, while bitter, can heal.
  • We live in an unbalanced world with a balanced mind.
  • How not to be angry?
    • Focus on identifying which of the 32 parts of my body is being hurt.
    • Realize that being upset is no good for my position.
    • I will lose my health.
    • I will lose my serenity.
    • I will worry.
  • When conditions cease, we have to leave.
  • Why are we born? To die.
  • Birth is uncertain. Death is certain.
  • Keep your own space (idea/mental solitude).
  • Practice. Practice. Practice.

Shortly after noontime, all adjourned to a hearty vegetarian lunch, potluck style.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Deaver/Rhyme/Sachs Trio

As I recall, John Ryan is, or rather was, the only serialized fiction character whose exploits, both in novels and the celluloid screen, that I have followed. I’m referring to the part-time historian/part-time CIA Deputy Director made famous by the guru of techno-thrillers, Tom Clancy.

Then things changed a bit. It all started with my younger D’s fetish for buying used books from the public library, a pastime that she picked up not too long ago, apparently vying with her elder sister for literary supremacy, or acquisition to be exact. So in two outings, she has amassed several books by Jeffrey Deaver, of the Lincoln Rhyme’s pedigree.

Perhaps like me, a Denzel Washington’s fan, you would have heard, or may even have watched, the movie The Bone Collector starring DW in the role of the quadriplegic detective, Lincoln Rhyme. So therein lies the connection with Jeffrey Deaver.

I started with The Stone Monkey, which is about human trafficking involving Chinese piglets, a literal translation from its Chinese counterpart meaning people who are smuggled into a country. The story plot was fascinatingly bizarre, driving me to finish the book within a couple of days, which is a record of sort these days.

Since the cast comprises Chinese people, Deaver has sprinkled several Chinese terms throughout the book. However, his choice of Chinese words as appellations of some of the characters did unsettle me a bit. Let’s just say they are not only less than complimentary, but rather crude. But I was soon lost in the intricate plot, being thrown off several times by his misdirections when I thought I have the bad guy nailed.

Next up was The Coffin Dancer that dealt with the sinister world of hired assassins. My mistake was thinking that all assassins work alone. So there Deaver had me again, until he decided to reveal the identity by a process of elimination. I would not go further here, as I have learned the hard way from the reaction of my younger daughter when I tried to spill some beans, so to speak. Also, my elder daughter has taught me the meaning of being spoilers when I blogged about the latest JK Rowling's offering, unwittingly revealing beyond the normal bounds of "decency".

Now I’m one third way through The Vanished Man, but this time Deaver has decided to reveal the villain early. So the plot takes on a different tack, the readers getting worried for the hero and the heroine whenever the villain gets near. Yes, there is actually a serialized couple, the fairer one by the name of Amelia Sachs, an understudy criminologist. This twist is unlike the previous two where several candidates for villainy compete for my attention.

This particular foe poses tremendous challenge for Rhyme/Sachs and company, for he is an illusionist by profession. I don’t feel bad about revealing the guy here because it’s there in the first few pages of the book. My interest has also been piqued considerably by the fact that I recently watched the Illusionist starring Edward Norton and The Prestige starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, which is about two illusionists trying to outperform each other. So I am familiar with an illusionist’s paraphernalia as explained in the book. The difference is I have to use a lot more imagination in reading Deaver’s convoluted plot.

OK, on to more Deaver/Rhyme/Sachs. To you know who in Oregon, it's time to switch from the Horvath guy to Rhyme.

Oh yes, I just realize that before Rhyme, there is Horvath for me too, the ex-SEAL/secret agent popularized by Brad Thor.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Duel of the Bonds/Bournes

I grew up with Bond's movies, though I have never read a single book by Ian Fleming, the creator of the secret agent famously known as the double O 7 of Her Majesty Service. The sleek car, which later metamorphosed into the amphibian vehicle, the Bond girls, the resourceful villains who always seem to survive all manners of killing and would come back for a last hurrah, and gadgets that are always at the frontiers of technology when they were first introduced in the movies.

Despite many actors having been cast in the lead role, Sean Connery remains my favorite Bond guy, with Pierce Brosnan a distant second. Given enough exposure, perhaps Daniel Craig can give my hero a run for the money. But until then, he just has to bid his time.

Then along came the Bourne trilogy, though I have yet to watch the Ultimatum. However, unlike the Bond genre, Bourne is essentially a one-man wrecking crew, who at time appears to be too emotionless for my comfort. Bourne makes up for the lack of institutional support offered by the parallel M5 intelligence, he being a renegade or having gone rouge in spy parlance, by playing to the David and Goliath scenario, the classic underdog against the behemoth, and we all know where the support will go.

And Matt Damon fits the mold of a calculating maverick, when he is not tormented by memory recalls, to the hilt. Despite his small size by the standard of any Hollywood lead man, he excels in being cast as a mix of the psychopathic, but not sociopathic, and the ruthless, but not self-righteous. In that sense, his performance in the Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13, the last of which I’ve yet to see, is a slight let-down for his bookish mannerism. But the series or sequels have George Clooney and Brad Pitt to deflect attention. And that’s another story.

Another difference is I have read some of Robert Ludlum’s novels, who of course is the creator of the Bourne cult that is sweeping across the celluloid screen with the recent release of the last of the trilogy.

I have seen nothing but raving reviews, even from my colleagues. Also, I have watched several reruns of the first two on TV, each time it being successful in captivating my rapt attention. But the same cannot be said of reruns of James Bond kicking ass, especially those by Roger Moore.

And to prove the point, I have Bourne’s DVDs, but not Bond’s. Even Sean Connery’s cool demeanor and fine acting seem like such old stuff in comparison and cannot help tilt the balance at this time. So over to you, Daniel Craig and the gang.

Sorry for the seeming frivolity of today’s blog but I do need an injection of levity sometimes. Carpe Diem!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Commencement and Convocation: The Tradition of the Lee's Family

The concluding highlight of an academic pursuit is the commencement ceremony (convocation in Malaysia) during which graduates take their turn to march up the stage to receive their well-earned scrolls among pomp and pageantry. It marks the official end to the toil, to burning the midnight oil, to the frequent visits to the snake temples (a less than savory allusion to university libraries often used in Malaysia, snakes being the metaphor for cunning in this case, and the libraries being places where students sneak away to do some serious mugging while maintaining the illusion of outwardly cool dudes who look askance at poring over the books with disdain, vanity at its purest, at least during my time) and bestows a veritable stamp on one’s learning prowess. The latter perception may have been diluted somewhat by the present-day sprouting of degree mills that purportedly cater to the hectic schedules of working professionals.

At the school level, the same is often called a graduation ceremony, and here it’s one that we have attended, that of our younger daughter. But here I’m going to blog about my own experience, at the college level since those days we did not have elaborate graduation ceremonies at the school level save for the achievement award ceremonies conducted on the last day of schools during which only the top achievers got to parade their prizes for all to see. And I did make a few laps of those on my own. But back to the universities.

I got my bachelor degree in 1978, and attended my first ever convocation on June 17, 1978, if memory serves me right. Little did I know that this would also be my last, for now, as I shall relate later in the blog.

I remember we drove to KL in my (then future) father-in-law’s car from my home town, my late Mom, my younger sister, and my soon-to-be-officially wedded wife included in the entourage. The exact proceeding has become a blur, but I must have sat among the graduates, in regalia (gown, mortar board and sash, the latter being a shining orange color). Then I must have walked primly up on the stage, smilingly receiving the scroll from the VC (I have a photo as testimony but it was left back home. Increasingly this lapse in my pre-departure preparation afew years back has come back to haunt me, especially since I started my second life, one of blogging).

There must be tons of speeches before then, knowing the penchant of my countrymen for public address, but their details escape me. The entire ceremony was staged in what I still feel as the most stately building in the entire campus of University of Malaysia (UM), the Dewan Tunku Chanselor (DTC for short), with its granite block walls all around, vertically slitted with grass panes that enable one to peek inside (I think). The entrance is graced by several inter-connected koi ponds while the Experiment Theatre (where many drama performances were featured) abuts its back. It’s no small wonder that after close to 30 years, I still remember vividly that image.

I also remember taking photos in the campus, with all members of my entourage. We actually intended to put up a night in Petaling Jaya (PJ) (the UM campus straddles the border of KL/PJ). I remember driving to the PJ Hilton, but apparently the hotel rate must have put my off, considering then I was only a fresh government engineer of a few month’s tenure, drawing a monthly attachment pay of a couple of hundreds ringgit (Malaysian dollars). So it turned out to be a day’s trip, as we had originally planned for.

Subsequently, I have two more opportunities to partake of the solemn ceremony here in US. The first followed from my Masters degree study at UCB, in May 1987. But the traveling bug caught us just in time, that being my last opportunity to take in the natural setting of the Western US. So instead of making a beeline to the open air Greek theatre and be part of the proud history of Cal Bears, we began our two-week trek, in a rented car that is, swinging by Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and back to Albany, California. Sites visited included Salt Lake City, Dinosaur Crater, Yellow Stone Park (The Old Faithful geysers), Jackson Hole (elk country) where we witnessed a horse parade by the local Native Americans and an arch (or portal) made of Elk antlers, a meadow reminiscent of the Little House in the Prairie TV series, a picture of verdant grasslands and fragrant flowers, CSU at Fort Collins (when we visited the late Dr. Hiew who would complete his Ph.D. at the end of the same year, which is no mean feat, flying through the doctoral course in 3 years), Grand Teton Dam, The Hoover Dam, Las Vegas.

I remember we lost about half a day when the front disc brake of our rented car gave up on us, emitting a jarring noise that made me cringe. And we had to languish at a tire shop somewhere in Albuquerque for the brake replacement.

But all in all, I did not regret missing the commencement for the two-week road trip, seeing more places perhaps more than a lifetime of some people. It was both an educational and inspiring experience that could not be substituted by a half-day attendance at a human-filled setting, perhaps a case of you never know what you're missing until you are there.

Then there was the commencement at the end of my Ph.D. study, at UF. This time, it was kind of beyond my control. I had planned to finish the requirements by the end of 1994, after a 4-year free-rein roaming across the academic arena, with some double-backs to add to the drama. But it was not to be. I could not make the deadline to graduate by the end of that fall semester. I was only able to submit my dissertation by January the following spring and had to register for another 3 credits to maintain my student status. So we returned to Malaysia in early February, 1995, not able to attend the Spring 1995 commencement slated for May 1995.

Then my elder D graduated at the end of 2005, from U. Oregon. But we did not make it to her commencement either. Neither did she, come to think of it. So the legacy of not attending one’s commencement in our family, at least at the college level, continues. Two more opportunities beckon in the horizon, our younger son (class of 2010), and younger daughter (class of 2011). Let’s plan for them, shall we?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Morning Walk at Lettuce Park

Answering the invitation of a fellow Buddhist friend, Julie, we went for a walk last Sunday in the Lettuce Park, just off Fletcher not far from our home. This is our second visit (read here for the first), not counting the time we drove through once to get a feel of the place. We can always count on these strategically located parks among the neighborhoods for a sort of communion with nature.

Due to the rainy spell in the past few days, the water level was visibly higher, inundating a greater portion of the low land on both sides of the boardwalk. This time we covered another loop of the boardwalk that passes by a wooden tower, three levels high.

The view from the top of the tower is, well, exhilarating: the scenic lake view is filled with floating leaves, lined by greenery broken by the brown of tree trunks piercing skyward. Occasionally we could see specks of white dotting the distant green, which must be the avian visitors. Or dwellers, we can’t tell. Unfortunately, the battery of my camera decided to quit on me at this juncture. So no photo to let you be the judge.

Trailing behind the group with the top of the tower visible through the canopy, slightly right of center.

The ladies gathering for a group photo at the ground level of the tower.

This is taken at the ground level just before my camera failed me.

We passed by a gentleman holding a camera with an extra long zoom lens, the tell-tale sign of a bird enthusiast in this setting. He rattled off several names of the bird species that he had come across, which just flew by us, except for Osprey. I know of it actually from the name of a wave energy extraction device built off the coast of Scotland.

What else did we see? Oh yes, a black caterpillar, calmly inching along at the side of the boardwalk. A brown hare perched on top of some fallen tree branches. We (me and the hare) engaged in some staring contest for a while (it was about ten feet away from the boardwalk), then it decided to turn its attention on some kind of prey, which I gathered from its cat-like stalking gait, eyes affixed at the leafy cover in front. At first I thought it could have been marooned, seeing that the rise in the water level seemed to have cut off the fallen branches into discrete pockets of above-water “terrain”. But I guess my worry was superfluous since this is obviously its habitat.

I spotted a pink cocoon attached to a thin tree stem. It could be an ant nest, or it could be one from which some insect could emerge, that being part of its metamorphosis, if my high school biology serves me right.

Then we heard some engine noise, and sure enough, a motorboat with two people onboard appeared into our view, slicing across the lake, leaving some wakes behind. Not sure what they were doing, could be part of the patrolling routine.

Soon (actually more than an hour later) we were back to the car, everybody having had a good sweat, even though the walking was nothing close to a brisk pace. We all adjourned to Julie’s house for a treat of juicy fruits and a feast of simple but tasty vegetarian cooking.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Not-So-Crazy Aspects of Dining at Crazy Buffet

“First time here?” A nod.

“Did you … [garbled words because of the muffling by the background din of patrons waiting to be seated]?” Huh?

Louder, “Did you know about us from friends?” Yes, friends, definitely.

“Do you … [relapsed back to normal loudness]?” Finger pointing to what seems like a sigh-up sheet on the table.

Straining my eyes because of the dim light, I could not make up what she was trying to ask.

“Coupons?” This time loud and clear. Oh, No. And she put a big cross across the middle section of the sheet. [OK, be aware of that if ever there is a return visit.]

The above scene was played out in the lobby of the Crazy Buffet restaurant in Tampa last evening. Before that we had just dropped CE (our younger D) at Augosto Restaurant in South Tampa where her friend was holding her birthday party. And our two sons preferred enjoying the cool comfort of home rather than the hassle of going out, dinner at a fancy restaurant or not [or maybe trying to save the old man some dole]. That suited us well, a rare occasion where a loving couple can have some time to themselves, reliving the “care-free” days of roaming about town before the children were ushered in.

After some exchanges between us as to the restaurant choice, guided by the overarching principle that we must not have been to, we settled on Crazy Buffet restaurant along Dale Mabry Highway. Outside at the restaurant signage, my wife spotted a huge pair of chopsticks embedded in the name (like so, taken from their website, unlike the one we visited, which is standalone). Hmmm, something immediately rang in my mind.

Immediately after the entrance, we crossed a small pond with fountains, And paintings on the wall, some with Chinese calligraphy. Definitely an oriental eatery. Then while waiting to be seated, we picked up a card that says VariAsian across in red. That settled that.

We were then given a grand tour of the buffet area, apparently a treat for first-timers: the sushi bar, the salad bar, the cooking-on-the-spot-by-the-chef place, the Korean food (we learned later that August is the month for Korean delicacies, wines included), the traditional food, the fruit bar, the ice-cream bar.

At the seating area, more wall paintings, and the light was just right. However, the atmosphere was a bit noisy for my taste, being seated in front of a multi-family with kids. But that did not dampen our heightened spirit, the elevation invariably setting in on first experience.

I first went for the traditional food: fried rice, fried meehoon (rice sticks), liberal portion of veggie, some chicken, and sat back to let my month do the work. A lot of carbohydrates, my wife commented. Her plate looked more meaty: A Korean BBQ pork rib, some shrimps (her favorite food is seafood), and some other bits and pieces that I could not make out at a glance, but more so because I was busy chewing away my food, which requires full concentration.

A second round brought me more meehoon (this time I saw the name affixed to the top of the food carriage: Singapore fried meehoon) and Korean fried rice [As you can surmise by now, fried meehoon is one of my favorites]. My wife partook of a Peking Duck drumstick, and another Korean BBQ pork rib.

I rounded up with some sesame balls and a cake for dessert. No fruits, no ice-cream. Then I sat back to observe life in a restaurant while my wife continued to sample the offerings.

The waiters brought a birthday cake with a single lighted candle to a neighboring table and blurted out a rendition of Happy Birthday. My wife joined in the festivity too by clapping. Wonder whether that birthday boy (actually it’s a man) got a free dinner for the trouble.

When the bill came, it has ‘Quality service is customarily acknowledged by a gratuity of 15-20%’ printed across the bottom. No ambiguity there. At the Thai restaurant last night, it was even better, the gratuity was already computed and totaled in the bill.

How was the dining experience? Crazy enough for us? Considering the per head charge of 20 bucks, my wife said it was OK. Mine tended not to be exactly the bang for the buck, considering my selection of food items as enumerated above. But it was an experience that we have no way of knowing before our visit. Repeat visit? If the conditions are ripe, maybe.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Listen to Your Body, It's the only one You Have Got

Normally Friday it’s a good day to blog. The week’s work just about wound down, and the thought of another weekend never fails to be mood boosting. But, as you can see, I did not blog yesterday. Fatigue from the day’s work and my body’s response are the main culprits.

First, I sat at my desk longer than usual, slouched over the computer screen trying to get a hydrodynamic modeling run going. It’s not that it’s a tough nut to crack, technically speaking, but rather the tedium, the mechanical operation of going through the grind: finding the geographical coordinates of the boundary locations of the grid domain, looking up the tidal constituents from the Global Tide Model, generating the tide time series, and interpolating to yield the boundary tide series along a boundary, and there are four. On top of that, I have to make sure that the right information was input at the right place.

Similarly for the model grid, though the details differ. In this case, I have to first geo-reference the aerial image/convert from another geographical coordinate system, digitize the land boundary, importing the seabed survey points after the proper coordinate conversion, including units. Fortunately, I have done enough of manual digitizing (effectively, using the mouse to trace out lines) that the resulting lines usually stay true to the original without needing much correction).

Both operations (I deleted the first word that came to mind, chore, fearing that it might connote a menial task) are taxing on the hand-body and the eyes, the latter being fixed on the monitor screen. So having an anti-glare screen does help.

In the evening, I started to feel a stinging (that maybe too strong a word but I’m lost for one that means lesser in intensity) sensation on my back. I took it as a warning and stood up to stretch a bit, hoping that the “renewed” blood circulation would ease the matter. Then I had to arch my back a few times, flexing the spinal cord. But that “numbness” persisted.

When I reached home after work, I found myself ensconced in a sofa seat, legs propped on the coffer table, and adjusted my posture until every part of my body seemed relaxed and comfortable. Eyes closed, I took a short nap, just in time to wake up about half an hour later to take Adam to dinner at a Thai restaurant.

Before that, when my wife told me of the dinner arrangement, I was ambivalent of going out because of the back sensation that still bugged me. But voila, the numbness kind of disappeared when we were about to go out. And half way through the dinner, my wife commented that I looked much better, a semblance of radiance taking over my fatigued look. Must be the Thai food, or the dinner company, or my good sense of taking the brief nap outside my routine, listening to my body when it speaks. Or much more likely, a combination of them. And I guess that will be my panacea against the sometimes occupational hazards of a sedentary job.

That reminded me of a more serious ordeal that I went through back in college. I was just returning from a trip to see my girl friend (now my wife), then training in JB in a teachers training college, on a train. The trip took seven hours. So to pass the time, I brought a novel along to read on the train, little did I realize that the book could enthrall me for the entire train journey without me leaving my seat once I got on the train. [It may be anti-climatic to note that I can't remember the name of the novel, a case of pain overshadowing the pleasure.]

The train arrived at KL, and I alighted and took a taxi back to my rented room. After finishing my shower, I was bending down to move the pail that had my laundry when I felt a tug at my back. And that did it, I was like a cooked shrimp, posture-wise, for the rest of the night. Any attempt to straighten my back would bring on an excruciating pain that must have exceeded my pain threshold, for I gave up almost instantly.

I trudged down the stairs (my room was on the 2nd floor), hailed a taxi, and ended up in a clinic. Armed with some pain-killers and some muscle anti-inflammatory prescription, I managed to pass the night, my knees practically at my chin, sideway.

The next few days became a blur in my memory. But I think I took time off, to heal. And it did. And I was smart enough not to relive the unbelievably acute assault on my back. And yesterday’s memory lapse would be the closest I will ever get to that, I promise myself.

So listen to your body, its suppleness diminishing in reverse to the advancing age. And for goodness sake, walk around after 15 minutes or so from a seated position, if you can help it. Otherwise, change the position, stretch the legs/hands, massage the shoulder, do some table calisthenics, if you can’t, like in a meeting or in a middle of a movie in a cinema. You will never be sorry.

Oh yes, Adam hails from Sarasota and was here yesterday to do some Shaolin Kungfu sparring with my elder son.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

While I Was Crawling …

Actually that refers to the pace, not the motion mode. And my car was doing that, while I was driving to work this morning. Tampa is undergoing (almost tempted to use “currently”, but was quick to realize what I’ve previously blogged here) a raining spell, much like the afternoon showers back home, but with reduced intensity, most of the time.

Alternating between 20 and 30 mph, occasionally dipping to 10 mph, I inched my car along the Interstate. That’s the first exit after I entered the Interstate (to Busch Blvd). After some time, the second exit (Sligh Road) appeared. Well, about 6 or 7 more to go, I muttered to myself. Normally these road signages just flash by, but today they seemed to be moving (relative to my car) in slow mo.

Then a song came on Magic 94.9 that struck a chord in me. This is one of my favorite songs, more so because of the melody. I’ve never paid attention to the lyrics, until a few (or perhaps longer) nights ago when the dances by the So You Think You Can Dance contestants using the song as accompaniment were criticized as anti-war. Huh? I did not even realize there is some kind of political statement somewhere.

So, I paid attention to the lyrics this time. So we keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change … That’s the chorus that I caught. And I did hear something about war and information.

While blogging, I got the name of the song from my D, Waiting On The World To Change by John Mayer (of Your Body Is a Wonderland fame). And I latched on to Youtube to listen and read the lyrics. I must say the lyrics do reflect the sentiments of a right-thinking young man, the underlying anti-war rhetoric notwithstanding. Definitely qualifies as a song that makes a statement.

Back to the slow drive this morning. My mind then wondered to the tragedy spawned by the collapsed Interstate bridge in Minnesota. Without warning save for some rumbling noise and ground shake lasting perhaps a few seconds, those cars caught on the after-work traffic jam and practically stalling on the bridge deck careened like toy cars into the river.

It all happened so fast, practically out of the blue. In the aftermath of the unthinkable mishap, investigations are afoot to get to the bottom so that we can learn from the mistakes. Much like the Tacoma Narrows bridge that I blogged here, but then that afforded sufficient warning for anything untoward to be averted.

A before & after image comparison of the I35W Bridge in Minnesota
Left: before the collapse on Aug 1, 2007 (from GoogleEarth)
Right: After the collapse on Aug 1, 2007 (adapted from AP photo)

Engineering designs are often injected with a healthy dose of redundancy, especially when failure can be expected to be catastrophic. There are also built-in safeguards such as sensors that emit warning should progressive deterioration of structural capacity is imminent. Then there is periodic inspection and monitoring, built on experiences gained from similar systems.

However, despite our best intentions and precautions, disasters can and do happen. That of course is no comfort to those who bear the full brunt of the tragedy. And our hearts go to them in this time of sorrow.

Just then my exit appeared (Ashley) and I reached the office ten minutes later than usual.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

How Not to Work Another Day

Dan’s latest blog with a strange title (but not the contents) got me thinking too. My last job in Malaysia granted me 35 days of annual vacation leave (at first 30 days followed by an extra 5 days after ten years of service). On top of that, I also had 90 days of paid sick leave. And to crown it all, (fellow Americans, eat your heart out), I also enjoyed 15 days of public holidays, ostensibly because each race has its own unique holidays that everybody celebrates by not working.

There is a caveat though. I was a civil servant, working for the government. I think the leave entitlements are much less in the privates sector. Some may even have to work during public holidays.

Here I work a 40-hour 5-day week. Anyway that is how the pay is computed. I have a combined vacation-cum-sick leaves of 15 days annually. Besides, there are 7 public holidays. At first, I thought the disparity is because I’m not comparing apple to apple. And my wife’s friend, who is a State employee, just happened to drop by this evening. She has about 13 days of vacation annually, and the same number of sick leaves, and seven public holidays. So, on a total hour basis, Americans do work more than Malaysians. Does that equate to higher productivity? Definitely so even assuming the same efficiency, which might not even in Malaysia’s favor.

And hence, the difference in development status, US being a highly developed country and the most Malaysia can lay claim to at this point in time is “highly developing”? May not be sufficient but definitely a contributing factor.

Are Malaysians, then, happier workers, judging from the fact that they have more time away from work, than their American counterparts? Or conversely, are the American workers highly stressed, needing to resort to chemical inducements to stay focused, or in some cases, sane?

My personal experience says otherwise. No doubt I work longer hours, but I stay challenged most of the times. And there is no lack of colleagues to be used as sounding boards, nor dearth of corporate memory to shed light on new approaches.

After work, the greenery abounds for relaxation. And a stroll at a nearby park does wonder to one’s state of mind, discharging the enervating fatigue and invigorating one’s inner battery to welcome another day of living.

As one wise person said, find a work that you love, then you don’t have to work another day. Admittedly some days are better than the others, but by and large I think my present vocation is as close to that utopian state as one can practically hold, considering the fact that retirement is not as distant as it used to be.

In a nutshell, then, it's the quality of work that you do, plus all the intangibles that have a bearing on your disposition, that shape your worldly outlook toward life, which in turn will give a positive spin to what you do. And you have set a virtuous cycle in motion, and happiness, whatever yardstick you choose to use, is just a matter of time, and of course.