Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Foretaste of Retirement Life?

Today is the fifth straight day on a stretch that I have been away from work since last Saturday, Monday being a public holiday (Memorial day) and the next two, my own leave. The two off days were not planned, but just kind of being carried along by the momentum of the holiday mood, perhaps a foretaste of what a retired life would feel like.

I would have to say it's a nice, relaxed feeling, one not burdened by work but entirely driven by one's volition. We spent the first two days on Dharma matters, attending two Dharma talks on consecutive days. Both have been Dharma bliss-filled occasions, granting us serenity and uplifting us spiritually. The next two were more mundane affairs, but physically soothing nonetheless.

We watched the latest Indy's flick that deals with crystal skulls. Harrison Ford is, well, Harrison Ford, a vintage performance. And we were introduced to Shia LaBeouf, the pretender to the maverick archaeologist's crown. He made a grand entrance reminiscent of the young Marlo Brando, a prompt we learned in today's movie review. But some of the scenes remind me of the Raiders of the Lost Ark, if one were to replace the mysterious forces of the remains in the gold casket with those wielded by alien beings. While the first Indy movie stopped at Area 51, this one started from there, with a ten-year hiatus. But that's as much as I would say about the movie.

Personally, and entertainment-wise, I would rate Iron Man a better cinematic experience. Somehow a human superhero aided by human ingenuity is more believable than the supernatural forces whose provenance would need more than a leap of faith to comprehend.

Then yesterday, we watched the first DVD (out of seven) of a Taiwan-made TV series entitled It Started with a Kiss. It was adapted from a Manga series involving the evolution of puppy love between two teens that blossoms into a lasting marital relationship, preceded as always by the infatuation stage that is decidedly one-sided. It may be an old theme but I would grant the cast for some refreshing angles that involve nothing more than good old fun, nothing in the league of the back-stabbing, blood curdling sagas of the daytime soap operas that thrive on scheming protagonists and carnal knowledge. According to CE, this is the Taiwan edition, which is cheaper than the Japanese edition that has better packaging. Incidentally, CE has served as an English consultant to provide the English subtitles for an online group, with occasional tips from us, rendered gratis. We are proud of her initiative, kind of taking after the father, don't you think?

It lasted three hours into the wee hours of the morning, a luxury that I have not indulged since maybe watching the Japanese series GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka) starring Sorimachi Takashi several years back while we were still in Malaysia, a record yet to be beaten. But these days there seem to be more kissing scenes, perhaps a reflection of the more liberating atmosphere in Asia, but nothing bordering on indecency.

Talking about the DVD set, it was delivered by USPS, supposedly a birthday gift for CE, but self-ordered online and self-paid, with our blessing. It came wrapped in a cardboard box that is just small enough to fit into our pigeon hole mail box placed outdoor at a central location typical of apartment complexes.

If you are not familiar with the mail box system here (or perhaps they are the same everywhere), just bear with me. Now, these mail boxes are arranged in a regular array of regular openings that span vertically and across. Each is accessed through an individual door opened by a key that is unique for each resident. But the postman would access the individual boxes differently. He/she would open a single panel large door that comprises all these individual mail-box doors to expose the mail boxes all at once. Then all he/she would need to do is to slot the mails into individual boxes, bypassing the trouble of opening individual doors and closing them after each delivery.

So the box went snugly into our mail box. But little did the postman realize that an individual door is actually crafted slightly smaller than the mail box itself to allow for side hinges on one side and for the bar lock on the other. That's where the trouble started, I simply could not slide the box package out, and being of cardboard construction, it can't be squeeze either. This is actually our second experience of the same whence we had to use a pair of scissors to cut open the box side so that it could be bent to offer a smaller sectional area for extraction. And that worked, but at the expense of the scissors the handle of which broke due to the brute force approach.

This time, though, we were better prepared. So I used a paper cut knife, you know, the sliding type, and sawed open the end of the box, revealing the DVD box set within. Luckily, the actual DVD box is smaller than the door dimension (but not much) and I was able to slide it ot. The rest was easy, the cardboard, minus the contents, was then easily collapsed and removed.

I'm not sure when the postman will learn about this size disparity and do the right thing, i.e., place such boxes in another larger common mail box (not assigned to anybody) specially designed for these odd-sized packages. The postman would then leave the key to that common mail box in the mail box of the resident concerned for later retrieval. I guess we may have to tell him/her one day. But we will give him/her another chance.

So that brought us to today, which we have not yet decided how the holiday mood should continue. Perhaps the second DVD, so that we could continue to laugh heartily at the silly antics therein, which at times would bring a chuckle or two as we were young and possessed with the same impulsive tendencies once.

Anyway, it is good to relive some old fond memories, vicariously notwithstanding, especially with wify by my side. A mere squeeze of her hand would bring up a knowing smile and a loving gaze from her. Such is the experience shared by two who have traveled this far in life together whereby a lot can be exchanged without having to say anything.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

From donation drive, to public speaking, to the spirit of giving

Human tragedies continue to hog the headlines, proving once again that homo sapiens, despite wondrous technological advances that have been lulling us into a false sense of security vis-a-vis the might of Nature, are still at the mercy of the “whims” of natural calamities. While the carnage brought about by the 2004 South Asian Tsunami and the devastation wrought by the 2004/2005 Hurricane seasons in US have hardly receded into the recesses of our memory, 2008 has shaped up to be a particularly difficult year so far, with catastrophes charging out of the gate one after the other: Cyclone Nargis sweeping through the lowlying coastal plains of the Irriwaddy delta, Myanmar, the 7.9 earthquake in Sichuan, China, and the recent havoc in the wake of the tornadoes whirling through the US midwest.

Especially in Myanmar and China, rescuers are on a frantic search for survivors in hard-to-reach places while international aid organizations are mobilizing resources, be they manpower, materials, equipment, or financial, to pour into the affected regions. Donation centers have been set up, both physically on the ground and virtually through the Internet. To facilitate donations from folks on the street, small teams of volunteers have also been deployed at commercial facilities to collect donations from patrons making their weekend grocery trips.

Tzuchi Foundation, a Buddhist Compassionate Relief headquartered in Taiwan, has again initiated such a street-level donation drive effort at locales throughout the US. And we were honored to be called upon to help out in such a drive held in Tampa today. Our destination: The MD Oriental Market on 1106 E Fowler Avenue, one which we frequent on a nearly weekly basis. Our team of Linda, Wify, and yours truly was assigned to the second day (the first day was yesterday), the first shift running from 11am to 1.30pm, followed by a second shift ending at 4pm where our fellow volunteers from the Tzuchi Foundation in Tampa would take over.

The day was mostly sunny, except for several brief anxious moments when dark clouds loomed atop momentarily but eventually drifted afield, leaving a few drops on my head in the process, sparing us the deluge that would have hampered our effort but not dampen out spirit. As it were, even the weather seemed to be on our side on this day marked by compassion all-round.

After setting up the poster announcing the purpose of the donation drive at the entrance, and putting on a vest bearing the emblem of Tzuchi Foundation (Linda was in the familiar white long pant and blue T-shirt, a signature outdoor attire for Tzuchi volunteers affectionately termed “Blue Sky White Cloud”), we positioned ourselves on both sides of the entrance, but at a discreet distance away so that we would not block the direct path of entry into and exit from the Market, each holding a donation box in our hands.

We greeted the patrons warmly, and inquired politely whether they would like to make a donation to help the earthquake victims in China, after which we thanked them. We also bade them “have a nice day” on their way out. We abided strictly to the instructions from Tzuchi Headquarters not to be seen as exerting pressure on patrons; nor should we disrupt the smooth running of the business of the establishment. Prior to going ahead with the donation drive at the premises, the team leader is to consult the proprietors to seek their blessing for the effort. So we were that because of their good office and for that Tzuchi Foundation is thankful.

We used a combination of Mandarin and English for obvious reasons. Of course sometimes we did err on being presumptuous because not all Chinese looking people speak Mandarin. And they were graceful enough to overlook our oversight and happy to donate all the same.

Initiating a conversation with a complete stranger can be intimidating, let alone asking for a donation. I can recall times during my younger days when I was prone to being tongue-tight among strangers, preferring to merge into the background as much as possible. I still remember vividly a high school class debate when the night before I was agonizing over the things to say, the way to say it, and so on. I think I hardly slept, constantly turning in bed and dreading the arrival of the morning. When the moment came, I remember standing up, looking straight ahead, the mind drawing a blank, a complete one. I might have stammer a few words, but the pin-drop silence engulfed me, totally. After a seemingly interminably long time, in silence, I think I felt my teacher motioning to me to sit down, and the rest of the day just went by in a daze. That definitely wasn't me in there on that day, I rationalized, because I had won several elocution contests in my days at the elementary school levels. But my classmates never mentioned a word of my anomalous behavior that day after that, not to me directly anyway. And I was thankful for that.

I was forced to overcome my stage fright after I joined the work force during which I had been called on occasions to deliver talks and briefings. Now even though I still have butterflies in my stomach before an audience, I have never failed to speak, whether it was well delivered is another matter all together. Now I realize that as long as I make myself audible, intelligible better yet, people will always listen before they shut you off. They don't like to laugh at you, unless you yourself make it irresistible for them. I think it's the letting go of the pressure, and the assurance that comes from knowing the substance of the message we are about to deliver. Of course knowing that we are doing it for a good course helps tremendously.

This is our third time doing a street-level donation drive for Tzuchi Foundation, the first and second times being for the 2004 South Asian Tsunami and 2005 Hurricane Katrina Disaster Reliefs, both at the Oceanic Market several years back. Just like then, I found the experience to be a humbling one, and a heart-warming one as well.

People will always have a soft spot for human tragedies, irrespective of where it occurs. And they will always respond positively to kind words and polite requests. The readiness with which they came forth with donations that I witnessed today is a clear testimony to the humanity that resides within each of us. And as long as compassion and the spirit of giving are not in short supply, we will always be able to triumph over adversity, and render help to those in need, in whatever capacity each of us is best equipped to handle. And it was with this conviction that we handed the donation drive over to our successors of the day comprising the trio of Yu Huei, Adina and Lulu.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Eureka Springs Park. Eureka! Indeed

Wify was brought to Eureka Springs Park, located just off Highway 301 and Sligh, yesterday morning by Linda, who had chanced upon the Park. Linda fell in love with it right away and had been meaning to bring wify to partake of its magnificent flower collections for some time now. Everything fell into place yesterday and they took the 20-minute drive there. Unsure of what to expect and being in a party of two made up of the fairer sex, she was hesitant to bring along the camera. And that task fell into my lap, today.

Armed with my newly purchased Nikon Coolpix L11, procured at a discount from Ritz Camera and costing half of what I paid for my Nikon Coolpix L6 bought last year with essentially the same functionality, we drove for about 8 miles, as measured on my car's tachometer, from our home for Eureka Springs Park.

But we were sidetracked along the way, for a good reason. While crossing the Tampa Bypass Canal, we noticed that the bridge was closed on one lane, and there were people standing about the cordoned half of the bridge deck, most with cameras trained at the river below. Then our view swept over canoes criss-crossing the river. Yes, we had chanced upon a rowing regatta. Our first thought was this must be an inter-high school competition as wify recalled being informed by Mrs. Kim (we were going to invite her family for a dinner today) that she could not make it because her son, Mark, who is from Plant High School, was to take part in a rowing competition.

As we walked along the bridge deck, we saw a familiar gold and black outfit with the letter “P” inscribed on it, occupying one of the four canoes lining up at the starting point. The Macee's announcement confirmed that it was indeed the Plant Panthers (both my two younger children graduated from Plant High two years and a year back, respectively).

And it was opportune that we arrived just when the Panthers were about to row off in a competition. At the end of the countdown, the four teams pedaled feverishly to the finish point beyond, to the enthusiastic shouts of the respective supporters. We were not sure how the Panthers fared, but Go Panthers!

The Golden Panthers.

And off they went, each cutting a swath of water marks.

After that interlude, we continued toward our destination, arriving at an empty car park. I was not totally surprised to see the car park deserted, having being informed by wify of the less than popular situation on her trip yesterday. But I ascribed that to it being a weekday. But apparently I was wrong. Perhaps it is because of its secluded location as we had to drive through a stretch of rural setting, boasting farm houses with cows and horses roaming the open field. Or there is simply too much competition from the plethora of parks dotting the areal landscape, some of which are in prime locations in terms of accessibility, such as the Lettuce Lake Park.

Wify at the entrance, marked by vertical letter carvings on the wooden sign post behind.

But definitely not for the lack of amenities and especially the flower offerings. Established in 1938, the park offers a meeting room with screened walls (a perfect setting for a Dharma session), a green house, a looped boardwalk, and various nature trails, paved with broken shell fragments that emit a light crushing sound when walked on. Several small dug ponds scatter around the compound, which kind of make up for the lack of a natural stream flowing by (for example, at Lettuce Lake Park and Morris Bridge Wildnerness Park).

An innovative collection of wooden signs.

As for the flower plants that are by far the major attraction, I could only describe it in one word: Eureka!. I've found it! indeed, not unlike the feeling of elation when Archimedes discovered the principle of hydrostatics while lazing in a bath tub, which we now accept as the Archimedes' Principle. But I will let the pictures do the talking, presuming that my amateurish photography skill could do justice to the splendor, the exuberance, the rich tapestry of colorful hues that meet our eyes.

While promenading through the park in relatively quiet, save for the happy chirping from cicadas (do cicadas chirp? Also throughout our nearly two-hours sojourn we only managed to cross path with another gentleman), we met Barbara, the park manager who has been at the park since the 1970s. She was all hands on, hands in gloves and a hand-held spade in one gloved hand, shaving off earth from a nursery plant ready to be planted.

We chalked up a conversation and learned that the park has seen better days in terms of maintenance because of depleting funds. By then we had already finished a major part of our walk through, and had noticed some vestiges of run-down condition in the greenhouse, and shriveled leaves here and there. In fact, Linda told wify yesterday that there might be a real threat of at best a scaled down maintenance regimen and at worst a park close-down should the fund situation remain unresolved.

Despite the fund limitation which is approaching dire proportions, I would say the park remains in a spruce condition, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Barbara and her co-workers in tending to the park so that visitors like us could immerse in what nature is able to offer, a respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life, a mental therapeutic trip into communing with nature.

It would indeed be a crying shame should the unthinkable happen by force of circumstance. We , for one, would make repeated visits to the park and appeal to other park loving people out there to do the same, making it such a popular family destination that the Park would not be relegated into oblivion by sheer dint of economic dictates. So, see you all there, and cherish the Eureka feeling!

Let the fun begin and be dazzled by the rich array of colors, shapes, and sizes that is the floral kingdom that rules Eureka Springs Park (do click on the images for enlarged views).

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Commencement Inspired Reminiscenes

Time really flies when you least expect it. Before we know it, the Spring semester has ended. First, CE started becoming house-bound, meaning not going to the USF campus to attend lectures. Then WT's turn followed suit. And we drove to Gainesville today to fetch him back. And here are some photos taken on the trip, a typical sunny day with the normal load of traffic along the Interstate. The campus was relatively deserted as most of the student population had emptied out of the campus, including those living in dorms, as testified by the small number of cars parked outside Hume Hall, parents helping their kids to vacate their rooms as what we were doing. I can imagine the long lines of cars, sometimes even double-parked, if we were to come yesterday when the main bulk of the exodus would have occurred.

This is the view from the vantage seated position at the back of our minivan, kind of tailgating. That was what I did while waiting for Wify and WT to unload stuff from WT's dorm room, a mug of coffee by my side, and The Authentic Confucious (by Annping Chin, Scribner, NY, 2007) in my hand, learning the intricacy of the local politics of the day in Lu country (Confucious's home state) during the Era of Spring and Autumn (6th Century BC) in the long annals of Chinese History.
And this is the view of my tailgating position, the pad of paper on the rear bumper serving as my seat. The Happy Birthday balloon was meant for WT, who celebrated his 20th birthday just a few days prior.

And here are WT and Wify (swinging a pillow) in the thick of moving chores, the disparity in the loads patently in sight from their carrying actions (WF lugging while Wify toting), for obvious reasons.

The semester end period is also the time of commencement (back home it is called convocation) when college graduates rejoice, having endured several years of self-imposed exile wandering in the campus, and soon to be liberated into the real world. On our evening walk yesterday, we were pleasantly reminded of the jubilation of having tasted academic success and becoming newly minted members of the college graduate rank.

First, there were two policemen standing in the middle of the road, directing traffic to ease those coming from the Sun Dome. Then a throng of people were seen walking to the car park: old, young, all resplendent in their proper attire fit for attending a gala dinner of high society, inter-mingling with students in graduation garb complete with mortar boards. And yes, they had just attended one of the commencement ceremonies held at the Sundome for USF graduates. Wify even congratulated one of the female graduates walking past us who acknowledged the kind gesture with a beaming smile and resounding Thank you.

I remember reading in the St. Pete Times that there are more than 4,900 USF graduates this year. This is in stark contrast to the declining job market prevailing now that would make their job hunt that much tougher.

That also brought back memories of my own graduation ceremonies, which I managed to attend only once out of three opportunities. The most vivid and memorable one is of course when I went on stage to receive my bachelor degree at Chancellor Auditorium of University of Malaya, watched by my late mother, my wife-to-be and my younger sister. I think it was some day in June of 1978. Earlier in the morning I had driven my entourage from my hometown, Yong Peng in Johor, to Petaling Jaya in my soon-to-be father-in-law's car, a more than 100 mile journey.

Then I missed the next two: Masters and Ph.D. Commencements, but both by design. The first I forewent because I had only two weeks to do any traveling before I returned to Malaysia, and the date of commencement, a day in June 1987, fell right smack in the middle of that. And I figured it was just a ceremony lasting for a couple of hours, compared to a lifetime of memory of a sight-seeing trip that I may never have the chance to partake of. After all, how different can the atmosphere be from the one back in 1978? As they say, you have seen one, you have seen all.

The second miss involved a slightly different circumstance. This time though, the date was three months after I returned to Malaysia, being in May, 1995 while my return trip was already booked on early February the same year, barely one week after I submitted my dissertation in final form to the Graduate Students Department. I had to bring back an official endorsement from the University in lieu of the degree which I would only receive in June, by mail, testifying to my successful completion of the doctoral course and would be awarded the degree in due course to show it to my employer (I was sponsored by the Government) as proof.

So I have only one graduation picture to show for my academic pursuit to the highest level. But I know in my heart that what counted the most was the journey, the test of academic rigor, the countless hours spent in the cold, damp lab building the mud profiles, from bags of artificial clay, mouth covered in protective gear to filter out clay dust lest it got lodged in my lungs, and withstanding the constant probing and prodding from my academic advisor who of course had nothing except my academic wellbeing in his heart.

There were also the fun times like the usual volleyball game during lunch breaks. Who can resist the smugness that came from blocking a spike? Right in your face! Most enjoyable is undoubtedly spending time with the family, visiting places, watching July 4th firework display at the BandShell, admiring the various exhibits at the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Harn's Museum of Arts, and many many more sites of local interests, and the weekend trips to the various theme parks in Orlando, including the now defunct Splendid China. Not forgotten are the various book and reading activities organized by area libraries and bookstore chains, and Arts Festivals during which wify and the children had the most fun.

Yes, those are definitely the memories to be cherished, and the growing up lessons we picked up in the process through each footprint kind of got indelibly imprinted and stored in our collective memory bank, for a lifetime of reminiscence.