Break Even

Today I rollerbladed along the Sammamish River Trail, from Redmond to Bothell and back (15 miles total). The weather was perfect– warm, bright, with occasional cloud cover. There were a lot of people on the trail, from intense bicyclists to families enjoying a casual stroll. Whenever I saw a fellow rollerblader they would smile and nod. I think it is some unwritten rule of rollerbladers. There were many things along the way that caught my attention:

  • a bronze statue of a girl sitting at a 90 degree angle
  • two riders on horseback
  • fuzzy caterpillars, black with a wide band of orange
  • roosters that crowed in dilapidated sheds
  • remote-controlled trick planes that hummed high above grassy fields
  • acres and acres of farmland (vineyards?) surrounding the occasional office building
  • a crescent-shaped wooden statue with a moon carved on one side and a salmon on the other attached to the top of a metal barrel
  • a bridge with green dragonfly sculptures on each of its four pillars
  • shack houses by the river
  • extremely fit elderly runners
  • areas of the trail lined with tree stumps, and areas lined with young, one-foot tall trees surrounded by baby blue protective cylinders
  • the omnipresent mountains in the distance
  • mallard ducks that slept by the shore with their heads tucked into their bodies

When I got back I ate a whole bunch of tacos loaded with extra guacamole and cheese. It was a good day.

Quiet

I was jogging along a bike path and came to an intersection of a highway and a large road. The highway cut straight through the trees, and I could see straight ahead the Olympics, and to my right the Cascades, and as I focused on the snow-covered mountains that extended across the horizon, my mind was without words, but I felt an overwhelming sense of awe. On clear days like this, there is so much beauty at every turn. It is a blessing that this is standard in the Pacific Northwest.

And when I see the shallows in a particular shade of blue, I cry on the inside.

Big Sur
Big Sur

I wish I brought a better camera to do it justice. To show the movement and the sparkle in the water without overexposing the picture.

 

Uncle’s Dream, Desiring Money

I finished reading Uncle’s Dream by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The gist of the book is that the protagonist of the novel, Maria Alexandrovna, is trying to manipulate an old, mentally ill prince into marrying her daughter so that they can have his money. Meanwhile, Maria’s social rivals and another suitor for her daughter have plans of their own that Maria must thwart. But Maria is clever and eloquent, the leading gossip and best at controlling conversation in her small village. She manages to talk herself out of all kinds of predicaments. Overall I found the book readable, but as a comedy it was lacking. The descriptions can get dense and the action moves slowly compared to other comedies. On the plus side, the characters are fleshed out and motives explained in such detail that all their crazy antics are completely believable. The main character, Maria, is dislikable, and yet the reader still roots for her because of the sheer audacity of her schemes. And unlike other Dostoyevsky novels, the characters do not repent and find redemption. After Maria’s scheme is foiled and she and her family must leave the village in total humiliation, we see in the epilogue that another of their marriage schemes succeeded and they get exactly what they want— riches and social status.

As a segue from that, I heard a sermon on 1 Timothy 6 about how the desire for money corrupts people. From now on, I’m going to write down what I remember so that I don’t forget.

3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

(6) Be content in God. There is no one more worthy of praise than God, who is infinitely merciful and loving. There is nothing in the world that can bring more contentment than God.

As stated in the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl (Matthew 13:44-46), there is no greater treasure than the kingdom of God. In the parables, the people are willing to give up everything for something of true value.

Related to what is gain and what is not, there’s the verse from 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

A person can go to such extremes as to be a martyr, but their actions are meaningless and they will gain nothing unless they love God.

(7) Whatever wealth I save up, after my death it will be meaningless to me since I can no longer use it.

(8) In terms of material goods, God has provided me with all the necessities— food, clothing, shelter— and more. And of far greater value than anything material, God has given me salvation.

(9) Being rich is not a bad thing, and the Bible mentions many people who used their wealth to aid the church. However, wanting to get rich is bad. Wanting to get rich will cause people to “fall into temptation”. Not “maybe fall into temptation”. Falling into temptation is a definite consequence. On the other hand, the warning against desiring money is not license to be lazy, as the Bible says to work hard and devote my labor to God.

(10) If someone loves money then they have set up money as an idol. But as Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” The love of money is not a singular evil; it leads to other evils. Imagine a diseased tree, of which love of money is the root. But what is seen above ground? When I see a tree, I see the trunk and branches are quite substantial in relation to the roots. These branches, these additional and substantially-sized evils, are nourished by the love of money.

A particular danger the pastor mentioned was feelings of independence from God and others,  that I deserve and earned my possessions through hard work and don’t need God’s provision, creating distance in our relationship. On the contrary, we should depend on God for all things and ask God for help.

An old woman and an old man

I was thinking lately about growing old. I hope I age well like a Parisian and stay healthy and active with a spark in my eye. For some reason, these two random encounters from my recent memory stuck out.

 

Back in Chicago, I used to do late-night coding sessions in the 24-hour Starbucks on North and Wells. One night, after programming for a few hours, I felt exhausted and ready to head back home. I waited at the bus stop for five minutes, when a bus stopped (not the bus I needed). The doors to the bus opened, and a set of arms pushed a small luggage bag in my face. “Take my bags! Help me off the bus!” an old woman ordered. At first, I was taken aback that she would be so bossy to a complete stranger. She could have asked nicely. A verse flashed in my mind: “Ask and it will be given to you.”
“I hurt my hip, you’ll have to help me cross the street.” For the next five minutes we inched across the intersection, the old lady leaning on me and her large rolling luggage bag. The stoplight turned red and green and red and green and red again. Cars stopped and idled patiently. “I just need to get inside that restaurant. My friend is coming to pick me up.” So I helped her into Elly’s Pancake House. Across the street, I saw the bus home go by, but I didn’t care.

 

I was on a flight from Phoenix. The stoutly old man sitting next to me reached into the seat pocket and took out the plane schematic with the pictures of emergency procedures. I did as well, since out of habit I always make a note of emergency exits whenever I’m on a plane or in a movie theater. We started chatting about cats. He had three cats, and he thought there was something strange that every cat he had ever owned had weird quirks. For example, one of his cats would stand on its hind legs and paw at the doorknob to open the door. Another of his cats would watch TV with him. And another of his cats would consistently meow at the same early morning hour for food. “I love them to death,” he said. “And my wife too.”

I asked the man why he was travelling. “To pay my respects to a dear friend. At my age I do this a lot,” he said. As we neared our destination, I asked his thoughts about the city. “I lived here for 20 years. I don’t like this place, it’s too moist, makes my joints hurt. I’ll take Phoenix any day.” He talked about his children in the area, pointed at their houses as we flew over neighborhoods full of evergreens. “I used to drive trucks as big as this plane up and down the coast.” I looked around the cabin, and the plane was awfully big, and I tried to imagine what it would be like to drive a vehicle with such an awful turning radius.

Home for Graduation

I like to read SkyMall magazine. I like to look at all the clever inventions and read some ad copy at its finest. The blurbs almost make me want to buy a posture-fixing chair pillow or a mobile elliptical machine.


Graduation ceromonies are really boring, what with their long side-tracked speeches and self-congratulatory awards. And every graduating class is somehow the best ever. But the ceremonies are peppered with heartfelt moments and unintentional humor, and that is why I didn’t mind sitting for three hours at my brother’s graduation. By far the best moment is when the dean hands out diplomas and calls each student by name. “Doctor [first name] [last name].” There was even a “Doctor Michael Doctor”. He was probably destined to become a doctor. I liked how with each name called, an absolutely ecstatic section of the audience would whoop and throw toddlers into the air and shout the student’s name. There was one person who graduated– I have no idea what he even looks like, but I just remembered hearing the father shout “Edmond! Edmond! Edmond!” in a thick accent. And for some reason hearing that felt really touching. Here was a dad who couldn’t even pronounce his son’s name in perfect English, and like my own dad, I imagine he must have immigrated to the US from some foreign country and did everything he could to support his son through college and med school and now this ceromony celebrated the culmination of all his son’s and his hard work. So it was a feel-good fest all around, each degree as much earned by the student as by the teachers and faculty and families that supported them.

My little brother likes to prank his peers with statements such as, “It’s okay to eat food off the ground.” He backs up these statements with the claim, “My brother says so, he’s a doctor.” Even though my older brother never said this. But my little brother and my whole family is so happy now, because my older brother is neither a doctor in training nor a “doctor” (of philosophy) like my dad, but a bonafide doctor of medicine. Even with something like a minor rash, it’s very reassuring to consult my brother. My brother suggested an over-the-counter cream that healed faster and did not produce an allergic reaction like the cream the family doctor suggested.

Spring is Here!

Finally, the temperature in Chicago is consistently over 50°F. Back to tennis and rollerblading along the lake path in the bright sun.

I had a relaxing weekend to make full use of the warm weather. On Friday I went to Mercadito’s. Their Carne tacos were the best, perfectly flavored and crunchy. Afterwards we went to Blue Frog on LaSalle. There is absolutely no blue frog theme; the only hint of its name is a blue, neon light frog in the window. From the outside the Blue Frog looks like a shack at the edge of a parking lot. We had a lot of fun singing karaoke there. The bar goers are supportive. The atmosphere as a whole is delightfully unaffected. Afterwards, we went to the Rock and Roll McDonalds for some baklava. Then we went to another restaurant, then I went home early. I’m getting old.

On Saturday I had a picnic at Montrose beach. A dog wandered onto my blanket and ate all the pepperonis in one gulp. Then it slobbered all over the cheese. It left its muddy paw prints on the blanket. I shrugged it off and napped for an hour or so. Later I went to the gym then went out for dinner again.  I feel like I’ve tried most of the well-known Chicago restaurants, so I can leave this city happy. On that note, I’ve resolved to eat out less and cook more. At night we went to Sound Bar. I was wearing sneakers but the bouncer lady was nice about it. We drank, danced, and played Connect 4. I feel like a Connect 4 pro.

On Sunday I rollerbladed eight or so miles along the lake. The wind tends to blow southward, so the return trip required more energy. Then I read A Visit from the Goon Squad. The book was told from different characters’ point of views, their stories interwoven and jumping around chronologically. All the children are miraculously precocious and the adults keep making mistakes. *SPOILERS* The author was really creative in that each character told his or her story differently, switching between first person and third person, structured in subchapters, or a newspaper article, even a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation. How a character structured his story revealed a lot about his personality. In the title, the “Goon Squad” is time. None of the characters have a traditional happy ending; most come from broken homes and have failed marriages. The future is never what they imagine; time robs them of their original dreams. And yet they find some semblance of peace in a form that they do not expect.

The Best Three Days of April (round 2)

1. Walking around Philadelphia with family + J. I’m not too interested in museums, but it’s nice to be with family. My little bro bought a colonial hat. He was happy the rest of the day. I wish everyone were so easy to please.

I avoid buying stuff that I don’t need. But I like to spoil my brother. There is something so charming and straightforward about knowing exactly how to make someone happy, knowing that I can buy my brother happiness for just $10. I’m sure I frustrate my parents during my birthday and holidays when I tell them I don’t want anything, that I just want good experiences.

2. A cloudy Chicago day, walking around the Picasso exhibit at the Art Institute. The exhibit was very exhaustive and showed the progression in his work, with more variety than the Center Pompidou’s exhibit, which mostly showed Cubist works. Picasso is so amazingly talented at different styles and mediums. I liked to see his experimental work and studies, such as his decomposition of a bull.

Later I went to the gym, as usual, with J and J. We play lots of ping pong. Then we go to some late night diner, like Tempo or Elly’s and have a meal in a clean, well-lighted place and play cards. I really enjoy sitting around like an old man. Nada.

3. A lazy Saturday with family in NJ. We all go to a buffet for lunch. I don’t like buffets since I feel pressured to stuff myself. When I was younger I would refuse to go, and make my family go without me. But now I see that it is a way to spend quality time with the family at a familiar place, yet depart from routine. Plus that buffet is my little bro’s favorite restaurant. Afterwards we go home and play all the Super Smash Bros. versions in an “order of the siblings” battle. An “order of the siblings” battle means we all play a bit more seriously, since this is how we will rank each other until the next battle. Then we go biking to the park to play some tennis and basketball. And come home and play some more video games. Then eat my mom’s delicious dinner. What a life. I’ll be back in NJ, I always come back.

The Andromeda Strain

Since I was a child, my favorite movie has been Jurassic Park. All the books I had read on dinosaurs only gave descriptions and simple illustrations. When I first watched the movie, seeing dinosaurs come to life filled me with a sense of awe and excitement. My eyes lit up every time I recognized a dinosaur from a book. Brontosaurus! T-Rex! Dilophosaurus! Velociraptor!

Now that I’m older, I know that extracting dinosaur DNA from fossilized mosquitoes is just science fiction. Now that I’m older, I understand the plot and feel the tension caused by the mortal peril the characters are in (vs. when I was young, when I was like “HAHA, that guy sitting on the toilet just got eaten by a T-Rex”).  But I still love the movie. Jurassic Park reminds me of my childhood dreams, some of which are not impossible—and these are the dreams I can make a reality. I was going through my old school files. There was a poster I made in elementary school of what my goals in life were. Written in neon pink gel pen (gel pens were all the rage) and accompanied by doodles, my goals were to: “1. Make the olympic hockey team. 2. Have a business that gave people jobs.” It’s probably too late for goal #1. But for goal #2, I have my whole life.

Anyway, Jurassic Park is based off the book of the same name by Michael Crichton. I just finished reading another book of his, The Andromeda Strain. It is about an extraterrestrial microorganism that wipes out an entire town, and the scientists studying the organism to prevent it from spreading. The book felt very modern, despite the fact that it was first published in 1969. The only times I felt the book’s age were statements that said something to the effect of “Computers are amazing! They can do advanced computations that would take humans years to compute in less than a second.” Now computers are ubiquitous and this fact is taken for granted. Without spoiling the plot, the book is really cool. I was refreshing terms from high school biology over the course of the thriller– gram negative, amino acids, enzymes, carbonic acid. And there are “primary documents” and transcripts interspersed throughout the book. Like when the characters are analyzing the results of x-ray crystallography, there is a picture of the result. And SPOILER ALERT, it was ironic that the Andromeda strain became benign on its own, whereas all the safeguards put in place to prevent the strain’s spread would have only exacerbated the problem and caused the crisis they were trying to avoid.

Chicago summer

I am smiling from ear to ear, head to toe, inside to out. Life seems like a dream, completely unexpected, and unexpectedly good. I don’t want to pinch myself and wake up.

I wish I could trap my current emotions in a bottle and store them forever, and have these feelings to comfort me on a rainy day.

Right now I am acutely, exceedingly happy. I pray that this is not a plateau, as pleasing as it is, that the future will be even brighter.

Clubbing, Cats, Clubbing Cats

Last week was UChicago’s class of 2011 reunion. Everyone is fine and dandy and getting on with adulthood and modest about how much they love their jobs. I told someone I was working at a startup. She said, “That’s awesome! You’re living the dream!” This dream involves Boystown and a ten-second commute. The startup is a really awesome idea that provides legitimate value and has a large potential market and is easily monetizable. If I were a VC I would invest the shiznets out of it. Afterwards I visited the other class reunions. Then I went clubbing for the first and last time in Chicago. I was dancing with an Argentinian man, then after ten minutes, I said, “Sorry, I can’t do this,” and left to find my friends. I can’t dance with strangers. I can only dance with a person that turns me into jelly. Later, my roommates and I watched some TV. Then I felt tired and went to sleep early. The next day I went to a Catholic mass at St. Patrick’s. The preacher talked about how the Trinity is beyond description. But to get a glimpse into what it’s like, it is like the feeling you get when you’re in a group full of love and solidarity. Like a man suffering from a terminal illness that finds the strength to persevere through the pain with the support of his family.

For all my love of exploring new places, I can never leave my family for too long. At some point nothing outweighs being with them. Even close friends have come and gone, but family is always there for me. I feel so happy doing mundane things with my little brother, like sitting on the porch eating ice cream watching cars go by, walking, biking, playing children’s card games, telling stories about zombie president battle royales.

One of my roommates has a black cat. The cat likes to stand outside my room in the morning so that it’s piercing yellow eyes are the first thing I see when I open the door. It likes to meow loudly while I’m sleeping. It gives me rashes. When I’m walking it likes to crawl right in front of me, as if it’s daring me to step on it. It likes to rub itself on everything and me to mark its territory. When I go up and down the stairs, it races to the step ahead of me and starts clawing at the rug. When I am sitting on the toilet I see a black paw with claws reach underneath the bathroom door. The cat moves its paw along the base of the door, as if trying to find a lever to pry the door open. I don’t like cats. Sometimes I’m programming, focused and in the zone, and then the cat jumps on me. But then it curls up into a black ball of fur to take a nap and the little hell raiser looks angelic. Or I’m just chilling and it sits on my lap and I pet the cat and it is therapeutic. But I will never get a cat of my own. Once I get a cat, it would be the gateway cat, then I’d get many more cats and be a full-blown cat lady. Just kidding… I don’t like cats because they distract me from my interactions with people. For a minute I contemplated ways to get rid of it. Maybe with a dog. In truth I am complaining too much about the cat in this paragraph, it is really a spritely fun little demon.