Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Friday Mishap

Leaving Reno on Friday was fraught with mishaps. At the last minute, as I was about to leave the warehouse, I got a call from our software supplier in Ohio. He could not login the server and work on the remaining issue we reported the other day. It was about 10 am Pacific Time and my flight home was 12:30 noon time and I still had to go back to the hotel to complete my packing, check out, return the rental car and check in the airport.  I did not think I could squeeze in the time needed to resolve the server issue in 2 1/2 hours and still meet my flight back. So I left the warehouse thinking or wistfully hopping it was a minor problem, possibly a connection glitch in the Ohio supplier because the warehouse had just printed a few reports earlier in the morning plus the other warehouse back home had not reported any issue. So I drove back to the hotel amidst a bright sunny day, going down the highway with the beautiful bare brown mountains in the horizon as I made my way along the valley.  Classic rock music was playing in the radio.

As I parked my car in the parking lot and walked into the hotel lobby, my phone rang. It was the staff from the warehouse back home. He reported a printing problem so I knew it was a real crisis that will affect all users. I went up my room, packed my things which were not in my bag yet, logged in the network and called my colleague who was the support manager who had left Reno the previous day. I also called the project manager and told him about the problem and asked him if he wanted me to stay for the day and resolve the issue. He said that it was not needed and advised me to catch the flight back. The support manager gave me the same advice after I gave him the run down on the issue. Apparently the server had gone down but needed to be re-booted. So I called the helpdesk 1-800 number, reported the issue, wrote an email with the problem ticket number and sent the mail to the project team. Afterwards, I packed up, left the room and checked out from the hotel.

I got lost going to the airport, turning left on a road near the hotel instead of turning right further ahead. I was lost in Reno without a GPS but found a map in the car to guide me. It was about 11:30 am. Eventually I found my way back to the airport, returned the rental car and rushed inside the airport. I could not find the ticketing counter and thought I could make it to the terminal but I was told to go back and formally check in. I found the ticketing counter and finally checked in after some calls were made to get the system working again as the gate had closed. It was 12:00 noon. I raced back to the security counter, went to the departure gate and just made it into the plane. As I walked to the entranceway of the gate, my phone rang but I did not answer as I made my way to the plane entrance and into my seat. It was the support manager but I could not talk to him being inside the plane and ready for takeoff. I sat back in my chair and continued to read Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now.’

In a former life, I would be fraught with anxiety, feeling wrongly that I am personally responsible for fixing the issue and would be fired if I did not work on it until fixed. But it is a different atmosphere here where everyone pitches in to help or take responsibility. In Asia it’s the same, where everyone tries to help too. In fact technical support is much better in Asia. But in the States, everyone is willing to take responsibility even if the technical skills are not as great. Eventually the problem gets resolved which is a testimony to the organizing abilities and take charge attitude over here. So I settled down on my seat and read Tolle – dispelling from my mind the doubts and fears that rise up. Tolle is the best teacher to read during these circumstances as he teaches us to control our mind - the key to peace and serenity. The flight from Reno to Houston took 3 hours and 30 minutes. When the plane landed in Houston, I covered a lot of Tolle but still had a third of the book to read. I called the support manager who was in the midst of a call with the warehouse, trying to resolve the issue. It seems the server was re-booted and the services re-started but there were some remaining problems. But it looked like things where improving and when my phone battery died after a few minutes of conversation, I was not as anxious as before even though the problem was still being fixed.

In Houston airport, I tried a place called Texas barbecue. I had ribs, pork sausage, and sweet potato and Texas beer. The ribs were not good – a warning that the airport is not the best place to sample the region’s dish. The George Bush airport in Houston is a large modern place – perhaps like the new Bangkok airport but without the exotic Asian frills. It’s a good symbol of the large enterprising spirit of Texas – it’s a feeling I derived looking at this monolithic place with modern trains linking the terminals. It’s a much newer airport than Dulles in Washington and LAX in Los Angeles but larger than John Wayne airport in Orange County and Chicago Midway airport. I finally got back home at around 12 midnight local time but still had not finished Tolle. The flight from Houston took about 2 hours and 30 minutes. I had been on the plane for a total of 6 hours. The next day I got a text message from Google voice that said the problem has been resolved but there was some minor issue still to be fixed. I spent the weekend catching up on the movies I wanted to see and the finishing Tolle’s book.

Monday was another nightmare as the problem started all over again. The sites could not login so I had to process their transactions myself. Not a big job but highly stressful considering all the phone calls I needed to take. I missed one important meeting and needed to be re-scheduled. It was a struggle up until the end of the day when most of the major glitches were resolved. Reno warehouse could log in but the one here close by – the biggest in our business - still continues to have problems. The problem continued to the next day where we had to support both warehouses now and again. I attended a few meetings to report on the issues but had plans afoot to fix them.  Hair raising days considering the good times we had at Reno last week. Good times always are a precursor to something bad as some superstitious folks would say. Reflecting on Tolle, one should focus only on the present moment – the NOW. One can do that by being watchful of one’s mind. I had tried to do so during crisis time and I seem to be progressing towards transcending my 'personal life situation'.    

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Last Day in Reno

Yesterday we went back to the hotel early, arriving in my room at about 4 pm. I watched television, packed my bags and went to the gym where I used the cross-training machine for 35 minutes and the stationary bike for 10 minutes.  I watched the news which was all about the roller coaster swings in the stock markets after S&P foolishly downgraded American debt to AA+. It was a stupid decision made during a time when the economy was recovering. The Iowa debate for the GOP candidates was also underway where each candidate gave good answers although some of the candidates’ answers on the economy were not very enlightened. One gets afraid when seemingly intelligent people in power try to get their views implemented when they know nothing of the intricacies of economics. For example, see Winston Churchill who brought England back into the gold standard when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The result was disastrous and England hastily left the gold standard after the fiasco.

I cringe when new congressmen who win in their first election challenge professionals like Ben Bernanke or Alan Greenspan in the past regime. The nerve that these politicians can challenge the thinking or policies of men who have spent their lives trying to understand the intricacies of economics and implemented policies which probably saved the world economy during the financial crisis of 2008. One just needs to look at Churchill, a formidable thinker and politician who nearly drove England to dire economic straits with his well-intentioned ideas on the economy. Economic policy makers are like military leaders who are expert in their field of knowledge. Following the analogy, a politician does not make a good general in the battle field or an economist planning policy in the Federal Reserve. It is hilarious on the talk about the debt ceiling which is more an operational necessity to keep the government running and combine it with strategic plans like balance budget amendment. The result is chaos and as Bernanke said – the debt ceiling is not the right instrument to control spending. It was not the time or the place or the forum to have that discussion. Hence, the S&P downgrade and the stock market turmoil.

After working out in the gym yesterday, we went to the swimming pool to cool down. There was a strong wind which chilled my teammate. So we left the pool after 10 or 15 minutes although it was enough to refresh us. We no longer felt tired or haggard after the slow day in the office.  I went back to my room, dressed and met my teammate at the lobby bar were we had cocktails of rum and coke. We were feeling good after the swim and the drink. I wanted to try the all you can eat sushi buffet but my friend wanted to try the other buffet with continental food and a drink all you can wine bar. So we settled on the other buffet and I had 2 glasses of excellent wine while I ate chicken wings cooked in different ways, prawns, mushrooms in vinegar, sausage and sauerkraut, pepper in vinegar, pilaf rice and dessert of fruits and strawberry cake. I was a bit tipsy when we walked out to the parking lot again to look at the cars. My team mate is a car aficionado and he looked at the models closely. I took a video of the scene as my camera had run of battery power.

I enjoyed looking at the cars and the people who frequented the convention as well as the car owners. Most if not all where middle aged old couples who seemed to have found their passion in vintage cars. Some of the car plates I saw came from California, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado and elsewhere all converging into the desert for this yearly convention. I have seen many parades or cultural events since coming here in the states but this is the first time I have seen an event of this scale where the people where passionate about something and gave me a glimpse of the American spirit. The people here love their cars and are willing to spend large amount to keep it in perfect condition. As an example, as saw 2 middle age men driving around in a rare 1952 red Jaguar sports car. Some of the cars are being sold at least $ 32 thousand dollars as the sticker price while others are sold in auction. The hood of these cars opened so any prospective buyers can inspect the gleaming engines in pristine condition awaiting a new owner. The people were walking around talking excitedly and feeling good about themselves and the event.

We went back to the hotel at about 9 pm. I was scheduled to test at 11 pm so I decided to stay in the room and take a nap. But I received a call from IBM at about 10 pm and told the test was called off. I had trouble getting back to sleep. I struggled in different positions, trying to find one that would be good for my breathing as the air in the room was dry causing my throat and air passages to be dry, too. Somehow I managed to doze off and sleep a bit, waking up at about 5:15 am when the alarm went off. I called my team mate just to confirm he was able to get to the hotel and he was just boarding the plane. I had breakfast and left to go to the office and arrived at 7:25 am. I wrote emails and check the transactions here and the other site back home. I will go back to the hotel at about 10 am, check out, return the rental car and check in my flight. It’s a pity I am leaving soon during the midst of August nights but I think I have gotten my fill of Reno. It was party time here and fun to see the bars filled with people having fun, dancing, drinking, fooling around. It was a grand slice of American life.

I had a chance to drive here in Reno and it felt like driving in Los Angeles. The wide open spaces, the valleys surrounded by desert like landscapes, the bare brown mountains and the long freeways. I read somewhere that Reno has the happiest inhabitants of all states in the union. It may be right with its closeness to Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada range plus low taxes and legalized gambling and prostitution. The pleasant weather and the high altitude and the low density of the population would make it an ideal place combining both the charm of a small town and the excitement of a city. There is a certain feeling of remoteness and independence here in the locals that are fashioned from the harshness of the land. It is unlike the remoteness and independence of the people of the American south which has a hint of arrogance and superiority. My teammate who left this morning is a good example of the American redneck although in the good sense of the word - the back slapping, good old boy friendliness but intolerant of certain city ordinance, calling authority figure ‘butt-heads’.  The southern hillbilly will never be at home in the western states it seems.

August Nights

This week is hot August nights in Reno, Nevada. It is the biggest event of the year according to the locals. The main attractions are the old, vintage and classic cars assembled in front of the hotel and then paraded down the main street in down town Reno. Almost all the cars are lovingly restored with great paint jobs and high end engines although some cars keep their parts genuine. It is the biggest car convention I have ever seen. It’s pure luck that the assembly of cars was right in front of our hotel. A live band played classic rock and pop songs. Most of the people who went to the convention seemed to be in their fifties or sixties although there were sprinkling of young people here and there. The weather was just right, a bit nippy despite being in the desert. I learned that Reno is about 4500 feet above sea level which explains the cool temperature despite being in a near-desert landscape of surrounding brown, tree less and majestic mountains.

The first day we arrived, on Sunday, we hit a few balls in the hotels’ driving range, played bowling, bought toothpaste in Wall-mart and had an excellent dinner of roasted duck.  The next day on Monday, we went to work, set up the computers, did some tests, and processed the first batch of transactions. There were problems but were fixed as the day went on. Go live was officially the next day. For lunch, we drove to ‘Border Town’ a small restaurant cum casino near the Nevada - California border. After work, we drove to Lake Tahoe with our other colleagues who arrived that afternoon. We had dinner in a lovely restaurant beside Lake Tahoe called Garwood located in the California side. I had a salad topped with trout. We drove back to Reno through the Sierra Nevada Mountains surrounding the lake and back into Reno along the highway that followed the Truckee River that flowed into Reno city and towards Pyramid Lake. I was exhausted when I got to my room as I woke up early and went to the gym and exercised for 30 minutes in the early morning.

On Tuesday, the new system went live although there were problems in the label printer. It took a while to fix but it got going to complete the work. We had to go back to the hotel at noon and pay our bill as our company had authorized payment for that day only. Earlier our credit cards were declined as the hotel was registered as a casino not a hotel in the computer system. So after resolving that snafu, we ate lunch at the hotel restaurant. I had pork fried rice which I also had on Sunday along with wanton soup. We returned to the office and continued the work. There was another glitch at the end of the day were the interface could not be uploaded. So we called the Indian support team at head office to fix the bug. The problem was soon fixed and we drove back to the hotel were we had cocktails during happy hour at the lobby bar ($1 per drink) and we had whisky and coke and rum and coke. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant where I had pork spaghetti. Afterwards, we walked out in the company parking lot where the car convention was taking place. We took pictures of the vintage cars in pristine condition.

On Wednesday, most of the major issues were fixed. The business leader wrote a status report and sent out an email calling the roll-out a success. We struggled a bit in getting the second printer to run and managed to fix the problem near the end of the day. There is a remaining problem in the carrier report and forwarded the issue to our contractors in Ohio. We had lunch again in ‘Border Town’ where I ate beef liver in onions with mashed potatoes. The day ended in high spirits and the team went to down town. We visited the known hotel casinos Silver Lake, Circus Circus and El Dorado. We walked along the main street and took pictures of the famous arch sign ‘Reno – the Biggest Little City in the World’ and took more pictures in the bridge beside the Truckee River where a group of teenagers were riding their skateboards. We walked back to the Silver Lake hotel and had dinner where I had a miserable dish of Hot and Sour soup and Hong Kong fried noodles. After dinner, we went out in the street again and watched the parade of cars where an emcee entertained us with jokes. It was the most impressive parade of vintage cars I have ever seen.

We went back to the hotel and after depositing my things in my room, I went back down again with my camera to see the cars assembled in the hotel’s massive parking lot. I took more pictures and watched the band playing in a stage at a corner of the lot. There were a lot of people walking about, dancing and listening to the music. I returned to the hotel and I saw my office colleagues drinking coffee in the hotel lobby bar. I joined them and had butter pecan ice cream and later a martini as we watched the couples dancing in front of the live band and the people walking about the casino lobby. We exchanges jokes and stories while we watched the dancing forms and the beautiful girls. My two colleagues were old friends for nearly 30 years in the company. It was fun to watch them exchange old stories and reminiscence of long lost friends. I went to my room at about 10 pm and went to sleep immediately after a shower. I brought a lot of thing to read and an audio book to listen too but I was too tired.

This morning our two other colleagues flew back home while my team mate remained for the day. We will both leave the next day but my flight is at noon while his is early morning. We had breakfast at the usual cafe, where I had 2 eggs, sausage, hash brown and toast.  We drove to work feeling a bit tired after the last 4 days of activity. It was a slow day today, I wrote emails, sent meeting invites discussed relevant subjects with users and tested the remaining business cases. My boss called me to ask how things were in the project. I gave a quick report and discussed the coming requirements. I had lunch of cheeseburger and garlic fries and came back to the office. It was an excellent day with the sun shine out in the blue sky and the brown hills surrounding the horizon. The office lay in a valley near the main highway and the scenery was spectacular as I gazed out the window of the office. We still have not decided what to do in the evening although we would go back to the hotel to take a rest.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Air Conversion

Whenever I travel to a distant place due to work, I always have this morbid feeling that I will perish in an air crash. Ever since 9/11 this thought has risen to the surface, something that I always tried to keep below consciousness. It is an irrational fear that strikes though fleeting that I can effectively control. The days before the travel are spent trying to keep things in order but I never do explain my affairs to my loved ones in case a tragedy does happen. I used to travel frequently although not in a world class way that some real travelers do. But there was a time when I did travel at least once a month. Depending on the project, there are times when the travel is frequent and times when it is sparse. But I did enjoy those air flights especially during the early year when smoking was allowed in flight and the liquor was free. I had always indulged in wine and brandy during flights on Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, and JAL.

Since then, austerity and cost cutting have reduced the alcohol while health reasons took away the tobacco. Travel has also been minimized with the latest trend in conference calls and video meetings. But still one cannot take away travel as face to face interactions are always important in projects. So one still travels although one has lost that old thrill of discovering new cities and exploring new cultures and adventures. The excitement has gone away with the free booze and smoking in flights. Now one has a jaded feeling despite living in a new city or country. The only place that still inspires the feeling of romance is the Middle East, Central Asia and remote Tibet and certain places in China and perhaps the historical places of India. But now one must be content with the American cities that one is faced though an experience previously enjoyed vicariously in Hollywood movies and reading books. It is like discovering an old place that one has seen in the screen or re-created in one’s imagination.

Travelling in this trip had given me that feeling that something extraordinary would happen to me. I had attributed this feeling to my infrequent dread riding in airplanes and the possibility of a plane crash. But midway in the flight the old fear faded away despite the person sitting next to me was watching a movie about a plane crash that decimated a town’s football team who were on their way to a school game. The movie is a tale of how the town rose up from that tragedy and thereby healed itself of the loss of the young men in the
crash. But I had brushed away any feeling of dread and read Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’.  As his words crept into my consciousness I knew then that I would experience some sort of conversion up in the sky as I watched the terrain below the plane at about 2100 feet above sea level. I glimpsed the Grand Canyon and the mountains of Utah as the plane made its way to Nevada. I realized that I had to reconstruct myself if I wanted to achieve my goals.

Tolle’s teaching is really not new. It’s something that one would usually read in the Buddhist texts or the teaching of J. Krishnamurthi or the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. But his teachings are expressed in today’s words and context which makes it easier to understand. He is a very intelligent teacher who started out as a distinguished student in Oxford who transcended his earlier academic studies into the realm of spiritual truth. His teaching is actually a story of his own quest and how he had broken through the illusions of daily life similar to the stories of Buddha before he became an enlightened one. ‘The Power of Now’ is simply to focus on the present moment and be alive to all the possibilities of that moment which can only be achieved by silencing the mind. The mind is the culprit that drives us to our follies. Something that I have struggled with all my life. His teaching is to be ‘mindful’ following the mindfulness meditation that spiritual teacher and now mainstream doctors are recommending to manage stress and pain. To live in the now by gently stopping the mind from thinking or just watching the mind flit from thought to thought without judgment and realizing the folly.
Travelling to a distant city, living in a hotel alone and eating good food is the ultimate fantasy or illusion. One can either indulge himself with all the temptation that it brings which is what one normally does in these circumstances. Or does one control one’s thoughts and live in the now without allowing the mind to wander and dream all those silly adventures. Reading Tolle was like one’s conscience speaking wise truths before the plane touched down into one of the states that rewards indulgence and excess. Perhaps it is fitting that one experiences some sort of spiritual transformation in this place of gambling, legal prostitution and other distractions readily available. But the transformation is profound because focusing on the 'NOW' frees up ‘space’ as one’s mind is no longer filled with thoughts, fears and anxieties. Instead one has the opportunity to cultivate one’s authentic presence.

These trips have always been something like a transformative experience for me. Initially it was the discovery of the new that drove me despite its bent towards indulgence and wistful fantasies. But after many years of travel, one does not change much. It is the inner journey as Tolle said that makes the difference. One must understand the limitation of the outward journey while one must undertake self-discovery as the true aim. Heady stuff especially reading these words up in the clouds with the thoughts of dying in a crash close at hand. It’s enough to convert perhaps the most jaded of hedonist like Prince Jeffri of Brunei who is estimated to have spent billions in sinful extravagance. I am reading an article about him in Vanity Fair. I had brought the magazine together with Tolle’s book and Harold Bloom’s ‘How to Read a Book’. Before travelling I had watched a clip on writing which I had wanted to do for a long time and which I crammed on Saturday night because of my trepidation on my next day's travel.

Stopping thoughts does not necessarily mean one should not do self-reflection - being another form of thought. I guess there are constructive thoughts as well as destructive thoughts. I examined my current life in this new land, with new places and new people and work experiences so much different from my old life in Asia. Sometimes I have tried to cope by reading more books or watch more movies or more travel – is it to be a better writer or is it the mind with its constant need for churning? I realized that it was the latter. One must be careful of the activities that one engages in - in pursuit of a skill because the mind can take control and bring it forward to unwanted experiences, self- justifying itself until one is old and grey and realizes the folly of his past life. In this land of abundance, one must be careful and Tolle’s work is a welcome guidance. Organized religion like Christianity is still providing the tire old words though still relevant like the immediacy of the present.  Tolle is a welcome spiritual teacher in today’s world.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Reno Journey

Next week I will be in the good state of Nevada in the city of Reno.  It will be my second time in this quaint city near lovely Lake Tahoe.  The only thing I am worried about is the plane ride into the city where we descend through perilous air pockets caused by the surrounding mountains. Reno is a small casino town very much different from the great oasis of Las Vegas like a poor cousin to a mega billionaire. But Reno has its charms with past echoes of oil and gold mining and legendary Western towns like Carson City made famous by Hollywood cowboy movies. It is a more family friendly town compared to the glitzy sin city of Las Vegas. Nowadays the town functions more as an adjunct to Lake Tahoe with its picturesque lake, ski resorts and scenic mountains. Reno is also near the site where the great pioneers of the past perished in the snow bound hills north of Tahoe. This was the pathway westward from the cold Northern cities where people strove to reach the sunshine paradise of California.

It is also the path way of the great railroads built by Chinese coolies ‘shanghaied’ from China - railroads that link the American continent from East to West. The story of the Chinese travails is still to be told – a neglected chapter in the civil rights story of America. The hardships experienced by the Asians justify their claim to being rightful citizens of the Western perimeter where large Chinese communities exist in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver. This is the distinction of the westerns states with a large proportion of Asians crossing the Pacific into the promised lands of California, Washington, Oregon and the Canadian provinces facing the great Ocean. There are more Asians of Chinese extractions in Reno than the Southern states along the Eastern perimeter. One feels more at home in the west with the diversity of Asians who live here.

Reno is also the locale of the John Huston film, ‘The Misfits’ starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift on a story by noted playwright Arthur Miller (and Monroe’s husband). It’s a film that has multiple legends as both leads died after making the film – making it their last known work. The story is also worthy with the theme of the dying west. Reno represents a city who has seen better times in its history where legendary wildcatters stuck gold or oil, cowboys and gun fighters, gamblers and misfits. The landscape of barren hills and near desert like conditions reminds one of the romances of the old west. Now it is a struggling city trying to live up to its giant sister city of Las Vegas and in the shadow of Lake Tahoe one of the most beautiful places in the world. It serves as a place for recreation of Northern Californians likely from San Francisco going to Reno to gamble in the way Los Angeles residents go to Las Vegas.   

We will stay in a large hotel near the airport called the Grand Sierra. The lobby contains a statue of a rider and his horse depicting the travails of the Pony Express. It has a large lobby with gambling tables and slot machines and multiple restaurants. It is a nice place to walk around and observe people. Hopefully I can try to explore places I have not seen in my last trip and use its sports facilities and pool. The project we are working on requires us to install a program in a number of facilities spread out across the country. This will be our second site and we have been testing the application all of this week. There are a few bugs but we hope to fix all of them before travelling west.  It feels like the old days when I used to travel the different sites in Asia like Bangkok, Tokyo, Ohta, Shanghai and Shenyang. It is a different place from the Asian cities that we use to frequent. But the temptations and the difficulties are still the same.

The journey to Reno is a culmination of the project that started 2 years ago when I transferred from Singapore. Finally we are in the end game where the program is being rolled out to the different sites. The team has overcome a lot of obstacles to get here and there were moments where no one else seemed to be leading except me. It is not one of those large or highly visible projects in the company but one that has its own share of complexity and problems with significant changes in project personnel. It feels like being the last man standing. One is also involved in another much larger project where a larger system is being deployed to the different sites as well. We have pulled forward a bit as we got off the gate slightly faster and there may be a slight element of rivalry. But both projects are moving forward breaking out from the seeming inertia and gridlock that prevented its progress. Travelling to the different sites is the final culmination of the work.

This week has been about testing to prepare for next week in Reno. Most of the time was spent writing emails or meeting with IBM and our software contractor in Ohio, working with our support team from India and doing remote tests with our Reno team. It’s been a slow week – a much slower pace than in Asia – a place that seemed to be working on steroids. Issues were found and fixed in a relaxed pace. I also attended a good seminar on Civil Rights in the nearby Furman University – one of the most beautiful colleges I have visited. I also attended a seminar on Cloud computing and volunteer teaching in nearby schools. It was an exhilarating week where the debt ceiling crisis was finally resolved amid nerve racking fights in congress. Yesterday the stock markets worldwide crashed amid worries about the global economy but the job figures came out today with some optimistic gains, contrary to the prevailing opinion. It looks like a promising future lay ahead – capped also with the president’s birthday this week which was a fitting end to the previous political struggles in Washington.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Social Realism

Last night I watched Robert Redford’s ‘The Natural.’ It’s one of his best films. I prefer it more than the more commercially successful ‘Out of Africa.’ His films are more iconic and are rich in symbolism unlike Paul Newman’s films which are grittier – more on the social realism side. Newman was good in the films that focus on Southern Gothic like Tennessee William’s ‘Cat in a Hot Tin Roof’, or Larry McMurthy’s ‘Hud’ and other films based on stories from William Faulkner. Redford’s films are more contemporary preferring films with nature as his backdrop like ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid’. Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Natural’ is rich in American symbolism with baseball as the backdrop of a story about dreams, redemption, father’s and son and farm lands. Kevin Costner is following Redford’s lead – focusing on the same themes but with more lines and vocal dexterity. Redford prefers less dialogue preferring to act with his body and communicating with his eyes. In this sense he is like another legendary actor- Gary Cooper who was also accused of playing himself in all his movies.

Even Redford’s social realism films like ‘Brubaker’ or ‘All the President’s Men’ lack scenes which exploit his speaking talents (or lack thereof). He prefers roles that portray the hero as the strong silent type which he can exploit with his physicality. He gets away with it because of his extraordinary good looks and unlike Paul Newman who is also good looking but effective with long speaking roles. Normally actors like to grab long speaking roles or roles with lots of dialogue but Redford prefers to act with his body like Sean Connery, preferring to show scenes of confusion or deep thinking  or other such inner turmoil by fidgeting around, creasing his brow or other such mannerism without speaking. On the other hand, actors like Marlon Brando or Al Pacino would explode with verbosity when trying to express deep emotion. They prefer words to express inner emotions while Redford prefers to reduce them to the absolute minimum. He also disdains rehearsals or multiple takes and prefers to have only one take in order to be authentic in his acting.  

Redford wanted to be a painter and drifted into acting in his early years. He became a director in his later career possibly to finally express his visual imagination. His films became the canvas to express himself with his Sundance institute as an art studio where young artists like painters are trained in the old traditional sense of a studio. One sees that he is ahead of his time, channeling his success as a film star to nurture creative talents in independent cinema, where directors like Quentin Tarantino or Stephen Sondenberg  learn their craft. But most people do not seem to realize his contribution to American arts because they are blinded by his looks and do not see beyond his physical beauty. But long after he is gone, his films as an actor, as a director, his contributions in Sundance and his ski preserve in Utah will enshrine his legend. It’s a pity that he could not be a better actor in the mold of Clint Eastwood – not a great thespian but with a considerable iconic status both as actor and director. I guess Redford is also working against type and did not live to excess like some artists do – living a solid and exemplary life. His life compared to so-called Hollywood rebels seemed staid and conservative which is reflected in his art.

In one sense, Redford can be seen as boring – lacking the colorful life of people like Clint Eastwood or Warren Beatty but not lacking in solid achievement. Like Eastwood, he has a long track record and the staying power to continue working and still achieve significant milestones. Perhaps like Eastwood and Woody Allen he still has a lot of good films ahead of him in his twilight years. He has starred in a lot of great films that will remain in anyone’s top ten best films as well as directed some of classics too like ‘Ordinary People’, ‘A River Runs Through it’ and ‘Quiz Show’. I hope to see his latest film ‘The Conspirator’ which is an interesting story on Lincoln’s murder. Clearly the topics of his films are diverse and not trivial. He could spot talent too – having young actors who achieve greater acclaim later like Morgan Freeman. But he did not spread his wild oats which I think is due to the isolation he got in the Utah Mountains. This isolation keeps him whole - away from the fakeness of Hollywood and celebrity. His common sense individuality is something that is missing in today’s world.

I attended Toastmaster leadership training on Saturday morning. Afterwards, I tried to do a lot of things again by reading all the books I borrowed and trying to watch many films too. I have not finished Eckhart Tolle’s book ‘The Power of Now’ but read some articles on another book on Mindfulness. I agree with the principles like it was a formula to keep sane. Live in the present, count your breaths, meditate, control your desires and so on but I find myself in a wheel, turning incessantly forward unable to follow the lessons of wisdom. It’s the reason why I cannot write anything despite my desire. I am not serious – preferring to follow the wind, trying to get something done in my myriad interests. The result is nothing gets finished. I am listening to William Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ and will be leaving next week for Nevada to complete the project I am working on. Lots of preparation and work and challenges and problems to be solved and I still persists in distracting myself – afraid to be grounded because that would mean mediocrity and stability losing the curiosity and quest for knowledge that makes life interesting.