Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Robinson Lake

We had a picnic at Lake Robinson yesterday, Sunday. Lunch was fried chicken, Thai noodles, curry vegetables, rice, French pastries, dark chocolate, water melon and cantaloupe. We tried to fish but did not catch any, though some ‘fishermen’ nearby where able to catch some small fishes. Everyone enjoyed the picnic; but the day was cloudy and had an overcast sky although it did not rain, which may have been the best weather as we ate in a table without a roof, and therefore a sunnier day would have been hot. At the lake, the wind was breezy so I wore my fleece jacket which kept me warm.  I have been to the lake a couple of times to fish but it was the first time I came with my friends. Our Thai couple just came from Italy, arriving on Friday night so we were glad they could make it. Jean-Luc came with his wife and daughter and was happy to be with us. All in all, four families or couples came to the picnic and we had a fun time talking about food and our travels, especially since our Thai friends just came from their holiday. I had organized the picnic thinking that it would be good for everyone to be out in the lake after being indoors during winter.

The topic was travel and sometimes I wish the discussion was different because I have not had an opportunity to travel to Europe recently so I could bring my wife. But lately we have been going out a lot during the weekend, hiking in the nearby nature park on Saturday and a few weekends ago, to Atlanta. After the picnic, we went to BiLo supermarket where I bought more plants which were being sold at a huge discount. All in all, I bought two Madagascar Dragon plants, two Ginger plants and another leafy plant but I did not know the name; all stood 2 feet high and where sold at less than $ 10 each.  I will keep these plants inside the house so air can be detoxified, especially since I have been using my CPAP machine and my concern on Radon gas that I am more conscious of air quality. I turned inward again after the picnic, deep in thought, especially about the conversation on travel, perhaps started by my posting and editing of my blog entries early Sunday morning, the only time I had a chance to do so. I wrote those entries last week, after reflecting on the seminars I attended and my Toastmaster and PMP experiences, assessing my progress and thinking about the next step forward.

Yesterday I had a cold and kept sneezing when we got back home, so I drank two shots of bourbon and started the steam inhaler, hoping that my runny nose would go away. I got to bed at 11 pm, glad that I had done my weekend reading and viewing before the picnic, so all I needed to do was pack, shave and watch the Vikings series at 10pm. I was able to fall asleep right away but woke at around 3 am and could not get back to sleep, so I went down to the library to read, picking up the book ,’How to Be a Writer’, a work recommended by Ray Bradbury that I had been planning to read for some time. The first chapters say that a writer has two lives and his main challenge is to integrate these two lives in order to be a successful writer, a task best done before attending seminars on craft. The book was written in the 1930’s, a classic work although seldom mentioned by modern writers, the main premise being that most aspiring writers have a personality problem that needs to be addressed – reconciling both his creative and logical personality. This is an interesting take on the subject, despite the seemingly dated way of the prose; formal long sentences that I hope to decipher in order to learn some new way to help me.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Rich Poor Dad

Last night I attended a workshop sponsored by Rich Dad. It was a great event with an inspiring speaker, though I did not enroll in their course. Previously I attended the stock investing course and I was curious to see if there was anything new. There were a lot of different people in the room; well-dressed professionals in their long sleeves and ties, housewives, retirees and some unemployed or would be entrepreneurs in shorts. The speaker was good, likely a professional presenter or a sales man selling a well-known product. The event went like clockwork, like a Hollywood affair, with a video show, a slick master of ceremony in coat and tie and finally the main speaker, a smooth African-American from Chicago. This was the last Southern city in their itinerary, swinging to cities along the I-85 corridor, from North to South Carolina. The core message was always the same, serving as a re-fresher for me, similar to touching base on my financial strategy; a combination of Robert Kiyosaki and Warren Buffet, to get into investing, owning a business and avoid relying on a 9 to 5 job.

Earlier that day, I fulfilled my yearly contribution to my Roth IRA, buying a few shares in Bank of America, Xerox and Nokia, very small amounts but still following the strategy. In the seminar, a high school teacher sat beside me and we talked in the parking lot after the show. He was familiar with Kiyosaki’s work although he took down notes in his iPad during the seminar. Together with his wife, he owned a couple of rental properties and was the image of the Kiyosaki acolyte; teach the famous quadrant and play the Cash flow game with his students. This is the true message of Kiyosaki, to teach financial literacy, which may turn out to be the most important education that one can have, a fact focused in the video where a list of successful and wealthy people who did not complete college, flashed by: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Henry Ford and so on.  The lessons sprang forth in the room, lecturing to the chorus it would seem as most people where familiar with the message. Somehow I was reminded of MLK speaking in his Baptist ministry, but now the lesson was all about money.

I had attended 3 similar sessions before, read 5 Rich Dad books and attended 3 or 4 online seminars so I did not feel excited. Rather I felt tired and realized the con game being played; hoping that I would not see any colleagues from work, realizing that I should have known better and avoid the sleazy pitch that every hard working person knows; there is no short cut or secret knowledge that one will get from paying this sort of money. But even the con artist is feeling the pitch because the company is really a financial education company – not really a seller of a product like those old snake oil sales men but a seller of knowledge. The old price was about $ 1500 for a 3 day course, now down to $ 200 and you can bring your spouse, too. Now that is a bargain but the cynical can also see that this is not a bad idea – bring the spouse to increase one’s financial literacy and avoid divorce where the number one cause is money. Then again it was really a smart pitch to sell during these difficult times and a few went up and enrolled, afraid of missing the discount when enrolling early.

I was just glad that I could attend some interesting lectures this week and see all these good speakers and get a brief opportunity to speak in public myself. I guess it is a welcome break as I am getting too anxious at my work. Yesterday some exchange of email got me stressed, thinking that the writer was out to get me, not respecting my rights and belittling me. Last night I applied cognitive therapy and thought that maybe this person is expressing a legitimate concern, hammered by the troublesome application we turned over a few months back. I guess he was just concerned about his job and I should have done better in communication. I always re-interpret emails in the wrong way, thinking of darker motives, feeling embattled and sorry for myself. One can never be silent but speak out in a controlled and well thought out way, not to lash out and strike everyone. This will be the greatest challenge in my new work, to be smart and to discern the true meaning of their message which is sometimes difficult to do, considering all our different background and training. But communication is key and one should be careful especially when driven by emotions.

Working on PDUs

Last Tuesday I attended a day long symposium on project management. About 120 to 150 people attended the event. There were interesting speakers and the event was a welcome break from work. The event was held in a convention center in downtown, about 35 minutes from home. I had a chance to network and meet new people as well as banter with my office mates who attended. There were a lot of interesting lectures and I remember 2 exceptional ones. Looking back at the symposiums I attended in Singapore, I could not recall a specific outstanding lecture though I am sure there where exceptional ones there too. The speakers where well prepared and some had excellent visual aids. I recalled how terrible I was when I presented at the Singapore symposium; I had written a good paper (I felt) for the presentation but got nervous and flustered when I stood in the podium to deliver my talk. I had been attending Toastmaster for some time when I volunteered to present but all went to naught when I stood in front of the audience. I was given a plaque of appreciation and had dinner with the team but felt I did not deserve the gratitude.  I guess I did not do badly when one is less emotional thinking about it.

My speaking event was the most memorable episode that I can recall among my many memories of attending the Singapore symposiums. These event had about 1000 people or more attending, where dinners where held in large ballrooms, and stretched to 2 -3 days. It was a huge occasion and I can recall lining up for food, reserving seats in the meeting rooms, going home or drinking with GK - my colleague who I usually go with at these events – a fellow project manager struggling to earn the expected PDUs. I guess it was the drinking session at the bars we frequented was the highlight for me, eating good food like crispy pork belly, hot Indian samosa and cold beer, looking out into the night, telling stories and trying to guess what would happen to our lives if the company closed. I guess it was a stressful time because our future was uncertain, the company restructuring while we were still installing and deploying systems around Asia while training the outsource people who will be replacing us. Thank God the future turned out well for me, moving here to the South and continuing my career. But I lost many good friends and a great country to live in with only the memories of those pleasant lunches with my friends and the bar hopping at night.

The next day, Wednesday, was our usual Toastmaster meeting day where I evaluated a speech and served as table topics master, speaking several times.  I felt more confident now after spending 6 years in Toastmaster. It was a strange feeling that moment when I talked in front of the audience, after recalling my near speaking disaster in the Singapore symposium years ago, a memory brought back by the Tuesday event.  Somehow I felt that I turned a corner, especially since I crossed the last project milestone for the small project I was working on, an endeavor estimated to cost about USD$ 75k. Now I am heading towards a new assignment where I will be working as a project manager like in the days in Singapore. In the last 4 years I have been here, I worked more as an analyst, an interesting job because it allows one to learn about the business. The new assignment is more management; it entails working with people and doing administrative work. So now I have to make sure I keep my certification up to date.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Game of Thrones

Last weekend was eventful although I failed to file my 2012 tax return which is due next week. I had hoped to finish my tax filing Saturday or Sunday night; considering that I may need to send my state tax paperwork by regular mail like last year.  Despite my failure in completing the most important task at hand, we were able to hike in the Conestee Nature Park for an hour, buy trees for planting from Lowes, finish Season 3 of the HBO epic ‘Game of Thrones’ – watching 10 episodes in a period of three days, watch the movie ‘Argo’ and view my allotment of DVDs from the library. I also cleared most of the stack of mail at my desk while searching for my tax documents, shredding and throwing away unneeded papers. I had planned to start work after finding my tax returns but that took up most of Sunday afternoon that I was tired and did not proceed as planned. But throwing and shredding all those junk mail was cathartic that I felt good despite my failure to complete the real goal.

While looking for my documents, shifting through the piles of paper and unread mail, I was listening to a lecture on creative non-fiction, a seven disk series that I borrowed from the library. The series was very good and featured writers that I read about recently like Truman Capote and Harper Lee. The speaker - an erudite professor who also talked about Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Lillian Ross as the purveyors of a new journalism known by its literary flourish. The best example is the work of Twain, Mailer and Capote. I was able to complete disk 3 and look forward to the next disks that will feature Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe – the writer of the book ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ which was made into a film starring Tom Hanks. I am glad that my brain can still process or multi-task on these endeavors which I attribute to the vitamin supplements Gingko Biloba and St. John’s Wort that I started to take last week.  But the freshness of my mind is due more to the restful sleep I have been having for a week now since I started using the CPAP device – a true marvel of modern medicine.

The true highlight of the week aside from discovering the nature park, was watching ‘Game of Thrones’. A highly entertaining series that combines the spectacle and wizardry of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings,’ the Shakespearean medieval drama of kings and queens and the suspense and thrills of ‘The Wire,’ ‘Rome’ and ‘The Sopranos’ all delivered in a dark and stunning landscape. We watched 10 hours of Season 3 while I was squeezing through documentaries on architecture that featured Rem Koolhaas and Santiago Calatrava among others, an award winning film on Maya Lin - the architect of the Vietnam Memorial, and a film on Carl Jung, plus a 30-minute feature on the rise of Islam in Arabia that, inadvertently, preserved that teachings of Greece that led to the renaissance as the teaching where transmitted by Arab scholars after the fall of Rome. I should have paid more attention on the Jung film as I felt I will learn something new and meaningful, but the CD had problems and I could not finish the last minutes of the feature.

When one thinks about it, there are just too much ideas coursing through the mind in the weekend, dissimilar threads from literature, architecture, history and so on that it would seem impossible to focus on a simple task like filing one’s tax returns or writing a book.  Electrical signals sparking synapses in the brain, perhaps a biological bias driven by some genetic flaw in my DNA, something like an attention deficit syndrome that I control by writing or meditating or exercising; conducive in receiving a lot of information but unable to focus. Last Sunday I was watched the New York Times video magazine in Google’s spotlight gallery, a habit that I try to follow every weekend, like my usual habit of watching the Japanese series on restaurants every Sunday morning back in Singapore. But the novelty now seems empty, like I was cramming too much unnecessary information in my brain. Perhaps it is a subtle effect of getting a restful sleep via CPAP, when the brain is finally able to restore itself by slowing down as a sensible reaction.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


I slept well last night using the CPAP machine. But I was tired because I went to the gym and did not get the right sleep the previous night after coming back from our weekend trip. So I was exhausted when I went to bed but CPAP improved the quality of my rest. I think this device is a game changer for one’s quality of life, a technology that was available previously to the very rich. I feel more concentrated and focused during the day and more use of CPAP will improve my life in subtle ways that I would not notice. So that got me to thinking of further improving my functioning with vitamin supplements that help one’s cognitive function. I did dome research and settled on three possible candidates: Valerian, St. John’s wort and Gingko Biloba. Coupled with yoga, kettle ball, and golf and hiking would make the change complete.

I always try something new whenever I move to a new assignment or location. More like an instinctive act to prepare for stress brought about by change. For example, after moving to Singapore, I tried mind-mapping, Tai-Chi, golf and, eventually, Toastmaster and blogging. Along the way I dabbled in roller blading and guitar playing. I believe all these interests have improved my outlook and bandwidth. Now with my recent transfer, I think focusing on sleeping better via CPAP, getting more challenges in Toastmaster and work have upped the ante, driving up the quality of the game. Adding supplements to the plan will hopefully mitigate one’s biological constraints. The idea is to counter the inevitable onslaught of aging particularly cognitive decline, which one should control by multi-tasking less and keeping one’s mind focused at one important task at a time. Rushing to the weekend, with multiple reading and viewing of DVDs is not a good thing as well.

But I realize that a more fundamental change is needed involving one’s outlook. Otherwise age and one’s increasing work will force one to limit extra-curricular tasks like watching movies or reading at every free moment, instead of really relaxing. One has to be selective and reduce the amount of trivial movies or books to read. In the end, reducing mental stimuli will cause one to focus better. I am trying to read a book that attempts to make one more productive, written by a Harvard professor who has multiple careers. He has interesting tips useful to help achieve goals. I guess the idea is to undertake a combination of biological improvements (Tai-Chi, Yoga, CPAP and supplements), learn new tricks (smart phone / tablet tools, productivity techniques, focus) and a selective reduction of trivial tasks. Now that is a workable plan.

In retrospect, I think I have a ‘fight or flight’ response that drives my curiosity to read, watch and experience more. A fear that one will be less smart, less relevant and unable to compete at work; the fear that one will lose his advantage by being the smartest one in the room. But I do enjoy the varied experiences and input, not really driven by fear; but now one has to focus or lose relevance. Age and circumstances is bringing this youthful urge to a close. Perhaps one is getting worn-out and all one’s journey and travels (both physically and psychologically) is coming to an end. All the supplements and improvements will be put to good use if one is able to focus more. I realize that I could never be a writer in my youth like Capote, Mitchell or Harper Lee because I was too involved with experiencing life, self-absorbed, reading and watching movies; lacking focus and discipline.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Gone with the Wind

Margaret Mitchell was a self-taught writer, having left college to tend to her father after her mother died due to flu. Truman Capote was also a self-taught writer who never went to college; instead both writers were voracious readers who focused on the writing craft at an early age. Harper Lee, a fried of Capote who helped him in his book ‘In Cold Blood’ did attend college and was also a voracious reader who knew she wanted to be a writer at an early age. Harper Lee was awarded the Civilian Medal of Honor by President George W Bush for her book ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird.’  Both Mitchell and Lee were awarded the Pulitzer Prize and both wrote just one book in their life, although Capote did not win the Pulitzer, he was the most prolific and successful among the three writers though Mitchell could have been the wealthiest if she did not die at a young age of 48 because of a car accident.

My interest in these writers is because of my recent visit to Atlanta, my reading of a Vanity Fair article on Capote and linked to his relationship to Lee. All three writers achieved fame at a young age and mostly self-taught without college education except for Lee. Self-taught writers bring to mind the folk artists who were also self-taught in the exhibit of the High Museum of Art. This tells me that good writing can be learned individually by extensive reading and writing. Mitchell, Capote and Lee are, more or less, Southern writers as the topic of most of their work are stories about the South. Capote is the more cosmopolitan writer, succeeding in multiple genres; plays, short stories, fiction and non-fiction and also as a celebrity socialite and serial talk show guest. He leveraged his writing fame to a prominent social position and has aspiration as an American Marcel Proust. Interestingly, the works of these writers were made into best-selling films.

The works of the folk artists were touching, like the work of children but had deep meaning like the art of the Australian aborigines similar to the modern work of Jean Michel Basquiat. Their paintings have a simplistic power, honesty and insight without the elegance and sophistication of trained artists like Picasso or Diego Rivera. Frieda Kahlo is also a self-taught artist in a way; despite her close association with Rivera, who taught herself to paint while recuperating from terrible injuries due to a bus accident. Visual arts see success from the works of self-taught painters but may be difficult for writers as abstract knowledge is required especially in the scribbling craft. Hence, one is amazed in the ability of self-taught writers because this effort requires abundant reading and practice that allows them to rise above the usual scribbling of an amateur.

One is impressed that one could write a book directly by typing in a typewriter the way Mitchell must have done or Ian Fleming or maybe even Hemingway. I find it difficult perhaps because my mind is always swirling and Mitchell had the fortune of being a writer in an Atlanta paper that allowed her to hone her craft. I guess it is the act of the imagination that one needs to cultivate, whether expressed in the visual arts or in prose, the expression of one’s art in a medium that requires a certain practice. One need to find a theme that would give him a firm foundation: Capote in his acceptance of his sexuality, Lee in the fight towards racial justice (stirred by the work of her father) and Mitchell in her retelling of her lost romantic culture, the destruction of the old aristocracy as told by old veterans or survivors of the civil war.  Perhaps one goal would be the acceptance of an Asian identity.

Atlanta GA

We spent the weekend in Atlanta, discovering a city with a tragic past and a refreshing future. The trip started with art. The High Museum, impressive with acclaimed architects Piano and Meier contributing their talents to produce a design that combines the best elements of the New York Guggenheim (circular galleries along a descending ramp) and high ceilings with natural light, characteristic of museums from Washington to Los Angeles. The main exhibit featured Mexican painters Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I watched the Salma Hayek film, directed by Julie Taymor so I was familiar with their work. I like the reproduction of Rivera’s murals (that one that Rockefeller destroyed) and another about labor rights and communism. I bought a print that featured Emilio Zapata as I liked Rivera’s depiction of revolution and struggle amongst his many other subjects. His work reminds me of BenCab and his series on the Philippine revolution and undoubtedly, Rivera influenced other artist like Botero with his large rounded figures.

The Museum had an interesting section on modern art, (a wall of speakers shaped like a Birmingham church that represented the civil rights struggle) and a section on native folk art by self-taught artists. The next stop was Martin Luther King historical district where we dutifully looked through the audio visual exhibits at the visitor center, walked the streets where MLK lived (Auburn Avenue), visited the large house of his youth - the home of his father, the local fire station which had no African American firemen and the Ebenezer Baptist church where both MLK junior and senior preached. A sermon of MLK junior was played over the speakers inside the historic church, which for me was the high light, his rich melodious voice gliding along the empty wooden benches, the pulpit and the altar filled with his presence that one ‘feels’ the throbbing of history. One has in mind Einstein’s remark of Gandhi: in wonder that someone as noble and heroic as MLK once walked these streets. 

The evening dinner was Bangladeshi food in Panahar restaurant, where we had chicken in sweet yellow curry with almonds, lamb masala, mango chutney, basmati rice with peas cooked in butter, naan bread and mango lassi. I had trouble sleeping with my full stomach and the ruckus of my motel neighbors and the frequent police sirens. The next day, Easter Sunday, started with breakfast at Waffle house where we had rib-eye steak, hash browns, toast bread and scrambled eggs. We went to mass at the Catholic Church of Christ the King in Peachtree Street, filled to the brim with Easter worshippers, dressed out in formal elegant finery, women in nice coats and men in blue jackets with gold buttons, small children wailing and the priest giving an uninspiring sermon to the wealthy patrons of Atlanta. Next stop was the Jimmy Carter museum which opened at noon, so we walked the elegant gardens and finished the leftover breakfast of steak in one of the picnic tables in the park. 

The Jimmy Carter museum was impressive, perhaps the highlight of our visit, where the displays were intelligently done, particularly the computerized exhibit about the presidential archives and the worldwide work of the Carter Center; the recreation of the Oval Office was also impressive and the part on the Camp David accords. I have been an admirer of Carter since reading his books; especially his early life in the rural south and about the Middle East. His vision and work in the Carter Center is the future; NGOs helping governments and foreign cultures solve health problems, reduce conflict and help societies transition to democracy. The museum was atop a hill overlooking the city of Atlanta, with the impressive buildings in the distance, near the exact spot where General William Sherman plotted the battle that ended in the fall of Atlanta and the re-election of Abraham Lincoln. But modern Atlanta represents the New South, touted by Jimmy Carter and the state, where new ideas abound and the shadow of Jim Crow no longer around. 

The last stop was the Margaret Mitchell’s apartment along Peachtree Street, where the author wrote her celebrated novel ‘Gone with the Wind,’ the fall of the old South with the backdrop of slavery and old aristocratic families plus the celebrated film with Hollywood stars, directors and screen writers bringing the book to life. We missed the tour but looked through the exhibits and watched the Hollywood documentary. Perhaps it was fitting to end this trip in the old house, like a travel in reverse, where one should have started in the pre-Civil War era, slavery, the War Between the States, reconstruction, MLK and civil rights, Jimmy Carter and the new South, the High Museum and finally the Carter center with the elegant gardens and lake overlooking the city. Normally one visits the tourist traps like our first visit: Coca Cola center, CNN, Atlanta Hawks stadium and perhaps the Aquarium. One would not see the layers the enveloped the city and the amazing stories hidden underneath.