Coincidence

Rosemary Garlic Tri-Tip

A scrumptious dish

I had a pretty good dinner tonight. Tri-tip roasts are on sale this week at Safeway ($3.99/lb) so I got one (~3.5lbs) to roast in the oven. Minced some garlic and fresh rosemary and rubbed it all on along with some freshly cracked salt and pepper. Every 15 minutes I basted with a red wine and beef bouillon solution. Took it out of the 350°F oven after about an hour and 10 minutes, and sliced it up after letting it rest for 10.

As I like to do after a fancy dinner, I dripped myself a cup of coffee. Recently we unpacked the last of our things from Hong Kong, a box of kitchen stuff. Inside this box was the Guinness mug that came with the 4-pack I bought after we first moved into our place in Hong Kong. I had forgotten that I used to use this mug for drip coffee in Hong Kong, using whipping cream in place of half-and-half since the latter is not sold there. There was a morning in spring of 2013 when I made coffee to go along with a sandwich made with bread from our bread maker, in preparation for watching a Warriors playoff game. That was a good morning.

Since the mug got me thinking about our time in Hong Kong, I came here to see if I could jog some more memories. I decided to read the 6-Month Update, and then I saw that it was posted on August 18, 2013. So, exactly three years ago. What a coincidence.

It’s good to look back sometimes to see where you’ve been (although admittedly, I probably look back more often than “sometimes”). Three years ago, I was becoming more comfortable with myself and my way of living, becoming happier, and enjoying life more. It would seem that three years later, this is happening once again.

Four months ago, I wrote that time is the most precious resource. In exchange for having time, I chose to forgo having an income, and in turn forgoing having our own place to live. At that point it had almost been a year of staying with our parents, and now it has been more than that. In these four months, there have been good days and bad days. There has been internal struggle, and depression. There has been talk about moving back to Hong Kong because it would be easier to find a job and a place to live there (it sounds crazy, but compared with the Bay Area it’s true).

Perhaps I fell back into that chasm where all I do is worry about the future, worrying whether what I’m doing now is conducive to that future, whether what I’m doing is what I should be doing. When I’m in that chasm, I completely lose sight of the present, no matter how good it is. No, we aren’t working, yes, we’re living with our parents, but is that really so bad? We get to do whatever we want, whenever we want, staying up as late as we want. We get to eat tri-tip (when I had thought about escaping back to Hong Kong, I didn’t even think of how less frequently we had good beef over there). Other than the occasional self-inflicted kind, our present lives are stress-free.

In recent weeks is when I’ve finally started realizing all this, again. To stay in the moment, to enjoy the present that is good, to know that there is nothing to worry about. The past has shown us that we always step up and do what’s necessary when the time comes, so why not just enjoy this time that we have now? We are happy, healthy, and probably will be in the foreseeable future. I am confident that we will be able to handle whatever that future brings.

Metro-Cammell England

Trains by Metro-Cammell

From MTR 35th Anniversary exhibit at Hong Kong Station – August 1, 2014

For tonight’s museum cum nostalgia post I decided to go back to exactly one year ago, today. At Hong Kong Station the MTR was showing an exhibit of its history, and this was one of the tickets on display.

Last month, it was announced that the remaining Metro-Cammell MTR trains in Hong Kong will be replaced after 30+ years of service. Knowing this, I’m glad I spent a year in Hong Kong riding the MTR to work every day. I rode the Island Line so it was always this model train, the ones that I remember from early childhood in the late 70s and early 80s, with the same sounds and even smells today that they had back then.

Pissed

Pissed on the MTR – August 5, 2014

As I mentioned in some previous updates, I was pissed at first from the crowds and the disingenuous politicians stating that the MTR was still under-capacity.

Admiralty Station Crowd

Admiralty Station rush hour – does this look under-capacity to you?

Once I grew accustomed to the crowds and the disingenuity in general of Hong Kong people, I started noticing things other than my own annoyance, which in turn led me to truly experience the nicer aspects of the MTR. Number one has to be predictability. You know that another train is never far behind, sometimes seconds behind during peak periods, so when a train does arrive but I’m not yet at the spot on the platform where I can get onto a car with less people, I can just continue on calmly if I’m not in the mood for sardines. The trains are all the same length. The cars are always well-air-conditioned and never stuffy. The staff in general are pretty helpful. And I just learned that the MTR has a 99.9% on-time rate.

When I was a kid, I loved getting on at Central (where we were guaranteed a seat) and peering out the window as the train started moving, cupping my hands around my eyes to keep the light out. There were pipes in the tunnel that I could see, and as the train passed them it looked like they were bouncing up and down. Once we got to Mong Kok to transfer, I hoped that both trains would depart at the same time, because for a very brief period you could see the train you were just on. It was sort of ethereal, a rectangle of light containing faces and bodies floating outside, looking like it was following us, the angle changing as the train changed direction, vanishing finally as the tunnels separated.

As a grownup, after taking the MTR every single day, I just automatically developed a routine. First of course is the zombie walk from home to the station (because not long prior I was still in bed). Then, it’s the walk down the stairs, knowing to watch for people who are coming up. Next is passing through the fare gate, knowing where the trouble areas are (tourists, mainlanders with big suitcases). Same thing with the escalators. If two are available, there’s always the one with less people because they’re too lazy to walk a couple of steps further. Then, the aforementioned best place on the platform to get on. As the train rolls in to the station and slows to a stop, I watch for openings and sometimes move one or two doors down so I can get to my favorite spot on the train: the doors on the opposite side.

Many people have their favorite spot on the train, especially if they’re a daily commuter. After a while, I realized my favorite place on the train was right next to the train doors, but not the place you might think. Most people like the spots at either ends of the doors, with your butt on the glass, right next to the face of someone who might be sitting down (see far left in “pissed” photo above). I never liked being the one with someone’s butt near my face, so I prefer to stay away from those spots. Instead, I choose to lean against one of the doors on the left side of the train. First, this spot is usually open because it’s not popular and is between those two popular ones. Second, for my journey to work the left doors open at only one station. Third, not many people get on or off at that station, so I can basically hang out at my spot indefinitely. Lastly, I can leave both hands free for electronic device usage by leaning back and spreading my feet to steady myself. In 30+ years I’ve never heard of anyone falling out due to the doors suddenly opening (gotta give it up to those British engineers), so I figure if it’s my turn to go, then I’d be okay with it.

It seems sort of appropriate that they would announce the end of these trains after we left Hong Kong. I already got a chance to experience them for real, develop a routine, rather than just take the MTR once or twice during a short vacation trip. If we don’t get another chance to ride these Metro Cammell trains, I think I’d also be okay with it.

As always, hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.

Further reading:
Metro Cammell from the London Historians’ Blog
Collection of even more old MTR tickets from British railroad enthusiast John Tilly

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The Standard - July 2, 2015

The July 2, 2015 edition of the Standard – from our last day in Hong Kong

Today marks three weeks since we’ve returned home. At this time three weeks ago, we were already asleep in bed after enduring a trans-Pacific flight.

In the two weeks since the last update, I’ve sometimes found myself asking whether we really lived the past two years in Hong Kong. I set my desktop slideshow to play photos from 2015, hoping to see some photos from my old home that would spark some feelings of nostalgia, but no sparks come. I try setting it to June of 2015, just a few weeks ago, and it’s the same. I’m kind of a nostalgic person (as can be seen from the Museum and the Nostalgia categories on this website) so it seems a little strange that since I’ve been back in the States I haven’t really thought of Hong Kong too much. I thought that I would really miss my life there, miss the people, the environment.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been back and forth enough times now to know that it is futile to try to keep up with what’s happening on the other side of the world. When we are there, whether “there” is HK or SF, we don’t even have to try to know what’s going on locally. We become aware through osmosis, whether it’s through local television and radio, walking on the street, or hearing coworkers chatting. For example, on the day that we left I probably could have named at least one topic that was covered in the Standard newspaper pictured above. But now, on the other side, despite trying really hard to keep up by listening to internet radio, streaming television shows, or chatting with friends on WhatsApp, I couldn’t tell you anything about what’s trending in HK right now. I could quote a headline from an HK website, but it’s probably not exactly what everyone’s talking about in HK at this moment. There’s definitely something to be said for being fully immersed. Those other things are not a substitute.

It could also be that I really am getting old now. As I approach my fifth decade, I find that I’m able to squeeze less into my brain. It’s harder to recall things. You actually notice that a lot of things don’t stick (I know because I write a lot of stuff down, knowing that I can’t remember shit). It could also be that in my old age I’ve learned to stop paying attention to noise. I’ve stopped paying attention to some things that I now consider noise that I used to capture easily without trying, so when I try to recall details about them I’m unable to. Some of the examples from my list would be the crowds and the cigarette smoke. If I hadn’t talked about the air before, I probably would have completely forgotten how bad it was in HK.

I knew before we left that there would be some knowledge that we took for granted that would fade with time, like which car on the MTR to get off from to get closest to the escalator or how much the buses cost. At this very moment, I still remember that 2A costs $4.10, but when I try to recall the fare for a cross-tunnel bus, it takes me a second to come up with $9.30. A lot of other stuff that I’m not even aware of has probably faded already. Still, I’m starting to fill that space with new stuff, like $1.85 for BART in the city, or $2.25 for MUNI, so it’s not a total loss.

I’ve probably mentioned somewhere on here before that at the most basic level, people are all the same. Still, it’s kind of unbelievable how far away Hong Kong seems now, how it seems like two different worlds. In my day-to-day life over the past three weeks, it’s almost like living in HK never happened. But every now and then, I might encounter something to remind me of my time there. I sometimes see people out and about being absorbed with themselves and I wonder if they’re aware that there’s a whole other world out there. They’re so caught up in their current context. Although sometimes it’s tough trying to balance two different worlds (something I’ve struggled with ever since we immigrated to SF), it’s times like these that make me thankful that I have another perspective. There was someone talking to me about construction noise the other day. I just nodded my head and thought about the endless renovations that occur in Hong Kong, the jack-hammering into concrete that is a staple of HK renovations. As bad as you might think you have it, someone else in the world is probably having a harder time than you right now. And, just to be fair, I used to think the same thing when people complained about the MTR (versus BART).

To end this post, I’ll post a photo of our HK home just before we handed it back to the landlord. What I see in the photo no longer exists in the physical world, but I’m hoping it will jog my memory and spark some feelings for the place I called home for over two years. Good night.

Our HK Home

Our HK home on the last day – June 30, 2015

And Then I Got Sick

I had already felt a little achy and sleepy on Thursday, and after posting about declining a job offer, my condition deteriorated rapidly. I spent the rest of Friday afternoon on the couch alternately feeling hot, then cold, then tired, then hot again. I’d put on a jacket and it’d get too hot. I’d take it off and it’d be too cold. Then my muscles and joints started aching. I couldn’t play Sega even if I wanted to. All I could do was lay on the couch.

When I’m sick I completely let myself go when it comes to sleep. By that, I mean that I just allow myself to sleep into a daze. Normally, the more I sleep the more sleepy I get (which is undesirable). Or, if I have a schedule and need to get up at a certain time, that time is more or less on my mind while I’m sleeping so that I tend to get up before my alarm even goes off. When I’m sick, I turn off all of these concerns. Just sleep and let my body heal itself. The sleep that results is deep and intense, if sleep can be described that way. I’ve had some crazy dreams sleeping like this, too. Last night I saw my father. I asked him if he bought that umbrella hanging on the chair. I don’t remember if he responded, but the answer I got was that my mother bought the umbrella, not my dad.

Even with all that sleep, this flu was too powerful to kill with a single night’s worth. On Saturday morning I got out of bed only to get right back on the couch, wrapping myself up in our blanket. Sometimes there is a cough, a dry cough, and it’s like something smacking you in the lung. In between the chills and aches, I tried to find a position that was relatively comfortable. I finally did, laying on my right side, using our Doraemon as a pillow. Luckily the PS3 uses Bluetooth, so you don’t have to aim the remote at it to control it. I went through all our photos from 2011 to the present. I can’t believe how big the dining table we had in Oakland was compared to the one we have here.

I was lucky that it was the weekend and JC could be with me. After she got off work on Saturday afternoon she brought back some food and OJ, and then she spent the rest of the afternoon with me on the couch. I hope she doesn’t get sick after being in such close proximity these past few days. If she does, it will be my turn to take care of her. I feel very happy and lucky to have a girl like her.

Yesterday the new thing was soreness in my buttocks and my mid-back. It must have been all that sleeping, on top of the aches and pains that already come with the flu. Can’t even sit without pain. Can’t lie down without pain. Luckily, JC had some Tylenol samples saved up and it worked wonders. I don’t want to take too much and become resistant to it, but I had the sitting pain again this morning and took a couple. That’s why I’m able to sit here and type this now.

Makes me think of all the people who suffer like this long term, the ones for which there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The human body’s capacity for suffering is incredibly high. Unless we get shot or squashed by a subway car, we can take our sweet time to get to the end. It really makes me wonder what goes on in the minds of the anti-suicide crowd. Do they not have any empathy? Is their need to control so strong that they’re completely unaware of the victim’s suffering? Or maybe they ignore it? Or maybe they don’t even go that deep into the reasons for why they take that position in the first place. Just plain old dogma. Ignorant fools.

“Why?”

With all the job stuff happening last week, I got stressed out. After the interview on Monday, I had another coffee after dinner. That night I slept only about 4 hours. I went to shoot around a bit, and afterwards I went inside the wet market to buy some groceries, passing by the live chicken stall. I thought that maybe I caught bird flu. Stayed up later than I should have trying to beat a boss in Resident Evil that night. Got a load of calls from the recruiter on Wednesday. Fatigue and stress weakens the immune system and allows germs to get in.

“Truth”

At the lowest point, I’m just laying there, my eyes barely open, I’m shivering, and I can’t find a comfortable position. I know I’m not dying any time soon, but it feels like it. At that lowest point, truth has a tendency to make itself appear to you. All the stuff I did during the past week about finding a job is close and far away from my mind at the same time. Close in that I was actually thinking about it, and far away in that I couldn’t actually care less about it at that point. It goes back to that same old question, “what’s important to you?” The past week I put on some “nice” clothes and went looking for a job, despite having always been uncomfortable wearing a suit and tie. How did I feel when I did it? Felt like I was wearing a mask, putting up a front. That wasn’t me. When I was down at that lowest point, I knew that I would be fine if I never had to put on a suit and tie ever again.

I declined a job offer, and then I got sick.

Life in Hong Kong, Mid-September Update

This post is over a thousand words long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I woke up this morning and stayed in bed with my eyes closed, thinking. I thought, man, it’s really nice being able to get out of bed when I want to, not having to worry about a schedule. It’s a Monday morning and most people are getting up to go to work, but not me. Being able to wake up at any time, being able to go to bed at any time, it’s priceless.

Over the past few days, we have finally come full circle from where we were almost a couple of months ago. We were waking up around 9:00 AM, then 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, and then all the way around the clock. I thought it was incredible when we started waking up at 5:00 PM, but that was nothing compared to when we started waking up at midnight.

Although I do enjoy staying up late, it does have its drawbacks. For example, eight hours of sleep from 1:00 PM to 9:00 PM is not the same as eight hours of sleep from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM. In the beginning, things seem normal and I can get things done just as I normally would. After a while, I slow down noticeably, with the body simply feeling more tired despite 8+ hours of sleep. At the end of the day, we are diurnal creatures, and we need exposure to the sun to be healthy.

Realizing this, we allowed ourselves to keep going until we got back to normal. This past week we’ve been on the jet-lag* schedule, waking up at 2:00 AM, 3:00 AM, until finally, this morning we woke up at 8:00 AM. Wow. 8:00 AM. Time to go to work.

*Because the first night after we take the afternoon flight from SFO to HKG, we always wake up around those hours

Really? Time to Go to Work?

Well, not quite. After sending out a few resumes and receiving no responses, I had pretty much stopped looking for work, focusing instead on more personal endeavors such as updating this site and playing Starcraft. Sometimes, though, I do miss the camaraderie of being part of a team, especially after going out and being around people. Other times, I am tempted to buy a luxurious material thing that I wouldn’t even bat an eyelid at buying if I had income. At times like these, I feel like working again.

It was one of those days last week. I had been out visiting Granny, seeing other people on their commutes to work, wondering what it might be like for me to do the same. On a whim, I took a look at a job website and threw up my resume.

Normally, I analyze the position and try to research as much as I can about the company before writing a customized cover letter. Since I hadn’t really been successful, this time I really did just throw up my resume. No cover letter. Basically, what you’re not supposed to do when looking for a job. It was more an expression of protest and exasperation than a real application. I wasn’t expecting a response.

The next day, I get a voicemail from the recruiter calling to discuss details. Dang. I spend hours writing cover letters and get nary a peep, and when I throw shit up to see what sticks I get a response the next day. I really wasn’t expecting it and freaked out a bit. I’ve never been good at telephone calls, so with that plus the unexpectedness it took some back and forth playing out scenarios in my mind to build up my nerves to return the call.

The recruiter and I had a nice chat and I agreed to go into the office for a face-to-face meeting in two days. Immediately after I got off the phone, though, I asked myself what the heck I was doing. Was I really ready to give up full control of my time? Had I finished all the things I wanted to finish? On some occasions I’ve spent more than 8 hours at a time writing stuff for this site. Would I really be able to continue working on my personal interests with a full time job?

I spend the evening mulling and struggling over these questions. From an external standpoint, I do not have a job, and it would be prudent to take advantage of this opportunity. Even if the job turns out to be a bad fit, I could use the opportunity as a chance to practice my social and networking skills. From an internal standpoint, my gut and conscience tell me that I’m still enjoying my time off, that I don’t need to do something I don’t want to do just to satisfy the tyranny of the “should”. I start to wonder whether to call the recruiter back and cancel.

The next morning, I spend some time at the basketball courts shooting around and running a couple of full-court games. After a couple of hours of running, I realize that I never would have been able to do it if I had to go to work afterwards. Like being on the court, I decide to trust my instincts and not try to do something I don’t really want to do. I decide to cancel with the recruiter.

Luckily for me, the recruiter was more than gracious when I explained to her my mistake. I apologized for wasting her time, and she wished me a good break and left the door open for any future opportunities. I really got away with one (or, at least, that’s what I hope!).

When I sent in my resume, it was one of those days when I woke up at 2:00 AM, so by the time I got home I was pretty tired and not thinking straight. Actually, I wasn’t thinking at all. I leaped before I looked. The recruiter would have been well within her rights to accuse me of playing games. I didn’t want to compound that initial mistake with another one (going in with no real intent to get the job) so I backed out.

Learning Through Experience

Over the past few months, I have progressed a lot in my personal development, learning about and coming to terms with how I tick, and learning how do deal with life in that context. Although I’m not proud of what I did, I’m actually kind of glad that this resume thing worked out the way it did. There are so many existing opinions, existing ideologies out there that one has a hard time picking which voice to listen to. I am finding that just listening to myself is the best course of action; making a mistake like this one, coming up with a way of rectifying it, and then being truly content with the outcome tells me that I had been right all along. If I had believed the “I’m not ready” feeling in my gut instead of worrying that it might be the wrong choice, I never would have sent out my resume and made such a mess in the first place.

We learn through experience, and making mistakes, whether it be completely flipping our sleep schedule around or learning to trust ourselves. Staying up late all the time, we realized the drawbacks to not sleeping at night. After the resume thing, I will remember to think before I do, and trust my own judgment a bit more in the future. Living in Hong Kong, we have learned that we can be happy with so very little. Withdrawing money early from my IRA, I realize it’s a lot easier after overcoming the initial mental hurdle. No one can tell you what anything is like. We have to experience and learn for ourselves whether something is good or bad.

Thank You, and Good Night

And so, that’s it for this update. In a little while, as this Monday evening winds down, I will once again lay my head down on my pillow and close my eyes, and I will think, man, it’s really nice being able to go to bed when I want to.

On Eating Out and Being Frugal

With no income, it comes as no surprise that we’re now trying (yes, trying) to live our lives with a degree of frugality. One of the best ways to save money is to eat in. Not only does eating in have the benefit of being far cheaper than eating out, it is also a healthier option. Vegetables are the cheapest, and a couple of U.S. dollars worth of vegetables can last for days. We find ourselves buying a lot of Chinese melon and squash type vegetables (such as winter melon and Chinese marrow), as well as lots and lots of tomatoes. Along with a tiny amount of meat for flavor, these items make some great soups and stews and can be quite appetizing. That said, a look at my HK Food Prices page will reveal that we still eat our fair share of meat and junk food. It’s something that we enjoy and are willing to reduce, but not completely eliminate from our diets.

Eating Out – Quantity vs. Quality

As with meat and junk food, we know we can’t completely eliminate eating out from our lives. Still, my attitude on eating out has definitely changed. Whereas previously I was less discriminating about where I ate, I now only spend my money at establishments that I know will meet my expectations. There have been times when I’ve ignored my gut feelings about a place and fallen for clever advertising or social media hype or had unrealistic expectations (i.e. expecting Vietnamese restaurants in Hong Kong to be as good as those in the Bay Area) and regretted it. My slogan for these types of places now is “never again!“.

Never Again

Never again

Of course, when eating out becomes more of an occasion than a routine, value becomes even more important. I don’t mind paying more for a meal if the experience ends up being more pleasurable and satisfactory. At the same time, I know that paying more doesn’t necessarily increase pleasure and satisfaction. One of the benchmarks I’ve started using to determine how much value I can derive from a place is “love”. You can always tell if the staff of a place puts love into their product. There is a sense of pride that you can feel as well as observe. The cost of the meal has nothing to do with it. Is the wait staff well-trained, attentive, and engaged, or are they aloof and act like they don’t want to be there? Is the food presented with care or haphazardly? Do the ingredients come together harmoniously or are they just thrown together because that’s the latest trend?*

*Because some vendors know that trend-followers tend to be sheep who will do (and pay) anything just to be “cool”

Chow Jew Ho Fun

This is what love looks like

An example of a place that puts love into its product is Vien Huong in Oakland Chinatown. Even though the place looks kind of rundown and dirty from the outside, once you’re inside it’s a different story. You can see it: customers preparing their sauces in anticipation before the meal, happily slurping away their noodles during, and empty bowls, expressions of satisfaction, and guys holding their bellies at the end. Though some may say that the staff seems unfriendly, having been a customer for a few years, I sense that they do care quite a bit about your overall experience. There is a palpable standard level of quality and service there.

In Hong Kong, a couple of examples include Pizza Hut (yes, believe it or not!) and Pokka Grill Specialist (Sha Tin branch). Despite these being chain establishments, I have experienced a consistent level of service and food quality at these places. The staff actually seem like they want to be there, and the food is put together well. At these “loving restaurants” (for lack of a better term), I can be reassured that there’s a good chance I won’t waste one of the few occasions that I’ve decided to eat out.

Pizza Hut Spaghetti

A spaghetti from a recent meal at Pizza Hut

At this point in our culinary lives, most things that can be had out can be had in. Why would I waste my time and money with a mediocre joint when I can do it better myself and be in the comfort of my own home watching Iron Chef? No, we eat only at places that are truly worth it.

My Mentality on Frugality

There was once a time for me when eating out was more of an occasion than a routine, when being frugal was a regular thing. It was up until about 5 years ago, before I leased my first car. Even after paying for the drive-off, my mentality was that I now had to save even more money, since I had just incurred such a large outlay. But then, a couple of weeks later on a morning which I remember vividly, it occurred to me when I was brushing my teeth (what is it with me and brushing my teeth?!) that I could buy every single item on my Amazon.com wishlist, and do so comfortably. I finished up, went to my computer, logged on, and browsed to my wishlist. I went through each item and clicked “Add to Cart”. Click-click-click-click-click. Scroll. Click-click-click-click-click. Checkout. Disbelief. Excitement. Wow, what a feeling.

Shopping Spree

Some of the things I bought from Amazon.com

Prior to the spree, I hadn’t used Amazon.com for 4 months. I ended up spending a few grand on a bunch of stuff for myself and my family. Afterwards, it was as if the floodgates had opened. In 2009, I averaged an Amazon order every 3 days, and since then, I’ve been pretty comfortable opening my wallet for things without thinking too much about it. So, what happened?

As part of my upbringing, I considered frugality a virtue. As I’ve mentioned before, my father was incredibly frugal. Even now, I have well-off relatives who deny themselves the majority of life’s luxuries. As with many things that we are told to do growing up, we’re often not told why we should do those things. We’re not taught why so that we can think for ourselves whether to do them, we’re just told to do them. A lot of times, fear is used as motivation. I couldn’t tell you then why I had to be frugal, but I was afraid that something terrible might happen if I wasn’t.

The problem with using fear as a primary motivator is that once the fear is overcome, so is the motivation. I bought a bunch of stuff, and the world didn’t end. Like the teenager with strict parents discovering the party scene in college for the first time, I saw what I had been denied (though admittedly in my case I was the one doing the denying) and went wild. Luckily, after the initial uptick in spending activity, I calmed down and my spending stabilized. I was still able to save a good percentage of my income each month, with my only debt being the Acura, but I no longer limited myself just for the sake of limiting myself.

And now, out of necessity, I am back to limiting myself, but these days I have a real reason and a much more balanced approach to personal finance. The question I ask myself is, to what end am I being frugal? Right now, the answer to that question is to maximize the time between now and when we absolutely must work while still having a good time. So, I can still drink Scotch and eat steak, but I can only have one bottle at a time, wait a minimum of 2 months before I can buy another bottle, and I can only buy thin-cut Australian sirloin (except special occasions, of course 😉 ). I can still make large purchases if they are worthwhile. For example, I recently bought my mother not one, but two smartphones (she lost the first one). At first glance, it may seem like a lot of money, but if my past experience is any indication, in a few years time it will be a forgotten blip. And, that’s not even considering the huge amount of benefit gleaned from my mother being able to connect with everyone.

I have found that money isn’t that important to me. To me, value and happiness is more important than money. The smartphone thing is a really good example: yes, it was tough swallowing the loss of the first phone, but my original goal was to give my mom a smartphone so that we could have a real-time platform on which to stay connected with each other now that we are thousands of miles apart. It would have been worse to swallow the loss and move on pretending like nothing ever happened. The amount of value and happiness derived from it is incredibly high and can’t simply be measured in monetary terms (how do you measure a mother’s desire to be near her children?). It’s the same with my time. My time is incredibly valuable and right now I’d much rather have full control of my time than to spend it earning money.

I think sometimes people get carried away with retirement and worrying about the future. These are the best years of our lives, the years when we are young, when we are fully active and in command of our faculties. There is no guarantee that we will make it to retirement (of course, there is a very good chance), but even if there was, there are things that our 35-year-old selves can (and would want to) do that no amount of money can help our 65-year-old selves do. There are certainly perks with every age, but as I have seen in people all around me (including myself), we all inevitably deteriorate as we get older, some faster than others. It’s not up to us. Most old people I’ve met tend to look more behind than ahead. I want full control of my time for at least some portion of my youth while it is still up to me so that when it is my turn to look behind, I’ll like what I see.

Upstate New York, Where Old Arcade Machines Go to Retire?

We saw a lot of interesting things during our road trip, but one of the more memorable ones for me personally were some old arcade machines at a couple of rest stops in upstate New York.

At one of the first stops we made on our way to Cortland, Sloatsburg Travel Plaza, there was an old Whirlwind pinball machine circa 1990. When I saw this machine I was amused enough to take a photo, but didn’t think too much of it.

Whirlwind Pinball Machine

Later, on our way to Niagara Falls from Cortland, we stopped at Ontario Travel Plaza and saw this:

Games at Ontario Travel Plaza

After seeing Whirlwind, I was wondering if this rest stop might have another pinball machine. What I didn’t expect to find was one of my favorite pinball machines ever, one that I have thought about a lot over the years, one whose soundtrack I still hum at random moments.

World Cup Soccer Pinball Machine

My first job as a teenager was at a video game company. In the break room, we had free, unlimited soda (which was a big deal to my teenage self), and this pinball machine: World Cup Soccer, by Bally. It was set on free play so whenever I had a chance, I’d go in there to play a round or two. I’ve never been very good at pinball, which meant that I would always play sparingly in order to save my quarters. With this machine on free play, however, it didn’t matter that I would always lose ball 3 too quickly. I could play over and over, and I did. I played it so much that even now, when I get excited about something, I might start humming the music that plays when you first start the game. It’s a really catchy and gets-you-up-and-going sort of tune:

After my job ended, I never saw another World Cup Soccer pinball machine. Imagine my excitement and glee when I saw it again, at a lonely rest stop of all places! I really could not contain myself. I was blabbering uncontrollably to JC, who couldn’t understand what the big fuss was about. I got to actually play it again after 16 years. Wow. Even now, it’s kind of unbelievable to me, being able to relive a page from adolescence. How appropriate that I would encounter this machine during our Adventure 2012.

After playing World Cup Soccer, playing the Neo Geo next to it seemed less exciting. It had almost been as long since I had last touched a Neo Geo machine, but I suppose there isn’t as significant a backstory to it as World Cup Soccer. Still, it did make me wonder: I don’t see any classic arcade machines for years, and when I do, they’re within miles of each other in the same state. Perhaps someone in the New York State Thruway Authority is an enthusiast of old arcade machines? If that’s true, then I want to say to that person, thank you very much!

Whisky Leaving Scotland

As I sit on the top bunk of our cabin in the Caledonian Sleeper leaving Scotland, I enjoy a miniature 50ml Glenfiddich single malt Scotch whisky. On the carton, it reads:

The Glenfiddich Distillery
Dufftown, Banffshire, Scotland

Drinking this whisky is no longer the same, for I have now personally been to the distillery, seen the fermentation vats, the copper stills, and the oak casks in which the whisky matures. Now, when I drink this whisky, my mind will flash to the duty-free warehouses where it matures for 12 or more years. I will appreciate more the work that goes into the process which brings us this wonderful drink.

Next: Goodbye London, Goodbye Europe

Saying Goodbye to Two Old Friends

I recently had to say goodbye to a couple of old friends. This post is dedicated to them.


I bought my first car in September of 2008. I’ll never forget the date, September 13, 2008, about a month before my birthday. Prior to this date, my mind was fixed in that I only spent money on the bare essentials, in that frugality was top priority. Having been a part-time college student living at home, this made sense. But I was no longer that student, and was working full-time and living on my own. I had to tell myself that it was OK to spend some money on something that would make me happy.

My First Car, 2009 Acura TSX

My first car.

The TSX made me happy, and then some. It became a hobby for me: learning about cars, how each subsystem of a car works, what I could do to squeeze out more performance, what I could do to keep it in top shape. I bought lightweight wheels to improve aesthetics as well as acceleration, bought high performance tires to improve grip, bought springs to lower the car’s center of gravity and improve handling. I learned about ways to keep the paint looking like it had just rolled off of the assembly line. I took pride in knowing more about my car than the average person, and keeping my car in better condition than the average person. When it came time to turn in the car at lease end, I decided to lease another and transfer the parts to it.

My Second Car, 2011 Acura TSX

My second car.

A year after leasing my second TSX, I am no longer working and I am planning to travel and move overseas. Keeping the car no longer makes sense. The reality of the situation weighs on my mind, and I am unable to sleep. I get out of bed and go down to the garage to take my car out for a drive, to spend some final quality time with it. I try to take in the things that I had taken for granted up until this point, things like the smell of the leather every time I step into the car, things like the growl of the engine when I hit VTEC, and things like the car just looking so damn good.

Going for a Drive

Going for a drive at 4 in the morning.

It is 4 AM; the morning’s fog and mist adds to my contemplative mood. I drive my car around the beautiful city of San Francisco, knowing that soon I will not have the car, and that soon I will no longer be in this city where I grew up. I drive around the entire town, recalling images from yesteryear, from taking the MUNI to school every morning to eating out with my friends for the first time in Chinatown, intermixing those memories with the feelings I get when stomping on the accelerator pedal in first gear. At 4 in the morning, it is as if the streets are mine to do with as I please. I can even step out and take photos while the engine is still running. I take the photos not knowing that this would be the final night we spend together.

Entering Chinatown

Getting ready to enter Chinatown around 4 AM, while a rare vehicle passes through the intersection.

Golden Gate

A bit later on, the sun has come up but it is a foggy day.

Inside the Car

Enjoying my car for the last evening.

On the last day, I am nervous because I do not know how much the dealer will give me for my car. I sit in the lounge and try to watch the Olympics, I pace back and forth between the new cars on the showroom floor. Finally, my salesperson gives me the number, and I let out a sigh of relief. My efforts to keep the car in top condition have not been in vain. But when I turn around and take one last look at my beloved car, I find that I loved it more than I realized. I did not expect saying goodbye to be so difficult. This was the car that I drove every day to work, that I painstakingly maintained, that I raved to all my friends about, a part of my life, a part of my identity. Why would I not expect saying goodbye to be difficult?

Knowing that I was now carless, my salesperson offered me a ride to the BART station. As we pulled out of the dealer lot, I said goodbye to my car without regret, satisfied and comforted knowing that we had spent that last night together.

Goodbye, Old Friend

Goodbye, old friend.


It was an early July afternoon on a warm, sunny day. I was sitting on the porch of my in-laws’ house with Brutus, the family dog, a Boxer. I would throw the frisbee across the yard, he would chase after it, chew on it for a while, and then bring it back. After a few rounds, I’d draw some water from the tap into his bowl, and he’d lap it up thirstily. Then, he would push his head into my leg, lean his whole body on me and sit on my foot, shedding his dog hair all over my pants.

He did this every time I came to visit. It was very endearing, sort of like a child grabbing your hand and putting his in yours because he wants you to hold it. It was like he was telling me, “hey, good to see you again, let me show you that you’re part of my pack”.

On this day I was part of his pack for a long time. We watched many cars drive by, and many of the drivers would smile at us, probably thinking that Brutus was my dog. The fact is, I have never owned a dog, and probably never will. I cannot tolerate dog hair all over my clothes, my home, or my car. Normally, I don’t even play with Brutus for that long because I can’t wait to go wash my hands. On this day, for some reason, I wanted to spend more time and enjoy the afternoon with him.

It was two weeks before I visited my in-laws again. Normally, Brutus would perk up when he detected our approach and run over to greet us, but now he only barely glanced at us. When he finally did get up, we saw that he was severely emaciated, and drooling all over. We were told that he hadn’t eaten in over seven days. After taking him to the vet, x-rays revealed that he had a blockage of the esophagus which could have been something he swallowed, or cancer. We had to take him to a specialist to find out.

At the specialist’s office, we learned that we had few options. Because of the period of time that had elapsed, even if it was a foreign object in his esophagus the amount of inflammation would have made it difficult to remove surgically and, even if removed, scar tissue would form and once again create a blockage. The cancer prognosis was equally discouraging. It was a risky procedure for a healthy dog, let alone a severely emaciated one, and we could tell from the doctor’s expression that the outlook was not good. In the end, we knew what we had to do for our friend.

We spent a few final moments with Brutus. Ever since he got sick, he had been lethargic and could barely walk, but somehow he managed to walk over to me and push his head into my leg one last time. Did he know that the end was near? Was he giving us permission to end his life?

The doctor came back in with a catheter in Brutus’ hind leg. We laid him down on the doggy bed and petted him softly and gave the doctor our permission to proceed. He solemnly gave the first injection. Brutus let out a sigh. We kept petting him, trying to make him as comfortable as possible. The doctor slowly gave the second injection, and then the third. A few moments later, Brutus was gone.

I had never seen death like this before. It seemed to happen quickly; one moment Brutus was here, and the next he wasn’t. His body still felt warm, he still had the dog smell, and when I petted him it felt no different than before. We wrapped him up in a blanket and took him home, where we buried him in the same yard where we had played frisbee just a couple of weeks ago.

Now, I understand why dogs are referred to as man’s best friend. I was not his owner, yet Brutus still treated me like his best friend, even at the end. He was the closest thing I’ve had to owning a dog. True loyalty and true affection that is easy to see, with no pretense or ulterior motive embodied in a furry four-legged beast, I will never forget my good friend Brutus, and I will be forever grateful that I was able to spend that last warm, sunny afternoon with him. RIP Brutus.

Brutus

Brutus Maximus, 2006-2012

A Unique Opportunity

Sunset

This thing we call life is a unique and rare opportunity. When I think about human life as compared with the age of the Earth or the age of the universe, I am amazed at the things we get to experience despite our insignificance. If we accept the Earth to be 4 billion years old, then my time on Earth is a fraction with 8 zeroes after the decimal point. If I remember my math right, that’s like comparing the width of a human hair with the height of Mount Everest. Insignificant indeed!

So, we are insignificant beings in the grand scheme of things, but by being alive we have the opportunity to experience so many great things. Imagine a photograph, an image of a moment in time captured in less than a second. You are in that photograph with your parents and siblings, and you are all smiling and happy. Think about how you felt at that very moment. As sentient beings we are able to replay that moment indefinitely in our minds, remembering how we felt, what we saw, even what we smelled.

A few minutes ago, I was sitting in this room, watching the sunset, feeling the breeze of the air conditioner blowing on me, reading previews of Euro 2012, and eating my dinner. I got to do all these things because I am alive. What a wonderful opportunity. What a moment to replay in the future.

In the past I have said that life is a joke. It is another perspective, and I would not say whether each perspective is right or wrong. Just like the universe, we are constantly changing as people, and as we are affected by external stimuli the way we see the world changes as well. Nonetheless, I think that if people maintained this idea that we are all insignificant, there just might be less conflict in the world, and everyone would get to enjoy this rare opportunity we call life.