Friday, April 4, 2014

Third Time's the Charm: My Trip to China and Taiwan (Part 1)

Last year, I had my heart set on going to visit China, so much so that I actually sat in on an introductory Chinese course at West Virginia University (WVU) in an attempt to learn and understand at least the basic foundation of the language and a few sentences.  During the summer, I had made plans with someone from China, who was attending WVU, to go back to their hometown in May of 2014 to visit.  Alas, those plans fell through.  No sooner did that occur, then I was asked by the professor of the introductory Chinese course if I would be interested in supervising some undergraduate students on a trip to Beijing in the summer of 2014 for a study abroad program.  Of course I was!

No disrespect is meant for those involved, but I learned long ago in life, not to get jazzed up over words and not to get attached to ideas.  Thus, at the beginning of the year, when I was told that these plans also fell through (another professor with more seniority decided to go), while initially somewhat disappointed, I was actually ok with that.  There has always been a fierce spirit in my heart that refuses to quit and when the going gets tough, I have learned to rely heavily on the one person I know I can always count on, and that person is none other than myself.  Looking ahead in the calendar, I eyeballed the week of Spring Break, in March, and simply resolved to go to China by myself.

Being a professor has many advantages.  One of them is that over the years I have been blessed to have developed a labyrinth of students that now stretch across the globe in many countries.  After hearing of my two false starts, many of my international friends and students from WVU sprang into action.  One of my advisees (Qiuchen Li) was from Beijing and connected me with two friends that lived there (Xiaoen Ding and Ding Ding, who are cousins).  Others dispensed all kinds of advice and tips on coordinating my visit to the city -- where to sleep, eat, visit, etc.  A former student (given the pseudonym 'X' out of privacy concerns) called her parents in Beijing and the father began emailing me with generous offers of his time and service.  So it was that the trip began to take shape.

Last year, China implemented a tricky 72-hour visa-free transit rule that allows US citizens to visit Beijing without a visa.  There are catches, though, and if you decide to try this yourself, then be forewarned.  First, you must fly directly in-and-out of Beijing; there can be no layovers in China.  Second, you must stay within Beijing during your 72 hours.  Third, you must register with the local police within 24 hours of your arrival.  Fourth (and this is the killer), you cannot fly directly back to the U.S. and must fly instead to a pre-approved third country.  When I looked at this list of countries, I had an obvious choice: Taiwan.  The reason I chose Taiwan will become clear in the second part of this blog post.

So, I think that adequately sets up the story …

Saturday, March 8th

As is my usual modus operandi, I crashed at Sarah Quesen's place in Pittsburgh the night before my trip and she graciously drove me out to the airport for what would be a very, very long trip.  The airport was jammed with Spring Breakers heading out for the week.  The first leg of the journey was a 6-hour flight that took me to San Francisco.  When I was asked for my visa to China and announced I had none, this didn't go over well with the woman from United Airlines.  Fortunately, sometimes being over-prepared has its advantages.  Just before I had left my office at WVU for the last time, I had printed off information from the Chinese government about the 72-hour visa-free transit and threw it into my pack.  I produced this documentation, carefully explained the rule to the lady, and she let me board the plane more out of a sense of confusion rather than my having convinced her.  I sat next to a nice Chinese finance student from the University of Pittsburgh (Ruijie Tu) and our pleasant conversation made the time pass quickly.

There was a 2-hour layover in San Francisco.  The next leg of the journey was a monster 15-hour flight to Beijing with a time differential of plus 13 hours.  Ultimately, it would be a jet lag that conspired with my excitement to leave me deprived of sleep the entire ensuing week.  Once again, I received flak from the United Airlines ticket agent when I was asked to produce my visa.  This time the resistance was more pronounced, even with my documentation, and the agent sarcastically wished me "good luck" trying to get through Chinese customs as she let me pass.  I got lucky once more and was seated next to a woman from Chengdu who was a prosecutorial lawyer for the Chinese government (Jie Luo).  We talked for hours and she taught me more Chinese, shared stories and pictures of her life and family, and gave me advice about my trip.  She was very nice!

I should add that this was the very day Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing.  Consequently, and unbeknownst to me, several of my friends were quite worried that I had somehow found my way on this flight.  I have thought about this tragedy many times since then on several different levels.

Sunday, March 9th

Local time, it was about 4:00 PM when the plane touched down in Beijing and I had slept very little the entire flight over.  I had no problems at all getting through Chinese customs; it was clearly marked, orderly, and took me all of 5 minutes.  Other than a picture sent through WeChat, I had little idea of what Xiaoen and Ding looked like.  I had been chatting with these two women for a couple of months prior to my arrival as they worked diligently to put together my trip so I felt I had a pretty good feel for their personalities.  After I picked up my luggage and texted the two ladies, I finally met them and I immediately knew we would get along famously :)  Once outside the airport, X's father picked us all up and whisked us away to a nice restaurant for dinner.  There would be no rest for weary.  

X's parents had reserved a private room in the restaurant and the five of us gathered to exchange pleasantries and meet each other.  The dinner was outstanding, a long, leisurely affair of a couple hours at least.  It was served in courses on a circular table within a table at which we all sat.  Some of the delicious food I had never tasted before in the US and it was already clear that this trip was going to give me an entirely different working definition of "Chinese" food (note to self: I don't think Chinese food is General Tso's chicken with thick, pink sauce).  At the end of the dinner, X's parents gave me a beautiful tea pot set along with some green tea.  Thank you!

After dinner, X's father took Xiaoen, Ding, and I on an impromptu tour of the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics.  On this chilly night, we walked around and saw the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube, and the Olympic Torch.  Even though I was jet-lagged and had almost no sleep the past 48 hours, I felt energetic and will remember my first evening in China and this surreal evening stroll with lots of warm fondness.  Next, we drove west across the city to my hotel, the Yulong International, kind of a ritzy place I ordinarily wouldn't stay in, but the location was near where Xiaoen and Ding lived, and the price was completely reasonable.  What with all the excitement and adrenaline, sleep would still not come easy for me this night.

Monday, March 10th

I met the two ladies bright and early down in the lobby and we went to a nearby restaurant for a simple, but delicious Beijing breakfast of dumplings, buns, eggs, soy milk, etc.  On the walk back to the hotel, I had my first encounter with a favorite local snack Qiuchen had forewarned me of, a delectable stick of sugar-coated hawthorn fruit called tanghulu, or 糖葫芦。While I can't say I would make a steady diet of this, I am glad I tried it and enjoyed a sugar buzz to start my day off right.

Here again is where the story has a mildly curious turn.  A former student of mine (Wu Ma) had attended the Chinese Academy of Forestry (CAF) for his master's degree.  When Wu discovered I was traveling to Beijing, he contacted his former advisor (Dr. Xiangdong Lei) and put me in touch with him.  In short order after a brief email exchange, Dr. Lei and I agreed that I would give a talk at his institution and this morning was to be that time.  A driver from the CAF picked the three of us up at the hotel and we were driven north for about 20 minutes through the city to the CAF, which was located near the Summer Palace.

Once there, I quickly set up my presentation, and was introduced to each and every person in the room.  In all the years I have given talks, I have never had this experience!  I had chosen to give a talk on a collaborative research project I had been doing with Qiuchen and a couple other WVU colleagues on an applied statistical topic that was at least somewhat related to forestry; specifically, semi-parametric modeling of a soil characteristic.  After my 20 minutes were up, Dr. Lei graciously recapped the talk in Chinese with everyone present in the room.  In turn, I was given a couple of presentations on the CAF and some of the research they have done.  Xiaoen, Ding, and I were then treated to a great lunch at a restaurant on the academy grounds.

After lunch, Ding had to go to work, while Xiaoen's father drove Xiaoen and I about 1.5 hours north of Beijing to the Great Wall of Badaling.  Built in 1504 during the Ming Dynasty, this "newer" portion of the wall runs through mountainous terrain that lies to the northwest of Beijing.  This was yet another example of how one can read all they want to about a landmark or location, but until you actually see it, you simply cannot mentally process it.  I was just in awe as we rounded the bend and I was finally able to see it.  Xiaoen's father, who spoke no English and who had taken time off of work to drive us here, decided he would wait at the car in the parking lot while Xiaoen and I would go hiking on the wall, a truly kind gesture on his part.  The day was cool, but sunny, as the two of us made our way through a gate, up some stairs, and stood on top of the wall.  The number of tourists certainly seemed tolerable to me.  We decided to start walking in one direction and walked for a considerable time … at least an hour?  There were many stone stairs and in some sections the wall was very steep with no stone stairs at all.  Occasionally, there would be a watch tower we would pass through and pause before resuming our hike.  Xiaoen was in good shape and the two of us chatted and laughed and just took our time.  The wall wandered off into the remote distant stretches, up and down the sides of mountains.  The enormity of its scale was just so impressive and I now understood why so many hundreds of thousands of lives were lost building it.  This was one of those moments you take with you throughout life, forever frozen in time, forever etched in your mind.  

We turned around and walked back to the access point and then another half-hour or so in the other direction, stopping to catch our breath or take pictures.  As the sun started to slip towards the horizon, we decided it was time to head back to the parking lot and leave this magnificent wonder.

Driving back down to Beijing, both Xiaoen and I catnapped before encountering stout Beijing rush hour traffic.  We decided the best strategy to get back downtown would be to abandon the car and find the nearest subway station.  After saying goodbye to Xiaoen's father, we made our way to a crowded subway train and headed downtown to Ding's office; she is an agent and tour guide for a travel company.  The three of us got coffee and tea, and then headed to a nice, semi-Westernized restaurant, Da Dong, whose specialty was Beijing roast duck.  I had pretty much decided to say the Hell with my diet on this vacation and let the ladies do the ordering.  Plates and bowls of food were quickly brought out, one after the other.  Frankly, I do not know the names of most of what I ate but I can say I had my first foray into the culinary world of boiled duck's feet (they are good with hot mustard sauce) and the roast duck itself, with all the different sauces and toppings in a flour wrap, was outstanding.  And Ding taught me the skill of preparing a wrap and consuming it in one mouthful :-)  Service was outstanding and the cost totally reasonable; if you ever find yourself in Beijing, then you owe it to yourself to try this restaurant.  Pleasantly full and satiated, we took a taxi back to my hotel room where we talked and looked at pictures well into the night.

Tuesday, March 11th

Today was my 50th birthday.  I am not sure where the time has all gone but mentally and spiritually I do not feel 50.  Perhaps this is something everyone tells themselves when they reach this age to deceptively fight the passing of time.  Honestly, I feel happy (by my definition) with where I am at in life, what I have overcome and accomplished, and the direction I am headed towards.  Armed with love and wisdom, my finest hours are yet to come … I could think of no better way to celebrate the essence of who and what I have become by traveling to Beijing and being on this adventure.

Well before dawn, Xiaoen showed up at the hotel -- bless her heart!  Together, we took a taxi to Tiananmen Square and had to stand in a very long, packed line to go through a security checkpoint, put into place due to security concerns over terrorism.  This was also the time when the Chinese Congress was convening in the city so perhaps the security was even tighter still?  Military police strolled up and down the line and I could not help but notice how I stood out as the only white person present.  It took us at least 30 minutes to get through the checkpoint.  Once on the square, we quickly made our way over to the daily raising of the Chinese flag held at dawn by a military honor guard.  To see this is a must if you are lucky enough to find yourself in Beijing.  Afterwards, we strolled around the square -- past Mao Tse-tung's mausoleum, the Monument to the People's Heroes, and over to the Qianmen Gate.  With our stomachs grumbling, we decided to head off for breakfast at a quaint neighborhood eatery.

The last thing I wanted to do in my preciously waning 72 hours, was to visit the Forbidden City.  The expansive Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace in the heart of Beijing for over 500 years starting in 1406.  It now contains various museums with ancient artifacts and artwork, buildings, walls, gates, courts, and lovely gardens (my favorite).  There is no realistic way you could ever hope to cover this amazing place in a day, even after several day visits.  The best way to see this might be to hire a tour guide at the entrance.  I was lucky; Xiaoen took me all over the complex and was so helpful explaining and interpreting things.  As well, she was teaching me additional basic Chinese as we strolled around.  As intense and as much of a whirlwind the past couple of days had been, we eventually grew too tired to continue and as it was now late in the afternoon, decided to wait for Ding at one of the entrances.            

Once Ding arrived, the three of us walked across the street to Jingshan Park, a gorgeous public park with hills and pavilions offering commanding views of the Forbidden City and Beijing.  We took pictures, snacked on some food, and played with a toddler before heading downtown to do some shopping.

To my understanding, Beijing has become more of a "modern" city in recent years and this was evident to me in the part of the city where we went shopping.  I was surprised to see lots of familiar shops, and nice malls complete with all the trappings of consumerism.  These stand in marked contrast to other parts of the city that are more traditional.  Beijing is a very interesting city, even though it gets knocked because of the pollution problems, and 72 hours is a drop in the bucket in terms of what you can see and do here.  I look forward to spending much more time here in the future.

The three of us leisurely had coffee and relaxed, gobbled down some green tea ice cream, and I bought some excellent tea at this cool shop to take back to the US with me (I just had a cup as I write this, ironically enough).  My final dinner in Beijing was to be a traditional Beijing hot pot meal.  This excursion took us to another local eatery off the beaten tourist path -- a crowded, plain restaurant near the neighborhood where my hotel was.  The heated pot was placed in the middle of the table and constantly kept filled with hot water by the waitress.  Tray after tray of vegetables and meat were brought out, whose contents were then dunked into the hot water for cooking.  Once again, some things I recognized, other things I did not.  I did try some strips of sheep stomach and a type of black fungus that was very good.  Ding also ordered us a prune drink (I think?) that was sweet, but fit well with the meal.  I could see this as being a simple, healthy way to eat that would be easy to get hooked on.

Finally, we went back to my hotel room and was I ever in for a surprise.  Xiaoen and Ding bought me a small Black Swan cake and several gifts for my birthday.  I was just so touched by this, all the planning and effort they had went through.  One gift in particular stands out -- it is a beautiful stamp and ink pad they had custom-ordered with my name as the stamp.  It is a gift I will always treasure and look at with a smile on my face.

Wednesday, March 12th

Xiaoen came over to the hotel with several bowls of congee early in the morning.  Shortly thereafter, Ding came over with Qiuchen's parents, who wanted to see me as I am their daughter's advisor.  Most notably, they presented me with a beautiful picture panel of the Great Wall that now has permanent residence on my fireplace shelf.  With the two ladies translating, I was able to have a pleasant and memorable conversation with Qiuchen's mother and father.  It was clear they are very proud of her and want to see her reach and achieve her dreams throughout her life.  It is my impression that an American university degree for many Chinese students and their families might represent something different to them, if not more important to them, contrasted with their counterparts in this country.  The parents did not stay long but I so enjoyed our brief interaction.

Finally, the time had come to head to the airport.  At first, the three of us thought we had lots of time to comfortably make it there.  However, we unfortunately ended up going to the wrong terminal.  All of a sudden, some anxiety set in as we now realized that by the time we made it over to the correct terminal via bus, my margin of error to get to the plane on time would be razor thin.  When we got to the correct terminal, we set off on a full run to the checkpoint where, at this point, the ladies could no longer be with me.  And so it came to pass that our wonderful time together had come to this sad, frantic ending.  They cried.  I cried.  After leaving them, I raced through the ticketing counter, had to endure questions from Customs, and then agonized in a long line at a security scanner.  If I missed the flight and therefore exceeded the 72 hours I was allotted to stay in Beijing, then I literally would have become a veritable "Edward Snowden" and would have had to apply for a visa from the purgatory of the airport.  But I made it on to the plane with just minutes to spare, tired, emotionally drained, and fought to regain my composure as I now embarked on the second half of my journey.


It is so funny how life works.  You can have strong ideas and fantasies about how the story is supposed to unfold and end.  But life is not that way and you are in far less control of life than you think.  I used to have a real problem with this but now have become comfortable in accepting this reality.  The reason is because I now recognize that life is so beautiful and awesome, and if you are patient, have an open mind and avoid attachment, then the story ends up being far, far better than you could have ever imagined.          

This trip really impacted me in a profound, personal way and I have spent some time thinking about why.  Maybe it was because of the fact that it occurred in conjunction with an important birthday.  Maybe it was because I met the parents of a couple of my international students.  Undoubtedly, some of it was due to finally succeeding, on my third attempt, in getting to China.  However, some of it was due to the fact that I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the personality and character of two young women I didn't even know who took three days out of their lives to shepherd me around the city.  Xiaoen and Ding, your kindness, integrity, and openness, in a real sense, humbled me, increased my faith in humanity and you definitely raised the bar in terms of how I will interact with others in the future.  My memory is strong and clear and my gratitude is authentic.  What you gave to me, I will pay forward into the Universe ten-fold … promise.                

Monday, February 24, 2014

Going to Colorado

I have been recently given a wonderful opportunity.  Effective this coming fall, I will be working at Colorado State University as an Associate Professor.  My primary responsibilities will be twofold.  First, I will be providing statistical consulting to researchers across the university; specifically, I'll be engaged in collaborative, interdisciplinary research.  Secondly, I will be teaching graduate and upper undergraduate level courses in the Department of Statistics.  As well, I will also continue to do some more theoretical statistical research as time allows.

I am truly excited and honored to fill this role.  It is a great department in a great university.  The job position is a very nice fit for me given my background and interests and represents a big step forward for me professionally.

I'll take a big step forward personally, too.  I have always been a child of the Rockies, one who loves the West.  Trail running, hiking, climbing mountains, fly fishing, snowshoeing, you name it.  Fort Collins is near all of this.  I am also situated roughly an hour north of Denver, so now I will be able to easily check out an art museum from time to time, try different restaurants, catch a Broncos game, and even harass local bar patrons with my guitar and voice at a wide-array of open mic nights :-)

Of course, a question I have been asked several times already is "What about West Virginia University?"  Virtually every important decision you make in life entails some sort of a trade-off.  For me, and I honestly say this respectfully, having more job security for the next 20 years of my life in Morgantown, i.e., tenure, is simply not an important value of mine and does not nearly offset all that Colorado State University and living in Fort Collins has to offer me.

To me, it is about never backing down from risk, always living and dreaming big, and moving forward, constantly driving and pushing towards the summit.         

I will forever be grateful for all that has been afforded to me at West Virginia University.  I have worked with some outstanding colleagues writing papers and grants, and been honored to have taught students who have touched my soul and will always be a part of me.  There will be friendships I have made that will now enter into a different phase due to the geographic distance introduced.  Please know I will always remember this university, this town, our chance to share this time together with fondness.    

So, I am now moving towards something, not running from something.  If by chance, you are driving through the area, and need a place to stay, then please call me.  We will take a few hours to drive over to Leadville, sip a hot drink at the local coffee shop, gazing out over the mountains, and smile together.  Until then ...      

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Settling Versus Optimizing

What do you want to do with your life?  What do you want its content and character to be?  At the end of days, what will you have done to contribute to the planet?  How can one matter and touch as many lives as possible in a positive way?

My friend Mike from Colorado is constantly challenging and reminding me of a fundamental issue I have been thinking about a lot in the past year.  Do we settle in our lives for something that is not right for us, holding us back emotionally and spiritually?  Or do we optimize the time we have on this earth and strive to have and to be the best we can?  Simultaneous to my rumination on this matter, I've recently had a cluster of friends and students, through fate, thrust into situations where they had to or will have to make heavy decisions in their own respective lives.

Thinking more about this and looking at the data, I see situations where we settle for jobs in which we converge to a semi-constant state of being tired, emotionally beleaguered, and unmotivated.  We settle for relationships with people that are not right for us and keep us mired in a malaise of negativity.  We live in places we don't want to live, say "yes" when we really want and need to say "no", and let our boundaries wash away when, if anything, they should be fortified.  In short, we settle, and the time we complain we never have slips silently by, and we wistfully watch our dreams dissipate …

Of course I can't speak for others but looking back at my own life I can easily identify the culprits in myself that caused me to settle in those instances.  Honestly, in those instances, it was loneliness and fearful feelings that I somehow didn't measure up, the tentacles of shame.  Through gratitude, through grace, through hard work and the helping hands of true friends, and above all, through a commitment to love, I learned this about myself and was able to invoke a paradigm shift.

If your job is sucking the spirit out of your soul, then quit it and find something to do that keeps you occasionally awake at night with passion.  If you want to walk through life with a soulmate, make sure you are working on your own issues first and then be patient and discriminating.  As for the dream crushers and chaos creators, give them no close quarters, and allow them to survive in their own altered realities.  If you want to hike the Appalachian Trail, then go.  If you want to climb Kilimanjaro or visit Machu Picchu, then go.  If you want to run a 10K or a marathon, then start training.  Master an instrument in order to write beautiful music.  Go back to school.  Jump out of an airplane, learn how to swim, how to make a loaf of banana bread, or a new language.  Sell half your shit and move across the country to a place you've always wanted to live.  Do whatever it takes to make you feel complete, whole, and that you are living by your values.  How you choose to spend your precious time, is exactly that -- your choice.  Settling versus optimizing.

Of course, all this is easy to say, but tough to do.  For me, trying to live an optimized life has required constant consciousness and compassion.  I have had to learn to be comfortable with risk, sometimes having to normalize discomfort.  As for mistakes?  I've made plenty of them.  But I have always had this strength, this "5th gear", that has allowed me to move forward and have faith that the Universe is going to put me exactly where it wants me to be.  You have to have an unshakeable belief that something better is waiting for you just up over the next rise, not give into fear, and continue to move forward with courage in your climb up the mountain.  I think this is the essence of what faith is.

Love and peace be with all of you …

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Valuable Cargo

At the beginning of the year after submitting my tenure packet, I was just wiped out in all phases of the game -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  There had been a wishful part of me that had assumed that come January and February, I would have copious amounts of time with which to get caught up at work and to pursue other personal interests (gasp!).

A couple Tuesdays ago, I was up in my office at 11 PM working on an important talk I had to give later in the week across the country at another university.  And what was on my platter at that time?  Three graduate statistics courses I am teaching - one of which is a new prep and two of which I am in the process of conducting long, overdue overhauls.  I have three undergraduate seniors in Industrial Mathematics and Statistics I am advising for their capstones theses, one graduate Statistics student I am advising on a tricky research project we are working on together for her MS thesis, and two other graduate Statistics students whose committees I am sitting on.  Then I glanced at my email inbox.  It was crammed full of requests from students for recommendation letters, help writing their resumes, or help finding jobs (which I will never refuse).  An NSF grant proposal I had been working on as a Co-I with a psychologist had been sitting in there for a week along with some draft proposals for committee work I am doing with my department.  Looking to my left on my desk, I observed a statistics journal  manuscript I had to revise and resubmit, a pile of papers and notes for research I am doing with a colleague from Arizona, and another pile for a PhD dissertation for a student with whom I am writing a paper.        

Now we get to the few hours I have left over for my personal life.  Last semester, I had the great opportunity to be kindly allowed to sit in on an introductory Chinese course.  To say I enjoyed it and learned a lot would be a complete understatement.  It had been my hope to take a second follow-up course this semester but now the material was getting harder and requiring more of my free time.  Also, I had written several songs and wanted to get into the studio to record a CD.  So, I had several other musicians waiting, and waiting, and waiting for me to get my shit together to make the CD happen.  Oh, and let's not forget, my daily exercise I have to do and all those wonderful books on my shelf in my bedroom I have been vowing to read (a huge stack of unread magazines just a week prior had made their final pilgrimage to a recycling bin).  Then there are some big travel trips I intend on taking this year that have not yet made it out of the planning stages in the fantasies of my mind.          

Lest this come across as whining to others, I take full responsibility for how I manage and schedule my time.  Honestly, this is something I have always struggled with in my life -- to be the best at everything I do, to do whatever it takes to help others.  In short, to be Superman.

On that Tuesday, I realized that I had to make some painful choices.  You can only slice the pie into thinner and thinner sections before the crust starts to crumble.  I was clearly at that point.  So, in terms of my personal life, I decided the first thing that would get tossed over the side of the ship was the Chinese course.  Work-wise, I then decided I was going to have set firmer boundaries about taking on more research and service projects for awhile and will have to say and use the word that is hardest for me to utter sometimes, and that word is "No."

For a few hours afterward, I suffered from a mini-shame attack.  "Come on, Phil.  If you just try a little harder.   Shut up, suck it up, and just do it!"  But then I realized something I recently read in one of Kristin Neff's books very recently that really struck me:

 Suffering = Pain x Resistance       

I really love teaching and research.  That said, a couple Tuesdays ago, make no mistake, I was suffering and the reason I was suffering was because I was stubbornly resisting the obvious fact that something had to give in my life.  And then it occurred to me that I just didn't want to work any harder and suck it up, fashionably lost in my busy-ness, like a twirling top on a path of aimless distraction, perhaps at this point of my life metaphorically running from something at a subconscious level?  Quoting Ernest Hemingway, "Never confuse movement with action."      

So what is a path to a solution?  I believe the path is multi-faceted.  It is to be mindful of my thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  It is to be authentically compassionate towards others, and, most importantly, to myself.  It's ok not to be perfect.  It's ok not to be always busy.  What is ok it to always remind myself of my values, to reflect on those values everyday, and to think of myself really as valuable cargo that I must always protect first and foremost.  For if I don't do that, then I will not be of much use to serve the world.  

Monday, January 6, 2014

You Will Get Out of the Universe What You Put into It

Today is January 6th and I hope all of you are in good spirits and looking forward to the coming year.

There is an unabiding law of the Universe: you will get out of it what you put into it.  This is a life lesson I have observed over and over again, both as a participant and as an observer.  With no problem at all, I could write a book thick with examples.

If you are a source of love, hope, and kindness and project this into the universe, then it will come back to you many times over.  Don't set conditions when you give of yourself and let it come from a place of authenticity.  Welcome everyone to come along for the ride regardless of race, creed, national origin, familial status, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation, with no exceptions and no expectations.

Out there in the world right now, there is somebody who rightfully should be heard and wants or needs the companionship of a good friend.  There is a child who wants to toss the football around out on the street, if only for a few minutes before it's too dark.  A senior citizen who lost his or her soulmate and wants you to know what made their marriage so special.  There's a college graduate that needs to know how to type up a decent resume to land their first job.  How about the local pet shelter that needs a few pounds of dog and cat food?  Or stealthily buy a stranger dinner in a restaurant but don't tell them.  Exhaust yourself thinking of ways to reach out and pay it forward.          

If you are sincere in this giving, then you will be the recipient of the gift of love, hope, and kindness all through your life, particularly when you least expect it or if you are going through a tough time.  Sometimes it will be hard to see tangible proof of this and it won't necessarily happen on your timetable.  You might not even become aware of it until you take a long, retrospective look at your life.  But it will happen and you will receive orders of magnitude more than what you invested, often in ways unimaginable to you.                

It is simply no greater mystery than this -- always try be a good person, to yourself and to others.  Always.  Just do your best.  When you stumble and fall (and you will), get back up and keep moving forward.  When other people won't join you in the journey (and there will be), that's ok because you'll keep moving forward with compassion, with faith, with your values.  Try to pair up with those like-minded souls who appreciate the light while avoiding and loving from a distance those who gravitate towards darkness.  Life is far too short to have departed this planet without having done your utmost to make your full, unique contribution to humanity.  Time is wasting.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

When You've Run the Good Race

I finally finished my tenure packet last night and submitted it.  Now it is a matter of waiting until April to hear a final decision.  This winter morning, as we draw near the start of 2014, I look back and reflect, not on 2013, but the past 5-1/2 years.  This blog, my therapeutic attempt at journaling, has chronicled over 3 years of that journey.  Hard to believe ...

A great 2013 Christmas!
What is tenure?  Many people operate under the misconception that tenure is some sort of "guarantee" of permanent employment.  This is not true.  Take 30 seconds to scan this article which does a good job of laying out what tenure is and is not.  In a nutshell, tenure is an arrangement whereby faculty members, after a required successful completion of a period of probation, can be dismissed only for adequate cause and only after a hearing before a faculty committee.  For example, speaking your mind about a controversial topic would not be grounds for dismissal.  On the other hand, if there is a budget crisis, a tenured professor can be laid off just like anyone else, as is what happened recently at this university in Pennsylvania.          

On a professional level, I will pull no punches on objectively describing the reality of what happened to me once my tenure-track clock started.  In this day and age, the old adage of "publish or perish" is now amended to read "publish and get grants or perish".  In fact, it's pretty common now in many universities to have a contractual clause stating the number of grants you have to procure from external funding agencies.  Honestly, I spent a lot of time focusing on grants.  I had a so-called "joint appointment" where I worked for two different colleges.  Therefore, I had to be very careful about how my time was budgeted, how I could best serve the unique needs of each college, while attempting to publish research papers across multiple disciplines.  As for teaching, there were new graduate course preparations and students to advise.  Since I really value teaching, I tried very hard to give it equal footing with respect to research and service.  This was all complicated by my contract changing two times.  It was not easy … a heavy workload of 50-to-60 hours a week, over most weekends and holidays, will ultimately exact a toll.

I took considerable care to retain and grow my personal life, and was able to experience some wonderful things and meet some wonderful people along the way.  Running races and training was a source of unbridled joy as well as escapism.  It led me from the Atlantic to the Pacific and many points in between and even to South Africa.  This after a knee reconstruction and long rehabilitation.  I was able to travel to southern Mexico to climb a big volcano, California to trap golden eagles, and several countries in Africa to trek after gorillas and golden monkeys and climb Kilimanjaro.  Several months ago, I saw the sun rise over Machu Picchu in Peru.  The list goes on, and with sincere gratitude I say to anyone reading this, I am a lucky man.
Machu Picchu at dawn from the Sun Gate. 
While I am truly happy with my life, for me happiness is a moving average with a slowly increasing trend.  There have been personal challenges as well that I won't hide and these were exacerbated by working so hard towards tenure.  There have been days over the past 5-1/2 years where I felt lost as a man and lonely as a person.  Early last year, injury took away my running and back then it hurt like Hell.  I leaned heavily on several close friends during those challenging times and I will forever be indebted to them for that support.  Ultimately though, I began to learn to rely more on the one person who is always available to provide the emotional support and compassion I need … and that person is myself.  

Things have changed, I have changed, since I arrived at West Virginia University in 2008, for I have seen too much and experienced so much.  What once occupied my every waking moment, my job, no longer has an unhealthy spell on my soul.  I have given this a lot of thought the last year and without sounding glib or defiant, I have come to wholeheartedly embrace the precept that no job, no hobby, no place, no thing, no body can ever define the essence of who and what I am.  Children matter, love matters, friendships matter, seeing a sunrise matters.  Living mindfully, enjoying each day, living by my values … that's what also matters …

An important lesson for any important goal in life is to be able to examine yourself and to have that inner dialogue, in that quiet moment, where you can unequivocally say "I have done my best."  And if you can say that and believe it to be true, then you, my friend, have run the good race …

I will close for now returning back to those who have provided the fuel for my emotional and spiritual growth and matter the most to me … the students, past and present.  As with myself, I wish for you to move forward and have faith that the Universe is going to put you exactly where it wants you to be.  It can be a hard sell, really, to have that blind trust that all will work out as it should.  But if you follow your heart and your dreams, don't believe all the horror stories your mind whips up, live by your values, ally yourself with people who are accelerators in your life and ignore those who are brakes, and most importantly, believe in yourself, then you too will have run the good race.

This Alaskan salmon had no chance against Andy Tri.  Or should I say, Dr. Andy Tri!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Faith, Hope, and Love

"If I had the gift of being able to speak in other languages without learning them, and could speak in every language there is in all of heaven and earth, but didn't love others, I would only be making noise.

If I had the gift of prophecy and knew all about what is going to happen in the future, knew everything about everything, but didn't love others, what good would it do? Even if I had the gift of faith so that I could speak to a mountain and make it move, I would still be worth nothing at all without love.

If I gave everything I have to poor people, and if I were burned alive for preaching the Gospel but didn't love others, it would be of no value whatever.

Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude. Love does not demand its own way. It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong.

It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out.

If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him.

All the special gifts and powers from God will someday come to an end, but love goes on forever. Someday prophecy, and speaking in unknown languages, and special knowledge - these gifts will disappear.

Now we know so little, even with our special gifts, and the preaching of those most gifted is still so poor.

But when we have been made perfect and complete, then the need for these inadequate special gifts will come to an end, and they will disappear.

It's like this: when I was a child I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I became a man, my thoughts grew far beyond those of my childhood, and now I have put away the childish things.

In the same way, we can see and understand only a little about God now, as if we were peering at his reflection in a poor mirror; but someday we are going to see him in his completeness, face to face. Now all that I know is hazy and blurred, but then I will see everything clearly, just as clearly as God sees into my heart right now.

There are three things that remain   —   faith, hope, and love   —   and the greatest of these is love."

-- 1 Corinthians 13 LB


A pictorial summary of my trip out to Arizona and Utah, November 25 - December 1, 2013, exploring The Wave, Bryce Canyon National Park, the North Kaibab Plateau/North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and the San Francisco Peaks.

I do not claim to be religious nor do I claim to be a Christian per se.  I am a spiritual person who believes there are many paths and doors to a God, whatever he/she/it might be.  That said, I believe that 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most beautiful and profound pieces of prose ever written and comes as close as any to the central idea of what love is all about.  May love be with you!