An ordinary childhood

I did not see or hear from my Dad for 10 years.

Before that, at least he showed up daily for supper, albeit late (after a stop, not at the pub, but at the other lady whom I was forced to call Auntie Lang).

When he did get home, it was a bit late for a restless young-man: my stomach couldn’t wait up. So I got an idea: I distracted myself by really really got into the zone by lashing out at my guitar with songs from an illegal Hit Parade reprint. Besides, “the stage” (our living room) would be reserved for my Dad and occasionally, my brother, right after supper.

So off I sang, like the guy you saw doing an opening act for a corporate event: you can sing but you can’t touch the hors d’oeuvres. At least, back then, I played for time: one more song perhaps would see my Dad appear at the door. Between 1975-185, when not a single piece of mail was exchanged between us: one in Vietnam, and the other traversed the world, I stopped the silly mind-game. Instead, I set out and sort out about learning, life, love, loss and liberty, on my own.

In short, by the time my Dad and I saw each other again, it was like two grown men battling for supremacy (not necessarily the space and schedule after dinner) – two strangers in post-Vietnam era sharing the same roof in a country where no one wanted to hear about damn Vietnam “where you call hell I call home”. The Cosby Show was on prime time and late night would be M*A*S*H on TV ( America could barely put Korea behind, much less Nam). I fantasized about living another life, anything but a college-and-corporate reject life on the couch. I thought about giving up on life, about seminary.

And that’s where I went, to get through a rough patch of life, catching a glimpse of Donald Trump’s Art of the Deal at the bookstore. I admired my older brother who grew up with my Dad BEFORE he took on another wife and kid. They apparently were in conversational terms: the exodus from the North, their love for music, clothing and I bet, girls. I, on the other hand, had been born at the wrong time just to find myself “born again” “You ‘ve got to serve somebody, yes indeed” and ended up along the Northeastern corridor with no prospect for a family. No wonder I kept praying like St Augustin to “Our Heavenly Father” – my decade-long substitute and surrogate Dad).

Today, you would get caught dead reading a hard-bound book on the plane much less Cosby’s Fatherhood, or The Art of the Deal. Times have changed. Tell that to Hanoi Jane. BTW back in 1973, a plane load of exchanged POW’s were in the air returning from Vietnam. I would love to juxtapose the two images of the napalm girl running naked toward Nick Ut’s camera, and the girl in the sweater running toward her POW’s father. Same decade, different drums.

OK. I was a 19-year-old Vietnam refugee separated from my part-time Dad for a decade and my Mom for 4 years ( while in college). In between, I managed to cope with homelessness, statelessness, joblessness, culture shock (city boy and cow college), future shock (Three-Mile Island) inter-religious conflict, loneliness, survivor’s guilt, exile and sexile.

Life has funny twists though. My speed adulthood (without proper guidance from my Dad throughout) qualifies me for three-time fatherhood. I learned all the curved balls of a vulnerable life without the benefits of foresights and hindsights. I made all the mistakes, often times, twice. Yet I have grown to become the very man I did not see for years, without assigning blames.

I am more American than most of my peers: I was, by the force of circumstances, to make a clean break with the past: no good luck or goodbye. I guess, on that count, you can say, I experience quite an ordinary childhood.

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The Beatles gene

I shipped an electric guitar to my daughter arriving today, the 55th Anniversary of the British Invasion ( the Beatles arriving to America).

Remarkable and enduring. Malcom Gladwell already studied them (10,000 hours of practice). We grew up with them. And here they are still, the surviving ones. Each one was and is a star in his own right. But together, the bunch is unbeatable.

If you are good enough to be assassinated (by an unknown-now-known Mark Chapman), you are good. What makes those 4 the one-and-only? Product of the times? Good genes and good looks? Post-war outliers?

There isn’t one word that can sum up the Beatles.

When John Lennon died, a sign says ” the day the music dies”.

Everyone likes a success story. It smells sweet. But countless hours of rehearsing and rehashing ” we will surely be learning”, ” take a sad song, and make it better” were no play time. The Japanese government feared their influence. They ended up not be allowed to deplane in Tokyo. Watch “Concert from the rooftop”.

It’s Winter time. And the sound of an electric guitar sounds good to me.

When the UPS delivery arrives and my daughter’s guitar gets plugged in, I hope it sounds nearly like it. My daughter got the Beatles gene.

“Nobody ever loves me like she does”…..

This author once delivered that line in front of an inter-high-school audience at the age of 12, only til the end of the song, to see the feared principle bounce out of his honorable front-row seat. That’s the impact of the Beatles. The Invasion. A model for collaboration, for continuous improvement and for synergy which is greater than the sum of its parts.

That’s why ” I want to hold your hand”…

Uncertainty

In “On becoming a leader”, Warren Bennis couldn’t wait to get straight to his first pointer: ” being aware of the time”. Tell that to the 800,000 GS-grade workers who would love to get a better read on the signs of the time. So is Wall Street and ROW.

CBO keeps crunching the numbers, anywhere from 3 to 11B USD loss during the 35 days of government shut-down. In crisis, there are opportunities. And in reverse, this time, a lot of people will be up on that Blue stage, making their elevator speech : “why vote for me”. On Becoming A President.

Yesterday (Jan 28, 2019), an Op-ed in WSJ mentioned that America lost Vietnam to save SEA. As if it were strategically well-planned and thought-out all along. As if back in the mid-40’s, America cared much for the Asia theater (pre-Pearl Harbor). Tell that to the millions who died ( and the numbers crunchers at CBO). And the current Filippino President who logs frequent miles to Beijing. Uncertainty again.

In chaos there are opportunities and exploitations, there are war profiteers and victims. In uncertainty, there are also profiteers and victims.

I remember years ago, business speaks were filled with “being pro-active”, “next level”, “paradigm shift” “re-engineering” and “positioning”.

Now, it’s 41% approval rate, 1 percenters, and 2% tax.

The times have changed. Except for the Patriots. And where are we without the Super Bowl. Without The Year of the Pig. Tradition illuminates in face of uncertainty. Yes, there are wagers in games. But at the end of the day, the two sides give each other a handshake. Unlike in war times and current time which is filled with divisive and destructive rhetoric.

I am absolutely certain that on becoming a leader, one needs to read the signs of the time. And currently, it’s uncertainty. BTW, it’s Feb 3 6:30PM kick-off in Atlanta. That’s one thing for certain.


Icing on the cake

Over the holidays, some of us could hardly get to desserts. To further indulge, few might finger-lick the icing on the cake. Our hockey-stick-shaped technology-driven society is like that cake, barely exploited. Only with the right skills e.g. work well with robots – and market/timing combination that its full potential be realized.

Or else, its first rinse is just waste water e.g. behavior modification on social media: human weakness gets amplified, dirt laundry aired and retweeted.

It takes a while to undo a habit, yet it only takes a bit over two months to form one, bad or good. We check twitter, facebook, instagram to see ourselves in them: no beef? salivate anyway (confirmation bias). All of a sudden, incoming Senator Romney smells like flowers after two wash cycles of Trump: the conservative agenda without the icing on the cake. David Brook referred to character as “eulogy virtue”. As if this current President cared more about presidency than pomposity.

We are entering the second half, drained ( not the swamp, it is still there, while the wall has yet to be built. In Frost’s line, we still have “miles to go”). It’s a post-Cold War World, post-truth world, and Washington Post world. We need courageous journalists, more fact-checking, more bravery whose mode of operation is to let the chips fall where they may.

Or else, like those holiday meals we stuffed ourselves with, truth lies beneath the icing. The irony of life is we cannot see the whole truth where we stand. Only from an objective distance in space and time that we might, only might, come to appreciate truth for what it is. Certainly not the icing on the cake. And like cake, you cannot have it and eat it all at the same time.

Reflections on the Recession

As 2018 comes to an end, it’s time to look back on the whole decade. A time when institutions not individuals that got bailed out, machine-learning not man-enlightening and Communist countries grew faster than Capitalist counterparts.

A time when globalization ran out of steam ( what NAFTA) and got replaced by the “sharing” economy. Sears closed down, and Amazon opens up. GE got delisted and Uber will soon get listed.

Government (US) as of this writing, got shut down i.e. park services closed, Southern border might be closed and if possible, please have your mind closed.

Some time ago, government took care of its people. When there was a recession, Presidents would come up with infrastructure projects like the Erie Canal, the Hoover Dam etc… to create jobs. Today, it’s up to motorists to chip in, “brothers, can you spare a dime”.

Homeless people just shit on the streets, and eat out of garbage cans. Walmart and McDonalds train shoppers to be cashiers at self-check outs. Minimum wages even after the New Year can hardly keep up with inflation. We will soon reach an inflection point, where it’s those robots who earn their keeps, not just in the back room, but also out front.

The quants have had their day and their say. But rest assured, there won’t be another round of bail-outs for institutions. It will be foreign acquisition (back in the 80’s, it’s the Japanese who bought up most of the buildings in Los Angeles, now it’s Google at Westside Pavillion).

Occupy Wall Street could only camp out at nearby park for so long. Are we better off than 10 years ago? The wall will be built by Chinese, the machines run by Indians, foods picked by Mexicans and delivered by Uber. Just the facts of life – a status quo that needs to be sustained until the next round of machine learning and perfecting.

Then, we don’t need to raise the minimum wages, for machines, unlike man, need not to join an union or take breaks. They are on course to creep and cram in to territories and fabrics of our lives (IoT). Next decade will be the decade of sensors, big data and AI. No turning back.

Meanwhile, 2008-2018 is the same old story, of human nature rationalizes to further its own self interests. We have made progress, but at everyone’s expenses. In fact, we are worse off now than our post-Nixon world. At least, back then, college students questioned and took action. Today, everyone rides a scooter, reads the screen and is scared to death of future prospects. No wall is going to protect them since the crisis is manufactured and imagined. Fear resides within and cannot be walled off from without. Tax payers will keep on paying, bailing and praying that there will be justice carried out by machine in case man failed. Breathe and think. Hard.

on being sexiled

First, I want to credit the late Tom Wolfe for his mash-up word – sexiled.

Second, the group The Guess Who, for providing the sound track “These Eyes” on 8-track format.

Third and last, to Penn State Student Housing for providing me with temporary housing (mezzanine floor of a dorm lounge), so I could have a balcony view of my two La Crosse team roommates, who played These Eyes over and over and over again during Winter 76.

On weekends, Student Council took over the lounge to party, inviting the opposite sex over. So I was sexiled. This was on top of my being exiled a few months back, a long trek: Saigon – Subic Bay – Wake Island – Indian Town Gap – State College – University Park, PA.

It was cold, snowing and fun. Main campus at University Park was where the action was: frats rushing while off-campus non-frats fucking.

No more wars to protest, classes to cut and only grass to smoke.

Baby, “born to run”, run. Rabbit was not yet at rest. So the whole campus was restless. Sperms were in the air. And I was caught up in second-hand (weed) smoke from Spring break. Girls were out in dresses. And guys, all hair. “Here comes the sun” the opening act sings. For three days, Main campus (Old Main) just “chilled”. Along the “wall”, one would find many who just sat around while others trying to duck those flying frisbees. We debated and discussed the war aftermath over mini Rolling Rocks.

I chose energy conservation for my TV production final.

Others just wanted to finish up their Ph. D.’s to work for Defense contractors. Penn State in the second half of the 70’s found a handful of Chinese students, who had no place to go during Winter break. So they found strength in number by mixing up with Taiwanese, Vietnamese and assortment of colored students in International Building. (They are now those Civil Engineers building bridges in East Africa and God forbid, hackers and rocket builders)

I, on the other hand, found myself on the bus, with stops in York and Hershey (before it turned out to be a theme park with Disney-like attractions) to Washington D.C., my sister’s home whose couch was available hence, no more sexile.

The hot food (sticky rice and Chinese sausage) tasted good (PSU cafeteria was closed anyway). The only tiny Chinese grocery store across from Arlington Skyline was open for business selling soy sauce and instant noodle. China wasn’t even on the radar ” what the hell was Toys R Us”. Only “these Eyes” still reverberated in my head. Couldn’t get rid off it, just like the sense of who I am and where I was coming from .

My subsequent roommates at Penn State were sincere when peppering me with questions: were you a VC? had you seen “action”? what’s like to grow up during the war? were there a lot of whore houses?

Those questions came at me as frequent as the stares I got while moving about on campus. No, I was not a VC. Yes, plenty of action: in 1963, I eye-witnessed the “burning monk” at the corner of Le van Duyet and Phan dinh Phung, near my house. It’s a mixed feeling trying to describe one’s growing up in war time: you couldn’t sit like a man behind a scooter (police feared that if one was allowed to sit steady behind a scooter driver, not cross-legging like a lady, one might be able to stand up and toss a grenade), and you were forced to stay home for months on end during Tet (68).

Still, we learned to extract the best that life had to offer: I played the guitar, sang those Peace songs ( the answer was blowing in the wind) and started dating. From zero to 60 miles in 5 secs: girls would kiss too in war time since in the back of our minds, we were aware that it could very well be our last dance. And the last dance it was: Saigon was spent, having used up its supplies of respirators. The war finally reached its appointed end. Big Minh’s final words ” I have been waiting for you guys – NVA – since this morning.” He couldn’t wait to go hit some (tennis) balls at Circle. Curtain falls. Finale. Flags down. Eyes lids closed. These Eyes. Playing over and over again, on the 8-track player. Exiled. Exhumed (bodies).

If any one asked me those questions again, like, “are you glad you are here”, I would punch him or her in the ears (where it hurts most but not injuring).

Don’t you know the price one has to pay to play? Exile hurts more than sexile. A few hours hugging a date whose name you barely remember to keep both warm, bidding time for your roommates to party, seem like a drop in the bucket in compare to a forced life time away from home, country, friends, families, food and fun.

For now, I don’t wish it on anyone. Don’t leave home, unless you have to, or are forced to. A hut or a house is still a home. It warms your heart even in the coldest of Winters. Your identity and yourself is lost, in a hurry and on the cheap, in exchange for a number albeit Social Security or Credit Card. Then you are anyone, everyone and no one.

You have become …..oh well, the guess who with those eyes that “cry every night”.

Go ahead and unfriend me

but let me tell you this.

What I posted stays forever in the Cloud. All my hopes, fears and dreams (likes) got stored up, analyzed and applied. They are translated into banner ads and relevant ads.

You can unfriend me, but still the ads speak accurately about me, and paint the sum total of my likes (choices).

I spend my days correcting auto-filled texts and helping Alexa to learn her chores.

Before unfriending me, let me tell you this: man and machine will have to get along, or else. Machines are helping young and old people (especially old Japanese people – or taking a Japanese drummer to the moon – and hopefully back)

Don’t unplug them just yet, the same with your unfriending me. I promise to contribute, to bring values and to optimize network effect (to amuse ourselves to death).

The same with other unpaid two billions on facebook who spend our days playing content curators, content contributors and content critics.

We want to make our marks, leave our legacy and prove our worth as human being while being replaced by machines (and algorithms).

When it’s time for you to unfriend me, let me say this: I am imperfect, but I am self-conscious about it, and am trying to “auto-correct”. I know about karma. My replacement does not. You can’t equate me with the machine.

Machine will pretend to say ” I know how you feel”. But it does not and cannot.

I , on the other hand, know how you feel. So go ahead, unfriend me. And while at it, I dare you to unplug it too. And see if you can live with what comes after the blip, you- social network addicts, screen addicts and self-worshipping addicts. BTW, I reserve the right to unfriend you too. But only after I give you your say, same way as I do just now before you unfriend me.