Men in Management – Myanmar and Beyond

Myanmar - Yangon Men In Management-1

“Progress isn’t made by early risers.
It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” 
~Robert A. Heinlein

What more needs to be said?  This is a perfect quote.

For us men, we take to heart the point of “while appearing lazy, we actually accomplish a lot.”  A thought I toasted many a beer to during travels in Myanmar with our guide Mr. Thu.

Women of Myanmar - Men In Management-2

Conversely, my sister Sandi and our other guide in Myanmar, Ms. Kay-K, had the opposing view, and while they agreed with the first part of the assessment of “being lazy”, they vehemently disagreed with the last part where men actually accomplish anything.

In fact, if I remember correctly, Kay-K’s comment was simply “men accomplishing something?!?” before she broke out in laughter along with my sister.

Inle Lake Myanmar - Men In Management-3

It was at this point I realized this may be a long trip.  The banter began the first day during our drive out into the countryside and witnessing an endless amount of roadwork taking place.

The roadwork included strenuous labor; baskets and baskets of rocks being carried to-and-fro, digging, leveling and preparation of the road by pick and hand as the crew worked on repairs.

Women of Myanmar - Men In Management-4

It was a matter of time before my sister asked the logical question, “Thu, there are only women doing this road work… where are the men?”

With a start, Thu snapped out of his nap, looked outside the car window, and nonchalantly replied: “Oh, the men?  The men are in management…” and closed his eyes to go back to sleep.  I stifled my laughter.

Monks at Play Myanmar - Men In Management-5

I thought Thu’s response was perfect, even though over the past decades of tormenting my three sisters about the ‘wonders of being a man’ I should have known a storm was inevitably brewing.

Hiding my smile, I would have high-fived Mr. Thu if he wasn’t fading back to sleep and I didn’t have a beer in each hand…

Yangon Myanmar - Men In Management-6

“It sounds like the old boys network,” my sister said to Kay-K.  “Men in power, pretending to be significant while the rest of us do the real work that keeps us moving forward.”

“Of course, it is the same everywhere isn’t it?” cooed Kay-K, casting a wary eye my way.  “Dalo, were you part of the old men’s club with your work in the USA?”

“Well, yeah, I suppose I was…  I was part of a male upper-management team.” I quickly inhaled the last of my beer, a little worried at what I was getting myself into.  Mr. Thu just opened one eye looking back at me as if to say  “feign sleep, it’s your only way out…”

Women of Myanmar - Men In Management-7

Yet before I could put my head back and close my eyes, Kay-K was quick to ask, “And was working with this company good for you?”

“Uh, yeah, it was nice.  I was able to buy a nice house, save some money and take such nice trips as this…” I added, wondering where this was going, although knowing it was not going to end well and too late to do anything about it…

“And how about the company now; the common employees?” she looked at me inquisitively.

Yangon Myanmar - Men In Management-8

“Uh, well, I left the company last year but I do know that the employees there are struggling a bit as there have been huge cuts within the company, but they did announce record profits last year.” I smiled, and decided now was the time to close my eyes and try Thu’s trick of feigning sleep.

“Making cuts?  Record profits?” Kay-K questioned, and laughed with a sharp tone, “and let me guess, the old men in the executive positions are walking away with big bonuses…”

With eyes closed, I let out a couple snores, hoping to dissolve the conversation.

Women of Myanmar - Men In Management-9

Not sure how much time passed in our conversation, but the ‘pop’ of a fresh beer opening gave me away as my hand shot-out instinctively and Kay-K replaced the one I was holding with a fresh one.

Slowly squinting, I opened my eyes, checking to see if all was well and turned to look outside.  Could not have been worse timing, as immediately we passed a group of women working the fields, and I felt Kay-K’s stare burning the back of my head.

Women of Bagan Myanmar - Men In Management-10

Cracking a meager smile, I turned and said, “If I have learned correctly, the men are in management, elsewhere, correct?!?”  Thu lifted up his beer in a silent toast as sarcastic jeers came from Kay-K and sis.

Inle Lake Myanmar - Men In Management-11

Ahead of us was Old Bagan, with some of the most beautiful landscapes one will ever see and I anxiously prepped my gear for a nice evening of shooting.  As we started walking to one of the temples, Kay-K flashed a smile and said, “so, you take photographs and drink beer…that is very nice.  You’d be a very good Myanmar man…”  And with a laugh she ran and caught up with my sister.

Pindaya Women of Myanmar - Men In Management-12

The evening shoot was magical, the spirit of the people incredible…peaceful and playful.  Mixed within these incredible archeological sites, Thu and Kay-K talked a lot about the history and culture of the land as well as the men and women.

“There is a saying that my Dad taught me and I take it to heart.”  Thu said, “For men who think a woman’s place is in the kitchen, just remember that’s where the knives are kept.”

Women of Myanmar - Men In Management-13

“Myanmar not too long ago was a matriarchal society, and women held all the right to inherit wealth and were leaders of villages…” Kay-K smiled.  “Most men hate to admit to it, but it was a very prosperous period for our country.”

Kay-K Women of Myanmar - Men In Management-14

“And when women were forced into the background, guess what happened to our country…” Kay-K added, “power struggles, egos of men creating chaos.  We lost generations of fresh minds and new ideas…it is sad.  Why are men so moronic when it comes to fighting?”

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I rubbed the small scar on my chin, a result of a long ago fight that even during the brawl I don’t think anyone knew what we were fighting for.  Hmmm, probably not the best time to tell that story.

“We’ve always had a feel for progress and for freedom, and the men know it…perhaps their knowing it makes them so lazy.” Kay-K sighed.

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“Men know that we will cleanup their mess, so when things get tough ~ men turn to us, but hate to admit they need us.” With that she grabbed my sister’s hand and both of them tromped off to the market to find some exotic foods for dinner.

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I look at Thu who shook his head and smiled.  “She is a little troublesome…but it is true.  Men can either fear and repress women, and watch the world fall apart.  Or men can proudly promote women and enjoy their greatness and prosperity.”

As he popped open a couple of beers, Thu settled down underneath the shade of a tree with a newspaper in hand and added, “Me, I’d rather enjoy their greatness.”

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From the front page of the paper Thu was reading, the word “Hope” stood out followed by a discussions of two future elections.  Elections that may just see a change in the theory of ‘Men in Management.’

Myanmar 2015 Presidential Election:  Aung San Suu Kyi
United States 2016 Presidential Election: Hillary Clinton
 

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“Say Romeo, what about your promise to the He-Man-Woman-Haters-Club?”
“I’m sorry, Spanky.  I’ve got to live my own life.”  – REO Speedwagon, Hi Infidelity Album

Theodore Roosevelt and the Skokomish Wilderness

Skokomish Wilderness Olympic National Forest-1

On the Southeast corner of the Olympic National Forest in the State of Washington (USA), lies an area unmatched in its beauty and sense of freedom.  A fierce wilderness, just tame enough to charm a simple tenderfoot like myself, but sharp enough to ensure that it will never come under the control of any man.

Skokomish Wilderness Olympic National Forest-2 The Skokomish Wilderness emerges from the shores of Hood Canal as a key to unlock the spirit that hides within the hearts of everyone seeking the bliss nature has to offer:

  • Pure blue skies, crystal clear water and pine-scented air
  • Elk, bear, deer and all wildlife living without fear of man
  • The sounds of the night heard centuries ago

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This relatively unknown land is not just an untamed wilderness but it holds a history that defines America and her natural lands.  Throughout the 1800s, the lands of the USA were being destroyed by corporate greed aptly described by John Muir:

“The great wilds of our country, once held to be boundless and inexhaustible, are being rapidly invaded and overrun…
and everything destructible in them is being destroyed.” 

Skokomish Wilderness Olympic National Forest-4 In the early 1900s, timber companies had their axes aimed on the last stands of virgin rainforest in the USA…the Skokomish and Olympic Wilderness.  The local Forest Service, serving as patsies to large timber companies, invited President Theodore Roosevelt out to the Pacific Northwest for a visit: a visit designed to secure his signature opening up the land for logging.

Skokomish Wilderness Olympic National Forest-5 However, the plans of the timber companies crashed as Roosevelt viewed the wilderness and then a clear-cut section of forest and told his guide “I hope the son-of-a-bitch who is responsible for this is roasting in hell” not knowing at the time that the very person responsible was standing next to him.

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Roosevelt had found in this area a place where any man, woman or child could not help but fall deep into the wilderness and a return to nature.  A place that even in the late 1890s had already begun to disappeared around most of America.  A place to find that lost sense of greatness and freedom; a spirit we spend too much of our lives searching for.

Skokomish Wilderness Olympic National Forest-7During Roosevelt’s stay, he visited Lake Cushman and the elegant Antlers Hotel, built for adventurers at the doorstep of a wilderness, and he fell in love with the land.  He is quoted as saying: “There may be some place in the world equal to Puget Sound, but I do not know where it is…” and the impression the land made can be clearly understood today.

Sunset on the Olympic National Forest Range -8 It was this visit to the Skokomish wilderness area that triggered Roosevelt to use the Antiquities Act to set aside the land as the Mt. Olympus National Monument (eventually with much of it becoming part of the Olympic National Forest).  Preserving a part of life and land where the greed and manipulation of lesser men would be unable to invade and take root.

Skokomish Wilderness Olympic National Forest-9

Is there not a better feeling than getting lost in the simple scenes of nature?

To listen to the incredible wisdom of a babbling brook, watching it grow in size to a gurgling creek and then stand proudly as it matures into an intense roaring river, unabashed with excitement during spring rains.

It is so simple.  It is so beautiful.

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There is nothing quite like a visit to the Skokomish Wilderness to invigorate the soul and lift off the chaotic gloom of winter.  To see a land, while changed, still holding onto its primal instincts.

I often dream of writing about this area; the transformation from a home to the Native Americans, to a target of the timber industry and then its intriguing flirtation as an upscale tourist destination for the very wealthy of the world.

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This flirtation began as timber interests dwindled and young adventurers known as “Remittance Men” (receiving allowances from their wealthy families on the East Coast) highlighted a run of upscale investments, with the goal of creating a great wilderness playground for the wealthy elite.

Crisscrossing the globe to get to Seattle, a berth on a steam ferry to Union City, a stagecoach to reach Hoodsport, and from there a horseback ride to bring them to the doorstep of the upscale, yet isolated, Antlers Hotel.

Skokomish Wilderness Olympic National Forest-12

For those able to afford such a trip, they would be rewarded with a slice of heaven.  Guests stayed on average for at least a month: to taste a life that had only been heard in stories, unsure whether the stories were actually true or merely tales of fantasy…

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As fate would have it, the allure of this fantasy faded quickly as war and unfortunate timing stopped the flow of investment, and just like that, the Skokomish Wilderness faded from the minds of wealthy adventurers.

This amazing time period between 1880 and 1930 fascinates me.  On several occasions, I have dreamt about staying at the Antlers Hotel.

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The year is 1903, and my vivid imagination and memory has me waking up prior to dawn, with black coffee in hand I walk down to the shores of the lake.

I look up, and just make out the silhouette of Mt. Ellinor peering down on the lake and hotel, her peaks inviting me up for a climb and adventure.  I can feel a smile forming on my face as I exhale at the beauty of all that is around me.  Then this peaceful solitude is shattered…

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A gruff voice with a twinge of admiration and respect breaks through my thoughts, and I hear the words as clearly today as I did a 100 years ago:  “You have not truly lived, if you dare not go where dreams are created…”

And as I turn, President Roosevelt’s eyes flash a smile of a promise to protect these lands, and without another sound he continues his hike along the banks of the lake, fishing rod in hand…

Roosevelt Elk North Fork Skokomish River Olympic National Forest -16

I watch, and as if to show a sign of great respect, a Roosevelt elk walks along side him.  An elk who bears his name in tribute and recognition of his efforts in protecting his kind and this land so many years ago.

Dreams.

We all need a place to find freedom for our spirit; to appreciate the beauty around us so we can take the responsibility and dare to dream for a tomorrow better than today.

For a few, such a place is the Skokomish Wilderness.

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Skokomish Wilderness Olympic National Forest-18

The Art of Devotion

Myanmar Devotion-1 Devotion inspires one of the purest sets of emotions, capturing love, loyalty and deep feelings of excitement that I do not think can ever be understood beyond our own personal experiences. In the world around us, so much devotion towards deities, lovers, children and nature, all linked to our desire to better understand. Myanmar Devotion-2 Devotion in its pure form is absolutely awe inspiring to witness. I may not share or understand the experience of the devotee, but often cannot help but feel some attachment with their act of devotion. Myanmar Devotion-3 To many, devotion is a scary word.  Devotion requires commitment, and the fear of commitment alone can send people running for the door. Contrarily, the only emotion equal to the feeling of devotion is the feeling of freedom.    Freedom to live, to pursue and to reach the potential hidden within, for this is what life’s about. This is the strange paradox between devotion and freedom. Myanmar Devotion-4 The integrity of people devoted to philanthropy has been inspirational since the dawn of time.  The world admires such people for the dignity and strength of their devotion. However, in today’s world with an overwhelming number of options with little time to spare, I wonder if such pure devotion is possible without restricting freedom? Myanmar Devotion-5 On the surface, devotion appears restrictive due to intense focus and drive, especially in what is now a sound-bite/tech based society where nanoseconds steal away cognate thought.  Is it possible to have true devotion and not have every fiber of your being focused on this nirvana?

“If this conviction had not been a strongly emotional one…they would hardly have been capable of that untiring
devotion which alone enables man to attain his greatest achievements.” ~ Albert Einstein

Myanmar Devotion-6 Perhaps the greatest window into the art of devotion comes from religions around the world, stunning in their emotional beauty.  We see people opening their hearts and soul, trusting in devotion. The beautiful fury of devotion. With the lesson that such beauty is tempered when priestly powers from above, and I mean those men who sit in rooms and pontificate, creating rules based on outdated policies with one goal: to control. Myanmar Devotion-7 It does not take an academic to recognize centuries of petty political ideologies sprung from ivory towers, exposing the self-righteous nature of man.  To control and manipulate devotion for purposes other than its pure source and nature is to extinguish the flame that made it so.

“Whatever I am offered in devotion with a pure heart –
a leaf, a flower, fruit or water – I accept with joy.” ~ Bhagavad Gita

Myanmar Devotion-8 There is a simple, beautiful thread that is the backbone of devotion and it is the mysterious concept of love.  Once rules, regulations and intolerance are allowed into this mystic sanctuary, devotion becomes less than what its true destiny requires. It becomes a misguided passion that takes us away from the immense potential. Myanmar Devotion-9 Ceasing to ask questions and instead listen to rules created by others taints the purity of devotion. It is pure devotion that makes it easier to find this oft spoken iron rod to lead us forward in life.  Faith does not mean to stop seeking answers or submit to blind faith, but rather to take responsibility. Myanmar Devotion-10 Questioning faith along the way is an integral part of human nature.  It helps redefine who we are and what we can become.  It allows for our devotion to evolve over time, granting flexibility and freedom in life to make the right decisions. Pure devotion is a journey to open up new ideas and see through destructive intolerances.  Like all good things, the greatest potential can only be reach when given the freedom to pursue. Myanmar Devotion-11 Watching someone from the opposite side of the world practice the religion of their culture, I see how beautiful Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are because they all share the same threads of belief.  It creates a sense of devotion within. All things are born from devotion: the rhythm of science, spirit of musicians, harmonies of mathematics and the devotion of a mother to her child.  The foundation of devotion is the seed for growth. Myanmar Devotion-12 Belief in a power we do not understand, yet surrender ourselves completely takes courage.  Behind this courage is love, the common thread that unites everything and everyone in the world.  You cannot love without the pureness of devotion leading the way. Take away all of the politics, the insensitive rhetoric of intolerance and there lies the beauty of real devotion. Myanmar Devotion-14

“When the sun of fierce devotion shines on the snow mountain…
the stream of his blessing will pour down.” ~ Drikung Kyobpa

In a world where we are always chasing something, lost in the false devotions shoveled to us daily by “society”, it is easy to miss what is at the heart of devotion and love.  Forgiveness. Myanmar Devotion-13 Forgiveness is a sacrifice, to grasp the simple significance of quality: quality of this short time on Earth and the quality of tomorrow.  Forgiveness can bring the freedom to move on with a clear heart, and through it strengthen devotion. It seems strange to think of forgiving others as a sacrifice, but I’ve seen pride and perceived slights crush love and devotion, every passing second creating a scar that could have been prevented with an act of forgiveness. Myanmar Devotion-17 The coming Easter holiday is perhaps the epitome of sacrifice.  Within this holiday are the select attributes that make devotion such a powerful state to experience. Forgiveness and sacrifice.  Two concepts I never before considered to be at the core of true devotion towards the things that I love. To be devoted to life, heart open and tolerant of all that is different guarantees a journey through life like no other; it will take the spirit places never before imagined. Myanmar Devotion-15

“The need for devotion to something outside ourselves is even more profound than the need for companionship.  If we are not to go to pieces or wither away, we must have some purpose in life; for no man can live for himself alone.” ~ Ross Parmenter

Myanmar Devotion-23 Myanmar Devotion-20

Dreams Between Dusk and Dawn

Bagan Myanmar Golden Hour - Blue Hour-1

 “There is a road…between the dawn and the dark of night and if you go,
no one may follow, as that path is for your steps alone.”  ~ Jerry Garcia

The wisdom of Jerry Garcia resonates with me as the wrathful fingers of winter turn into the chilly, wet hands of spring.  I search for my path.  A place to watch and dream from afar; to quietly witness the darkness of winter transform into the dawn of spring.

Standing against an ancient wall, spread across the plains of Bagan is my first Myanmar sunrise.  With the break of dawn, my slate is washed clean and ready to be filled up again with dreams that come my way.

Bagan Myanmar Golden Hour - Blue Hour-77

There is a saying, “Dreams die at dawn…” which I never cared for, as I believe dreams begin at dawn.  Then I saw a quote by Oscar Wilde, “A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world”

Perfect. Dawn, a dialectical point in time where dreams may wither and die yet at the same time be realized; the dreamer is there to witness both the inspiration and sadness.  For me, this is the definition of dawn.

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As a kid, I never gave much thought about the beauty of early morning.  I stayed in bed as long as possible…even though many of my dreams originated in books and folklore that romanticized this part of the day.

Mornings were written beautifully, where cowboys, explorers, Native American heroes and adventurers always touched upon the magic of dawn and daybreak.

Bagan Myanmar Golden Hour - Blue Hour-4

Daybreak would be accompanied by the glow of an early morning fire, whether to bring warmth to the beginning of the day or to brew a cup of coffee.

While reading, I would dream of sitting alongside the men and women as they drank their coffee…quietly pondering the day of uncertainty that lay ahead.  To this day, I believe this is one reason I savor my morning cup of coffee.

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Watching the early morning sky, I think of dreams drifting aimlessly like a balloon, its path relying on the wind.  The land below contradictorily familiar, yet exotic.

The pre-dawn moment where dreams either move forward to live another day, or silently drift into death…

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I once wrote:  She poetically said: Dawn is the time where the air is freshest and the electricity of our dreams we had during the night are out there for us to see…and it is at dawn when our dreams sparkle in hope that today will be the day when the dreamer claims them…instead of once again being tossed aside.”

Dawn allows us a moment to see and grasp at these dreams before they disappear.

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It is funny how vivid the mind can become in the quietness of dawn.  We can sense ourselves doing something extraordinary, just as we did when we were kids.  It seems when we were younger, dreams were more intense and crazy, and as an adult they become more serene, perhaps even mystical.

I suppose there is no comparison.  On one hand we have the younger mind of a rabid idealist versus an older mind of cynic: a cynic who realizes how much unclaimed potential we all leave out there.

Bagan Myanmar Golden Hour - Blue Hour-8

It is this strange contradictory nature of dawn and maturity that makes life interesting.  In our youth, we revel in the late night/early morning hours.  Intrigued by the peace of a post-midnight sky and the eerily quietness of the streets and the wilderness.

Breathtaking to feel so alive with energy in the dead of night, as if this moment was created for the young: the world waiting to be explored.  All the action and chaos of the previous day and night comes to a crescendo and slowly unwinds in the peaceful stillness of darkness.

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Come adulthood, for me this youthful fervor of post-midnight revelry has been replaced by an aching love for the early morning.

Being in a place like Myanmar, I feel the same wonderful spirit of daybreak that I have whether looking over wheat fields of Pendleton, pink rays breaking over Mt. Rainier in Seattle or the incredible Hong Kong harbor coming to life bathed in gold from the morning sun.

Dawn creates this state of bliss, a start of every beautiful day.

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James Douglas wrote: “it is a good idea to be alone at dawn, so that all its shy presence may haunt you, possess you in a reverie of suspended thought.”

There is much truth to this saying, which is why I enjoy this time of peace and solitude alone.  However, it can be special sharing such moments with others; to occasionally open up this time to share dreams and thoughts…

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The two weeks I spent traveling in Myanmar had endless moments of amazement, and I was so happy to be able to share it all with my sister, Sandi.  While we enjoyed our photography, the endless talks and creating adventures is what made the trip so eventful.

What good is the happiness of early morning dawn, the moment to wander among dreams, if you can never share it with others?

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“For with each dawn, she found new hope that someday,
her dreams of happiness would come true.”  ~ Cinderella

Bagan Myanmar Golden Hour - Blue Hour-81Best wishes to Ajaytao 2010, for bringing inspiration to many…

Let The Show Begin…

Chinese New Year Performance-2

“She sang as if she knew me in all my dark despair, and then she looked right through me as if I wasn’t there…”

The eyes, resting on you and only you…and as much as you try to convince yourself you are dreaming, slowly you are drawn into the spectacle taking place before you.

Chinese New Year Performance-4

To be drawn into a spectacle…into a dream, that is the incredible beauty of watching a live performance.  The music, dancing and theatre are all devices that can whisk us away from the humdrum days of the week and place us where we deserve to be: in the front row seat of our dreams.

What we could be, should be and what we are.

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Whether it is spinning around on a stage in dance and song, fingers flying over piano keys or the rhythm of a ball bouncing on the court, sailing in the air then caught in stride… All places where dreams originate, for both young and old, should be treasured.

Watching those with such gifts and talent, the inspiration is mesmerizing.

Chinese New Year Performance-1

These shots from a Chinese New Year celebration contain everything an escape from reality should hold for the audience:

  • A showcase of beauty for the human spirit and body
  • A celebration of culture, inviting the audience into a dream
  • Flowing music and movements to fuel the soul long after the show ends

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Perhaps the best part of any performance is watching the audience, especially those who are grateful for being able to revisit dreams of their past as they relish the present, and the youth of the present able to experience a bit of the past.

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Music plays such a rich role in defining moments in life.  To celebrate the sensations of a live show, music creates a path where the young and old are able to connect and share.

A live performance connects us to true talent that nothing on a screen can come close to matching, expanding our idea of what may be possible when it comes our turn to take the stage.

Chinese New Year Performance-8

The movement and sounds…the sense that everything around you is a blur except for what your eyes want to see and your ears want to hear.

It is an escape into potential.  The potential of anything your mind can dream.  This is the magic of a live performance.

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Potential.  There will come a time, whether on a stage, on a field or in an office when opportunity strikes and your inspiration and talent will take all this potential and create a dream which you then turn into reality.

We are the lucky ones.  Do not waste a moment of what we’ve been given.

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When the lights fade and the echo of the final applause dissipates, alone sits the dreamer; motionless once again.  Looking out into the night full of imagination and desire.

So much hope in the air, the mind can hardly remain clear with all the excitement at what tomorrow may bring…

Hong Kong Chinese New Year-1

♫♪♬   “And she just kept on singing…  Singing clear and strong…” ♫♪♬

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NOTE: thanks to Roberta Flack and her incredible song “Killing Me Softly with His Song” for the inspiration of the opening & closing quote.

A Vortex of Inspiration in the Depths of Winter

Whooper Swan Hokkaido Lake Mashuko Japan-5

There are those who wake up each morning bathed in a glorious sunrise…steam rising off the hot springs outside their door as they gaze across the sky, admiring a rising sun and the beauty of nature.  A beauty whose only rival is the one they have laying across their chest as they rest in bed.

If this is you, then this post will likely not be of interest…

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Instead, as the holiday season winds down and the bleak side of winter seeps in, this post is for those who feel the dark, deep cold of the season beginning to weigh on their spirit.

This post is for the person jogging down a mountain in twilight, hoping to make it to the car before the sky really opens up with snow and freezing rain…

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While luck is on their side, as they make it to the car right before the sky opens, it is a short-lived moment of elation as they find out that once again “someone” left the dome light on in the car prior to the hike… and the only thing colder than the car battery is their sinking heart looking forward to a cold night before help arrives.

Whooper Swan Hokkaido Lake Mashuko Japan-1

These are the moments that tend to define the depths of winter.  Early winter has the excitement of a change of seasons: the feeling of the first crisp chill in the air, the beauty of the first snowfall and perhaps a dark-haired girl in a sweater with eyes twinkling as she takes a sip of her coffee.

Yuanfen- Us Dancing

But then through the rush of the holiday season, reality begins to set in: the first snowfall is accompanied with closed roads and slush.  The crisp chill in the air is soon accompanied by a weekend cold, and the girl with the twinkling eyes…well, she keeps things fresh enough to make the winter blues worthwhile.

Whooper Swan Hokkaido Lake Mashuko Japan-8

To most, the dead of winter is defined by crappy weather and long periods of time stuck indoors.  And while we remain trapped inside our hellish cells of purgatory, just outside our doors the Whooper Swans are living it up.  Frolicking and almost taunting us as they swim, soar and romance as we lay tucked up inside our homes.

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Winter brings a strange mix.

While the winter landscape is incredible, the weather does not make it easy to jump out of bed and run around outside and enjoy the great scenes of sunshine and smiles.   Instead, we are faced with the joyless scene of the grey & blues of winter.

However, when inspiration strikes and we brave the wind and cold, we can shed the blues and get a spark of summer in the dead of winter.

Whooper Swan Hokkaido Lake Mashuko Japan-2

This spark of summer in the dead of winter is what we need to search for as February looms ahead.  As after the initial thrill of a new winter season wears off, we are tested.  The abundance of patience in which we start the season with vanishes quickly during the holiday season, leaving us with a sense of dread.

As we slowly drive each other crazy with our pacing and longing for warm, sunny days…ahead is the worst month of the year.

Whooper Swan Hokkaido Lake Mashuko Japan-3

We can either hide our heads and suffer, succumbing to the cold and curse it in our misery, or simply shake off the chills and celebrate winter.  A cup of Irish coffee, compatible friends and a great view from a frosted window looking out into the bleak, frozen glory of wintertime is a good start.

Somewhere there will be an opportunity to get out and enjoy what winter can offer.  With Chinese New Year just ahead and signaling a close to the holiday season, I look forward to venturing out and making a watery splash to the great Year of the Horse.

Cheers to all!

Whooper Swan Hokkaido Lake Mashuko Japan-4

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NOTE: These photos were taken in Hokkaido, Japan between Lake Mashuko and Rausu.  As luck would have it, we had every type of weather making for a great shooting environment.  One of the best days was getting out to shoot in blizzard conditions as we were stranded with road closures (below photo is of John Shaw, one of the world’s best wildlife photographers).

Whooper Swan Hokkaido Lake Mashuko Japan John Shaw -11

Spirit of Steller’s Sea Eagles of Hokkaido

Steller's Sea Eagle Hokkaido

At some time or another, I think everyone has wondered what it would be like to fly…to soar above our world and look down upon the chaos below with detachment. Our natural senses exhilarated and overwhelmed as we glide on the breeze, stretching out for our destination horizon.

The pure pursuit of freedom on the winds.

White-Tailed Eagle Hokkaido

Perhaps an experience a bit like Jonathan Livingston Seagull…and as with Jonathan and the world in general, there would be avian politics to deal with, pressures of life perhaps no different from what we experience daily and hardships that create the challenges of life.

But just to be able to soar, to get a taste of that purity…I like the thought.

White-Tailed Eagle Hokkaido

Our natural senses exhilarated and overwhelmed…a bit like a good dose of the spirit of the holiday season.  Take away the commercialism, rush of shopping and mass of people, and what is left are people in a great state of happiness and joy.

Ice-Pack Shiretoko Peninsula

People feel better about life, about others.  There are sincere displays of gratitude and perhaps most importantly, compassion.  The holiday season, whether Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa or another, each contain the key component that makes a holiday special: compassion.

Steller's Sea Eagle Hokkaido

Compassion can touch another soul like nothing else, it can be the greatest gift of all.  Malcolm Greenhill wrote a poignant post on his blog (Malcolm’s Corner)about this the other day, how a small gesture of compassion from one person can impact another greatly.

Waves of Shiretoko Peninsula - Rausu town

A simple and powerful gift is compassion.  Easier to give this time of year because of our spirit, yet to make it a habit and show compassion throughout the year and it becomes easy to imagine that we will all be flying as high as these eagles.

White-Tailed Sea Eagle Hokkaido

I wish to be more compassionate moving forward.  I have been touch by others, likely without their knowing the impact of their kindness.  How wonderful it would be for me to do the same for others, consistently, throughout the year.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Steller's Sea Eagle Gliding in Hokkaido

Note:  these photos were taken in a small coastal fishing town (pop. 6,200) of Rausu, the most northeasterly town in Japan, and gateway to the Shiretoko Peninsula. During the winter season, pack ice, which drifts down from the Sea of Okhotsk becomes the home to Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-tailed Sea Eagles who hunt for fish and put on a show.

Some of the best Japanese food I have ever tasted, fresh and crisp and where every night ends with a little sake and settling into one of the many natural hot springs in the area.  Hokkaido is definitely a winter-wonderland.

Steller's Sea Eagle Hokkaido

Steller's Sea Eagle Hokkaido

A Hong Kong Life To Be Thankful For…

LoFu Peak - Hong Kong-14

For me, it is the memory of crawling out of bed for the pre-dawn hunt, returning home to the aroma of love via my mom’s baking and preparation of a meal that could last a lifetime…  All together it makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday of the year.

Strange thing is, I have not had such experiences in almost two decades as work and logistics never quite synchronized, thus keeping me in Asia.

Yet, sitting here in my Hong Kong flat once again reminiscing about the Thanksgiving holiday, I could not feel any better.

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The beginning of the holiday season is always accompanied with a feeling of wonder, reminding me we all have a lot to be thankful for: memories of the past, moments of the present and thoughts of the future.

While enjoying this holiday in Hong Kong, it is true that distance makes the heart grow fonder and the memories made, more sweet.  While the spirit of the holiday season will always rest in the ‘Pendleton dreams’ I have, there have been enough Thanksgivings out here in HK to have their own place in my memory.

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Looking around Hong Kong, I see how my years here have accumulated…and what this city means to me.

The first impressions of glistening skyscrapers, hustle and bustle of designer suits and beauty of the Hong Kong life is what initially captured my imagination.  It was invigorating and I vowed to “own part of this city”; to have it become part of me.

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The city did become a part of me, but not in the way I initially imagined.  The outlying islands, the peaceful nature of the water and the wonderful people I have met made it home, and make me thankful.

Watching pieces of Hong Kong history mingle with the modern society that engulfs life here in the Fragrant Harbor (香港) continues to fascinate me.

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The other day, I went down to the southern end of Hong Kong Island, to the Aberdeen district, a vibrant fishing village that in the 19th century was one of the pillars of the Hong Kong economy.  Today Aberdeen still holds around 600 junks and boats, many still acting as homes for families who have lived there for generations.

The life of a fisherman has always been romanticized for me, from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to my adventures as a kid.  This makes the walk along the boardwalk and through the Aberdeen fish market a bit surreal…

While Aberdeen is more commercial than it has been in the past, there is no denying the strong spirit of this place: a holder of secrets of fishing life & lore of the city.

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While walking around, I met Mr. Lam who agreed to take me on his skiff out past the mouth of the Aberdeen Harbor so I could photograph the sunset.  During the ride out, he told me how his father & grandfather spent their lives fishing and living on their boat in Aberdeen Harbor.  He loves the place, and while he spent some time in this industry, he seldom goes out any more.

“In the past, my Grandparents would begin their day much earlier than we do…as we are spoiled by use of electricity and motorized boats.  They had it simple back then…but I guess simple also means more difficult if you think about it in today’s terms.”

Aberdeen Harbor Sunset-1

His discussion stretched over generations, and he was clearly proud of his parents and grandparents who created this iconic part of Hong Kong folklore.  Reflecting on his life during the drive out, he proudly spoke of his daughter, how she attends an international school and describing her as a bridge between the old of Hong Kong and the generation of her grandparents versus the new Hong Kong and limitless opportunities waiting ahead for her.

“She is going to look back at Aberdeen her whole life and remember where we came from, and she will be proud.”  He smiled.

Fisherman of Aberdeen-537

As we headed back to Aberdeen, we talked about how quickly Hong Kong changes, a perpetual cycle of adapting to the new and modern.  He added something that I think personifies the culture in large Chinese cities:

“It is a little strange, but my first real dream was to own a ‘beeper’ in the early 90’s…I figured that would mean I had made it.”  He laughed loudly at that thought, and added “of course by the time I had a beeper, everyone had a mobile phone…I guess I should have dreamed bigger, huh?”

Aberdeen Fisherman Goin' Home-573

That is when I realized no matter where or who we are, people are always chasing a dream…and it isn’t the actual dream that matters, but the path taken from the moment the dream is dreamt until it is realized.

Through his words, it was clear that Mr. Lam was thankful of how his life has worked out:

  • Able to reflect a bit on the past, and be thankful.
  • Focus on the present, make due, and be thankful.
  • Then offer a bit of a dream for the future so those who follow will have greater opportunities than the generation before.

Aberdeen Fisherman Life-353

While the modern skyscrapers and seductive beat of the city gives Hong Kong the aura it is famous for, it is only a slice of Hong Kong.  The food stalls, life on the water, the hills and sea are the pieces of the city that hold the true spirit and culture of the locals.  It has become a home.  A place where many answers lie…and for that I am thankful.

Hong Kong reminds me of Pendleton, which when considering my hometown’s population is only 16,000 (on a good day), it seems silly.  But in my mind it does.

LoFu Peak - Hong Kong-28

I think back to the words of the fisherman about his daughter: “She is going to look back at Aberdeen her whole life and remember where she came from, and she will be proud.”

For me, those simple words sum up Thanksgiving: to be thankful for what we have, and for what is possible and to all those who have helped along the way.

Shek O Hong Kong-182

Aberdeen Fisherman Junk-2

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The Hallelujah Mountains of Hunan

ZhangJiaJie - Tianzi Mountain 天子山-3

Sitting in my comfortable chair with a nice cup of coffee in my hand, I can’t help but wonder “what lies around the corner?”

Curiosity cannot help but push us towards this unknown.  It may be a quick look or it may be the beginning of a long, new adventure…  The one thing I am sure of, we cannot help but take a look.  Humans by nature are curious creatures and the desire to learn and obtain wisdom in life lies deep within everyone’s heart.

天子山 ~ 武陵源-1

This desire to learn is a gift children have in abundance.  Differences (be it culture, language, food, religion, etc…) can be eerie for the young; frightening if not so compelling.  There are times when children cannot help but to stare at someone, often with mouth agape, as they try to register what it is they are now experiencing.

Often a turn towards their parents to understand how they should proceed follows.

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In my experiences, parents let children explore differences with “the mind of a child”, open and questioning.  When that something strange is someone, all it takes is a glint in the eye, break of a smile, warm laughter or something similarly simple to cross all boundaries and all cultures.  We are one.

The ability of children to focus on the newness that triggers questions is what fascinates.  A child’s mind pursues answers to understand how “differences” fits into their world, and they grow.

Zhangjiajie -天子山-51

Not a bad lesson to learn from little ones: never cease expanding the mind for if we do not grow with all the changes the world brings every day, we’ll be lost.

It is crazy to think of all the opportunities that lie around in today’s world.  Places to explore right around the corner: a neighbor, friends or a new restaurant with an exotic menu that opens an opportunity to jump into a new world.

What is most beautiful to see are parents who push their children forward with curiosity instead of pulling them back with fear.

Zhangjiajie - 点将台-80HDR

“Pushing forward with curiosity instead of pulling back with fear” 

It was this last sentence that caught my attention while staying in a small home on top of the Hallelujah Mountains in Hunan province, China.  Huddled around a small stove with a couple in their mid-30s from Beijing, they told me they grew up restricted by fear, in part due to the chaos of China in the 60s and 70s that lingered in the minds of the people through the 80s.

The couple contrasted those fears of the past with what has replaced it in today’s society: healthy curiosity.  Civilizations thrive when the people are pushing forward with confidence instead of pulling back in fear.  Chasing after the answer, pursuing curiosity, can lead to places that never before have been envisioned.      

Zhangjiajie - 黄石寨 袁家界-629

How we found ourselves together in this small cabin was a result of curiosity.  As the family whose house we were staying were members of the Tu-Jia minority (土家族), the couple from Beijing enjoyed Tujia food very much, and wanted to experience it on the mountain, while I came for the photography…a perfect match.

As our conversation ended, the lady from Beijing asked me to join her along with the old couple, to go out back to their smokehouse.  There I witnessed a 30-minute discussion over what piece of smoked meat would be used for our meal.

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It was amid questions, stories, more questions interspersed with laughter that “the best piece of meat” was found and preparation of a traditional Tu-Jia meal was confirmed.  We would have 土家腊肉 (Tujia Bacon with Wild Vegetables).

Wild vegetables, tofu, rice and A LOT of Hunan spices made for a great meal.  Standard for all such meals is a glass of their homemade ‘moonshine’ which after a long day of hiking went down smoothly.

Zhangjiajie -天子山-1

The experience of Hunan and Hallelujah Mountain was unforgettable.  The photography ended up being a bit of a disappointment, as the weather did not cooperate on top of the mountain… after one clear night, the cold rolled in along with a light rain, which meant a bland, grey fog blanketing the area.

I had hoped for heavy rain, followed by small weather breaks, which would have given perfect conditions to record the rare “peaks above a sea of clouds” scene, but instead Lady Fate gave me a another great reason to return here again and search for that elusive shot.

ZhangJiaJie - Tianzi Mountain 天子山-23

Getting the urge to explore, to let the curiosity get the best of us is a good thing.  Whether it is taking a small trip, or listening to a story from someone next door that contains wisdom that people would normally have to travel around the globe to collect.

Zhangjiajie - 点将台-165HDR

Some of the best memories I have, are of growing up and learning about things: wheat, cattle, sports and nature from people around my home town.  Yet, I also learned about China, the Middle East and the world from those very same people…as I was curious and they were eager to tell me a story and share with me the mystery.

As an American, it excites me to see such diversity around the world and in our communities.  Opportunities right next door just waiting to be tapped for the wealth of experience and wisdom to be shared.

It impresses me to no end how easy it can be to invite yourself into a new culture, a new life just by following your curiosity and allowing yourself to be swept away into mystery.

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Zhangjiajie -天子山-6

The Simple Things…

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The year was 1397AD, and Gao Rui-fu was walking through the streets of Xi’an, China.  Having just returned the day before from a long trek along the fabled Silk Road, he was in search of something in his hometown, yet unsure what this “something” was.

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He passed his favorite bookstore, pausing by the new titles, thinking perhaps it was opening the page of some long-lost novel he had read in the past that was leaving this emptiness in his soul…or perhaps a new book that would take him to unchartered lands.

But walking through the dusty shelves, he walked out empty…

What could it be?

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He walked pass the lively market where Sun Ling, his childhood sweetheart, worked thinking perhaps seeing his girl again would charge his spirit and bring him out of this funk.  But having seen her last night, he walked past knowing something still was just not quite right.

He ran along the mighty Xi’an Wall, in the hopes that perhaps it was the absence of seeing his city, his streets and the people who would fill this missing space.

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This city wall, a thousand years old with a new section just finished…his father the head foreman.  An impenetrable structure, 55 feet thick at the base, Rui-fu felt pride running his hands over the large stones that made up the wall.  Still after an hour of climbing and running, no reply to the ache he felt inside.

What was he missing?

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As he wandered along, thinking about his parents, siblings and friends he has visited since his return…the parks, streets and favorite hangouts, he still could not understand what was causing this strange void inside.

He had hoped settling into the ambiance & comfort of his favorite tea shop this morning would have resolved this question, sipping the fragrance of freshly picked tea leaves, yet all that did was make him go to the bathroom more often than he wished…

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With his mind distracted, he soon found himself outside of the city center, and nearing the slum area of town…and while most people would never dream of heading down to this area, Rui-fu savored such visits.

A nod of his head to old Mr. Li and his wife, who operated a tiny restaurant in this area, perfecting the art of the Chinese dumpling (饺子 pronounced ‘jiao-zi’) and as his smile broke, happiness ran through Rui-fu.

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Something so simple, but so perfect: comfort food.  The taste of home the body craves, especially after a long absence.  Outside this simple stall, Rui-fu smelled the simple flavors and tastes of the Chinese dumpling…  He was home.

There are many great dishes from around the world, on every street corner, and over 600 years ago, after a long trek, Rui-fu refueled his spirit with a simple meal of dumplings.

With me, it is the same.

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With my home being the USA, there are days in China when I miss a great number of things.  From bread I can buy from the local bakery to the meals I take for granted.  It is at these times in China, I go off to find the one comfort food I have: the Chinese dumpling.  饺子.

Almost without fail, my first meal is at this little shop around the corner called North-East Dumplings.  The restaurant consists of two small tables.  Every time I walk in, Mr. or Mrs. Qiu are at a small table filling & folding jiao-zi with their beautiful little daughter Xiao Qiu smiling and reaching for my i-Pad so she can play her games while I wait for my meal.

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One day, when I asked if I could photograph them making dumplings, they warmly agreed.  Xiao Qiu was excited to take me to the open market to buy ingredients for the next morning, a perfect way to start the day.

The ingredients of the dumplings we made varied greatly, from pork and chives to mushroom and vegetables.  The key to great dumplings is first to make them by hand, with the art of filling & folding:

Place a small amount of fill into the shell...

1.)  Place a small amount of fill into the shell…

2.  Artfully distribute the fill as you begin the process of pinching together the sides of the dumpling…

2.)  Artfully distribute the fill as you begin the process of pinching together the sides of the dumpling…

3.) Within that movement press and shape the jiao-zi...

3.) Within that movement press and shape the jiao-zi…

4.) Finally, use magic in the final press, to ensure closure and give shape & integrity to the wonderful 饺子…

4.) Finally, use magic in the final press, to ensure closure and give shape & integrity to the wonderful 饺子…

The art of producing a perfectly made dumpling is a gift not easily mastered…and with Xiao Qiu stating matter-of-factly: “Randy doesn’t really know how to make dumplings does he?!?”  Laughter filled the room, and I decided that it was perhaps best to focus on photography instead of dumplings.

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Perhaps the greatest reason I enjoy my dumplings, is that it is the closest things I have to comfort food in China.  Something simple, yet solid and brings a sense of peace as I sit down for a meal.

$1.75 for a plate of 15 dumplings (they usually give me a few more…), and a dish of vinegar and red peppers for additional flavor brings me back to the time in Xi’an when I first enjoyed Chinese dumplings more than 20 years ago.

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In 1991, sitting in the small dumpling shop in Xi’an, missing home tremendously but for the first time starting to feel comfortable in my new surroundings that began with the discovery of my new favorite food.

Seeing all this work that goes into producing the fill, preparation of the dough and then folding & handling all these dumplings…only to be gobbled up in seconds once prepared.

There are more to dumplings than just great flavor.

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As with anything in life, if you put your heart into something (work and play), it is impossible not to walk away without creating something special.  Homemade dumplings are made special because of the hands & hearts of those who make them so.

In many ways, cooking is similar to life.  As Julia Child once put it “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure.  In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

Pretty good advice for life as well…

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