Monday, December 23, 2013

The Best Books I've Read in 2013

I have been voraciously reading a lot of books this year; some were highly recommended, and some were barely good enough to keep me awake. I know there are many people who will come out with strong resolution to read more books next year. So, to ensure that those determination do not fizzle out in the first weeks of January, here are some excellent books which I promise will keep you entertained. 

 Sycamore Row John Grisham
Fiction: John Grisham at his another best. Somewhat a sequel to his best-selling book, "A Time to Kill", this one is as gripping and entertaining

 Stumbling on happiness
Non-Fiction: Learn how our brain processes past, present and future events, and why what we think will give us happiness usually fail us

Non-Fiction: Since I read John Wood's first book "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World", I was hooked by his passion and determination to make Room to Read, a global and life-changing non-profit organization. Inspiring. 

Christianity: Why many of our problems stem from our failure to keep Forever / eternal perspective at our sight. We don't have a financial problem, or relationship problem, we have a Forever problem 

Christianity: I heard many sermons elaborating on this passage before, but I never read a piece so moving, so warm, and so tender . This is Nouwen's reflection of Rembrandt's painting: The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela - The Gift of Prison

Most of us aspire to be big. We desire to leave a lasting legacy or to have our name recorded in the book of history. As we observed the life of the late Nelson Mandela and the tribute that the world gave him, we aspire to be like him.

What frequently being overlooked is, the pathway to success is not the one with the least resistance. We forgot that what augment Mandela's tribute was not his presidency nor his freedom from prison, but his 27 years of imprisonment. It was in that lonely isolated cell that he meditated and shaped his vision. It was out of adversity that his greatness was born. Suffering begets greatness. In every success, there's a price to pay, and in Mandela's case, it was not a cheap one.

Most people start strong in a marathon, but only a few finish it well. Hebrew 13 urges us to consider the outcome of the faith of those who brought us to faith. Look at a person's final outcome and then, imitate it. My fear is not many people will manage to get through the finish line, as the trials of adversity often prove to be too overwhelming to bear. Pure gold is obtained after it has been forged out of all its impurities by the blazing heat of fire. Like everybody else, we want to escape that. But unlike everybody else, Mandela went through that fiery trials, gracefully.

Do you aspire to be big? Start with yourself, and most probably that will entail trials, sleepless night, radical sacrifice, and some "imprisonment" in whatever kind of forms - maybe it's your freedom to relocate to a bigger city, maybe it's your desire for a comfortable lifestyle, maybe it's your rights for a one-week vacation. Whatever that is, greatness does not come out of a magic wand, but out of the gift of adversity.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Appalachian Mission Trip with World Vision

Philippi, WV.

That's where we went for our 4 days and 3 nights mission trip. Philippi is located in the Appalachian region and with a sparse population of 3,000 residents, we joined World Vision to help this struggling small town.

Admittedly, each of us had different expectation about the town and the community that we would be serving, and what we saw there seems to defy all of our expectations. I guess we were still struggling to reconcile the definition of poor in the US compared to what we have brought up seeing in Indonesia. The family that we were serving seems to possess things that low-income Indonesians would be considered luxury: flat TV, fully stocked refrigerator, electricity, plumbing, and comfy bed.

However, this initial shock did not last long. We had a debrief the first night and took the chance to unite and align our perspective again to the Bible. God is teaching us that He does not discriminate any of the disciples when He washed their feet, including Judas. Thus, regardless of their poverty level, we were called to serve, and serve we will.

Our main goal is to finish painting one living room. First, we started the day getting to know Rosetta and her family (this is the family that we served), and quickly started to work. Before the wall can be painted, we needed to sand and chalk the wall. So majority of our time was spent doing these, while some of us (Eva, Upik, and Maria) were assigned to repaint another room.

During the course of three days, we slowly got to know Rosetta and her family. She shared how she was raised in a church, but hardships and disasters that came later in life pushed her away from believing in God. She could not understand why a loving God would put her in an alcoholic family and allow suffering to happen in her life: bankruptcy, medical bills, and many other calamities.

Despite the disappointment, she also shared how she was touched by the kindness of World Vision and all the volunteers who had come to help her renovating her house. Teared up, she confided that she was not ready to accept Christ yet, but all these gospel-adorning activities by Christians around her definitely softening her heart.

One personal memory with Rosetta was when she invited all of us to watch her son's football match. We were more than thrilled to take part in this family event and quickly agreed to attend. We arrived at the field, her brother insisted on paying all of our tickets (such an act of generosity) and we all sat down together cheering the home team. That game was a special moment because at that point, I believe we were bonded deeper when all of us cheering and shouting together for her son. No label, no presumption, no I-am-the-volunteer, and no I-am-the-poor, just people having fun together over a game.

The last day of service, we started out with a morning devotion from John 13 about Jesus washing the disciples' feet. We meditated on Jesus' servanthood: that He loves in spite of who the disciples are (no discrimination, including Judas), in spite of what He is facing (single focus to serve although He would be crucified the next day), and in spite of who He is (King).

Then, we painted the outside of the house and by the end of the day, we finished painting two sides of it. Quite an accomplishment. For our last dinner, Rosetta and her family came to our campground. It was truly a delight to have her over, and we discovered that she was a very friendly and sociable person. We thanked God that during the course of three days, the ice had melted, the racial and demographic gap had been bridged, and a memorable friendship was built between Rosetta and us.

As I looked back over the experience, I, and I'm sure I'm speaking for the whole team, was truly blessed by this trip. First, it is true what the Bible said that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) and we experienced that first-hand. Not just the acts of service, but the satisfaction from being a blessing and to do this in the context of friendship and fellowship. Second, it humbled me: that my life is undeservedly blessed, that I complained more than I need, and I give thanks less than I should (we also had a no-complaint rule during the trip :) ). Third, God's unconditional love is far more radical than I imagined. Love views the world in opaque: no cultural, racial, socio-economic black and white and ultimately, demanding no response.

All in all, thanks to World Vision, Kris (the coordinator), and Rosetta and her family for the experience. Hopefully we can come back next year, with a different team!!

The Team, Rosetta (in pink), her husband and children, and Kris (in orange) from World Vision

Sunday, October 20, 2013

3 Years After

Mom, I think you know it. As time goes by, I kinda accept the fact that you are no longer with us. It sounds mean maybe, and I'm afraid that I'm getting used to do this, but doesn't that how grief works? I still think of you, in fact, every time I look at my friends and their mom, I can't stop your face from popping into my head :) and can't help feeling a sliver of hurt on my heart. You are no longer here, and whatever interactions that they have together, are something that I have to bitterly swallow. It's just a wishful thinking, after all.

But, I think I am coping with this better. Is that wrong? I always thought that I will be forever haunted by this loss, and indeed, to some degree, I still am. But, I think humans have the ability to cope with even the worst tragedy. And I think that's what I'm experiencing here.

It just gets better....

Wish that you could still be there with koko and Helen and your grand daughter, Kinerette Anka. Still think you've gone too soon mom. I haven't looked at her as well, but I know you'd love her. Now, in some nights, I wish I would receive a phone call from you, although I know what you're gonna ask anyway :) I think I'm afraid I'd forget how your voice sounds like.

I just looked at our pictures together, and somehow I never really pay attention to this one particular picture. I love it. Really want to take picture together with you again, later in heaven? How's life up there anyway? Life has been super good for me, but ah, you know I know that you know all anyway. So...

Happy anniversary again mom. Been 3 years. I am still surprised how time flies.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Little Exciting Things about Atlanta

I visited Atlanta a week ago with two other friends, and during our short visit, I discovered some memorable things about Atlanta, and they are not about the old boring Coca-cola museum, or Aquarium. These were the places that not so much touristy but we decided to visit it anyway, and they easily became my highlight of my trip.

1. Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Shop
Hidden gem, so hidden that we had to figure out how to get into this coffee shop. It is located inside an apartment complex, and you have to buzz the coffee shop and let them open the gate. A twenty minutes drive from downtown, and you'll enter a coffee shop with one of the most beautiful view. You can either enjoy the nice interior decor or go out and sit by the river, sip your cup o Joe and lost in the beauty.

2. North Point Community Church (30 min from Atlanta)
I have been listening to Andy Stanley on and off, and I would not miss the opportunity to visit his church personally. I know this is not everybody's cup of tea, but if you like a good and sound biblical teaching, visit this church and your soul will get nourished. One piece of advice: try to come to the morning service since you will be seeing Andy in his flesh, not his video (as in the evening service that we came to)

3. Park 75 Lounge and Terrace
Part of me always and will forever always enjoy the ambiance of a serene lounge - with live music, good drinks, and great friends. Unfortunately, Columbus has little to offer in this area so I have to hunt for a great lounge every time I travel. This one was a wild card; pulled up my Yelp app, looked for a hotel around downtown and found this spot. 95% satisfaction, with the 5% being an absence of live music. But nevertheless, great drinks, sumptuous desserts, and great conversation. What a nice way to end a long day

4. Global Soap
Global Soap is an Atlanta-based non profit organization whose work is to provide millions of people with soap. They recycle partially used soap from hotels into new bars and distribute it to people who need it around the world. Why soap? More and more research have revealed that a simple hand-washing practice could reduce disease-related diseases and school absenteeism significantly. I think we in the developed world tend to underestimate this simple and ordinary practice. Currently, they have distributed their recycled soap to 31 countries - a pretty remarkable achievement for a four years old organization.

It is truly an honor to have this experience. Derreck Kayongo, the founder and also one of 2011's CNN Heroes, was kind enough to refer me to his Executive Director, Sam Stephens, who then agreed to meet and talk with us about Global Soap. I am always thrilled to absorb lessons from experienced people who have gotten their hands dirty in the business of changing the world. Sam is truly an inspirational and visionary person and we really enjoyed our one-hour meeting and tour around the facility.

with Sam Stephens, Executive Director of Global Soap

Friday, September 6, 2013

Breaking Bad - How It Will End?

How a docile and harmless chemistry teacher turns into a ruthless drug dealer is what Breaking Bad all about. After being diagnosed with a cancer, Walter decided to cook crystal meth in order to provide for his family. Progressively, he descended into the abyss of moral destruction. The irony? This was after the factor that led him to "break bad" had disappeared: his cancer.

How this TV series would end is the one million dollar question. Whatever Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, has in mind, there are two moral complexities that need some resolution.

First, every action has its consequences. The idea of justice is ingrained in us and we are taught since child that consequences will follow. No crime goes unpunished. Revenge, is the default response whenever feelings or rights are violated. Thus, Walter has to face the ultimate judgment from all people whose lives and freedom he had raped for the pursuit of his drug empire. To let him off the hook seems to be offensively simple - a fairy tale.

On the other hand, some of us secretly wish that fairy tale does come true. We all know how dire circumstances awaken the Dr Jekyll in us, and the impossibility of extricating ourselves from the spiraling journey down. Part of us wish that forgiveness is not too much too ask; a jewel that the world can still readily dispense.

The reason Breaking Bad captures the heart of many viewers is because, to some degree, the story of Walter White is a story of us. It reveals a frightening nature of human. Given the right ingredients - power, absence of moral authority, wealth, duress - people "break bad".

I believe Breaking Bad is not a story about personal change, but about situational change. The more Walter's drug empire grows and the more obstacles he overcomes, the more convinced he is of his invincibility. His crime begets another crime, but the better he is at damage control, the more God-like he feels. Steadily, as the circumstances increase, he decreases. Under this escalating situational change, Dr Jekyll has totally overtaken Mr Hyde. It is this self-inflated Dr Jekyll who looks straight to his wife and says, "I'm not in the drug business, I'm in the empire business".

Breaking Bad runs on a frightening moral principal: every one of us can turn into season-6 Walter White. It shows, in a modern twist, what Philip Zimbardo had concluded in his famous Stanford Prison experiment: Dr Jekyll is not a hell of our own making, but a hell exist all along inside us.

At this point, no one knows how Breaking Bad is going to end, and I trust Gilligan will bring this challenging dilemma to a satisfying conclusion. Whether it would end with the idea of justice and love being mixed into a beautiful concoction still remain to be known. If yes, then Breaking Bad would be the closest tale of grace in today's modern culture - the return of the prodigal son, Walter White.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Lessons from Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain


susan cain quiet introvert
That was the pervasive feeling I had after reading Susan Cain's book, Quiet. Being an introvert for almost 26 years is like living under constant prejudice that we are the 2nd class personality. Who care about that kid sitting quietly at the corner? Why is he not contributing to the discussion? "He's sooo quiet," people whisper.

Like the sun by which everything become clear, this book explains why I behave the way I behaved. The crux of the issue is not about which personality is superior, but how one personality can support the other, and vice versa. This writing is even not an argument, but a plea (I'll let the extroverts argue) for more understanding to the inside world of an introvert.

1. We are not anti-social.
Might be shocking to you, but we enjoy being in a social event and socializing. However, I wish you would redefine the idea of social events that have been shaped heavily by the culture, and enter into the introverts' idea of social event instead.

Imagine a small table of four, either at a coffee shop or a wine bar, with Michael Buble playing on the background, and four friends chatting heartily about life. Forget beer pong. Forget limbo and please don't even mention a disco night, all those are beyond our threshold of tolerance. So, it's not that we are anti-social, but we are differently social. Apparently, a table of four works better for us.

2. We are not anti-fun
I apologize if I did not jump from my seat and dance to the beat of Pitbull singing. I remember I was at a Bruno Mars' concert, and there was me sitting down quietly trying to enjoy his voice in the middle of girls jumping, hollering and cam-videoing. Pardon me for being the "lousiest fan", but I did enjoy the concert and did have fun. I just prefer less stimulation, and thus produce less expression of enthusiasm. Take off the lighting, and everything that make a concert spectacular, and I will not be deprived of fun. I just enjoy it differently.

3. We do engage in brainstorming and group discussion session.
These two types of environment are the perfect incubator for extroverts: spotlight, quick decision, thinking out loud, and actions oriented. Unfortunately for introverts who prefer solitude, contemplation, and thought processing, these brainstorming and discussion session will only produce half-baked ideas that we feel very uncomfortable to present.

Believe me, we do engage in the discussion, but for the time you spend talking and brainstorming, we are thinking and contemplating - mostly about what you said two minutes ago. And because there is rarely a moment of silence to which we can finish our thought, we just can't keep up. It's not rare that I come out from these sessions feeling wrecked by all the brains storming my resources and leave me in vertigo.

4. We do feel excited about your idea
Don't interpret our lack of excitement, or our hesitant to high-five as a non cooperative gesture to your initiative. It's just very natural for us to go into contemplative mode and wander into the realm of "what if this does not work". Instead of risk taking, too often we are heed taking. And it's hard to be gregarious when our path to gregarious require a five minutes risk assessment of the idea. Trust me, once we settle with it, we develop what Cain said Quiet Persistence or Soft Power - a silent tenacity in achieving a goal.

"Foothill College communication studies professor Preston Ni calls this style soft power, and contends that even someone who's not outwardly charismatic can lead if she is committed to her cause. The introverted Mother Teresa wielded soft power, and so did Gandhi, who had been a shy man. "In the long run," says Ni, "if your idea is good and you lead with your heart, it's almost a universal law: You'll attract people who want to share your cause. Soft power is quiet persistence.""

5. Believe me, I'm an introvert
And many other of your friends who can be gregarious, loud, and seems pretty comfortable in a large social setting. This is because many introverts are pseudo-extrovert, or as what Cain put it, a high self monitoring introvert - people who can modify their behavior to social demands. Although we do enjoy (point #1 and point #2) the social interactions, they are taking a toll on us and our energy meter is depleting rapidly.

To this, Cain suggested a method called "restorative niche" - a physical or mental place to recharge your energy and be true to yourself. Allow this 5- 10 minutes break between high stimulating activities and go for a walk before meeting, or hide in a bathroom, or put on your noise-cancelling earphone, etc.

Overall, there is no finger pointing here, I don't blame the company culture or the education system for favoring the Extroverts ideal. What I am hoping is for introverts not to shy away from their strength, and for extroverts to understand the contribution that for long have been closeted by the introverts. I'm sure the synergy of a team depends on all parts working together in their areas of strength and after so much training and focus on 7 Habits or Strength Finder, maybe it's time to shift our focus and go back to people's most basic trait, introverts and extroverts personality.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Vancouver, I Will Be Back

Call me selfish, but some of my best vacations were the one I had with myself. Five minutes, instead of 2 hours wait, for that delicious Ippudo ramen. Roaming freely and pressureless-ly, visiting each and every exhibition at the Library of Congress. And straddling along Las Vegas Boulevard observing the newly wed and the just-bankrupt.

Last month, it was Vancouver's turn. Having heard repeatedly that this is 'one of the most beautiful cities', I was excited to venture what this city has to offer: food, culture, and scenery.

Without a doubt, my first stop had to be Stanley Park. That had dominated my Google search history for days, and I had been eyeing it with pure lust and determination. So, after stuffing my stomach with delicious fresh salmon sashimi, I made my first stop at Stanley Park. With the evening sun glaring softly, ocean breeze blowing gently, together with mountains and oceans witnessing my act of freedom, I put on my running shoes and ran.

Vancouver from Stanley Park
View of Vancouver from Stanley Park 
View from Brandywine Falls
It's not a rumor. Vancouver is indeed one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever visited. Not New York because of its reckless and constantly-honking yellow taxis. Not Chicago because it lacks the mountain view. Not Boston because of it mediocre Japanese food. Not San Francisco because of the absence of a park in the middle of its downtown. Vancouver competes in a completely different league - beat them hands down.

Granville Island
View from Granville Island 
Statue of Ilanaaq
A Statue of Ilanaaq, the official logo mascot of Winter Olympic 2010
Vancouver view from Cypress Bowl
Skyline from Cypress Bowl 
Whistler was a different beast on its own. There was something mysterious and grandeur on the view before me that I was forced to slow down and observe. It felt like my existence was being challenged by the mountain and was being put in a ring together on a battle of ego. How could I be the center of the world? How could everything revolve around me? I need to take a class on perspective, because definitely my self-centered and narrow view of self cannot contain the vast yet intricate detail of this one snapshot of creation.

Whistler Mountain

Winter olympic 2010 - whistler

Call me selfish, but also call me a mere human. Nature is created to be enjoyed, and some people find its utmost pleasure in solitude. Reflection, I'd argue, is an art slowly missing in this fast paced, LTE data plan culture. So what does it take for a person to get recharged and be energized again? I don't know what works for you, but for me, travelling to Vancouver works just fine.