The last couple of weeks we saw three movies and I'm glad I can recommend all of them:

- The Namesake: About a couple that immigrates from India to the US and the cross-cultural challenges between their American kids and Indian heritage.  The footage of modern India was particularly interesting.

- Once:  A simple and very compelling love story set in Dublin, Ireland.  Two talented, unknown musicians find each other, hit it off and record an album together.  She's from the Czech Republic and he's from Ireland.  The film is essentially a musical, with 60% filled with awesome music that the two "actors" (who have never actually been in a movie before but are good musicians) wrote themselves.  My sister, brother in law and I all got the soundtrack.

- I am Legend:  Excellent. This is a cross between "Castaway" with Tom Hanks and "Mad Max" with Mel Gibson (and a good zombie movie) set in New York city.  Will Smith did a fabulous job portraying the loneliness that would come from being away from all human contact.  His perseverance to find a cure for the nasty disease that wiped out most of mankind is inspiring.

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The American Spirit

Here's a great excerpt from an article in the Economist on why Americans need to cheer up this holiday season.  Ivy and I have always loved this magazine because of their very dry British humor.  Also, because it's a non-American magazine, they often have great insights that we wouldn't pick up on ourselves:

"The Spirit of Christmas.
Americans are in a funk. They should cheer up a bit

“DUMB and Dumber”, one of the modern classics of American comedy, tells the story of an affable idiot, Lloyd Christmas, who falls in love with a classy beauty, Mary Swanson. In one scene he asks her the chances of “a guy like you and a girl like me” ending up together. The answer is “Not good”. “Not good like one out of a hundred?” asks Lloyd. “More like one out of a million,” Mary replies. Lloyd pauses for a moment, then shoots back, “So you're telling me there's a chance?”

That is the American spirit. Americans have traditionally been much more optimistic than Europeans, and happier too. They believe that people determine their own destinies rather than being the mere playthings of fate. They also believe that their children will have a better life than they do."

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Portland, Oregon

I've always been interested in living in the Pacific Northwest.  I love the green trees, cool climate, mountains and artsy hipsters in Seattle and Portland.  After my sister Melissa moved up here about seven years ago, Ivy and I have been visiting her regularly and always having a great time.  After we found out this summer that we'll need to spend at least six months of each year outside Hungary to avoid being subject to worldwide income tax there, we decided Portland is where'd we'd like to be in the US.

For the past two weeks we've been staying with my sister, her husband Mark and their two kids Jacob and Will where they live on the outskirts of Portland.  I'll paste in a picture below I took of the four of them for their Christmas card.  If anyone knows of a more handsome family let me know!  Throughout our stay here (we'll be here through Christmas), Ivy and I have spent a lot of time looking around for condos.  Since Ivy works for a credit union, she's able to get two percentage points off our mortgage rate (it'll go up when she leaves the company--which hopefully won't be anytime soon) and this helps us make our dream of owning two small places in the US and Hungary a reality.

The great news for us is that we were able to get a very good deal on a two-bedroom condo just a five minute walk from my sister's home.  It's a new development called "Timberland" and we like all the green trees, walking trails and parks nearby.  Another big bonus is that there's both a nice supermarket and library in walking distance as well, along with a homey cafe and a drug store.  Downtown Portland is a very quick ten minute drive down the hill (we're in Northwest Portland) and a very cool walking street with restaurants and shops is right there to enjoy.  Our friends Kalen and Melissa F visited us last weekend with their little baby and we had a great time cruising the city with them for an afternoon.  One of the highlights was walking over to Powells City of Books--the biggest bookstore in the US (used and new).

Merry Christmas!

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Shark Book & Glacier Bay

Ivy and I love reading the same book right after each other.  It gives us lots to discuss and allows us to basically share the same experience.  I finished the very good "The Devils Teeth" a few days ago (about a month after Ivy read it) and I highly recommend it. 

The author is a very smart, adventurous and funny journalist who was fascinated with the largest concentration of great white sharks in the world.  She spent a number of weeks living out on the Farallon Islands (just about 30 miles west of San Francisco) along with several biologists, bird experts and shark researchers.  It was incredible hearing about the size of these creatures (the females get to be over 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet deep--almost like huge SUVs in the water).  They are highly efficient killers--no surprise--and have been around for 400 million years.  I think she described them as the heavyweight champions of evolution because apparently they've been in existence longer than trees...

Her descriptions of being out on the water with these huge and very scary creatures reminded me of the best trip Ivy and I have ever taken together: kayaking in Glacier Bay in Alaska.  We went up there as part of a REI Adventures group and had an incredible week kayaking each day amidst all kinds of exotic animals.  When we went up there we thought the best part would be the glaciers and amazing views of the mountains, but hands down the animals stole the show: seals, moose, humpback whales and several bears.  In fact, I'm going to paste in a great picture I took that shows how close the whales get to you.  If you like animals and wildlife, you will love Glacier Bay.

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Twice as Old

A few days ago we watched some old family videos with my parents.  In one that stood out, there I was at seventeen, a senior in high school, dressed up in a tux.  I was with about four other friends and we all had dates and were taking pictures at my friend Greg's house before leaving for the Winter Ball.

What stood out for me in that video was that I was seventeen then and now I'm exactly twice as old, almost to the month.  Ivy and I discussed how people do and don't change over time on a nice long walk the other day.  And it was interesting to think about how I have changed now that my life has been filled up with twice as many hours and experiences as I had before near the end! of high school.  We also talked about how it's great not having to speculate about "who am I going to marry" and "what am I going to do with my life" any more.  I believe getting older has allowed us to focus more on savoring the present.

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A couple nights ago I watched the debate among the contenders for the Republican nomination.  I followed the whole thing very closely and realized again that I do like public policy and politics a lot (international political "science" major in college).  I started thinking to myself that if life were a lot longer than it is--or if I had the chance to pursue several careers--I could see myself wanting to mix it up in the political world in some way.  There are a lot of distasteful elements to politics (just like in the business world or anywhere really) but I think it was Churchill who summed up things well when he said that: a democracy is the worst form of government-- except for all the others that have been tried...

By the way, my favorite candidates right now are Barack Obama and John McCain.  In the Republican debate I saw I found Romney and Giuliani to be inauthentic and it seemed like they were struggling to be all things to all conservatives.  McCain, on the other hand, was straightforward, principled and full of character.  I like Barack because I'm impressed by the way he approaches issues thoughtfully, is very charismatic in a professorial kind of way and he's young and energetic.

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Excerpts from Interview

I found the following excerpts of an interview with Kurt Vonnegut (who recently died) to be very interesting:

Tell me the reasons you’ve been attracted to a life of creation, whether as a writer or an artist.
I’ve been drawing all my life, just as a hobby, without really having shows or anything. It’s just an agreeable thing to do, and I recommend it to everybody. I always say to people, practice an art, no matter how well or badly [you do it], because then you have the experience of becoming, and it makes your soul grow. That includes singing, dancing, writing, drawing, playing a musical instrument. One thing I hate about school committees today is that they cut arts programs out of the curriculum because they say the arts aren’t a way to make a living. Well, there are lots of things worth doing that are no way to make a living. They are agreeable ways to make a more agreeable life.

We live in a very visual world today. Do words have any power left?

I was at a symposium some years back with my friends Joseph Heller and William Styron, both dead now, and we were talking about the death of the novel and the death of poetry, and Styron pointed out that the novel has always been an elitist art form. It’s an art form for very few people, because only a few can read very well. I’ve said that to open a novel is to arrive in a music hall and be handed a viola. You have to perform. [Laughs.] To stare at horizontal lines of phonetic symbols and Arabic numbers and to be able to put a show on in your head, it requires the reader to perform. If you can do it, you can go whaling in the South Pacific with Herman Melville, or you can watch Madame Bovary make a mess of her life in Paris. With pictures and movies, all you have to do is sit there and look at them and it happens to you.

You’ve stated that television is one of the most viable art forms in the world today.
Well, it is. It works like a dream. It’s a way to hold attention, and it’s awfully good at that. For a lot of people, TV is life itself. Churches used to provide people with better company than they had at home, but now, no matter what your neighborhood life or family life is like, you turn on the television and you get relatives, family. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but scientists have created baby geese that believe that an airplane is their mother. Human beings will believe in all kinds of things that aren’t true, and that’s okay. And TV is a part of that.

Is there another book in you, by chance?
No. Look, I’m 84 years old. Writers of fiction have usually done their best work by the time they’re 45. Chess masters are through when they’re 35, and so are baseball players. There are plenty of other people writing. Let them do it.

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A movie that was filmed over 35 years

Ivy and I saw the very good British documentary "42 Up" yesterday.  It followed the lives of about 10 different people starting from age 7 through 42.  Every seven years they interviewed each person (and any spouses or kids they picked up along the way) and it was remarkable seeing the changes that took place each time. 

It was also very interesting trying to predict how people would turn out based upon seeing them at age 7 and 14 especially.  About half the kids were relatively poor or lower middle class and half were privileged.  Having a stable home growing up and getting a good education were all pretty crucial for how people turned out but not entirely decisive factors.

A sobering thought for me was that I'm entering the age 35 milestone in just two months!...  The people in the video for the most part were looking rather middle-aged at 35....

Also, we streamed this video off the "watch now" feature of netflix and it worked very well for us--better in fact than running a dvd on our laptop (there were less "motion artifacts"/smearing going on).

I recommend this movie.

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Guitar Hero

My younger brother introduced me to guitar hero last week--very fun.  He has it with his xbox 360 and just about everyone in our family likes simulating the "monsters of rock" experience and seeing the crowd get pumped up while your "guitar character" jams on-screen.

An unrelated thought:  today when Ivy and I made lunch I tried out my old college food staple that some of my Asian roommates had mocked me unceasingly for:  cheese rice.  It's been 10 years since I last had it (rice with cheese on top--shredded mozzarella and provolone in this case, always microwaved to perfection) and the fond memories came back to me.  I'm doing my part to help East meet West.

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Rubicon (and Sharks)

The day before Thanksgiving I finished "Rubicon" by Tom Holland.  It's a very interesting and surprisingly funny historical summary of the fall of the Roman Republic.  The most satisfying aspect of this book for me, however, was finally understanding who all the key players are in this crucial time in Western history: Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Pompey, Cato, Cicero, Cleopatra and Octavion/Augustus.  I also feel like my understanding of the world and its history is dramatically different--and better--than when I graduated from college back in 1995.  I suppose that's a personal victory of sorts for "continuing education."

I also think that the opportunities that Ivy and I have seized for travel have made books like this much more interesting.  Having visited Rome last May for Ivy's birthday and seeing the key sites helped me visualize the Forum, Palatine Hill, etc as they were described in the book.  (For example, Cicero had a villa up on the Palatine Hill).  Also, when Caesar was having an affair with Cleopatra and took a river cruise down the Nile with her, it was awesome to be able to visualize this somewhat because Ivy and I did the same thing in early 2005 (not the affairs but the Nile river cruise together...)

I'm also ready to see some good movies on the Romans now (e.g. Brando as Caesar--should be interesting) and I want to read more and find out how the entire Roman Empire gets wiped out.

The next book I've had lined up is about the huge great white sharks near San Francisco's Farallon Islands.  Ivy finished this about a month ago and I'm already loving hearing about these 20-foot behemoths that eat up elephant seals with just a couple monster bites.

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Chuck Norris & the Indians

For the last couple of nights Ivy and I stayed in a hotel near her company's office so she could spend some time in person with her boss.  There's a free breakfast and so each morning it's fairly crowded as most everyone in the hotel comes down to have some food.

Since we were staying in the heart of Silicon Valley, there are people from all over the world in the hotel, but mainly Indians (from India) and a few Chinese.  So yesterday I sat down at a table with my breakfast in the dining area (Ivy had already eaten) and discovered:  that there were about 25 Indians there, that I was the only white guy--and probably only American there--and that an episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger" was playing loudly on the big TV in front of everyone.

Most everyone was watching the tv, and it was right at the end of the show with a massive violent fight scene that seemed to go on forever--legions of bad guys were wiped out; everyone was punched, kicked or shot, all accompanied by dramatic sound effects.  And all the characters--good guys and bad--were wearing cowboy hats too.

When I glanced around I saw that a lot of the Indians seemed scandalized by the show--a lot of them just watched it with wide eyes and hardly looked at their food as they ate... And what was kind of funny was that I felt like I stood out, as the only representative in the room of this crazy, macho, violence-prone culture, and I started kind of chuckling to myself (which probably made them think I was getting lots of satisfaction from the show and it made me happy to see everyone beat up).

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Weekend in Santa Cruz with Beowulf

We spent this past weekend with my little sister Laurel at her place in Santa Cruz.  In the morning one of Laurel's roommates asked, "hey where's Joanna? (another roommate)"  And someone yelled from down the hall, "probably out surfing!"  This seemed completely normal to them but I think it's pretty cool and unique that some of Laurel's roommates surf.  Although Laurel doesn't surf, she finished her first half-marathon a week ago.  Impressive.

On Saturday, Ivy and I parked our rental car in Santa Cruz near some cliffs overlooking the beach and we walked over to Capitola (a tiny town with lots of character right next to Santa Cruz).  Capitola brought back some good memories because Ivy took me here for a weekend to celebrate right after I had taken the bar exam a number of years ago.

We had Thai food in Capitola and I tried something new I'd highly recommend:  a mint noodle dish.  It was excellent and Ivy also had a superb squash-based curry.  (Note: one way you can tell you're in an authentic Thai place in my opinion is if the TV is playing on the side of the restaurant and you see some kind of asian soap opera featured.  When Ivy and I visited Thailand most of the restaurants we saw in Bangkok had some kind of TV show playing.  Annoying to westerners, but always great food.  These weren't expensive places of course.)

Saturday evening we saw the amazing new film Beowulf in downtown Santa Cruz.  The images were computer-generated but at the same time the roles were somehow acted out by real actors (e.g. Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie).  It was the most high-tech and visually impressive film I think I've ever seen.  The audience we saw it with made the experience a lot of fun because people would cheer or chuckle at every over-the-top macho thing Beowulf did.  It was also a rather sexually-charged film so I'm not sure if its PG13 rating was the right call.  But I think this movie will generate lots of interest in the classic work itself--which it has for me.  I recommend the movie for adults for sure.

On Sunday we hiked through some trails in Santa Cruz with lots of beautiful redwood trees.  These trees are enormous and create an incredibly peaceful, sylvan setting (exactly like the moon of Endor--that's where the the Ewoks all lived, right?)

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