Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Very Special Christmas

After a spectacular annual ski trip at Taos Ski Valley, NM, we were on our way home in high spirit on Christmas Eve. We took US highway 287 south and expecting to reach home in the afternoon. A winter storm that had been affecting NM/OK/TX made the road condition treacherous, and eventually a major accident on US 287 at Wichita Falls in early afternoon - a flipped 18-wheeler, shutdown 287 south, and we were stuck, about 30 miles north of Wichita Falls.

After 4 hour hoping and waiting for traffic to resume, the sun started to set, we finally decided to get off the highway. We took FM 3984 to try to get around the accident, and the road condition there was even worse than it was on the 287. The road was covered by 6 - 12 inch deep snow, with only two or three deep tracks visible for a two way traffic. Driving on this road was really bumpy due to low clearance of our mini van. After about 30 minutes, we drove only 3 miles or so. This section of road had only two tracks, and I saw the headlight of a car up on a small hill moving toward us on the same two tracks!! I slowed and stopped our van, the other car slowed but would not stop. I held my breath and swayed our van to the deep snow covered road side to avoid a head-on crash. The other car finally stopped 10 yards away behind us. An old man came out, and said " I thought that the crash was inevitable because I could not stop my car. You surely avoided an accident!!". Justin, his friend Steve and Steve's dad, who rode with us, under my wife, Lily's leadership, cleared snow around the wheels and pushed the car onto the road. The old man was apparently relived and he told us that we should turn around and go west to find a place for the night because the road ahead was jammed due to a 40 car pile-up. He then drove on and quickly disappeared in the darkness. We turned around, and drove toward the nearest town, Electra. Lily was trying to find a hotel but all hotels nearby were full.

Worry finally gripped my heart. I have got two families and four kids in the car. What were we going to do tonight? Stay in the car in this snowy night?Driving along the main street of Electra, I spotted the Electra police station. Hoping for parking at the police station and using its restroom, we drove there and a policemen directed us to a nearby Church - Bible Baptist Church.

As we entered the front door, warmth and laughter wrapped around us. Church volunteers, Kathy and her mom Melendez, warmly welcomed us. They led us to the kitchen area, where other stranded families were gathered. They showed us where bathrooms were and gave us warm food and water. In the sanctuary of the church, Lily broke into tears on my shoulder still shaken by the earlier incident. Melendez came over and hugged her- "You are all right, we will take care of you". While we were helping ourselves with food and water, Melendez, Kathy and other volunteers were busy cooking more food, as more stranded travelers were coming in. A few more church goers brought snack and desserts from their home in the bone-chill cold night. Later, Kathy put on Christmas lights in the dinning area just to make us feel the atmosphere and cheer of Christmas eve. A traveller asked her if she planned a Christmas Eve like this. She said " Not really, but I enjoyed every moment of it". Their high spirit, generosity, their genuine kindness to people in need moved and warmed my heart deeply. I wanted to remember these people who helped us, I went out to take my camera to take a picture of the volunteers working in the kitchen.

About 50 stranded travelers slept in the pew of the church. When I woke up in the Christmas morning, I noticed that Melendez was sitting in a chair in platform at the front. She had been up all night looking after us! After breakfast prepared again by Kathy and Melendez, I went outside the building to take in fresh air. It was a beautiful day, the sky was blue, the Sun was shining, but the roads were covered with snow-turned ice. I wanted to remember this place. I went around the block to take a better look of this tiny town we passed so many times before without paying attention to it. The church itself is small, a water tower to its south, and highway 287 a mile or so to its north and modest one story homes surround the church.

When I got back to the church, Kathy and Melendez were resting on a bench after clearing ice at the entrance. I asked them if they are mother and daughter based on what I heard from conversations, just to confirm. I then asked their names even though they introduced themselves when we came in the first time because I wanted to remember them by names, not just nameless volunteers.

When it was time for Kathy and Melendez to go home for a rest, Melendez walked around to tell the few remaining families including us that we should come back if the road condition is still bad, and somebody is always here to help us. She hugged us goodbye. We expressed our gratefulness even though we knew that words were not enough to express our gratitude.

Finally US 287 was open around noon, we left for home in a sunny, white Christmas day. The road was still jammed with cars and trucks, the traffic was crawling slow, and it took us eight hours for a typically 3 hour drive. I drove eight hour straight in mostly very stressful condition. When we got home at 8pm, despite being dehydrated and exhausted, I was in a very good mood.

What a Christmas it was. In this Christmas, what we got were not just food and shelter from total strangers, we got an uplift in spirituality, we got a cleansing of our souls. We were touched by Angeles.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

See Who My Neighbors Are

If you have ever come to our neighbourhood, you will notice tree lined streets, manicured lawns, beautifully landscaped front yards, red-bricked houses. However I am not talking about my neighbors inside the houses in this post, instead I am talking about my neighbors outside the houses - my wildlife neighbours!

My closest neighbor is this swallow and its family, who live in this tree at my front yard. Each morning and evening, they chirp and chase each other around the trees. On a sunny day, one of them might just rest atop of the tree watching people and cars come and go for a while. Another neighbor at the front yard is a rabbit family, they live in the bushes by the tree. They are a annoying neighbor, because they chew on my lawn, and brown my grasses. Cute squirrels, are another neighbor who visit my yard occasionally, but I don't know exactly where they live.

A host of other type of birds are my neighbors as well, they live in the bird nests in the big or small trees up and down the streets around my house. Tiny sparrows are most populous, they are everywhere, and their non-stop chirp is the base of bird songs I hear. Then there are crows. Orange-breasted finches, are my neighbors, much bigger than sparrows, they usually perch on tree tops or roof tops, chirp loudly, not sure they are calling each other or claiming territory.

Cardinals live nearby. They are mostly solitude and not typically being seen, so every time we see a cardinal or two, we are excited. We see a cardinal in the tree in front of Nicholas' bedroom window from time to time. In the morning of December 5, Nicholas and I went on for a bird exploration. We saw a few swallows and sparrows swooping around, then we followed a pair of cardinals, who were chasing each other in the trees along the street in front our house, for a couple of hundred yards, until they turned around flying in opposite direction.

Blue jays live a bit farther away, near the woods at Russel Creek. Unlike cardinal, they typically fly in flocks, and they are loud when they make noises. A stray blue jay might come to the residential area from time to time.The trees by the parking lot at the Russel Creek Playground are one of the blue jays' favorite places. The photo on the right show the full features of a blue jay (double click on the picture to see details). After a few explorations, I can tell the difference in chirping between blue jay, cardinal, sparrow and crow.

One neighbor, we almost always hear it first before see it - the wood peckers. On the December 5 exploration, we heard a wood pecker pecking on a tree near the Russel Creek playground. After walking slowly around the tree, I finally saw the bird, but did not get a chance to take a good picture of it. Fortunately, I saw this type of black stripped wood pecker on an earlier trip at the edge of the woods by Russell Creek. It has black stripped back, white breast and a red head. At that time the wood pecker was looking for food and I was lucky to see it from different angles. As a matter of fact I did not know it was a wood pecker until Justin told me so after seeing the pcitures.

The water fowl community, of course, live by the Russell Creek pond. The regulars in or by the water are the snow white grand egret, the elegant grey heron, the ducks and a turkey like bird. The grand egret usually likes to stand by the water edge, looking for fishes. On two occasions this fall, it was sitting at the top of a tree. I was moved by the fact that, over 30 minutes I was around, a lot of people enjoyed the sight of the egret on top of the tree, but no one, not even young boys, bothered the peaceful bird.

The woods by the Russell Creek is the primary bird community, there are a lot more cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, swallows, crows living there. In the early morning or evening, they come out flying, playing, chasing each other, chirping, and of course eating insects/bugs - when I stop by the edge of the woods, looking and listening quietly for a few minutes, I can feel the magic of the world of birds - freedom, worry free, and incredibly beautiful sound. There, I can occassionally discover new bird neighbors I have not seen before. One morning this fall, I thought I saw a duckling - it turned out to be another kind of finches - yellow breast finch! Last Sunday afternoon, while walking around Russel Creek pond, a flock of sea gulls was there, gliding, landing on the water, taking off ... for about 30 minutes and then disappeared. In the next lap, I saw a pair of really, really black birds at the west end of the pond, which turned out to be ravens. The story of discovery can go on and on.

A few morning explorations around the community and Russel Creek lead to my discovery of a few bird neighbors I did not notice before. I can tell that there are more than 20 different birds and water fowls. I have to rely on Nicholas or Justin to identify who they are. I believe there are more types of birds than I observed - one day an old lady walking her dog saw me taking pictures of birds, she told me that she fed a hawk in her backyard a few days earlier. Around Spring Ridge, I see more kinds of birds than I saw at Big Bend National Park - I guess it is because that their habitats are limited. It is the development of the very community we live in encroached on their habitats. However, the very vibrant, lively and abundant bird community is a proof that the human community has been a good neighbor to the birds.

Yellow breast finch - don't you think it is duckling?

A Grey Heron

Ducks and Turkey Vulture

A duck couple

Pelicans at white rock lake

A rabbit in the fallen leaves

Geese at white rock lake enjoying the winter SUN

A squirrel on a fence

A different type of ducks

A flock of sea gulls

Raven - How black can it be?

Grand Egret at Sunset
Note: You can see the full pictures by double click on each photo

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bright Colors around Us

The autumn of 2009 brought us another season of beautiful colors, which has been as good, if not better, as last year. This year, Andrew, Benjamin and Nicholas from our soccer team Cheetahs joined me to record the foliage around us.

Here are what we saw in our neighbourhood this fall. The brilliant colors were everywhere - most striking of them were yellow, red, orange, blue (sky) and white(cloud). It was from big trees or from fallen leaves. It was around houses or at a pond.

A clear sunny day would give us the best contrast, brightest color, and the lively Ecosystem we have around us. Nicholas and I went out twice in November to take foliage pictures, once on November 1 and then two weeks later. We clearly observed the progression of the season. The second time around, many bright leaves we saw before were gone, and a lot more leaves were on the ground. In addition to take pictures of trees and landscapes, Nicholas was also interested in taking pictures of individual leave on the ground or on a tree. You can see more of his pictures in this online photo album

Looking around, we indeed observed the most beautiful moments, and most pleasant moments (cool, crisp air) of our community, the vibrant ecosystem. We are fortunate to live in this community. Please do stop to enjoy the beauty around you and help to keep it beautiful.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Go Cheethas!

It has been a great experience for me to coach the Cheetahs in the past 3 years. I enjoyed coaching the team. It was a big deal for me. Here is what we wrote in our 2006 family holiday letter.

"Coaching soccer: Influenced by his big brother, Nicholas decided to play soccer. Faced with nobody volunteering to be the coach, Allan decided to give it a try. Lily rushed to the library and borrowed a bunch soccer coaching books for Allan to read. We bought training gears for the 8 little players on team Cheetahs. Most of them were very excited to learn how to play. The first practice went well and the rest was not hard. Nicholas really loves to kick the soccer ball. It was fun to watch him chasing the ball and kick it into the goal. Kids’ progress in the games, parents’ grateful remarks, and the cheering and excitement during the games all made volunteer coaching a satisfying experience." As a matter of fact I still have this first team picture hang in my office at work.

The players who played in the very first season of Cheetahs who are still with the team - Benjamin, Jeffey (not in the 1st group picture), Kevin, Michale, Nicholasa. The next season, we had a few players (Naman, Harshveen, Mathew) left, Daniel, Ray and Jonathan joined Cheetahs. In 2007 season, Sharan and Eric joined. In the fall of 2008, Cheetahs officially had royal blue jersy, black shorts as team uniform. We had the same roster for three seasons from 2007 fall season to spring of 2009 (team expanded to 10 players in 2009, adding rohhan and rohi, the twin brothers, who left after one season). For the fall season, we added Andrew, Eric D. and Michael C.

Some interesting statisitcs;

1) All players from last season, plus Andrew and Michael C., all scored at least once in the three years
2) Jeffrey is the most polific scorer on the team so far.
3) Cheethas has been 80 - 90% of Chinese-American boys all three years
4) Our best season was spring 2009

2007 Fall

2008 Spring

2008 Fall - when Cheethas had the royal blue shirt and black shorts as team jersey

2009 Spring - our best season - and Eric Z. finally showed up at season ending party

2009 Fall