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For the past three days, I was on a retreat with my graduate program in Asilomar.  The conference grounds is in Pacific Grove (next to Monterey), right near the dunes and only steps away from a beautiful sandy beach.  During the day, I milled around the rocks near the waterline, peeping into the shallow pools that gather in the crevices.  Green algae and anemone line the walls of these pools.  I loved squatting down and looking at the bony, crater-like barnacles and clusters of small, black mussels clinging near the bottoms of these rocks.  They are are submerged with each wave, reappearing as the water recedes.  Strewn across the sand are carcasses of kelp, their long, brown limbs tangled up with each other.  They smell of sea water and decay.

The sand next to the water is moist and firm.  It feels cool underneath my toes; occasionally I let the waves crash over my feet, rising towards my knees.  The water is ice cold and numbs my skin.  The sand around me moves with the force of the water, and for a moment, the ground becomes soft and loose, except for the small bit of sand underneath my feet, trapped by the weight of my body.

It’s not a quiet beach, but it’s not crowded either.  Mostly there are residents walking their dogs and mothers with their toddlers.  It’s a nice place to come to when you need to be reminded of life’s enormity.  When I look at the water, I imagine what it feels like to swim into everything and nothing.  I think about the complexity and fragility of habitats.  I think about the diversity and connectedness of life.  I think about all the things that happen with or without our knowing.

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Night is when the beach is most incredible.  There are no city lights to disturb the shine of the stars.  There are no bridges and cars to distract from the darkness.  There is only you, the crashing waves, and a glimpse of what lies beyond our world.  This is the place where you go to be humbled.

On our last night there, we crowded around a small fire on the beach.  The sparks and embers fly away on the wind, and the smell of burning wood clings onto our clothes.  I imagine what we look like from far away, a speck of red-orange light glittering in the dark.

Because we are students, we talk about school, labs, and professors.  The conversation is light, so I am surprised when I hear an older student speak candidly about her struggles with graduate school.  About depression, confusion, and dissatisfaction.  “It isn’t that I don’t know where I want to be and how I want to get there; I’m just tired of waiting for things to happen.”

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I do not know how to respond.  Briefly, I wonder if that is what I will be feeling in the next six years.  Suspended in time, trapped between stages, too far in to turn back–too far in to dare to turn back.  After fighting so hard to get here, was I supposed to be here at all?

“I believe happiness in this world is unattainable.”

Someone asks, “What is your definition of happiness?”

“The freedom to do what you want to do.”

I say nothing because I do not know what to say.  I wonder what it means to have that freedom.  If I would know what I wanted to do; if I would be satisfied with what I wanted to do; if there would always be something else that I’d what to do; if I am, then, responsible for everything that I want to do.  Will I find myself in all the things that I want to do?

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I catch the streak of a shooting star.  We are engulfed in mysteries, surrounded by emptiness with millions of unknown stars staring back at us.  Somewhere out there are processes that we do not understand–cannot even begin to imagine to understand–even as we stand here, trying to understand ourselves.  Yet, in this directionless and overwhelming expanse, I don’t feel lost.  I am awestruck.

I may not know much, but I know enough that the creator of everything in this world and beyond, from the microscopic plankton to the fiery masses in the celestial heavens, knows everything there is to know, including me.  “For now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

There was a time when, seeing a shooting star, I would’ve wished for health, success, or love.  Tonight, I wish that You will always be with me.

“I see your power in the moonlit night, where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright.  It’s all proclaiming who you are.  You’re beautiful.

Almond Biscotti from Edible Moments

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Juan and I were driving down Huntington Ave when I decided that we had to stop by and take pictures of The First Church of Christ, Scientist while it was caught in the last rays of the setting sun.  I like how late afternoon light always gives everything a nice warm golden glow and helps bring out the texture from the building’s reliefs.

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I’ve only been in the church once.  That was a year ago.  They have tours to explain the founding of Christian Science and to show off their gigantic organ pipes and stained glass windows.  I don’t remember much of what I learned, but, personally, I think the architecture on the outside is much more impressive than what I saw within.

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Before processing. Underexposed sky, overexposed building.

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After processing. Looks so dramatic. On some days, you might be able to catch a toy sailboat race in the reflecting pool.  Too bad I didn’t get a picture of it last time I was here.

In high school, my English teacher had us freewrite for half an hour in our journals.  What came out was basically disjointed thoughts and rambling sentences, all mashed up together in a stream of consciousness with disregard for grammar and penmanship.  The idea was not to censor your ideas.  Strangely, it was really difficult for me to do that.  You’d think that an assignment with no-rules-anything-goes basis would be easy, but it’s not.  The lack of rules and direction is actually stressful.

Do you ever have flying dreams?  For most people they’re fun, soaring through the sky over epic landscapes.  Well, I get them too, except in my dreams I have to work to stay afloat.  I’m talking about actually having to pedal my legs or struggling to get airborne with a running start; otherwise, I plummet to my death.  I remember one dream where I had to manually wind up the propeller on a beanie to make it run, only to have it lose tension mid-flight.  There are also plenty of dreams where I am running away from evil-doers with a broomstick between my legs, struggling to get enough momentum to fly away.

Well, I don’t want to read too much into dreams, but my friend says they obviously show how I have trouble relaxing at something that should be freeing.  Maybe he’s right.  I mean, it’s been two years since college graduation and I still get nightmares about taking final exams.

I’d like to think that I’m a generally chill person, but I think I have a lot to learn when it comes to kicking back and enjoying myself.  Even something as simple as getting out of the house.  Without work these days, my plans are so unstructured.  While it’s nice to have time to enjoy the city, more often than not, I find myself sitting at home and making excuses for not going out.  It’s too hot; I don’t want to wait for the bus; I can go tomorrow, really.  Well, it’s high time that I give myself a kick in the butt and just do it.

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I’m not a morning person, but the best thing about waking up early is breakfast.  And the time to enjoy breakfast.  One day, I woke up three hours before I had to get to lab and just went to C3 cafe for coffee and a bagel.  Sitting in the empty cafe and watching the people outside cram into the T station, I felt wonderful that, just for once, I don’t have to be apart of that morning rush.  For once, I don’t need to not have work be the first thing on my mind.  Sometimes, it’s what keeps you sane.

Last Friday, we went on the Boston Lobster Tour.  It was refreshing to be out on the water in a small, cozy boat and listening to our guide talk about the history of the harbor.  Admittedly, I was a tad too busy with my camera to catch most of what he was saying.

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Apparently, the harbor has become a host for extreme sailing races with large crowds of spectators on the piers watching the colorful sailboats.

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I like trying to read the boat names.  “Whirled Peas?”  If I had my own boat, I might name it “Dawn Treader” after C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

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The USS Constitution.

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We pulled out two traps.  The idea is to lure lobsters into cages with some dead fish bait.  Once inside, the lobsters enter the Kitchen where the bait is tied; but as they try to escape, they end up in a smaller space called the Parlor where small exits allow only the crabs to escape.  We still saw a lot of crabs though.  The traps are thrown into shallow water near protected areas, like piers and buildings, and marked by empty, floating clorox bottles.

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The clouds really looked spectacular over the water.

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These pillars supporting the pier were built 50 years ago and are still in awesome shape today.

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Juan picking up our lobster booty from the first trap!

IMG_3491 copyWe enjoyed listening to Captain Tony talk about his passion for lobster fishing.  Our legally sized lobster is a two pound male, approximately 10 years old.

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Nice pincers, buddy.

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Tony suggested we steam the lobsters upside down so that it cooks in its own juices.  It was absolutely delicious.  No butter, just lemons and onions.  I love how the shell turns from dark blue-green to completely bright orange once it’s cooked.  Overall, wonderful tour to go on as a date for two; however, not sure if it’s worth a party of six if you’re hoping to share more than one lobster with everyone.  I would mostly go to enjoy the scenery and learn a little bit about Boston history and lobster fishing.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this many summer thunderstorms.  In California, when you look out the window in the morning and see the sun shining, you can be assured that it would stay sunny all day.  But weather here is amazingly fickle.  I don’t think people usually praise Boston weather, but I do love the flash thunderstorms here.  This past Saturday brought warm sunshine interspersed with sudden downpours.  I love the smell of heat rising from wet pavement and darkened asphalt, the puddle in the parking lot near my apartment where birds go to splash and bathe, the big bright rain drops hanging on petals and leaves, and most of all, the dramatic storm clouds that cloak the sky.

I am using my new analog Nikon FM10 camera and I like how my pictures turn out slightly grainy.  I like how shooting in film forces me to be more intentional with each picture.  Since I can’t waste a whole roll on one subject, I have to try to make sure my first attempt is my last one.  It takes me forever to hit that shutter release and most of the time it’s a crapshoot, but I’m hoping I’ll be experienced enough one day to feel like I actually know what I’m doing.

I took this on a stormy/sunny afternoon at a friend’s house while helping to prepare barbecue food.  Well, they did most of the work while I sat around uselessly with the camera.

I had a good time.

I usually get out of work at 6:30, but that afternoon I packed up my stuff and left with two hours to go on the clock.  There was little labwork to do, and even though I could have stayed to organize data or do some productive reading, I could not make myself sit still.  Outside my window, I could see the warm golden sunlight bathe the rusted, corrugated roof of the abandoned warehouse next to our lab building.  The seagulls are back this year and roosting in pairs.

It’s funny how you can live and work in a beautiful city, but never take the time to appreciate it.  Flocks of tourists crowd the Boston streets every summer to visit the historic landmarks, riding around in city trolleys or waving their hands from those ridiculous Boston Duck Tour vehicle-boats.  I live within a few blocks of the Charles River and work in the Charlestown Navy Yard, but everyday I eat lunch in my lab building and I walk straight home after work–too busy to take the time to see the sights that tourists fly hundreds of miles to see.  I tell myself that I live here so I can do all that stuff when I have time for it.  Well, what about today?  No, today’s no good, I have laundry that I need to do.  How about tomorrow?  Well, I would but there’s dinner to be prepared, you see.  And bedtime is at 11:30 PM and you want to at least catch up on some episodes of How I Met Your Mother, so who has all that time to go tramping about aimlessly?

It feels good to wander around sometimes.

I took this picture on my afternoon walk.  It reminds me of how often I’m caught up in the passage of time.  Not just on the days where it feels like time is stagnant and I’m painfully waiting for 6:30 to roll around.  But also on those busy days where all my time seems to be sectioned up into 5 minute, 10 minute, half hour, one hour, three hour increments and all I’m doing is rushing from one segment to the next.  At least, that’s how being in the lab feels like sometimes.

This is my official First Summer Weekend.  It was doubtful at first.  After driving 20 minutes to get to a park in Arlington, I stepped out of the car into pouring rain.  Although the rain didn’t deter the rest of my company from playing ultimate frisbee, I couldn’t make myself run around the muddy field with sandals on.  Fortunately, as per Boston weather, the sun broke through the overcast sky and turned the rest of the afternoon into appropriate balmy New England summer.

And to celebrate, we grilled dinner outside in the backyard with chicken, eggplant, and bell pepper skewers. Buttered corn cobs. Beans and sausage. And mushrooms stuffed with sauteed spinach and melted pepper jack cheese.  Reclining on lawn chairs, we feasted on our food in the soft light of dusk only to be feasted on ourselves by our malicious mosquito friends.  Couldn’t have summer without them.  I have a feeling we’ll be grilling a lot in the next two months.

Better weather also means more photowalks. I finally dragged myself out to Beacon Hill to make good use of my camera.  Recently, I’ve been taking a basic photography course hoping that it’d help me develop a better eye for taking photos.  I realized that after you learn the functions for aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, there’s really nothing else you can learn in class.  I certainly feel more comfortable using Manual, but it still takes me about 20 pictures before I snap one that’s just right.  But the best thing about owning a camera isn’t about taking nice pictures; it’s that you begin to see a picture everywhere around you.  It doesn’t necessarily mean the picture you envision would make a good shot; but you begin to appreciate the life in the details around you.

Here are some pictures from my walk (flickr.com/jcheung2009):

Beacon Hill Street

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Windows and Climbing Branches

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