Arches/Canyonlands, 2015

Here are some pictures from last weekend taken in Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park, all located in Utah. The young people in the pictures are Vietnamese ‘3 + 1’ dual degree students attending Colorado State University for their final year (Phuong, Chi, Thu, and Xuan).  I am glad they got the chance to see this beautiful area while they are in the United States.  Touring Utah in the winter is an experience of solitude and stark beauty.

 

Making the Tough Decisions

Look at the picture above.  This is where I grew exponentially in mind, body, and spirit.  Years ago, when I lived in West Virginia, I was faced with some of the toughest decisions of my life.  In the morning, at dawn, I loved to go for a long run along the Monongahela River out in the country.  My only company was the wisps of fog rising off the water, and the deer feeding in the meadows.  As the miles went by, the crunch of the pea gravel under my feet, the rhythm of my breathing calming my soul, I was able to tackle some issues I was working on head-on.  Life was always better after a long run.  Even to this day, when I look at the picture above, I get a smile on my face as I get taken back in time to that muddy, sleepy West Virginia river.  I will be forever grateful for that period of my life.

Recently, it has come to pass that many of my friends have been struggling with tough decisions in their lives.  I was struggling with a tough decision last month.  Whether coincidence or fate, and instead of a trip report and some pictures, I took that as sign to write this blog post.  Here are 5 insights I have had in my life when I had to make a tough decision.  This blog post is not addressed to anyone in particular and only comes from a place of truly wanting to help people, if it helps anyone at all.

1. Relax

It is very difficult to silence the noise and negative thoughts in your mind if you do not get quiet.  And if you do not silence the chatter in your head, the noise and negative thoughts, chances are you could make a poor decision based on fictitious feelings rather than facts.  In these instances, rest.  Take a deep breath.  Let your mind be still.  Find a special place, a place of subterfuge, where you can do this.  For me, this place is in the outdoors with no one else around.

2. Live your values

I was very fortunate to have met a great mentor and man a few years ago who taught me this powerful lesson.  To be sure, I am neither psychologist nor philosopher, but to me, simply put, your values constitute what you place relative importance in and form a personal code of conduct for your life.  As defining morals and ethics, they make up the core substance of your character.  Values are different than goals.  For example, saying you want to be a teacher someday is a goal; saying you place importance on helping others is a value.  If you are struggling with a decision, err on the side of selecting the option that is most consistent with your values.  This is true even if you face overwhelming opposition or so-called “irrefutable” evidence to the contrary.  You will rarely be led astray.

3. Live in the moment

It is important to make a decision that reflects where you are at in your life right now and the direction that you want your life to go.  Certainly, it prudent and common sense to look ahead a few steps.  But what is the point of projecting out years into the future when we barely know what tomorrow will bring?  Worry is the killer of dreams.  It is a largely pointless projection of fear and anxiety into the unknown future, a future over which we have no control.  Make plans, set the course of your journey, and then be prepared to adapt over and over again.

4. Keep it in perspective

It is easy to become locked in indecisiveness when a decision you are making becomes 10-times larger than what it is.  But the reason making a decision becomes so overwhelming is that we often forget that life gives us another chance and then we get stuck in paralysis by over-analysis.  Once we stand back, gain this perspective, forget about having certainty, and embrace hope, what was once overwhelming now is reduced to the ordinary.

In life, I have failed again and again at many things.  For example, being in the field of academics, much of what I try to do in teaching, and especially research, fails.  Fortunately, I am very tenacious and don’t personalize these failures.  I just recognize they are taking me one step closer to what I want or where I need to be and I just do my best with my next opportunity.  People fail all the time on many different accounts: bankruptcy, divorce, jail, speeding tickets, telling off your boss, burning dinner, etc.  Whatever your failures are, always remember that a failure only leads to a mistake if you do not use the experience of the failure to grow and evolve.

5. Realize it’s your life

This one is particularly important for me because it was a hard lesson I had to learn when I was young.  When faced with a tough decision, many people live their lives based on the expectations of others never realizing or ignoring that they always have a choice and making that choice is 100% their responsibility.  Of course, it is wise to gather the advice of close confidants when we are forming the jigsaw puzzle that will ultimately be our final decision.  However, at the end of the day, it’s your life and you must turn down the roar of the crowd and turn up the small voice in your heart.  You can love your family.  You can love your friends.  You can love your culture.  You can love your country.  However, at the end of the day, it is your life to live and you are 100% responsible for the pursuit of your own happiness, the wellspring of love from which your contribution to the planet will flow.

So there you have my pearl of wisdom.  When faced with a tough decision, relax and keep things in perspective.  Staying in the present moment, drill down to your values and lean on those.  Then, make your decision with 100% ownership, with no regrets.

Life is Awesome! My Trip to Vietnam

I was sitting down tonight getting ready to write a long-winded report about my recent trip to Vietnam over Thanksgiving Break.  After thinking about it, I decided perhaps it would be better to keep things succinct and sweet.  Rather than a droning, factual chronology of what transpired over the course of nine days in that beautiful country, I decided to write about two “things” that were really powerful experiences for me.

First, as I spelled out in my last post, a primary goal of this trip was to explore the feasibility of a dual BS degree program to be jointly administered by my university (Colorado State University) and Can Tho University (CTU) of Vietnam.  In a nutshell, I had the opportunity to visit with the wonderful faculty and administration at CTU, tour the campus and city of Can Tho, and give a presentation to the students.  Hieu Nguyen, who lives in Hanoi and accompanied me, was utterly invaluable with his translation skills.  In one million years, I could have never imagined floating down the Mekong River in a skiff before the sun was up, all to get to a floating market bustling with crude houseboats loaded down with watermelons, jack fruit, and baskets of shrimp and fish.  This is what makes life so awesome.  You simply never know what twist or turn life will drop in your lap.  If you are patient, if you are committed to living your values, the Universe always seems to reward you in ways you never thought possible.

A few challenges lie ahead in getting the dual BS degree program up off the ground, and I know there are no guarantees it even will, but after this visit, I am quite confident that these challenges can be overcome.  I looked out into the eyes of the Vietnamese students last week while I was giving the presentation.  Even though I was talking, I was literally thinking about what a positive impact this program could have on their lives.  This was quite a powerful moment for me.  It is my hope that they get the chance to come to Colorado State University for a remarkable year they will never forget and that will forever change them.

Secondly, I am so glad I had the opportunity to spend time in and around Hanoi with three of the Vietnamese students I met at Colorado State University last year: Hieu, Thao Tran, and Lan Nguyen.  Now my dear friends, I always knew our paths would cross again.  It was so totally cool, if not surreal, to get the opportunity to eat dinner with each of them and their families, families that I had already heard so much about back in the US.  We did our faithful best to build more memories for us to laugh about and share in years to come.  I had my first, albeit terrifying, experience with the frenetic and frantic Hanoi traffic while perched on the back of Thao’s motorbike (to her credit, she is a great driver).  On Thanksgiving, I felt a bit adventurous, so I did a rather long walk all the way around West Lake, fueled by strong Vietnamese coffee and a sweet street vendor treat called Bo Bia.  I even did a couple of surprise stops along the way to see where Thao and Lan worked — haha!  In the afternoon, I met up with Hieu and we visited, in order, Hoa Lo Prison, the gorgeous Hoan Kiem Lake, and then checked out a traditional water puppet show.  The four of us ended up, after dinner, wandering the Old Quarter late into the night.  Finally, the grand finale came on Friday, when Hieu, Thao, and I traveled a considerable distance outside of Hanoi, courtesy of Thao’s kind uncle, to see a large Buddhist complex (Chua Bai Dinh) and to take a boat down a river and through the caves of the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex.  Rather than taint the later experience with mere words, I urge you to see the pictures below of these crown jewels of Vietnam.

Once again, I was reminded in this instance of a powerful lesson I have learned in life.  As I have gotten older, I have come to realize that one of the greatest gifts two people can give each other in a healthy relationship — romantic, friendship, family — is each other’s time.  It is more precious than all the possessions and riches on the Earth, builds an emotional joint account that ever strengthens the relationship by engendering a sense of trust, holding enduring memories and an indelible shared history.

Remember, Hieu, Thao, and Lan … the best is yet to come.  Our finest days are still ahead of us …

 

30 Miles Southwest of Salina

This coming Friday I am going to Vietnam.  In and of itself, there is nothing remarkable about this but how this came to pass and will come to take place is somewhat remarkable.

I teach Statistics at Colorado State University (CSU).  Last Fall 2014, I was taking an introductory Chinese course for pleasure.  In the class, I happened to notice there was a sizable cohort of very bright Vietnamese students.  When I asked why they were enrolled in the course, they explained that they were part of an international program.  Specifically, they spent the first 3 years enrolled at Foreign Trade University of Hanoi as Economics majors.  Then, they came over to CSU for the final year of their BS degree program.

As time went by, I became good friends with several of them to the point where in May of this year, we decided to take a big road trip together before they were to return to Vietnam.  And so it was that Lan Nguyen, Thao Tran, Hieu Nguyen and I climbed into a rental van and proceeded to drive over 2,400 miles across 4 states and several national parks in the desert southwest, hiking, snowshoeing, whitewater rafting, sightseeing, horseback riding, and skydiving all along the way.

Towards the end of the trip, one early evening, driving about 30 miles southwest of Salina, Utah, Hieu and I got into a robust conversation about his time at CSU.  He innocently asked, “Why doesn’t your Statistics department have a 3 + 1 program with a university in Vietnam?”.  While I gave him some basic reasons as to why we didn’t, nevertheless I thought about what he said for several days after the trip.

Once back at CSU, the Vietnamese students returned back to their homes.  I asked Hieu, via the magic of WeChat, to gather information and identify a university with a good Statistics program in Vietnam that could serve as a potential partner with CSU.  Hieu identified Can Tho University, in the southern part of the country, and so I reached out via email to their administration and faculty (“cold called” is a better term!).  They were open and supportive of such a venture.  Next, I approached my Chair about the idea.  With his encouragement, all of a sudden this idea has taken on a life of its own.  Sparing you all the details over the past several months, in a nutshell, there have been meetings at CSU with the Economics Department, the Office of International Programs, the faculty members of the Statistics Department, and several other administrators.  I’ve been so impressed with the work other forward-thinking people at CSU are doing with respect to international programs and their words and acts of support; I tip my hat to them.  Through all of this, there has even been talk of my department exploring a similar partnership with a university in China.

So, this has all led to the following.  Several weeks ago, after a long sequence of email exchanges, I was invited to Can Tho University to “meet-and-greet” the faculty and administration.  I’ll be leaving this Friday for 9 days.  Here is the irony of all of this.  With the support of CSU, I will first stop in Hanoi to pick up … wait for it … Hieu, the very person who proposed the idea that started all this!  The two of us will then depart the next day for Can Tho.  He will act as a guide, translator, and also speak to those at Can Tho about his positive experience last year at CSU.  Isn’t life so strangely beautiful?!  Even better, I’ll be spending Thanksgiving not eating turkey in Colorado, but eating pho in Hanoi with the same three friends I went on the road trip with back in May 🙂

Of course, this might not lead to anything and, even if it did, there will certainly be hurdles of challenges ahead.  But my personality is such that I focus not on the problems, but on the promise.  Of course, the ultimate professional goal is to increase the prestige and revenues for CSU.  What is more important to me, and I don’t pretend for anyone to understand this, lies at a deeper, more personal level.  Your life is but a grain of sand on an endless beach.  Time is flying by.  I think the most important question anyone can ever ask and (hopefully) answer is, “What will be my contribution to the planet?”.  Yes, I want this program to happen to benefit CSU but, more importantly, I want this program to happen because I see the huge positive impact a year or two of studying abroad has had on many international students.  For example, I saw the metamorphosis occur in my Vietnamese friends just in the space of a year, this blossoming into adults.  Furthermore, I could think of no greater testimony to their excellent characters and to our time spent together molding and shaping each other in an upward dance, then if this program were to become a reality.  And all because of a chance conversation 30 miles southwest of Salina …

Farewell to Lei

The past few days yielded some great hiking and even a taste of adventure.  At the beginning of this year, I had the pleasure of meeting a young man, Lei Zou, through the Confucius Institute at Colorado State University where he was a teacher.  In short order, we got along really well.  With his appointment ending very soon and his return to China, we decided to spend a few days together in a celebration of our friendship.

Last Friday, we went on an 11-mile loop hike at Red Mountain Open Space.  About one hour north of Fort Collins, this area is characterized by lots of red bluffs, canyons, and washes, punctuated with open expanses of grassland.  The fall weather alternated between sun and snow as we circled from Colorado, into Wyoming, and back into Colorado again.  The only company on the trail were cattle off in the distance … this area is that remote.

The next day was a far taller task, entailing a logistically difficult, lengthy hike I had been longing to do ever since I arrived in Fort Collins last summer.  Early in the morning, we successfully convinced an Uber driver to drive us several miles west of Loveland.  We set off along the Devil’s Backbone heading north.  Lei is a really strong hiker so the pace was quick.  We passed tall cliffs to our right and zigzagged along the flanks and the bottom.  After several hours, we crossed into Horsetooth Mountain where the terrain opened up quite a bit.  The sun came out and warmed us as we continued north.  Eventually, we crossed into Lory State Park and walked past Arthur’s Rock and Horsetooth Reservoir up to the visitor’s center.  All together, I’d guess this to be about a 17-mile hike, at least the way that we came.  Lightning struck twice as we were lucky enough to find an Uber driver willing to come out from Fort Collins to pick us up 🙂

Saying goodbye, at least temporarily, is never easy.  However, I could not think of a better way to say goodbye to Lei than putting in some miles on the trail in the beauty of Colorado, basking in juicy conversation and plain silence.  We spent a lot of time together this year as Lei learned to drive and taught me Chinese.  I can get a good read on people, especially when I spend this much time with them.  While there are many positive qualities about Lei, two of them consistently shined brightly.  First, I have always been impressed with his integrity and commitment to his values.  He is unique in the sense that he really stops to think about what he stands for and what type of future he envisions for himself.  There is, and will be, no aimless drifting through life with him; he has goals in mind that are fueled by his values and is keeping the target squarely in his sights.  Secondly, Lei is the rare, young person who is mature beyond his years.  He is progressing in all three phases of the game — mind, body, and spirit.  Beneath the surface of his calm demeanor, I can truly see someone who is starting to develop self-awareness and depth of thought, and will continue on this path.

Sometimes in life, you are blessed and the right people come into your life at the right place, the right time, and, most importantly, for the right reasons.  I got lucky this year.  Time is flying by and, saying this respectfully, I am careful about how I spend this most precious commodity and whom I spend it with.  Thank you, Lei, for adding to my growth and making me better.  May the Universe bless you always …

 

New York City, Halloween 2015

I’ll always enjoy going to New York City (纽约) for a weekend visit of food, culture, and energy, even though my life has led me to set up my base camp in the mountains of Colorado.  Halloween this year found me in this melting pot of humanity visiting my friend Bingbing Xue and her gracious roommate Audie Wang.

The first day, Bingbing and I went on a very long walk across Manhattan, from stem to stern, passing many familiar landmarks.  A pit stop in Chinatown around lunch reaped a harvest of bubble tea, followed by steamed dumplings (灌汤包) and noodles (姜懿珈) at Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant.  We made our way over to some clothing shops where I decided to begin the process of a long overdue makeover of my wardrobe.  At night, Audie met us and we enjoyed dinner at Xi’an Famous Foods.

The weekend’s main draw was Saturday’s New York City Halloween parade.  As you might imagine, this parade was massive on scale, with 2 million spectators and an estimated 60-to-70,000 participants.  Yours truly was clad in pajamas with a big dog face emblazoned on the front and dog paw prints all over the pants.  You could not imagine the sights and sounds I saw that night as we marched up 6th Avenue through the classic neighborhood of Greenwich Village.  While I typically shun large festivals and their crowds, on this night I had a terrible amount of fun, and getting to meet and chat with all of Bingbing and Audie’s friends while we shuffled along the parade route made the night quite memorable.

Until we meet again, New York City.

 

An Autumn Colorado Weekend

Fan Jia and Bao Guangrun flew into town last Friday from Ohio to pay a visit.  These pictures highlight the very essence of why I moved out to Fort Collins last year and will settle down here.  Within one day, you can be in both the clean air of the mountains and the inspiring culture of the museums.

The first day, I showed them around Colorado State University and took them just outside of town to a hike at Horsetooth Mountain Park.  Saturday’s travels took us to the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Denver Art Museum, a Chinese restaurant, and then finally a Colorado Avalanche hockey game.  Finally, on Sunday, we went for a hike up to Chasm Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The day culminated in a homemade Chinese “hotpot” dinner.

As I grow older, I realize time spent with great friends is a prize beyond measure …

 

A Long Way from Vietnam

My hike yesterday up to Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park was made all the better by virtue of the companionship of two new international students from Vietnam attending CSU this year, Chi and Phuong.  Watching them discover the beauty of autumn for the first time in the Rocky Mountains brought me a healthy dose of happiness.  I believe innocence is the basis for many positive things.  Please enjoy the pictures …

 

South Dakota, 2015

Over the weekend, my friend Yun Jianjing and I enjoyed traveling around western South Dakota.  We first took a scenic morning drive down Spearfish Canyon, replete in its autumn colors.  There was a stop at the iconic Mount Rushmore National Monument to marvel at what took 14 years of passion and dedication to construct.  In the evening, we took a 4.5-mile hike through the hauntingly beautiful Badlands National Park and watched the sun set over the vast emptiness that is the South Dakota prairie.  All this culminated the next day in a windy climb of Harney Peak, sentinel of the Black Hills, highest summit in the U.S. east of the Rockies.

 

Mt Evans, CO

This morning, Casey Quinn and I climbed the 14er Mt Evans taking an unusual off-trail route.  We parked over at Guanella Pass and bushwhacked through a couple of miles of swamp and willow.  This led us to a climb of a steep, long gully that deposited us up on the ridge line.  In the mountains of Colorado, the weather is changing now; up top, it was windy and there was about 0.5″ snow.  We picked our way along the West Ridge of Mt Evans up to the summit.  On the way back down, the snow and the sleet intensified.  All told, a stout 10-mile climb that was made all the more memorable with good conversation, volatile weather, and the adventure of going cross country!  6 down, 48 to go.

 

Move forward … have faith