Reading biographies

My kids and I have always enjoyed reading and visiting library.

Since I announced incentives to my kids for reading nonfiction one month ago (see 1/31/10 post), visiting library has become a little bit more exciting.

They have been reading more biographies and have accumulated enough page numbers to be rewarded for an ice cream at every visit.

Now it has become a routine that we go to the library every Sunday afternoon to read and have ice cream. We stay for one to two hours till the library closes.

I check out lots of biographies about writers, artists, politicians, celebrities and historical figures and hope my kids will read them all.

My daughter reads some of them. She especially likes the “Who was …” series and has probably read most titles in the series.

But my son is not interested in the books I checked out for them. He reads almost only biographies about athletes whose names I do not recognize.

Since I don’t like books being checked out and returned without being read, I end up reading some of the books none of my kids wants to read.

As the result, I have been reading more biographies myself. It’s interesting to read about famous people or people I admire, William Shakespeare, Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa, Condoleezza Rice, J.K. Rowling, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Kate DiCamillo, etc.

I wish I had read biographies years ago while growing up.

One common thread I find among the famous and successful people, especially writers, is that they love to read at a young age.

Today I read a biography about Oprah. Winfrey was born into poverty, but her grandma taught her to read before the age of three. I am sure that early reading and her life-long love to read played an important role in her success later in business and life.

Tha’t what I am trying to do with my kids. Instilling in them the love to read and helping them build a solid foundation for future success.

Just a game, win or lose

Today my 10 year old daughter Amy had her Year End Basketball Tournament.

This was the first time that Amy participated in a team sport. She has enjoyed playing the ERAA 4th grader in-house basketball. She had a great team and two wonderful coaches.

For the whole season that started last November, her team was unbeatable. As the result, the girls expected to win the last two games today at the tournament.

They won the first game against a Cottage Grove team pretty easily.

For the second game against another ERAA team, it was more challenging, but for the first half of time, Amy’s team was ahead of the other team. It really looked like that finishing the season with an unbeatable record was a done deal.

Then the other team scored their first two points. Quickly they gained momentum and more points. Within a few short minutes, Amy’s team lost ground and the game, to everyone’s surprise and disappointment.

It was hard for a few girls to accept the reality. They were emotional and cried.

The girls were really passionate about the game and had high expectation. Therefore, it was hard for them to take the loss.

The more passionate you are about something, the harder you crash when it fails.

I am not a sport fan at all. I don’t know anything about sport and don’t watch sport. When I take my kids to practices or games, I always have something to read with me. I am not as attentive and involved as other parents are when it comes to cheering for the teams.

But just being in the gym, watching the kids play, surrounded by excitement and disappointment, I could feel my body get tense from time to time.

No wonder watching or playing sport can be such an emotionally charged experience.

I certainly wish that Amy’s team could have won the final game and finished the season with a perfect winning record. But I think losing a game was not necessarily a bad thing. It could teach the girls some important lessons.

  • You don’t always win, whether in sports or in life. Success and failure are all part of life.
  • Past performance is not a guarantee of future results, as almost all investment literature tells you.
  • Don’t take things for granted.
  • Don’t be too proudful when you win; don’t be too discouraged when you lose. Things can change in seconds.
  • Don’t take the game too seriously, play and have fun.
  • Win or lose, it’s just a game.

My daughter had fun playing basketball, enjoyed her classmates and coaches, learned some skills and team spirit, and got good exercises twice a week for over three months. For me, it was a winning game from every aspect. It doesn’t really matter what the score says.


100 blog posts, 100 words

For my 100th blog post, I would like to share 100 words that are meaningful to me.

These words describe something or somewhere that are close to my heart – places where I have lived, things I like, desire and dream about, or things I do not like.

I think these 100 words will give a good picture of who I am, where I am from and where I am going – the essential questions in life.

Suzhou, Beijing, China, Heidelberg, Germany, Madison, Chicago, St. Paul, Woodbury, America, parent, brother, wife, husband, son, daughter, writer, author, columnist, librarian, Bible, Christianity, spiritual, supernatural, mindful, soulful, humble, inspiring, transforming, quietness, spirit, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, healthy, fruit, vegetable, raw, yoga, simplicity, content, gratitude, friend, conversation, book, nonfiction, poem, biography, language, Chinese, library, Internet, newspaper, radio, reduce, recycle, reuse, green, frugal, resourceful, sharing, environmental, natural, community,
perfectionism, negativity, vanity, arrogance, ego, prideful, materialism, selfish, wasteful, TV, reading, writing, blogging, learning, growing, walking, gardening, volunteering, listening, networking, informed, educated, accomplished, published, connected, understood, validated, appreciated, respected, loved.

In a few days I will post something to help connect some of the dots.

City works

What makes our living in a community like Woodbury possible and comfortable?

If I ask people this question, I bet not many people will think about public works. I didn’t either.

But that changed today after I attended the session four of Woodbury Citizen’s Academy held in the Woodbury Public Works building. We learned about some of the city works.

Dwight Picha (Community Development Director) and Janelle Schmitz (Planning and Economic Development Manager) gave a presentation about Woodbury city planning including the new 2030 Comprehensive Plan, development review process, environmental management and inspection services.

David Jessup (Engineering and Public Works Director), Klayton Eckles (Deputy Engineering and Public Works Director/City Engineer) and Dick Riemenschneider (Public Works Superintendent) talked about public works and gave us a tour of the building and garage.

By the way, I was very impressed by how orderly and clean the Public Works fleet and garage are. My family has only two vehicles in our garage. They don’t look nearly as clean.

Learning about public infrastructure, the transportation, water and sewer systems, and how public works work has given me a new sense of appreciation for something I have taken for granted and don’t think about.

I felt more appreciation for the people in the Public Works Department who get up in the middle of night to plow snow so others can travel safely on the road.

Imagine living in a place with no roads, no clean water and no sanitary sewer system, how would that be like?

If we could know what that would be, I am sure we would all be more appreciative of what city works have done for us.


Interview with MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel

Recently I have the pleasure of working with Minnesota Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel and his staff to create the Commissioners’ Reading Corner to promote reading, learning, and servant leadership within MnDOT.

Sorel’s article “Enhancing our leadership skills, one book at a time,” a list of his recommended books on leadership, and my interview with him on the first book in the series titled “Drawing leadership inspiration from Muhammad Ali and other” are available in the Feb. 24, 2010 issue of MnDOT Newsline, a biweekly employee e-newsletter posted on the MnDOT Newsline website.

More information including my complete interview with Sorel on reading is posted on the MnDOT’s internal website which is not accessible to the general public. I have posted it below.

A previous interview I did with Sorel published in Woodbury Bulletin on June 11, 2008 titled “Meet the new MnDOT commish” can be view here.

I created an account on and posted the list of Sorel’s recommended books here.

Interview with Commissioner Tom Sorel


Tang: Commissioner, I know you are an avid reader. You read a lot and often recommend books to others at meetings. What has influenced you to be a reader?

Sorel: I was a typical boy while growing up. I was active in sports and other things. I didn’t read a lot. Reading came to me later in life.

Tang: What was the turning point?

Sorel: The turning point came when I was working on my MBA at Thomas College in Maine. I had to read a lot of books on leadership, management, organizational development, business strategy, etc. Reading expanded my mind to other areas. At one point in my life I even read a fair amount of poetry. The more I read, the more I enjoy reading. I became addicted to it.

Tang: When it comes to reading, who has influenced you the most?

Sorel: When I was at FHWA, I noticed that I respected certain kinds of people who had some common traits. They were leaders in upper management who were avid readers and good storytellers, people like Federal Highway Administrators Thomas Larson and Rick Capka, U.S. Secretaries of Transportation Rodney Slater and Mary Peters. Because of them, I was inspired to read more.

Tang: How has reading and books helped shape your thinking and your life?

Sorel: When I read, I pick up thoughts and ideas that apply to work or personal life. Reading about the journey of others can increase knowledge, enrich lives and even save marriages. Reading makes me a better rounded person, positively affecting my work and family life. I am a better leader, a better communicator, a better husband and a better father because of continuous reading, reflection, and learning.

Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits.

Sorel: I read every day, and more when I travel. I read trade publications to keep myself informed about what’s going on in the industry. I often take my 8 year old son to book stores (he reads everything there is to read about the Vikings!) and pick some books on leadership for myself while we’re there.

Tang: Do you have any favorite author?

Sorel: Not really. I will generally pick up a book for the topic. One of my favorite business books is “Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.” For leisure reading, I like mystery, and my favorite author is James Patterson.

Tang: What do you want to achieve with this Commissioner’s Reading Corner?

Sorel: I want to encourage Commissioner’s staff and all MnDOT employees to read or read more, to help MnDOT become a learning organization. I would like this to reflect what we are trying to do at MnDOT, to build servant leadership and to serve the citizens in Minnesota.

I hope the Commissioner’s Reading Corner can provide a central place, a focal point for people to find books, and provide a more personal and safe environment for people to come together to share their thoughts and ideas. It will also provide an environment for people to “explore” and expand their thinking on various topics.

On the 1st recommended book:

Letters from leaders: personal advice for tomorrow’s leaders from the world’s most influential people by Henry Dormann, 2009.

Tang: Why did you pick Letters from Leaders as your first recommended book in the series?

Sorel: This book is a collection of letters and advice from some of the most successful leaders around the world. Each letter is very short. It’s easy to read and discuss. So I think it is a good start.

Tang: What part of this book inspired you the most? Can you share some quotes from the book that struck you personally, left a big impression and made you reread it, pause and think for a moment.

Sorel: Three individuals and their letters stand out for me.

Muhammad Ali was my hero when I was a boy. He talks about life as a journey and a great adventure. We should have fun and laugh. He says:” I worked hard and then worked some more, trying to be the best that I could possibly be at what I was doing. I learned that tough times are a part of our journey in this life, but that challenges make life interesting. Even though it can be painful and frightening at the time, the greater the obstacle, the more glorious the moment of success… It is also important to have fun. I enjoyed my life. No matter where I was or what I was doing, I took the positive from the experience and lived in the moment, connecting with the people around.”

Dalai Lama talks about love and compassion that we don’t hear much in the business world: “The key to a happier world is the growth of compassion. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need to believe in an ideology. What is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities. We must all learn to work not just for our own self, family, or nation, but for the benefit of all humankind.”

US Congress representative Diana DeGette talks about the benefit of changing lives. She says: “Whatever your interest is – whether science, public health, military affairs, or the environment – you can immerse yourself and have a fulfilling career that also has the benefit of changing lives.”

Tang: How has reading this book opened your mind and broadened your perspective?

Sorel: It made me think what I want my legacy to be. I want to share knowledge. I feel a sense of social responsibility and obligation to share what I have learned and know, to pass on the knowledge to the younger generation, at the same time learning from them. We are all leaders in some way, with opportunities to influence and change lives.

Tang: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and knowledge. I am looking forward to reading with you, learning and growing, and making Mn/DOT a learning and growing organization.

Sorel: I am very excited about this new initiative.

Overcome depression

Today I went to a brown bag lunch presentation on overcoming depression.

Not that I have any kind of depression myself, but I know people who have depression. So I am interested in learning about depression, a mental illness that is so common in our modern society nowadays.

Depression was a foreign concept for me while growing up in China. People were poor and life was hard back then, but I don’t think people were depressed as they are today. We were happy if we could get enough or something good to eat.

Recently I heard comments from my brother and a friend from China saying that most people in China are depressed to some degree. Living standards are so much higher now, but there are also many social problems.

The gap between rich and poor is growing bigger than ever. Some can’t afford food or housing, while others have so much more to waste. People always want more than they have. No one is happy any more.

Depression has become a universal problem.

One of the books that was highly recommended by the presenters is The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom. I saw some good reviews about the book on Amazon.

I hope others who are suffering from depression can benefit from this book.

Ask and you shall receive

For the last few months I have been helping the Transportation Division of the Special Libraries Association, of which I am a member, to do fundraising for the upcoming annual conference in New Orleans.

Two years ago I did fundraising for Minnesota Jinglun Chinese School, a new Chinese school located in Woodbury. I even wrote an article about fundraising lessons learned.

So I do have some fundraising experiences.

Finding potential vendors to contact and writing an email request are not hard for me to do.

Yet, making a cold phone call isn’t as easy as writing a letter for me. Procrastination is my solution to anything I do not enjoy doing.

Since I haven’t got responses to all my email requests I sent out in the last two months, I felt it’s time for me to pick up the phone and talk to people.

So this afternoon I made up my mind to do that. “Nothing to lose, just ask.”

The first company I called is an international company with multiple offices in the United States. I called the general number and talked to the receptionist. She gave me the phone number for the Director of Sales and Marketing in a different office. He is the one I emailed two months ago and hadn’t responded.

I dialed his number directly. Luckily he picked up the phone. I told him why I called and mentioned the email I sent him.

He quickly found my email and said, without any questions and hesitation, “I am responding to you right now.”

“Are you saying yes to my request?” I wondered.

“Yes, I am sending it now.”

That was the conversation we had.

Seconds later, I got his response, in which he committed $100 to our annual conference.

$100 is not much for a big company like his, but for me, something is better than nothing.

“That was easy.”

The first successful phone call boosted my confidence instantly.

I make a couple of more calls.

I had one “No” response because it’s too late in the game, the money had already been committed to other requesters. The other response I had was “Send me something in writing.” Still looks promising.

The fundraising experience I had today reinforces the few lessons I learned two years ago.

The most important one?

“Ask and you shall receive."  

Think about it.

If someone had not asked Dorothy Merrill for donating $1500,00 to the arts center in the first place, it’s unlikely that she would leave $2 million for the arts center after her death. (see 2/17 and 2/19 posts)

It all happened because someone took the courage and time to ASK. 


Buy energy-saving light bulbs

For two months in February and March, Xcel Energy is offering Minnesota consumers energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs for $1 each.

I am all for saving energy and saving expenses. I have been gradually replacing old light bulbs with these energy efficient ones. Yesterday I took advantage of the offer and bought 12 new ones. I went home and put some of them to use right away.

Xcel Energy estimates that switching can mean a savings of up to $50 in electricity costs over the seven-to-10-year lifetime of a 60-watt-equivalent bulb.

Xcel has made this offer twice a year for the past several years as part of a program of reducing energy consumption by its customers.

The bulbs are available at participating stores including Ace Hardware, Byerly’s, Costco Wholesale, Cub Foods, Eastside Food Coop, The Home Depot, Lund’s, Mississippi Markets, Rainbow Foods, Sam’s Club, Target, Wal-Mart and Wedge Community Coop stores.

The low price is available only while supplies last.

One word of caution:
The compact fluorescent light bulbs contain mercury and must be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Woodbury residents may bring household hazardous waste to the Washington County Environmental Center at no charge. Please bring a proof of your residency in the county.


Sharing space with uninvited guests

I didn’t know that I was sharing my office space with uninvited guests.

Yesterday afternoon in my cube, I found out that I was not the only one occupying the space. I had visits from uninvited guests without my knowledge and permission.

Recently I left a bag of cereals in one of the overhead cabinet. The last time I ate from it a few days ago, I didn’t notice anything wrong. But this time, when I grabbed the bag, something looked different. I noticed some small holes in the bag. Right away I knew something was wrong.

Who touched my cereal and stole my food without permission?

When I dug deeper and looked closer around my desk, I found that my uninvited guests had not only eaten my food, but also left behind unpleasant stuff everywhere for me to clean up after them, in the cabinet, on the desk around the wall, and near my plants.

I confess I am a pack rat. I like to keep stuff. That’s probably one of the reasons why I got companies. These little creatures must like pack rats.

My desk counters are pretty cluttered with books, magazines, newspapers, articles and scratch papers scattered everywhere. Some of them I should have thrown away, but I thought I will read them or use them some day. I hate to throw usable stuff way.

My cube is on the first floor of the building. It has a shallow floor covered with square pieces of carpets on top of removable floor covers, with electrical wires running inside. I guess it is a pretty comfy place under the floor covering for the little creatures to spend the cold winter months.

When I go to work, these little creatures go to sleep. So I never see and hear them. When I leave, they come out of the hiding to roam the space and find food. 

In terms of space sharing, this is very efficient. 

I was really impressed by how smart the little creatures are.

They know where the yummy stuff is. Their sense of smell is so much better than that of our human beings.

And they know how to get what they want. I couldn’t figure out how they could get into my overhead cabinet. It is closed and there is no hole that I can see. How did they get in there? They must have some magic tricks to make themselves really small if they have to.

They also have an amazing ability to shred papers. I found shredded papers so fine and small. I think they can do a much better job than any paper shredders I know.

In some aspects, my uninvited guests are smarter than I am. It would be nice if they could agree to some work sharing, in addition to just sharing office space and food.

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A hero behind the scene

The name of the woman who left $2 million for the arts center to be built attached to the Loft Theater at East Ridge High School was released at last night’s District 833 School Board meeting. She is Dorothy Merrill.

Merrill‘s donation may represent more than 80 percent of the construction funds.

Because of the large financial support from Dorothy Merrill, the arts center will finally become a reality.

As the biggest donor, Merrill certainly deserves the name recognition. When the arts center opens in October of 2011, it will be named the Dorothy K. Merrill Center for the Arts.

I called the woman “A hero in the community” in my blog posted on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

While we give the name recognition to Merrill, we can’t forget that there are more heroes behind the scene who have worked hard to make the arts center a reality.

Personally I don’t know anyone else who deserves more credit than Michelle Witte, Arts Connection vice president and fundraiser for the new 10,000 square-foot facility.

Witte is actively involved in the arts community in Woodbury. She is also Woodbury Community Theater president.

I first met Witte at her church, Woodbury Baptist Church where my kids went for VBS in the summer for a few years. Witte was the VBS director.

Since then I have read her letters to the editor in the Woodbury Bulletin and saw her name in the paper a few times in connection with the arts center. I was impressed by her passion for the arts, her active involvement in the community.

Now her fundraising efforts have paid off in a big way. Thanks largely to her hard work and great efforts, Woodbury will have a nice facility for the arts center.

I want to say to Michelle Witte, “Congratulations! Thanks for all you have done for the community. You are a hero in Woodbury!”