Thursday, December 30, 2004

Quiet at This End

Except for the youngster who’s been getting up early to play computer games, the family was asleep when I left the house.

San Mateo station was deserted this week.

Hardly anyone was at the station this morning. The trains were on their regular schedules, but in my car only 10% of the seats were filled. The Financial District is always quiet during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so the commute into the City is a snap, whether one drives, takes the bus, or rides the train.

Adding to the feeling of lassitude were the overcast skies and steady rain. At the office the energy level was noticeably lower. There were only a couple of tasks that had to be done this week, as opposed to the usual dozen, and it required extra concentration not to linger over the Wall Street Journal, the Times, and favorite Web sites. The rows of darkened offices didn’t brighten the mood; they reminded me that many colleagues had people to see and places to go. Thankfully, none of them had gone to South Asia.

As the events on the other side of the globe remind us, there are worse things, much worse, than having to go into the office during Christmas week. The devastation over such a large area and the number of lives lost in such a short span of time have not been seen since World War II. In the wink of an eye a wall of water appears and obliterates a village or submerges whole islands.

Not the Internet, not biotechnology, not the exploration of space,the elections or the Olympics, the big story of 2004 may just be the oldest story in the world.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

And the Word Became Flesh

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth [John 1:14]”

Some believe this with their whole heart, others dismiss it as superstition; still others oscillate between faith and doubt. And it is not hard to doubt: How can we explain the death of a child? Why do sincere Christians perform despicable acts? Why are there so many successful, happy, bad people? What is the purpose, if any, behind cruel afflictions such as cancer and AIDS? Sorry to let you down, you won’t find answers here.

The one thing about life that you can count on, as my late preacher friend used to say, is that no one gets out alive. But he who came into the world 2,000 years ago overcame death and said that we can, too….no, not that we wouldn’t die, but that dying was not THE END and that the credits would roll on indefinitely (okay, He didn’t use those words exactly).

While his birth is important, it was his death and resurrection two days after he was laid to rest that is all-important, which is why Easter, not Christmas, is the most important date on the Christian calendar. If it weren’t for the resurrection he would just be another prophet who said some profound things---enough to put together a $4.99 compendium of sayings at Barnes & Noble, but not much more.

So, did the thing with the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb actually happen long ago in a land far away? Well, something transformed those poor, illiterate fishermen into articulate, confident philosophers and leaders. (Nowadays, of course, it wouldn’t seem that big a deal because we have Tony Robbins tapes to listen to while we’re sleeping.) Something happened to Saul, the vengeful persecutor of early Christians, on the road to Damascus so that he became Saint Paul, founder of Christian theology.

There are alternative explanations for all of these occurrences, including improbable events and weird coincidences, or maybe some of them just didn’t happen. But there is another explanation: Something that is separate from Nature as we know it--the Supernatural, as C.S. Lewis called it—may be at work. Based on what we’ve seen of how people behave and how the world works, we each must judge whether the Supernatural explains those long-ago events. And once you decide that, everything falls into place and your path becomes clear, little grasshopper.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Christmas Party

Last Thursday I went to my 30th holiday (formerly known as Christmas) party-- not all with the same company, of course. Some were elaborate affairs at fancy hotels, others were little more than fruit punch and cookies set out on a picnic table, but they have all been occasions to visit with co-workers whom one doesn’t see too often.

Our long and liquid lunch was held at One Market, a nearby upscale restaurant. The men donned coats and ties, and the women wore evening dresses. Our employer, like others in the Financial District, has had a “business casual” dress code since the late Nineties. The holiday party has evolved into an occasion where employees voluntarily take their suits out of mothballs and dress up as a sign of respect for the season, for each other, and for the way we once were.

A couple of executives usually start the proceedings. If business has prospered, the mood is cheerful, and the jokes are lighthearted. If the company has had a “difficult” year---and who, if they’ve had a few seasons under their belt, hasn’t---the speakers thank the gathering for all their efforts, ladle out the sympathy, and encourage one and all to take a break from the grind and enjoy each other’s society.

My company invites retirees to the celebration. At my first party there was only one retired person; then, the median age of the attendees was 35, and collecting a pension was far from everyone’s mind. At the 2004 luncheon there were a dozen retirees present, and I knew them all. I hadn’t seen most since last year, so I spent more time talking to them than I did with my co-workers.

In truth I identify more with the codgers than the callow. I listened attentively to one fellow’s description of his knee operation but only gave half an ear to a thirty-something’s enthusiastic recounting of her Kenya safari. Sans children and a significant other, and with plenty of disposable income, the world is her oyster.

By five o’clock I had had enough dessert, wine, and conversation and went back to the office for my briefcase. The energetic continued to bar-hop until the wee hours. For the young the night was still young, but I’m not and it wasn’t, so I went home.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Carpe Danish

Yesterday was my turn to buy the pastries. Most departments employ the same system: on a designated weekday --ours is Tuesday--one member of the breakfast club brings in the food.

About a decade ago, when the nutrition police were ascendant, the choices were uniformly bland and gastronomically correct: low fat, high fiber bagels were the most frequent offering. When asked, people said that this fare is what they preferred, and the listening purveyors complied. But there were always leftovers at the end of the day.

It sounds paradoxical, but it seems that during the roaring Nineties we were very strict about our food choices, but at decade’s end everyone became more relaxed. For the past several years I’ve been going to Copenhagen Bakery in Burlingame. Their hot, buttered, flaky croissants and Danish are not overly large---they’re slightly larger than a CD—so people don’t feel guilty about taking one. The disciplined grab a knife and only take half a piece, but most come back for the other half within ten minutes. I bought two dozen for 16 people, and everything was gone by 11 o’clock.

If you want healthier fare, mounds of fresh vegetables are available in Chinatown shops, much cheaper than the Farmer's Market outside the Ferry Building.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Fog Clears

The fog rolled through the Golden Gate yesterday afternoon and covered Alcatraz.

The Zamboni machine prepares the rink this morning. Don't think we'll see many skaters today.

Update: obviously I'm not a meteorologist. By noon the fog had burnt off, and the rink was busy.

Later that day, the tree at Union Square.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Right Down the Hall

Every political season, in keeping with the postmodern insistence on developing a narrative to explain what just happened, political observers identify a voter group whose actions capture the essence of the election. “Reagan Democrats” were the key to Ronald Reagan’s victory, while Bill Clinton struck a chord with “soccer moms." Soccer moms transmogrified into the “security moms” who enabled the Republicans to increase their majorities in the off-year election of 2002. In 2004 the “values voters” are ascendant. The VVs are creatures who cluster in the mysterious Red States rarely visited by sensible, educated human beings.

Question: which state cast the most votes for President Bush? Answer: California, whose 5,500,000 votes for the President greatly outnumbered the 4,500,000 he received in his overwhelming victory in Texas, which is the second most populous state in the Union. San Francisco Chronicle reporters, you don’t have to travel to Wyoming or Nebraska to interview Republicans, they’re right down the hall.

Question for Karl Rove: the 527 groups whom you never talk to (because it’s illegal) spent hundreds of millions of dollars straining for an edge in the so-called “swing states”. It might be cheaper to try to move 700,000 California Democratic votes to the Republican column, thereby overcoming Kerry’s 1.24 million-vote margin. “A free-range chicken in every pot and a Prius in every garage”—we have our price!

Every Bush voter I know has been keeping quiet about his allegiances; we all want to decompress, carry on with the business of life, and avoid arguments with P.O.’ed Democrats. But the POD-people won’t stop: my political preference is known to a few in my office, and they insist on coming by every day to regale me with the latest example of the evil and stupid---but cunning--actions of the Administration.

I smile wanly and nod when in the rat-tat-tat of rants and accusations they come to a position, such as energy independence, that I can agree with. But when we get into specifics of how we solve this problem, whether it be coal (bad for the air), windmills (bad for the birds), or nuclear (bad in so many ways), the common ground shifts, and the chasm again opens wide. I refrain from questioning my visitor’s recent purchase of an SUV; the conversation is civil, and I have to work with the guy.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Home Repairs and Blog Entries

The forced-air furnace was installed when the house was built 25 years ago and its design probably wouldn’t pass contemporary safety standards. The flames sometimes lick the electrical wires that control the fan and gas intensity. Ten years ago I had to replace a couple of connectors after the wires melted.

On Thursday night the furnace stopped working. One wire had burnt through, and there were three more that had degraded substantially. I’ve had expensive, unsatisfactory experiences with furnace repairmen over the years, so as soon as I got home from work on Friday I headed over to Orchard Supply and picked up some 16-gauge wire, electric tape, and connectors for $10. I’m a rank amateur with regard to home repairs, but since we’re going to have to replace the unit soon---friends tell me it will cost $2,000—I didn’t feel like paying for a repair.

Well, it took me four hours on Friday night and two hours on Saturday morning (to undo the errors I made on Friday night), but the furnace is working again. I don’t know why I get satisfaction from completing tasks for which I have had no training or have displayed no aptitude. Kinda like writing this blog.....

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Walking, Not Running

The overnight temperatures have fallen below freezing, providing an excuse for me not to go out for the morning jog. At my age, cold in the extremities (probably) can cause all kinds of problems, ranging from cardiovascular shock to facial dryness, so I’d better not risk it. This generation is too young to remember Jim Fixx, who wrote the Complete Book of Running and kicked off the jogging boom during the seventies. Jim Fixx didn’t want to suffer the fate of his relatives, who succumbed to heart disease at an early age, and he became an apostle for aerobic exercise. He ran marathons and was seemingly in excellent shape; Jim Fixx collapsed while running and died at the tender age of 52.

When I have a lot of work to do, I easily lose track of time and grind away through lunch. In high school I picked up the bad habit of working through the night cramming for exams and typing term papers. For the most part I got good grades, so this unhealthy behavior was not penalized; in fact, the adrenaline rush from the self-induced stress was probably addictive. But lately it’s been clear that the quality of my work suffers unless I take breaks. I make it a point to go for a walk every day around lunchtime. Whether it’s due to the fresh air, the mild exercise, or the sunlight, not only am I making fewer mistakes but the creative juices seem to be flowing better.

The ice rink is up again this winter. It costs $7 for adults, higher on weekends.

Yesterday the band from A.P. Giannini Middle School (named after the founder of the Bank of America) played at Embarcadero Center. Their holiday selections were advanced for middle school, and their intonation was surprisingly good.