Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day, 2005

A tandem bike fosters togetherness.

On a nice day the youngster and I like to ride along the levee and have lunch at one of the restaurants along Foster City's fast-food row. Today we had cheeseburgers at Carl's Jr., so the caloric intake exceeded the calories burned. When I'm on holiday it doesn't count.

Afternoon with the SNK's

On Saturday we took the special-needs kids to see Madagascar, the new animated feature about animals who escape the Central Park Zoo for the greener grass of the wild. The SNKs have few friends other than each other. They rarely get invited to parties---understandably so, because their behavior often spoils the occasion. The SNKs require constant monitoring and infinite patience by parents and other caregivers.

We arrived at the theater 15 minutes early so we could get our popcorn and soda. The kids watch the clock and become anxious if it looks like they might be late.

N. is an avid fan of animated movies and knows which actor provided which character’s voice in every animated movie produced during N.’s lifetime. He chattered continuously during the first ten minutes and was oblivious to the hint of my whispered responses; I eventually asked him to think of the other patrons, and his commentary subsided.

A.’s interest was food: he had a hot dog and two large bags of popcorn, washed down with a giant soda. After the movie, A. doubled over with stomach cramps and we dropped him at home before carting the others to a restaurant.

D. covered his ears during scenes of conflict (emotional, not physical), which is ironic when one considers how his disappointments frequently erupt in anger. Today he was well-behaved.

AR is gifted with kinesthetic intelligence. He spent half an hour on the Dance Dance Revolution game, his feet moving faster than my eyes could follow the moves on the instruction screen. A crowd gathered as AR threw in a few extra steps without breaking a sweat.

As for the movie itself, it was mildly enjoyable with a few successful attempts at appealing to adults. Conflicts were resolved, and everyone was friends at the end, which was how our day ended. One can’t really ask for more than that.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Something Going On

Dan Brown’s best-seller, the Da Vinci Code, is suspenseful on several levels. Characters whom we identify with are in danger, and we are driven to find out what happens to them. But the characters’ fate is only an appetizer: as the plot unfolds, secrets hidden for millennia by secret societies and the Catholic Church are gradually revealed—secrets that, if true, would drastically alter the theological foundation of Christendom.

It’s fun to read books like these because of the aha! factor. Historical curiosities and anomalies suddenly have an explanation. Centuries-old mysteries no longer puzzle. And the clues were there in plain sight—in Da Vinci’s paintings, Louvre monuments, and the stones of Westminster Abbey, but we didn’t have the knowledge or insight to interpret them.

A hidden world, teeming with warring forces, some on humanity’s side and some seeking its destruction. Whether the beings are outer space aliens (Men in Black), wizards and witches (Harry Potter), or old-fashioned angels and demons (e.g., C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters), it’s a revelation to discover how the world really works.

I haven’t yet thrown in my lot with the X-philes, but the youthful self-confidence in my ability to discern what’s going on is long gone. Public policy? I can’t even figure out:

U.S. Immigration. Why are there little, even laughable controls against illegal immigration along the U.S. southern border? By not acting, President Bush seems to be leaving open a huge loophole for terrorist infiltration....unless it’s a trap, and there are intense unpublicized counter-terrorism measures being taken in cooperation with the Mexican government. The quid pro quo would be the continuation of the present policy, which benefits the Mexican economy.

China’s support of the U.S. dollar. The world’s factory continues to accept green-backed pieces of paper in payment for the tons of electronics, toys, textiles, and furniture it ships us every day. By revaluing its currency, China would instantaneously pay a lot less for the raw materials, such as oil, and the few manufactured goods, such as airplanes, that it imports. Keeping the current exchange rate must have a long-term benefit that outweighs the cost of depreciation of the U.S. dollar.

What’s sprouting in labs all around the world. Do you think that a ruthless billionaire or government official wouldn’t grow clones of himself in order to harvest replacement body parts when he needs them? Puh-leeze. We can expect more press releases from labs in Asia or Europe and the usual wringing of hands by the chattering classes and Congressmen. The furor will subside, and then we’ll have the next press release. Nuclear proliferation is easier to stop than this brave new world. (It's hard to be outraged when even NASA is working on this.)

Something goin’ on, but I don’t know what it is.
---Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Quick Responses

Got a call from my son tonight at 8 p.m. He’s standing in line for the midnight opening of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. This being Wednesday, the first words out of my mouth were “Have you done your homework?” Of course, I immediately regretted that blurt—he is in his second year of college—and I don’t remember my parents asking me that question when I was 20. He was there with some buddies five hours early, and there were already a hundred people ahead of them. I can hear the group electricity over his cellphone.

When he called, I was on the train heading home. Meetings on Section 404 (Sarbanes-Oxley), our regulators’ blunderbuss attempt to prevent future Enrons, started at 8:30 and ended at 5:30, but there were seven voicemail and a dozen e-mail messages that needed a response before I left.

Quickly composed, pithy phrases with action verbs. OK to be humorous but not sarcastic. Get your point across and don’t wander. Everything this blog is not.

Tuna grinder, toasted, from the Subway at the train station. Foggy, drizzly evening. Crispy cucumbers and onions. Tried to do work on the computer but started playing solitaire. Can’t keep my eyes open. Wish I could see Star Wars tonight.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Long Ago

Who remembers Logan’s Run? It was a modest science-fiction film with a familiar plot: rebels and free-thinkers, lured by dreams of a world beyond, try to flee a tightly controlled society. In 1976 science fiction fans, who had memorized every line in every Star Trek episode, were so desperate for SF scraps that Logan’s Run became a mini-hit.

That winter you had to be a careful newspaper reader to find out about an outer-space movie being made by the same guy who did a film about growing up in the California Central Valley. Not promising, but you take what you can get. The movie was coming in May.

It was hard to gather more information because there was no Internet, no cable TV, no 24/7 news. “Buzz” was non-existent, unless one was referring to the second man on the moon. Marvel issued the “Star Wars” comic books in six installments, the concluding chapters timed to be released after the movie came out. (They’re in a box in my garage, part of my valuable and growing estate, unless the termites have gotten to them.) If the movie looked anything like the comic books, it was going to be a lot more interesting than Logan’s Run and certainly more fun than 2001: A Space Odyssey, still the gold standard for outer-space realism.

On the day after Star Wars opened—Saturday---we drove to the Coronet an hour before the first showing. Already the line stretched around the block.. We got in but had to take seats near the front. The familiar 20th century Fox logo presented, but what was that brass flourish that continued past the 20CF theme? And what were those words scrolling to the top of the screen? And why were those people behind us reciting the dialogue as if they had already seen the movie three times before?

Good movies immerse us in their world, and truly iconic ones make us wish that we lived there, not here. Who wouldn’t want to witness the magic of Hogwarts or the heroism of Middle Earth? And on that Saturday in May, long ago, we wanted to be with Luke, Leia, and Han, far, far away.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Views in the Bay

On Saturday the youngster and I threw a change of clothes into the car and motored south to Monterey Bay. The air was cool and crisp, perfect for our first-ever ocean kayak trip. We met the other members of our group, a mixture of experienced kayakers and novices. After donning a wet suit, paddling jacket, and life vest, slathering sunscreen over our face and arms, and topping everything with a hat and sunglasses, we were ready for business.

The two guides explained the basics of paddling, braking, and turning, and we climbed into our lightweight craft and headed out to the first marker buoy. It took us a few minutes to synchronize our movements; the furious splashing of the oars signaled our inexperience as we brought up the rear of our 10-vessel fleet.

I pulled out a half-broken digital camera (the LCD screen had been shattered last year) and happily snapped away at the sea otters and sea lions. Surely, I thought, a few shots would meet the standards of this journal’s discriminating readership. The instructor began talking about the ocean flora, and the youngster lazily reached over the side to grab a piece of kelp. In an instant our feet flew up and we were in the water, the kayak resting upside down over our heads.

It took 15 minutes for the guides to right the kayak and for us to climb back aboard, weighted down with wet clothes, sputtering and mortified. The camera lies at the bottom of Monterey Bay, its .jpg files lost to posterity. Although we dried quickly and completed the tour without further mishap, it was impossible to recapture the pre-capsize state of bliss, and I glanced at my (waterproof) watch more than once on the way back.

A final accounting includes a wet cellphone that still doesn’t work, and credit cards and a car remote that do. After lunch we stopped to buy a gift for Mother’s Day. It was kind of her to let us go on this expedition, but why should we have all the fun?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Hold de Mayo

There’s a Chevy’s Restaurant near our house, and every Cinco de Mayo the cars overflow from the parking lot into our quiet neighborhood. It doesn’t matter whether one is Latino, Anglo, Asian, or black; the urge to party spans all races and cultures. Today we are all Hispanics, just as we’re all Irish on March 17th.

At least I’ve expanded my cultural horizons. When I first became aware of the holiday, I approached assorted individuals and asked, “When is Cinco de Mayo?” Years later, when I learned to count in Spanish (and French and Italian….) it dawned why they gave me strange looks.

Low Level Anxiety

Today I spent a couple of hours tweaking a financial structure that could save a company tens of millions of dollars in income taxes. I also spent an hour trying to find a round trip flight to Chicago that cost less than $500. (If I violated the travel guidelines, I would have to answer lots of questions, and it’s wise to avoid the hassle.) Clearly, one project was more important, yet policies demanded I spend time on both.

These days it’s extremely rare for anyone to have the luxury of working and worrying about a single task. Police officers have to work overtime typing reports. Surgeons have to answer questions from insurance companies. Outstanding teachers must publish on obscure topics that are of interest to nobody. We may be good, even excellent, at our specialties, but rules and regulations require that we be minimally competent on a host of other matters. And one never knows when a minor slip-up in a neglected area can mushroom into a crisis, e.g, unpaid homeowners’ association dues resulting in the seizure and sale of a house.

The Good Book says, “Be not therefore anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?”, but it’s not the lack of food or clothing that is causing my low-level anxiety (unless it’s lawyers bearing suits!).

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Paper Appreciation

When some loud braggart tries to put me down and says his school is great
I tell him right away, now what’s the matter, buddy,
Ain’t you heard of my school
It’s number one in the state,
So be true to your school.
- The Beach Boys

It’s difficult to be true to your school when it has its hand out all the time. In order to get a personal call from the dean, you need to make a six-figure donation or have three generations of your family attend its hallowed halls. Fondness for my bright college years dims.

Price student center at UCSD

However, as the parent of a current student at UC-San Diego, I’ve become impressed with that institution’s recent efforts to cultivate its relations with alumni and parents. Twice a year the vice chancellor of student affairs travels to the Bay Area and presents a candid update on the problems and opportunities facing the school and the University of California system in general. Ideology and politics are kept to a minimum; for example, UCSD foresaw years ago that long-term trends point toward declining male enrollment and (a) recognizes this to be a problem, and (b) is taking steps to address this issue.

With a booming high-tech San Diego economy, proximity to La Jolla beaches, selective student body (this year’s admitted freshmen have an average 4.06 GPA and 1320 SAT), and a stable of wealthy benefactors who built the library, student center, and school of engineering, UCSD’s star will continue to rise. I can’t profit by buying shares in the school’s future, but at least my student will be able to enjoy the appreciation in the value of its diploma (okay, I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but parents are always guilty of dreaming).