Wednesday, June 29, 2005

What I Did This Summer

Question: on my vacation to Hawaii, at which merchant did I spend the most time and money? Answer: the hardware store at the bottom of the hill. I like to pay a little more at the local store instead of driving ten miles to the big-box retailers. The local store has been part of the neighborhood for decades, and the person who is never wrong is distantly related to the owners, one of whom went to my high school.

Our relative has a nice view of Honolulu

I replaced the screen door and spent a couple of days taking apart and replacing some plumbing fixtures. Although there is no explicit cost when one stays with a relative, there’s a moral obligation to contribute to the household, especially if the relative is elderly and doesn’t have a lot of help around the house. The rest of the family also chipped in, vacuuming, scrubbing, and pruning, and I was proud of the kids for not complaining when I asked them to put down their electronic toys and do some work.

It was a very satisfying vacation: we left our “hotel” in better shape than when we moved in, we celebrated some landmark birthdays, we put our diets on hold and partook of Hawaii’s rich and varied cuisine, and we did some sightseeing around Oahu.

Oahu has an undeserved reputation for crowded beaches.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Credit Where It's Due


Finding examples of government inefficiency is a target-rich endeavor--for example, see the previous post below--but when elected officials make an effort, however modest, to serve their customers we should give credit where it's due. Honolulu has a number of satellite city halls sprinkled around Oahu. These are a great time-saver to commuters who have difficulty getting to the traffic-clogged center of town.

The satellite city hall at Ala Moana Shopping Center has an appealing store front. Like some other customers who didn't have any business to transact, we dropped in, lured by the brightly lit displays of police, fire, and emergency services paraphernalia. I didn't open my wallet, but I would have if they had T-shirts of Hawaii's state police force. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Friday, June 24, 2005

Going Native



My destination was the Territorial Office Building, not on anyone's top-100 list.

Most visitors come to the Islands and immediately head for the beach, the landmarks, the restaurants, and shopping centers. On my first day in Honolulu I chose to stand in line at a government office. I was claiming my heritage, more precisely, my Hawaii Identification card, which not only established my residency in the 50th state but also entitled me to valuable discounts at commercial and fine dining establishments.

In order to receive the ID card one has to present originals of one’s birth certificate, social security card, and marriage license. This was my second attempt: on my previous trip I forgot to bring my social security card.

Some applicants have been waiting for four hours (There's a waiting room inside with 40 people.)

Many applicants fail the initial screening because they didn’t bring the right papers, lost the papers, never got them in the first place, or maybe the dog just ate them. In my case it’s only through a large dose of luck that I haven’t lost any of the documents, all of which were obtained 30 or more years ago. One elderly widow was turned away because she didn’t think to bring her marriage license; the clerk patiently explained that it was necessary to show why her name was different from the one on her birth certificate.

Question: why don’t they spell out the change-of-name reason for producing the marriage license, so that men, not to mention single and professional women who never took their husband’s name, don’t have to waste hours rummaging through shoeboxes, file drawers, and safe deposit boxes? Answer: we would be acknowledging that the reason most people change their names is because of marriage and that the vast majority of such people are women. And if we put this helpful explanation in the instructions, it would offend someone; worse, she could be a lawyer. (Yes, there are men who tack their wife’s surname onto theirs, but I only know one such person and even he quietly dropped the hyphenated suffix after ten years.)

Red tape rule #1: if a bureaucratic procedure is devised to address a subset of the population, it must be inflicted on everyone. (Don’t believe me? Two words: Airport Security.)

After I passed the initial screen, I took a number and waited three hours for it to be called. I took the opportunity to stroll around the grounds.

The statue of Kamehameha the Great is a few feet from the Territorial Office Building.


The lady at the window visually inspected the documents and re-entered everything into her computer. She scanned the prints of my two forefingers and took my picture. I paid the $15, and it was only another 10-minute wait to get my card. Now that I was officially a kamaaina, I was ready for action. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Day in the Sun

The amphitheater at Ryan Park an hour before the ceremony.

Both my kids have earned something I never did----an eighth grade diploma. It is mandatory to take off from work when a family member passes this significant milestone, and so it was that I, along with nearly 1,000 parents, siblings, and friends, was baking in the Northern California sun last week to attend the commencement ceremony for Bowditch Middle School's Class of 2005.

The obligatory speeches by the principal, the class president and the student body president contained nothing unusual or controversial, and we cheered loudly as our charge marched to the stage to receive his certificate. Our cameras snapped away during and after the ceremony, and we hosted a lunch for relatives who flew (!) in for the event. We ended the day by unwrapping presents that commemorated the occasion.

Relatives of the graduate swelter and squint.

Because Foster City doesn’t have a high school, the students will be split up into at least four different high schools in San Mateo County, and many will never see each other again. The ceremony honored their achievement, but more importantly to the students, their three years together.

I am sympathetic to the view that awards are growing like topsy in 21st century America. The currency of recognition is being debased, and it is hard to separate the truly distinguished from the merely satisfactory due to the plethora of prizes being passed out like candy.

But I’ve become mellower in my old age. These young men and women will find out soon enough that life will be filled with disappointment and discomfiting surprises. And most do not have the luxury of extended families who will cushion these blows. So give them their day in the sun.

The most successful CEO of the past generation believed in celebrating small victories. “Celebration is the most under-utilized tool in corporate America,” he said, and perhaps this criticism is true of our society at large.

OK, some parents do go overboard.

[Think we lack perspective? See this American’s-eye view of middle-school graduation in Japan(caution: profanity). Hat tip: Steven Den Beste] © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Farewell To Florence

Duomo
Duomo
I could prattle on about my trip to Florence, and I see that your patience is wearing thin, dear reader, but please indulge me one more time.

However, I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that I’m a starry-eyed europhile who asks why life can’t be one long bout of chianti-sipping under the Tuscan sun or café-conversing on a Paris sidewalk.

My personal finances do not permit me to live that way, and perhaps yours don't either.

Florence Streets
Diverse architecture
We were fortunate to have Sylvie, a local professor, be our guide during Tuesday’s walking tour. She pointed out the contrasting, even discordant architectures, in which modern office buildings abutted 500-year-old palazzos. We marveled at the chaotic intermixing of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and motorcycles on the narrow cobble stoned streets.

It was only a quarter-mile walk to the Duomo, the large domed cathedral that dominates the Florentine skyline. Through fits and starts the Duomo was completed over the centuries and became the fourth largest cathedral in Europe (behind St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London, and the cathedral in Milan).

The line to the front door moved quickly, and it took less than ten minutes to gain entrance. I didn’t see any enforcement of the posted dress code, which forbade bare shoulders, shorts, dresses above the knee, and bare midriffs; all were welcome in God’s house. The inside walls of the cathedral were largely free of ornamentation, so we spent our time gazing upward at the ceiling of the cupola (dome).



Baptistery Michelangelo studied the Florentine dome’s use of perspectives before designing his famous ceilings in Rome: painting needs to be adapted to a curved surface if the images were to appear undistorted to the viewers below.

We bypassed the Baptistery, which I had visited two days earlier, and the Uffizi Museum, which had a four-hour wait, and strolled to the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge in Florence that survived World War II.
Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio’s jewelry stores left my wallet lighter on my previous trip to Florence over 20 years ago, and I wasn’t anxious to duplicate that experience. (A colleague’s wife picked up a handbag for me at the designer outlet, so I got points for not returning empty-handed.)


We returned to the hotel for lunch. Touring was over, and it was time to begin work on my presentations for the next day’s business meetings. I spent five days but only scratched the surface of a city where events shaped the course of Western civilization. At the turn of the 16th century some of the greatest artists (Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael) in human history converged on this small city in Italy. The how and why remains a mystery.


In Florence I could join the other tourists at the Loggia dei Lanzi and gawk at the open-air sculptures, including Cellini's bronze of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, but my understanding, I suspect, will always be elusive, no matter how many times I return.


He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all.
-Sinclair Lewis


On one of the Duomo's exterior panels was carved the Fleur-de-lys, the symbol of Florence and a recurring theme in the best-selling thriller the Da Vinci Code. &copy 2005 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Small Talk

Rooftop of Westin Marriott, Florence

Data, the android in Star Trek: the Next Generation, had great difficulty mastering the subtleties of human behavior. In one episode he attended a cocktail party and attempted to practice the art of “small talk”. His feeble attempts to engage in dialogue paled before the pontificating politician who could expound at length on the weather and other trivialities. Watching the diplomat babble—and Data’s quizzical expression—was a great comic moment in the series.

I’ve always admired the conversationalist who can come up with interesting things to say about any topic. But the key to small talk proficiency is not the possession of erudition or brilliance but simply the ability to respond as if one had been listening closely to what the other party has been saying. People warm to flattery, and there is nothing more flattering than someone paying attention to what we’re saying.

Sure, one has to perfect a few icebreaking lines, but at a business conference 1) how long have you worked for Acme Corp., 2) did you have a nice flight, or 3) have you always lived in London / New York / Tokyo are usually enough to get the ball rolling.

I was doing well on this trip until I made the mistake of asking a woman about her family (in my defense, in every conversation that I had had during the past few days people talked about their kids), and she, with a pained expression, asked to change the subject. I beat a hasty retreat by turning the conversation to the magnificent city in which we were having our conference. In Florence it’s easy to put aside one’s problems and be swept away by history. &copy 2005 Stephen Yuen

Monday, June 13, 2005

David


Five hundred years later, the David’s nudity still startles. No fig leafs for Michelangelo, who not only would sculpt an anatomically correct man---the man would be perfect, and he would be 16 feet tall.

In the world of the 15th century the human physique was not yet widely celebrated. Doctors could not even examine the bodies of their living patients, and artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo were forced to visit morgues in the dead of night to study the human form.

Michelangelo’s David is not the slender stripling of Biblical legend but a handsome youth of princely mien. He gazes intently at his opponent---close-ups of his face show a hint of fear, but you can see a mind feverishly at work. The left hand, holding the sling, is raised to his shoulder, while the right, holding the stone, rests on his thigh. As if to emphasize the unity between head and hand, Michelangelo raised a vein that extends down the neck, past the right arm, to the hand; no such vein, of course, exists in reality.

The greatness of the David is more pronounced when one considers the limitations of working with marble. The weight of the material normally forces the sculptor to design a wide base that tapers toward the top.

Here the weight is borne by two relatively slender legs, so Michelangelo added support by the innocuous placement of a branch by the right calf. If the arms extended out from the body, they may have broken off long ago, but the placement of the hands on the shoulder and the thigh stabilize the structure while fulfilling the artistic vision.

If art provokes a reaction, the David is great art because of the after-shocks it produced not only in Florence but throughout 16th century Europe. It became the symbol of the Florentine republic and civil liberty. And today it still has the power to provoke…..and to humble.
&copy 2005 Stephen Yuen


Note the broad base on Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women, Florence

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Business Dining



It’s easier nowadays to keep off the pounds when traveling on business. For the earnestly fitful, every major hotel--and even our five-floor hotel in Florence--has a fitness center, but it’s not always convenient to pack gym clothes or to schedule a workout when the appointment calendar is filled from morning till midnight. But those for whom exercise is a religion don’t have a weight problem anyway.


If one has gluttonous tendencies—and, dear reader, I’m not speaking of anyone that’s party to this conversation—the principles of fine dining have come to the rescue.

The better restaurants use quality, fresh ingredients while reducing the fat in the creams and sauces. While the number of dishes in a sit-down meal is at least four—appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert—the portions are small but served on enormous platters to give the impression that the quantities are larger.




When I dined with my colleagues on Saturday, the calamari pasta had less volume than a can of Chef Boyardee or Franco-American spaghetti but seemed more than adequate when framed on a large white plate.


Another brake on overconsumption is that one must mind one’s table manners when dining in the presence of others. Business meals call for attentiveness to what others are saying, small bites so that we can talk while we’re chewing, and constant sipping of wine to cleanse the mouth of food particles that cause embarrassment when conversation becomes animated. Business dining means being aware of everything going on around the table; it’s real work and is not about, well, eating. It’s also how women eat and how they want their men to eat (I speak from personal experience.)

Another step toward the complete feminization of our society and the death of the American way of life. © 2005 Stephen Yuen


The restaurant's decor wouldn't be out of place in San Francisco or Berkeley.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Firenze


The Arno River outside the hotel.

On Friday afternoon I boarded a Lufthansa flight to Germany. Those long-distance eastward-bound flights are exhausting because I find it impossible to sleep. Arriving in Frankfurt, I must stay awake another couple of hours to make the connecting flight. When I arrive at the hotel it’s mid- to late-afternoon (early morning in SF), and if I give in to temptation to take a nap it’ll be difficult to sleep that night and to be “on” for the next day’s meetings.

So I go for a walk. It’s shirtsleeve weather, and I pick up large bottles of water and soda for five euros, which is about the cost of a small drink from the room’s mini-bar. The room is comfortable but expensive at €400 ($500) per night. Over the next week we’ve scheduled conferences with other businessmen who are also at this hotel, so here we must stay. The sacrifices we must make for our jobs….


The bathrooms have been recently renovated.


It was tough not to take a nap.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

June


Low tide by the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge

June is my favorite month. In distant days June marked the successful completion of another school year and the start of vacation, when the living is easy. The air is warm but not stifling; the tree and grass pollens subside, bringing relief to allergy sufferers.

June is the month of reunions and weddings, of happy endings and the beginning of summer jobs, summer camp, and summer school, finite adventures with no commitment, the best kind. One June, years ago, we sold a house and bought another. We cleaned up, moved on and settled in.

In late June three of my favorite people have birthdays, and this year I’ll be on vacation, celebrating with them.

Because we don't know when we will die,
we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.
Yet everything happens only
a certain number of times,
and a very small number really.
How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood,
some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive
of your life without it.
Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that.
How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?
Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
- The Sheltering Sky