Tuesday, August 29, 2006

No Thanks

With nine months to go on our cell-phone contract, we misplaced one of the four phones in our family plan. I suspended the number the following day so no charges would be incurred, but we still had the problem of replacing the instrument.

I went to the provider’s San Mateo office. We were told we would have to pay $200 for the least expensive replacement. Of course, if we extended the contract for two years we could have the phone “free”---a contractual commitment of approximately $3,000 so that we could save $200. No thanks. Because of their attitude I’d rather pay the $200 but walk out the door the minute the contract is up. But back to the problem at hand, there had to be other options.

We stopped at the Radio Shack close to our house. The salesman asked if we still owned other late-model handsets from the same carrier. Yes, two years ago they had joined the collection in the garage that we had never gotten around to recycling when we had upgraded our phones. The salesman suggested that, if we bought a SIM card for $25, he could activate it and insert it into one of the old phones. He could even give it the same number as the one that had been lost. If it all worked, we would save $175. It did, and we did.

Given the time he spent, Radio Shack couldn’t have made much, if anything, on a $25 sale to us. Well, they sell mobile-phone contracts from different vendors, so they’ll get the first crack at our business when we change carriers. Meanwhile, we won’t be singing the praises of our current provider. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

[Update - 8/30/06: It's a good thing that we didn't dispose of our old equipment, as per today's warning about sensitive information left on recycled phones. Of course, I don't have anything to hide....]

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Notes from the Sandwich Islands

The trip to Hawaii was too short---only eight days long. In retrospect it was good that I returned when I did, because the trans-Atlantic terrorist plot was revealed on the very next day. I didn’t have to turn in my toothpaste and eyedrops, and I had the luxury of arriving at Honolulu airport only eighty minutes before departure. One day later and the wait time could easily have doubled.

The "Olive Bar" at Star Supermarket.

The variety of Hawaiian food continues to amaze. The selection is wider than can be found in California; every foodstuff available to Californians can be and is imported to the Islands, but local fruits and vegetables aren’t exported in order to prevent Mainland crops from being infested by tropical insects. The fear of fruit flies is the reason we X-ray every piece of baggage going to the Mainland, and the line for the agricultural inspection scanner was longer than the security and ticket lines.

One expects niche marketing by the local grocers but even the warehouse outlets, such as Costco and Sam’s Club, cater to Hawaiian tastes. I marveled at the variety, quantities, and low prices available to the consumer. One could easily put together a luau for 50 people on one trip to Costco, with only microwave reheating required. Dad picked up some macadamia nuts--canned and roasted, which easily passes the ag-inspection--for me to take back to the Mainland while I bought some tuna poke (POH-kee) with limu (seaweed) at $10 a pound.

The Honolulu Costco has surfboards.

I was apprehensive about picking up a golf club after a two-year layoff, but I couldn’t say no to my brother. We went to Olomana on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, long after the hard-core golfers had already finished eighteen holes. With Big Bertha woods borrowed from an uncle, it felt like I was swatting at the golf ball with an oar. I hit a few good shots but too often I was in the trees and marshes. As for my short game, calling it “abominable” would be too kind. Well, at least I communed with nature more than I would have if I spent all my time on the fairway.

On the back nine of the Olomana golf course.

After a long afternoon of flailing and hacking, we replenished our depleted stores by dining at the Hungry Lion Coffee Shop in the Nuuanu area of Honolulu. The Hungry Lion is known for its generous portions and the tree growing in the center of the restaurant. The tree rises far above the roof and is completely walled off from the diners’ view, a shrewd business decision in light of the tropical flora and fauna growing in its leaves and branches.

The $12 dinner special consisted of chicken, mahi-mahi, and shrimp. Once again I had to let the belt out after a meal.

I left Hawaii with a light tan, souvenirs, and over a hundred digital photos, mainly of the family reunion. As I said last year,
I knew our vacation was a good one because I was reluctant to get on the plane. The two weeks that had appeared so plentiful at the start seemed inadequate at the end (a metaphor for life!)
© 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sensitive to Sounds

Mindful of how a government official was misinterpreted when he said the word “niggardly” (miserly, stingy), I will refrain from calling Time’s fawning cover story on Hillary Clinton a hagiography. For those who don't know the word, that could sound insensitive. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Saturday in the Park

This year’s company picnic was held at the AT&T ballpark, much closer to home than last year’s outing. The picnic committee had reserved the park from noon to 4 p.m., so we were careful to make the most of our limited time by showing up when the park opened.

We headed for the barbecue, where the boys loaded their plates with hamburgers and hot dogs. My son’s friends asked if they had to pay for the food and drinks, and I kept reassuring them that (a) everything was free because they were our guests, and (b) it didn’t cost me a penny since my company was footing the bill. But it spoke well of their manners that they thought to ask.

After lunch we toured the stadium. The visitor’s locker room wasn’t plush by Ritz-Carlton standards (and professional ballplayers can easily afford those rates) but it was more luxurious than the facilities at a college stadium or the local gym. Assorted scented lotions were thoughtfully laid out on the sink. Whatever happened to chewing tobacco and Jack Daniels?

The centerpiece was the door mounted on the wall behind a glass enclosure. It had hundreds of signatures from visiting ballplayers who had played in San Francisco over the years. The artifact commanded respect when our guide said that the door's value has been estimated to be about half a million dollars. Don't know if that value will ever be realized, however, since its ultimate resting place will probably be Cooperstown.

Our group crowded into the press box. Sportswriters have a tough job: they must compose unappreciated prose masterpieces for a barely livable wage. They must feign interest in the goings-on even when the Dodgers are ahead by a mile, yet they can’t be hometown fanboys either; there really is a rule that there’s no cheering in the press box. On the other hand, they get to watch what they love, and they get to watch it every day from the best seat in the house. In my next life I want to be a slacker, but being a sportswriter is almost as appealing.

We spent the last hour in the batting cages, and I even managed to make contact. Some of the old eye-hand coordination is still alive; decades of quarters dropped in pinball and videogame arcades did serve some purpose after all. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Better Than Juku

While in Hawaii I spent a day hanging out with my nephew. It had been a long time since I spent quality time with him; he’s also my godson, which means that I could be his guardian if something should happen to his parents. No worries---he’s fourteen, fairly intelligent, and seems to be always sleeping, so any custodianship shouldn’t be overly burdensome.

My nephew is an only child. On the plus side, his parents have the resources to provide him with a private-school education, music lessons, tennis lessons, and all the tutelage that will lead to an enriched existence. But the drawback is that he rarely has time to call his own.

He was enrolled in juku (Japanese-style cram school) during the August hiatus between summer school and the start of his sophomore year. He leapt at the chance to play hooky on a Thursday.

We headed over to the Ward Center on Auahi Street, a block from Ala Moana Boulevard. It was a little early for lunch, so we idly perused the wares at the comics store across the street. The familiar DC and Marvel titles had been moved to a back corner; near the entrance were manga, alt-comics, anime videos, adult comics, role-playing games, posters, cards, and action figures. Son, this isn’t your father’s comics store anymore.

At Big City Diner, an expanding Island chain that serves comfort food with an Asian-Hawaiian twist, I ordered the kimchi fried rice. Kimchi (also “kim chee”) is the peppery fermented cabbage that locals use to spice up a bland dish, as ubiquitous as salsa or Tabasco in California. It’s tasty going down, but the less said about the aftermath the better. I could only finish half of the fried rice, so I took the leftovers into the movie theatre.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is a hoot. Filled with special effects action sequences, heart-pounding music, Johnny Depp’s shameless mugging, and with hardly any romance to bore the boys and boys-at-heart, the movie’s 2 ½ hours went quickly, a good value for the matinee price of $6.50. (This was the second time I had seen the film and enjoyed it just as much.)

About a half hour into the movie, the odor from the kimchi wafted up from under my chair. Affecting a puzzled expression, I looked around from side to side so that other moviegoers wouldn’t think it was me. What’s that smell? Nephew, control yourself!

After the movie we moved next door to Dave & Buster’s, a Chuck E. Cheese for the older set. D&B has pool tables, a menu that’s a cut above hamburgers and pizza, and a videogame arcade. The machines had the same audio-visual reinforcement stimuli as their Vegas counterparts and dispense coupons instead of money. My nephew had success with a machine that flipped tokens onto a rotating wheel with colorful targets.

$30 and one hour later we had accumulated 1,000 points, enough for a baseball cap. He decided to store the points on an electronic card---only 79,000 to go for a videocamera. About as rewarding as Vegas, too.

We walked back to the McCully area in half an hour, a trek that seemed much greater 40 years ago. I told my nephew that I had once traversed that distance carrying a school bag laden with books, and there were no rollers or straps to ease my burden. He was unimpressed. When we got back, I put away the leftovers, which his dad would scarf up the next morning. My nephew thanked me for the outing. At least it was better than juku. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Diamond Head as seen from Ala Moana Park on the walk back from our outing.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Family Reunion

Cousin Liane was one of the organizers.

At the family reunion last weekend I talked with some people whom I hadn’t seen for over twenty years. There was even one cousin whom I had never met. My uncle and aunt had given her up for adoption as an infant, and she was able to locate her blood relations only a few years ago. It reflects well upon her manners but poorly upon her judgment that she, along with her husband and two lovely daughters, didn’t run for the exits when she found whom she was related to.

My dad got up to say a few words. He said that he was proud of the fact that none of his brothers nor his kids had ever been in jail. If I had known that was the extent of his aspirations, I needn’t have bothered with going into debt for graduate school. Now he tells us.

Several of my relatives said that I “looked good”, a sure sign that my physical deterioration was accelerating. Individuals know if they are pictures of pulchritude, and observers know that they know it, so the compliment becomes unnecessary to utter, so when spoken, it has the opposite effect. Another said that I had “lost weight”; since I knew the opposite to be true, I wondered about his previous mental image of me.

I refrained from commenting on anyone’s physical appearance, except for those under 25, for whom “my, you’ve gotten big” is both routine and mildly laudatory. We chatted about those who weren’t there. That’s another reason to attend these reunions---better to be a disseminator than a topic of misinformation.

I grabbed some souvenirs and, because I couldn’t freeze this moment or know when I'd be present at such a gathering again, I ordered the CD / DVD record of the proceedings. Thanks, cousins, for putting the reunion together. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

My newly discovered relation (right) and her two daughters.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ono Hawaiian Foods

On this trip I got a good start on my life’s ambition to eat my way through all the restaurants on the Island of Oahu.

Ono Hawaiian Foods is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. As the saying goes, if the termites stopped holding hands, the building would collapse. Nevertheless, it’s a landmark, the best place to eat a basic Hawaiian luau without paying Waikiki prices. We waited in line outside the restaurant and were seated in fifteen minutes.

I ordered the kalua pig plate, while my companions ordered the laulau plate and salt meat luau. Everything was very fresh, except for the poi, which can be ordered fresh or day-old. I prefer the latter, which is slightly sour, and is similar to my preference for day-old sourdough. The rest of the food had a cleaner taste than the fare one can purchase at the supermarkets and warehouse stores. (I don’t mean to disparage the latter, which is adequate and cost-efficient for large gatherings.)

Two foursomes of young Japanese tourists were studying the English menu intently until the owner eased their anxiety by placing a Japanese menu in front of them. When their dishes came, they brought out their cameras and clicked away. The back and side walls were covered with photos of the celebrities who had dined there over the years. I brought out my camera and snapped pictures of the pictures.

The line outside the restaurant had grown longer, although it was after seven o’clock, past the standard dinner time in Hawaii. The locals know where to go for “ono” (delicious) food. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Welcome Respite

I've been in Hawaii for one week, and it's been a welcome respite from everyday concerns. Reuniting with people whom I haven't seen for decades has been the highlight of my trip, but it's almost been as nice not to have to open my day-planner or check e-mail and voicemail messages every couple of hours.

The freedom to take a nap, eat whatever or whenever I want, play golf, see a movie, or do absolutely nothing at all is liberating, even intoxicating. It's good that I'm going back tomorrow before I'm swept away.

© 2006 Stephen Yuen

Surfing at Ala Moana, on late Friday morning. How can I get his job?

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Democrats were faced with a Hobson's choice when they rejected a Senate bill that would have raised the minimum wage but reduced the estate tax. They hate the rich more than they love the poor. Yes, the last sentence is a bit of cheap sloganeering but has a ring of truth, n'est-ce pas?

It's also a variation on Golda Meir's often and recently quoted aphorism: Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.As the Middle East rages, it's time for a little more Golda Meir:
Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.

The greatest challenge to leaders and educators is to bring idealism into the picture despite the cloud that hangs over humanity.

I am convinced that peace will come to Israel and its neighbors because the tens of millions of Arabs need peace just as much as we do. An Arab mother who loses a son in battle weeps as bitterly as any Israeli mother.

We don’t want wars even when we win.

As to Israel’s military successes, she responded: Our secret weapon: No alternative.

One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present.

Whether women are better than men I cannot say – but I can say they are certainly no worse.

Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you’re aboard, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t stop the plane, you can’t stop the storm, you can’t stop time. So one might as well accept it calmly, wisely.

When told by Kissinger that he was an American first, then the Secretary of State and then a Jew, Golda told him that was fine since, in Hebrew, people read from right-to-left.

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.

Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

When David Ben-Gurion described Golda as “the only man” in his cabinet, she was amused that he thought this was the greatest compliment he could pay to a woman. I very much doubt, she would say, that any man would have been flattered if I had said about him that he was the only woman in government.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Cooling Off

I escaped the heat wave by going someplace cooler. Yes, it’s time for another pilgrimage to the Islands. I threw some tee-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops into a suitcase and rooted around for my Hawaii residents ID card that entitles me to valuable discounts at commercial and fine dining establishments.

The five hours passed uneventfully as the 767 cruised smoothly over the Pacific. The flight was crowded, but with a hot meal, no turbulence, and a reasonably priced ticket ($500 round trip), early 21st-century mass air travel doesn’t get much better than this. I can see why Hawaiian Air is making inroads against the majors; the airline has come out of bankruptcy with a popular mix of pricing and amenities.

My ride picked me up at the baggage claim and insisted on taking me out to lunch, ignoring my protestations that I had just eaten. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant on South King Street.

The produce boxes were piled high at the entrance. My ride bantered with the waitress; this was one of his regular haunts. I ordered the lunch special, a great value—three meat portions plus vegetables--for seven dollars.The lady in our party ordered a large bowl of soup. After twenty minutes, when we were mostly done, she asked me to identify a small black object floating near the bottom of her bowl. It was a (dead) baby cockroach. We speculated that it was the result of not washing the vegetables thoroughly. Regardless of the reason, our appetite was gone and we really were done.

This is a reminder that, even or especially when you’re on vacation, you have to watch what you eat. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Grace of God

In our land of plenty, where obesity is the number-one health problem, it doesn’t seem logical that there are people who still go hungry. It takes but a moment’s thought to realize how easy it is to fall between the cracks—it could be a medical emergency, a divorce with kids, a substance-abuse problem—some families contend with all three. There are some for whom a decent hot meal is the highlight of the day.

At the Fair Oaks Community Center a group of Peninsula churches rotates responsibility for providing lunch every Sunday. Last weekend was our turn. Referring to a one-pot recipe, I bought chicken drumsticks, cream of mushroom soup, rice, onions, and bell peppers. After some preparatory chopping, browning, and mixing, I threw all the ingredients into a large roasting pan.

My inexperience showed: I had multiplied all the quantities by five, but despite doubling the cooking time, the rice didn’t absorb all the water and turned out wet. My colleagues took one look at it and agreed that my dish should be held in reserve. The crowd didn’t appear to be too large.

I needn't have worried about the dish's acceptability. The diners lined up before noon and ate everything. They sat on benches, chatting; everyone knew each other, and the Sunday lunch enabled them to catch up on each other's doings. Some came back for seconds and thirds, tanking up because they didn’t know when the next meal was coming.

I said hello to a thin man who was about my age. He was suffering from high blood pressure, a leading cause of death for African-Americans. He spoke fondly of the county jail, where one got three square meals, a place to sleep, and a nurse who gave out free medication. I wished him luck and said a silent prayer for his welfare. There, but for the grace of God, go we all. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

O Henry

Time’s cover story last week trumpeted The Way Out of the latest Middle East crisis. I eagerly opened the issue.

The six keys to peace are: 1) get the U.S. involved [done!]; 2) don’t forget the Palestinians [check! Why didn’t I think of that?] 3) guarantee Israel’s security [should I take the trouble to finish the article?]; 4) stabilize Lebanon [genius!]; 5) handle Iran [sure, no problem] ; 6) pray for Iraq [we’ve tried everything else]. Well, at least the last suggestion isn't something you see every day.

I read to the end, which frankly didn’t take too long. Last week’s Time totaled 72 pages, about a third of them ads. The cover story could have been written by a high-school journalist. Things improved. The follow-up stories on Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert and the “Hizballah nation” provided color and were better written than the lead.

O Henry, how the mighty have fallen. Buying Time is not a value proposition. © 2006 Stephen Yuen