Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bishop Marc

When the Bishop visits your church, it used to be that everyone showed up and everyone dressed up. Last Sunday the former was true—attendance was nearly double the average--but the attire was only a cut above average. Teens wore their usual uniform of tee-shirts, jeans, and running shoes, and many of the younger adults did the same. No one frowned, however. With its national membership dwindling to about two million, the Episcopal Church only cares about the number of posteriors in the pews, not how they’re adorned.

I was an usher and didn’t want to dismay the traditionalists, so I wore a sportcoat. Also, I fit in more with the older crowd. The truth may hurt, but it must be acknowledged.

The youngster had acolyte duties and adapted well to the change in routine. He raised the Bishop’s hymnal over his head in the procession. He took the Bishop’s staff and laid it on the altar and went promptly to his station. The young acolytes didn’t always bow at the right times, nor did they place everything where they should have, but the Bishop smiled patiently. He knew that out here in the ‘burbs the standards are a little more lax than at Grace Cathedral.

After the service we filed to the parish hall and helped ourselves to a lavish buffet. Marc Andrus (“Bishop Marc”) got up to say a few words. He discussed his arrest in December for blocking the Federal Building in a protest against the Iraq war. He spoke about his second passion, the environment, and whether the church should be involved in worldly politics (yes, he says). He talked about how gender issues have riven the church and how the San Francisco Bay Area is at the forefront of the struggle.

I thought about how the American administration has been denounced for unilateralism in world affairs, and how the Episcopal Church in the United States has gone off the rails (it seems to most of the worldwide Anglican communion) through its blessing of same-sex unions and the appointment of practicing homosexuals to senior positions within the church. Why is unilateralism okay in the latter context but not the former? (I’ve reflected on this topic before.)

Bishop Marc is not a tub-thumper for his causes. He has a thoughtful, intellectual demeanor. During the Q&A session he recommended a reading list on the various subjects we talked about, quoted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and kept asking for more questions.

After three decades of living here, I’ve found that there is greater ideological uniformity amongst the clerics of the Bay Area Episcopal Church (and I have met many of them) than in either political party. That’s something that won’t change in my lifetime, so I must accept that fact as long as I remain a member of this denomination. I did like Bishop Marc. We certainly could have done worse. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Sheila and Marc Andrus (center) engage one of their flock.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Better Than the Alternative

I rushed out of the office to make the 6:14 PM “baby bullet” so that I would be home before seven, but it was all for naught. The problem wasn’t the Muni, which deposited us at the San Francisco Caltrain station just in time (although we did have to hurry across the hazardous 4th & King intersection where commuters dodge cars that are turning onto the freeway).

I boarded the 6:14 train, which pulled out promptly then came to a dead stop. We had struck a pedestrian.

15 minutes grew to 30, then an hour. I looked out the window and saw the flashing lights of police cars and paramedics. There didn’t seem to be much movement.

Most passengers had exasperated looks, but no one dared complain. We may have had a bad day, but some unfortunate soul had it much worse. The train that followed us, the 6:33, pulled alongside at 7:30. We were instructed to exit; our baby bullet was done for the night.

The conductors crafted a footbridge to join the middle cars (each had five), and we slowly crowded into the 6:33 without setting foot on the ground. That was wise; I get squeamish walking in pastures or certain City neighborhoods, and there was no light on the tracks to watch where or on what we were stepping. The 6:33 was standing room only, and it made extra stops to accommodate the doubled-up schedules.

I was home by 8:30. The night was shot. Life is what happens when you make plans, but it’s better than the alternative. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sunday in the Sunset

Traffic was light on Sunday afternoon as we headed to the Sunset District, just south of Golden Gate Park. One of my wife’s favorite hairdressers had opened a shop on Irving; the tresses were getting long, and it was time to give it a whorl. The shop was located in a mixed neighborhood east of 19th Avenue (Hwy 1), the main north-south parkway that connects Hwy 280 to the Golden Gate Bridge. The burgeoning Irving Chinatown to the west had not leapt 19th....yet. I give it about six years.

Mei Ling was scurrying among three customers when we entered the shop. She asked us to return in half an hour. Enough time to grab a bite.

We walked into Peasant Pies and looked at the pies in the display. Their thick crust and rich filling seemed at odds with the low-fat, low-cholesterol, and low-calorie information posted on the wall. The pies were made by a special process learned in France, and look how thin the French are.

As Groucho said, who do you believe, me or your own eyes? We decided to believe Peasant Pies. Besides, they had young urban professional customers who were reading the Sunday Times. They wouldn’t have been fooled.

I ordered beef, while my companion ordered sweet potato pie. They were delicious and filling, as advertised. I made the mistake of looking at the desserts. Blueberries on chocolate flan---never had that before, lots of antioxidants, less than $3, and who knows when I’m coming back. Rationalization, thy name is man.

We crossed the street to Mei Ling’s, who now had three different customers waiting. I was given a grocery shopping list and instructed to come back in an hour. One block away was Andronico’s, a Bay Area chain that began in Berkeley. The goods were pricey, eclectic, and organic, Whole Foods without the big box. Perfect for a San Francisco neighborhood.

I spotted Ed in the wine section. He’s a retired executive who pulled our chestnuts out of the fire on a couple of occasions. He’s well into his sixties, looks 40, and travels the world with his wife, stopping occasionally at their Pacific Heights home. I never wanted any one else’s life, but it wouldn’t be bad to have his.

Groceries in hand, I returned for the third time to the hairdresser. My wife arose from the chair. “How do I look?”

I peered at her hair, then her expression, looking for clues. It looks good. The universal default response.

“I’m disappointed. She was rushing.”

No, it really looks o.k. [But what do I know.] Maybe you ought to see her on a weekday when she's less busy.

The guy reaction—offering a solution instead of sympathy. I’ve tried sympathy in the past, by the way, but it sounds phony. Women have the knack of melding words with tone and facial expressions so that the message sounds convincing. I speak that language with a halting accent, so I don’t even try.

We got in the car and tooled home from the Sunset with take-home Peasant Pies and groceries from Andronico’s. There would just be enough time for a late-afternoon nap. Bet that’s what Ed is doing. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Creepy statue: "When you’re a little older I’ll tell the secret ingredient in my pie."

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Mulligan Universe

We are advised to focus on the future because “you can’t change the past”. Well, maybe that advice will have to change. Scientists will soon perform experiments to prove retrocausality,which is the phenomenon of changing past events through present actions. If retrocausality is not science fiction, these experiments may confirm our suspicions that life is really like a videogame, where you can switch the machine off and restart from the point where you went off track. Take a Mulligan until you get it right. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, January 21, 2007

I'm Right Once in a While

A little over a year ago, I made the modest claim that George W. Bush is the most consequential president since Ronald Reagan. In the area of judicial appointments the Washington Post agrees:
no historian will be able to write that Bush failed to follow through on his campaign promises regarding the Supreme Court. His nominations of Roberts and Alito -- two of the most conservative justices to reach the court in many years -- will be felt for decades to come.

Monday, January 15, 2007

MLK Monday

Overnight temperatures have dropped to the 20’s, and the furnace has been getting a workout. I switch off the pilot light before going to bed. First thing in the morning I pad to the garage, relight the pilot, and warm the house to 65 degrees. Yes, I save a few pennies on my gas bill, but I’ve nearly exhausted my stash of matches. Restaurants and hotels don’t advertise on matchbooks any more. A dying way of life.

The frost has killed the flowers that had survived the previous five winters. The beds need to be rototilled anyway, another task for March. I turn on the sprinklers to see if the pipes have frozen. No, it’s not that cold yet.

On the bright side, the frost has killed the weeds, too.

Many people have the day off on Martin Luther King Day, but not me. The express train in which I frequently have to stand is nearly empty, and I wallow in the luxury of laying my briefcase and overcoat in the seat next to me.

I spot Bob perusing the travel ads. I met Bob nearly 30 years and three employers ago. We crossed paths at a public company, where he was an internal auditor while I was a budget analyst. Bob has gone on to some success in mortgage-loan syndications and can afford to retire but can’t bring himself to turn his back on the money.

I greet his traveling companion, his son, whom Bob is introducing to the loan business. His son is a recent graduate of the University of Florida, the national champion of college football and basketball. Bob with a hint of pride says that the U of Florida’s academic star is rapidly rising, too. Well, that’s the path that Notre Dame and USC took---become an athletic powerhouse, and the academics will follow. His son looks on impassively while Bob continues to brag; I don’t mind, he’s a good kid.

At Fourth and King I bade farewell to my seatmates. The wind blew through my thin overcoat. It reminded me of my own miserable college winters when I couldn’t wait to get indoors. Also like college, with unattractive options outdoors and the added factor of a quiet holiday phone, I stayed in and got a lot done. A good start to the week. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I'm Not Panicking....OK, I'm Panicking

A popular fictional device is the powerful secret agency (see Da Vinci Code, Men in Black, Asimov’s Foundation) that manipulates history, unsuspected by the rest of humanity. Whether the agency’s intentions are good or evil is usually ambiguous and can only be grasped in the context of greater truths that are kept hidden. Powerful, secret organizations are anathema to an open society but we are fascinated by them nonetheless. They, like many notions of God, have a Master Plan that we can’t divine, but we yearn for their existence because we would like to believe that They will intervene in dire situations, if only to ensure their own survival.

So with Persia about to acquire the Bomb, Iraq falling apart, and Christian Europe about to be overrun demographically by its ancient enemy, this is a plea to the Knights Templar: boys, it’s time to come out of hiding and fix things. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Shiny Apple

Our two-year-old iMac G5 is trouble-free.

A good example of an organization that is both effective and secretive is Apple Computer. We have been Apple devotees since 1981, and a sizeable part of our garage has been devoted to storing equipment (Apple III, Mac LC, Mac clones, plus manuals, software, and peripherals) that is long obsolete.

In the early 1990’s we made a small investment in Apple stock in the forlorn hope that we could recover a few of the many dollars we had spent on Apple’s premium-priced products. But the company and the stock continued to drift, the value of our shares was halved, and Apple seemed destined to follow Osborne Computer, Digital Equipment, and Prime Computer into the slagheap of electronics history.

Ten years ago founder Steve Jobs returned and transformed the company from a dying niche-player in personal computers to a leading-edge design, entertainment, and electronics powerhouse. iBooks, Powerbooks, operating system (OSX) updates, iMacs, and, of course, iPods and iTunes flowed out of Cupertino in an unending stream of innovation and style. This week’s announcements of the iPhone and iTV marked Apple’s full-fledged foray into communications and video entertainment, areas in which its efforts had heretofore been modest.

Steve Jobs is famously mercurial, autocratic, and idiosyncratic, but he has made nary a misstep in producing hit after hit. His value to Apple was made evident when the stock plunged to the low 80’s a few weeks ago when there was a possibility that he would have to step down due to a stock options backdating scandal. Now that it appears that Steve Jobs was not at fault, and in the wake of the product announcements, the stock closed at $94.62 yesterday. As an owner of Apple stock, I say give him whatever he wants. He is one CEO who is underpaid.

Apple stock has slightly outperformed Google's over the past two years.

[Note: Steve Jobs may dominate multi-billion industries, but he’s been stymied for six years in his effort to rebuild his house. Here in San Mateo County, we don’t care who you are or how much money you’ve got.]
© 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Economic Warming

From yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
The economy is heating up. Literally....This year's warm weather means economic activity that would normally be put off until spring is happening now instead, says Goldman Sachs economist Ed McKelvey.
The article goes on to discuss how certain industries, like home-building, are helped by the warm weather, while others, like clothes retailers, have seen their winter sales drop. So this year treat economic statistics, which are adjusted for seasonal variations, with caution.

One unquestionably good development is the plunge in oil prices, which some traders see as heading toward $40 per barrel:
Typically in January, refiners are busy pumping out heating oil to meet high demand. This year, due to an unseasonably warm winter in the Northeast, which consumes the majority of U.S. heating oil, refiners have cut back on heating-oil production and are making more gasoline, getting a head start on the peak summer driving season. Refiners are also getting a jump on seasonal repair work, and Gulf Coast refiners have less repair work to do after a tame hurricane season.
Who's hurt? Oil companies and Middle Eastern countries that support terrorism. Who's helped? the rest of us. Bush's secret plan to fight terrorism through global warming is working! © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, January 08, 2007

There's No Point in Playing Any More


Before the New Year’s resolutions took effect, the weeks leading up to January 1st were one long Fat Tuesday of gluttony and sloth (I would have indulged in more of the deadly sins, but am not totally dissolute…..yet). Some vacation time had to be burnt off because it wouldn’t carry over, and the excuse for gastronomic over-indulgence was that we had to entertain an out-of-town guest, and decorum demanded that we show her a good time.

After the Christmas pageant two weeks ago we wandered the streets of San Francisco, sightseeing and shopping. At five o’clock we decided to try our luck at Kokkari, a highly regarded Mediterranean restaurant near the Embarcadero. It’s hard to keep the tab under $40 a person (before wine, which starts at $100 per bottle), but the service and food have a deservedly high reputation, and with the restaurant’s location in the midst of investment banking and M&A law firms there’s no reason for it to keep its prices down.

The hostess said that we could be seated if we would be done in an hour. Feeling like a politician making a promise that probably wouldn’t be kept—but I was not lying because hey, you never know—I agreed.

We began with the appetizer sampler, which consisted of various spreads (cod, eggplant, yogurt) for the freshly baked pita, a selection of olives, and rice wrapped in grape leaves (dolmathes) While we chatted, the waiters refilled our glasses and substituted clean plates that we dirtied with the olive pits.

The main dishes arrived promptly, and we ate with gusto. The Mediterranean diet, with its spices, vegetables, and olives, is so loaded with antioxidants that it supposedly extends one’s life span. That is how I justified eating every morsel of the pork special, marbled with perfectly crisped fat that melted on the tongue. Thank goodness that we don’t live nearby. Neither my arteries nor my finances have the capacity to dine here regularly. We lingered over desserts of rice pudding and chocolate cake. By the time we left, an hour and a half after we had started, all tables were filled. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Top to bottom: lamb shank, moussaka (right), sea bass, rotisserie pork special.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Videogame on Ice

Yesterday we deposited the college student at San Jose International for his return to San Diego and headed for HP Pavilion to attend our first and probably only NHL hockey game of the season. The Sharks are a Stanley Cup contender, and the tickets were expensive. (I rationalized the purchase at a charity auction in September—and no, I can’t claim the tax deduction because I received value, i.e., the tickets, in return.)

Because we had some latitude in choosing which game we would see, and because the youngster is an avid Sharks fan---he occasionally wears the jersey to school, we selected last night’s contest because the Sharks had a good chance of prevailing. The Columbus Blue Jackets were a sub-.500 team, and we weren’t disappointed. The Sharks won, 5-2, with all goals being scored on power plays (when a team is a man short due to penalties).

In a professional hockey game, it’s easy to experience sensory overload. The action is non-stop, and one has to shout at seat-mates in order to make oneself heard over the arena music and noise. The puck quickly moves from one end of the ice to the other, and with twelve players whirling like dervishes (between fistfights), NHL hockey resembles the final round of the old Asteroids videogame in which asteroid chunks are flying all over the screen.

The youngster and his friend were wide awake through the end of the game, although it was 10:30, an hour past their normal bedtime. Well, they’re still on winter break, and school, discipline, and New Year’s resolutions—theirs and ours—can wait until next week. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

The goalie blocked this shot, but the Sharks scored a few seconds later.

[Note: I saw my first professional hockey game in 2004.]

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Hot Pot City, Milpitas

Hot Pot City is a popular Milpitas restaurant that I sampled for the first time last week. It’s located in one corner of an Asian (primarily Chinese) themed mall anchored by a 99 Ranch outlet.

We piled our plates with raw vegetables, seafood, and meats. In the center of each table was a gas-fired hot pot ringed by a foil-wrapped doughnut-shaped metal plate. I learned that some foods, like the thinly sliced seasoned meats and the fish, were best heated on the plate, while the vegetables, calamari and shrimp should be blanched in the boiling water.

The cooking apparatus seemed a little small for our party of five adults. Each individual quickly recognized the futility of trying to cordon off his food from the person sitting next to him. Thank goodness we were all family.

The $14 per person tab was very reasonable. The ingredients were fresh and all-you-can-eat. Selections included Asian desserts such as grass jelly and sweet bean soup, soft drinks, and rice and noodles for filler. Hot Pot City is an extremely casual family dining experience. I didn’t spot any solo diners, and there was no waiting that weeknight. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Not ready for the pot: live frogs at 99 Ranch

Mayo Family Winery Redux

December , 2006 wine pairings: Proscuitto and Blue Cheese "candy cane" (top) with 2004 Syrah, Page-Nord Vineyard (left); Beef tenderloin medallion w/ spiced currants and chocolate snowdust (right) with 2004 Meritage, Los Chamizal Vineyard (middle); Rudolph's pot roast (left) with 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Delaney Vineyard (right).
We have written before about the Mayo Family Winery in Sonoma County. It was time to go back to the reserve room and try their new tasting menu. It’s an eye- and taste-bud-opening experience for neophytes and perhaps a few sophisticated oenophiles, too.

The host introduced each bottle while the chef labored in the kitchen to produce a pairing dish that would contrast or complement the wine. We sipped the wine, becoming accustomed to its taste, sampled the food, and finally re-tasted the wine and were astonished by how our perception of its flavor had changed. Invariably the change was for the better.

The price of the experience is still a bargain and may even be a loss leader at $25 per head. We took home a case. After all, it’s Christmas. © 2007 Stephen Yuen
December, 2006 wine pairings: Beet and goat cheese ginger bread (top) with 2005 Sauvingon Blanc, Emma's Vineyard (left), Coconut prawn and egg nog tart (right) with 2005 Viognier, Sunnyview Vineyard (middle); Ahi Tuna and Shiitake "ornament" (left) with 2005 Pinot Noir, La Cruz Vineyard

Monday, January 01, 2007

Another Year to Be Grateful For

It has been another good year. A few mild infirmities are nagging for attention, but as of today we have no unmanageable health worries.

We bade farewell to some dear friends, again reminding ourselves that life is short and that we should make the most of the time we have.

We earned more than we spent; still, we’re a long way from being free of monetary worries.

Our children are progressing fitfully toward the day they will be self-sufficient, although the precise day and time no man can know.

From one year ago :
We have our home, our health, each other, and hope for the future. That’s a lot to be grateful for.

Happy New Year! © 2007 Stephen Yuen