Friday, July 30, 2004

Foggy Mornings

View from my window at 8 a.m.

Recalling Mark Twain’s apocryphal line “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”, we’ve been enjoying a cool summer in the City. Each morning I’ve had to don a jacket or light sweater to keep out the cold. A gray wetness blankets the road, and the defogger blasts away the condensation on the windshield.

I stop at the coffee shop on the way to the office. Nothing like a hot cuppa joe to dispel the chill and fire up the synapses. I forego the milk or cream, even the nonfat variety, due to a genetic inability to process lactose; just give me the black stuff straight. Coffee has been found to be an anti-oxidant, which means that it’s good for your arteries, fights cancer, and slows down aging. (“It locks up those free radicals,” as John Ashcroft might say.)

Coffee--the health food that makes you feel good. A pleasant surprise about a long-term, formerly bad habit. Next on my wishlist of scientific discoveries: how TV-watching makes me more intelligent.

By noon the fog has burnt off

For over 50 years the favorite accompaniment to San Francisco’s morning coffee was, not a jelly doughnut, but Herb Caen’s column in the Chronicle and Examiner. Herb Caen’s snappy mix of news, gossip, punny wordplay, and reminiscences was and is without peer. Many columnists—and bloggers—regard him as their spiritual godfather, but, since his death in 1997, no one has come close to replacing him. However, this fellow started a column yesterday and might just be able to fill Herb's shoes. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


An early draft of John F. Kerry's acceptance speech is shown below. It has undoubtedly undergone some revision since we obtained it:

My fellow Europeans, oenophiles, media mavens, disaffected artists, ambulance chasers, pomo academics, vegan naturalists, and United Nations diplomats, I am be your candidate for the office of President of the United States. As I peer over you today, I think about our shared experiences—my prep school education at a private New England boarding school, the bright college years at Yale, our common love for and service in the armed forces, summering in the Hamptons—and pledge to you that I will never forget or let you forget where I came from.

Today our country faces danger from a culture that opposes everything we hold dear, a culture that loathes our music, our art, the way our women speak and behave, our very way of life. Ladies and gentlemen, we must stop the Texanization of America before it is too late! French cuisine has given way to barbecue, line-dancing has supplanted ballet, hockey is dying while NASCAR is thriving---need I say more?

Today we are faced with a choice, a choice between a man who speaks French, the language of diplomacy, and a man who speaks Spanish, the language of bullfighting. I pledge to you that when I take office, we will stop the “bull” and there will be no more “fighting”! Instead we will express our displeasure the French way, by forming pained expressions, sighing, and casting meaningful glances at those who oppose us. We will resolve conflicts by answering these questions: what do I have to overlook and how much will it cost for you to agree with me?

Some may feel that my personal fortune is undeserved. Well, I did it according to a time-honored tradition---I married it! And my dear wife Teresa, she inherited her wealth from her husband, may the goddess rest his soul. And that is why, after much personal reflection, I favor full marriage rights for our gay citizens! [pause for applause] Never again will others be forced to do what I did and take this long, convoluted path to getting his hands on a family fortune. If gay marriage had been permitted in the sixties, I could have married John Heinz myself!

And, to my friends in the other party, I ask for your vote, too. True, we have many areas of disagreement, but we are united in one fundamental way: we never, ever, want to have a Clinton in the White House again! If I am elected, the junior Senator from New York will not be able to run for President until 2012, when she will not only be older and grayer, but her husband will have eight more years to embarrass her with his escapades. So let us put aside our differences and unite behind this great common purpose.

Over 50 years ago Harry Truman declared that he will never pass the buck, and I pledge to you that I, like President Clinton, will never pass up a buck either. Thank you, and may God--but only if you believe in that man-made construct—bless the United States of America. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Random, Sodden, Statistically Unproven Observations

It’s difficult to find a seat on the Caltrain "bullet train" during rush hour. Sometimes no seats are available when I get on in the morning at Hillsdale Station, which is about 20 miles south of San Francisco. Because the trip takes only 25 minutes, standing is not much of an inconvenience, but I can no longer count on getting any work done on the train in the morning.

Birds seem to be bombing our cars more frequently and with heavier artillery. That’s the price of living in a wildlife-protected area.

Retail stores, like TV networks, are granting new ideas less time to build traffic. Given their high fixed costs, shopkeepers are pulling the plug more quickly on loser product displays, product lines, and even whole stores.

Speaking of retail, automated checkout, where the customer can scan and pay without interacting with a live person, is becoming commonplace as well as easier to use.

The Apple iPod is a great product—we have two in our household, and I have many friends that have at least one in theirs—but its accessories are unreliable. The earphones, cables, and adapters break easily. Replacing the battery is now only difficult, instead of impossible, for the average consumer.

Political observation #1: Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers already outnumber the Gore-Lieberman signs of four years ago. In the Bay Area the anger against the current administration is intense, and this humble observer has noted that, because the K-E bumper stickers always seem to be on a newish SUV costing $30,000 or more, the driver is probably not angry about his personal circumstances. Then I think about how the angry people on the other side of the world were recruited from the middle and upper classes, the university-educated, and the privileged. Maybe our cultures aren’t that different, after all.

Many women who are in their 40’s and 50’s are looking better and healthier than they did ten years ago. This statement applies to very few guys, but it may just mean that we’re less willing to have some work done, not counting hair plugs.

Political observation #2: the promise of Hillary Clinton may never be a reality, just as once-heir-apparent Ted Kennedy never became President or even received his party’s nomination. John Edwards is an attractive candidate in 2008, if K-E loses, and in 2012, if K-E wins. Other up-and-comers, such as youthful Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford, will be formidable candidates in a few years.

It’s impossible continuing to justify sending my (paltry) annual donation to that educational institution a few miles south of here. The school rakes in multi-millions from the most exclusive shopping center in Northern California, government research grants, and earnings on its investments. It owns acres of land, which, if fully developed, would be worth billions. It collects license fees on hundreds of copyrights and patents, including one on Google’s technology. Hard to believe that it would have closed 100 years ago were it not for the founder’s widow, Jane, who depleted her personal fortune and sold her jewels to keep the university alive. A woman who changed the history of California, if not the world. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Friday, July 16, 2004

Sino Wave

As the Asian, predominantly Chinese, influx continues into Foster City, the merchants follow.
The nearby European car dealerships have prospered through good times and bad. Although every demographic group aspires to own one of these pricey automobiles, there must be something about a German nameplate that confers ├╝ber-status in Eastern cultures. After attaining U.S. permanent residence, new arrivals from Hong Kong and Taiwan celebrate by depositing an envelope of cash at the local Mercedes or BMW outlet and driving off with their four-wheeled symbol of achievement.
We now have two excellent dim sum restaurants, ABC Seafood and Mr. Fong’s, within a mile from our home. Thirty years ago I had to drive north to San Francisco or south to Mountain View—about 20 miles in either direction--in order to get a decent tea lunch.
In the 1970’s the first wave of Hong Kong-trained chefs arrived and rejuvenated San Francisco Cantonese cuisine with sharper flavors and quality ingredients, paralleling the culinary revolution that began across the Bay.  Some of the chefs and restaurateurs migrated south and established beachheads on the Peninsula, Millbrae’s Flower Lounge being the most prominent example.  Today the choices are legion, and one can satisfy one’s craving for dim sum or sushi without leaving one’s hometown.
Some of Foster City’s most prominent citizens are of Japanese and Chinese descent. We’ve had Asians on the City Council, and one even became Mayor a decade ago. 

As one further sign that Foster City has become an Asian redoubt, we have our own 99 Ranch, “America's biggest Asian supermarket chain with 26 West Coast stores and franchises in Phoenix and Atlanta [Wall St. Journal – 4/28/04]”.  When I went there last week, new German autos filled the parking lot, as shoppers were pulled in by the $1.49 per lb. special on short ribs.  The same individual who thinks nothing of plunking down $50,000 for a car, when an excellent one can be had for $25,000, will go out of her way to snap up eggs at 99 cents a dozen.

This store, which opened in a neighborhood in which the cheapest house is $800,000, prices each item at $1.25. It's getting a lot of traffic.

I Wonder What Hurts A Lot?

Citigroup Inc. on Thursday said second-quarter profit fell 73 percent to a nearly 6-year low, after setting aside $4.95 billion for legal costs tied to WorldCom, Enron and other corporate scandals.

The legal charge "frankly hurts a little bit," Chief Executive Charles Prince said.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Fourth of July

We had a wonderful time, cupcake

The houses in our neighborhood are turning over again.

The family next door moved after living there for twenty years. Their son received a scholarship to pitch for one of the nationally ranked college baseball teams, and his parents couldn’t resist seizing a 300 percent profit on the sale of their house and moving to Florida to watch him play. Neither husband nor wife had a job waiting, but they were able to pay cash for a larger home and have a cushion to boot. Not having a mortgage allows one to face the future with equanimity.

Two other households were riven by divorce, thankfully long after the children had left home.

Gil moved to the Sierra foothills and still prepares tax returns for clients in the Bay Area; we send him a Christmas card every year while he sends us a box of fruit preserves, an unequal exchange that makes me feel guilty during the holidays. We really must remember to pick up some size 13 flip-flops on our next trip to Hawaii; Gil insists that the ones found in California stores just won’t do.

Ginny relocated to Redwood Shores. She was just starting to learn contract bridge when she moved away and now plays all the time. I suffered from bridge addiction when I was in college, and I fear that it has claimed another victim. Earlier this year I played in a bridge tournament for the first time in a decade, and I wasn’t too surprised to see her there.

When the elderly couple at the end of our block divorced, it took us all by surprise. It’s not that they appeared particularly happy, it’s just that, given the vicissitudes of age, it requires motivation, fortitude, and energy to undertake a major, voluntary life change. The wife continued to live in the house, and she succumbed to age-related illnesses last year.

When Wally, who bought the house from Gil and Ginny, proposed an impromptu block party on July 4th, we readily agreed, as did all the neighbors in our cul-de-sac. It was finally time for all of us to learn each other’s names. Wally supplied the grill, the hamburgers, hot dogs, and corn; Diana marinated some chicken breasts and brought the dessert; we brought the salad, watermelon, and utensils.

Wally starts the barbecue while I get the fire extinguisher ready

We invited Eliane, who lost her husband in May, and were pleased that she overcame her initial hesitation to join us for lunch. Eliane eventually spent almost the entire afternoon with us.

The kids began throwing water balloons at each other. When the balloons ran out, the conflict escalated to buckets, finally hoses, revealing an essential truth about human nature: in the heat of battle it is nearly impossible to exercise restraint.

The kids also shot off party “poppers”, which created an incredible mess on Wally’s lawn and driveway. Thank goodness the party was held on his property and not on ours.

Later that evening many of our neighbors joined us on the Beach Park overpass to watch Foster City’s annual fireworks display. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Friday, July 09, 2004

Sales Talk

As we were about to depart Union Square (see post below) after an unsuccessful quest for the perfect tote bag, we stopped at another designer store. The saleslady was very helpful, but the best bag of the lot, which incredibly was even more costly than the one I had picked out two weeks ago, wasn’t quite the right color. At that point I began to suspect that my practical spouse just didn’t want to spend that much money on an article that wasn’t more functional than a $15 canvas carrier from a discount store. Well, she will be making a presentation to a centimillionaire investor later this month, and if she doesn’t think replacing her battered black beauty is important, then it isn’t.

My wife deduced from the saleslady’s accent and appearance that she hailed from Hawaii. The saleslady (I very much want to call her a "salesgirl" given how young she appeared to us, but that is one term, I'm afraid, that has been consigned to the dustbin of history)had been offered a transfer from the Kahala branch of the store and had seized upon the opportunity to leave the Aloha State for a few years. We remarked that we had similarly resolved to return to the Islands, after a five-year stint in the Bay Area, in 1975.

The first question that ex-Islanders ask upon meeting each other on the Mainland is, “Which high school are you from?” Upon discovering that she and I had attended the same institution, a college preparatory school founded by Calvinist missionaries in the 19th century, we disclosed our respective years of graduation. We then engaged in the ritual conversation conducted by two people of widely disparate ages who find they nevertheless have something in common.

Older person: A friend of mine has a daughter about your age. Do you know [......]?
Younger person: Hmm, sorry, I don’t know her. She may have graduated a few years ahead of me.
OP: One of my favorite teachers was Mrs. [......] . She was fairly new when I took English Lit.
YP: Old Mrs. [......]?? She was a great teacher! We threw a retirement celebration for her my junior year.

I thought about people who were retired and buildings that no longer exist and changed the subject to the durability of designer appurtenances, which, given the age of the buyer, have a reasonable probability of being buried with said buyer. We took our fellow Hawaiian's card, wished her the best of luck, thanked her for her time and exited to the sunlight. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Sisyphean Pilgrimage

Two weeks ago I made my Sisyphean pilgrimage to Union Square to buy a birthday present for the significant other. Careful examination of purchasing data collected over the past 28 years has shown there’s only a 17.8% chance that the gift won’t be returned or exchanged. Nevertheless, the effort had to be made, because this is one area of human endeavor where the effort expended is carefully observed and deemed more important than the success or failure of the enterprise.

Her black vinyl tote bag had been looking noticeably worn, even ratty, because it had been burdened with objects such as a laptop computer that vastly exceeded the bag's design specifications. Feeling a bit chipper from the (partial) recovery in my stock portfolio and because, untypically, I knew what I was shopping for, I confidently strode into one of the designer stores and attempted to affect the breezy nonchalance of the man of means who is no stranger to such environs.

Ignoring the mental alarm bells that had been triggered by the universal absence of price tags, I posed fatuous questions about the quality of the leather trim, the look and feel of the bag under my lady’s delicate shoulder, and the availability of matching accessories, a subtle hint, of course, that we would be returning to acquire complementary necessities. I selected an elegant yet understated bag and was for the most part successful in suppressing the gag reflex when the price was revealed. (I would have been pleased for that amount to have been the monthly take-home pay at my first full-time job.)

Fortunately, Discover had just raised my credit limit, and I was able to proffer my credit card secure in the knowledge that it wouldn’t be rejected. The product was wrapped and duly presented with gifts from other family members that evening.

Her eyes widened in pleasant surprise (eureka! the outcome was already better than most) when the gift was opened, then narrowed as the process of inspection began. Color, check. Black leather trim, check. Size, check. Handles and shoulder strap, check. Pockets and storage capacity, check. But the zipper.....oh, no! The zipper! Too restrictive!

But dear, we don’t want your valuables to fall out, and I felt that the one with the flap and buckle was too inconvenient.

It was a really good gift, she said, but the zipper makes the opening too small. Perhaps we can undo the stitching and have it removed? I thought of the New Deal public works projects, in which the government would hire a crew to dig a ditch, then pay another crew to fill it. I have learned to keep such thoughts to myself.

And so it was that we found ourselves at Union Square this past weekend. Removing the zipper would prove to be impractical, so the gift was returned and my solvency restored. Shoes that cost much less than the bag were purchased at the store next door, dispelling any residual disappointment. The whole episode turned out well, because I received high marks for selecting the best of an ultimately unsuitable lot.

All in all, another beautiful day in San Francisco. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Justin Herman Plaza and the Ferry Building on July 2nd

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Happy Birthday, Mom

When I chance across photos from my childhood, my gaze turns not to me or my brothers, but to my parents. How young they looked! How thin! Just look at their hair!

Mom married Dad when she was 22, and I was born 14 months later (in those pre-birth control days one routinely counted the number of months between the dates of the marriage and the birth of the child). She worked ever since I can remember, first for the phone company, then the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii, and finally for the Honolulu Police Department, where she became a fingerprint specialist. She became quite proficient at recovering and matching prints by hand. Mom would have a hard time keeping up today, with the field’s technological advances and reliance on computers, but she was always a quick study and it’s possible she could have held her own.

In that genteel era women wore dresses everywhere, and I marvel at how pretty Mom and other ladies looked in those snapshots. The men, on the other hand, looked stiff—literally, because their cotton shirts required lots of starch to remain wrinkle-free—and rarely smiled. Moderns talk about the difficulties of multi-tasking, but it seems to me that life was much harder to manage for the middle class back then. Without timesaving devices such as microwave ovens and mobile phones, with only one car in the garage, with the nearest grocery store (whose footprint would occupy the bread section of a modern supermarket) miles away, the exigencies of living did not allow much time for self-fulfillment. We just don’t hear much about our parents’ problems because whining by adults was then frowned upon.

My parents retired over a decade ago and are enjoying a well-earned life of leisure, punctuated only by the welcome burden of tending to their grandchildren. Mom celebrated her birthday this week. Hope you had a great birthday, Mom!