Monday, November 29, 2004

More Pennies and Pounds

It was a successful weekend; I only put on three pounds after consuming gut-busting dinners four nights in a row.

Thursday: turkey with all the fixings.
Friday: prime rib, plus five vegetable and potato dishes and four different desserts.
Saturday: five courses at a Chinese restaurant.
Sunday: shrimp salad at Macaroni Grill, but I ate a lot of Italian bread.

I completed the loan restructuring project that was the only unfinished business from last week, and we took in the Incredibles on Saturday night.

It was tightly written, funny, and exciting. Continuing the trend begun by Disney’s Aladdin in 1992, animated films geared toward children have also included sophisticated repartee that parents identify with, and the Incredibles is no exception. The adult characters wear on their sleeves the regrets of the middle-aged and can’t always suppress the biting remarks to which long-married couples are prone. (Of course, I don’t have any first-hand experience in these matters, but I have observed these traits in other people.)

This morning I’ll take the sophomore to the airport and wish him luck on his finals. We’ll see him in less than two weeks, when I’ll pay the bill for the winter quarter’s tuition. A three-week hiatus, no financial worries for three months, and a fresh start—oh to be 20 again!

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Plenty Left Over

After a busy three days I drove to the airport last night and picked up the returning student. The traffic halted at the lane to baggage claim, so I asked him to go upstairs to the departure terminal, which only had a few cars. Cell phones – a great time-saver and another innovation to be thankful for.

The past few days were as busy as I had foreseen. A couple of urgent requests from Chicago.were added to the pile. Time-honored work habits, such as decorating memos and tables with eye-catching fonts and graphs, and proofreading my work several times, were discarded—“good enough” became the operative standard. At least we didn’t have to plan Thanksgiving dinner since we’ll be going to someone’s house…or so I thought.

As the person who is never wrong corrected me, we’ve been invited to dinner on Friday, not Thursday. On to Albertson’s to buy a fresh turkey---no time to thaw a frozen one---and ingredients for the brine. Around Tuesday midnight we placed the turkey in a plastic bag and covered it with a brine solution of cold water, kosher salt, and spices.

Having wrapped up a half a dozen open items, I managed to leave the office by five o’clock; almost everyone else had left at three. A persistent colleague made me promise to send her an e-mail by Friday on a restructured loan, so I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow morning. Oh well, there are plenty of leftovers to keep up my flagging energy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Temptation Removed

This morning it hit the forties, so I re-lit the pilot light and turned on the furnace. The whole family has allergies, either hay fever or asthma, and everyone tries to leave the house when I first turn on the blower in the fall. Expensive filters can’t keep the dust and stale air from collecting in the vents during the eight months since I switched off the pilot, but the annual inconvenience is the price you pay for heating the house. The smell does go away after 30 minutes and doesn’t recur because air circulates through the vents every day.

After making breakfast for the youngster, I left the house at 7:30 but missed the 7:44 train in San Mateo. (San Mateo is not where I usually board, but I have a doctor’s appointment tonight.) Since the next train wouldn’t come for 20 minutes, I walked over to the corner coffee shop, which is owned by a Vietnamese family. They have a large selection of pastries that are baked every morning, and the coffee is freshly brewed. Being cheaper than the large coffee franchises also helps, and the store is popular with the blue collar, predominantly Hispanic crowd.

Since the end of summer I’ve been making a special effort to reduce my intake of sugar, fat, and caffeine--three of the basic food groups—to prepare myself for the two-month eating season that began with Halloween. But this morning, with a chill in the air and time on my hands, I succumbed to the lure of hot coffee and doughnuts. So I strolled out of the shop with my guilty pleasure (only $2.40---cheap!) and saw a homeless man looking forlornly through a storefront window, his bedroll and worldly possessions at his feet. I approached him.

Hey, buddy!

He turned warily.

How about some doughnuts and coffee?

He had Asian or Hispanic features. His hair was grey and unkempt. At least he had a thick jacket. Just how did he get those prescription eyeglasses?

He paused; his hand, covered with grime, reached for the cup and paper bag. Handing them over, I turned and walked away, neither of us saying a word. I did him a favor, but he did me one, too.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Train Appreciation

The "baby bullet", which has only three stops between San Jose and San Francisco, has helped boost Cal Train's ridership by nearly 20%. The bullet runs once an hour and makes better time than single-passenger cars during the prime commute. Due to the improving economy, the higher cost of gas, the faster transit, or all of the above, it's now hard to find a seat when I get on at Hillsdale Station.

Riders who wear jeans often sit on the floor if the bike racks are empty.

Ladies who stand are rarely offered seats these days. (For the record,
I'm standing, too.)

Standing isn't so bad when it's only 22 minutes to San Francisco. And the cost, which is $140 for a monthly pass for the train, bus to the office, and parking at the station, works out to less than $7 per working day. And because 70% of the cost is paid with pre-tax dollars through our commute plan, it's a real bargain. Cal Train: another thing to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Nice to See

The three people whom I work with are all out Thanksgiving week. One’s on maternity leave, another’s on vacation in Las Vegas, and the third is going to the Bahamas. While they’re enjoying themselves (okay, probably not so true of the new mother), I have to cover for them.

My own plate is full because deal-making activity has picked up. Corporations with capital spending plans are trying to get them completed by the end of the year because of the expiration of “bonus depreciation”, which enable companies to deduct 50% of the asset’s cost on this year’s tax return. Some of the transactions are fairly complex, and it is easy to overlook important details in putting them together.

I had to leave the office late on Friday night because one of my fellow workers—the one who will depart for Las Vegas--was trying to explain the intricacies of four Canadian leases, just when my circadian rhythms were slowing. He was telling me how he handled capital, provincial, and withholding taxes and how he hedged the Canadian dollar, and it was a lot to absorb. I looked out the window and saw the festive crowds gathering as the Christmas lights were turned on below. “Get a life,” a little voice whispered.

Nevertheless, it had been a satisfying day. Two employees agreed to serve on our contributions committee, which organizes our company’s efforts to support charitable organizations in the Bay Area. We review about a hundred grant requests each year, and no one needs any more projects, especially those for which one doesn’t get any career credits. But it’s nice to see that there are at least a few people who are willing to volunteer their time to help others.

I walked out into the night, past the parents with their strollers, past the ballerinas dancing to the Nutcracker in the plaza, past the skaters on the ice rink, and descended the stairs to the subway.

Another cargo ship enters the Bay on Friday morning.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

War is Hell

A U.S. Marine is being investigated for shooting a wounded terrorist in Fallujah. One World War II veteran confronted a similar situation:
Coming forward, we found two Germans dead, torn to shapeless hulks by the bazooka. A third, an ammo bearer, had been thrown across the room and lay sprawled against a wall, one leg shredded and twisted around. "Chambered," he whispered. "Chambered."

He reached into his tunic, and I thought he was going for a gun. It was war; you had only one chance to make the right decision. I pumped the last three shots in my rifle clip into his chest. As he toppled over, his hand sprang spasmodically from the tunic, and he held up a snapshot, clutching it in death. It was a picture of a pretty woman and two little children, and there was a handwritten inscription: "seine Dichliebende Frau, Hedi." So I had made a widow and two orphans.
Dan Inouye lost his right arm during the war, was awarded the Medal of Honor, and has been Hawaii's Senator for over 40 years.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Saturday, When the Parking is Easy

Yesterday we headed to Irving Street to run some errands. The sunshine was welcome after the week’s earlier rain, and it was warm enough that I had to run the air conditioner on the way up to the City. It’s always difficult to find street parking on the weekends in San Francisco’s satellite Chinatowns, but a parking space opened on 24th and Irving, a good omen.

The youngster has been getting his hair cut at Maggie’s for the past ten years. Maggie took extra care with him when he was a toddler recovering from surgery, and he is comfortable with no one else. The hairdressers know us well and freely offer advice, solicited and otherwise, on a host of subjects. One of them recommended a herbal doctor for a nagging malady, so, after we finished shopping and dining, we drove cross-town halfway up Nob Hill, between Grant and Stockton. Despite the heavy traffic, we again found a space a few feet from our destination, making it the best parking experience I’ve had in years (it doesn’t take much to make me happy).

The seafood is very fresh at this supermarket.

There was one lady ahead of us when we walked into the facility, which resembled a store more than a clinic. Her husband said that Western doctors weren’t able to help her, but that, after several years of treatment by the herbalist, she was finally able to leave her bed and return to work. I listened politely, my skepticism unvoiced, but hey, as long as it doesn’t cost too much, what harm could it do?

We left a half an hour later with two bags of ingredients whose names I can’t pronounce or even spell, which is ok because the cost is not reimbursable by my health plan anyway.

This is not your father's Earl Grey. Yes, those are dried snakeskins and beetles.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Veterans Day, 2004

Sausalito, California - In large ways and small Americans honor the members of the Armed Forces.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Taking Sides

For a little over a month the locked-out hotel workers have been picketing at the Hyatt Regency next door to my office. They are marching when I arrive in the morning and when I leave at night. They bang on noisemakers and chant loudly to hotel guests and passers-by: “Don’t check in…Check out!”

It’s easy to sympathize with the workers’ desire to keep a lid on their health insurance premiums, but the costs of running a San Francisco hotel are escalating and occupancy rates are down. At room rates exceeding $200 per night, the hotels are still hemorrhaging money. Mayor Gavin Newsome tried to impose a 90-day cooling-off period but, when his efforts failed, he joined the picket line.

The Mayor has not impressed this humble observer. Tall, handsome, rich, with an impressive San Francisco pedigree and accomplished attractive wife, higher office seems foreordained. But, earlier this year, he could not resist grabbing the headlines by throwing open the doors of City Hall to same-sex marriages. Outspoken advocacy and lobbying is one thing, it’s another to flout the law knowingly while bearing the responsibility for its enforcement.

Besides the obvious detriment caused by the reduction in well-heeled visitors, the strike/lockout also hurts the City by communicating that it’s poorly run. Surely a Gavin with gravitas could have sat the parties down and brokered a compromise without trashing either side in public, as one learns in Negotiations 101. But grandstanding is soo gratifying. Meanwhile, it's Day 42 and counting...

It's puzzling why signs on this street have been marked up. Why cause trouble here? Don't you know that we're with you, bro?

Monday, November 08, 2004


Now that I am older than she was when I was born, I've been thinking more about my grandmother, who died 17 years ago. As a toddler I used to sit cross-legged at the foot of the upright piano while her hands glided over the keyboard, the balls of her feet pressing the pedals at just the right moment. We sang folk songs and nursery rhymes, show tunes and hymns. She showed me how the fifth note of a major chord leads to the next chord and then the next, until the sharps transformed themselves into flats, “b’s” buzzing around the treble clef.

We relaxed by playing Chinese checkers, a game that requires one to move marbles across the board to the other player’s triangular base. In my concentration, my lips would part, and the drool would run down my chin. “Close your mouth!” she would scold, as I carefully picked up a little ball of colored glass, trying not to disturb the others. In triumph I jumped over her marbles and outmaneuvered her. We would play cards, too, a simple game she called “donkey”, which introduced me to the basics of “trumps”, the Hawaiian version of whist.

Sarah’s white hair framed her delicate smile. A lifetime in the Islands had burnished her face, and her color did not fade even during the later years when she rarely ventured outside. She would sit on the couch, hands folded in her lap, gazing serenely at the bustle of activity in the living room. My most vivid memories of her involve food. The dishes reflected the potpourri of cultures in post-war Hawaii—American, Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Long before “fusion” became a term associated with food, our Thanksgiving meal included roast turkey with cranberry sauce, gravy on rice, kim chee (Korean spiced cabbage), lau-lau (roast pork wrapped in ti leaves) and fried noodles topped with soy sauce and vinegar.

Pictures of her as a young woman revealed that she had always been stout, yet she gave birth to two beautiful daughters. She passed on to them a love of music that lives on in my generation and the next. In our family the Yiddish proverb, “when you teach your son, you teach your son’s son”, is, if anything, an understatement.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of her birth. Happy birthday, grandmother! © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Suppressing the Gloat

I live and work in one of the central nodes of the great blue State of California, so I was careful to be non-committal about the election results this morning. The Financial District is populated with a certain type---forty-ish knowledge workers, bright and articulate, many of whom have postgraduate degrees and who obsess about maintaining their physical appearance. These estimable individuals lose all sense of decorum when someone makes mention of George W. Bush.

The gloom was palpable in the elevator. One lawyer heard that John Kerry was preparing to concede: “Did you hear Kerry was going to call Bush?” I said, “Call him what?” He laughed ruefully and by his “Right on!” I knew that he thought that I shared his sympathies. I felt guilty for not correcting this misconception, but it helps me get along with people in the office by keeping my political views in the closet.

The funereal mood poured out of the elevator into the hallways. I greeted the long faces with a somber “Good morning”, excising the chirp from my voice. (If I were roundly thrashed by an idiot who tells transparent lies, I would be despondent, too.) I didn’t talk about the election until late afternoon, when the one LDSer on my floor stopped by.
There was no triumphalism; a brief contemplation of the widely acknowledged flaws (even by his supporters) of the winner quickly instills a sober attitude.

If the results were reversed, I wonder, would the other side have suppressed its desire to gloat?

I got some good stuff tonight, but I already received my birthday present when I woke up this morning.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Two days before the spooks and goblins made the rounds of the neighborhood, we received a videotaped reminder of someone who really makes us scared. Osama Bin Laden won’t be placated by a Tootsie Roll and a pat on the head. Suddenly, the fact that I won’t be getting my flu shot or that I need four sawbucks to fill my tank instead of two doesn’t seem as all-important as one week ago. Yet I am hopeful.

Despite criticisms of the Presidential candidates’ military service records and policy positions, the majority of the American people hold favorable impressions of both of them, according to the latest polls. Count me in the majority: although I favor one candidate, I don’t think a victory for the other fellow will lead to disaster.

The opponents of Presidents Reagan, Bush (senior), and Clinton said that their respective elections would result in catastrophe, yet somehow America today is cleaner, wealthier, and healthier than ever before. We live under the threat of terrorism, but our civilization, much less the world, is not threatened by total annihilation. The Middle East is a mess, but it’s been that way for centuries. The conduct of recent wars is rife with mistakes and misjudgments, but our actions have given hope that in a matter of “mere” decades the flower of reason will sprout in those unfriendly sands.

So if my guy wins, I’ll be happy, of course. But if the other guy wins, I’ll still be happy. It's a beautiful day and a beautiful life ahead.