Monday, August 29, 2005

Impending Disaster

About ten years ago a winter storm generated winds of 70 miles per hour. Our house shook throughout the day, and a ten-foot section of the wooden fence blew over. I cannot imagine what 160-mph winds would do to wooden structures; our prayers go out to the people of New Orleans, especially those who are left behind, as Katrina hits landfall tomorrow.

After Y2K and four years of living with a terrorist dog that has barked but not bitten, it is easy to dismiss warnings of another disaster. But this one truly looks dire.

"[Katrina] could turn one of America's most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city's legendary cemeteries."

"New Orleans will be under 30 feet of water."

For those trying to get away, “there are thousands of poisonous snakes that will flee to the same high ground as people”.

Biblical proportions, indeed.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Picnic at Castle Rock

Last Sunday we pointed the car east, then north, and drove nearly an hour to the company picnic. The temperature reached the 80’s, which is moderate for a summer day in Contra Costa County. We exited the freeway to a busy suburban boulevard in Walnut Creek. As we drove inland, the houses got bigger, and the traffic dwindled. The Arabian horse stables on the left were a sign that we were nearing our destination. Nestled in the hills at the end of a winding road, Castle Rock Park is a favorite spot for group outdoor outings.

One nice thing about my company is that it doesn’t stint on the annual picnic. Employees can invite anyone, and some bring friends as well as family members . There’s plenty of food (steak, ribs, chicken, grilled vegetables, salads, desserts), an open bar, and kid-centered activities. Each family gets a bag filled with tschotkes; this year we got colorful headware, and the bag itself was a durable keepsake, suitable for travel.

The picnic is usually skipped by singles and young couples, who have better things to do on the weekend. The senior executives always make an appearance, however, and make it a point to mingle with everyone, not just those whom they meet with every day. For most organizations I’ve found it to be true that the social niceties are observed by the higher-ups. Yes, they make the big bucks, but they (and their spouses) have to be on their best behavior more than you or I. People are watching and judging.

I chatted with my colleagues’ spouses, some of whom I had not seen for years, and passed the afternoon in the shade. The boys played volleyball and tried their hand at some contests---ones where everyone wins a prize. We left at 4:30 for home and light dinner.

Limbo contest at the picnic. It was won by a young person.

We stopped at 99 Ranch on the way home. They have a large selection of mooncake.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Giant Disappointment

On Tuesday night we took in a Giants-Phillies game at SBC Park. The contest was over quickly: the Giants starter was bombed for extra-base hits in the first three innings, and when the score got to 5-1 the crowd started to boo. The home team never mounted a threat, and we decided to beat the traffic after the 8th inning when the scoreboard read 9-2.

Although it was late August, it was the first game that I had attended this year. The energy in the stadium seemed to be a fraction of 2004’s. The Giants are part of what is, by consensus, the worst division in the majors. They’re 16 games under .500, yet are only 8 games behind the 63-63 Padres and still have an outside chance to win the National League West title. Injured Barry Bonds has not suited up this season, and in the back of everyone’s mind is the possibility that he’ll never play again. The Giants have neither a pennant chase nor Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Ruth or Aaron’s home run milestones to draw fans to the stands.

The attendance officially was 38,000, but the rows of empty seats visually seemed much higher than 20%. Next year it will be interesting to see if the Giants continue to maintain their high level of season ticket renewals. If they don’t, I’ll be able to get better seats than I did on Tuesday.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Colorful Diversion

Noontime’s vivid colors were brightened by a youthful dancing troupe from Taipei, one of San Francisco’s sister cities. After each number the onlookers put down their lunches and broke into enthusiastic applause. I had to rush off to an errand but lingered to snap a few shots.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Taking Gas

Now that gas has permanently blown past $2 and is resting at $2.70 per gallon at the neighborhood Arco, I bought a locking gas cap for the car. It cost $13 at Kragen’s, but since I just put $40 in the tank, the cap is a cheap preventive measure. The car is parked outside our house at night and in a lightly patrolled train station during the day.

Siphoning gas from parked cars hasn’t been a problem in our area for 20 years, but it’s likely to recur with prices at their current levels. It did happen to us once before. The tank for our VW Rabbit was drained one night, a very upsetting experience. I’ve had wallets and gifts stolen, and my house has been burglarized. But steal a man’s gas? The end of civilization as we know it.

Marin commuters can have a cold one on the Sausalito Ferry to end the day.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dreamt a Burrito, Married a Salad

On Monday mornings I have at least one meeting and sometimes as many as three. When the week begins, some managers believe that a kickoff meeting helps the group to hit the ground running (a questionable choice of words if your business is connected with aviation). Monday meetings simply cause me to fall behind from the get-go.

I did manage to put the finishing touches on a report by noon, so I left the office to clear my head. It was a typical San Francisco August day, hazy and cool, though not as cool as last year. The Vaillancourt Fountain was going full blast, but the square was empty. No free concerts today.

The rear side of Vaillancourt Fountain

Groups of joggers ran past me along the Embarcadero. A couple of women, office workers who had changed to their sweats, greeted each other in front of the Ferry Building. They were in their 40’s, trim and attractive, one blonde and one Asian. Pumping their arms and talking animatedly, they speed-walked (or is it sped-walked—should both verbs be in the past tense, he asked idly?) toward SBC park. In five minutes they were 200 feet in front, widening their lead.

Inspired, more precisely, shamed by the example of all that exercising going on around me, I banished the temptation of a pork burrito and made my way to the salad bar. I put lots of color---red, greens, orange, yellow—on my plate to make it more attractive. But I still dreamt about the burrito. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Running Wild

Rhinos are kept at a safer distance from park visitors than the now-defunct Lion Country Safari

One summer, over 30 years ago, my Volkswagen bug had a rendezvous with a rhinoceros. Lion Country Safari, south of Los Angeles, had been advertised as a place where one could get close, very close, to nature. We drove through the gate, which shut behind us, and there was no turning back. The single-lane paved road meandered through rolling grassland, where lions, tigers, and buffalo roamed free. Fences kept the cars separate from the animals and the herbivores from the carnivores.

But the chief attraction of Lion Country Safari was the section where the fences were down. I felt a city-dweller’s thrill knowing that there were no barriers between us and the ostrich, which looked fiercer than the amusing creatures depicted in Disney’s Fantasia. We drove by a herd of rhinoceros, which were walking peaceably on the grass. Suddenly they turned and charged, alarmingly, in our direction. The park ranger pulled up in her jeep and emptied bags of food on the road, a mere 10 feet away. Amidst furious grunts and snorts, the rhinoceros jostled for position. We could feel the vibrations through the Volkswagen walls, which seemed like tissue paper compared to the thick hides of the massive creatures. Our path was blocked in both directions, so I turned off the engine in a vain effort to be inconspicuous.

While the rhinos fed, one would periodically raise its head and look at us. We slid lower in our seat, as if that would make any difference. After an interminable fifteen minutes, the herd, satiated, began to break up. I switched on the engine and crept along in first gear. Picking up speed, we left the rhino enclosure and only glanced at the lions and tigers. I had had enough nature that day.

When Lion Country Safari closed in the 1980’s, the San Diego Zoo took over custody of the animals and created Wild Animal Park, inland and north of San Diego. Two weeks ago, we spent a day at Wild Animal Park, where the animals have the space to run free but have much less contact with humans. At least this time I didn't have to worry about the thickness of the car's walls.
Cape Buffalo
Cape Buffalo have a generous allotment of the Park's 1800 acres.

Friendly Larakeet
Friendly Larakeet searches for nectar.

California Condor
California Condor


Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Fat Years

I’ve been dining particularly well this summer. Fortunately, modern trousers have expanded capabilities, as manufacturers have thoughtfully included elastic waistbands.

I do feel better after gym visits, but the needle on the scale doesn’t budge (do you think the fat is being converted to muscle, he asks hopefully?)

Skipping breakfast is not the approved way to compensate, but one uses the tools at one’s disposal. I am definitely limiting caloric intake today after last night's outing at the Iron Gate in Belmont, where we celebrated the continuation of a beautiful friendship.

The next table ordered the Steak Diane. No, the Fire Department wasn't called.

The Grand Marnier souffle takes 30 minutes to prepare and must be ordered at the beginning of the meal.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Mission San Diego

The sky sparkled last Saturday morning, and, because our mission to San Diego had been accomplished (see previous post below), we had time to tour. The youngster had been studying the history of California and asked if we could visit the first California mission, San Diego de Alcala. I readily agreed, as I do with any of the kids’ requests if they possess a hint of educational merit; my acquiescence is made easier because such requests are so unusual.

The mission was seven miles from our hotel, just off Highway 8. We entered through the gift shop, which was staffed by the white-haired ladies who seem to run church gift shops everywhere. The lady at the register gazed at me over her glasses and announced firmly that there was a “suggested donation” of five dollars for the two of us. My wallet opened obediently, and we exited the door to a mock-up of Father Serra’s living quarters.

Mission San Diego was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. Junipero Serra is a “pivotal figure in California history” due to the missions he built from San Francisco to San Diego. The missions became centers of commerce and exported cattle and grain to outposts of the Spanish empire.

Priests' vestments are displayed in the museum.

Schools, parks, and highways throughout California have been named for Junipero Serra. As with most historical figures who had a hand in spreading Western civilization to the Americas, controversy has dogged further efforts to honor Father Serra. He is the most prominent of the priests who collaborated with the Spanish army to advance Spain’s interests in the New World. To be sure, they weren’t as brutal as the soldiers but were known to administer severe discipline and even beatings on the Indians who worked at the missions.

The Spanish presence spread the Gospel, as well as disease, to the Native American population. The original wooden structures were burnt, perhaps by the local Indians, not all of whom welcomed the visitors from Europe, and the mission was relocated a few years later to its permanent site. The adobe buildings were destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries, and the mission had been abandoned when restoration began in the 1920’s.

Excavation continues at the site every week.

Services are held every Sunday in the rebuilt church.

Now the site, which includes a museum, gardens, and church, is an oasis in the midst of the bustling, burgeoning Southern California community outside its walls.

Graves in the garden next to the sanctuary

An afterthought: we are too quick to judge historical events through the prism of our 21st century sensibilities. Whether we are viewing the European colonization of North America, the Crusades, or even the climactic battles of World War II, we are horrified by the deeds performed by actors on all sides. No, Father Serra and other builders of California don’t fit my definition of sainthood. But I do think the right side ultimately triumphed, and the world today is a better place because it had. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Doing our Duty

The house is only three miles from the campus.

Arriving in San Diego after a nine-hour drive, we dropped off the bags at the hotel and drove to the house where our student will be renting a room. Some of his roommates were taking summer classes at the U and had already staked their claim to the choicest spaces.

Nevertheless, they seemed quite friendly and showed us to his upstairs bedroom, a 10-foot by 10-foot box enhanced by a high ceiling. It had blue carpet and white walls. A sliding glass window let in a lot of summer light, but its view was the opposite of spectacular with the neighboring house only a few feet away. The room looked clean to these eyes, but the one in our party who has estrogen flowing through her veins declared that it needed to be vacuumed. Our student nodded politely; there is actually a 20% chance that he’ll remember her suggestion in September.

The Ikea in San Diego was only a couple of miles from the hotel, so we pressed on with our mission. Ikea furniture is well-designed and inexpensive; the downside is its lack of durability, and assembly can be difficult. Students are the perfect target market, because they have a lot of time (to assemble and re-assemble the furniture, and I speak from personal experience) but little money, and they need to have the goods last only a few years. Our student picked out his mattress, frame, and cover. We obtained his table and chair at Costco, which was in the same complex (a value-shoppers’ paradise), and we took everything back to the house. It’s all in boxes, but we’ve done our duty as parents. Et voila!
After a long but successful day we decompressed at an upscale Italian restaurant.