Sunday, November 27, 2005

Transitive Verb

As soon as we are able to speak, we express gratitude. We are instructed to say “thank you” with sincerity---and as we get older and learn to appreciate the donor’s effort, we may even begin to mean it. Throughout our lives we thank those--our parents, spouses and relatives, doctors, teachers, co-workers, friends, and many, many others-- who have given us big things and small.

“Thank” is a transitive verb, which, according to the rules of grammar, must have an object. We say thank you, thank me, and thank the fellow sitting under the tree. But today the National Day of Thanksgiving, created to honor the source of “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, has no Object for our transitive verb. Due to the hyper-sensitive excision of God from the public square, our schoolchildren now thank no one in particular. For all they know, the first Thanksgiving arose from the Pilgrims’ desire to have a nice turkey dinner with their friends, the Indians.

Forgotten is the original proclamation by Abraham Lincoln in October, 1863:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
But enough of this churlishness. Whether one believes that our abundance has been given us by a higher Power, or is the result of hitting the jackpot in a random and capricious universe, most will agree that we’re lucky to be living in the United States of America at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. --Amiel

I'm also thankful that the turkey turned out well and that there's plenty of leftovers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Signs of the Season

Mistral, the sculpture that greets me every morning, sprouts its winter adornments. The wooden benches and flowers tempt me to enjoy the first cup in the dawn chill, but there's no time.

E-mail and voice-mail messages await upstairs, along with forms placed on my chair. Yes, I'll be sure to sign them, and I'm too timid to voice my annoyance about finding them on my chair because then I'll look like one of those OCD guys who wants everything in its place and a place for everything. Don't they know they should use my snail-mail inbox because I go through it every day....well, almost every day? When I need some documents tended to, I leave it on top of their keyboards, which seems to be less of an invasion of personal space. I wonder if my irritation stems from some primal Jungian threat to my "seat" of power? (And do you get irritated, dear reader, when someone talks about a subject about which he knows absolutely nothing, for instance a CPA ruminating on archetypes that he read about in Psychology Today?)

We see fewer T-shirts and more jackets as the weather cools.

The morning rush is exacerbated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, which raises fares and ignores its posted schedules with impunity. Muni services are supposed to be coordinated with CalTrain's arrivals, so that Peninsula commuters can transfer immediately to a waiting bus or light railcar.

On this morning some poor passengers had to wait 30 minutes for the N-Judah railcar that would carry us to Market Street. The CalTrain bullet has improved to the point that it takes only 22 minutes to travel 20 miles from the mid-Peninsula station where I board. Because of Muni, the last two miles to the office are the slowest.

New commuters fume, fret, look at their watches, and call their offices. Veterans accept their circumstances and use the enforced idleness to read a few more pages of a novel or magazine. Lately, I've been listening to podcasts while jotting notes in the day-planner. My quiet time in the midst of city noise.

The skating rink is back.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

It's Too Darn Hot

The weekend Wall Street Journal ran a feature article on "white flight" from public schools. However, unlike the Sixties when middle-class whites fled the inner city to protect their kids from a deteriorating educational system, now they're running away from suburban schools where an influx of Asian immigrants has raised academic competitiveness to the point where the children of long-time residents cannot compete, or at least don't think they can.
Whites aren't quitting the schools because the schools are failing academically. Quite the contrary: Many white parents say they're leaving because the schools are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests.

The two schools [Monte Vista and Lynnbrook of Cupertino, California], put another way that parents rarely articulate so bluntly, are too Asian.
The article (link requires registration) is rife with irony. A white kid utters words familiar to generations of striving minorities:
"My parents never let me think that because I'm Caucasian, I'm not going to succeed," says Jessie Hogin, a white Monta Vista graduate.
As with many stereotypes, there's an element of truth to the image of the Asian grind, just as there was with the brilliance of the Jewish students who were at the top of every class when I was going to college. We and our children have to decide whether it's better to be a B student in the toughest school or have a good chance at getting A's in one that's less competitive. In which environment will our student thrive? There's no one right answer.

This video has been making the rounds for weeks: two guys from China are singlehandedly overturning the quiet, studious Asian stereotype.

Friday, November 18, 2005

What Moments Divine, What Rapture Serene

Last week we had a baby shower for one of our brightest accountants. As her manager, I got up to say a few words. We have a lot in common, I said: she’s hard-working, smart, and well-liked by everyone. I got the expected laugh, which got even louder when one heckler shouted, and you’re both pregnant! My side profile invites comments like that. O, how they mock me.

She’s going on maternity leave after Thanksgiving and will be absent from the December 31 close, the audit, and all the 10-K supporting schedules. Guess she is kind of smart, at that. It shows a lot of foresight if she was thinking about this last March. Good tax planning, too, with an extra exemption popping up, or out, as it were, right before the end of the year.

We ordered plenty of food and invited dozens of people, including her husband, some of her relatives and people who used to work here. There’s been a lot of stress on everyone lately with the heavy workload and management changes, and this was an unalloyedly happy occasion. I cheerfully signed the bill for the lunch under the heading of organizational morale booster.

The baby shower is an event that men can witness but never be truly a part of. None of the guys present ooh-ed and aah-ed over the little pajamas, hats and booties as they were held up by the mother-to-be. If you’re single and straight, though, it’s a great place to meet women; females outnumbered the males by 5 to 1.

We finished with a piece of rich chocolate cake from Just Desserts. We have done our share to promote the great season of eating, which runs from Halloween to New Year’s Day.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Little Big Game

It was the annual “little big game” between Burlingame and San Mateo High, and the youngster and his buddy needed a ride. It was the first high school football game that either had attended and my first in over 30 years. I dropped them off at the gate and, after running some errands, parked the car a quarter mile away and joined them on the San Mateo side of the stands.

It was near the end of the first half, and the favored Panthers were thumping our team, 24-0. The two boys’ expressions alternated between puzzlement and disappointment. This wasn’t as much fun as they expected. I thought about the father-son conversations we would have later---it’s only a game, you can’t win ‘em all, there’s always someone better than you---at least we’ll get a teaching moment out of this.

The second half began as a continuation of the first. San Mateo received the kickoff, and a few plays later a huge Burlingame lineman flung our quarterback to the ground like a rag doll, and the ball came loose. I looked at my watch; the boys wouldn’t protest if we left, but what was my hurry, really? Let’s see if our team can score, I said hopefully.

Early in the fourth quarter the Bearcats intercepted a pass. The line began opening holes, and a runner darted into the end zone for our first score with eight minutes left. The two-point conversion failed, and the score was a more dignified 24-6. The stands came to life. A few feet away a large lady of Pacific heritage started banging on a steel trashcan with a metal rod.

On the first play from scrimmage the Panthers fumbled the ball away. The Bearcats were in the end zone a few seconds later, and the score was 24-13. The next sequence was a mirror of the previous one, only this time we did make the two-point conversion and trailed 24-21 with four minutes to go. Everyone was on their feet, yelling. The lady continued to pound tirelessly on the trash can. If I had a hearing aid, I would have turned it off.

The San Mateo defense held, and Burlingame punted. The Bearcats were transformed. Every offensive play clicked, and San Mateo was inside the Burlingame red zone, i.e., the 20-yard line. A pass was thrown to the right corner of the end zone. A Burlingame defender caught the pass out of bounds, so the referee signaled that the pass was incomplete. But to our horror, play was halted, and the crew huddled, then changed the call to an intercepted pass and a touchback. Panthers ball on their 20 with 2 1/2 minutes to go.

Having been silent for most of the quarter, the Burlingame stands erupted. Catcalls and expletives rained down from the San Mateo side. It's just a game, people, set a good example for the kids. The game turned ugly, and a San Mateo player was ejected.

The San Mateo defense pushed Burlingame back near the goal line, and rather than risk a punt on fourth down, their kicker ran around the end zone and deliberately took a safety. I explained to the boys that one doesn't see this too often; the leading team sometimes gives up two points so that they can punt from the 20 instead of their end zone.

With less than 10 seconds left and no time outs, the Bearcats were out of miracles. The score was 24-23, an unexpected and pleasing end to a game that had started so unpromisingly.

There were many more teaching moments that I will review later with the youngster: how the San Mateo quarterback after three quick scores thought he was invincible and threw an unwise pass; how anger, fighting, and contesting the judges were counter-productive; how by waiting till the fourth quarter one could get discounts of more than 50% on hot dogs, drinks, and souvenirs; how one should never sit close to large ladies armed with metal rods. Best five bucks I spent in a long time. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Still Feeling Our Way

The flight was an hour late departing from San Jose, atypical for Southwest. It was also crowded, which is typical. I was in the “A” group, which is first to board, and got a window seat. My bladder isn’t as flexible as it used to be (too much information!) but, despite imbibing a few, I was able to hold it for the duration of the 3 ½-hour flight to Chicago-Midway and didn’t disturb my seatmates.

The taxi to the downtown hotel was $25, cheaper than the ride from O'Hare. It was after eight on a Sunday night, but the bar was crowded. Two colleagues already had started their beers, and we talked about what we were going to say at the meetings the next morning. They ordered pizza, and I ordered fish. One wondered whether I was on Atkins. No, I just happened to want fish tonight, and besides, can’t you tell I’m gaining weight, not losing.

View from my Chicago hotel room.

Inspired by the alcohol, as were many of the other great writers of the 20th century, I put together a seven-page Powerpoint presentation later that night. I accidentally deleted a page but the next morning thought better about adding it back. It was on a topic that was relatively unimportant and complicated, so it’s better not to wander from the main themes. Addition by deletion.

We met at 8 and walked to the office, about a mile away. It was in the 40’s, and I only had a light jacket; here's hoping that they don’t ask me to come back in December or January. The meetings went well, and there were some questions that we couldn’t answer. But that was okay, since we had been in our new jobs for less than a year and were still feeling our way.

That night we had deep-dish pizza (what else?) and more beer. Someone remarked that a slice of Chicago deep-dish contains 2,200 calories. I didn’t believe it at first, but as my UC-Berkeley friends say, if it feels true and it oughtta be true, then it is true. We cabbed back to the hotel, and I headed to the bar to watch the Colts demolish the Patriots, 40-21. It looks like it’s the Colts year.

Today would have been her 101st birthday. Happy birthday, Grandma, with love.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sour Notes

Business as Usual
The portents were there, but the week ended on a sour note. At work there was some shuffling of senior management, not surprising because the old CEO had retired and the new CEO had given hints that he was unhappy with the way certain things were done. My group was unaffected, but the work will increase because there are new executives to educate and we’ll have to brace for more questions on every proposal.

The auditors met with us this week: 1) we owed them some schedules and confirmation letters for the audit, 2) a few of our systems weren’t working perfectly and will need to be fixed by year-end. I moved the tasks to next Wednesday, when I’ll get back.

Next year’s budget was shipped off to headquarters, but it’s become clear that we’ll need to make changes, if for no other reason than to incorporate the management changes just announced. So I’m heading off to Chicago for a couple of days.

Darkness in the City of Lights
After two weeks the riots in France have finally elicited coverage by the mainstream media (MSM). Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times home pages carried nary a mention, but they can no longer ignore the violence, now that gasoline bombs are being set off in central Paris. The coverage was unceasing when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August, and blame was assigned within hours. The looting in New Orleans was the fault of various U.S. government agencies, if not the racism still endemic in American society. The hurricanes themselves were the result of failure to ratify the Kyoto protocols.

One would hate to think that the MSM had failed to give prominent play to the unfolding tragedy in France because there was no way to pin this one on President Bush. It’s hard to develop a coherent narrative when neither the French government, who are the good guys because they opposed the war in Iraq, nor French Muslim immigrants, whose unemployment, anomie, and solidarity with the Palestinian cause justify the rioting, are at fault. Chickens only roost in the United States of America.

Aloha, Mr. G
We got word that an old family friend had passed away. He collapsed at home, having lived a long, full, and giving life. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 03, 2005

That'll Be The Day

As we age, our senses dull. On the Monday morning train I set my iPod so that it shuffled the tunes randomly and closed my eyes. The woman sitting across from me tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to turn the volume down. She could hear Barry White through my earbuds (although Ella Fitzgerald didn’t seem to bother her---well, listening to Barry is not as peaceful an experience). As I turned the volume down, I wondered if I was losing my hearing like both my grandfathers, whom the kids had to shout at to make themselves heard.

I wondered idly why certain sounds irritate, while others we ignore. The music from my earphones was much fainter than the train whistle and the clacking of the wheels, yet they bothered the woman. Perhaps mine was the only noise that she could control, or perhaps that peculiar combination of sounds grated, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Why are commuters’ conversations with their seatmates perfectly acceptable, but why do conductors ask cellphone users to speak softly?

They say that memory is the second thing to go. [What’s the first? I don’t remember.] I guess when I forget that old joke that’ll be the day to worry.

That'll Be The Day was uttered three times by John Wayne in the 1957 Western, The Searchers. It inspired the hit song of the same name by Buddy Holly.

Dialogue for this screenshot
Martin [Jeffrey Hunter]: I hope you die!
Ethan Edwards [John Wayne]: That’ll be the day!