Wednesday, May 31, 2006

She Said Bye, Bye When the Levee Was Dry

Her drawl is as captivating as her laugh is infectious. The manners of the Southern gentlewoman hark back to a gentler age, but don’t let her easygoing charm fool you. She’s smart as a whip and successful.

Years before Katrina, she left “nawlins.” She will soon live the life of a gypsy but unlike other “weeziana” natives will do so voluntarily to follow her dream. The Foreign Service is lucky to have her. Good luck, LD, we’ll miss you. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day, 2006

Pacing Yourself

In Las Vegas you need to pace yourself. It’s easy to lose discipline and increase the stakes, either because you’re winning and “playing with the house’s money” or are losing and trying to get back to even. Tearing away from the tables and going for a walk is the best way I’ve found to let the fever pass, slow the rate of loss, and gain perspective.

Last weekend the Classic Car Show exhibit was downtown, away from the glitz and glamour of the Strip. Owners proudly posed by their immaculately maintained vehicles while they regaled onlookers with the history of their painstakingly restored beauties. Touching was allowed, though it meant that they would have to polish away the fingermarks on Monday.

I joined the boys for a round of blackjack. We hunted for a $2 or $3-minimum table, but the cheapest we could find on a weekend, even downtown, was $5. No matter---if one employs the basic strategy and, yes, is disciplined about it, one would have to be very unlucky to lose a $200 stake.

The dealer was friendly and didn’t mind frequent pauses to discuss strategy, since it was just me and three twenty-somethings at the table. My seatmates were all asked for their ID (in Nevada one has to be at least 21 to gamble), and the pit boss playfully asked for mine. Everyone laughed, and I feigned a hurt look that it was so obvious to everyone that she was joking.

The newbie, whose 21st birthday we were celebrating, didn’t know what to do when holding, say, a 15, and facing the dealer’s picture card. I advised him that the books said to hit another card but that the odds were against him whatever he decided to do. More often than not, he drew a good card (or the dealer busted when the novice stood on 12), and after an hour he was up $50. This looked too easy, not the lesson I was hoping he would draw from his first trip as an adult to Las Vegas. (Not to worry, though, later that evening he dropped $20 in five minutes and quit before the damage got worse.)

Before dinner we stopped by M & M World and the Coca Cola museum, across from the New York, New York Hotel and Casino. We picked up a dispenser for the office and sampled M&M’s and soft drinks. Thank goodness none of us is diabetic (yet).

We tried the Aqua Massage on the ground floor; at $15 for 15 minutes it was hard to resist. The rhythmic vibration and the New Age music piped in over the headphones put us to sleep. Meanwhile, an adventurous member of our party tried the Oxygen Bar next door; Vegas is a place to do things you wouldn’t do at home.

After dinner we called it a night. In my salad days I would have played till dawn and regretted it later. The beginning of wisdom or the enfeeblement of age? At least I still had money in my pocket. I really must come back more often… © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Protein Wisdom

[not to be confused with the website of the same name] One doesn’t escape Las Vegas unscathed. Even if one has managed to minimize the damage to one’s wallet, the combination of all-night diversions and engorgifying buffets ensures that a price will continue to be paid long after one has laid down the cards, chips, and dice.

I ordered the bone-in prime rib at the Circus Circus Steakhouse and regretted it as soon as the platter was presented. One didn’t have to be a vegetarian to feel queasy at the sight of that impressive slab. I donated the rib-bone to one of my youthful dinner companions but still couldn’t finish the remainder. It was going to be a marathon calorie- and fat-filled weekend, so I pushed away from the table. Better late than….well, before it’s too late.

© 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

From the Sublime to the Lemon Lime

The warm afterglow of the pinots and chardonnays had faded. The desert sun dispelled the memories of last week's Sonoma wine tastings and created a fierce thirst. I gulped each cup of flavored beverage as if it were a divine nectar. The tasting tray from the Coca Cola Museum in Las Vegas---sometimes you just have to have it.

© 2006 Stephen Yuen

Monday, May 22, 2006

Spock Was Right

One rarely hears his name mentioned any more (and, when it is, he is often mistaken for a Star Trek character), but 60 years ago Dr. Benjamin Spock published one of the most influential books of the post-war era. “Baby and Child Care” provided instruction to millions of struggling parents and revolutionized attitudes toward child-raising, which had heretofore followed a strict authoritarian model. According to Dr. Spock:
Don't be afraid to love [your baby]. . . . Every baby needs to be smiled at, talked to, played with, fondled -- gently and lovingly. . . . You may hear people say that you have to get your baby strictly regulated in his feeding, sleeping, bowel movements and other habits -- but don't believe this. He doesn't have to be sternly trained. . . . Be natural and comfortable and enjoy your baby. [Washington Post]
Dr. Spock became a symbol of the turbulent Sixties and early Seventies. He spoke out against the Vietnam War, and in the pushback that followed, he was blamed for the “permissiveness” that produced a generation of iconoclastic baby boomers. But back to the part of his biography that brought him fame.

His child-rearing advice is widely accepted today. There is a great deal of evidence that infants are healthier and better developed emotionally when they are touched and talked to by their mother. And when parents are not always close at hand, as in the case of hospitalized premature infants, nurses schedule regular times to hold and touch the babies.

Many of us assume that the need for human contact, which is so essential to the well-being of the very young, diminishes as we get older. The widespread and increasing use of cell phones and text-messaging devices puts paid to the notion that we crave less contact. When given the opportunity we communicate more, not less.

Just spending time with fellow human beings is an acute need for many of our older citizens, but their families are often preoccupied with their own lives or may live far away. Elders, especially those in retirement homes, may not have access to the communication avenues that many of us take for granted. Due to their reduced mobility they don’t have many opportunities for face-to-face interaction with others.

So during the months of May and June, when we honor our mothers and fathers, resolve to visit an elderly relative or friend. Bring them little personal gifts, such as toiletries, that they may have difficulty obtaining. More importantly, bring yourself. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Friday, May 19, 2006

Mayo Family Winery, Sonoma

It is the rare educational experience that employs all the senses; the tasting menu at the Mayo Family Winery is a deliciously didactic example. (Confession: my knowledge of wine-food combinations is not much further along from the day when a college roommate told me that whites went with fish and reds were for beef.)

Dusk imparted a golden glow to the Sonoma hills as ten of us sat down at the dining table. Chef Billy Oliver, impossibly young for one so knowledgeable about his craft, spoke in casual California cadences about the complex interplay between wine and food. The wine should either complement or contrast with the dish---one of those concepts that sounds good at first blush but acquires subtlety as one swishes it around in the mind.

The first offerings were lighter in flavor and texture, in accordance with the basic principle of building up to sharper, heavier dishes near the end.

Clockwise from the top: 1st photo: the tomato-basil hummus with 2004 Laurel Hill Chardonnay, sturgeon reuben with 2004 Kunde Ranch Gewurztraminer, smoked duck tostada with 2004 Darien Vineyard Pinot Noir.

2nd photo: coq au vin kabob with 2004 Syrah from D’Ambrosia Vineyard, beef bourguignon with 2003 Napa River Ranch Cabernet, and smoked porkloin BBQ sandwich with 2004 Sodini Vineyard Petite Sirah.

3rd photo: an apricot stilton blue cheese honeycomb brioche with 2005 Kunde Ranch Gewurztraminer.

My favorites were the lighter-flavored earlier selections, when my taste buds had not been desensitized. However, all pairings were excellent, and the finishing dish literally and figuratively was sweet. I agreed with the Wall Street Journal's assessment last September: “the single best deal in wine country….an awesome experience.”

The price has since gone up to $25, but the WSJ’s superlatives are undoubtedly still true. Perhaps more important than the dollar cost is time; one should budget at least 45 minutes to get full value for the experience.

The Mayo Family Winery Reserve Tasting Room is at 9200 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, California 95452. The phone is (707) 833-5504. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Chef Billy Oliver pours Chardonnay for a salivating patron.

Monday, May 15, 2006


One’s 21st birthday is an occasion for celebration. It is the line of demarcation between youth and adulthood.

The 21-year-old is deemed responsible enough to become a full-fledged member of society, when all he has done is survive 21 revolutions around the sun. It’s an arbitrary standard. We know immature thirty (forty!?)-somethings and old-before-their-time 16-year-olds.

New adults are wont to procure temptations that had been previously forbidden, and so it is that we’ll be heading to Las Vegas. If he’s going anyway, the first time may as well be under the eye of those who discovered that those temptations are not all they were cracked up to be. And, yes, we will celebrate, too.

Happy birthday, son!

[Update - 5/17/06: No, I'm not a helicopter parent. No, really, I'm not. (Hat-tip: Dr. Helen)] © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Morning Tour

The thoughtful tour guide considers the physical condition of the visitors when he puts together his itinerary. A walking tour of San Francisco’s hills is not advisable when sightseers have recalcitrant hips or balky knees.

The experienced tour guide knows that the visitors want to see the famous sights and not the odd architectural curiosity, much as the concert audience prefers to hear Mozart instead of the world premiere of a piece that uses power tools in the percussion section. And so it was that the first stop a week ago last Monday was Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

It was a bright hazy morning, warm enough to cause the Island visitors to doff their jackets and request that the air conditioning be turned on. They clambered out of the van and admired the view of the City, but none acted on my suggestion to ascend the flight of stairs to view the murals that depicted San Francisco of the 1930’s. There were not going to be feats of aerobic legerdemain today.

We followed Lombard down the hill then up the rise to the crookedest street in the world. We made a left turn on Bay and drove to the Marina District and the Palace of Fine Arts. The pond and park were fenced off due to construction, so we continued on to the Golden Gate Bridge.

You can get a decent perspective of the bridge from the San Francisco side, so one doesn’t have to cross the bridge and pay the $5 toll on the return, but the view from the Marin Headlands is the one that shows up in movies and TV. The tourists gaped, and the jaded tour guide was reassured about his decision. Who knows when they—or I--- would come this way again? © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Beach Chalet

A good place to stop for lunch is the Beach Chalet at the west end of Golden Gate Park. After perusing the murals and informational materials (it is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area), diners can walk upstairs or take the elevator to the Beach Chalet dining room. The menu is American with a flair -- vegetable chips, chicken wings, garlic fries, thick hamburgers, and clam chowder were some of our selections -- and the view of Ocean Beach adds to the ambience. As a touristy dining experience, this is far superior to Fisherman's Wharf. [Note these pix were taken during an outing in April.]

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Afternoon in the City

After six hours of touring, the visitors wanted to return to their rooms. The hotel was on Broadway between Stockton and Grant, on the edge of Chinatown. There were still a couple of hours to burn before dinner. I asked if anyone wanted to join me for a walk up Nob Hill. The men assessed the angle and distance and decided to smoke cigars instead.

The hike up Jackson is a tendon-stretching trek. I passed Stockton and Powell, where the Powell cable car makes a left turn.

The buildings are old, and some residents still hang their laundry from the balcony. Despite the near-shabby appearance and the constant ringing of the cable car bells, the apartments easily run over $2,500 a month.

The shop on Jackson and Jones has been selling the “world’s best” beef jerky for decades. The brisket is sliced into thin squares and is sweet and smoky. It’s not as salty or tough as the jerky one finds at supermarkets but because it’s expensive and I don’t come this way often, a few years had elapsed since I last masticated these magnificent meat morsels. The price had risen even further -- $9.50 for an 8-oz. package – so I only picked up a couple of packages.

Walking down the hill along Washington, I turned into the Cable Car Museum, whose name is slightly misleading because it’s also the barn and powerhouse for the cable car system. Those of us—nearly all males---who are fascinated by motors and wheels spinning around could spend hours gazing at the moving cables and other exhibits. Admission is free.

Back at the hotel the others were ready for dinner. We walked across Broadway to one of my favorite jook joints, Hing Lung.
The sign in the back advertised Peking Duck for the unheard-of-price of $9.99, so we were compelled to add it to our order. Ten minutes later, a platter of buns and crispy skin was brought to our table, along with another platter of duck pieces. I dabbed on the hoisin sauce and green onions. Delicious, as advertised.

I bade goodbye and wished the travelers luck in Sacramento and especially Reno, their following destination. It had been a pleasant day spent with friends, but it was time to get back to work. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, May 04, 2006


They squawk about censorship yet their celebrity status causes their opinions to be broadcast to the four corners of the globe. They worry aloud that their outspokenness will cost them their livelihood, while their films and music are awarded their professions’ highest honors and rake in millions. From the tenured safety of lifetime employment, others in the flock screech that their “dissent” is being “stifled”, while 9 out of 10 of their peers coo agreement. O the courage!

On the other side of the world their brave counterparts are shot for speaking out, their women beaten for wearing the wrong attire, their men jailed for murmuring disagreement. A fearful silence descends in the East with nary a peep from the Western guardians of free speech and the free press. They do not protest censorship when the censors are armed with bullets and bombs.

It’s safe here, and the complaints continue.

But I’ve stopped listening. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

No, Mr. Bonds, We Expect You to Try

Some individuals fill up a room; the rare ones fill up a stadium. When we went to AT&T Park last Friday night, our eyes bounced irresistibly from the action at home plate to Number 25, standing nonchalantly in left field. His charisma was derived from another number, 711, posted on the centerfield wall, just above Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs.

The damaged knee clearly bothered him, and it was painful to watch him run. Good, some say, maybe he’ll retire and save baseball the embarrassment of having its most famous record---the most hallowed in American sports---held by a man who enhanced his skills by chemical means.

But those detractors weren’t sitting in the stands on Friday night, and everyone cheered lustily when he came to the plate in the third inning with the bases loaded and two out, the Giants trailing 2-0. He rocketed the first pitch to right field, clearing the bases, and limped into second base for a double. The next batter singled, and he gimped home---with two outs he took off on the crack of the bat so he didn’t have to slide—and the game was essentially over with ace Jason Schmidt on the mound. Despite the cold wind that had us shivering by the fifth inning, we stayed until the last pitch. The final score was Giants 10, Diamondbacks 2.

He’s vain and aloof. He’s beset by legal and marital troubles of his own making. He achieved spectacular success while allegedly using steroids and is a poor, even dangerous role model for our children. And yet, as he ran the bases or shagged [note to UK readers: this means chasing or jogging after] fly balls in left field, his body hunched in pain, it required the hardest of hearts to be totally unsympathetic. He doesn’t need the money and could instantly put a halt to the boos and physical pain by retiring, but he soldiers on. Here’s hoping he gets to 715. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Barry Bonds hits a bases-loaded double in the third inning.