Thursday, May 31, 2007

Jarring Juxtaposition

Outside the CalTrain station in San Francisco.

The United States Postal Service and the Order of the Jedi.....a more incongruous pairing not will you find.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day, 2007

For God, for Country, and for Mickey D's

To the men and women of our armed forces, and especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, thank you.

A Problem for our Times

Last Thursday’s WSJ article tapped into an agonizing problem that, if we are lucky enough not to have faced (yet), we all know someone who has:
Cross-Country Vigil For a Dying Parent
As Doctors Prolong Life and Families Scatter,
Saying Farewell Is a Stressful Juggling Act

When a parent is dying, the rest of life waits. Now, it often waits longer. As medical science gets better at pulling terminally ill patients from the brink of death, a loved one's final weeks can stretch into months or years. With families often spread across the country or globe, far-flung relatives face heart-rending choices as they wait for the end.

Hospice workers say counseling out-of-town relatives when to rush home becomes an excruciating guessing game. There are certain clues -- mottled skin, a rattle in the chest -- that can send a child racing to the airport. But patients sometimes rally just as the family gathers to say goodbye.

"You think death is occurring, you come, and you make that last, completing visit. Then you go home and a month later, you find that they're still there. You have to go back," said Dave Leisure, a social worker with the Community Hospice of Texas in Fort Worth.
“The rest of life waits….” For those with limited financial resources, the choices are stark and not made easier by a dying parent who, thinking of her children’s problems, tells them to stay home. But we, the living, know that when our time comes and we sum the ledger of our lives, our strongest regrets will be saved for those occasions when we knew the right thing to do and failed to do it. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Friday, May 25, 2007

Sanguine About the Future

P lost his job less than three months ago. He called me yesterday from his new office in San Francisco. He had landed a position at a growing company in the same industry. I told him that he should buy me lunch because he’s raking in the dough; not only is he making a higher salary but he’s still receiving severance from his previous employer. He cheerfully agreed.

Meanwhile, over thirty people celebrated the career of L, a 19-year veteran who’s now a victim of downsizing. Jokes were told, memories were shared, and praises were sung. The outpouring of emotions, assisted by the spiciness of the Hunan Restaurant’s cuisine, brought tears to our eyes.

I caught up with a couple of individuals who had been looking for employment when I last saw them. They both were working and were sanguine about the future. The local economy is very strong, and, just from my limited personal perspective, it feels like the best job market I’ve seen in many years. L, the departing veteran, already had something lined up in September and is taking the summer off.

The steady drumbeat of bad news about the war, high gas prices, global warming, illegal immigration, and school violence can’t help but sour our outlook, but the daily lives of most friends and acquaintances are going remarkably well. To paraphrase Groucho, who do you believe, the TV news or your own eyes? © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Before You Know It

It was but four months ago that the frost had wiped out the nasturtiums. Last month the seeds sprouted, and we spent a couple of hours one afternoon clearing the weeds. Sometimes we get lucky, and flowers bloom without any effort on our part. All that's needed is time.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Taking Up Space

San Francisco, Marin County, and Oakland have struck a blow for the environment by banning the use of plastic bags at the large grocery chains. Plastic bags are a marvel---lightweight, cheap, durable, and waterproof---but apparently the supervisors, in their infinite wisdom, have judged that the benefits do not outweigh the costs: "killing marine life, gumming up recycling machines [heaven forfend that people put plastic in the paper container, why don’t they make that against the law?] and taking up landfill space." As shoppers spill groceries out of torn paper bags, look for this ordinance to be rescinded faster than the MTBE-mandate fiasco that was supposed to make our gasoline cleaner but instead poisoned our Bay and water supply. © 2007 Stephen Yuen
Last week these road repair trucks emitted enough noxious gases to stink up Market Street several hundred feet in each direction. Because it's a City truck, it's okay.

It's A Snap

Re the making of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner:
"Basically ... we're snapping it together," said Tom Wroblewski, president of the union representing Boeing production workers in the Seattle area. "This is a whole new way of assembling an aircraft."
No, it’s not. These guys thought of it first.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sputtering to the End

It took 3 hours to drive 130 miles in the Beetle.

In the Seventies my college roommate was kind enough to lend me his Volkswagen. Driving to Boston, especially in the winter, was an adventure with the car’s thin bias-ply tires and barely working defroster. But the real excitement occurred when the engine began to sputter. That was the signal that I was down to my last gallon of gas—pre-1962 Beetles didn’t have fuel gauges--and I would flip the switch near the pedal and pray that there was a (cheap) gas station within the next twenty miles. I was used to living close to the edge; with ten bucks in my pocket and a full tank of gas life was bliss.

Since then our measurement devices have improved exponentially in precision and speed, so there's no need to wait for the telltale sputter. I know where I stand in many aspects of life. I can read instantaneously my systolic pressure, the value of my stock portfolio, the exact time of day, and the minutes left on my cellphone plan.

In spite of, or perhaps because of their accuracy, I’ve made changes to many of these instruments. The bathroom scale is a couple pounds high, the alarm clock is five minutes fast, and my checkbook balance has a few zeroes omitted (I’ve got a cushion at the bank). But of course my monkey mind is aware of these fudge factors, and it adjusts them back to the real measurements.

In a psych class the professor said that those who keep their watches fast are high need-achievers. Now I think that those who deliberately build imprecision into their devices do so because of unfulfilled dreams---and fears; once I didn’t worry about running out of gas or money or time, and now I do. The unexamined life is not worth living, said the philosopher, but it's easy to forget that he said that the process of examination can be painful. © 2007 Stephen Yuen
San Francisco microcosm: Lotta's Fountain and the venerable Palace Hotel, both of which survived the '06 quake, and the modern "jukebox" Marriott with its (accurate) clock.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wanting and Needing, Cont'd

Along Irving in the Sunset.

If they only had cheap gas, the world would beat a path to their door. Cigarettes, booze, and money: some, but not all, of mankind's basic needs.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Another Transition

After two glasses of wine and a beer I had enough wits to call it quits. If it’s true that spirits lift the spirits, I was flying high on Wednesday night. After-work cocktails, especially on an empty stomach, will have that effect.

An acquaintance's job had fallen victim to a push by her employer toward geographic consolidation. Text-messaging, videoconferencing, wireless networking, and mobile phones weren’t sufficient, they said, she had to be physically present at the home office. So 20th century.

Friends and colleagues stopped by to wish her well. Living in Seattle, and with her background in credit and corporate workouts, she shouldn’t have trouble finding employment. But most of our conversations were about the past, the good times that were shared, the problems that were overcome, and the people that are gone. That’s one definition of middle age---where one looks backward as much as one looks forward---and lately I’m finding that my gaze has been fixed more and more upon the past.

I gave her a hug and promised to keep in touch. In the 21st century that’s not hard to do. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

From the Caltrain station that evening: the AT&T ballpark is one block away.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Best I Ever Knew

My uncle, the best mechanic I ever knew, died unexpectedly while on vacation last week. He retired from the Army before he was 50 and moved to the mountains of north-central California. LA was too crowded and smoggy, he said, and he needed space to relax. But his “retirement” was busier than most people’s working lives. He tinkered with and loved to fix machines, especially automobiles; he was always working on two or three. His unmatched knowledge of motor vehicles got him unsolicited job offers, which he usually declined because he had other priorities.

My uncle and aunt raised three handsome and successful children, cousins whom I’m proud to be related to (can’t say that about all my relations!). I spent one sixties summer with them (I get along much better with them now that we're all adults) in my first trip off the Hawaiian Islands. We toured the West Coast, driving all the way from Tijuana to Vancouver. My first glimpse of San Francisco was from the back of his crowded Ford wagon. I was enthralled by the city of bridges, cable cars, hills, and fog, where I’ve now spent the better part of my life.

After living most of his life in California, he will be laid to rest next to his wife on the island where he was born. Godspeed, Uncle C., I’ll miss you. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Sentimental Fool

Hula dancers, San Francisco landmarks, Tony Bennett. I love this video, a sure sign that I’m entering my dotage. Just remember to keep your eyes on the hands.

The Lure of Japan

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Western diet is changing Japanese women’s physiques.
Nami Sakamoto, an advertising-agency employee, embodies the new look. The 26-year-old is tall -- by Japanese standards -- at 5 feet 5 inches. She's also voluptuous, with a 35-inch bust and 35-inch hips.

"I had a hard time finding button-down shirts that would close," says the 26-year-old Ms. Sakamoto, especially when she was in high school and there were fewer foreign retailers in Japan that sold bigger sizes. "Sometimes the buttons would burst off." Now she buys clothes at Western retailers that carry larger sizes.

Other young women are buying special items to flaunt their new physique. "It's just more fun to show some skin," says Ayami Arii, a 19-year-old vocational-school student, who recently sported a tiny denim miniskirt and an iridescent pushup bra that peeks out from below her low-cut blouse. Her bra, a big seller at boutiques in Tokyo's Shibuya 109 department store, is called a "Showy Bra." Similar to a string bikini top, the $60 bras, made to be peeking out of a low-cut blouse, started appearing last year and come in a variety of colors, from red patent leather to leopard print and orange sequins.
Now I know why my nephews like visiting Tokyo so often.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Wanting and Needing

Ben Stein sounds a familiar theme.
People who can keep their lives simple are so far ahead of the game it's ridiculous: a steady job or a good business; saving money regularly starting at an early age; great self-discipline about health.
Both to be rich and to have a simple life is a prescription for happiness. For many of us, making money is easy versus keeping our lives uncluttered.
Make a list of your monthly obligations. How many of them do you really need? How many of them are freeing you and how many are enslaving you? Generally speaking, with the exception of a home and a vacation house, if it's eating money and not paying out, you have to question if you really need it. Do you need that time share? Do you need those three cars? Do you need a $20,000 TV? (If you do, please tell me what's on that makes it worth paying that kind of money for.) Illiquid assets that you rarely use enslave you unless you have so much money that their cost is incidental.
If you have to go into hock to buy that third car or vacation home, stop! Each dollar of debt borrows from your future, postponing the day when you will be free to retire. But I disagree with Ben Stein: assets purchased without debt also can enslave you. A second home has to be maintained (sure, you can hire a property manager, but even he has to be monitored). More importantly, you feel guilty if you don’t spend your vacation there; after your tenth visit to Aspen (or Tahoe or Telluride) you may yearn for Yucatan.

Annika Mengisen writes “all that matters is that you're living the life, not necessarily owning it,” hence the boom in the fractional ownership model that has expanded far beyond its vacation-home roots.
Says Piers Brown, founder of the asset-sharing Web portal, “The biggest driving force behind this new marketplace is the lack of time people have in the face of demanding careers and fast-paced living standards.” "Fractional owners don't pretend that they are owners," says Michael Silverstein, author of Trading Up. "They are pleased that they don't have to deal with the hassles of maintenance, improvement and fluctuating value. They like to use the house or the boat as if it were a costume that they have rented for a special event."
In 21st century America, what does it really mean to “own” something? Nearly every asset I have is subject to use restrictions, from the color I paint my house to the speed I drive my car to how I dispose of my rechargeable batteries. Realizing that we are in the broadest sense renters, not owners, and knowing the difference between what we want and what we need is the beginning of wisdom. (And no, I’m not wise yet.) © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, May 03, 2007

For the Children

Some lucky children will receive their first bikes today.

Yellow police tape blocked off the parking lot last Sunday, but there was no emergency. Redwood City was celebrating El Día de los Ninos, the Day of the Child, one day early with games, food, and gifts. Friendly public servants showed-and-told about the latest in fire and rescue equipment while music played over the speakers.

Teenagers at the booths distributed commemorative T-shirts, while other youthful attendees evinced remarkably polite behavior. We waved at the smiling police officers (whose presence probably had some influence on the crowd’s decorum) and would have loved to join the party, but there was work to be done.

Half the people have been served, and there was enough for seconds.

We drove around to the back of the community center and carried our dishes of lasagna, rolls, and salad to the serving tables. 60 people who had fallen on hard times patiently waited in line. By custom families with children were at the front, while single men brought up the rear. We greeted the old familiar faces who thanked us for the hot meal. We thanked them for allowing us to share our Sunday with them.

The teenagers in our group had expressions that showed that they would have rather been somewhere else, but they gamely ladled the food and poured the drinks. Years from now, when they reflect on the moments of their lives, let’s hope that this is one they will remember. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Railcars parked behind the community center.