Monday, June 30, 2008

Gamboling Interlude

Main Street Station beer vats are behind the sushi bar.

I needed to take a break from my job, volunteer do-goodism, and a newfound urge to exercise and eat healthy. Too abrupt a conversion to clean living had caused a chemical imbalance in my body: my ichors felt icky.

Fortunately, Mom and Dad gave me a reason to abandon the virtuous life. They were in Las Vegas, and, mindful of their last trip when Dad took sick, I joined them to keep on eye on their wellbeing. Any fun I had would be purely incidental.

We stayed at Main Street Station, which had designated Dad as an elite guest. Attaining that exalted status meant that he had earned hundreds of dollars of meal and room credits by losing thousands of dollars on the casino floor.

My parents like staying in the older section of Las Vegas because the main attractions are easily within walking distance. Sizable by most standards, the Downtown casinos are puny compared to the gaudy Strip palaces and have a friendlier, more informal feel. Crowds are thinner this year, likely the consequence of high fuel costs and the collapse of real estate prices in Nevada and Southern California. Over the weekend I could easily find $5-minimum blackjack and craps games; when I last visited in 2006 it was difficult to find a $10 table.

When I went for a morning walk the streets were still. Buildings were under construction wherever one turned, but the backhoes and cranes weren’t moving. The city’s manic energy of a few years ago was gone.

The desert now looms large. With Lake Mead threatening to go completely dry in about a decade the desert, suppressed for years, may yet be the victor. The Strip and Hoover Dam---the markings of our civilization---perhaps they are just Ozymandias writ large.

I brushed aside these unpleasant thoughts and entered the air-conditioned embrace of the casino. Time for sushi and beer. Time to eat, drink and be merry, for who knows when I’ll pass this way again? © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Friday, June 27, 2008

Too Few Such Moments

Graduations are one of life’s milestones, but it is often the parents rather than the participants who show the most emotion at the ceremony. Seeing your child graduate from college is the culmination of a decades-long investment [and four years of blogging] in academics, musical instruments, language lessons, athletics camps and gear, books, and tutors, not to mention the time associated transporting your block’s chip to all those activities. The 22-year-old student doesn’t see his life as an investment; to him it is just….life.

In the march across the stage their son or daughter will receive that long strived-for piece of parchment, the ticket to riches and independence. Or not. Parents know that illusion will be dispelled soon enough; for the nonce let everyone enjoy the dream.

Last Sunday we attended the graduation ceremony for Revelle College, one of the six undergraduate colleges at the University of California – San Diego. Baking in the summer heat, we waited nearly two hours for our student’s name to be called. We listened to speeches from various UCSD provosts, chancellors, and university officials. One was particularly memorable, although not in a good way.

The class’s favorite teacher---I surmised that her specialty was some mishmash of neuroscience, human behavior, sexuality, and psychology---recounted her favorite classroom discussions. The words “penis” and “vagina” were used as both the subject and the object of fairly explicit action verbs. Her speech proved that one can have too much information, such as how one’s right- or left-handedness had no correlation to the side where one’s genitalia hang lower. Thankfully, she was silent about the physical characteristics of the ambidextrous.

I stole a glance at the graduate’s younger brother, who looked bored. Given what high schoolers text each other about, this apparently was pretty tame stuff. I was grateful that he wasn’t a pre-teen like many in the audience; then I’d have some ‘splainin’ to do.

At last we heard our student’s name. We were sitting so far in the back that we couldn’t see much, so I put the camcorder on maximum zoom and hoped for the best.

After the tassels were turned taciturnly, graduates were dismissed dismissively, and photos were snapped snappishly, we retired to Roy’s Restaurant for a long celebration of his accomplishment. For one evening our joy was unqualified. Life has too few such moments. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Monday, June 23, 2008

When Science Gives Way to Religion

Per LiveScience:
The climate of early Earth was no day at the beach, with stinging acid rains and an intensely warm surface, a new study suggests. These harsh conditions could explain why geologists today have found no rocks more than 4 billion years old: They were all weathered away.

The early Earth is thought to have had extremely high levels of carbon dioxide - perhaps 10,000 times as much as today. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can combine with water to create acid rain.
Four billion years ago there were no internal combustion engines, no Industrial Revolution, no globalization, and no George W. Bush, yet greenhouse gases were 10,000 times more concentrated. The so-called science must be wrong. Maybe the world wasn’t created billions of years ago. Let’s give Creationism another look! © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lewis Black at the Commonwealth Club

Perhaps it’s due to my upbringing in a temperamentally (but not politically) conservative denomination, but I’m put off by enthusiastic displays of religious fervor. The sermon and the music may indeed be inspiring, but if the person behind you repeatedly is moved to cry “Amen” or “Hallelujah”, that can be as irritating as someone talking during a movie. Is it that hard to contain a God-filled spirit, or is the worshipper just calling attention to himself? Public displays of piety don’t spring from a virtuous impulse—it even says so in the New Testament. Thankfully, it has been many years since I had witnessed such behavior, but I saw it again on Tuesday in a gathering of true believers.

Comedian Lewis Black was promoting his new book “Me of Little Faith” at the Commonwealth Club in Palo Alto. I laughed at his wry and often biting observations as I paged through its short chapters. The religious right and its allies in the Republican Party come under fire in much of the book, and he came up with new twists on their intolerance, closed mindedness, and hypocrisy, hackneyed themes though these be.

What I found revealing about the evening was the hostility that emanated from every pore in the audience toward his book’s targets. A mildly derogatory comment about former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) triggered a stream of hisses. A funny observation about the religiosity of the deep South prompted loud, derisive laughter. One questioner asked, “What would you do if John McCain is elected?” hoping that the horrific possibility would catalyze Lewis Black into the paroxysms for which his act is famous. He simply replied, “You have to see who his V.P. is.” He continued about McCain “He’s on the verge of being psychotic” and compared him to a large-mouth bass; these remarks were not quite the red meat that his listeners sought. Lewis Black sensed where his audience wanted to go and, I think, halted before they got there.

Lewis Black was serious, too. He talked about his brother’s battle with and death from cancer. Ron supported Lewis during his starving-artist years, and though Lewis was too disciplined to break from his stage character, his sorrow and affection for his brother were palpable.

He riffed on the writer’s life. On inspiration: “Well, first I wake up and touch myself [laughter].” On pausing to think: "The one thing I learned about writing---when you write, you get to that impasse and you say that you’re going to think about that. That doesn’t work. Does anyone really say 'I’m going to think about that' and actually get real thoughts? So I lay down and then I touch myself." On writing with a pen: "Writing longhand, you think differently than with a keyboard. I write longhand."

How has faith affected the Bush Administration? "The problem is that when you give yourself over, you stop thinking." How true. As I looked at the sea of faces raptly uplifted to Lewis Black’s words, I was struck by their similarity in appearance to the supporters of at least one Presidential candidate. Thought, I fear, will be in short supply during the next four years. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Don't Show Me the Money

I confess that my eyes glaze over when I read about our labyrinthine campaign finance laws. And John McCain bears responsibility for creating a lot of them so if he’s found in violation it serves him right, but this seems ridiculous.
The Democratic National Committee announced Tuesday it will sue next week in U.S. District Court. It will ask the court to order the Federal Election Commission to examine, within 30 days, the legality of McCain's decision to reject $5.8 million in taxpayer funds.
In this wonderful country you can be sued for not taking the money.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, RIP

Tim Russert:

“The job of the host is to learn as much as you can about your guest’s positions and take the other side….And to do that in a persistent and civil way. And that’s what I try to do every Sunday.”
I thought he was the fairest interviewer on television. He didn’t browbeat, but he kept after his targets as they tried to wriggle from his questions. At the end of the ordeal he would smile to acknowledge their common humanity. No, it wasn’t a game; what they were doing was important, but it wasn’t all-important. I’ll miss him.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Not a Question of Being Liberal or Conservative

All right, let’s cut to the chase or rather 2010. In 2009 all the talk and trade sanctions in the world didn’t stop the Iranians from successfully test-firing their nuclear missile. Your CIA Director comes to you with “slam-dunk” evidence that they are going to launch several more at Israel. The Israelis can’t take them all out on their own.

You question his statement, of course, given the CIA’s dismal track record for getting the facts straight. So you call the French, the British, the Germans, the Saudis, the Chinese, the Indians, the Russians and our new friends the Iraqis. No one sends your call to voicemail, Mr. President, and they all say the same thing: yes, it’s true, Israel will be devastated if not destroyed.

You’re still not 100% sure, so you won’t strike pre-emptively. You threaten (either privately or very publicly) the destruction of the aggressor, hoping his self-interest will prevail. Of all the leading Presidential candidates of both parties, who would not be believed if he or she made such a threat? Just one, and he is going to be the Democratic nominee.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Foster City Arts & Wine Festival, 2008

Thrill-seeking youngsters gravitate to the excitement of amusement parks like Great America and Marine World, but give me the sedate (some might say somnolent) pace of the local community fair. Admission and parking are free, marketing slickness is refreshingly absent, and friendly faces from the neighborhood can be seen wandering or even staffing the booths.

Foster City held its 37th Arts and Wine Festival last weekend under cloudless skies. Music from local bands floated by picnickers on the lawn up to Ferris wheel riders across coned-off Shell Boulevard. Teenagers tried their luck at coin toss games, vainly trying to win stuffed animals that would never get a second look from them at WalMart. The featured art was a quilt display attended by ladies dragging along their husbands and kids for their esthetic edification; most appeared unappreciative.

Fair-goers scarfed up the varied cuisine that they would never find along the plastic restaurants on El Camino Real (no knock, I go to them all the time). On a warm afternoon kids need something familiar and refreshing after dining on spicy stews, garlic fries, or Hawaiian plate lunches, so our church again sold packaged ice cream bars. After paying for the ice cream and freezer rental, we will forward all proceeds to the Heifer project, which donates farm animals to overseas villages.

We helped open the booth on Sunday morning. It was very light duty, because the crowd didn’t drift in until the afternoon. Our take was less than $50. The youngster wanted to visit his friends at other exhibits, so we agreed to keep in touch by text-message and cellphone. In that respect at least, this was not our grandmother’s community fair. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Friday, June 06, 2008

Capping the Mischief

Global warming may or may not be a threat to posterity, but here’s one prediction I feel safe in making: the Senate “cap-and-trade” emissions bill that was defeated today would have saddled future generations with enormous costs and increased the complexity of their lives. A new market would have been created overnight by government fiat, and it would have been administered by a government that doesn’t have the greatest track record for alacrity and wisdom.

Politicians invariably formulate laws with the best of intentions, but they can never envision all the unintended consequences (this is a criticism that is sadly true of both political parties). The more grandiose the scheme the more likely these consequences will be severe. Congress mandated MTBE as a gasoline additive to promote clean air but didn’t foresee that MTBE would poison our water. The government subsidizes the use of corn to create ethanol, which is driving up the cost of food for the world’s poor.

Kudos to those politicians who had the courage to say “stop” to the cap-and-trade Rube Goldberg scheme. Pulling on my sweater to ward off the chill of California nights in June, I hope that when they take up this bill next year we’ll be further along in proving that there’s a problem to solve in the first place.
© 2008 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Handsome Wages

Saturday dawned cloudy and cool, perfect for a day of painting, hanging drywall, and trenching. We met in the church parking lot and caravanned down to the worksite, joining thirty other members of our denomination.

This was the first collaboration by Peninsula Episcopal churches—a day spent helping the Habitat for Humanity build townhouses in Redwood City. Habitat’s cost per unit will be about $300,000, pricey in many parts of the country but half the cost of a new home on the Peninsula.

I grabbed my hard hat and listened to the safety instructions: bend your knees and not your back, watch where you walk, and don’t climb ladders propped against the wall. Common sense to be sure, but not an attribute of which I have in excess supply.

We volunteered to hang insulation and carried rolls of fiberglass to the top floor of one of the more finished units. Our job was to measure and cut the strips so that they fit the spaces between the beams, then secure them with staples. There were many false starts, especially with odd-shaped pieces and fixtures that got in the way, and it wasn’t until late morning that we hit our rhythm.

By the time the noon horn sounded, we were ravenous. The lunch crew had laid out an ample spread of hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, and fruit. Drinks were soda and bottled water. We had been drinking water throughout the day in order to keep hydrated---a word one hardly knew existed 30 years ago but which one now hears all the time as a precaution against heat exhaustion. Drink lots of water, get plenty of sleep and exercise, quit smoking, and eat your fruits and vegetables---did we really need science to confirm what our mothers told us?

By mid-afternoon I took stock of our progress. We had completed half the room, less than I had hoped. Partly to make up for our lack of speed I attempted something best left to the professionals. Perching a ladder somewhat precariously on a couple of planks, I stapled insulation in some hard-to-reach spots high above the stairs. (I also wanted to impress Karla, the cute supervisor, who had been frowning and biting her tongue all day.) At four o’clock Karla thanked us and smiled. Helping others, free food, and a woman’s smile…..handsome wages for a day’s work. © 2008 Stephen Yuen