Thursday, February 01, 2001

Holiday Edition #2

Hello everyone,

I know it has been a while since I've written. I do apologize for not jamming your mailboxes with massive long-winded ramblings sooner. It's been a busy two months, as I'm sure it has been for you. One can easily get lost in all the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

It is now the beginning of February, and Scott and I are finally settled in our new house. We took possession in early December, and immediately set to work.

The carpets and paint were completely destroyed by the tenants, so we hired a painter and floor specialist to repaint and recarpet. Although it was very expensive, it was worth it. For a discounted price, we snagged a 3-year-old house, and had it done in all the colors we liked. Plus, we increased the value of the house. Not a bad deal.

While we were picking out our colors, the real estate agent revealed that most Californians have pure white all over their houses. It made sense, as every house we had looked at was like this. It seems that their tastes are rather plain when it comes to wall color, and instead choose to express themselves through intricate raised-stucco-like spotted designs.

As you all know, I am not exactly the one to follow the crowd.

I picked out a rainbow of colors, ranging from blue and purple to bright pink. The real estate agent looked on in horror as I pulled out various bright and happy colors from the palettes. Scott had his heart set on a dark maroon room, so we picked that for the downstairs bathroom.

I had to modify my choices, however, when we saw the carpet samples. The best color, a medium blue, didn't go well with the bright pink. We settled for light gray in the master bedroom, a cool light blue for the computer room, a beautiful purple for the guest room, dark gray for the TV room, and a deep blue for the upstairs bathroom. The downstairs was made a more conservative white.

While the painter was doing his thing, I decided to clean up the house somewhat. My theory was to clean the bathrooms for the painters and carpeters, and then clean them again before we moved in. Less work that way, and something nice for the laborers. Little did I know the horror that was to greet me in these bathrooms.

They were absolutely DISGUSTING. There were hairballs on the counters and pee on the toilet seats. I ran a paper towel over the master bedroom counter, and it turned completely black. The counters, a nice off-white marble, were covered in a thick film. After a good cleaning, the counters were a full three shades lighter in color ! The glass shower doors in the master bedroom were covered in a nasty substance that wouldn't budge with any cleaner, including CLR.

The kitchen counter tiles and grout were stained and discolored. The floors were filthy, and crevices between the kitchen cupboards and walls were peppered with spider webs. Ants were crawling everywhere. I swear that house had never been cleaned in its three years of existence.

It took the better part of two weekends to get that place scrubbed up to a somewhat habitable level. My hands were dry, chapped and peeling by the time I was done. I gave up on the shower doors – we will be buying new ones soon. Scott replaced all the toilet seats. We called an exterminator to spray the outside of the house, and placed ant traps everywhere. Never have I dealt with such filth in my life, and I hope that I never will again.


During one of these cleaning weekends, we were heading north on the 680 freeway on the way to the new house. There was no hurry today; we were hugging the speed limit, allowing those in a rush to drive by. It was a lazy day, cloudy and warm, with no wind or fog. As we were discussing the futons we had just researched, pure horror unfolded in front of our eyes.

The first thing I saw was the underside of the SUV. At that moment, all of time seemed to slow to a crawl. I watched in pure terror as the vehicle rolled once and then twice, debris flying in all directions. It was almost as if it weren't real, like a movie or a dream, with no sound but my own voice. I screamed at Scott to pull over.

I remember opening the door and breaking into a run, but I don't remember how I got to the vehicle. My heart was racing, but my mind was empty. It was as if getting to the vehicle was all that mattered.

The SUV had come to rest in the left lane, facing the median, jutting about 6 inches into the center lane. The windshield was shattered but still intact; the back windows were in pieces on the road. When we arrived, there were three people pulling on the driver's door. With Scott's help, the door was ripped open.

A 47-year-old Asian woman was in the driver's seat. Her face and hands were cut and bleeding from flying glass. She was almost too frightened to speak, but was conscious and coherent. I asked her a question, then was interrupted by a man who identified himself as an off-duty medic. He, as an expert, took over the primary care of the victim.

Adrenaline still racing, I needed something to do. I decided to pick up the debris off the road. A number of us gathered her personal belongings and placed them in a pile by the truck. I picked up clothes, containers, and a bag with three boxes of chocolates. Probably Christmas presents for her family or friends. We removed pieces of the car from the road so as to avoid another accident by passing motorists.

Cars were driving past the accident scene in the right and center lanes, coming dangerously close to the witnesses and the crippled SUV.

Only a few weeks ago, Scott had equipped both of our cars with road flares. He had bought them on sale for 50 cents apiece, and had instructed me to use them if I ever witnessed or were involved in an accident. He and another man lit four flares and placed them on the road, to direct traffic away from the center lane. The fact that the perpetually busy three-lane freeway became one lane was not on our minds - avoiding another injury was.

We were joined by an off-duty firefighter from Houston and an off-duty CHP officer who happened to be travelling the other way and stopped to help. He entered the truck and held the victim's head to keep her from moving her head and neck.

Within a few minutes of the accident, the firefighters arrived, using their fire truck to block the center and right lanes. Onboard were fully-trained paramedics who went to work on the sole victim. The ambulance arrived moments later.

While observing the scene, I noticed a young woman off to the side, blond hair in a French braid, crying. An older man, possibly her father, was beside her. I remember thinking that this was strange, as these two had just arrived. They couldn't just have stopped because they were upset that an accident had occurred.

The fireman admonished the CHP for not having arrived yet, but began to speak with the witnesses. They all agreed that the driver had possibly been cut off, and had overcorrected while attempting to avoid the offending car. While they were discussing this, the blond girl with the French braid stepped forward. "I am the one who cut her off," she admitted, then burst into tears.

What took her so long to appear on the scene ? Her car was parked on the shoulder, on the opposite side of the freeway. Obviously she had exited and turned back. But what took her so long to return ?

Perhaps she didn't know that she had caused the accident, and her father had advised her to go back. Perhaps she was scared, and had run from the scene to avoid dealing with it. Perhaps her conscience was what brought her back. Whatever it was, she was there to admit her role and face the consequences of her actions.

The firefighter addressed all who were present, by thanking everyone who had stopped to assist. He advised us all to be on our way for our safety. Only the direct witnesses were to remain, to speak to the CHP when they arrived.

We had hoped to have our road flares replaced by the CHP, but we took our cue and returned to our car. As we drove slowly away, a firefighter turned to us, waved, and said "Thank you."

I looked in the news, but didn't see a story on the accident. I can only hope that the victim is safe.


The movers arrived on December 15th with all our stored stuff in tow. Working overtime, they put all the furniture in appropriate places and unpacked some of the boxes. One of the workers, a staunch Oakland A's fan, found it fitting to make fun of my Blue Jays merchandise. He wore my mock batting helmet for most of the day.

The remainder of our junk was moved from the apartment to the house with the assistance of our friend Tim and his truck. Tim was the first person to ever suggest that I move to Silicon Valley, and was the one who suggested [our city] as a nice place to live. He owns a beautiful house about a mile from us, with a huge backyard and two garages, with room for three cars. Hopefully when @Home's stock goes up a bit, he says, he will build a pool.

The weekend before Scott's departure to Canada was spent unpacking the house and attempting to make it livable. My birthday consisted of slaving over cardboard boxes and eating frozen dinners.

For those of you who do not have a December birthday, you may not understand what I am going to say. You probably know someone who does. I hope this next passage will speak for all who have their birthdays perilously close to the biggest holiday of the year – Christmas.

Growing up, my birthday always seemed to be in the way. 8 days before Christmas, in the middle of the hubbub and the rush, here I was with a pesky birthday. My parents, God bless them, always made time for a celebration and cake, and made sure it was completely separate from Christmas. I'll always be grateful to them. Others were not so sympathetic.

Friends and distant relatives made it a practice to "combine" my birthday and Christmas gifts. Invariably, the "combined" gift was the same thing they would get for any single occasion. Some didn't even acknowledge my birthday at all. I felt slighted.

When I was a bit older, and started receiving cash as gifts, I cursed the December birthday again. Normal kids who had their birthdays in the summer ended up with extra cash twice a year. For me, it was only once.

I saw this horrible, horrible card in Wal-Mart last month. It was a Christmas Birthday card. The message was Happy Birthday, but the card was adorned with Christmas decorations. How shocking ! How utterly traumatizing ! I can just see some well-meaning relative picking that card for an unsuspecting child who wishes Christmas would just buzz off for a while. Poor kid.

Now that I'm an adult, I don't care as much anymore. My immediate family knows the trauma associated with Christmas combination, and know very well to avoid this at all costs. My coworkers, whom I had told when my birthday was, did nothing to celebrate as they had for Hayley in November. I guess they forgot.

Please do all Christmas Birthday people a favor and take time out of your Christmas shopping, baking and decorating to say Happy Birthday. It'll mean a lot.


Every month, my company's CEO holds an open-forum sessions with employees from all business units. The employees with their birthdays in that month are invited. I attended December's session with open ears.

Anybody who has listened to [the CEO] will say he is an excellent public speaker. There is never any hesitation in his voice, and you will never hear "um" from him. Responses to questions are made immediately, yet with the confidence of a pre-written speech. His candidness and down-to-earth appearance made the entire room comfortable and relaxed.

Being the CEO of one of the world's largest companies, you would think that work comes first, right ? Wrong. He stated, in front of all these employees, that his family is undeniably #1 in his life. He takes time every day for his wife and children. He works 70-hour weeks, as he expects his management team to, but he never loses focus on the reason why he is doing so. His wife knows to smack him when his life is out of balance.

The last thing he will ever do is lay off workers. During an interview I saw at the new-hire orientation, he became choked up and emotional when he spoke about the trauma he had brought to people's lives when he had laid off some from his last company. He vowed never to do this to our company.

With such dedicated and caring leadership, is it much of a surprise that [my company] was named by Fortune Magazine as the #3 company in the US to work for ?


The house is now completely unpacked, and we have only a few remaining miscellaneous items to go through and either store or throw out. We bought a picture for the master bedroom, and a new bed set to replace the ad-hoc blankets we had before. Each room now has its own function, furniture and decorations. Most of our pictures and wall hangings are up and on display. It's beginning to look like home.

Ever since we have arrived, I have been using a borrowed computer and free dial-up Internet access. This setup was sufficient for our needs in the apartment, but since we bought the house our needs have changed. My plan was to get my new system up and running and install high-speed Internet access.

My computer, an old-faithful Pentium 200 from early 1997, had required an upgrade for quite some time. Before we moved, I finally bought a new motherboard, processor, case, and some miscellaneous hardware. Due to time constraints, the new machine arrived assembled only with the newly-purchased parts. My challenge was to swap my hard drives, CD-Rom and interface cards into the new case.

The first obstacle was the hard drives. The internal wiring of the SCSI interface card could not accommodate my two drives, external Jaz and internal CD-Rom. I found the parts I required from the tried and true Fry's store and installed them.

The second obstacle was the system itself. When I first booted it, the keyboard didn't work, and the system would not boot up on my old operating system with new, incompatible hardware. After much sweat, frustration and many conversations, I finally cracked open the motherboard manual. In it was the key to the problem.

I have an old, old, circa 1995 US Robotics modem that has been upgraded a few times, but still maintains its old, non-plug-and-play architecture. This device was talking on the same COM port as a serial port on the motherboard. Like the post office, having two devices on the same address really doesn't work very well. Disabling the onboard serial port rendered the system operational.

While this was happening, we started noticing the decreasing performance and increasing inability to run high-end programs and files on Scott's 5-year-old Pentium 133 laptop. The modem had died (a friend of ours gave us an old one he wasn't using), and the CD-Rom drive went on the fritz. I decided to rebuild the Pentium 200 machine with old parts. One old hard drive had bad sectors, and was out of warranty, rendering it useless. Armed with a larger drive and a CD-Rom, I set to it. The system is currently functioning. Too bad we can't install the free dial-up ISP software on it.

Once the systems were finally operational and ready for use, I looked into broadband Internet access. Being a cable junkie, my first stop was cable. No good – AT&T hasn't rebuilt our area. Next, with some reluctance, I checked out called PacBell's DSL site. It stated I was ready, so I called. Their customer support rep said our house was 1,000 feet more from the CO than we needed to be.

Oh, the humanity ! How could I handle having no broadband Internet access ? The prospect of perpetual dial-up, along with the hassles of slow connections and an even slower laptop, was crippling. How could I handle sitting with my head on the computer desk waiting for my email to be downloaded ? How could I conceive being the messy-haired, red-eyed zombie portrayed in all those broadband commercials ?

I decided to try Earthlink, a DSL reseller. I signed up on the web and received their welcome package, but never heard anything else from them. One phone call led to the true answer – they wouldn't sell to me because I was too far from the CO.

Through a conversation with someone in [my company]'s cafeteria, I discovered another high-speed solution – wireless. This involves transceivers attached to lightposts in strategic areas. It isn't the ideal setup, but anything could be better than dialup, right ? I visited their site to check availability, and sure enough, it was not available. The boundary was a mere three miles away.

Further research led me to another DSL reseller. Following links to their partner – and to that partner's partner – led me to Speakeasy. This provider states that we are ready for DSL. I am not putting much faith in this, but will attempt to sign up this coming weekend.

Internet woes aside, we still needed to come up with a television solution. The big question here was, digital cable or satellite ?

We were told that satellite can be cheaper than cable, and less troublesome. PacBell and DirecTV had a scintillating holiday deal that involved $300 worth of free equipment if you sign up for a year. Cable person though I was, I couldn't resist this one. I called PacBell to sign up.

They refused to give it to me.

Because I am a "new customer" of theirs, they would be incurring significant financial risk by issuing me the equipment. I hung up in disgust and called AT&T cable.

The Digital cable installer arrived a couple of weeks later. Excited to finally be receiving the movie channels, we showed him the family room where the TV was located. Because our area hasn't been rebuilt for two-way, a phone line into the digital receiver was required.

It is impossible to run a phone line all the way from the kitchen to the family room.

He wouldn't install digital cable without it.

He instead put us on billing for regular, non-movie-channel service and left us and our broken hearts. Sometimes, life is cruel.


My fall softball season has come to a close. This particular season was a short one, lasting approximately 12 weeks, so every game counted. We had lost only one game at the time of my last report.

The final two games of the season were split, one win and one loss. In the first game, we won by a large margin despite very cool and foggy weather. Toward the end of the game, the fog hovered on the outfield like a thin blanket of fluff. All the players, it seemed, were walking on air in this surrealistic ballpark. That is, until two of them both slipped and went sliding across the grass on their butts charging for the same ball.

The playoffs were played in one evening on a very cool and crisp December evening. Many of the spectators had brought along blankets and hats for warmth. I even found myself playing a couple of innings in my jacket. It was a spring jacket ok ?

Two games later, we were crowned this season's champions, with a 10-2 record and a flawless playoff performance. For only the second time since my very first foray onto the ball field at age 14, I experienced the ultimate goal of every player – a championship title. For our efforts, we all received a cool stainless-steel coffee mug with the league's name embossed on the front.

This team is taking a hiatus for the rest of the winter and will resume in the spring. I have started a search for a winter league closer to home, and will play right through the entire winter if I can help it. In California, you can do these things.


My coworkers and boss decided to get together before Christmas in a conference room and have a potluck lunch and gift exchange. As most of my coworkers have moved to the Bay area from other countries, they brought in a scrumptious assortment of ethnic foods and desserts. I've decided that I absolutely love yellow curry chicken. My Ghiradelli chocolate brownies with mini Reese's peanut butter cups were a hit, as was a homemade, calorie-laden cheesecake brought in by Ernie. By pure luck, I had some tupperware containers at work, and filled them with leftovers. My lunch for the next two days was a cornucopia of tastes.

The gift exchange was a White Elephant. Each person buys and wraps a small gift, then puts it on the table. We draw numbers, and the person who picks #1 chooses a gift and unwraps it. The person who picks #2 can either steal an opened gift from someone, or pick another gift and open it.

Thomas, who had chosen #1, was stolen from three times. I ended up with a gorgeous Mikasa candy dish that I stole of someone else. Ernie, the long-haired, motorcycle-riding resident white boy got a CD with Chinese music on it. One of the non-drinkers, Kavitha, left with alcohol-filled chocolates. The book on management ? To the boss of course. A good time was had by all.


Scott had the honor of serving as best man at his friend Gary's wedding. The wedding was December 22nd, so Scott decided to fly down a week early to prepare. He was also to obtain his work visa on the way back to the US. Due to immigration issues, I could not accompany him.

Just before we were about to leave from the apartment to the airport, we realized the terrifying truth. Scott had left his passport in his car, which was parked an hour's drive away in the garage at our new house. There was no way we could have made the flight. Air Canada was accommodating to a flight change (for a charge of course). I dropped him off at the airport in the early afternoon, under a bright, slightly warm sun.

Chicago wasn't so lucky.

Several inches of snow and zero visibility led to complete cancellations of all flights to Chicago – the same city Scott was to fly in for his stopover. The airline paid for cabs for the passengers to go to San Francisco and catch another flight out of SFO. After 8 agonizing hours, he was in the air and on his way.

One of the main responsibilities of the best man is to throw a stag party. The entourage first made their way to a bar, where Gary was given copious amounts of alcohol. He walked around for approximately one hour with a half-eaten chicken wing, yelling at anyone who suggested he throw it out. He showed Scott a beautiful drawing he'd made with a beer bottle. He attempted to climb out of the car through the window and had to be pulled back in.

Of course, the group of men wished to go to an establishment well-known for bachelor parties. Scott despises these places, but decided to go for his friend. Taking a seat with his back to the performance, he settled in. One of the hostesses was walking around attempting to sell lap dances. When she mentioned her price to Gary, he yelled "Thirty dollars ? You'd better look like Britney Spears for thirty dollars !"

On the way back, Scott gathered his approved Visa paperwork and all his documents and presented them to a surly, sarcastic and monotonic border guard. Without losing his cool, Scott answered all the questions, even the trick ones, correctly. He is now authorized to work in the US.

He returned to California the day before Christmas, in the sun and cool air.


Christmas Day was spent unpacking the house and opening gifts. It did not feel much like Christmas in 45 degree weather and no snow to speak of. I can't say I missed the cold, but a brown and green Christmas just doesn't feel the same.

Californians, despite the lack of snow, are very festive. The holiday spirit shines through on the wreaths and Christmas lights strung across the front grills of SUVs, and the massive, opulent, and sometimes grotesque lighting displays. Our neighbors two doors down had the cutest display of them all – reindeers shaped of a frame with white lights, red noses, turning their heads slowly back and forth. One TV channel played "A Christmas Story" for 24 hours straight.

While opening gifts from my parents, we spoke to them on the phone so that they could hear our reaction. Of course, we were unable to hear their reaction, as Mom had opened our gift the night before. We gave them various souvenir-type items such as hand-drawings of San Francisco we'd picked up at Union Square, a real, framed slice of silicon from the Tech Museum, and [my company] golf balls. We didn't buy gifts for my sisters for good reason – they were joining us for a week of fun the day after !


Boxing Day. [Day after Christmas.] Well, it wasn't really Boxing Day because Americans don't recognize that holiday. At least they gave us the day before Christmas off, but Boxing Day was a day I had to take out of my vacation. What a shame. Some of the best shopping and crowd-handling experiences I've ever had were on Boxing Day at the Eaton Centre.

Scott and I arrived late at the airport. We had slept in a little later than expected, and were scrambling around looking for my sisters in the luggage area and at the gate. They weren't there. It turns out that the flight was delayed in St. Louis because of – you guessed it – torrential snowfall. We each took one two-way radio (kind of like a CB). I waited at the gate while Scott parked the car. People mistook me for a security guard because I was holding the radio and talking to Scott with it.

Approximately one hour past the scheduled landing time, my sisters appeared. They were exhausted and starving after almost 12 hours of travelling. In all those 12 hours they were given a grand total of one apple and bit of yogurt, cramped in tiny, tiny seats. After loading the luggage in the car, we left in search of food.

We went to the Applebee's in close proximity to my work. Diana and Vicky cleaned their plates like it was their first meal in a week. Satisfied, I asked them what they would like to do next. Their answer ? Shopping !

The Great Mall of the Bay Area is an absolutely massive outlet mall approximately ½ mile from my work. It used to be a Ford plant, which accounts for its enormous size. Inside, there are large outlet stores for all types of merchandise – clothes, crystal, housewares, furniture, carpets and so on. There is also a huge Vans skate park and many stores catering to street wear. This day, even though it was officially not a holiday, was full to overflowing with shoppers looking for post-Christmas deals. Employing our crowd-handling expertise gleaned from the Eaton Center, we shopped for the rest of the day. One full hour was spent in the Sketcher's store, where Vicky finally decided on a pair of shoes she liked. We bought them as part of her Christmas gift.

The jet lag started kicking in toward early evening, so we headed home. Exhausted, Diana and Vicky ended up sleeping most of the way. We made it an early night after eating a small dinner.


December 27th was our day to drive the scenic route down Highway 1 to Monterey. I had bought tickets for the aquarium at a discounted price from my work. I swore I had these tickets in my purse and did not remove them. They were not there. I spent a half hour scrambling around looking for the tickets. Scott ended up finding them – in his bag ! He had put them there so he wouldn't lose them. Well, I guess that backfired.

We took the long way to Monterey, driving across the San Mateo bridge, through the mountains and down the coast. The breathtaking scenery was complimented by the fact that we were there with family that we hadn't seen in three long months. We stopped often to take pictures.

In the aquarium, we toured through all the exhibits, including one that Scott and I had missed the last time we were there. We took an adorable picture of the two of them in a big sculpted seashell. We saw sea otters, all types of birds, huge turtles, octopuses and other marine lifeforms. We petted the sea rays and starfish. Vicky fell in love with the sea cucumbers.

It was dark by the time we left, however we still wanted to tour the 17-mile drive. The scenery along this route is spectacular, from the coastal views to the Pebble Beach golf course, to the enormous mansions habited by some of the valley's richest. We set off, hoping to see some elaborate Christmas light displays.

Unfortunately, the trail was closed to traffic, and the gate attendant was only allowing residents in. We turned around and headed back toward the freeway.

While passing through the quaint residential streets of Monterey, our eyes were drawn to a small road radiating colorful light in all directions. It was called Candy Cane Lane. We turned down it for a closer look.

The Christmas spirit was gleaming through a myriad of twinkling lights and elaborate displays. Every house on this street was adorned with lavish arrangements of lights, cartoon characters and signs. Each house had its own personality, from sports to animals to the seven Dwarves. One roof had the word "Joy" scripted in multiple strings of lights on its roof. It was a fascinating sight.

Driving in the car became somewhat of an issue rather quickly. When we are on a leisurely, scenic drive, Scott and I like to have the windows slightly down to appreciate the fresh air and breeze. Unfortunately this was making the car too cold a place for Diana and Vicky. Our drives on the 27th were made with the windows up. On the 28th, we gave them a blanket.


As we puttered down the winding mountain road toward the city with the windows down and the music playing, the two Californians rode in their t-shirts and jeans, and the two Canadians huddled in the back seat with a stadium blanket.

This day was a day for wild, unabashed shopping. Scott dropped us off early at Valley Fair, and proceeded to the DMV to take his driving test.

As expected, the mall was overrun with bargain-hunting shoppers. Added to this minor annoyance was the fact that many of the stores and concessions were understaffed. We spent an hour in Macy's, half of which was spent in line. It took over 20 minutes to obtain a pretzel, and 25 to purchase items at the Gap. Regardless of this inconvenience, there were many bargains to be found.

Scott joined us with the great news that he had passed his driver's test. After walking through every inch of Valley Fair, and spending copious amounts of money, we headed to the outlet plazas at Gilroy.

To navigate these massive stores, and accommodate slightly different shopping tastes of the group, we employed the priceless two-way radios. Several times we split off to look in stores which interested us, and each time, we were able to find one another without incident. I bought some dress shirts for work.

One of the greatest bargains of all was found in the Fila store. I noticed on the cheapie rack a very attractive black and gray long-sleeved shirt with yellow trim, exactly the style that Scott likes. The tag said it was XXL, which often is too big. Scott proceeded to the change rooms to try it on.

One change room was being used. The other was full of boxes, so we were told to wait for the occupied one.

This room contained a woman, her husband, her two children, and half the store. She was trying on every outfit she could get her hands on, pondering incessantly about each one, asking second and third opinions from her entourage.

After impatiently waiting over 10 minutes, the boxes were cleared out of the other room. The shirt fit perfectly, and we walked out having paid a whopping $7.

As we were leaving, the woman was still in the change room.

In all the time we were in Gilroy, we actually missed an entire plaza, as we had run out of time. Diana and Vicky ran into Esprit, and I ran into the Adidas store, two minutes before closing. It was a productive day, both in terms of area covered and money spent. My sisters literally shopped me to the ground. My feet were killing me and I couldn't look at another store if my life depended on it.

On the long drive back, Vicky expressed her craving for a black bean stir fry. As stir frys are my specialty, I was happy to oblige. However, we didn't have any black bean sauce, and there was no way we were going to wait 45 minutes for the rice to steam. It was already 10:30pm and we were exhausted.

The four of us descended on the Albertson's like a pack of wolves. Once inside, we deployed to separate corners of the store, each with one item to find. We found our groceries, paid for them and left, all in less than 15 minutes. This must be a world record.

After enjoying a well-deserved meal, we collapsed into bed.


In obedience to the scarce availability of Alcatraz tours, I had ordered tickets two weeks in advance. No discounts, but their online ordering made the process quite painless. Before heading out on the 29th, I had to drive to Stockton in the thickest pea-soup fog I have ever seen to sign up for my train pass.

I chose the train as my preferred commuting option for many reasons. In absolutely no traffic, it is a one-hour drive from our house to my work, 59 miles in total. Some of the worst traffic in the entire Bay area is along the Sunol grade, precisely where my commute route leads. According to Tim, the entire drive sometimes takes over two hours. He used to leave at 4:00am to avoid the nightmarish stop-and-go experience. My car is 8 years old, and while it is in fantastic shape at the moment, it couldn't handle this kind of abuse. Gas prices being what they are, it would be cheaper to take the train. And I can arrive to work having read, slept or listened to music, and feeling stress-free.

The trip to Stockton took 2.5 hours, not the 1 hour I had predicted. As soon as I got home, we rushed into the car and high-tailed it to San Francisco.

Arriving at our usual parking spot in a cheap and well-maintained lot, we brisk-walked 20 minutes to the Alcatraz pier. We were the last to board the ferry. How's that for cutting it close ?

We arrived at the island and explored it thoroughly. Some areas that had been roped off when Scott and I visited were now open, much to our delight. We walked through as much of the island as we could, taking pictures of the wildlife, the gorgeous San Francisco cityscape, the Bay, and each other.

We took the award-winning audio tour, then continued our exploration deep into the bowels of the prison.

In the shower room was a photo exhibit called "Prisoners of Age." It was an extensive display of aging inmates and of the general prison population, with each person's story.

The elderly prisoners looked like anyone's grandfather. What little hair most of them had was stark white. Some used canes, walkers or wheelchairs, their bodies thin and wrinkled. One even had no legs. How could one conceive of placing these people in the sordid conditions of a high-security prison ?

One had 6 bypass operations while in jail. A man who had escaped from jail a full 30 years earlier was turned in by his niece to serve the rest of his time. A married man with terminal cancer was denied conditional release to be with his wife. An older man was jailed for trafficking drugs to pay the medical bills he and his wife had accumulated. A younger man was jailed for shooting two men who had tried to rob him.

One cannot help but be somewhat sympathetic, however the sympathy fades when some of the accompanying stories are read.

Some men spoke of murder as if it were perfectly justified. A clean-cut inmate told the story of when he first was released from jail. He wanted to escape the fast life, get a job, and be a responsible member of society. He applied for a janitorial job and was denied. So he killed the supervisor. In his mind, the supervisor had robbed him of a chance at a normal life, and hence, deserved to die.

Another was jailed for manslaughter for killing his aunt. His explanation ? He didn't mean to kill his aunt. His aunt was one who raised him and loved him like her own. He would never hurt her. He had gone to kill his girlfriend, but the aunt got in the way. He insisted he didn't belong in jail.

We embarked on the last ferry of the day back to the Embarcadero. In the mainland gift store, I found a gorgeous framed clock, with a glittery picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. I bought this to accompany my framed slice of silicon for the computer room. Scott found an Alcatraz video he had been wanting for some time.

We exited out the back door, to be regaled at the sight of the most beautiful sunset we have ever seen. It was a kaleidoscope of orange, yellow and dark pink, and it filled almost the entire sky. Scott ran to the end of the pier to take pictures. I bought another film (for $8 !) and brought it to him. We took pictures of Alcatraz, the city and the pier, all with this wonder of nature in the background. That film was well worth the $8.

As promised to my sisters earlier, we took them to a seafood restaurant, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Scott and I don't like seafood, so we ordered the generously-portioned steak dinner. My sisters had the shellfish of the day. We stuffed ourselves to the point that we couldn't finish the two desserts we attempted to split.

The Embarcadero is lined with scores and scores of shops, from clothing to cameras, new-age trinkets and the Gap. Our adventure lead us down the street, poking into every interesting store we could find. Unfortunately, the brisk walk earlier on, coupled with walking the entire day, took its toll on Vicky's asthma. She had an asthma machine at home, and we needed to get there quickly.

Not wanting to leave them sitting there while we walked back to the car, Scott and I hailed a cab. We took the cab back to our car. I struck up a conversation with the driver, who turned out to be personable and interesting. When I brought up the dangers of working in the city, he revealed that he had been shot less than a year earlier.

It was a thug who had called him for a ride, took the ride, got out of the cab, then pulled out a gun. The driver sped away, but was shot in the shoulder. He was lucky it wasn't his head. A few months later, he was back on the job. He loves what he does.


December 30th was the last full day of my sisters' visit. We wanted to make the most of this day, as their flight was scheduled to leave at the ungodly hour of 7:30am the next morning. Minus Scott, who was pretty sick of shopping by this point, we hopped into the car and travelled to San Francisco. This time our destination was its shopping mecca: Union Square.

The Macy's alone in Union Square is similar to the former Eaton's at the Eaton Center. At least 6 levels, each level about a half a city block long. And this was just the women's store. The men's store was down the street. In one of the expansive departments, we found another irresistible bargain: a pair of Tommy Hilfiger pants for all of $12.

Since my sisters had exhausted most of their American money, this was well within the affordable range.

We walked around the streets of Union Square, stopping in all the interesting shops. We also cruised the circular San Francisco Shopping Center. Diana expressed interest in visiting the Haight district of San Francisco, but by the time we were finished, we were all pooped.

Instead of shopping the Haight, we drove through it. We marvelled at the stunning Victorian houses all through the City, each painted a different color and with different decorations. The Haight was vibrant as always, with its quaint hippie shops and interesting-looking people.

For a scenic ride home, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. It was dark at the time, and the lights of the City shimmered with a life of their own. No camera could ever capture the dazzling energy emanating from the cityscape. It is something that is only to be remembered.

Driving northbound, we noticed a huge traffic jam to go back across the bridge. We continued northbound, crossed at the Richmond-San Rafael bridge and headed toward our home. We made one more stop at the Old Navy and Mervyn's before arriving home.

On New Year's Eve, we woke up at the ungodly hour of 5:00am to make the one-hour trip to the airport. Diana and Vicky had to practically jump on their suitcases to close them. Even though they had left a ton of room, as we had advised, they had bought so many pieces of clothing and shoes that they were fully loaded. They could barely accommodate the can of fat-free Pringles I gave to them.

We drove them to the airport and accompanied them to the gate. As they walked onto the plane and out of sight, I was hit with the worst bout of homesickness I've ever felt. I never thought I could be homesick after keeping regular contact with friends and family, but seeing them board the plane left a void, one that could not be filled.

Despite lack of sleep and down mood, Scott and I decided to hang around San Jose until the Fry's opened. Like geeks, we poked around the Wal-Mart, then waited for 10 minutes for the Hometown Buffet to start serving breakfast. After a satisfying meal, we waited in the Fry's parking lot for 15 minutes. With our Christmas money, we bought something we had wanted for a very long time: a DVD player. Now we can play The Matrix DVD we'd bought a year ago, instead of using it as a decoration piece.


The true Millennium New Years' was spent in front of the television, like most American people. All the Millennium hype was last year, and even though the real turn happened this past January 1st, nobody seemed to care. It can only be described as pure apathy.

With all the partying going on in the Bay Area, you would think they would have a televised party of some sort, but the only available local telecast started at 11pm. Up until 11pm, we watched the broadcast from New York. The time-adjusted, 3-hours-behind, not-live program from Times Square. Lame, yes, but there was nothing else to watch. The new millennium was greeted with a two-soda salute.


This new year also brought a change of lifestyle. Because of the long commute, and the fact that I have to arrive at the train station ½ hour early to ensure a parking spot, I am now required to wake up much earlier than I am accustomed to.

My commute consists of a half an hour drive to the train station, followed by a half an hour wait for the train. One hour is spent on the train, then I board a public transit bus. This bus, driven by an old man who refuses to turn the heater on and hits the brakes at the last nanosecond, takes me to a company building. From this building, I board a company shuttle to my building. It takes over two hours each way.

The hour on the train is productive time, so all is not lost. I am currently studying for my next certification, and often catch a few winks when I don't feel like reading.

The train itself is five double-decker cars long. The seats are very large, padded and comfortable. Some seat clusters have tables for people's books, laptops or heads. The cars were made by Bombardier Inc, a company based in Thunder Bay, Ontario that also makes the vehicles for the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission, the transit agency in Toronto].

It is sometimes humorous to observe how people spend their time on the train. Some travel from as far away as Stockton every day, which is over 2 hours on the train.

Lots of people sleep. Many patrons sleep quietly, others snore. Some end up with their heads tipped back and mouths wide open.

I once observed these two ladies who had boarded in Manteca, and were faced with close to two hours on the train. They had brought pillows, and were sleeping quietly on the table, their tickets prominently displayed. As if on cue, they both awoke at Fremont, 15 minutes from San Jose. While the train bumped and swayed, they meticulously applied every type of makeup known to man. Foundation, lip liner, lipstick, eye liner, eye shadow, mascara, blush – all impeccably done without a single smudge. They even clamped their eyelashes in eyelash curlers ! I commented that I couldn't believe they weren't pinching their eyelids. They've had a lot of practice they said.

Another passtime is talking to people on the train. I've met so many people who have just started conversations with me. I've talked to a nuclear physicist, a Canadian who had just relocated to the Bay area, a grandmother who works for a CEO of a startup company, my company employees and various dot-commers. It's astounding how nice and friendly people are. If anyone started a conversation with me on the TTC, I would think they're nuts.


My company has a shuttle service that takes people between buildings and to and from transit stops. I make use of this service on a daily basis to get around, and usually end up chatting with the drivers. One conversation stands out in my memory as one of the funniest in a long time.

This particular driver was an older fellow, very rotund, with a large, flowing white beard. He had previously been a truck driver and a tow truck operator. We were talking about some of the funny things people do when they drive. He told me two stories of the most incredulous things he has seen.

He passed a lady once with her leg up on the dashboard, razor in hand, shaving away. While driving.

One very hot summer day, he noticed a car stopped at a red light ahead, shaking slightly. The driver, being an animal lover, assumed there was a dog of some sort in the car, and pulled up closer. The woman behind the wheel was struggling. A second look confirmed his suspicion – she was removing her pantyhose ! The large, bearded truck driver rolled down his window and yelled, "Hey, if I had to wear those damn things I'd take them off too !" In horror and utter embarrassment, the woman jumped the curb, ran the red light and took off.


Many of you may have heard about the deepening energy crisis in California. The cash-strapped utilities are perilously close to declaring bankruptcy, and rolling blackouts have already hit our area once. For an unprecedented 7 days, we have been on a Stage 3 alert, meaning blackouts can happen at any time.

So how did it come to this ? The short answer: Deregulation.

Deregulation was touted as a great solution in 1996, and rushed through the approval process. The utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, sold of a large portion of their power plants. They stated at the time that they were willing to take a risk if wholesale electricity prices went up. This, as it turned out, was their downfall.

No new power plants have been built in over a decade, and the state's population has grown by over 14% in 10 years. Needless to say, demand has been steadily increasing.

Deregulation imposed a rate-cap, limiting the amount that PG&E could charge consumers for electricity. In the past year, energy wholesalers have jacked up the price of bulk electricity a full 500%. When supply is short, the utilities will pay pretty much whatever it takes to keep the lights on. Pure, unadulterated greed is at play here.

Edison was not subject to the rate-cap, and passed the cost onto customers. In one month, San Diego's electricity rates tripled. It took government intervention to put a stop to the madness.

The buzz word around here over the past month has been conservation. Stores are dimming their lights, [my company] is toning down its HVAC systems, and some people are turning to pollution-creating wood stoves to heat their homes. We spent $150 on upgrading almost every single light bulb in our house to fluorescent. During the Christmas season, some business turned off their elevators – and left their Christmas lights on. Great conservation efforts there.

A state of emergency was declared on January 17th. That day, the demand for power outstripped the supply, and the rolling blackouts started. Several sections were hit, one hour each. One of those sections was Scott's workplace in Livermore. Hand tools kept the technicians busy for the duration.

The next day, I read about this in the newspaper. The reporter interviewed a few people at their workplaces to see how it had affected them. Many owners complained of losing revenue. Workers at Wendy's were not bothered, as they were still being paid for their time. A group of union workers at a local auto repair shop were not so lucky. Apparently the union does not pay them if they cannot work due to an act of God. The worker stated, "PG&E is God, I guess."


As we enter a new year, and a new millennium, we all like to make resolutions to improve our lives and the lives of others. My resolutions this year are pretty simple, but much different than other years.

I will further my career by taking as many courses and gaining as many certifcations as possible.
I will continue to reach out to people, make friends, and help others in any way that I can.
I will keep my house clean and hospitable so that I never have to apologize for the mess.
I will save my money so that someday we won't need to budget.

And finally,

I will maintain and strengthen my existing relationships and do my best to stay in touch with those I care about.

I hope this email will contribute to that goal.

Take care,



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