Saturday, June 16, 2018

From the Archives - Horsefly Spider Smackdown!


Introduction

Here is another bike touring tale from my archives. I had photographic proof of this remarkable incident, but this was 24 years ago and I can’t find the photo. Alas.


The spider and the horsefly – July 1994

Stopped at a town along the way to Iowa, I had one of life’s great unexpected moments. While my wife talked to her aunt and then her mom on a payphone, I waited, straddling my bike, not doing much of anything. Then I saw a tiny lime-green spider on my front pannier. His front two legs on either side were twice the length of his body. When spinning a web, he would wave these front legs about majestically in the air, like giant batons. He was building an as-yet invisible web when I suddenly saw a small emerald-green horsefly land on the pannier, not so very far from the spider.

You can tell a horsefly by its giant, menacing proboscis, which can pierce cotton, denim, and even leather on the way to your skin. “Hideous blood-sucking parasite, I’ll kill you,” I swore. These creatures are mighty hard to swat—they seem to have better instincts than a housefly, perhaps as a result of dodging a horse’s tail all their lives—but I had bigger plans for this one.

Reflecting on the the three-week old scars still left on my body from the horseflies in Colorado and western Kansas, I decided I would catch this horsefly alive and feed it to the tiny green spider, who would slowly eat it alive over a period of hours. I stared at my prey and tried not to think of the tremendous odds against me. Could I possibly execute this plan? No point deliberating on the matter: in a perfect, miraculous Zen moment, I just struck out, as I would for a typewriter key on the home row, and got him.

I had to restrain myself from doing a victory dance and tipping over my bike. I looked at the doomed creature for a moment, sizing up his treacherous syringe, before holding him out before the spider. The green spider instantly recognized the largest buffet he’d ever stumbled across, and groped out for it. He couldn’t get a good enough purchase—the fly was larger than he by several times—and finally I just set the fly down near him. The fly was injured and thus struggled, futilely, to right himself. The spider walked towards him and then—amazingly—walked right by. I guess with six or eight eyes, you could have trouble with depth perception.

So this horsefly was struggling to fly away with only one wing, and finally gave up and crawled towards the end of the pannier and jumped off the edge, as if committing suicide to save himself the horror of being eaten alive. Furious, I picked him up off the ground and set him back on the pannier, and again the spider missed him. I was about to put him in the spider’s path yet again, when suddenly the spider shimmied up an invisible web he’d made, all the way up to my handlebar.

By this time my wife was off the phone, and ready to get moving again. Even on these long summer days, we always get a little antsy in the evenings about finding a place to camp for the night. (We’ve come up empty a few times and had to sleep under a bridge or in a pricey motel.) I was torn about whether or not to ask my wife to wait just a little longer so I could complete this spider-feeding operation.

Well, before I even had a chance to broach the topic, an old man pulled up in an RV, stopped, and jumped out to chat with us. He’d seen us from the road and made a special detour to see what we were about. I expected the normal volley of questions, the expressions of amazement that we’d come all the way from San Francisco, the excitement that with a whole nation to tour around in we’d chosen this little town to ride through, etc. But this guy didn’t actually seem that curious about our trip. What he really wanted to talk about—and did!—was his 20-foot Winnebago Atasca, and what great gas mileage he’d gotten on his trip over from Michigan (or maybe he was headed to Michigan; I wasn’t paying super close attention). He talked and talked, and my wife was anxious to go since we’d miles to go before we’d sleep, miles to go before we’d sleep . . . and there was the fly, and there was the spider, still, but I’d had to suspend my operation so as not to be rude, and my magnificent plan was falling apart before my eyes. Finally, the man drove off, waving, and I grabbed the fly once again. I told my wife, “Observe. I will feed the fly to the spider.”

The spider was doing laps around the circumference of my handlebar now, but I caught his attention, waving the fly before him, its helpless legs groping the air. Now I held the fly right spang in front of him, and the spider groped out for the prey. I swear that I could feel the tiny spider legs brush my fingers as he betook his purchase. Perhaps he was enclosing the hapless fly with a web; in any case, after 20 or 30 seconds he’d pulled it in. I let go, and to my delight the spider wrapped his tiny mandibles around one of the fly’s red eyes. Yes, yes, I thought, oh yes sweet spider, suck his fly brains out his eyeball. This was pretty much the most satisfying moment of my life to that point.

The spider rode on my handlebar for the next 13 miles, feasting on its still living, still twitching, grossly oversized prey. Then we stopped at a country store for ice cream confections and when we came back out he was gone,  and the horsefly with him.

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Saturday, June 9, 2018

My Humiliating Senior Prom!

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language and alcohol references.

Introduction

The official story I tell my kids is that I never went to the senior prom. Allegedly I couldn’t, because I had either the ACT exam the next day, or the State Road Championships. (My story varies.) “I knew I had a better shot at the [exam] [race] than the prom,” I explain dryly.

This year, on a lark, I decided to share the real story with my older daughter, shortly before her first prom. In doing so I realized it’s not a bad tale, so I’ll share it with you too, recreated from memory with maximum verisimilitude.

My senior prom – spring 1987

To start off, I hadn’t planned on attending at all. The whole idea seemed completely outlandish to me. My high school was an “open campus,” meaning I was almost never there and barely knew anybody. Meanwhile, I was not exactly a ladies’ man. I wasn’t good looking or confident. I wasn’t up on popular music or sports. I had no concept of fashion except Levi’s 501s and bike race t-shirts. I was only slightly less socially retarded than my brothers, who were so shy they were actually mistaken for foreign exchange students.

There was one girl, Michelle, whom I could have asked to prom, but the problem was, I kind of liked her so it wasn’t worth the risk of rejection. But there was this other girl, in my French class, whom I didn’t like at all. Actually, to be clear, I liked her as a pal, but didn’t want to go out with her whatsoever. The sad truth is, she was as homely as I was, or as I felt, anyway (which was either more or less homely than I actually was, because what teenager ever had an accurate self-image?). This girl was fun to talk to, particularly in class, but that was about it. If you’re wondering whether or not I’m going to tell you her name, I’m not—for the simple reason that I cannot remember it. This just shows you how small I am, or at least how small I was. If she had been pretty, of course I’d remember her name.

I can’t remember exactly why I asked this girl to prom. It was for one of two reasons, maybe both. One, she was really bummed out because her horse had died. Yes, you read that right: in Colorado it was actually possibly to own a horse. Hers had been killed in a highway accident (trailer rollover). I never knew if the horse died instantly or had to be put down (I wasn’t about to ask). So I may have actually invited her out of pity. The other possible reason is that I happened to know the obscure fact that “prom” is short for “promenade dance,” and I really wanted to showcase this knowledge by asking, “Would you care to accompany me to the promenade dance?” This is exactly how I asked, and the girl immediately said yes, with a big smile. Inwardly, this shocked and dismayed me, which made me feel like the complete dick that I knew I was.

Well, for the next week she chattered all through French class about her quest for the perfect prom dress. This made me feel worse than ever. It was obviously far too late to cancel the whole thing—every moment she spent savoring her anticipation dug us both in deeper. I knew I should try to match her enthusiasm but I just couldn’t. For one thing, I couldn’t dance—I was far too inhibited. Second, I didn’t own a suit and wasn’t about to throw good money after a bad idea by renting a tux. Finally, I had no car and didn’t want to ask my parents to borrow theirs, because that would mean admitting I was going to prom, which for some reason I was just not prepared to do. I feared—or perhaps hoped—this lack of wheels would be a show-stopper.

When I came clean about the car, my date (gasp!) didn’t even care. She’d just gotten her first car, and was a modern girl. This was gonna be great, etc. Daaaaamn! This obstacle having vanished, I decided I better bite the bullet and rent a tux. I went down to the strip mall with my friend John. He was attending the prom non-ironically and wanted to look sharp. I wish I remembered the name of that cheesy tux place. Their entire clientele seemed to be high school kids. It was obvious that these tuxes were pure shit—and yet, every dude who put one on managed to look really good. I couldn’t understand it. (I do now … it’s called youth.)

Well, there was actually one kid who didn’t look good in the rental tux: me. Part of it was my fault; I was about six-foot-one, 140 pounds. Great physique for bike racing, in the purely utilitarian way that webbed fingers and toes would be good for competitive swimming. The other problem was that I was a cheap bastard and was looking for that one-in-a-thousand suit that fit me right off the rack and wouldn’t require alterations, which were $10 extra. I found that one suit, but it was—I kid you not—pink. Not some marginally acceptable salmon or coral (which might have gone over okay, this being the era of “Miami Vice.”) It was pure, awful pink. Pepto-Bismol pink. Crayola carnation pink.


Because of its color, this tux was actually a cheaper rental than the black ones. Admitting I was a nerd to begin with, and vainly attempting the apotheosis from nerd to smartass, I decided to do it. For my boutonniere I chose, of course, a pink carnation. I thought it very clever to point out that, against my tux, it was “boutonniere camo,” and I tried this line on pretty much everybody I encountered the entire night, without eliciting so much as a smirk. But I see I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before the promenade dance proper, of course, there was the requisite fancy dinner. I agonized over where to eat, which might suggest that I was developing some kind of gusto for the whole affair, but the dinner was merely the only aspect of prom I could manage to develop an opinion about. Among prospective restaurants the front-runner was JJ McCabe’s, which was known for being lax about liquor laws. (This was valuable only in that it leant a mystique; I was too risk-averse, and too cheap, to actually contemplate buying booze.) But I’d eaten at JJ McCabe’s once with my parents, and the service was unbelievably slow … we sat for almost an hour waiting for our food. My dad surmised that every member of the staff was drunk off his loins. I couldn’t take that risk on prom night.

Pelican Pete’s was also kind of flashy, because seafood was still a rare thing in Boulder in 1987. But their food kind of sucked. Tico’s had great food and unlimited chips, but I didn’t want to actually insult my date. The Good Earth was trendy but a little too granola for me. So I finally settled on Sebastians, which had a salad bar that was so fancy you could get caviar. Not that I liked caviar—it was like eating salted ball bearings—but it just screamed “deluxe.” On top of that, the salad bar format was perfect from the budgeting standpoint. After all, nobody orders an appetizer before a salad bar, and nobody gets dessert afterward. I could confidently bring exactly the right amount of money. Sebastians was a no-brainer.

The night started off badly, and not because of my pink suit as you might have speculated. In fact, my date was wearing an orange dress. Not a subtle, marginally acceptable peach or pumpkin color, but a purely awful tint of orange, the color of a Creamsicle.  I’m tempted to say it was even worse than my pink tux, since she’d actually selected it in pursuit of aesthetic élan rather than in defiance of it, but then nothing could have looked worse than that pink tux. Anyway, it wasn’t like she forgave my suit because her dress was awful; she forgave my suit because she was a totally laid-back, cool chick—at least, when it came to me.

With herself, she was much less forgiving (which I suppose isn’t rare). She was upset because, when doing a last-minute check of her beloved new (to her) Toyota Corolla, making sure it was still lookin’ real good, she discovered that the kickass narrow-stripe whitewall tires on the driver’s side were not matched by kickass narrow-stripe whitewall tires on the passenger side. The starboard tires were simply black. Her sweet ride was asymmetrical!


Poor thing. She hadn’t looked this miserable since her horse died. The only sympathetic sentiment I could come up with was “Honestly, your car looks terrible regardless,” but of course I couldn’t say that. She was so agitated and stressed out she was sweating profusely. Actually, the sweating probably had something to do with the fur coat she was wearing, which she’d borrowed from her aunt. May was a bit late in the season for a tux, and it was an unseasonably warm evening.

At Sebastians, things continued going downhill. Turns out the legendary salad bar wasn’t every night. Maybe it wasn’t on weekends, or maybe they decided to screw the prom crowd. Ordering off the menu meant I wouldn’t have enough money. At least, not for two. So I lied and told my date I’d already eaten. For the first time that evening, she seemed miffed. But the waiter was solicitous and the place was swanky, and her spirits improved. As we waited for our—well, her—food to come out, she said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “Look: I come prepared. I’ve been to the Liquor Mart.” She held out her purse. It was stocked with airline-sized bottles of Goldschlager cinnamon schnapps. I raised an eyebrow. “I’ll drink one if I wanna have fun,” she said, “a second if I wanna get crazy, and a third if things get good.”

I was shocked. This girl was cool, I realized. Far, far too cool for me. I was in way over my head. I didn’t have the nerve to drink alcohol. I was just a stupid, ignorant, shy, untutored nerd, and here I was, out with a girl who possessed shades of Woman. That she assumed I was game was both flattering and terrifying. I tried to shrug, to show how cool and unflustered I was, but it came out more like a muscle spasm.

She excused herself to freshen up, and I sat at the table feeling utterly unmoored. What if this girl knew how to dance, too? What if her sang-froid made her popular at the prom? What if she were actually far less of a pariah at the high school than I was? What would I do, in this terrible pink suit? Fortunately, not long after she returned the bread arrived, so I had something to do with my hands. And my mouth. I stuffed my face nervously, and actually my dark mood lifted a bit via the thrill of eating real butter, almost for the first time in my life.

Halfway through my date’s entrée, things were looking up. She kind of chewed with her mouth open, which helped put me at ease. I made a lot of wisecracks about the people around us (mostly old grey-hairs, I realized with a pang), and she giggled a lot. However sophisticated and daring she might be, I reflected, she did seem to dig me. So I’d almost recovered my composure when, casting about for another old person to bag on, I spied my own father dining across the restaurant from us, seated with a woman who was obviously not my mom.

I say “obviously” because my parents had been divorced for almost three years. I still wasn’t used to the idea, and it stung to see my dad out with another woman. He’d never taken my mom out on a date, not during my lifetime. Her birthday, Mother’s Day, their anniversary … nothing would justify, for him, a splurge like this. The other problem was that the woman he was dining with was Horseface, whom I couldn’t stand.

I should probably explain here that this really wasn’t Horseface’s fault. She wasn’t a mean person or anything. In fact, she wasn’t even ugly. Her face wasn’t so much horsey as, well, equine. Yes, kind of a long face, but not painful to look at or anything. The real reason for the nickname is that my dad was dating, concurrently, another woman with the same name and we had to keep them straight. My dad seemed to be dating half the women in Boulder. (The less attractive half, it must be said.) My dislike for Horseface was grounded plainly in the fact of her—in the fact of my dad dating.

So yeah, I was a bit pissed off. Perhaps the whole heady atmosphere of the evening was affecting me, because I brashly strode over to my dad’s table. I didn’t have a plan or anything; I just wanted to make him uncomfortable.

This failed utterly, which I should have seen coming. For me to also be dining at this posh restaurant only helped my dad show off—like, look at my son, he’s only 17 but he’s  already living the good life! My dad beamed and said, “Hello Dana.” I greeted Horseface politely, and she beamed too, like we were all just great friends. I suddenly felt like I might be sick to my stomach. It dawned on me that my blood sugar was low, and I noticed that my dad not only had some giant entrée, but a side of fettuccine Alfredo. I was overcome with bitterness.

Whenever we went out to eat—which was mighty rare, by the way—my dad would say at the beginning, “Boys, you may have anything on the menu under $3.50.” This usually limited our choices to the cheapest and second-cheapest items. And here he was living large with a side of pasta! Impulsively, perhaps thinking that this might somehow impress my date, I said casually, “I’ll be taking this,” and with a nod to Horseface, I walked off, bringing the plate of pasta with me to my table.

My date looked shocked. Two things dawned on me. For one, since I’d rudely neglected to introduce her to my dad and his date, she had no idea who these people were. Second, after bizarrely not ordering any food, I’d now stolen some. Suddenly this pasta was even more embarrassing than wearing  a pink suit. My response to this horrifying epiphany was to start eating the pasta as fast as possible, just to make it go away. I doubled down on this activity when I saw my dad, a terrifying tall man with hawk-like features and a big red beard, storming over to our table. He didn’t even ask who my date was (which was actually a relief) and tried to take his pasta back. We got in a little tug-of-war over it while I hissed at him about putting on the dog with this other woman when he’d never given his own family a nice night on the town, etc.

Amazingly, things proceeded to get even worse. My dad’s date strutted her shameless way over to us and cried out, “What on Earth!?” I glared at her and said, “You stay out of this, Horseface!” Only after her moniker slipped past my lips did I realize what I’d just said. Of course she was unaware of this unfortunate nickname, or had been until now. She gasped, started to cry, and stormed off. I felt terrible. So, evidently, did my date, who abruptly snatched up her purse and stood. My dad took off after Horseface—on a trajectory that, alas, matched my date’s sudden restroom-bound vector. The two collided, and whether it was the impact or just coincidence, my date erupted in a big, throaty, cinnamon-schnapps-scented belch. The dinner was officially a total disaster.

The waiter, professional to the core, discreetly flitted by to deposit our check, which I paid in cash, rounding up so we could bail immediately. We got out to the parking lot where my date, fuming, fumbled endlessly with her car keys. Remembering what I’d had rammed down my throat repeatedly in Health class, I asked, “Um … how much have you had to drink?” She held up three fingers, took the hint, and tossed me her car keys. As I fetched them from the asphalt she made her way around to the non-whitewall-tired side of her car.

Now, you’ll think me terribly petty for saying so, but here was an unexpected silver lining: I got to drive! It’s not just that my masculine dignity was assuaged (though that was, I’ll admit, part of it). The thing was, I loved to drive and almost never got to. I started up the Corolla and looked over at my date. “Just take me home,” she said. She was on the verge of tears. “Right,” I replied.

I drove, she directed, and as we neared her house she said, “Wait. Just stop the car for a minute. I have to think.” A probable truth dawned on me: she was embarrassed to get home early and have to tell her parents that her big night had crashed and burned. “We could just drive around,” I offered. To my surprise, she agreed. As we drove, I attempted some damage control.

“Look,” I said, “in case you’re feeling bad about burping in my dad’s face, don’t. Your burp … it was just awesome. The best. I’ve been practicing my belching skills for years and I’ve never managed anything that rich and full. Your belch had authority. You clearly don’t fuck around when it comes to oral eructation. And another thing: my dad totally had that coming. In fact that was long overdue. I only regret that I didn’t get to do it myself.”

My date was laughing now. She had to appreciate my utter lack of reproach, and seemed to appreciate the levity. It certainly didn’t hurt that she was drunk. Emboldened by how my opening salvo went over, and by the simple act of driving a car, I talked some more, describing my parents’ divorce, trying to hit the right balance of humility, swagger, flippancy, and vulnerability. Eventually—boosted by perhaps her fourth fun-sized schnapps of the evening—my date agreed to return to plan, and we headed to the prom.

The prom was at a hotel we always thought was pretty swank; only now do I realize its cheesiness. But even then I thought the decorations were pretty twee. The planning committee had somehow settled on a barn-raising, pioneer-spirit, good-old-fashioned hoe-down theme, totally at odds with the music (Madonna, the Fixx, the Bangles, U2, Berlin, Cindi Lauper, Van Halen, etc.). As soon as we got there, my date hit the dance floor hard, trying to drag me along. Terrified, feeling like a mouse who finds himself in the middle of the floor, I bobbed up and down, trying to move my chin with the music. My date, lost in the music, seemed to forget about me, so I gradually made my way to the edge of the room.

Encountering various classmates who looked vaguely familiar, I tried my line about the camo boutonniere a number of times and got nowhere. Eventually I found my friend Sean, with whom I engaged with in bagging on lame people. I didn’t really know Sean very well—just from a few classes—but he seemed oddly non-nerdy for a guy willing to hang out with me. I pondered, not for the first time, that this might be exactly how he felt about me.

The yearbook staffers were relentless, so my date and I caved and headed to the photo station where we were supposed to pose on a couple of hay bales. My date, off-balance and staggering, leaned on me for support. My rented tux shoes—made entirely of smooth plastic, it seemed, even the soles—slipped, and I leaned back on her, and her feet—shod in ridiculous high heels—slid right out from under her and I ended up sitting on her lap. The yearbook photo captured us in this ridiculous configuration, and to make matters worse I appear, in the photo, to be looking down the front of her dress. Actually, I totally was. I couldn’t help it. The dress gaped open and it was just a reflex. Fortunately, in those days you didn’t see the photo right away, so my date wasn’t (yet) livid. In fact, she asked me to slow-dance.

The slow-dance was very easy. Nobody was really paying attention to anybody but their date. They just shuffled around, leaning on each other, probably most of the girls preoccupied with worry that their date would do something untoward, and certainly most of the boys hoping to cop a feel (or “grab handfuls of ass,” in the parlance of that time). I behaved myself. In fact, it was all I could do to keep my date on her feet. I tried to recall how many airline bottles of schnapps had been in that purse … surely she’d drunk all of them. She reeked of cinnamon—it must have been coming out her pores. Still, when she relaxed and leaned her head on my shoulder, that was kind of nice. At least, it was nice for a while, until suddenly—“Oh, shit!” my date cried. She recoiled from me as if from an electric shock. What had I done?

Turns out it wasn’t what I’d done … it was what she’d done, which was to have a nosebleed all over my tux. “I am so sorry!” she said over and over, lugubriously. I didn’t know what to say. Of course I was livid about the tux—imagine forking over good money to replace a pink tux!—but she looked so miserable I couldn’t worry too much about myself. The poor girl. First her horse dies, then her car has only two narrow-stripe whitewall tires, then her date is a cad in a pink suit, which she bleeds on. She just can’t get a break! I decided to act like a good guy. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Do you need help? Has this happened before?” She flapped her hands around. “It’s just when I’m stressed out,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

My mind raced. “No need to apologize,” I said. “I’m just glad it’s nothing serious. I saw this movie where a guy gets nosebleeds and it’s from a brain aneurysm!” Now she looked a bit freaked out. “It’s okay, I’m sure you’re not having an aneurysm,” I said, realizing how absurd it was to say such a thing, and yet how unconvincing I sounded. “I’ll get you a damp towel,” I continued.

I set off toward the restroom like a man on a mission. Unfortunately, the shortest route was straight across the dance floor, which—by this point—was back to normal (non-slow) dancing. I weaved and bobbed and suddenly my sunglasses flew off. (Yes, it’s stupid to wear shades indoors, especially at a dance, but I was desperately trying to look cool.) They were stupid sunglasses, fake Ray-Ban Wayfarers that were way too dark, but still I was hell-bent on finding them. Pacing around bent over, I got kneed in the face (either accidently or on purpose, I never learned) and now, unbelievably, I too had a nosebleed.

I got to the restroom where a formally attired valet was handing out warm cotton towels. No, of course that’s not true—I grabbed a couple fistfuls of paper towels, wetted them at the sink, and made my way back to my date (the long way around, this time, trying to disappear). I held the towels to the back of my neck in accordance with the old wives’ tale that it would stop the nosebleed, which it didn’t. The towels began to shred and form little pills, like toe-jam footballs, on the collar of my tux. My date was not impressed. What’s more, everybody began loudly mocking us. “Look, it’s the nosebleed twins!” someone taunted. We beat it out of there, dripping blood as we went.

“Oh my god, drive slower,” my date pleaded. “Everything is spinning. Oh god oh god oh god.” Halfway to her house, she puked all over her aunt’s fur and the upholstery of her car. The stench was a horrible congress of bile and cinnamon. I cranked my window down and hung my head out, like a dog. When we got to her house and I swung the car into the driveway, I didn’t see the empty garbage can there—an old-school steel one—and rammed it, causing a massive racket. My date’s dad burst out of the house, taking the porch steps two at a time. He was already furious, as though he’d just known the night would be a disaster. “What in the hell?!” he fumed. I handed my date her keys, spun on my heel, and without a word strode off, beginning the long journey home on foot. The night had been an unmitigated disaster. I didn’t even find my sunglasses.

In French class the next week, my (ex-)date and I didn’t say a word to each other. Fortunately, the end of the school year was not far off. We managed to literally never speak again, and then we graduated, moved off to college, and were thus spared any future awkwardness. And did I learn my lesson? Definitely. I never attended another school dance.

Epilogue

What you have just read is a work of pure fiction. The official story—that I never went to prom—is the true one. When I wrote that I decided “to share the real story” with my daughter, I was equivocating: it’s a real story in the sense that it’s really a story—i.e., really a work of fiction. When I promised maximum verisimilitude, I meant to the story I’d told my daughter … not to any real events. And although I can’t claim that none of the characters bear any resemblance to any actual human, living or dead, I assure you the self-portrait is a caricature.

This tale was born on the night of my daughter’s prom, when my wife and I were chatting. “No, you did go to prom,” my wife said. “How could you forget? You rented that awful pink tux!” Thus began a dialogue of improv. “Oh, yeah!” I replied. “And my date’s dress was orange!” Etc.

The version of this story I told my daughter ended with a character inexplicably grabbing my leg and pulling on it—“just the way, in fact, that I’m pulling on yours,” I quipped. My daughter, crestfallen, said, “Oh, Dad, I so wanted that all to be true!”

My younger daughter overheard me reading this to my wife, and though she ran from the room, and called out to me to speak more quietly because she couldn’t handle hearing it, she ended up listening to the whole thing. She was hugely relieved to discover it was fiction. Are you?

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Is It Harder to Get Into a Top College Now?


Introduction

In my last post, I presented a list of college application “frequently asked questions.” Because research is a hassle, I didn’t do any. My answers were all based on what I’ve heard from parents in my community and from my older daughter. I regurgitated these people’s collected wisdom in slightly distorted form to inject humor. My main point was to satirize the doom-and-gloom attitude of pretty much everybody around me (except my wife, who also finds the prevailing attitude pointless and annoying).
                                                                     
That being said, I assumed that my answer to the first FAQ—”Is it harder to get into college now?”—was basically correct. (My answer was, “Yes, it absolutely is. Your child is way, way smarter, more industrious, and more resourceful than you, and yet won’t be able to sail through the process and attend a top college like you did.”) I took everybody’s word for it that top colleges really are more selective nowadays, simply because this opinion was always given with such an air of authority. I took it on faith that my community was actually basing this position on facts and research. It turns out that these people are all just a bunch of ninnies, mistaking fear for reality … Chicken Littles all, spouting falsehoods irresponsibly. This post debunks all that and presents a theory on the origin of this mass hysteria.


The conventional wisdom

All the parents and high school kids around me say the same thing: “It’s way harder getting into a top college than it used to be.” This is stated as irrefutable fact and when I’ve expressed skepticism, I’ve been shot down. The evidence given (if any) is the lower rate of acceptance—i.e., the number of rejected applications. So many more students are being rejected, the logic goes, our crop of kids may well be among them.

I have instinctively doubted this, and in trying to buck up my daughter I said, “It’s probably just more pack fodder. The field is larger, but not the front of the group that actually has a chance.” I chose this bike race analogy to try to make the dialogue briefer and a bit less dull. My point was, if you have 20 good racers who are all competitive, and then a bunch of poseurs buy fancy bikes and jump in to the race, without a prayer of placing high, your race hasn’t really gotten harder. It’s just gotten bigger.

My daughter refuted this counterpoint on the grounds that a) students with really good grades and SAT/ACT scores are being turned away, and b) everybody knows it’s gotten harder—this is just established fact. Out of sheer laziness and a sense that pessimists are usually right, I never pursued the truth. Until now.

The truth

The truth is, the increased difficulty of a top student getting into a top school has been greatly exaggerated. Here is a summary of my findings:
  • The number of high school seniors is shrinking
  • The number of qualified applicants to top colleges has not significantly grown
  • Students apply to far more colleges than ever before, out of fear of being rejected and because electronic application methodologies like Common App have made this so easy to do
  • This application inflation is greatly decreasing the acceptance rate
  • This acceptance rate number is illusory because so many applicants are not qualified
  • Colleges are deliberately encouraging behaviors that shrink this acceptance rate number, to appear more elite
  • Looking at the metric that matters—the percentage of top students accepted by at least one top college—paints a picture that is astonishingly rosier
I will cite evidence from six articles (all from mainstream news magazines) to support all this. My conclusion? Virtually every member of my community owes my kid and me an apology for all the unwarranted anxiety they have caused by perpetuating this myth of increased selectivity.

And now, here is my point-by-point evidence of the above, to thoroughly document and explain what is really going on.

The number of high school seniors is declining

This article in The Atlantic states, “The number of American high school seniors is shrinking, having peaked in 2011.” This is also stated by Time magazine here. (Actually, the Atlantic cites Time on this point, but presumably The Atlantic does fact-check.)

The number of qualified applicants to top colleges has not significantly grown

The Atlantic reports that “according to [education company] Noodle[.org]’s data, the number of seats at competitive colleges has grown faster than the total pool of qualified applicants—raising a student’s chances of getting into a ‘selective college.’” Meanwhile, US News & World Report declares, “As selective as they’d like prospective students to believe they are, colleges and universities have been watching enrollment decline for five years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Last year alone, it dropped 1.4 percent, or by about 270,000 students, at institutions nationwide…. Part of that is due to the shrinking supply of 18-year-olds and to families’ concerns about the high cost, and relative value, of college.”

Students are applying to far more colleges than before

The Atlantic reports, “Many high achieving students will apply to 10 or 15 schools, so you’re looking at doubling or even tripling the number of applications from the same pool of applicants. Application inflation is linked, [the Noodle.org VP] believes, to the Common App.” The Washington Post reports, “More than 800,000 students used the Common Application last year to submit some 3.5 million applications to more than 700 colleges. Plenty of students today apply to colleges they have hardly any intention of attending.” The New York Times explains it thus: “Enabled by technology that makes it easier to copy and send electronic documents and driven by the competitive anxiety that plummeting admission rates produce, top students have been sending out more applications…. In essence, the growth in applications per student creates a vicious cycle, causing admission rates at the best schools to artificially decline, students to become more anxious, and the number of applications per student to grow even more.”

Application inflation is greatly decreasing the acceptance rate

The Washington Post article describes the acceptance rate number in somewhat useful terms: “The top 20 national universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, for instance, enroll only about 100,000 students out of 17 million undergraduates nationwide. So the denominator is rising as the numerator stays the same in an equation that is more like the odds of playing the lottery for most students and parents.” This explanation is only somewhat useful, though, because of course colleges aren’t accepting students at random. This is the whole problem: the acceptance rate is being treated like odds in a lottery when in fact colleges have an objective basis to discard most applications.

This acceptance rate number is illusory

As reported in Time magazine, “What many parents and students don’t realize is that increasing numbers of applications isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s harder to get into a selective school; rather, it’s a sign of changes in behavior among high school seniors. More and more people who aren’t necessarily qualified are applying to top schools, inflating the application numbers while not seriously impacting admissions.” The New York Times makes a similar analysis: “[Admission rates] don’t represent the true odds of a well-qualified student’s being admitted to a top school. That’s because anyone can apply to college, well qualified or otherwise. Selective colleges immediately toss the long shots and dreamers from the admissions pile in order to concentrate on students with a legitimate shot at getting in. But they don’t parse their admissions statistics that way, in part because it’s in their best interests to seem as selective as possible.”

Colleges are deliberately shrinking the acceptance rate

US News & World Report declares, “Some [colleges] have encouraged the applications boom, with its resulting effect on their ability to predict yields, by urging marginally qualified students to apply. Known as ‘recruit to deny,’ this practice makes them appear more selective and boosts their standings in some college rankings.” The Washington Post reports, “Colleges buy more than 80 million names of test takers from the College Board annually. In some cases, schools simply encouraged more students to apply as a way to improve their standings in the rankings.”

As far as I can tell, my daughter has received solicitations from every college in the country, even the ones she’s sure would never accept her. She now holds the distinction of getting more junk mail than the rest of the family combined (to say nothing of her e-mail spam, which currently stands at over 2,500 messages with 50 in the last week alone). Hell, Carleton College even sent her a Frisbee!

The metric that matters

My favorite among these articles is the one from the New York Times, which makes a valiant effort to talk us off the ledge: “For well-qualified students, getting into a good college isn’t difficult. It probably isn’t that much harder than it was generations ago. The fact that everyone believes otherwise shows how reliance on a single set of data—in this case, institutional admission rates—can create a false sense of what’s really going on.” The article goes on to say: 
Some students are applying to 20 or more schools: to increase their odds of making a single match. The most important elite college admissions statistic, then, is not the percentage of applications top schools accept. It’s the percentage of top students who are admitted to at least one top school. And that number isn’t 5 percent or 20 percent or even 50 percent. It’s 80 percent. It turns out that four out of five well-qualified students who apply to elite schools are accepted by at least one…. Since there has never been a time when 100 percent of well-qualified students were successful in the college admissions market, the truism that elite colleges are far more difficult to crack than in years gone by can’t be correct: 80 percent is too close, mathematically, to nearly everyone.
Needless to say, this Times article should be required reading for all parents of college-bound teenagers, and for those teenagers.

My daughter’s reaction

When I presented all this to my daughter—the one person I’m willing to bother arguing with about this, because I hope to reduce her anxiety—she was understandably skeptical. She immediately began Googling all this for herself. “You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I’ve already compiled the relevant articles for you.” She gave me one of those looks. Acknowledging that of course she’d fact-check me later anyway, I asked for a few minutes of her attention to read her some of the passages I’ve quoted above.

My daughter didn’t actually seem relieved. Perhaps all this seems too good to be true given the atmosphere of doom she has been trapped in for the last year or so. Or maybe being optimistic just feels weird and wrong at this point. She immediately came up with some hard questions. “What do they mean ‘top school’?” she asked. I cited the article: it defines top school as “one of the 113 schools identified by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges as the most selective.” My daughter, naturally, looked this up on the spot and read off the list. I’d heard of at last 90% of the colleges listed, and they really are elite. (My alma mater, UC Berkeley, didn’t even make the list.)

Next she questioned how the Times defined a “well-qualified” student. The answer is, it’s “combined SAT scores (or an ACT equivalent) of at least 1300.” My daughter stared in blank disbelief. “That’s not high at all. That’s like 60th percentile,” she said. Then she fact-checked herself: it’s actually 90th percentile. Competitive, sure, but not insanely high. Could the Times really be right about this? Well, they based their findings on the applications of 800,000 students. And they’re the New York Times, for crying out loud.

Why the hysteria?

So the natural question is, how could every adult I’ve talked to about this be so wrong? Why this widespread panic? I have two theories.

First, it’s far more exciting and engaging to paint everything in the darkest shades possible. FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) gives a nice urgent edge to your sidebar chatter at book club. FUD also makes better headlines, which might be all most people bother to read. Consider this one , in Business Insider: “It was the hardest year on record to get into elite colleges—admissions experts explain why.” What’s remarkable about the article is that it doesn’t really support this “hardest” assertion, but rather says much the same thing as the other articles I’ve cited. For example: “The steady uptick of college applicants, especially at elite schools, is stark, driven in part by the emergence of Common App, which allows students to apply to many schools at once.” It goes on to say, “There may be reason to view this lowering acceptance rate with some skepticism.” It trails off talking about how the strong cohort of high-scoring international applicants, “while it may drive down the overall acceptance rate, likely has less impact on US applicants than is sometimes believed.”

Meanwhile, beyond being typical drama queens, I think a lot of these parents are responding to their deep-seated fear that their kid(s) will wash out. (If so, they’re likely sharing their kids’ experience.) Perhaps by portraying the college admission game as nearly unwinnable they’re assuaging, in advance, the shame of their kid’s defeat.

It’s tempting to have sympathy for these beleaguered people, but in fact I’m kind of pissed off. Their willingness to be readily duped by deliberately misleading statistics, and to heap that unfounded fear on their poor children—and mine!—has caused untold unnecessary anxiety. And that’s not the only collateral damage. By creating so much fear and angst, our communities are teaching children to be self-absorbed and monomaniacal. My teen years involved a lot of messing around, having fun, killing time, and basically being a kid. Our current crop of teens are like 16 going on 40. Practically every action they take has their college admission in mind. As a group they’re just a huge buzz-kill. You know who they remind me of? Stressed out middle-aged parents. It’s pathetic.

Will it ever end?

Alas, I’m not sure getting into a good college will actually help. By that point, worrying and hand-wringing will have habit that are hard to shake. I’m basing this on a couple of things.

The first is an anecdote shared with me by an acquaintance whose sister works at Duke University, and whose job includes interviewing prospective students—i.e., those who have been accepted—to determine scholarship eligibility. She was struck, my acquaintance told me, by how unexcited and often downright sullen many of these kids were. I mean, here they’d been accepted by Duke, but they seemed so downcast! So finally she asked one of them why he wasn’t more excited. “I’m still waiting to hear from Harvard,” the ungrateful, over-privileged little shit replied.

Here is my second anecdote, from spending an afternoon at UC Berkeley at an internship fair. My role there, as I was quick to explain to every Cal student I talked to, was simply to answer their questions and describe the culture at the company I work for. I made it clear that I wasn’t the one evaluating them. But almost every student treated our chat like a job interview. They all had pretty extensive résumés, even the freshmen (which made up a surprisingly high proportion of the group, given that they were only like six weeks into their college careers). They all had this air of desperation about them.

One interaction in particular illustrates what I’m talking about. This student asked me, “What classes should I take?” I replied, “Well, I didn’t major in Computer Science, so I wouldn’t know anything about that.” She pressed on, “No … I mean, what classes should I take?” She was practically winking at me. I finally grasped her meaning: she meant what classes would look good on her résumé and help her get an internship at my company. I had no idea. I told her, “What I’ve witnessed in tech is that a lot of engineering types don’t write well. I think you should take a couple of writing classes.” She seemed perplexed and asked, “Can I?” I replied, “Of course you can! You can take whatever class you want! And you should … I mean, you’re at a world class university. You should take advantage of your opportunities here!” Her expression was priceless, like a light bulb on a dimmer switch gradually coming on. She had clearly never thought about college in any other terms than advancement and career prospects. “Wow … I guess I can!” she replied, astonished.

Call to action

If you’ve been sowing doom and gloom by parroting all this received wisdom about colleges being more selective, please stop. If you have a freaked out kid, please tell him or her to relax and try not to worry. And if you don’t believe me about any of this, go click on some of the links I’ve included here and read these articles for yourself.

As for me, next time some fellow parent trots out all this malarkey about college admissions being way more competitive, I’m going to tell him flat-out that he’s wrong. No, I won’t subject him to a withering argument … I’ll go one worse. I’ll ask him to read this post. This of course will end the dialogue forever, since as you well know, nobody reads this blog … except, apparently, you (and I hereby offer my congratulations at your intellectual stamina).

Postscript

This post only scratches the surface of my disgust at prevailing attitudes toward higher education. For a more comprehensive (but lighter-weight) survey, check out my previous post.

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Saturday, May 26, 2018

College Application Frequently Asked Questions


Introduction

I have a teenager who is a junior in high school and will apply to colleges this fall. Through her advance work and the helpful advice I have received from other parents, teachers, articles, and the community at large, I have learned a lot about the modern admissions process, and want to pass this information on to you. Even if you don’t have a teenager applying for colleges any time soon (or at all) you should read this anyway, for the schadenfreude.


Note: the beer in the photo above was mine, not my daughter’s. I want to be very clear on that.

College Application Frequently Asked Questions


Yes, it absolutely is. Your child is way, way smarter, more industrious, and more resourceful than you, and yet won’t be able to sail through the process and attend a top college like you did. In case you were feeling pretty good about graduating summa cum laude from a great school, just stop. You really achieved nothing. They were practically giving degrees away back then and you know it.

Is college more expensive now?

Of course it is. By way of illustration, tuition at UC Berkeley—which cost about $2,000 a year in 1992—now costs about $14,000. But that’s probably not a good example because there’s no way your kid will get in there. Nobody gets in there anymore, except a few insanely successful students.

Your kid will probably need to go to a private university, even if it’s not a very good one. It’s unlikely she’ll get a scholarship anywhere because all the kids are so much smarter now—smarter than you, smarter than your spouse, and smarter than your kid.

Is it important to tour the colleges my child is planning to apply to?

The conventional wisdom is that it’s pointless to tour a college that probably won’t accept your kid anyway. After all, this will only increase your kid’s heartbreak, while wasting your valuable time and money. But let’s be real here. College tours are important for two reasons. One, the college wants to see that your kid is serious about attending (in the event they’re even considering her). Two, you need to prove to your kid that you’re serious about parenting. She probably already resents you for having had it so easy, the way you soared effortlessly through the admissions process all those years ago. Don’t make things worse by being a cheapskate.

There’s a silver lining to the college tour, though: you get to brag about it. “Yes, we took our Priscilla to tour M.I.T. last weekend. She thinks it will be a great fit.” This might be as close as you get to being able to brag about anything college-related.

Is there any chance that my child will qualify for financial aid?

No. None.

 Is there any hope at all for a good college, or is my child doomed?

That depends on what you mean by “doomed.” If you mean she won’t be able to get into a good college, then yes, she’s doomed. If you mean she won’t be able to get a good job without a degree from a good college, then yes, she’s doomed. If you mean her friends will be disgraced by her failure to launch, then yes, she’s doomed. If you mean that she will resent you for her failure, and that it’s all your fault, then yes, she’s doomed, and so are you … this will haunt you for the rest of your life. Huh, come to think of it, this question doesn’t actually depend on what you mean by “doomed.”

You claim that nobody can get into the top colleges anymore, but several of my child’s friends’ siblings got into the Ivy League. Perhaps you’re exaggerating?

No, those students are the exceptions that prove the rule. And their grades were of course much better than your kid’s.

Is there anything my child can do, beyond straight As and stellar SAT/ACT scores, to improve his college prospects?

Yes, if your child chases after every activity that could (say this with me) “look good on a college application,” and manages to gain entry into programs like digging latrines in Ecuador, enduring an unpaid internship at an important-sounding company, launching a startup, and/or paying lots of money for college summer programs, his application will be more competitive.

Does this actually help?

Probably not. But he has to do it anyway.

Is there any value in my child having fun, enjoying her summer, trying to relax, and basically being a kid while she still can, knowing that adulthood is forever?

Of course not. How could you be so naïve?


No, pretty much every single one of her friends, along with her friends’ parents, her teachers, and her counselors are telling her this every single day. So, if you don’t feel like rubbing it in, you don’t have to. However, it’s important never to contradict your child when she reminds you of all this. Don’t you dare say anything absurdly false like “top colleges have always been difficult to get into.” This just undermines your student’s ability to blame the system for the cesspool of failure that she is currently wading into.

Should my child be talking all kinds of AP classes and exams?

Yes. These will (say it with me) “look good on a college application”—but only if your child scores high on the exams. If your child does poorly—which is probably a given, since the AP curriculum doesn’t match the Common Core, and because you’re probably raising your child in an inferior school district—than the AP strategy will backfire and make your child toxic to all good colleges. The good news is that the experience of taking these courses and exams will be really stressful, which is good practice for the rest of your child’s life.

I’m concerned about all the debt my child will take on, even if he goes to a mediocre college. Is the cost of tuition really a good investment?

Probably not. The only people making any money anymore are genius coders who launch tech startups. But since your kid isn’t going to be one of those, you kind of have to toss the dice on an expensive education.

Okay, I suppose there’s still money to be made in law and medicine. But don’t get me started on the ruinous amount of debt grad school involves.

Is there any benefit to going to college other than the possibility of realizing a fiscal return on your tuition investment?

Of course not.

It seems intuitively obvious to me that only STEM curriculums have any value, since the entire point of a college degree is to increase your income potential. And yet, some students do still pursue liberal arts programs. Why is this?

It’s because they’re idiots, married to antiquated notions like there being value in understanding and appreciating literature, nurturing curiosity around abstract ideas, knowing arcane things like the plural of curriculum actually being “curricula,” and so forth. Don’t worry, society will soon be rid of these helplessly impractical people.

My child slaves over his schoolwork, is preparing tirelessly for his SAT exams, is involved in multiple extracurricular activities, and has digested enough information about the college application process to write a thick book on the topic … and yet he is still totally stressed out about the process, with little hope for a positive outcome. Is there anything else he can do?

Yes, he should continue to worry as much as possible. This will drive him to unturn even more stones, because there must be some way to break through this impossible college entry barrier.

You just used the word “unturn.” Is that even a word? And if so, will it be on the SAT?

In fact, it is not a word. “Unturned” is a gerund adjective, but this is one of those weird cases of a gerund that cannot be used as a verb. And while “unturn” isn’t on the SAT, your child better know what a gerund is, even though he’s pursuing STEM, because that’s just how this game works. Your poor kid. You better go give him a hug.

Can things like hugs make my child less anxious about college applications?

No, I was kidding. Hugging your kid is just wasting his time. Don’t be so ignorant and sentimental.

Is there any silver lining to my child ending up at an inferior school?

Yes: the coursework might be manageable. At the top universities, where every single student admitted has an absolutely perfect track record, there will be professors who give Bs and even Cs, which these students have never received in their lives. The shock of this “failure” could cause major angst, even complete nervous breakdowns. But your kid, who has already learned to deal with blemishes on her record, can finally relax a bit once she is finally in college. Which brings us to our next question:

Are there good career prospects for college grads these days?

No. Getting a good job was so much easier back in our day. In case you were feeling pretty good about being gainfully employed, just stop.

Related reading
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Friday, May 18, 2018

From the Archives - How a Camp Stove Almost Cost Me My Marriage


Introduction

It goes without saying that every obstacle thrown at us presents a litmus test of our value as a human being. If you can’t meet every challenge with grace and aplomb, they might as well take you out with the trash. With that in mind, I offer this true story from my archives. It takes place two days into an 8-month bicycle tour (and was written a week or two later).


Note: I hope it’s obvious I was kidding just now.

How a Camp Stove Almost Cost Me My Marriage - March 1994

Before setting off for a trans-continental bicycle tour, all the guidebooks warn us, you must begin a daily training regimen. One book told the sad story of a man who planned a long bicycle tour in Europe, but started off too quickly and “ruined his knees.” His ended doing a moped tour instead. Hardly a glorious enterprise, especially when you consider the French word for moped: mobylette. Pathetic. With this cautionary tale in mind, my fiancée and I are starting out slow.

Of course, along the way we’re learning how to not get along. Prior to the last couple of weeks, we’d really never bickered about anything. It was one of those really placid romances totally devoid of passionate fights, of bathing each other’s hands in tears, of rending our clothes, of screaming “I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU!” and then getting to take it all back later in a wonderful reconciliation. We never made our friends feel important by soliciting their advice on matters of the heart. We never balanced daringly on the edge of deciding to “see other people for a while.” Everything has been really easy, and why wouldn’t it be? We’re young, unburdened, and had been leading a luxurious life in the paradise of San Francisco, eating at the best restaurants in the world, taking long walks in the gorgeous upscale neighborhoods, and saving all of our bad moods for our co-workers.

But now, what with the hardships of the elements, the fatigue of pedaling a loaded bicycle all day every day, and above all the tedium of the myriad logistical chores we now face daily—packing up the panniers, cleaning dishes without a sink, trying to dry out a rain-soaked tent & ground cloth, trying to fold the map, et cetera—we’re both pretty grouchy. For example, I’ll be impatient to load everything in the morning, so I’ll gripe when my fiancée has to dig back into one of her panniers to get the toothpaste, having realized she forgot to brush. Then, she’ll get impatient when we’re on the road and I’m digging through a pannier for the compass since I’m uncertain that we’re going in the right direction, and kind of want the security-blanket feel of having a compass handy. (When you’re carrying your world around in panniers, you’re always digging around for something, and out of eight panniers total, it’s almost impossible to find anything. We were lucky to dig the camera out in time to get a photo of a lizard. Preparing for the photo of the banana slug was much less frantic—we could’ve painted its portrait.)

So, since we’re both perpetually crabby now, we’ve got plenty of opportunity to practice those fair-fighting skills that so far we’d had no need for. Our partnership is being tested.

Exhibit A: my first engagement with our new camp stove. Weighing in at under 1.5 pounds, and capable of burning white gas, kerosene, diesel, unleaded, jet fuel, and probably liquid oxygen (what couldn’t burn liquid oxygen?), the MSR XGK II stove seems perfect. It has great features, was recommended highly, and is the most expensive stove on the market. I had to have it. So I bought it, threw it in the pile of “trip stuff” that seemed to grow as fast as the newspapers in the recycle bin, and then didn’t look at it until it was time to actually use it. The price tags were still on it, even.

That’s okay, I thought; a big, goofy, jolly guy I know who wears lots of plaid flannel shirts and loves the great outdoors told me, “Working the XGK II is a cinch. It’s way easier than the instructions say.” This was a relief, since the instructions run eight pages and seem to have been pretty hastily produced, without a lot of proofreading.


There are lots of confusing bits, such as “Use kerosene and only in a ventilated area.” If taken literally, of course, this defies the very selling point that sold me on this stove: that it would burn anything. I imagine that the intended meaning was, “If you use kerosene, you should have adequate ventilation.” But this too is problematic, since any idiot knows you should use adequate ventilation wherever you run a stove on anything, so it won’t burn your tent down or use up all the available oxygen so you keel over and die. More enigmatic was the inexplicable blank space in the instructions that ran for a couple lines after this stipulation, as though further instruction had been wited-out.


[Note: I have just learned, via this random blog post from which I got the above photo, that it was indeed Wite-Out obscuring two lines of text. The obscured text originally said, “… should weather conditions necessitate the use of the stove inside a tent.” My fellow blogger’s instructions had been altered with a Magic Marker instead, perhaps because his were printed on glossier paper.]

Another problem was that the instructions given are for the XGK model, not the XGK II. A little scrap of paper was enclosed explaining the substitution of instructions, but not explaining how to operate the stove that I had actually purchased. The main difference between the two stoves seems to be that my stove doesn’t have a knob that strikes a flint, igniting the fuel. Okay, fine: where it says to spin the knob, I won’t. (I mean, I can’t. There’s no knob.) But how, then, do I light this stove? Obviously, I would need to use a match: but do I need to take any extra precautions, so that I don’t light my hand on fire? The instructions do mention the “Stop, Drop, & Roll” method of extinguishing yourself, but I wouldn’t mind beginning my safety program at an earlier step.


These are minor points, however. I was not worried about my ability to get the stove working. It’s a simple mechanical device, nothing more. We all know the exceedingly limited potential for any such device to cause frustration. (If the last sentence did not strike you as ironic, by the way, then you are abnormal, and should be building model airplanes or something instead of reading fine literature like this.)

Well, I hooked everything up, turned the vapor control valve knob, and waited for “about a teaspoon of fuel to collect near the jet.” This process made me apprehensive since the schematic diagram of the stove, while pointing out all the obvious pieces such as “fuel container” and “wind screen,” neglected to point out the jet. No matter how long I looked at the picture, the “jet” label just never materialized.


I figured I would just watch very carefully for the jet, with a water bottle nearby so that if the jet turned out to be a centimeter from my eye, I could flush it out. Well, the fuel never really collected anywhere. So I dribbled gas on the place where I hoped the jet was, lit (with great effort) a (scarcely lightable) waterproof match, held my breath, and lit the stove.

The stove seemed to light, but it was impossible to be sure. It made a terrible gasping, wheezing noise; produced a small, orange flame; created a small amount of heat; in short, behaved in such as way as to create an utter mystery: was it not lit properly and in need of tweaking, or was it performing at 100% of its capabilities as a perfectly shitty stove? I realized at this moment that the guy who’d said, “It’s way easier than the instructions say” was probably lying, so that I’d look back on his words and think him some kind of genius. It’s a simple social trick, available to anybody with a total disregard for the truth.

According to a test I took in a high school Health class, I have a “Type-A Personality.” This means that I am a hothead and control freak; am headed for an ulcer; am a pain in the ass to get along with; and will suffer high blood pressure. The recommended remedy for this personality was a daily regimen of being put in a dimly lit room with pastel walls, where I would lie on a suede couch with a cold compress over my eyes and listen to New Age music. Since I have failed to implement this protocol (though I did get a massage once), conventional wisdom has it that I’m doomed to have every little annoying glitch in my life build up inside me while my face reddens, my blood pressure building up higher and higher, until I ultimately explode, shattering my skull from within and spattering innocent women and children with red pulp.

But I escape this fate through my own method of coping: I share. I make my problem everybody else’s too, so that by comparison, I am one of the less miserable people around. I vent, in other words, which is different from whining, griping, and complaining in that it is an accepted method of dealing with stress, like beating on an inflatable dummy with a Wiffle bat. But I don’t even need the bat; like Caliban, I use foul language to release my ire.

As I fumed over the stove, my need to emote increased significantly when I noticed my betrothed doing me the disservice of simply not caring about the stove. She sat there and read a novel, like nothing was wrong. Every so often she asked an innocent question like “Should I be smelling gas fumes?” to which the obvious answer is “NO, YOU SHOULDN’T BE SMELLING GAS FUMES, YOU SHOULD BE DRINKING HOT COCOA THAT YOUR FIANCÉ HEATED UP FOR YOU!”

Of course, venting shouldn’t get personal, so I spoke only to the stove. Meanwhile, I tried to be more rational about solving the problem I faced. For example, I considered using an alternate fuel, like firewood thrust into the stove at high velocity. But the stove wasn’t the actual root of the problem: the real problem was me, or more specifically my stupidity. I cursed myself for not having tested the stove earlier, back when I could have gotten help or taken it back to REI. Too late now … the receipt is either in Ashland, Oregon with most of my stuff, or in Sacramento with the rest of my stuff. Or I threw it away.

As time dragged on and the stove did seem to stay lit, I had to wonder if—notwithstanding the gasping, choking sound it was making—it might in fact be working properly? The answer was, how should I know? I’d never seen an XGK II in use in my life! So, I decided to compare my stove’s performance to the statistical results given in the product literature. Finally, something objective to hitch my poor brain to.

Well, the specifications say that the XGK II will boil water in 3.4 minutes. I looked at the fine print to find out what conditions they assumed. Sea level, starting water temperature of 70 degrees, and white gas as the fuel … okay, that’s all fine. But how much water? A teaspoon? A gallon? The specs didn’t say. So, after failing to bring a quart of water to a boil in forty minutes, I decided the stove was as crippled as it sounded.

Furious, I vented my findings to my fiancée, who was still kicking back with her novel. “Just blow it off,” she said. “We can eat something else.” Unspoken subtext: “Just give up, since you’re obviously incompetent and worthless. Why continue the struggle when you’re obviously no smarter than a baitfish? I have no faith in you … why do you continue to pretend you’ll eventually succeed?”

The problem with this method of undermining my self esteem was that it was so passive. If she’d outright accused me of being lame, I could have monunted a defense, perhaps challenged her to fix the stove herself, etc. Damn it, when I’m overreacting, I want the company of somebody at least as irrational and heated as I am! The downright sensibility of her statement infuriated me (particularly as it gradually dawned on me that her castigation was probably all in my head).

I decided to start over from scratch. I blew out the flame, completely dismantled the stove, inventoried all the components, figured out which piece had to be the jet (it’s smaller than a pencil eraser, by the way), took apart the fuel pump, cleaned a little ball that is a part of the check valve system, completely shined, polished, and praised every little piece, reassembled the whole thing, figured out how it worked, and now it runs like a top (though it’s still surprisingly loud). My stove now can actually boil water, in my lifetime. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the process (which lasted several hours) involved quite a bit of that therapeutic venting, and by the end my wife-to-be had decided that I must be angry at her, since surely nobody could get that angry at an inanimate object, or at himself, for that long. I exonerated her by explaining how the stove was a symbol of my ascent into manhood, and that childhood camping experiences in which I was denied the opportunity to even operate a stove, much less fix it, had set the stage for an inevitable camp stove crisis with my entire ego hanging in the balance. We established that the future of our relationship was not at stake, especially since I did eventually get the stove to work.

Amazingly, it appeared that, notwithstanding my embarrassing display of anger and frustration, and my admission of the worst kind of maleness, this woman somehow still wanted to marry me.

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