Saturday, January 14, 2017

From the Archives - Holiday Newsletter About HEAD LICE! GROSS!


I have a tradition of mailing out a highly unconventional holiday newsletter.  The original setup was to figure out the most humiliating thing I’d done all year and describe it in excruciating detail.  Some years I satirized the newsletter form itself, by making myself or my family out to be egomaniacal, or claiming to be really disappointed in my kids.  After the family editorial panel (i.e., my wife) censored a couple of editions (such as this one), I toned things down a bit.

Here’s the edition from 2011, which I didn’t originally post to this blog for fear of embarrassing my family.  However, I have decided to post it now, and you are free to read it if you’ll promise me one thing:  whether or not you get to the end, please scroll down and read the epilogue, added today.  (Obviously I have no way to hold you to this promise.  You’re on the honor system.)

From the Archives – December 2011 Holiday Newsletter

Season’s Greetings!

I’ve been doing these newsletters for awhile now and I know the drill:  a quick recap of the year, some tidbits about how the kids are progressing, perhaps a wistful observation about the treadmill of time, etc.  But this year I’m struggling, as I’ve become fixated on a specific topic and cannot focus on anything else.  So I better just get that topic out of the way to free up my brain for the more standard tidings.

The topic is head lice.  I’m quite certain that for the rest of my life, whenever I look back at 2011 I’ll think, “Oh, yeah, the year we all got infested.”  Oh, go ahead and snicker.  I always used to, when I’d hear about some kid failing his lice spot-check at school.  Actually, I’d snicker but also wince, acknowledging (but not really believing) that my kid could be next.  Why do we snicker?  Probably out of contempt.  Everybody knows that having lice means you’re filthy.  Not just filthy, but a filthy outsider.  Who can consider the word “lice” without immediately thinking of all those immigrants being quarantined at Staten Island after failing their lice checks?  (As it turns out, it’s an unfair stereotype.  Lice actually prefer a nice clean scalp to a dirty, oily one.  I  know, I know:  sounds exactly like what a louse-infested troll would say.)

Fortunately, my kids didn’t fail a spot-check at school.  Erin discovered the lice herself.  Of course that doesn’t make the infestation any less disgusting, but at least we were spared some disgrace.  (When your scalp is teeming with parasites you get pretty good at looking at the bright side.)  I don’t know how Erin happened to spot the lice, though once she pointed them out I couldn’t not see them.  The eggs had amassed into something like a cobweb woven into our child’s scalp.  Erin extracted a full-grown louse, teasing it with a toothpick until its bloodlust led it to climb on, perhaps en route to Erin’s own locks.  She flung the louse into the sink and the little bastard was so engorged with our daughter’s blood that it exploded on impact, the blood gradually oozing toward the drain, like a Sam Peckinpah vignette in miniature.

I rapidly began a cycle of grief, skipping right past denial (I mean, how could I deny this?) and going directly to anger.  I vowed to exterminate these lice with extreme prejudice.  I told Erin, “If the lice bring knives, we’re bringing guns.  If they bring guns, we’re bringing napalm.  It is on.”  Actually I probably said something less macho.  Likely I was silent for a spell as the heebie-jeebies hit me full on.  Once you’ve seen lice in the hair of your beloved offspring—the same offspring you snuggle with on a regular basis—you cannot help but feel the awful tickly sensation of hundreds of lice in your own hair.  You begin scratching your head like a maniac.  Your body goes through series of shudders from the head down.

I was serious about the no-holds-barred warfare, though.  The trouble is, a parent can’t just decide things unilaterally.  I had to convince Erin to bring out the big guns, which was challenging because she won’t even take Advil for a headache.  We discussed the matter at length and researched all manner of home remedies and commercial anti-lice products.  Finally it came down to a binary choice:  either we use RID, an expensive but market-leading anti-lice shampoo, or nothing.

In the event, Erin deftly slipped between the horns of the dilemma by buying RID but not using it.  Her rationale, based on the fine print she read on the box, was that some strains of lice are impervious to RID, and she didn’t want to risk irritating our kids’ scalps if the shampoo wasn’t even a sure thing.  I hit upon a strategy of trying it out on myself to see if it’s hard on the scalp, but then I read the even finer print and discovered that you shouldn’t use it if you’re allergic to ragweed, which I just so happen to be.  Erin did use the chintzy plastic lice comb that it came with, so at least we couldn’t return the RID.

Lice infestation is hard on a marriage.  It ended up falling to Erin to comb out the kids’ hair looking for nits (eggs or leftover egg casings), nymphs (immature lice—isn’t this disgusting?), and adult lice.  She decided she had to be the one to do it because I was obviously useless at it, being unable to find anything on her head.  Since I’m normally pretty good at detail work, she took my incompetence to be a sign of not trying, and, by extension, of not caring.  Of course, she couldn’t find anything on my head either, but she figured that was because I have too little hair left for a louse to bother with.

Since she couldn’t do her own lice check, Erin found a head lice spa to go to.  It took me by surprise that such a business could exist, but of course I should have known.  Off Erin went to this insanely expensive place where they gave her green tea, played New Age music, said soothing things, and petted her head a lot.  They offer no guarantee of any kind that their techniques are effective.  (If this had been a business catering to guys it’d be like smogging your car, where there’s a money-back guarantee.)  About the only good thing I can say about the spa is that the lousseuse told Erin, “You owe your husband an apology.  I can’t find anything either.”  She finally ended up finding one little speck that could have been a nit.  Of course, it could have been a fleck of sawdust, the broken-off tip of an eyelash, or something the lousseuse herself planted there.  She sent Erin home with a gorgeous stainless steel designer lice comb.

Thus began a nightly ritual of Erin getting the kids’ hair wet and running the lice comb through their scalps, squinting at the varicolored specks that would be dislodged, and cursing the whole affair.   I cannot fathom how the term “nitpicking” came to mean “showing too much concern with insignificant details” because ridding our scalps of nits now seemed all-important. We took other measures too.  For example, I put Lindsay’s teddy bear, in a gallon-size Ziploc, in the freezer overnight.  Whether due to the cold or because I forgot to leave an air hole, when I retrieved the bear in the morning it was dead.  Please don’t tell Lindsay.  I also froze my helmet pads, and we did outrageous, climate-changing amounts of laundry.  Erin even decided, in a particularly frantic moment, to give Alexa a short haircut.  Alexa was fairly stoic about this, but poor Lindsay was heartbroken about the loss of her heroic big sister’s glorious long locks.  (I felt sheepish witnessing this show of sympathy.  When I was a kid, I always took great pleasure in my brothers’ misfortunes.)

Perhaps our most disturbing treatment was slathering our heads in ├╝ber-expensive lotion and then wrapping them in plastic shower caps, which we’d seal up tight like gaskets, before bed.  All night, every time your head would move, there’d be this crackling, ripping sound like a martial arts guy makes.  The idea is to suffocate the adult lice, terrify the nymphs, and poach the eggs.  Or something like that; I was never that clear on what louse phase this treatment targeted.  All I know is that you have to destroy the lice in all their life stages or the cycle will never end.

If you ever find yourself with a family-wide lice infestation, don’t expect any sympathy from friends ... mine just seemed completely grossed out.  A colleague instant-messaged me one morning and said, “How’s the treatment going?”  I wrote back, “Lousy.”  I thought I’d at least get an LOL out of that, but nothing.  No sense of humor on this sordid topic.

We’d discovered the lice in February, and over the next four months we went through everything from despondent denial (“The lice must be gone by now”), to paralysis (“I know the kids have lice but I’m too tired to deal with it”), to fear (“Could this lotion be hard on the kids’ skin?”), to fury (see above), and then to resignation:  “We won’t be rid of the lice until summer because everybody at the school must have it.”

So what finally worked?  Well, I’d like to edify you with the inspiring tale of how we finally won the War On Lice, but the fact is, we never did prevail.  In the end, the lice just left us.  It was like we suddenly weren’t good enough for them anymore.  Of course we were relieved, but I had to work through some abandonment issues.  Plus, we still can’t believe they’re really gone:  every itch becomes a tickle that spawns paranoia, and just last night Erin was combing Lindsay’s hair after a bath and suddenly said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.  That better not be lice.”

Well, I see I’m out of room.  I had meant to write more, and on some cheerier topics, but that’s how it goes.  All of us Alberts wish you a wonderful, parasite-free holiday!


Well, the lice did come back—in full force.  In despair, we hired a lice removal specialist who made house calls.  If you think this sounds expensive, you’re exactly right.  But we (i.e., Erin) just didn’t have the energy to do the combing anymore, and were sick of failing at it.  Well, the expert went at somebody’s head for about five minutes and announced, “There’s no lice here.”  Erin, disbelieving, located some lice on the head in question and pointed it out.  “That’s not lice, that’s dandruff,” the expert said.  She brought out some samples of actual lice, in little Ziploc bags, and showed us.  Sure enough, Erin hadn’t been seeing anything like that on anyone’s head.  Thus was solved the mystery of how we were never able to get rid of the lice—they simply never existed (other than the single blood-gorged louse we’d found early on).

So did I mention this in the next year’s holiday newsletter, or mail around an addendum?  Nope.  I guess all our friends and family believe, to this day, that we’re a bunch of filthy outsiders spreading this hideous plague across our community.  Oh well.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Voices In My Head


Is it okay to write a review of a review?  Well, with blogs anything is possible!  Besides, by “review” I mean the type like The New Yorker does, which isn’t fundamentally concerned with deciding whether or not a book is any good, but simply uses it as a jumping-off point for an examination of its topic.

I recently came across a New Yorker review of a cool-sounding book called The Voices Within.  The review, and the book, and the prospect of doing my own firsthand research on the book’s topic, have all given me food for thought.  If you’re mentally hungry, and particularly if you tend to talk to yourself, well—read on!

The Voices Within

The book, by a British psych professor named Charles Fernyhough, concerns people who talk to themselves, whether it’s just a reminder here and there or long rambling internal dialogues.  Whether or not they say things out loud, they have thoughts of a distinctly verbal nature.  Fernyhough talks to himself, and, while riding the subway once, “laughed out loud at a funny sentence that was playing in his mind.” 

What’s kind of unusual about the review is that its author, Jerome Groopman, isn’t really a book reviewer at all, but a doctor and a professor of medicine.  Is he qualified to review this book?  Sure!  Not only is he really smart, but he talks to himself, too!

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to study this stuff scientifically.  One method is called the “beeper protocol.”  The subject wears a beeper that sounds at random.  Whenever it does, the subject writes down what he or she was thinking about at that moment, and then the researcher analyzes these notes and the subject’s “inner speech.”  Another study methodology is to do an fMRI brain scan while the subject has a conversation in his or her head.

As Groopman points out, these methodologies are problematic.  For one thing, “being prompted to enter into an inner dialogue in an fMRI machine is not the same as spontaneously debating with oneself at the kitchen table.”  For another, “given that the subjects in the beeper protocol could express their experience only in words, it’s not surprising that many of them ascribed a linguistic quality to their thinking.”

Groopman goes on to explain how the book also goes into voices people hear that seem to originate from somebody or something other than the subject’s own mind.  Many of these seemingly discrete third party voices are recounted in the Bible; there’s testimony from Joan of Arc; there’s the case of an ancient mystic who reported that Christ spoke to her directly; and Fernyhough cites the authors of The Odyssey and The Illiad who said that a powerful Muse all but dictated their works to them.

A couple of more modern case studies are also explored, including that of the poet Robert Lowell, who suffered from auditory hallucinations that he says helped him with his writing.  I was surprised that Groopman didn’t mention Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous epic poem “Kubla Khan,” all the words of which, he says, flooded into his mind when he awoke from an opium-enhanced dream, so that he wasn’t so much composing his poem as transcribing it.

(By the way:  what kind of a name is “Fernyhough,” anyway?  Was somebody trying to rhyme with “anyhoo?”)

Groopman didn’t present what I think is an obvious criticism:  these biblical stories and case histories are just anecdotal evidence with no basis in science.  (Maybe he was just being nice.)  But whether or not the book is great, I was intrigued by the beeper protocol, and decided to become a test subject myself, to answer this question:  when we talk to ourselves, what is really happening?  Are the words the most substantial part of the thought, or are they more like guideposts?

My modified beeper protocol

I wouldn’t know where or how to buy a beeper in this day and age.  And even if I had one, how would I make it go off randomly?  I considered building something atop the Arduino that I got for Christmas, but that seemed like a lot of hassle, and besides, true randomness is very difficult to achieve, particularly for A.I. machines.

What I decided to do is to jot down my inner dialogue every time my phone or PC beeped or blipped at me.  This is generally a result of spam being received, which is a fairly random occurrence.  I knew going in that my beeper protocol would result in lots of data because, for whatever reason, my brain undergoes these inner dialogues a lot of the time.  Sometimes it feels like a curse.  Fernyhough should totally sign me on for his studies.  I hope he pays well.

My test results

I conducted my test over about a five-minute period the other morning, during a brief break from my workday.  I originally intended to do more, but realized this single session was enough.

I’ll start by saying that, on top of whatever internal voice I may be hearing, I’m frequently subject to random rap lyrics busting out on the scene (i.e., in my brain).  Sometimes they bust all the way out of my mouth, which isn’t really involuntary because I do like to startle my kids.  All will be quiet in the office, both kids staring intently at their laptop screens, and I’ll suddenly yell something like, “Pistol-packin’ motherfrocking bouncer six-two!” or “YES—the rhythm, the rebel/ Without a pause, I’m lowerin’ my level!”  (One day, when I live at the old folks’ home, I can really shake things up.)

But beyond those strange verbal eruptions, my internal dialogue is mostly silent; I don’t say much out loud.  But inwardly, my brain is a pretty noisy place.  Here’s what I jotted down from my session:

“Oh, hey, you should look for that car key.”
“Bet you anything it’s up behind the speaker.”
“Probably with my key.”
“If you do find it there, will you come clean about hiding it?”
“That’s a whole can of worms.”
“It’d be honest.”
“Yeah but I’d look like a jackass.”
 “Raise the heat level, break out your coal shovel, pump the temp, I’m sweatin’ like a devil.”
“Yup, here it is, right where you put it, dumbass.”
 “The humanity!”
“She’s leaving soon—maybe just hang her keys from the wall tree?”
“She probably won’t even remember they were lost.”
“But is that honest?  Are you selling out your soul to save a little face?”
“No punk, no chump, no fool, no toy/ Try to get ill and I’ll serve you, boy!”

Now, if I just turned this transcript over to Fernyhough, he’d probably have little idea what most of it means.  What would he try do discern, if anything, from it?  Would he throw it out, note its existence and move on, or solicit background info?  Well, being both the subject and the conductor of the test, I’m in a great position to gloss it all out.  Will readers get “gloss it all out”?  As in, glossary?  Man, even my dentist hates when I floss.  (Sorry, that was some late-breaking internal dialogue that I decided to transcribe here, even though I’m not officially doing the beeper protocol at the moment.)

Analysis of transcript

Wow, there’s so much to work with here, I don’t know where to start.  One thing that jumps out is that talking to oneself is not just a verbal thing:  we cannot ignore the massive efficiency the brain gets from being pre-populated with loads of context.  Background information—which isn’t “spoken” but infuses the mental environment—makes this internal dialogue quite potent.  The mental process of presenting private thoughts in words is a bit like running macros, with short phrases invoking big, complicated ideas. 

This observation suggests a fundamental dichotomy between, on the one hand, a truly internal dialogue, and on the other hand, any words that seem to come from an outside source, such as God talking to you, or the Muse, or the kind of voices that some schizophrenics hear.  Given the memory-rich backdrop of internal dialogues, lumping them in with any other kind of mental “hearing” would be a mistake.

Here’s the background information from my beeper protocol dialogue.  When I (seemed to) hear “that car key,” there was no question what key was being mentioned:  my wife’s key to our Volvo.  This  key had gone missing and I’d been the last to use it, after driving the family home from a party.  The next phrase I “heard,” which was “behind the speaker,” referred to the stereo speaker behind which I always hide my car key, but where I should never hide my wife’s car key. 

For me there wasn’t any mystery as to why this hiding place exists, because the two parts of my brain that were “talking” both knew the full story:  our car has this cool feature where the car keys are uniquely coded, so when I remotely unlock the car with my key, the driver’s seat automatically adjusts itself to where I last had it, along with the side mirrors.  I love this feature, but it only works if my wife doesn’t use my key.  And she always wants to use my key, because she can never find hers.  Why not?  Because she doesn’t hang it from the little hook on the wall tree like I’m always suggesting.  She chucks her key in one of the seemingly hundreds of secret pockets on this or that purse, and is too impatient to hunt for it later.  For years, she would always just grab my key off the little hook, and then afterward would squirrel that away somewhere, so that we were both stuck using the stupid non-coded valet key until we got around to digging through her purse.

So, to preserve that delicious experience of having the seat and mirrors auto-adjust to me, I took to hiding my key.  This has worked out pretty well for years.  The only problem is, my habit of hiding my key has gotten so ingrained, I’ll occasionally forget that I used my wife’s key (which happens when we switch drivers on a road trip or whatever), and then I put her key in my secret hiding place.  This is of course even worse than what my wife does, because at least when she squirrels away her key it’s possible to find it.  There is no way she’d find her key when I hide it (unless she reads this blog).

So when, inside my brain, I heard “It’s probably up behind the speaker” and “Probably with my key,” those weren’t just words.  They packed a punch!  They said, implicitly, “J’accuse!”  That is, though they’re simple words they ride a big wave of nonverbal embarrassment.  And they come with the mental equivalent of a file attachment, which is the image of the hiding place, with two car keys lurking there.  So the effect of this interior dialogue is far more powerful than just “hearing” the words spoken.  It sets up a full-on internal debate between my competing desires to save face (“I’d look like a jackass”) and being an honest spouse (“Are you selling out your soul?”).  The verbal nature of this debate probably plumbs the issue more effectively than the “unspoken” thoughts like you might have in a dream, or the image of the hiding place by itself.

(In case you’re confused about “pump the temp” and “try to get ill,” that’s a third voice in my head, belonging to the rapper Ice-T.  Those words, of course, serve no clear purpose.  They’re just there, pretty much all the time, like verbal garnish.)

Who cares?

Okay, so some people, including me, talk to themselves.  Big whoop, right?  Well, I had a strange realization about all this when I was reading Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, and he described the torturous bout of self-doubt he’d had after texting this girl—a romantic prospect—for the first time: 
      I’m so stupid!  I should have typed “Hey” with two y’s, not just one!  I asked too many questions. What the fuck was I thinking?  Oh, there I go with another question.  Aziz, WHAT’S UP WITH YOU AND THE QUESTIONS?
My realization was this:  our current crop of teenagers famously avoids talking on the phone, and conducts a huge amount of their conversation virtually, via texting, WhatsApp, etc.  These are very informal bites of text, limited by their length, the difficulty in typing them quickly, and the ultra-casual nature of the medium.  And not only have these texts replaced conversation, but letter-writing and epistolary e-mails as well.  Meanwhile, the online world is encroaching on the real one such that two people sitting together are all too often peering into their phones instead of actually talking—you even see people doing this while on a date.  It could be that the best days of deep human-to-human dialogues are behind us—which means these self-to-self dialogues inside our heads may now be the best ones we’re having!  A remake of My Dinner With Andre might just be called Andre’s Dinner!

Is this a good thing?  Probably not.  After all, a fundamental goal of Buddhist meditation is to quiet down the constant chatter of thoughts in your head so that you can achieve mental calm and inner peace.  Should those of us who talk to ourselves try to stop?

I don’t have an answer there, but I have three responses.  First, those who attempt to meditate are not always, if ever, able to completely eliminate the intrusive thoughts anyway; it’s the effort and the discipline, not just succeeding, that’s the point. 

Second, there’s a time and a place for meditation; if we were to always live right in the moment, such that we were always seeing the world as it really is in front of us, we might be very peaceful but not properly productive.  Executive function consists, after all, of keeping in mind the things that aren’t right in front of us but need to be dealt with anyway (which could be as simple as picking up bread or milk on the way home).  That inner voice is a bit like a personal assistant.

Third, I very much doubt it would be possible for any of us to stop talking to ourselves anyway, even if we tried.  That’s just my gut feeling, though; I shall have to talk this over with … myself.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Keep Calm II - The Spawning


Surely you’ve seen many variations on the old British “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” poster.  And possibly you’ve even read “Keep Calm and Read These Quotations.” In that post I gave some background about the original “KEEP CALM…” poster, and then shared a number of quotations from my “KEEP CALM…” desk calendar (with commentary, of course).

Well, nothing says efficiency like “uninspired sequel,” so in this post I recycle my earlier idea, having gathered up the best (and better yet, the worst) of the quotations from the second half of my calendar.  I promise this essay will be more entertaining than TV coverage of the ball dropping in Times Square.  If I become aware that you watched that parade but didn’t read this post, I will find you, and I will kill you.  No kidding.  (Yeah, kidding.)

(Wondering about “The Spawning”?  I like to tack that on to the name of any sequel I happen to generate.  I got it from James Cameron’s first feature film, Piranha II – The Spawning, which, oddly enough, wasn’t actually a sequel but was billed that way to seem more appealing.  Weird, huh?)

Keep calm and mull these over

“Never retract, never explain, never apologize—get the thing done and let them howl.” —Nellie McClung, Canadian politician and social activist

This advice could easily be trotted out in support of retrograde parenting techniques like spanking kids, or telling a kid to do (or not do) something “because I said so.”  The problem with a platitude like this is that it makes sense only in context—and yet it uses the word “never,” which seems so absolute.


“I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” —Zora Neale Hurston

This quip seems fine in the context of its narrator, who lives among those who, being victims of racism, “hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal.”  But out of context, this quote is troublesome, given that oysters are rich-people food, and so few oysters contain pearls you’d need access to a vast quantity to complete the metaphor.  It’s easy to imagine this statement coming from the wrong narrator, like some callous 1-percenter shucking off the plight of the 99-percent.  And “oyster knife” is even worse than oyster, since all these single-purpose kitchen gadgets carry a strong whiff of Sur La Table.  Very confusing messaging here.


“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” —Matthew 7:7

Again, only a highly specific context could make this quote meaningful.  As generic advice dispensed by a desk calendar, it’s useless, and a classic example of the weakness of the passive voice.  Who will open the door?  Who will give stuff out?  Success of this kind depends entirely on who hears the request or the knock at the door.  If Matthew is willing to step up and say, “I’ll open the door to you” and “I’ll give it to you,” then we can safely abbreviate this expression as  “Go ask Matthew.”  That would actually be kind of handy.  “Dad, can I have ice cream?” / “Go ask Matthew.”


“You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning.” —Margaret Thatcher

I cannot find inspiration in this quote because I cannot understand it.  What the hell does it even mean?  I am so lost.  Is it a riddle?  A vague reference to ballroom dancing that I cannot make sense of despite having taken months of ballroom dancing lessons?  The only food for thought I find here is a long-debated matter of family history:  did my father, or did he not, actually once say to me, “You’re not very bright, are you”?


“You can’t build a reputation on what you intend to do.” —Liz Smith, gossip columnist

This strikes me as very true … and yet people—and moreover companies—attempt this pre-fab reputation thing all the time.  I’m reminded of these little Lucite plaques I saw strewn across cubicles at a startup that read, “Commemorating our launch and future success.”  How do you commemorate something that hasn’t happened yet?  (Congrats, Liz … so far you’ve given better advice than a politician, a great writer, a biblical hero, and a former Prime Minister.)


“No one can figure out your worth but you.” —Pearl Bailey, American actor and singer

I totally disagree with this one.  I believe one’s self-assessment of worth is not always (or perhaps not even often) very accurate.  Think of Luke Skywalker going off to fight Darth Vader, against Yoda’s advice, before completing his Jedi training.  Remember how that came out?  Luke got his fricking hand cut off, and—even worse—spawned the next movie, Return of the Jedi, which royally sucked!  Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people with low self-esteem who sometimes need to be nudged toward success by somebody (e.g., a boss or parent) who has greater faith in them.  I for one am gratified at having achieved things beyond what I’d have attempted on my own volition.


“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way that you carry it.” —Lena Horne, performer & civil rights activist

I like this quote, even though—or perhaps because—it’s not inspirational.  Note that Ms. Horne is not necessarily saying “You can bear this load if you carry it properly.”  She could be saying, “You are carrying it wrong and will be broken down.”  Why do I like this if it’s not inspirational?  Good question. I’d love to be inspired right now … it’s been a tough year.  I guess I’m feeling cynical, so my BS detector has been turned up to 11, and find this quote refreshing.


“If you have education and intelligence and ability, so much the better. But remember, thousands have reached the top without any of these qualities.” —Frank Loesser, composer & lyricist, in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

Now we’re talking!


“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” —W.C. Fields

This is very prescient, prefiguring our modern “fail fast” ethos.  The trick, of course, is recognizing the right time to bail.  As the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “In most things success depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.”


“Your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do is put it on your head.” —James Baldwin, American writer

This is almost inspirational, except for its undertones of nepotism and the notion that most of our politicians have been bought and paid for by big business.


“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” —Mary Anne Radmacher, American writer

Great quote, emphasizing character vs. personality (cf. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), and inward resolve vs. brash public display.  And it ties in nicely with the next one:


“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.” —Edmund Burke, 18th-century British statesman

I love this quote, and not only because I dislike grasshoppers. Is my dislike anthropocentric?  Maybe.  And perhaps, as with the Aesop’s Fable of the grasshopper and the ant, this anthropocentrism is unfair.  Speaking of glorifying ants, consider this next quote:


“With patience and saliva the ant swallows the elephant.” —Colombian proverb

Has this ever actually happened?  A single ant managed to gradually dissolve and consume an entire elephant?  How did the elephant not defend himself?  Really bizarre imagery.  In considering that vast amount of saliva, I’m reminded, unfortunately, of a joke I played on a temp once.  Our office had this little envelope-licking device consisting of a small vessel with a foam brush attached.  The vessel had run dry and I said to the temp, “Look, I hate to have to ask you to do this, but could you possibly refill this for me?”  He was like, “Well yeah, no problem … I mean, I just take it to the sink, right?”  I replied, “No, no!  You can’t seal an envelope with water!  You have to—” and here I pantomimed repeatedly spitting into the vessel.  He looked horrified for a moment, until I burst out laughing.  Is there a moral to this story?  I hope not….


“It’s more important to know where you are going than to get there quickly. Do not mistake activity for achievement.” —Mabel Newcomer, American columnist

I like the second part of this quote, but the first part is problematic.  Do we ever really know where we are going?


“If there’s one thing you’ve got to hold on to, it’s the courage to fight!” —Bessie Delany, American dentist and civil rights activist

This is a fine quote, but why does my calendar mention Ms. Delany’s being a dentist?  Obviously her moral authority derives from her work as a civil rights activist ... why dilute it with her dentistry? What is it that dentists have the courage to fight?  Plaque? Or is the point that she had the courage to tackle a career in this male-dominated field? Could be. After all, have you ever met a female dentist? And for that matter, have you ever met a male dental hygienist?  (Okay, I feel like we’re getting off in the weeds here….)


“The biggest sin is sitting on your ass.” —Florence R. Kennedy, American lawyer and activist

Hear, hear!


“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” —Moms Mabley, American vaudeville comedian

This is obviously meant as a warning against refusing to embrace change. As such, it’s not strong enough. If you always do what you always did, you may end up getting nothing. That is, even if you take comfort in predictability, and are complacent about the status quo, don’t assume you’re okay—you may soon become trodden down by the march of progress. Good advice, but can a warning like this be inspirational? At the moment I’m more inclined to sigh than to beat my chest.


“Go forth to meet the shadowy Future, without fear, and with a manly heart.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 19th century American poet

Generally, when confronted with sexism from a long-dead writer, I try to give him or her the benefit of the doubt (in the spirit of “those were different times,” etc.), but what word could we substitute here for “manly”?  We could try “bold,” but then the quote becomes redundant since “without fear” and “bold” are essentially the same thing.  When we also pause to consider whether “Longfellow” was even this guy’s real name, it’s tempting to conclude that he’s basically saying “Don’t be a chick.”  Now, I do want to cut this guy some slack—after all, as I described in my previous Keep Calm post he did demonstrate real heroism during his life—but my calendar should have found a better quote from him.  For example, this one: “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”


“Fame is an accident; merit a thing absolute.” —Herman Melville

First of all, Melville is the man.  (I don’t mean that in a sexist way, mind you … this expression has become gender-neutral.  For example, Virginia Woolf is also the man.) If you haven’t read Moby Dick yet, it’s time.  Second, I love this quote even without the authority of its source.  So many people get famous who shouldn’t be, like Paris Hilton.  Others have huge merit, like Jo Ann Beard, without gaining nearly the fame they deserve.  I hope people like Ms. Beard intrinsically value their own merit so they don’t become bitter.  And let’s not forget those who are chock-full of merit who don’t even want fame.  (Can I think of an example?  Nope.  That’s how effective these fame-avoiding merit-blessed people are!)


“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” —Julian Norwich, 14th-century Christian mystic

There’s nothing very mystical or even profound about this. Nobody would think anything of this quote if it were anonymous; like so many of its kind, its putative importance comes only from the assumed authority of its source. In that sense it’s perhaps the predecessor of the celebrity tweet.  My other issue with this notion is that it’s demonstrably false in so many situations.


“For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.” —Theodore Roosevelt

These are great words regardless of the source.  Meanwhile, Teddy Roosevelt really did live by them, working tirelessly throughout his life instead of resting on the laurels of becoming the youngest US president in history at age 42 and winning the Nobel Peace Prize at 47.  I admire the spirit here of focusing on the work, not just the achievement that it (ideally) leads to.  Unless something better comes to mind, I plan to make “live in the harness” my New Year’s Resolution for 2017.  (To be clear, this harness doesn’t just mean my career, but all the things I’m harnessed to:  work, parenting, cycling, blogging....)

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Product Review - Inside Ride E-motion Rollers


This isn’t one of those consumer-oriented blogs dedicated to reviewing products—which is a shame in some ways, because if it were I’d probably reach a lot more people.  (A post last year in which I bagged on a teakettle) was very popular.)  That said, if you’re in the market for a set of rollers and would consider the Inside Ride E-motion setup, you’ve totally come to the right place (and may want to focus on the second half of this post—search on the text “What makes these rollers different” and start from there).  On the other hand, if you don’t even know or care what rollers are, but enjoy a good laugh at somebody else’s expense, you’ve also come to the right place (and will want to focus on the first half of this post).

Rough start

I got these E-motion rollers via a friend who has no use for them anymore, and I was looking forward to trying them out.  I already own regular rollers and you can read here about some of the difficulties I had jerry-rigging resistance on them, because in this one small area of my life I actually need more resistance.  What’s worse, with the old rollers I kept getting flat tires, which makes zero sense, being the bike equivalent of shoes whose soles spontaneously fail due to contact with carpet.  My solution to this flat tire problem was to ride outdoors, which has become less attractive as winter (albeit the mild California version) has set in.

My first ride on the E-motion rollers started off very badly.  First of all, I didn’t have the owner’s manual and was too lazy to look online for it—so when adjusting the wheelbase setting I just winged it.  The process is actually completely intuitive for anybody with a cool head, but I hadn’t ridden in like a week, was totally stressed out for various reasons, and was impatient.  So I fiddled with the knobs quickly and recklessly and cut my finger.  (Due to age, I guess, my skin has become very flimsy, somehow combining the soft delicateness of moss with the dry, brittle, diaphanous fragility of baked phyllo.)

I got the bike and the fan set up and then, because I cannot ride indoors without music, I spent 20 minutes in vain looking for my MP3 player.  I never did find it and had to use my smartphone, which I hung from the ceiling (to protect it from sweat).  Then I started riding but my heart rate monitor wouldn’t work.  I cannot ride indoors without knowing my heart rate.  I had to troubleshoot.  I am not the kind of person, particularly when I’m stressed out, who can just move on.  It isn’t in me.

I went looking for my daughter’s heart rate monitor.  I gave up after 10 minutes.  I did find her HR monitor chest strap.  I didn’t want to adjust the strap to fit me because it’s really hard to dial those in just right.  So I had to hold the strap against my chest with one hand, which is awkward because I had to stretch out my hand so both electrodes would contact my skin.  The HR monitor still wouldn’t pick up my heart rate, but when I walked across the room it started working.  WTF?!

The troubleshooting was exacerbated because the HR monitor is also a bike computer, and won’t always show the heart rate if the wheel isn’t spinning.  It will show it for a little while after the wheel stops spinning, but I don’t know what this interval is.  I really needed to actually ride the new rollers while holding the strap across my chest.  Super-awkward.  Impossible, in fact.  I felt like a doomed, hapless idiot.

I decided to try a new battery in my heart rate monitor strap.  There’s a special tool needed to remove the battery cap, and I spent 5 minutes finding it.  Then I dropped it.  I spent another 5 minutes looking for it, in vain.  (It’s small and black, kind of a “household camo” form factor.)  Between my failing eyesight, which is infuriating, and the fact that I was already furious, I gave up looking for the little tool.  I did grasp the absurdity of this, which increased my fury.  (The tool did turn up a week later, in a box of Clif bars on a high shelf in the kitchen.  A mystery, as I hadn’t gone near the Clif bar box that morning.)

I spent another 10 minutes looking for my backup battery cap tool, which I did, amazingly, find.  I removed the battery and tested it:  it had a full charge.  I spent another 3 minutes looking for a new battery anyway.  Amazingly, the individualized packaging on my backup batteries had failed en masse so the new batteries and their defective packaging were all mixed up with merely new-ish batteries.  I tested all the batteries and installed the best one.  No change:  the heart rate monitor still wouldn’t pick up within 6 feet of the new rollers.

I needed to determine if the magnetic field generated by the resistance device on the new rollers was interfering with the heart rate monitor’s signals.  This would presumably only happen when the bike is in motion.  So I decided I had to use the HR monitor in hiking mode, so that I could compare its performance when merely seated on the bike vs. while pedaling on it, without needing to worry about the HR monitor’s pointless idiosyncrasy of ignoring HR signals when the bike is stopped.  But hiking mode only works when the monitor is mounted to the wrist strap.  There are two wrist straps in this household:  mine and my daughter’s.  I looked for 15 minutes for either one of these.  My rage was so extreme by this point that I was almost literally blind.  Finally I managed to stop racing around peeking under things and just thought for a moment, and realized that my strap would be wrapped around the handlebars of my backup bike from the last time, many months ago, that I rode rollers.  There it was!  My satisfaction at finding it was considerably reduced by absurd amount of time I’d spent on the search.

I tried the HR monitor in hiking mode.  Even when just sitting on the bike, on the rollers, the monitor would not pick up my heart rate.  The crux, it seemed, was that the HR monitor just didn’t like my new rollers.  Which is a problem.  It seemed that no matter how much these rollers might outperform my old ones, it wouldn’t matter because I need that heart rate feedback or I’ll just loaf.  It’s human nature (mine, at least).

At this point I arrived at a crossroads.  If I didn’t succeed in solving the HR monitor issue, I’d have to eat the sunk cost of my hunt:  that is, I’d have to concede that I’d spent like an hour futzing with all this (in addition to the 20 minutes looking for my MP3 player and another 10 or so suiting up, digging the fan out of the garage, finding the extension cord, etc.) and would have nothing to show for my efforts.  On the other hand, if I spent one more minute of my precious weekend dinking with the HR monitor, I was probably going to blow.  I had to get on that bike, period.

But first I decided I needed to do one more thing:  look for help on the Internet.  How long could that take, right?  Alas, no Google search produced any results whatsoever.  I am evidently the only person who had ever had problems using his HR monitor with these rollers.  I did learn from the manufacturer’s FAQ that, due to the little wheels positioned at either side of each roller drum, “It’s not possible to ride off the drums.  You can try as hard as you want and it won’t happen.”  In my enraged state, I took this as some kind of dare.  A double-dog dare, in fact.

I climbed on, started riding, noted again the infuriating absence of heart rate data, started riding harder, and then steered my front wheel into the little guide wheel at the edge of the drum.  The tire touched it, started it spinning, and the bike just stayed in position.  So yeah, the guide wheel works.  But “it’s not possible” to ride off the drums?  And “you can try as hard as you want”?  I hadn’t yet tried as hard as I wanted.  So I started slamming the front wheel violently into the guide wheel.  I increased my speed and tried again.  On the 4th or 5th try I had so much sideways momentum I kind of high-sided.  What is high-siding?  Imagine riding on a rain-slippery road or trail and turning so hard that the tire starts to slide out—but then it suddenly catches, and flips you like a pancake.  That’s high-siding.  I basically flipped my bike right off the rollers.  I managed to stick the landing, but in the process of this crazily abrupt dismount I clotheslined myself on my headphone cord (because my smartphone was hanging from the ceiling, remember?).

This was the proprietary cord of my $300 Bose noise-canceling headphones, and it was now ruined.  This angered me.  And if memory serves, I had been kind of angry already.  (Is my comic understatement working here?)  I had to find some other headphones.  After 5 minutes I found some, remounted the bike, and then discovered that the headphones’ cord was too short.  So I hunted around for my headphone extension cord (yes, I actually have one) and tried that, but it was too long, and no scheme I could contrive to take up the slack would work (since my brain was melting down due to anger).  So I decided to put the smartphone in my jersey pocket, which meant finding a plastic bag to put it in.

Finally I got back going.  As you can see, I began my first E-motion roller ride with a level of fury surely unrivaled in history.  It would take a pretty special product to earn a glowing review under these circumstances.  Not since Richard III set about wooing the widow of the man he’d just murdered had a deck been stacked so unfavorably.

What makes these rollers different?

Regular rollers consist of a rigid frame that holds the three drums.  Riding these rollers requires a fair amount of balance (significantly more than riding a bike on the road).  The bike doesn’t automatically stay straight so you have to kind of steer to keep it more or less in the middle of the roller.  If you drift too far to either side you’ll go off the drum, which causes a very abrupt dismount that, while not terribly dangerous, is unpleasant and breaks your stride.

This difficulty increases if you contrive some kind of resistance and really start hammering.  If your body rocks or bounces at all, the bike wants to creep forward on the rollers and is destabilized.  Riding out of the saddle is possible on traditional rollers, but it’s really tricky going from sitting to standing without pitching forward.  Rocking the bike back and forth, meanwhile, is basically impossible. 

Anybody who tells you that riding rollers is a cinch is probably accustomed to riding them without resistance.  Riding rollers this way is pretty easy—but also pointless.  I have found, over the last year or two of riding rollers with resistance, that my back gets sore, probably because I am a bit tense and having to keep my upper body too still.  Moreover, I have really missed being able to ride out of the saddle in a natural way.

The E-motion rollers are different.  The drums still mount to a rigid frame, but this frame doesn’t sit right on the floor.  Instead, it rides a second frame (that does sit on the floor).  There is “float” between these two frames, so the rigid, spring-loaded top frame can move forward and backward.  So even if you are hammering so hard your form is crap, and your upper body is rocking up and down, the bike is stable, and the ride smooth and natural, with the rollers’ floating mechanism taking up all the slop.  Moreover, there are these smaller-diameter guide rollers positioned fore and aft of the rear wheel, which come into play when you stand up on the pedals.  The bike moves quite a bit when you stand up, but then the rear wheel hits the little guide roller, which shifts the floating frame forward, again taking up the slack so your bike doesn’t leave the rollers behind and crash into your fan (which has in fact happened to me with my old setup).

The floating frame also makes it possible to really shove on the pedals when out of the saddle, and to rock the bike from side to side like you would on the road.  In short, riding these rollers is just like real riding, except the air around you is warm and dry instead of cold and wet, and you don’t have to restrict your training to daylight hours.  (The other difference is that it’s still not as interesting as real riding, but music can help with that.)

These rollers are so easy to ride, I haven’t suffered my usual back pain when riding them.  With the old rollers I could ride no-handed, even with some resistance, but doing so made me a bit nervous; with these new ones, I not only can ride no-handed with ease, but when the zipper of my jersey got jammed, I was able to sit up and un-jam it while riding.

Here’s a video showing how well the E-motion rollers work.  This isn’t footage of some specially trained stunt double with impeccable form, either … it’s your randomly selected blogger, who likes to mosh big gears, doesn’t do yoga on the side, and isn’t overly concerned with being super-smooth.  Go ahead and view this video in full-screen mode and look at how much the top frame floats on the bottom one.

So … these rollers really work?

Yes, they really work.  They’re amazing, in fact.  The innovative design absolutely does achieve everything I’ve described above.  Also, the drums are really quiet, much more so than my old aluminum rollers which tended to “sing” at high speeds.  (Apparently these E-motion drums are aluminum as well, which is better than plastic because it’s more durable and has a more perfectly round cross-section.  But these are coated somehow which I think is why they’re so quiet.)  The magnetic resistance also works really well and is silent.

It is very rare, I’ve found, for one manufacturer’s product to be so obviously superior to every competing product on the market.  These rollers are such a huge step forward, I was almost laughing with delight.  This reaction is particularly noteworthy considering how enraged I was prior to riding these for the first time.  (If you didn’t read the first half of this review, maybe it’s time to go do that.)  Because by this point I hated everyone and everything in the universe, including myself, I perversely wanted to find fault with the E-motions but the fact is, I could not.  These rollers are a total game-changer.  At the end of my workout, I was in a really, really good mood because I was (and am) so stoked to own such a sweet set of rollers.

I don’t think I’ve been so completely satisfied with a product in 30 years (since I bought my first English-made Simplex teakettle, whose perfection is matched only by the utter uselessness and almost criminal crappiness of its modern Chinese successor … but that’s another story).

Is there any downside to the E-motion rollers?

The main problem with this product is that it has, for most people, no practical use.  The vast majority of people lack the desire and/or skill to ride rollers, and/or don’t have the psychological stamina (or is it mere tolerance of tedium?) to train indoors regularly.  Rollers in general are a total niche product.  There’s something almost Quixotic about setting out to produce the best rollers on the planet … kind of like if somebody decided the state of the art in steel-toed, waterproof, chainmail-reinforced, Internet-connected, antibacterial golf shoes was in need of an overhaul.  Of course this isn’t really a criticism of the Inside Ride E-motion rollers; it’s more of a critique of rollers in general, and of my fellow man.

There’s also the matter of price.  These rollers are about 50% more expensive than the second-most-expensive brand on the market, Al Kreitler.  The E-motions would be a pretty decadent purchase in most cases, given that they probably wouldn’t get much use.  On the other hand, for a serious cyclist with the tenacity to actually do a lot of training indoors, who spends all kinds of money on lighter wheels, fancy clothing, and other state-of-the-art gear, the price of the E-motions is reasonable.  (Good luck making this case with your significant other, though.)

These rollers do not fold up, so it would be hard to take them in your car to warm up before a race or before riding the track.  But who among us doesn’t have an old stationary trainer for that purpose?

If you think I’m going to complain about the tendency of these rollers to jam heart rate monitor signals, I have good news there as well.  Oddly, though I didn’t get consistent heart rate data during my first workout, I discovered I could spot-check my heart rate by standing up on the pedals.  (My theory is that riding out of the saddle moved the HR transmitter far enough away from the rollers’ magnetic resistance unit to work properly.)  I made peace with the idea that I wouldn’t have average HR, max HR, time-above-HR-target-zone, and other data to sift through after my roller rides, because everything else about these rollers is so kickass.  And then, upon riding them a second time a few days later, I was surprised to see that the HR monitor worked perfectly.  Two more flawless rides confirmed that the HR monitor problem was just a fluke thing, like the missing battery-cap tool.  Sometimes life is like that.

There is only one other possible downside to these rollers.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we occasionally have earthquakes.  If an earthquake were to happen during a workout, when I’m rocking out to my workout megamix via noise-canceling headphones, the E-motions’ floating frame might be so effective that I fail to notice the earthquake, which could put me in some kind of danger. (As you can see, you have to work pretty hard to find fault with this product.)

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

From the Archives - Shakespeare Knockoff


It’s another slow news day here at albertnet, so here’s an old poem from my archives, with all-new footnotes and commentary. Enjoy please enjoy.

Judgment of true minds – ca. 1992

Let us not in the judgment of true minds
Admit impediment. A student fails                                         2
Who misinterprets books or falls behind,
Or when assigned his reading moans and wails.
Oh no! The only academic lord
Is one whose clever insights oft are quoted;                         6
Who’s always interested, never bored;
Who’s worth’s unknown, although his grades are noted.
He’s at no teacher’s mercy, though exams
Will keep him studying from dawn to dusk;                       10
For nothing can detain him from his plan
Of making fools of the rest of us.
    If this be error, proven unto me,
    I never took a test or got a “C.”                                            14

Footnotes & commentary

Date: ca. 1992

I forgot to date this one. I’m guessing it was 1992 because thematically, it had to correspond with my college years, and it was probably inspired by the Shakespeare class I took at Berkeley in ’91 or ‘92. That was a great class. Professor Richmond was a renowned Shakespeare authority who traveled to London to consult on the restoration of the Globe theater where Shakespeare’s plays were first enacted.

Line 1: true minds

This line doesn’t make much sense, but I guess I wanted to make sure the (hypothetical) reader would catch the allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, which begins, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.” I needn’t have worried; anybody who would bother reading amateur poetry would surely catch on.

We covered Sonnet #116 in Richmond’s class. He stood at a lectern on one side of the stage while reading it to us, and then his wife, who I think was also a professor, stood at a lectern on the other side of the stage and read Sonnet #138, which begins, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/ I do believe her, though I know she lies.” This was a stark contrast, obviously, to #116 and its lofty, uncompromising claim that true love admits no impediments. This paradox kicked off a great lecture about the complexity of Shakespeare, but I know you’re already getting bored so I’ll move on.

Line 2: admit impediment

While writing this I was all too aware of the impediments of my own mind. It’s hard for me, even now, to think about Sonnet #116 without a flush of embarrassment. I was asked to read this poem at my dad’s third wedding, and my reading didn’t go so well. To be fair to myself, it’s a bit odd attending a parent’s wedding, and nothing a kid should have to go through.  But the bigger problem was hubris: I decided, being already familiar with the poem, that instead of just reading it I would go ahead and memorize it. How much more impressive that would be!

Well, things were going find until around the bit about “Love’s not Time’s fool,” when my gaze—which I had been casting about the audience, like I was taught to do in speech class—happened to meet that of my father. He was looking at me so intently, I completely froze. He seemed to be regarding me as some kind of freak, or like a space alien, and in fact my love of liberal arts was alien to him, since he was a diehard scientist and engineer. He had probably never before heard this sonnet—or indeed any sonnet—and perhaps my enthusiasm bewildered him. Whatever was behind his intense, piercing look, upon seeing it I choked, completely, and couldn’t come up with the next line of the poem. Well, my soon-to-be stepmother, who was a librarian, knew the poem well (having selected it, after all) and gave me a little stage whisper that got me back on track. Now that I think about it, she was probably delighted that I stumbled and needed help, and that she was there to give it. But the little ordeal is still embarrassing to recall.

Line 4: moans and wails

If you think this is over-the-top hyperbole, you don’t know my brother. I can still remember when he was in junior high trying to learn German, and would moan and wail, “I can’t memorize!” That said, upon being given our reading assignments, my fellow English majors and I would certainly groan. The best thing about majoring in English is that there are no labs or problem sets to do, and not all that many papers to write—but there’s a whole lot of reading required.

Line 5: only academic lord

Who is this academic lord, whose shadow seems to have fallen over me, inspiring me to write this poem? Nobody specific comes to mind, but it’s fair to say I was feeling a bit self-conscious about my academic performance. Around this time I was taking an English honors seminar which admitted only thirty students (two classes of fifteen). I got in by the skin of my teeth: after initially being denied admission based on the deficient quality of my writing sample, I audited both sessions and discovered that one girl had been admitted to both. I wrote to the professor, provided a new writing sample, and claimed the extra spot.

You’d think I’d have worked really hard to distinguish myself after that (as indeed I’d promised in my letter I’d do). The problem was, the course was all about critical literary theory, which I despised. My total lack of interest made it almost impossible for me to even stay awake in class.

There was one guy in that class, Dan, whom the label “academic lord” does kind of fit. I remember the first conversation I had with him, after the first class discussion. “What did you think of that Derrida essay?” I asked him, hoping he’d say, “Dude, that shit went right over my head,” and then we could commiserate. But instead he said, “I really liked it. It reminded me of Beckett.” I thought he was referring to Thomas Becket, some religious figure whom I vaguely remembered from history class, and I couldn’t fathom what parallel Dan had drawn between the two. Only much later did I realize he meant Samuel Beckett, who wrote famous stuff like Waiting for Godot—but by then it was much too late. Nevertheless, we did become friends, mainly because, through sheer coincidence, we were both writing about the same author.

So was Dan as competitive as the guy described in this poem? Not at all. In fact, he generously let me read all his notes, and the rough drafts of his thesis. I returned the favor. Honestly, I didn’t find myself intimidated by his writing (and in fact was tickled to see that he used the shorthand “il y a” for “there is” or “there are,” from the French, just like I did!).

Where my intellect diverged from Dan’s is that he was already applying to grad school in English, whereas—my love of my major notwithstanding—I’d had enough college and was ready to get out into the work world . I didn’t envy Dan’s mind, because I simply felt like a different species of scholar. For me to resent him would be like an ostrich resenting a hawk.

Line 6: oft are quoted

Is it realistic to assert that any student’s insights could be “oft” quoted? Nah. This is kind of a sloppy line, frankly. But since we’re on the subject, I did quote Dan in my thesis, but only once. He quoted from my thesis as well. Perhaps this was a bit of a parlor trick; I for one felt kind of sneaky in having access to unpublished literary criticism that real writers, such as our professor, did not.

Line 7: always interested

An English major friend of mine always pronounces this word “IN-ter-est-ed” (i.e., four syllables) whereas (like so many others) I pronounce it “INT-rist-ed” (three syllables). Within this line of verse my friend’s pronunciation clearly works better. It also sounds more intellectual, I think, though I can’t bring myself to adopt it in regular speech.

Line 7: never bored

I wanted to like literary theory, but I just didn’t have it in me. If you think I’m exaggerating about falling asleep in a discussion group of only fifteen students, I assure you I’m not. Fairly early in the semester, I was at a party and was checking out this girl—not because she was all that fly, but because she looked kind of familiar—when she walked over to me and said, “Okay, I’ve been trying to figure out where I know you from and then it hit me—you’re that guy who always falls asleep in my H195 seminar!”

Line 9: no teacher’s mercy

This should have been “TA’s mercy,” since it was mostly the teaching assistants who graded our papers and exams.  Nobody goes by the title “teacher” in college, of course.  What was I thinking?

Line 10: dawn to dusk

This is just more sloppiness. Think about it: what student would stop studying at dusk? At the longitude of Berkeley, dusk would fall before 9 p.m. year round, hours before most students call it a day. And as late as September, dawn would begin before 7 a.m., which is much earlier than most students wake up. It’s a good thing the sonnet I wrote for Richmond’s class was more coherent.

Line 12: making fools of the rest of us 

I gather that with certain college majors, grading is done on a curve, and grades are posted publicly so students can envy those at the top and pity the sad sacks toward the bottom. But this wasn’t the case with English, which never seemed to encourage competition. It’s not like we were all jockeying for position in class standing so we could better compete for jobs after graduation, because—being English majors—we weren’t thinking that far ahead. 

Did students try to outshine each other during class discussions? Nah. We legitimately seemed to be freely sharing ideas and trying to learn something. One time, a classmate caught up to me as I was leaving class because she actually wanted to continue the discussion! This was no pretense based on the college mating ritual, either; this was a 60-something woman who’d decided late in life to attend college just to improve her mind. I was so flattered that she’d responded to something I’d said. (I didn’t sleep through class every time.)

Line 13: error, proven unto me

My commentary here seems to point out the overall error of this poem. This pleases me, because I feel like I’ve actually wised up a bit since college. Another 25 years from now, I might look back at this blog and reflect on how lame this writing is, which would be nice (as it would show further progress). Or maybe in 25 years I’ll have come full circle, realizing that I actually peaked in college and merely slipped into delusion in the following decades.

Line 14: never … got a “C”

I did once get a C in English, in junior high. Our class spent a whole quarter reading Greek mythology, and I hated it, even more than the critical literary theory I’d get a decade or so later. I didn’t sleep in class back then—my pre-teen hormones were raging too much for that—but I didn’t put in much effort, either. We each had to write a myth, replete with a moral, and I don’t remember much about my myth other than my moral, “Don’t try for perfection,” which seemed to really annoy the teacher. She gave me the worst grade in the whole class on that assignment, and made sure I knew it.

My dad was furious about that C. He really chewed my head off. If he’d asked what went wrong, maybe I could have explained about the Greek mythology, but he didn’t. All I offered in my defense was that my other grades were fine, and I even got an A+ in French. This made him even angrier and he launched this big lecture about why English classes are important. It’s funny to look back on this because when I eventually majored in English my dad was really disappointed. It’s tempting to wonder if he saw my choice of major as some kind of payback for his angry lecture, but I really doubt he remembers any of it, least of all the C. In case he reads this (which I also doubt): Hey Dad, guess what? I once got a C in English!

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Friday, December 9, 2016

Life Hacks


In this essay I examine the most modern meaning of “hack” (essentially, short for “life hack”) and provide a half dozen useful life hacks that I’ve stumbled upon myself. 

First, some etymological rambling

I most recently came across hack-as-a-noun in The New Yorker, which had four essays from various writers under the heading “Life Hacks.”  These essays—which needless to say inspired this one—included a software recommendation, a critique of A.I. cooking, an essay about gaming Twitter, and an examination of whether screen time is bad for kids.

As recently as 2004, The New Yorker itself defined “hack” very differently.  The term was only described in the sense of computer meddling, though the article allowed that “hacker” could mean—in geek parlance—“a righteous dude.”  In modern parlance, “hack” can be a noun—not in the original noun sense of “a rough cut, blow, or stroke,” “a writer or journalist producing dull, unoriginal work,” or “a horse for ordinary riding”—but as a reverse formation from the verb “to hack,” meaning to do something in an unconventional way.’s top definition of “lifehack” is (as of the moment), “A tool or technique that makes some aspect of one's life easier or more efficient.”  (“Hack” in the sense of computer hacking—or “cracking,” as pedants now describe the illegal stuff—is gradually being displaced.)

The first time I heard of “hack” as life hack was around a year ago when a mom on my kid’s high school mountain bike team asked, “What do you think of this hack:  after a muddy ride, I take my daughter’s bike to the self-service car wash and spray it off with the high pressure nozzle.”  (In case you’re wondering, this is a bad idea:  such a powerful spray can get past the seals on the bike’s bearings and destroy them.)  I answered, “Fine hack, but you better watch out for the NSA.”  No I didn’t.  (I warned her about the bearings.)

And now, on to the life hacks I recommend.

Life hack #1:  switch from cotton to wool

It might seem strange for a Californian to recommend wool over cotton.  It’s warm and sunny year-round here like in Baywatch, right?  Well, not exactly … it does get cool and damp here, which bothers us because we’re all wusses.  Plus, Californians still sometimes get rained on, which is the sweet spot for wool because wool keeps you warm even when it’s wet.  If you live in a place with real winters, you’ll get even more benefit.

But warmth isn’t all wool has going for it.  It also feels less clammy on the skin (very important when you’re hot and sweaty) and, in the case of socks, is more comfortable and durable than cotton.  Wool socks provide better cushion, don’t slide down your leg, and don’t become threadbare at the heel.  Don’t tell anybody this, but I like to wear wool cycling socks with my business suit.  They’re tall enough that nobody would ever know!

Synopsis:  Wool is like cotton on steroids.

Life hack #2:  stop trying to get your cat to love you

(Note:  if you don’t have a cat, run right out and get one, preferably from the pound, and then come back and finish this essay.)

Pet ownership (or, as they say in Berkeley, “human guardianship of companion animals”) can be hard, especially with cats.  We love them so much, but they don’t love us back!  They turn their noses up, or more to the point turn away so their butts are in our faces.  In short, cats are disloyal, snooty, and antisocial.  It’s heartbreaking.

But if you stop dreaming of a love that can never be, and accept the truth about cats, you’ll realize it has its benefits.  Their attitude takes all the pressure off, frankly.  It’s impossible to disappoint a cat, and almost impossible to sell a cat short.  All a cat wants is regular feeding, a roof over his or her head, and a clean cat box.  So you never feel guilty!  What dog owner hasn’t regretted his or her inability—or, let’s admit it, unwillingness—to give poor Waldo the attention, walkies, and love that he deserves? 

Then there’s the matter of energy levels.  Most of us humans are tired all the time.  The way a cat naps 24x7, she does a pretty good job of seeming to relate.  Contrast this with the burden of a dog’s crazy energy:  the frenzied greeting at the door, the bounding around, the almost pathetic hope he musters up when you go anywhere near his leash.  I don’t think I could handle it.  Much better to pick up a cat when you feel like it, pet her a little, notice her complete apathy, and walk away convinced that there’s no need to try any harder. 

Once you acknowledge these benefits and stop craving the attention this beast will never give you, it’s easy to love her all the more, even if most of your human/cat interaction is you watching her sleep.

Synopsis:  a cat is like your pet dog on Quaaludes.

Life hack #3:  go back to traditional books

Embracing the very latest meaning of “hack,” here’s an ironic one:  “Stop futzing with technology in your spare time.”  That is, set aside your phone, your tablet, and your laptop and spend some more time with traditional books.  Since most of our leisure time is in the evening, the main benefit of books is that they don’t interfere with sleep.  There are so many studies out now about screen time causing insomnia, I won’t bother to cite any (but here is a listing to get you started).  The idea is that the bright screen confuses your brain and inhibits melatonin production. 

Beyond any issues around sleep, old-school books, unlike various screen-based sources of text, can be bought used, borrowed, or checked out from the library.  Thus, you don’t have to pay for them—whether with your money or your privacy.

Plus, reading a traditional book also increases the odds that you’re reading something worthwhile; after all, a publisher wouldn’t spend good money printing most of the folderol on the Internet—all the blogs, online magazines, tweets, and mindless comments from haters.

Perhaps best of all, you can read a paper-bound book in bed without bothering your spouse/other.  Sure, there are some who wouldn’t mind the intrusion of a Kindle, tablet, or phone, but there are plenty more—like mine—who mind very much.  In fact, my wife put her foot down and won’t allow my smartphone in the bedroom at all.  On the flip side, I really doubt there’s a spouse/other on the planet who insists on a screen instead of a book.

Besides, isn’t there just something so cozy about a good old-fashioned book?

Synopsis:  a paper book is like an e-book on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Life hack #4:  drink your coffee black

I won’t elaborate a lot on this because I wrote a whole essay about it:  click here.

Synopsis:  coffee, neat.

Life hack #5:  get thee to a library

I am so sick of people telling me, “I can’t believe you don’t have Netflix!”  You know what?  Netflix—just like the cable TV companies—can go straight to Hell (where they’ll surely join bike thieves, telemarketers, and tobacco industry executives).  Since you’re forking out good money for these subscription-based services, you have a built-in lizard-brain impulse to get your money’s worth, which leads to all kinds of wasted time.  And you know what else?  I happen to know—because I surf Netflix when I donate platelets—that their movie selection is bad and getting worse.  Twice I’ve started a movie—and not my first choice, mind you, because they didn’t have it—hoping to finish it next time, only to discover on my next visit that the movie I’d been watching is no longer available. 

My library, on the other hand, has all kinds of movies.  I can reserve them online, pick them up from my local branch when they’ve been brought over, and keep them for 3 or 6 or 9 weeks, so I can watch them when I get around to it.  Often, when I happen to be at the library, I’ll grab a few movies practically at random and give them a try.  If, after 10 minutes, I’m not enjoying the movie, I’ll just eject it and try another.  Costs me nothing.

This works the same with books, of course, with the added benefit that you don’t have to struggle with the great debate of whether it’s harmful to authors and publishers to order from Amazon.  An added bonus is that the library is a great place to hang out, enjoy some peace and quiet (and free WiFi), and get some work done, without having to order coffee or food to pay your rent.  Meanwhile, you’re supporting a public institution which, as recently lamented by a fine author, is under threat (at least in the UK, and probably in this country as well).

Synopsis:  a library is like getting Netflix, Amazon, and a coffee shop on the house.

Life hack #6:  only drink with friends

A famous Harvard study on happiness, which tracked 268 men from all walks of life over a 75-year span, proposes two central ways to prolong and enjoy your life:  value your relationships and don’t abuse alcohol.  As described here, the study found that alcoholism among those studied “was the main cause of divorce” and “was strongly correlated with neurosis and depression.”  And as quoted here, the main author of the study, Dr. George Vaillant, declared, based on the evidence, “Our relationships with other people matter, and matter more than anything else in the world.”

After losing a good friend of mine this summer to a tragic accident, I decided to try to get out and see friends more.  Simultaneously, I noted my 10-pound weight gain since the previous summer, and (as I cannot bring myself to eat less food) decided that my (albeit moderate) alcohol consumption had to come down a bit.  So now I don’t stock my fridge with beer anymore.  If I want a drink, I have to go out.  From the Harvard study perspective, I’m killing two birds with one stone.  Is it working?  Yeah, I think so.  I’m seeing more of my friends, and have lost half that extra weight.

Synopsis:  imagine this initially breezy essay bogged down with bulgur wheat, flax seed, and other dietary fiber.  Yeah, sorry about that.


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