Saturday, July 23, 2016

Mourning and the Digital Age


This will necessarily be the soberest thing I’ve ever posted.

A good friend of mine died last Saturday, trying to rescue his six-year-old daughter after she’d been swept off the beach by a rogue wave.  Both father and daughter drowned.  This indescribably sad accident is not an appropriate topic for this blog, and yet I cannot fathom writing about anything else.  Nothing else seems to matter right now, and to write on a lighter topic would be to ignore my sadness.  It’s the elephant in the room I feel I should confront, so that maybe, eventually, I can go back to more quotidian topics.

So, I’ve decided to come at this thing sideways and examine the more general notion of how the digital age affects the grieving process.  I find I have a lot to say about that.

Getting the news

There’s no good way to receive such horrible news, but some ways are more awful than others.  I learned over the phone from a friend on my bike club, who’d been contacted by a journalist looking for background on our late friend.  At least when a friend breaks it to you, there’s a moment to brace yourself as he gasps or sobs, and he’s bound to treat the news with the delicacy it demands.  Contrast that to finding out via the Internet.  I ended up googling the story because I simply could not understand what I was hearing.  The words were probably strung together adequately, but what they communicated didn’t seem possible.

It’s really jarring, and tacky, to see clickbait alongside such a tragic news story.  “Suri Cruise Looks So Grown Up on Set of Katie Holmes’ TV Show,” and “[Shocking] Remove Your Eye Bags & Wrinkles In 1 Minute!” accompanied the online news of this drowning.  As a friend of the bereaved family, I’m struggling to hang on to my belief that life is still good and meaningful, and yet there’s all this added evidence to the contrary.  These news websites are complete strangers to tact and decorum.

Then there are the typical Internet trolls, like the self-righteous shit-for-brains who commented (inaccurately), “there had been warnings of adverse surf conditions ... these were no ‘rogue’ waves.”  There was no advisory that day, and this jerk wasn’t there, and why does he do this?  What kind of sad sack makes sport of casting judgment on victims of a terrible accident?  And right below this, another comment:  “my neighbor’s step-sister makes $75 an hour on the computer.  Visit the website [...].”

Social media

I went to a website designed to collect tributes to the victims, which is fine, but everywhere I looked were rows or columns of buttons to share these tributes (and photos, etc.) via Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest, etc.  As somebody who avoids social media, I don’t like the idea that if I died, I might suddenly have representations of myself scattered across all of these platforms and I wouldn’t be around to protest.  This site also featured a “Donate” button to give money (presumably to the family).  Not all sorrow can be assuaged by money and I doubt this family did anything to set that up.  In the absence of a closely managed strategy—which I doubt any grieving family has the time or energy for—I could see a platform like this taking on a life of its own.

I did get some comfort from the tributes and shows of support on the website, but then I came to a post from someone who, by her own admission, didn’t even know the family but was nevertheless offering emotional support to my friend’s widow.  I found this jarring and a little chilling.  Perhaps I’m not the only one who did.  For whatever reason, the page has now been reconfigured to block anonymous readers, by requiring users to create a login.  I’m not quite ready to do that; after all, sites like this tend to overwhelm me pretty quickly.  The last thing I need is perpetual spam stemming from a glancing engagement with a web portal.

My point is, digital technology like clickbait, social media, likes, and links can creep up on us—or seem to fall suddenly out of the sky—without waiting for us to decide whether it’s good for us.  How many parents had the luxury of contemplating the influence of Facebook and Instagram on their teenagers, before those teens immersed themselves in this virtual world?  Who foretold this worldwide phenomenon?  (Answer:  nobody.  It wasn’t a phenomenon at first; it was just a technology.)  When it comes to grieving, how does the digital world fit in?  Would the healthiest thing be to close the laptop, power off the phone, and mourn in peace?

Who knows.  I do consider whether my personal inclination to opt out of social media is appropriate in this case.  After all, there are instances when it becomes antisocial to extend one’s neo-Luddite principles too far.  For example, for an adult in the corporate world not to have a cell phone is no longer tenable; we’re expected to be reachable.  And to not have e-mail in any industrialized society is nowadays absurd.  And so, when my bike club decided a tribute to our late teammate would be appropriate for our club’s Facebook page, and asked me to write it, I immediately stepped up.  It would be callous not to acknowledge the tragic death of our friend/teammate and his daughter, and I welcomed the chance to give this statement the thoughtfulness and delicacy it deserves.

Digital storage

Where the conveniences of digital life can become really wrenching is in the realm of digital caches and other storage.   On my smartphone right now, when I open Contacts, my dead friend’s name is right at the top on the “Frequently contacted” tab.  He’s also on the first page of my chat history (not deep correspondence, but just the most perfunctory logistical stuff like “Yo, I’m at Fieldwork”).  In the main phone app, there he is on the Recents tab.  In the Voicemail app, I still have a years-old message from him, when he called to see if I’d really been hauled away from Grizzly Peak Boulevard in an ambulance.  I originally kept the message as a handy way to remember exactly when that happened, but now I don’t want to delete the voicemail because it’s the only one from him that I have.  He’s all over my phone, like a ghost.

Of course most of these relics will be gradually pushed down the stack until they slip out of Recents altogether ... but that’s actually kind of disturbing too, like a bad omen.  Will my friend will be similarly pushed out of my memory by all the new stuff coming in?  (Of course not, but grieving isn’t a rational process.)  And what of my friend’s programmed entries in my contact list and phone book?  What about his presence in my archived message history, and that saved voice-mail?  I cannot bring myself to delete these.  How could I?   Sometimes humanity trumps efficiency—and perhaps it ought to.

My e-mail archive is another quandary.  I’ve got almost 700 messages from him I could sift through, looking for ways to jog my memory ... but is that healthy?  And that’s not even the entire trove; it’s only what’s stored in my current e-mail software.  I have some other virtual file cabinet I could probably delve into if I bothered to try.  At what point does this kind of sentimental, digitally assisted reminiscing shade toward the obsessive?  Obviously it would be weird and nutty to build a shrine for a departed friend, but that’s kind of what a digital archive is.  The difference is, the artifacts are enshrined automatically so we have access to them whether we’re pack rats or not.  Is it healthy to take advantage of this, or is it the emotional equivalent of picking a scab?

Browsing through old photos is even more captivating.  I hunted through my archive as part of the bike club tribute project, and was plunged ever deeper into memory, which naturally intensified the sense of loss.  How young we both look in that early photo!  (Subtext:  we go back so far, and now—nothing!)  Perhaps most bittersweet of all, for reasons I can’t quite grasp, is the last photo I have of my late friend, which is on my phone as well as my PC.  I distinctly remember him chiding me for my recklessness in riding past this bull to get the shot.

Maybe this photo makes me sad because it’s so recent, I didn’t even get the chance to e-mail it to him.

One of the hallmarks of our digital age is how we keep hopscotching from one brief thought to the next, based on this or that alert, picture, or other stimulus.  Such digital saturation is notorious for precluding careful contemplation.  Perhaps this is why I keep catching myself being self-indulgent—too wrapped up in my own grief to look at the bigger picture.  This family lost a father, a husband, a daughter, and a sister.  I only lost a friend.  My grief is entwined with a more complicated feeling, something like guilt.

This feeling hit me like a hammer when, sitting at my desk and staring into space, I noticed my slide-show screen-saver start up.  It picks photos at random from my hard drive and displays them for 5 seconds apiece. At first the photos of my wife and kids, going back so many years, started to cheer me up—oh, remember when the girls were small, and wore dresses, and held hands?—and then I had this horrifying thought:  what if I had lost a daughter and a spouse?  Suddenly this slide show would be a torment.  Instead of showcasing family—the best part of life—it would highlight what has been taken away.  The entire photo archive, along with the e-mail archive and all those artifacts littering the smartphone, and so many posts and photos scattered across all those social media platforms ... all of these would intensify the grief.  What a torment.

I suppose I should try to coalesce these thoughts into some kind of pithy conclusion, but nothing is coming to me but the sense that it’s time to save this file and power down. 

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2016 Tour de France Stage 9


If you’ve fallen behind on the Tour de France, or can’t be bothered to watch it, you’ve come to the right place.  Not only is my report almost live (not meaning close to dead, but almost real-time), it’s biased—that is, I don’t pull any punches when it comes to calling out a doper, an inelegant rider, or a jerk (or in the case of the obvious favorite, Chris Froome, all three at once).  That’s the benefit of being an unpaid blogger.

2016 Tour de France Stage 9 – Vielha Val d’Aran to Andorre Arcalis

As I join the race, there are about 50 km to go.  Today is a brutal stage, with five categorized climbs, including three category 1 and a huis-categorie (HC) climb at the end.  What is “huis-categorie?”  Imagine a rock climber saying, “Dude, that first climb was like a five-twelve, but then there was this other one that was like, so totally sick you just couldn’t even put a number on it.”  Or imagine a little kid saying, “My dad could beat up infintity-times-infinity of your dads,” and the other kid saying, “My dad could beat up so many of your dads, you couldn’t even count it, not even with infinities.”  Huis-Categorie is the French way of saying, “Don’t even try to describe how hard this climb is.”

Not much happening now, particularly as regards my Internet feed.  This has been the worst race ever for live Internet video.  I’ve got the British feed on one computer, with a picture so bad it looks like it’s finger-painted by a small child, and it freezes up constantly.  Then I’ve got a French-language feed, muted, on another PC with a separate Internet feed, and it’s a nice big, clear picture but it halts so often my coverage is more like a slide show.  On the plus side, I enjoy the French ads, particularly the ones for food or beverages, which all carry a public service announcement at the bottom (this one translates, “For your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables per day”).

So the big news so far today:  one-time race favorite Alberto Contadar (Tinkoff Team) has dropped out due to injuries suffered in back-to-back crashes in two early stages. 

With 43 km to go (that’s right, I missed 7 km futzing with my feeds), two riders are off the front of a huge breakaway:  Jerome Coppel (IAM Cycling) and Tsgabu Grmay (Lampre-Merida).  Grmay is an interesting rider:  he’s Ethopian (the first from his country ever to ride the Tour), and he has a most interesting name.  In Ethopia, your last name is always your father’s first name.  And how did his father get his name?  His father invented it in a bid to use up all has Scrabble tiles.  They have strange house rules over there.  (Okay, the Scrabble thing is speculation.  But it’s true about the first/last name thing.)

So anyhow, this duo has a bit of a gap on this giant breakaway numbering almost 20 guys.  The only GC hopeful in that group is Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), though actually Pinot became a Tour hopeless with some very poor riding in the early stages.  So poor, in fact, that he has declared his season “over.”  I didn’t make that up.  I think the guy is a bit of a head case, honestly.

Interestingly, the term “Tour hopeful” has become synonymous with the term “Tour dopeful.”  I’m referring, of course, to Team Sky, which has put on their typical display of dominance, with an absurd number of riders taking the front on all the steepest climbs.  They did it yesterday, and they’re doing it again today.

To the credit of Team Sky’s leader, Chris Froome, I’ll say that he’s in yellow today because of his descending, not his doping.  (I don’t think they have a syringe for descending yet, unless it’s something old-school like amphetamine.  My teenage daughter, cynical beyond her years, has pointed out that Froome does have the physique of a meth-head.)  He took off just after the summit of the final climb yesterday and descended like a maniac, holding off the (albeit lackluster) chase to win by 13 seconds and pick up a 10-second time bonus.  Why did he bother?  First, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Team) had been dropped on the climb and I suspect Froome wanted to make sure the GC group didn’t play it too safe on the final descent and give Contador a chance to cut his losses.  And why was the chase lackluster?  I’d guess that other favorites like Nairo Quintana (Movistar team) and Tejay van Gardaren (BMC Racing Team) are fine giving up a couple dozen seconds when this forces Team Sky to defend the yellow jersey for two whole weeks.

Returning to today’s stage, the leading two riders have been absorbed by the disposable diaper of the breakaway.  Do you like my metaphor?  It’s better than some of the hackneyed ones you’d have to hear from the TV coverage.  The one I’m getting sick of is “so-and-so makes his way to the front and begins injecting pace.”  Can we not use “inject,” please?  I’m trying to pretend the sport has cleaned up.

Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) has dropped the others and is making his lone, useless way up the climb.  With 35 km to go, the leaders are on the Category 1 Col de Beixalis.  This is a short climb but has some seriously steep pitches, like 17-18%.  If you’re not a cycling aficionado and don’t grasp what 17-18% means, imagine you’re driving up one of those crazy steep hills in San Francisco and your friend’s girlfriend gasps and asks to take a different route, fearing the car will begin sliding down the hill backwards.  That’s the kind of grade we’re talking about here.

My video feed has stabilized but I’m still hunting for some audio.  The freezing has stopped but it’s some dirtbag announcer I’ve never heard before, a second-string would-be game show host who is somehow sucking all the excitement out of this race.  I’ve got to look for a better feed.

De Gendt is now overtaken by the breakaway and he’s going backwards.  He looks at the cameraman with a look that says, “Stop filming me you bastard.”  I get that look from my teenager a lot.

Froome is riding oval chainrings.  Is there anything I like about this guy?  Look, I’ll go ahead and admit that I thought his move yesterday was pretty cool, particularly if I decide to believe that it was his idea and not just a clever instruction over his radio.  Certainly his aerodynamic tuck was one of the ugliest in cycling’s history, particularly when he pedaled while sitting on the top tube, but it was inarguably effective.  It would still be a stretch to say I was developing a grudging respect for Froome, but perhaps the earliest stages of this respect-building process were starting to be laid down.  Think “terraforming on Mars” and you’ll get an idea for the massive scale of such a project.

But anyway, that was before I read an interview with him about a 200 Swiss franc fine he was slapped with for decking a spectator.  I saw the video replay of it and don’t have a problem with his action, because the spectator was way too far out in the road.  Bernard Hinault, one of my heroes, would have done the same thing.  But in justifying his action, Froome said, “Nothing against the Colombian fans, I think they’re fantastic and bring a great atmosphere to the race.  But this guy in particular was running right next to my handlebars that had a flag that was flying behind him.”  Why bring up the guy’s nationality at all?  Why pretend to have nothing against Colombian fans while bothering to inform the world that this dirtbag fan was Colombian?  Like I’ve said before:  Froome, man, get some class.

The huge number of nobodies in this breakaway is making the race pretty boring right now.  Somebody is going for KOM points.  I think it’s George Bennett (Team LottoNL-Jumbo), whom I’ve never heard of.  He’s duking it out with Pinot.  That’s nice, but I don’t care about the KOM and I can’t get excited about either of their stage win prospects this far from the finish.

Pinot is first to the summit with Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana Pro Team) not far behind.  The breakaway has pretty much detonated now and most—probably all—of these guys will be vacuumed up by the GC group despite the 8-minute lead they have with 27 km to go. 

I’ll take the opportunity, during this boring descent, to fill you in on some other Tour highlights.  Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is back on great form, after (oddly enough) focusing on track races this year, and has won three stages.  He even earned his first-ever yellow jersey, which set up a touching moment of dramatic irony.  Being interviewed after winning the first stage, before the podium ceremony, he was bored and tired and had nothing much to say other than running a few macros (e.g., “My team is putting 50,000 Africans on bicycles”), and then his little daughter crawled into his lap and he turned his attention entirely to her, saying, “Daddy won today, and you know what you get when Daddy wins?”  His darling daughter replied, “Flowers.”  He said, “That’s right,” but didn’t seem to grasp that this time she would also receive a stuffed lion.  So neither of these two were even aware of how totally stoked they were about to be—but we, the viewers, were well aware of it.  That’s what dramatic irony is, and recovering English majors like me just love that shit. 

In other news, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff Team) has the ugliest helmet in the race and won a stage.  

Sky is still swarming the front as the GC group clears this summit.

Another early stage incident to recap:  you know the giant flame rouge, which would be a banner across the road indicating 1 km to go, except this is a grand tour where everything is fancy so it’s a giant inflated tube, leveraging bouncy-house technology?  Well, apparently somebody tripped on the cord and the damn thing collapsed just as the peloton was approaching it, which caused chaos and a pretty bad crash, with the current best young rider, Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange), getting a nasty scrape on his chin.

Returning to today’s action, the remaining guys from the breakaway are sprinting across the flat section, attacking each other like it’s a fricking criterium, before the final climb as though that could possibly make sense.  Positioning is nothing when it’s an HC climb.  I once stopped for like two minutes at the base of Alpe d’Huez to get some food and Coke, letting a group of like ten guys ride off into the sunset, because I figured they were all going to shell me anyway.  Is it any different for this human shrapnel that was once a breakaway?  I think not.  They’re mostly as doomed as I was (despite their lead over the GC group holding at 8 minutes) and should just stick together to the climb instead of pretending this is a tactical “chess game on wheels.”  (Another stupid clichĂ©.  I’m glad cycling is never quite boring enough to be legitimately compared to a chess game.)

On the front now we have Rafal Majka (Tinkoff Team), who is a great rider but somehow isn’t in the top 20 on the GC this year, joined by Sanchez.  They’ve got 15 km to go but 10 km of those are uphill at an average gradient of 7.2%.

Wilco Kelderman (Team LottoNL-Jumbo), one of the breakaway guys (I think), has a flat tire.  I wonder if he’s riding Hutchinson tires.  My daughter’s Hutchinson came apart yesterday, the bead separating from the casing, and I had to call my wife and have her drive out and pick her up.  Don’t ride those … seriously.

Tom Dumoulin (Team Giant-Alpecin) is leading the race, which is a bit odd because he’s a time trialist (and, to an increasing extent, an all-rounder), not a climber.  By bike racer standards he’s a great big burly man, and I credit his exceptional riding to his size.  Just like a big guy can hold his alcohol better, big guys can absorb more pain on the bike.  The sport would be well served by having more guys like Dumoulin in it.  He’s also got a full head of hair, unlike Froome, who is not only bald but has those weird wrinkles on the back of his neck like one of those ugly pug dogs (or naked mole rats) some people seem to love.  Speaking of hair, as recently as a couple decades ago Dumoulin would have need a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for his Alpecin shampoo, which is caffeinated.  But caffeine is no longer regulated.  I wonder how much caffeine you can actually absorb through your scalp—which leads me to another thought I’ve been having.  Often, you’ll see spectators handing up water bottles to the racers.  No racer with any brains would drink anything a spectator gave him, but they do pour these bottles over their heads if it’s a hot stage.  So why not spike a bottle of water with some banned substance, and add some DMSO for good measure?  (DMSO is the solvent American football players use to chase crushed aspirin into their ruined knees so they can keep playing.)  An evil fan could make a rider test positive!  Why am I entertaining such dark thoughts?  I guess I’m still sore after getting a serious tongue-lashing from a UCSF official after spraying a racer with water during a criterium on a hot day back in 1986.

Amazingly, the gap to the GC group has gone up to 9:14, with Dumoulin still off the front solo.  And now a rider hits a spectator!  It’s Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18), who tried to avoid the guy (who was way too far out into the road) but slammed him with his shoulder and came this close to going down.  It was an impressive display of bike-handling skills.  The spectator was knocked flat—look closely and you’ll see him on the ground in this photo, on the left end of the zebra crossing.  (No, I’m not going to tell you the nationality of the spectator.  You can tweet Froome later and find out.)

Dumoulin is still hammering away solo on the front, with just 7 km to go.  The remaining guys from the breakaway will surely stay away now, with 9:30 in the bag, but will Dumoulin be able to hold off Majka, Pinot, and now Rui Alberto Faria Da Costa (Lampre-Merida) who is attacking?  Perhaps.

Wow, Pinot detonates!  He’s rocking on the bars and his head is down and he’s cooked.  What is Dumoulin’s time gap?  This is getting exciting!  And now the road is wet and there’s a proper storm brewing!  Daniel Navarro Garcia (Cofidis) materializes out of nowhere—who is this guy?—and I think he’s a contender now, working well with Majka to try to reel in Dumoulin. 

Now hail is coming down!  They’re showing the finish line and the weather is just awful up there.  Just 6 km to go now.

So some Movistar guy and an FDJ are driving along together but I think they’re off the back.  Forget them, they’re dead to us.

Back in the peloton, Sky are still well represented with at least four guys.

I think Dumoulin has like 30 seconds on Majka and Da Costa.  He’s got just 4km to go.

The grade has eased to 4-5% so he may yet hang onto this, being a time trialist and all.  I’d love to see it.

Back in the peloton, a Sky dude attacks!  I think it’s Sergio Luis Henao.  But he’s dragged back.  And now Froome attacks, and Quintana is right on him!  Porte is trying to bridge up!  This is so gloriously awfully brutal!  It looks like Porte has got them, and now he counterattacks!  Man, he’s really looking good.  And now Dan Martin comes from behind and attacks!  It’s like when everybody attacked Lance on Alpe d’Huez in the 2003 Tour!

Dumoulin is really suffering, his cadence grinding down, but he’s still got 42 seconds on Majka and Da Costa!  I’m using an exclamation point because I’m excited!  And my daughter, watching alongside, questions my use of the exclamation point!  She says I’m abusing the power of it!  But I don’t care!  And now Porte attacks again!  And amazingly, Froome has lost all his henchmen!

Tom Dumoulin is under the Flamme Rouge, and it’s staying inflated for now!  I’m going to use an exclamation point on every sentence now, because all these guys are such heroes, drilling it in such foul weather, and also to spleen my daughter!  Yay!

Look at Porte, man!  He’s on the high-test shit today!  He’s really putting the wood to Froomestrong!  And now, who’s this attacking, some guy in a white jersey, I have no idea who, and he’s taking his turn at battling Froome!  It’s Yates, of the scraped chin!  How does he even shave?!

Dumoulin has got this!  He approaches the line!   He drops his sunglasses on the road—his mom will be furious!  That’s the third pair this year!

Dumoulin gets the win!

Does he look like he’s about to cry?  Yes.  Would I be crying in that circumstance?  Hells yeah!  I’d be crying if I were a spectator at this race!

Da Costa dukes it out with Majka for second.  Majka is content with third, I suppose.  More than that he’ll be content to climb into a warm team van and drink about a gallon of cocoa.

Da Costa approaches the line, looking suitably miserable.  So, you know baseball, the great American pastime?  Those guys have big paunches, and when it so much as rains, the game is canceled.  Bedwetters, all.

I haven’t seen Tejay Van Garderen at all.  He didn’t fare too well in the rain in the Tour de Suisse recently … I guess I can’t blame him.

Dan Martin is just macking it on the front, Froome et al tucked in behind.  Sure enough, TVG is not in this group.  This gives the team leadership to Porte, even though he lost almost two minutes to an untimely puncture in an early stage.  BMC is officially adrift in this Tour.

The GC group is now down to Porte, Quintana, Yates, and Martin (who is now struggling to keep up).  Yates attacks!  Unbelievable!  He’s a real upstart, wearing the white jersey of the best young rider.  Yates holds it all the way to the line!  What a badass! 

Here comes Tejay, who has lost at least a minute or so.  A pity…

Here’s the top 10 for the stage:

So, the number of real GC contenders has shrunk again today, with Quintna and Martin the only real challengers left after this stage (though AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet still has an outside chance, I suppose).  Contador has abandoned, Fabian Aru (Astana Pro Team) was dropped today, and Tejay, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Pro Team) was nowhere to be seen, and Porte was pretty far behind going into the stage.  Pinot takes the KOM jersey, but is over 15 minutes off the back in the GC.  Yates hangs on to the white jersey and his chin is healing nicely.

I am very happy to see Froome failing to increase his lead on this brutal stage, and I’m particularly pleased with how the Sky domestiques folded up a bit at the end, as their Postal-esque dominance is a blight on the sport.  Maybe they’ll continue to fade and we might have a real race here.  But then, whom am I kidding?  Tomorrow’s a rest day, and that means blood bags.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ask Dr. Chocolate

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and instances of grossness.

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

In the spirit of DIY, I’m going to make my own candy!  Do you have any pointers for the adventurous novice chocolatier?

Sandra M, Cheney, WA

Dear Sandy,

Don’t do it.  You might be a great cook, and heck, you might even be a great baker, but candy is really, really hard.  Just go buy some.  Seriously.

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

In a letter years ago, you said some very harsh things about carob.  In fact, if I remember correctly, you described it the way religious people write about Hell, or the way Berkeley liberals (i.e., Berkeley residents) talk about Trump.  Why?

Mark Hodges
Berkeley, CA

Dear Mark,

The problem with carob is that you don’t see it coming.  If I had my way, the FDA would require carob-infested products to glow bright green, like antifreeze, as a warning.  When I was a kid, my dad’s girlfriend made a batch of what she called “hypoglycemic fudge,” only she didn’t tell us that up front.  She just served it.  Slicing off a giant wedge, I found the consistency to be perfect under the knife.  My mouth was actually watering as I took a large bite.  Tooth-feel was exquisite and for a fraction of a second I thought it was perfect fudge—but then the flavor hit my tongue.  I couldn’t have been more stunned if it had been made with dog shit.  But I had to pretend to like it.  Carob is so bitter, and so was I.

Carob is one of those substitutes that falls so far short, it just reminds you what you’re missing.  It belongs in the Hall of Shame with such villainous products as microwave popcorn, Tang, Velveeta, powdered milk, soy cheese, and Tofutti.

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

Your syndicated column covers all kinds of candy, from caramels to fruit chews to chocolate fudge.  Why not call yourself Dr. Candy?

Louise R, Tempe, AZ

Dear Louise,

It’s simply because my last name really is Chocolate.  It has nothing to do with “Dr. Chocolate” having a nice ring to it, or with “Candy” sounding like the name of a porn star.  And no, I’m not kidding about my last name.  It’s right there on my birth certificate (though it’s spelled A-L-B-E-R-T).

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

I’m thinking it would be really fun to make homemade fudge with my teenage daughter!  Do you have a good recipe to share?

Emily M, Anaheim, CA

Dear Emily,

I get so many letters asking for recipes, I feel like I have to answer at least a few of them—but  as I’ve said before, just don’t do it!  It’s fine to try your hand at a soufflĂ© or at brewing your own beer, but candy is hard—really hard.  I know this from bitter experience:  as a teenager, I tried to make divinity with my brother.  In the process we invented a new kind of plastic.  The cooking pot actually had to be thrown away.  My mom was livid.

Now, if you’re bound and determined to do this, you’re on the right track asking for a recipe.  No, I won’t provide one—I refuse to get involved in your doomed effort—but I will steer you toward a good source.  Go see if “Real Simple” online has a recipe, because I used to get that magazine and once found a recipe for ice cream sandwiches (look, here it is now!).  Just three ingredients (ice cream, cookies, and toppings), and one easy step.  That’s the kind of recipe you want.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the recipe for “Fudge Cockaigne” in The Joy of Cooking.  My teenage daughter made that—or, rather, a failed approximation of that—today.  (Did I help?  No—I refused, even when she was totally underwater and begging for assistance.)  Check out this instruction:  “When nearing 234 degrees, there is a fine overall bubbling with, simultaneously, a coarser pattern, as though the fine bubbled areas were being pulled down for quilting into the coarser ones.”  Are you kidding me?  What’s amazing is that my daughter read the recipe first, three times over, but instead of running screaming from the room, she shrugged and thought, “How hard could it be?”

The answer?  Very hard.  Look at the sludge she came up with, $12 in ingredients and two hours later:

Actually, you know what?  Go for it.  Make Fudge Cockaigne with your daughter.  Destroy a perfectly good cooking pot in the process.  Consider your kitchen a microcosm for the doomed, futile world we’re stuck in.  Teach your daughter to give up on her big ideas—might as well get that over with.  All is vanity.  The center cannot hold.

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

I’ve heard some great things about chocolate, such as its antioxidant qualities and the fact that it raises HDL.  Is this wishful thinking, or is there science behind it?

Tom G, Brooklyn, NY

Dear Timmy G,

If you look closely at any chocolate product, you’ll see this fine print:  “Purported benefits of chocolate have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.  This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Okay, you won’t see any such thing.  But while you’re looking at the fine print, check the ingredients to make sure you’re really eating chocolate, and nothing but chocolate.  You know what “natural flavors” means?  It basically means artificial flavors.  “Natural” means “not created in a test tube,” but it doesn’t mean your “chocolate” or “chocolate flavored” or “chocolaty” confection tastes like chocolate for the right reason (i.e., being actual chocolate).  If food scientists discover that giraffe semen imparts a chocolaty flavor, they can add it under the “natural flavor” label.  And as far as I know, giraffe semen isn’t an antioxidant.  So whatever the benefits of chocolate, don’t forget that it contains sugar and fat and often a whole lot of other crap that certainly isn’t good for your health.

(Okay, I don’t know that giraffe semen is actually used for flavoring.  But vanillan, often found in “chocolate” products, can be made from wood pulp, creosote, and even cow dung, which would qualify as a “natural” flavor.  Vanillan is also commonly biosynthesized.  Yum!)

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

I read an article about this stoner-type college dropout who, after an epiphany on a ski lift, decided to become a chocolatier (even though he had never liked chocolate), and with some cash from his mother and his uncle, he started a chocolate company called Dagoba that was eventually bought out by Hershey so now he’s rich.  So candy must be pretty easy to make!  Why wouldn’t I give it a try?

Mark R, Grand Junction, CO

Dear Mark,

Go for it.  Just don’t bring my name into it.  And you might take a lesson from the Dagoba guy, who made his first batch by “melt[ing] two batches of organic chocolate,infusing one with milk chai, the other with raspberries and rose hips.”  That is to say, one of the ingredients in his candy was:  candy.  See?  He was following the “Real Simple” model!  So as you go into business “making” candy, try to find the right balance between food science and marketing.

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

Why can’t we have more candy?  It’ll get us out of your hair and stop our petty sibling feuds, and as an added bonus, it will slowly poison us so that you eventually won’t have to deal with us anymore.  From a logical standpoint, the answer to your child-rearing problems seems obvious.  I trust you will take the reasonable course of action and we will be seeing some serious changes in your parenting style soon.

A.A., Albany, CA

Dear “A.A.”,

I told you not to bother me when I’m working!  And I’m not in a very charitable mood right now after your disastrous experiment with the Fudge Cockaigne.  I told you I wanted a forensic level of kitchen cleanup, and the floor in there still looks like a dog had diarrhea on it.  Now get back in there and finish cleaning!

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

What is the deal with white chocolate, anyway?

Martin S, Saratoga, CA

Dear Martin,

It’s a lot of B.S., if you ask me.  It’s not chocolate—not really.  It doesn’t have any actual cocoa, just “cocoa butter,” that fatty stuff they make lotion and ointment out of.  White chocolate is to actual chocolate what Red Vines are to real licorice.

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

Please help—my husband is driving me crazy!  He’s always buying this fancy-pants dark chocolate and with every new kind he finds, the percentage of cacao is higher and he’s that much more sanctimonious about it.  I don’t even enjoy eating it anymore—the bitter crap he’s bringing home is like what my mom used to bake with.  If an authority figure like you stuck up for traditional chocolate, that might finally sway him.

Linda S, Austin, TX

Dear Linda,

I won’t go on record supporting milk chocolate, which I don’t care for, but you’re exactly right—there’s a point of diminishing returns as chocolate goes too far upscale.  You start seeing added stuff like cayenne pepper or bacon bits or 18-karat gold thread or whatever and it becomes absurd.  Remind your husband that chocolate is a candy, not a pissing contest.  And then buy your own chocolate because he’s not going to listen to you.

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

I’m halfway into making vanilla taffy for the first time, and this recipe is telling me to pour the molten candy mixture onto a marble slab.  I don’t have a marble slab!  What can I use in a pinch?  Please reply soon!

Leyla A, Seattle, WA

Dear Leyla,

I guess you’re new to my column!  Who told you making taffy was a good idea?  My advice is to pour that onto something smooth and slick but also expendable, like the glossy cover of an old copy of “Real Simple.”  And then throw it away.

Dear Dr. Chocolate,

There’s this one episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” where Mr. Rogers has this cotton candy machine, and this chef stops by to make some cotton candy.  There’s some really intense Alpha Dog stuff going on there, a simmering duel of one-upmanship lurking just beneath the politeness.  Definitely worth watching.  Check it out in the archives!

Sean L, Arlington, VA

Dear Sean,


Dear Dr. Chocolate,

Screw it, I’m going to See’s.  I know that’s not a question.  I just thought you might want to know.

A.A., Albany, CA

Dear A.A.,

Be sure to bring your house key.  And pick me up a couple of Toffee-Ettes.

Dr. Chocolate is a syndicated columnist whose advice column, “Ask Dr. Chocolate,” appears in over 400 blogs worldwide.

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

From the Archives - How Not To Go on a Date


Once again, I find myself with nothing to write.  (Actually, plenty to write but no time.)  And so, I offer you this glimpse into the embarrassing life of my younger self.  This true story from my archives is from almost 28 years ago.  Perhaps in another 28 years I’ll look back this sheepishly at my current self.

How Not To Go On A Date – November 19, 1988

Right off the bat, I don’t consider myself to be an expert at dating.  In fact, if you know me well, you’re probably thinking that this story will chronicle another personal blunder, social faux-pas, and/or abject humiliation.  But actually, there is one person on the UC Santa Barbara campus more inept than I.  And naturally, she’s the one I ended up asking out.

I sort of met her by proxy a couple of weeks ago in the La Loma parking lot, of all places.  See, my roommate T—, from Ethiopia, often recites little sayings from his knowledgeable uncle, and on this night, after a scrumptious meal, he quoted, “After lunch, rest awhile, after dinner, walk a mile.”  So we went for a walk, and as soon as we reached the parking lot, these girls came stumbling down the stairs from the second level.  One was holding up her friend, who was outrageously, pathetically, disgracefully drunk.  It was a vexing sight, as neither my roommate nor I felt like assisting the girls, but feared a life-threatening accident otherwise and couldn’t just stand idly by.

It appeared that the sober girl of the duo was also helpless, not due to alcohol but to lack of common sense.  She had taken her friends to a party, and locked herself out of her dorm room in the process.  She knew she could get her dorm key from her roommate Cindy, and was supposed to meet her at The Graduate, a local dance club, but couldn’t leave her drunk friend behind and found her too unwieldy to bring over there.  So she sent me there instead.  This was certainly a novel mission—as you may know, I don’t dance—so I figured what the hell.

Somehow, I managed to find Cindy in the mobbed dance club.  That’s really saying something, because most of these college girls look more or less alike.  Okay, I guess that’s not fair, but it wasn’t like Cindy was seven feet tall, or bald, or had any particularly distinct characteristics.  She turned out to be very attractive, but that’s not really distinctive around here.  (God bless this place.)

I might have overstated to Cindy how drunk her roommate’s friend was, and how much danger she was in, or maybe Cindy was just a good friend ... whatever the case, after only 15 or 20 more minutes of dancing she agreed to head out with me.  (It could be that my horrific attempts at dancing spoiled her appetite for it.)  In fact, in the interests of time, she agreed to ride on the handlebars of my bike.  Now, this kind of thing goes on all the time around here so it wasn’t like romantic or anything.  Nevertheless, this kind of thing doesn’t go on with my bike and my handlebars very often, so I was actually pretty stoked. Frankly, there are a whole lot of things going on around here I don’t personally get to enjoy.  I guess it doesn’t help that I have no poise at all when it comes to females of the opposite sex, and that I look like I’m about fifteen years old.

And yet, surfing the exhilaration of having ridden this cute girl on my bike, I was feeling bolder than usual, and got her phone number.  At least, I hoped it was really her phone number.

(Did everything come out okay with the drunken friend?  I never learned and honestly didn’t really care.  I mean, here I’d met a good-looking chick, and I got her phone number!  The roommate and drunken friend were no longer relevant.  Their minor role in my life had run its course.)

I ended up needing to call that phone number the very next week.  Not like I was suddenly really desperate for female companionship or anything; after all, I’d flown solo most of my life to that point and was resigned to it.  But I really wanted to see a movie that was playing on campus, “A Fish Called Wanda” (two thumbs up from Siskel & Ebert), and I didn’t have anybody to see it with.  The 7:00 showing wouldn’t end until like 9, which ran up too close to my roommate S—’s bedtime.  Meanwhile, T— had seen the movie already and didn’t like it (but I disregarded his critical review after hearing that he liked “Coming to America,” which looked so bad I wouldn’t even rent it, especially since I don’t have a TV or VCR). 

Now, I’ve never gone to a movie by myself in my life and wasn’t about to start, so I was determined to get somebody to join me.  But the sad fact is, though I’ve lived here for three months, I haven’t made any real friends other than my roommates, and I can’t just ask some random guy to go to the movies with me because he’d get the wrong idea.  But it’s never the wrong idea with a girl—there’s no such thing—so I figured there was no harm in asking one, other than getting turned down of course.

Over the last couple months I’d felt that I’d really hit it off with this fly Norwegian girl at La Loma, and two weeks ago I’d have asked her, but it turns out she has this boyfriend she’d never told me about, and he’s a former Marine.  I learned this when I knocked on her door and he answered.  I was just standing there like an idiot, like, “Hey, I just came to ask your girlfriend out.  You wanna come too?”  He looked pretty pissed.  So I couldn’t call her! 

There’s a girl in my French class, Leigh, but I can’t ask her right now.  She’s kind of odd:  if I pay much attention to her, she suddenly gets kind of cool toward me, and it’s only when I ignore her that she’s suddenly friendly again, and I’m in the wrong part of the cycle at the moment.  A week or so ago I called this girl Monica but she never called me back, so she’s banned for life.  So I was left with no other option than to find out once and for all if Cindy, the girl from the nightclub, had given me her actual phone number.  One promising sign was that the number she gave wasn’t 867-5309.  (As you can see, I have a rather lousy track record with girls.  But I never false-start!) 

I considered calling Cindy on the same day as the movie, to make it seem really casual, and to soften the blow of the inevitable rejection by giving her an easy excuse to beg off.  But in my (albeit limited) experience these dorm freshmen don’t do anything spontaneously unless it’s being herded along in packs by whatever dorm pal has the most charisma or social status.  (These dorm types mainly travel in packs.)  But I figured if I called ahead and made an actual appointment I might just have a shot.  So I called on a Thursday to propose the Monday show.  (God, you’d think I was planning a transcontinental voyage given how much forethought I’d put into this stupid movie.)

Eureka!  The phone number was legit, and Cindy answered, and even seemed to remember who I was, and believe it or not she seemed really excited about seeing the movie with me.

Well, on Monday, she called me up, and asked if it was okay if a couple of her friends came along.  Oh, boy, that’s just swell.  As if it’s not hard enough for a social retard like me to deal with a girl one-on-one.  At least if we’re both strangers, she’s as nervous as I am, so we can relate on that level.  But once she brings her friends along, they’re a society and I’m the outsider scratching on the door, hoping to be let in, while she and her friends are probably getting a little kick out of watching me squirm.  Like roasting me alive on a rotisserie while making snide comments to each other about how bad my flesh stinks when it burns.

First-date rule #1:  do not do anything to cause social trauma

Cindy’s question really put me on the spot.  I couldn’t really say no, but was suddenly feeling too grumpy to feign enthusiasm.  “Well, uh . . .” I said, waiting for her to fill in the blanks with, “Oh, it was just a suggestion.  If you’d rather not, I’ll just forget them for tonight, for once in my life.”  Instead, there was just dead air over the phone.  Finally I said, “That’s really not what I had in mind.”  Believe me, I’m wincing as much at recalling that as you are at reading it.  In fact, I immediately wished I could rescind that comment.  It sounded so stiff, and lame, and actually just a tiny bit creepy.

So I backpedaled a bit.  And once the initial shock of her request had worn off, I decided it kind of made sense, since we were going to the 9:00 show, it would be dark, she hardly knew me, and the “date rape” scare is in full force on the UCSB campus.  I also considered that if she brought along two girlfriends, that tripled my chances of hitting it off with at least one of them.  Besides, with her two friends along, I wouldn’t even have to think about paying for Cindy; even at $3 a ticket, economics are an important consideration.

We agreed to meet at the theater.  When I got there, there were two incredibly long lines stretching from Campbell Hall almost all the way to Cheadle.  The problem was, I couldn’t really remember what Cindy looked like, and I figured it would be awkward walking the length of the lines seeing if any face looked familiar.  It would be a bit like going door-to-door asking, “Are you Cindy?  Are you Cindy?”  So I got in line, hoping I’d look familiar to her.  Otherwise, the whole damn scenario would collapse under its own weight. 

Eventually a familiar-looking girl showed up and seemed to recognize me, so I decided she was Cindy.  She was with a friend whom she introduced as Annie.  (I think a prerequisite to living in the girls’ dorms is having a name with an “ee” sound tacked on, so that when you’re close friends, you can leave it off, as in “Hey Barb.”) 

Annie was a real doll, let me tell you. 

First-date rule #2:  do not show up with a better-looking friend

I was trying to decide if I should shift my attention to Annie (who, after all, I knew every bit as well as Cindy) and whether this would mean I was a bad person, when I noticed that Cindy was holding about forty bucks cash.  “Let’s see, I’m paying for Cathy, Marcie, Tracy, Annie, Chip, and Aaron,” she said.  Ooh, Chip and Aaron — instant problem here.

First-date rule #3:  do not bring opposite-sex friends with you on your date

I really didn’t feel like locking horns or fluffing my plumage to compete with these guys.  So I decided to do something really sly, which I’d first experimented with last week in French class.  As I mentioned before, I’d been accidentally giving Leigh too much attention, so in response she was getting all flirty with David, this surfer dude who always wears a visor to pile his hair on.  He also wears Lycra tights sometimes.  To class. (Yes, I confess I’m feeling just a tiny bit competitive here.)  If Leigh had been completely ignoring me, I’d assume she’d forgotten about me or was just really into Dave.  But she’d give me a quick glance every now and then, maybe to see if I looked jealous (or was I just flattering myself?).  So I walked up to the two of them, calculating that she’d think I was going to try to cut in on their conversation and chat her up, which was half true, but instead I whisked Dave away to ask him about the crew team.  (He’s been trying to recruit me so I knew this would work.)  He suddenly seemed to forget all about her, and I pretended to as well, and who knows, maybe I’ll actually go out for crew.

So, with this episode fresh in my mind (to be honest, in my measly little world I counted it as a major triumph), I decided to try the friendly guy thing again.  I looked Chip in the eye, shook his hand vigorously, and said, “Well, Chip, damn glad to meet you.”  Either he’s a nice guy or was working the same strategy because he didn’t laugh in my face.  Hopefully, this planted a seed of fear in the girls that we would abandon them for some more meaningful male bonding later in the evening.  If not, at least I didn’t let her see me sweat.

The movie had drawn a huge crowd, so we were waiting in line for about twenty minutes. While we waited, Cindy talked with her friend about her photography class, glancing towards me only every so often and making no effort to include me in the conversation. 

First-date rule #5:  do not make your date feel like an idiot

Cindy explained to Annie that she hated her photography teacher, who wanted her students to take pictures of “nature”, and exhorted them to create “art” through photography.  “I hate nature!  I hate art!” she said.  What would you rather take pictures of, Cindy?  Your BMW?  Give me a break! 

Suddenly one of the “scouts” returned with his report.  “They aren’t sold out, but it’s pretty full — we might not all get to sit together!” he cried.  I wanted desperately to clap my hand to my forehead and shout, “Oh no!  That’s terrible!” but I thought better of it and kept my mouth shut.  The truth was, I didn’t care if I ever saw any of these people again; forget about watching a movie with them.  “Maybe we should come back for the 11:00 show,” said Cindy.  “Uh, I’ve got a French test tomorrow, so I don’t want to do that,” I said.  At this point, she should’ve said, “Well, why don’t we just see it together then, and not worry about my friends.”  But of course, she didn’t. 

First-date rule #6:  assume you’ll only get this one chance to behave yourself

Nothing was resolved until we got to the ticket counter.  I asked the guy if they still had tickets to the 9:00, and he said yeah.  Since I had spent all this time in line, I was going to see this movie come hell or high water.  I bought a ticket, and then waited for Cindy to buy hers.  She just stood there, paralyzed with indecision.  She kept looking at me, and then her friends (who were babbling amongst themselves, seemingly unaware of her existence).

First-date rule #7:  don’t compare humans as you would grocery shelf commodities

Finally she said, “I think I’d better wait and go with my friends.”

First-date rule #8:  never, ever abandon your date

It’s bad enough to getting stood up for a date; getting stood up during a date is a fate undeserving of even the most boring or offensive companion.  I said, “Well, maybe we can try this again sometime, like when a lousy movie is showing and they can seat your entire dorm.”  I wanted to add, “or maybe when you grow up a little,” but I didn’t have quite enough nerve. 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie by myself before.  Actually, it was kind of nice because I didn’t have to pay attention to anything but the film.  Nobody was saying, “Oh, I love this part.  Check the expression on this guy’s face when....”  I also didn’t have to worry about a companion being offended or bored by a movie that I picked out.  Perhaps the best part was that nobody attempted to sum up the whole theme of the movie as we left the theatre.  Nothing ruins the cinematic experience like some schmuck philosophizing about the inner meaning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “The Terminator.”  Before the movie even started, I was already enjoying myself, listening into various conservations so as to gain insight into the UCSB student’s mindset:  “Gosh, your hair looks redder than usual,”/”Yeah, I know, I had it reddened.  You should see it in the sun,” or “And then, like, Barbie’s boyfriend starts hitting on Christy, and I’m like, no way!”

Still, I was still a bit disappointed with my evening.  I don’t get to go out on dates very often, and I’d looked forward to this one.  (You’d think I’d learn never to get my hopes up, but I guess I have a stubborn, misguided hopeful streak.)  I can’t imagine when I’ll get another chance to go on a date.  Where do you ask a girl out if you don’t have a car?  Walking limits you to Isla Vista, which is a great place to pass out drunk in the street, but not conducive to a romantic evening out.

I guess there’s always coffee.  People are always recommending that for a first date:  simple, cheap, low-stress ... heck, maybe a girl could find a coffee shop such a safe environment she wouldn’t even need reinforcements.  The problem is, I don’t like coffee. 

Even so, in an effort to salvage my self-esteem after the terrible aborted date with Cindy, I put my tastes behind me and the next day I asked Leigh out for coffee.  It went okay, I guess, but it was so low-key it almost felt like it didn’t happen.  I mean, we might as well have still been in French class or something, especially since neither of us actually bought a beverage of any kind.  Even so, afterwards Leigh said, “Thanks for coffee.”  I guess going for coffee refers to the coffee shop, not the beverage.  Maybe I’ll figure all this out by the time I graduate.

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