Friday, May 18, 2018

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


Introduction

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Beer Pix - Pure Beck’sting Satisfaction


NOTE: This post is rated R for alcohol references, mild strong language, and an obscene gesture.

Introduction

As I’ve noted before, people seem to really love photos of beer. Once in a while I forget to turn Location Services off on my phone before Beck’sting, and Google Maps asks if I want to add my Beck’st to their giant consumer-facing photo library. As a result, this chance photo of one of my beers has been viewed almost ten thousand times to date, dwarfing the popularity of the blog posts I slave over:


What, what did you just ask? “What’s Beck’sting?” You mean you haven’t heard of Beck’sting? Well, click here for the full scoop. It’s a tiny bit like Frexting, except that men tastefully send photos of their beer instead of themselves. Not only has this global phenomenon totally outpaced Frexting, but if you google “is frexting still a thing?” you’ll find my groundbreaking Beck’sting post on the first page of results.

So, to slake my readers’ likely thirst for beer photos, I’ve decided to share some highlights from the hundreds of Beck’sts I’ve exchanged with three friends and one of my brothers over the years. I’ve grouped most of these thematically. Since a Beck’st isn’t just a photo, but a photo with a caption and/or commentary, I’ve included that too, and the initials of the Beck’ster. Where you see one letter only (e.g., “T—”) that’s generally somebody’s spouse.


Lakeside Beck’st

JL: I took this at a party last night. A colleague of W—’s just bought a house on Cayuga lake, turned 70 and had a kidney transplant, so it was party time!


DA: When you’re getting ready to party hard, it’s always good to start with a fresh kidney, especially when you’re super old! Really great photo ... makes me want to crack open an Anchor and then not jump into the lake!

Paying the rent

DA: “Paying the rent” while I blog at The Pub. Coaster notwithstanding, this is a Racer 5.


JL: That’s not a pub, that’s a library! Look at the green tint pull-chain lamp! Stop drinking in the library you degenerate!

Stemware

DA: Watching Paris-Roubaix at the chichi road bike shop. Don’t yet know what this beer is but it’s a Belgian style and very tasty...


DW: Nice looking beer...but, I have to say, I don’t like drinking beer in those glasses. Maybe it’s a Berkeley thing, because I noticed that’s what they served an IPA in at Fieldwork. Maybe that’s because I ordered from the wrong line though.

DA: Now, are you against all “stemware” or does it depend on the beer? The Chimay label shows a little picture specifying stemware for the beer. Seems kind of pretentious and wine-y (as in, what a wine person would do) but I’m fine with it. What I cannot abide are small glasses that hold half a beer. That drives me crazy.

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DW: This is a Snake River Pale Ale. We are in Dubois, WY. This little town is about 50mi east of the Tetons. I had one of these beers when I was here about 12 years ago and it was delicious...still is. You have to buy alcohol in this town at a drive-through window at the saloon. Press this little buzzer and the saloon gal will set you right. She is a gruff, tough, woman who somehow knew I’d been wearing Lycra earlier in the day … this showed in her attitude.


Cheers to you all - btw, my daughter bought me this pint glass. It says ‘Yellowstone’ on the other side. She understands what a proper beer glass is.

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DW: I had this at Pelican last week with some overpriced Fish & Chips. This is called the “Umbriaga Negra.” A Pacific Northwest version of the a Mexican dark lager, like Modelo or Dos Equis Dark. I was thrown by the name, Umbriaga, but checked in with T— and she told me it meant “drunk.” It was actually really good and the high ABV% and low IBU was a good combination for me. I asked the bartender if there was any stemware in the house for the Umbriaga and he looked at me, completely puzzled, then with scorn, and walked away. That’s him in the background looking into the ocean, searching for answers, doing some soul searching after I dropped the stemware question. He did not come back and ask if I’d like a refill; just kept looking at his watch and then at me.


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DA: Boulevard Tank 7 by Under the Sun Brewing in Boulder.


DA [later the same evening]: This is a Big Krane Kolsch. Fcuking off the chain! Good times, bitches!


DW: Finally...a decent picture of beers in a proper glass. I couldn’t even look at the other two wussy beers. Where are your lapdogs in the first pic?

Brotherly Beck’st

DA: This is a Mojo IPA from Boulder Brewing. Pretty yum! Note the reflection of my checkered napkin, and of course Evil Uncle B— in the background.


BA: Too bad your phone has such a tiny lens with such a small aperture, otherwise you’d be able to blur out the background a bit better!

DA: Actually, I was thinking the main flaw with this photo is that you’re so bald.

Deluxe/Getaway Beck’st

DA: Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA at a nice restaurant near Mendocino. Long weekend getaway, sans kids! Livin’ large!


Pliny the Elder

DW: This is a Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack IPA.


DW (continued): Damn good beer! There are only a few places in town that carry Barley Brown’s and it’s only on tap, kinda like Pliny the Elder. There is a big mystique about Pliny and people up here are very secretive about its whereabouts.

DA: I had Pliny the Elder a couple summers ago, at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa. We were meeting friends there, one of whom had formerly managed the Flamingo, or maybe just managed its restaurant, or maybe just its bar, or who knows, maybe he was just a bartender. (I hope I’m remembering this right and that he wasn’t just a bar patron.) The Flamingo didn’t have the Pliny on draft or anything; my pal had some of it up in his room at the hotel. That felt kind of creepy, going up to somebody’s room for a secret stash of beer, in a little cooler like a World Tour rider’s EPO or blood bags. Kind of felt a bit like scoring your black market beer on the mean streets. I suppose this should have added to the Pliny mystique, but the whole affair felt a bit squalid. Anyway, the Pliny tasted fine, but after all that build-up (believe me, the fact of my being real lucky to get this, and the size of my friend’s largesse, were well emphasized) it didn’t seem amazing or anything. Of course I would drink it again, but I’m not going to wax eloquent about its citrus or citra, or its hint of pine, its whiff of tobacco, or its meth-y malt. I wish beer descriptions weren’t going in the direction of wine descriptions but I guess that’s inevitable.

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DA: Here it is, gents! Pliny the Elder IPA! Like you said, Dan … rare, seasonal, kind of a big deal around here too. It tasted, well, pretty good.


PCS: Why are you flipping us off?

DA: That’s not me flipping you off. That’s my “friend.” Our food had just arrived with the drinks, and as you can see, my pal only got a salad. I asked him, “Did you order a tampon with that?” Perhaps that’s why he saw fit to desecrate my photo in that fashion.

DW: Thanks for rubbing the Pliny in my face, Dana. You know that is highly coveted in these Pacific NW parts. A guy at Crow’s Feet Commons pulled me aside last week and quietly told me that they might be getting a keg at the end of the month—”after the tourists go home,” he said. I forwarded your Becks’t to another friend who is also on the lookout for this mystery beer. I wonder if it is really that good.

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DW: I heard about this secret wine store that had some Pliny the Elder in the back. I had to go there and try this mysterious beer. T— would not go with me, she was just fine reading by the fire on a rainy afternoon (man, I was ripped off in this marriage: she does not like coffee or beer and is not really fond of hanging out in breweries, unless we are playing a card game that requires way too much thinking for me! On the other hand, ha ha, she loves to watch cycling). So, here it is, my first Pliny!


Dana, I have to agree. It was just “fine.” It was really smooth and tasted good, but not nearly as good as some of the other IPAs I’ve had, like the Mosaic, or anything from Boneyard or Barley Brown’s. I wanted it to blow me away. I went in with a super open mind, cleared my pallet, gave it a good wiff and huh, just fine. I must lean a little to the Pacific Northwest flavors. I don’t think I will need another Pliny. So...

... because I’m a hypocrite and don’t really understand my wife after 30 years, we stopped in at Pelican after a nice walk on the beach and I had a most excellent 20 ounces of Mosaic and put it on a pedestal; like all beers from Cascadia (Dana, is this the proper use of a semicolon?).

JL: I nominate this Becks’t for the Best Becks’t of October Award, the coveted BBOA!

Branded pint glass

DA: Double IPA. Most beers at this Jack Russell brewery are $5 or $6, or for $9 you can get one in a commemorative pint glass you get to keep. This beer is like 8% and $8 ... or $9 with the pint glass. SCORE! Awesome—a proper (stemless) pint glass for a buck! E— hassled me about bringing more junk into our home but I can’t be stopped. Not this time, anyway.


DA (continued): The only problem is this warning sticker on the bottom of the glass:


DA (continued): Dr. S—, do I need to be worried about this? Or does it help that I have already been born?

PCS: You'll most surely have a 2-headed child after using this glass!

DW: Do you have any plans to be born again?

Mystery Beck’st

[I cannot recall who sent this ... I think it was PCS. The photo metadata was lost at some point. Maybe I’ll do some more forensics next time I’m bored. Oh, wait, I never have the luxury of boredom anymore. Sigh…]


Selfie Beck’st

DA: I almost wasn’t going to send another boring photo of the same Lagunitas IPA on the same round blue table against the same brick wall with the same framed photo at the same coffee shop. But then it occurred to me that my laptop has a built-in selfie camera (the one on my phone being broken). I hunted around and found an app, pre-installed on my laptop, that actually makes use of this camera. It is a crappy camera indeed, but I have a hunch that this will give my photo a grainy, gritty, handheld cinéma verité look that will make you admire me a whole lot. I hope I’m right.


DA (continued): The young buck at the next table is singing along with Coldplay. Ah, millennials. I just read some article that they’re going to be the brokest adults in ages. Oh well. At least they’ve got their freedom, unlike corporate wage slaves like me, nursing at the blue-chip teat liking a suckling pig (as the millennials would surely think of it).

JL: “Corporate wage slave”? That photo of you looks positively blue collar, man! Angry, tired and just wanting a goddamned beer! And I hear you.

Autofill Beck’st

DA: South Beach, you’ve met your match! This beer obviously isn’t some amazing discovery, but I do like it contains all your belongings and it was hella good to me and my liver via the app and the girls are going to backfill for the next few days so I can drive to the airport and then we can go from there to the full pint. Most of the preceding sentence was brought to you by Android Autofill word suggestions. I hope you enjoyed it.


JL: Go home Android Autofill — you’re drunk!

“Something missing” Beck’st

DA: I totally meant to have a beer tonight, just for the empty calories [to try to regain weight after losing too much on the South Beach diet], but I plumb forgot! And after eating so much that the skin of my belly is stretched tight as a drum, well ... what’s the point?


JL: This is by far the craziest Beck’st to ever done been beck’sted. I cannot conceive of forgetting to have a beer. That just doesn’t happen in my house. I’m not sure which one of us has the problem…

DA: I agree with you. (Above response generated by the Google via its A.I.-driven one-touch reply suggestions.)

JL: Man, you should let the Google answer all of your emails! Though I would soon miss the trademarked Dana Acerbicity[TM]. Acerbic-ness? Ornerarity? There’s a word. Here’s an example of a beer that I did not forget to drink (I rode for 80 minutes on the trainer — I earned this!):


DA: As much as I like “acerbicity” and would like “acerbitiousness” even more, I guess the real word is acerbity. I wonder if Google’s machine learning will start to offer up more acerbic responses to the e-mails I receive? The Google has a long way to go before it’s passing the Turing test.

Gratuitous eye-candy Beck’st

DA: Fieldwork wheat Saison … brilliant!


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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Maple Syrup Relabeling Travesty


Introduction

In my last post, I lambasted modern razors, which are excessively expensive and fictitiously superior to what your dad or grandfather used to use. I should probably blog next on a completely unrelated theme, but I have stumbled onto another economic absurdity that is sticking in my craw. This time, though, I’m going to exhort you to possibly spend more than you may be now.

I’m talking about maple syrup. Don’t pretend you don’t care about this all-important foodstuff.


Grade A vs. Grade B

For somewhere around a couple hundred years, maple syrup—I mean the real deal, not that imitation stuff—came in two grades: A and B. Grade A was better and cost more. It’s the better product, that naturally rises to the top when maple syrup is boiled. Grade A syrup is to Grade B what cream is to milk.

Now, when I say Grade A is better, I’m not just basing this on it traditionally costing more money. After all, cheap razor blades are better than expensive ones, and cheap- to mid-priced Mexican restaurants are often better than the more upscale places (which are often just annoying). I’m basing my statement on having done a highly scientific blind taste test onsite at a maple syrup producing facility in Vermont back in 1994. Here is the result of my test, from the report I made right afterward:
[My wife and I] conducted blind taste tests comparing Grade A Fancy, Grade B, and our own Shurfine Imitation Maple Flavor Syrup [purchased for reasons of economy during an 8-month bike tour].  We both preferred Grade A, then fake, with Grade B coming in a distant last.  (After our Shur Fine ran out, we got some Maple Jack that's 20% real syrup:  that is, likely 20% Grade B, cut expertly in the lab by large corporations that know what tastes good.)
Here is photographic proof of this taste test:


My report included this tidbit:
I’ve heard people say, “I’ve tried real maple syrup, and I prefer the kind you buy in the store that’s artificially flavored.”  My theory about this oddity is that those who prefer fake syrup had been served Grade B at a touristy restaurant.  It makes sense for a restaurant to serve Grade B syrup since it’s not only cheaper, but will impress tourists more:  they’ll say, “Wow, that’s so different, oh, yes, this is the real thing, we’re experiencing the real thing, oh my, what a fabulous vacation.” 
In the last few years, however, Vermont—the top U.S. maple syrup producer—discovered that a lot of people actually prefer Grade B. Perhaps some of this is because it’s so obviously different from Mrs. Butterworth’s and Log Cabin. Maybe its stronger flavor just seems more authentic. Whatever the reason (and you can see the Appendix below for some theories), the Vermont maple syrup producers evidently realized they were leaving money on the table by using the phrase “Grade B.” Why admit something is inferior when you don’t have to? This brings us to….

The disappearance of Grade B

Last fall during a visit to my hometown of Boulder, Colorado I was shopping at an overpriced, Whole-Foods-y grocery chain called Vitamin Cottage when I discovered that their different grades of maple syrup were all called Grade A. One label said something to the effect of “formerly known as Grade B.” I asked the cashier about this but she was clueless. I decided it must be a Boulder thing. (My brother Max, who lives in Boulder, has always preferred Grade B syrup himself.)

Well, I’ve done some research and have discovered (click here for details) that Vermont has refined the gradation scheme for maple syrup. Now, all maple syrup is Grade A, even the Grade C stuff that wasn’t formerly available for retail sale (being used only in the manufacture of food). This scoring revision is a little like my daughters’ kiddie soccer teams that gave every kid a trophy, even the ones who never broke into a run or even attempted to kick the ball. Here’s a schematic showing the new nomenclature.


When you think about it, this just makes perfect sense. Why on earth would you badmouth a product with a derisive label like “Grade B” when you don’t have to? Why create a hierarchy that lowers the price of your lower-end product? I’ll bet the dairy industry is kicking themselves for using the word “milk” when they could call it “light cream” and charge more money for it.

But does the maple syrup industrial complex charge more for Grade B Grade A Dark with Robust Taste now? Well, it’s really hard to compare now, because not all manufacturers provide the complete label. Look at this stuff, which is as dark as crude oil:


Its label says, “Grade A 100% Pure Maple Syrup (from the Sap of Maple Trees).” You know, as opposed to “from the Urine of Pregnant Beavers” or “from the Runoff of Feed Lots.” All those extra words about what “maple syrup” means, but they couldn’t manage to fit in the “Dark with Robust Taste” part of the label, or—more likely—“Very Dark with Strong Taste,” whichever of the two it is. This incomplete labeling is certainly deliberate and opportunistic; it gives them the ability to charge $9 for a 16-ounce bottle of what would be Grade B or even Grade C syrup in the original, non-muddled nomenclature.

When I try to compare two varieties of a single manufacturer’s product, I get nowhere. Looking at the Anderson’s products at Target, it appears the lighter and darker varieties cost the same, but I can’t be sure because it’s not clear how to put one or the other in your shopping cart. Looking at Amazon, I was totally buried in unhelpful labels and packaging options. Suffice to say, it’s no longer a straightforward proposition to get a lower-end product for less money. All has been obfuscated.

Expansion of relabeling opportunity

I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before other industries catch on and carry out relabeling campaigns of their own. Here are some examples of low-lying fruit:
  • Grade A Beef for Strong Immune Systems
  • Multivitamin for Those Preferring Vitamin C Only
  • Chicken Breast from the Leg
  • Whole Wheat Bread – Reduced Fiber Version
  • Extra-Strength Tylenol in Low Dose
  • MBA Degree in High School Equivalency
  • SPF 50 Sunscreen for Indoor Use
  • Express Mail Ground Delivery Option
  • Black Belt in Karate – Beginner’s Online Tutorial Edition
Appendix – Is Grade B Grade A Dark with Robust Taste better for you?

Part of the popularity of the syrup formerly known as Grade B is that it’s been recommended for the “Master Cleanse” detox regimen, which consists of fasting except for drinking tea and lemonade made with maple syrup and cayenne pepper. The originator of this cleanse, a charlatan named Stanley Burroughs, advised in his self-published book that you should use Grade B syrup because it is “less refined.” (Charlatan? Yes. As mentioned in the MasterCleanse Wikipedia article, “According to the Harvard Medical School, the laxative component of the diet can lead to dehydration and electrolyte loss as well as impaired bowel function.”)

A self-interested purveyor of maple syrup, the Maple Valley Coop, promotes the Master Cleanse regimen and applauds Burroughs for recommending the syrup formerly known as Grade B, on the basis of it being less refined. But this other website explains that all grades of maple syrup are pure and unrefined. Can we trust this second website? Yep. My own tour of the maple syrup producing facility showed me that they produce all the syrup without adding anything … all they do is extract the sap and boil it. Here are the notes I took on this:
Tubes run directly from the trees to a giant storage tank, from which the sap trickles down (by gravity) to a giant open topped boiling tank that has many different maze-like channels in it.  The sap runs through the channels, driven by the current of the new sap flowing in, and by the time it makes it through to the final channel, it’s been boiled long enough that it’s the proper consistency and thickness of syrup:  that is, a gallon of it weighs 11 pounds (3 pounds more than a gallon of water!). Then, it’s separated into various grades by some process that was never explained to us very well  … something like fractional distillation, I suppose.  This yields the various grades, from Grade B (i.e., crude, and “suitable for cooking,” as they described it) all the way up to Grade A Fancy (the best).
Others have also claimed that Grade B is better for you. A website called “Nourishing Our Children” claims here that “The potency and richness of Grade B maple syrup amplifies its health benefits.” This is also nonsense; this Cornell University study concluded, “No research has demonstrated any differential health benefits related to this variation.” Meanwhile, common sense tells us that maple syrup is a damn condiment. Nobody should consider it a staple with which we nourish our children.

Speaking of which, I’m still a fan of the good stuff—the Grade A that has always been called Grade A—but you know what I gave my own kids when they were younger? Imitation syrup, like Log Cabin. Why? Because little kids are lame, and pour like a quart of syrup on a single pancake, leaving most of it behind on the plate. I refuse to waste my money on such behavior. Besides, they liked Log Cabin just fine—and why shouldn’t they have? I know firsthand it tastes better than Grade A Dark with Robust Taste.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ode on a Double-Edged Razor


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

Introduction

Sometimes when I’m feeling grateful for a consumer product, I am moved to write a poem. This is one of those times.

The Poem

Ode on a Double-Edged Razor

“Cheap bastard” is a name I wear with pride
And yet I cannot stand to buy cheap crap.                               2
I love that special product that provides
A point where worth and value overlap.
My razor’s made of stainless fucking steel
Instead of plastic formed in fancy shapes.                               6
My blades are double-edged—the real deal.
I might get nicked, I know—but never raped.
You know who needs expensive lubri-strips?
A bunch of soft and craven would-be men.                           10
These cartridge blades in trays like ammo-clips …
It’s shameful how Gillette is playing them.
    A Feather blade shaves close beyond compare
    Rewarding anyone who grows a pair.                                14


Footnotes & Commentary

Title: Ode on

Though I’ve titled several poems (like this one and this one) “Ode to...” I think it sounds more literary to title a poem “Ode on….” For details on this English-major-y nuance, click here.

Line 1 – cheap bastard

How is it possible to be cheap and yet insist on high-end products? For one thing, you buy as few things as possible. I select durable stuff and use it forever, so I forgo having the latest-and-greatest of anything. (My 2006 Volvo still feels new to me because I retired my old Volvo at 360,000 miles.) Even with my favorite hobby, cycling, I apply this use-what-you-got ethos. Though 11-speed gear clusters are now commonplace on bicycles, and a patent has been filed for 14-speed, I am still on 9-speed. The shift levers I use came out in 1996 but they still work great. Who needs all those gears? I’ll just pedal harder/faster.

Line 2 – cannot stand to buy

As detailed here I really don’t like buying anything. I pity the burglar who hits my house … in so many consumer product categories I am willfully bereft.

Line 4 – value

Remember when “value” simply meant “the monetary worth of something”? Now it’s commonly used as a euphemism for “budget” or “low-end.” Avoidance of embarrassment is often used to upsell people (a tactic that probably works best on poor folks).

Line 5 – stainless fucking steel

I try to keep this blog clean, but frankly no other word than “fucking” would make this phrase connote exactly what I want. Call it poetic license.

Because the blades are so much cheaper for old-school razors, you can splurge on a really nice one. I bought a Merkur razor, for $23, made in Germany. It’s beautifully built and has a nice heft. The curved steel part that holds the blade down is a nice big hunk of metal so it holds a lot of heat. I run hot water in the sink, lather up, then place the razor head-down in the water for a couple of minutes. (This gives the shaving cream time to soften my beard and skin.) When I shave, the warm steel head feels good against my face.

Look how nice the Merkur is:


Shouldn’t all the objects we engage with be well-made and attractive?

Line 6 – fancy shapes

I cannot understand why consumers—grown men and women!—continue to seem impressed by modern industry’s ability to shape plastic into very complicated and fanciful shapes. How is this impressive when cheap kids’ toys are similarly crafted? Look at this modern razor … it’s grotesque.


The women’s version (of course Gillette decided women need their own) is even worse … it looks like some Disney Cinderella-themed toy my daughters had at age four.


Look at this totally weird razor:


And, because nobody should ever have to shave with something blandly colored:


Line 7 – doubled-edged

By double-edged I mean a flat piece of steel with blades along two parallel edges, like this:


The alternative, of course, is a disposable head that has two, three, or more blades like this:


There’s actually no evidence that having more than one blade makes for a closer shave. Cecil Adams, his column The Straight Dope, denies there’s any benefit. That hasn’t stopped the Disposable Blade Industrial Complex from getting into a number-of-blades arms race. I guess it’s understandable; after all, the American consumer has trouble with complicated value propositions but anybody can understand the more-is-better idea. On top of that, Gillette has made a number of neat little videos showing how the front blade lifts a hair up, cuts most of it off, and leaves the rest sticking up so the next blade can cut it. Click here to see one of the first such simulations.


Oddly, this idea went uncontested for many years until 2005 when Gillette came out with the M3Power razor, an electric vibrating version of the Mach 3. It made the same claim about lifting hairs up to better cut them, via a new version of the video. A competitor cried foul and Gillette went on trial; a U.S. District Judge ruled that ads claiming this benefit were “unsubstantiated and inaccurate” and in fact “literally false.” The sheepish response from the Gillette spokesperson was that “the computer-generated image of the razor lifting hair away from the skin was never meant to be taken literally.”

Amusingly, mockery of the multiple-blade design brought about a life-imitates-art scenario. In 2004, The Onion presented a Commentary piece facetiously attributed to the CEO of Gillette titled, “Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades.” Here’s an excerpt: 
The Gillette Mach3 was the razor to own. Then the other guy came out with a three-blade razor. Were we scared? Hell, no. Because we hit back with a little thing called the Mach3Turbo. That's three blades and an aloe strip. For moisture. But you know what happened next? Shut up, I’m telling you what happened—the bastards went to four blades. Now we’re standing around with our cocks in our hands, selling three blades and a strip.
A couple years later, Gillette did come out with a five-blade razor, which is now their biggest seller. I guess there’s no end in sight; a South Korean company now has a six-blade razor. Look at this ridiculous thing:


The brand of that razor is Dorco; needless to say, they should spell it Dorko.

The traditional double-edged blade, meanwhile, has an undeniable benefit over modern blades: you don’t need to rinse your razor as often while shaving. You do four or five strokes, then spin the razor handle 180 degrees and do four or five strokes with the second blade (i.e., the other side of the razor head). You spend only half as much time swishing your razor in the sink.

Line 8 – might get nicked

It’s been a long time since a company directly addressed the underlying reason people will spend more money on a fancier razor: fear of shaving cuts. Norelco ran a series of such ads in the early ‘70s, like this one:


Probably this tactic was abandoned because a) conventional wisdom is to accentuate the positive, and b) nobody wants to tell customers that they don’t have the skill to shave without cutting themselves. But that’s exactly what these modern blades are about: because the blades are held at a specific angle by the plastic head that slides along your skin, you don’t have to figure out this angle for yourself. It’s pretty close to idiot-proof (though I still did occasionally nick myself back when I used them).

Yes, the retro-style razor is a bit harder to use, especially at first. My first couple of shaves were a bit nerve-racking. It takes some practice to hold the razor at the right angle, and I did nick myself a few times during the first few weeks. But hey, it’s not like we never get a chance to practice! I reckon I’ve shaved upwards of 4,000 times in my life (not including my legs), and I’ll shave at least 7,000 more times if I live to 100. By now I’ve shaved around 400 times with my Merkur and I’ve gotten quite good at it.

Line 8 – but never raped

Are users of modern razors being raped? Well, in the sense of being robbed, I would say yes. If you buy replacement razors at the grocery store, you’ll pay over $5 apiece. Even in bulk online (e.g., Amazon), a Fusion blade runs about $24 for  an 8-count, i.e. $3 apiece. The cheapest online price I could find for a modern blade was the Mach3 15-count for $26, or $1.73 each. On the other hand, my favorite double-edged blades, the Japanese-made Feather, cost $23 for 100. So modern blades cost anywhere from 7 to 22 times as much as double-edged. That’s a total rip-off.

Line 9 – lubri-strip

The lubri-strip has got to be an ever bigger bunch of bullshit than the multiple blades. I mean, think about it: you’re using shaving cream or gel that lubricates the crap out of your skin. How much lubrication are you going to get out of a little strip of plastic?

Oh, I’m sorry, did I say plastic? In this video a spokesperson wearing a lab coat and speaking with a foreign accent (so she must be an authority) explains, “[The lubri-strip] has a sponge-like structure that is infused with highly water-loving polymers called polyethylene glycols or PEGs.” And that’s not all: there are now two lubri-strips per head, one before and one after the blades! Amazing! Never mind that the strip still looks and feels like a wet piece of plastic, and nothing slippery is oozing out of it.

If you use a razor with a lubri-strip, and don’t get shaving rash, it’s tempting to assume the technology is legit. I’m reminded of a joke: this guy on a city bus, to the bemusement of other passengers, is reaching into an invisible imaginary box, lifting out fingerfuls of imaginary powder, and flinging them into the air. A passenger asks, “What are you doing?” The guy responds, “It’s to keep away lions!” The passenger protests, “But there are no lions on this bus!” To which the guy responds: “See? It’s working!”

Do I miss the lubri-strip of my old Gillette razors? Not a whit. I suspect shaving rash is a fake malady, like ring-around-the-collar. Or it’s an unfortunate idiosyncrasy of some people’s skin, for which there is no easy remedy.

Line 10 – soft and craven would-be men

Okay, I’ll confess this sounds kind of harsh and unenlightened. But if I’m going to appeal to people to switch to cheaper retro-style razors, I have to take the battle to Gillette’s turf. That is, I must directly combat all the marketing that’s aimed at men’s insecurities, or my arguments will be beside the point. The fact is, Gilette’s job is to coddle men with a foolproof, easy-to-use razor—Fisher Price Baby’s First Razor, they might as well call it—without seeming to. So they use all kinds of macho imagery in their ads, along with the slogan “The best a man can get.” A man, mind you. These razors aren’t for women. If a woman tried to use them—well, that would be a disaster, like if she tried to use his grill, or his power tools.

Check out this ad. In a minute flat you’ll see just about every manly role under the sun: running race, tux-clad wedding party, football game, Army training, baseball game, astronaut mission, father with baby, Wall Street trading, discus throw, and boxing. And check out this ad for the Mach3. It shows a fighter plane going so fast the damn wings come off, and then the canopy, and then the pilot’s helmet, eventually all we have left is the pilot—i.e., the man—and his razor. And a whole lot of testosterone.

The ad for the women’s Gillette Venus razor, here, has a slower, more muted soundtrack and a notable lack of explosions. I’m pretty sure the word “curves” would never appear in a Sensor or Mach3 add. And there’s no tagline “The best a woman can get.” That notion somehow doesn’t work—it implies something unfair, like “The best she’s able to get” or “The best we’re willing to give her.”


Is there any way to market men’s razors without appealing to masculinity? Makers of traditional razors would have a hard time appealing to frugality (for fear, I suspect, of insulting their customers). Bic did do a campaign, way back, with celebrity John McEnroe—“ I don’t have to shave with a 20-cent bic … but I do!”—but I think that’s the exception that proves the rule.

What if Gillette or a competitor decided to use the ideal celebrity to endorse their razors? Who would that be? That’s an easy one—we’d look to the ultimate man’s man, a licensed-to-kill brute who’s also an epicure. I’m talking of course about James Bond, who has taken the sartorial lead in so many other areas (suits, watches, sunglasses, etc.). The problem is, it’s just not believable that he would shave with a cheesy plastic razor with a lubri-strip. If you don’t readily agree, just watch this clip.


Not only is Bond not worried about shaving nicks, he’s not worried about Moneypenny inadvertently cutting his throat … even though, earlier in the movie, she accidently shot him. Now there’s a real man.

Line 11 – like ammo clips

I can’t get over this firearm-themed cultural messaging. The razor comes in a little holder, and in the back is a place where a five-pack clip of blades—like a magazine—snaps in. Why the extra plastic? I’m sure you’re meant to feel like you’re loading a gun. It’s all very masculine, all very reassuring, to the point of thou doth protest too much.

Look, men, there’s no fighter plane, there’s no gun … it’s a razor designed to keep you from hurting yourself. It’s like those little plastic-dipped forks they give to babies.

Line 12 – how Gillette is playing them

The marketing strategy Gillette and its competitors have embraced is selling us a razor (or “razor system”) that will only take their proprietary and pricey blades. It’s lock-in, the same market force that has us (well, most of us) still typing on inefficient QWERTY keyboards. As Wikipedia notes, “With manufacturers frequently updating their shaving systems, consumers can become locked into buying their proprietary cartridges…. Subsequent to introducing the higher-priced Mach3 in 1998, Gillette’s blade sales realized a 50% increase, and profits increased in an otherwise mature market.” Show me a company’s huge increase in profits, and I’ll show you a lot of people getting ripped off.

Incidentally, the latest innovation in razor blade marketing is Harry’s, which doesn’t charge as much for blades, but sells them on a subscription basis so you can never forget to change out your blades (i.e., you end up buying more than you really need). Harry’s advertises so aggressively online, I now see their ads on almost every page I visit, thanks to all my razor-themed Google searches.



Line 13 – Feather blade

I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert, but I’ve tried three brands of double-edged blade and I like Japanese-made Feather blades the best. They were recommended by a friend who has an English accent and thus all kinds of automatic cred. (I remember the exact conversation, years ago during a bike ride to the Hotsy Totsy club.) This guy’s dad had been into mining or something and traveled the world, and for a while had actual lackeys who would inherit his worn-out blades and sharpen them for their own use. My friend cautioned against getting caught up in the high-end retro shaving culture, which would have us mixing our own luxury shea-butter-infused shaving lather in a special purpose-built porcelain bowl, applying it to our faces with a beaver-hair brush, and buying an expensive silk dressing gown to wear while shaving.

Notwithstanding their traditional double-edged blades, Feather isn’t a totally old fashioned company. According to this timeline, they introduced a new blade as recently as 1995. (Actual new blades will naturally appear less frequently than gimmicks.) It’s not clear what was innovative about this blade; perhaps just some cool way of making it sharper. The Feather company makes scalpel blades, “microtome blades for pathology,” a “micro scalpel for ophthalmic surgery,” and a myringotomy (ear surgery) blade. So even if they don’t produce flashy videos to teach gullible consumers about polyethylene glycol lubri-strips, I reckon they’re experts at sharpening a very thin piece of stainless steel.

Line 13 – shaves close beyond compare

Believe it or not, the cheap, old-school razor blade does shave closer. I did a blind test to determine this. I shaved half my face with a Gillette Sensor3, and the other half with a double-edged Feather blade. Then I went to each of the three family members in my household and had them do a face-stroke test. All three ruled, without hesitation, that the smoother skin was on the Feather-shaved side of my face. And if their testimony isn’t good enough, just look at all the hair that the Gillette blade left on my face!


Naw, I’m just screwing with you. But the blind test was real. The results were unequivocal.

Line 14 – grows a pair

I’m not saying that it takes balls to face the risk of shaving cuts. Rather, it takes balls (not necessarily actual testicles, but nerve, basically, which is non-gender-specific) to overturn conventional wisdom that all this fancy shaving technology is necessary or even beneficial.

Speaking of balls, I have to confess it’s kind of painful to think of them in the context of shaving. This goes back to my vasectomy—which saw me getting my scrotum dry-shaved with a 20-cent Bic. But that’s a whole other story.

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