Sunday, April 23, 2017

Death Valley - Frequently Asked Questions


It’s widely known that Death Valley, in California, is the third most popular vacation spot in the world (the first two being Disneyland and Paris, in that order).  What’s not always appreciated is how much misinformation there is about this tourist mecca, such as the first sentence of this very post.  Read on for answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Death Valley, based on my recent vacation there.

Q.  What is the WiFi password at Death Valley?

A.  This is, by far, the most frequently asked question.  The answer is, there generally isn’t one.  Certain businesses in Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek have WiFi, but most of the time you’ll be driving around enjoying nature, and you won’t even have cell phone coverage.  This is a great place to get away from the Internet, if you think your kids can handle it. Don’t forget your old-school road atlas, if you normally depend on GPS.

Q.  How many people died in Death Valley, to give it its name?

A.  One.  This was in 1849, when some miners got stuck there.  Probably more people have died since.  I think I remember hearing about somebody trying to smuggle a corpse through there but was caught, due to the corpse stinking in the heat.  Actually, now that I think about it, that was something that happened on Amtrak.

Q.  Is Death Valley really the hottest place on Earth?

A.  Yes!  For awhile it was thought that El Azizia, Libya had that honor, but in 2012, according to this article, it was determined that “the observer [there] broke a more reliable instrument and used a complicated and less reliable type of thermometer.”  Details are hazy but I think the observer used a rectal thermometer.  (You’re supposed to subtract a couple degrees with those.)  In any event, when we visited recently, the temperature was pretty much perfect.

Q.  Is Death Valley really the driest place on Earth?

A.  No, it’s not even in the top ten.  The driest place is in Antarctica, and the driest non-polar place is the Atacama Desert in Chile.  But Death Valley is the driest place in North America, which is all anybody actually cares about.  The rainiest month in Death Valley is March, when they get about a third of an inch of rain (roughly the same amount the Bay Area has been getting every day this year, I think).

Q.  Would the below catastrophe ever happen in Death Valley?

A.  You mean this?

No, never.  I snapped the above photo in Berkeley’s Tilden Park recently.  I managed to abandon the bike before it [would have] tipped me over (or I’d have probably drowned in the mud).  If you’re sick of wet weather, Death Valley is a great vacation spot.

Q.  Is Death Valley really the lowest place on Earth?

A.  No, but its lowest point, Badwater Basin, is the lowest place in the western hemisphere. 

Look at the cordoned-off area just behind us in that photo.  That’s a salt pan, which is basically salt shaped by wind into these sharp, sharp formations that are between 1,000 and 9,000 feet deep.  The largest salt pan in Death Valley is called the Devil’s Golf Course, and while I agree it would be terrible to golf there, it would be even worse to mountain bike on it.  Imagine if you crashed!

Q.  Is Death Valley too hot to be an enjoyable vacation spot?

A.  If you enjoy sitting in an air-conditioned RV, you could visit Death Valley at any time of year and enjoy yourself.  That said, it’s hard to imagine wanting to hike when it’s 136 degrees out.  One of the trailheads we saw had a sign warning not to go there after 10 a.m.  (One of my surly teenagers tried to use this to get out of the hike.  Nice try ... it was only about 85 degrees that day.)

Q.  That bit about the rectal thermometer?  You have that exactly backwards.  What gives?

A.  Yeah, I know.  Try not to over-think it.

Q.  I have a print of that iconic Ansel Adams photo of Death Valley sand dunes.  Are the dunes as impressive in person?

A.  Definitely!  In fact, as good a photographer as Adams was, it’s impossible to fully appreciate the Death Valley dunes just by looking at the photos.  At least, that’s what I have been telling myself, so I can feel better about these more humble shots:

Q.  What is a haboob?

A.  A haboob is a violent sandstorm.  I don’t know if the winds we experienced in Death Valley count, but anyway it’s fun to say “haboob.”  Right after our hike in the dunes the wind picked up and we wondered if it would strip the paint off our car.  As usual, the following photos don’t do it justice.

That’s the Devil’s Golf Course in the background of the second photo, by the way.

Q.  Was Mad Max – Fury Road filmed in Death Valley?

A.  No, it wasn’t, but we wondered the same thing.  There’s a deep canyon we hiked through to see this natural arch, which looked like where the movie took place.  I can just imagine where they crashed the truck to block the pursuers.  In fact, this area was so reminiscent of the film, one of my kids sprayed silver paint all over her mouth and yelled, “I am awaited in Valhalla!”  (Full disclosure:  my kids haven’t actually seen the movie.)

Q.  Are the flowers as amazing as everybody says?

A.  I think most of the year you won’t see much.  April there is known to be amazing, and maybe it was ... but it wasn’t exactly what I’d expected.  Since it’s been such a wet winter and our timing seemed perfect, I somehow had visions of being totally surrounded by flowers, like in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (you know, “cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head,” etc.) but it’s not like that.  You mostly see sand and rocks.  But if you stop and look a little closer, there are all kinds of flowering things.  Look at this little dude popping up out of the stones and gravel.

And you wanna see a cactus in full bloom?  Feast your eyes on this!

This is a pretty weird plant, arguably in bloom as well:

These flowers aren’t that colorful but just look at the dead-looking plant that has produced them:

What the hell is this thing?  (That’s not a FAQ ... I’m asking you.)

This flowering plant is notable not just for growing straight out of gravel, but for being so damn small it’s like, why even bother?

I’m not sure what counts as a flower but these little puffballs are just darling.

Q.  I’m not a giant flower fan.  What else is worth looking at?

A.  There are lots of cool rocks.  Quartz, amethyst, and so forth, and also some big varicolored boulders.  Volcanic minerals (including hematite and chlorite), rich in iron, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium (but oddly no copper) provide a lot of color.  Check it:

The mountains are pretty, especially in the evening:

The roads are pretty dramatic.  Artist’s Drive twists around and has lots of ups and downs that leave your stomach behind ... it would be really fun to drive that on a Kawasaki Ninja at top speed, if you were an idiot with a death wish.  Here’s the road leading to where we stayed at Panamint Springs:

You’ll also get to see Joshua trees.  Gobs of them, forests even, and burnt ones.

Q.  Is there good stargazing?

A.  I guess for really good stargazing you’d need a new moon.  Our visit happened to coincide with a full moon.  That said, we were able to take a nice night walk before the moon rose and saw more stars than usual.  There still seemed to be a fair bit of light pollution … maybe that was the unrisen moon?  Who knows.  (What am I, an astronomer?!)

Q.  Is Death Valley a good place for Beck’sting?

A.  Heck, anyplace that allows beer is good for Beck’sting!  If you camp, you’ll just need to replenish the ice in your cooler regularly.  Also, you’ll have to settle for delayed Beck’sts since you won’t have cellular connectivity.  Here’s one of my Beck’sts from the trip.

Q.  Is there good wildlife viewing in Death Valley?

A.  I’ll start with the bad news:  we didn’t see any road runners.  That was a big letdown because the so-called resort where we stayed (canvas tent on a concrete slab) had a road runner as their logo.

That said, we did see some pretty groovy creatures.  I’ll start with the sphinx moth, which has such a giant body, and such lightning fast wings, that at first we thought they were hummingbirds.  To realize they were giant insects gave us an uncanny feeling.  Unfortunately, they fly way too briskly and erratically for me to photograph … believe me, I tried.  Click here for some great photos etc.

Then there were these birds that made an incredible screeching one morning.  Part of the point here is the amazing zoom on my camera, which proves that non-phone pocket cameras are not yet obsolete.

So what are those black birds with the yellow heads?  Why, they’re yellow-headed blackbirds!  The ones with no yellow are either females or regular blackbirds (what am I, an ornithologist?!), and I think the dark brown one is a juvenile.

Okay, on to something more exciting.  This coyote was just moseying along near the road.  We weren’t as close as it looks (again, the long zoom helped out), but we couldn’t get over how tame he seemed.

At first it was exciting to get such a good look, but then it was kind of sad.  This creature was probably the coyote equivalent of a panhandler.

Okay, now on to the most exciting wildlife of all.  I’m talking about creatures less than two inches long from tip to tail.  These are the famous pupfish of Death Valley.  We were lucky to get to see them, because in the hotter months (most of the year, I think) they dig themselves under the mud so they don’t become a giant species-wide fish fry.  I know someone who spent a month in Death Valley and never got to see the pupfish.

The great thing about these fish is that they only live a year, and much of that is underground, so during their active phase they really don’t have time for anything but fighting and sex.  Here are a couple of schematics that capture the entirety of the pupfish non-subterranean existence.

Unfortunately for the pupfish, the sex isn’t exactly amazing. The male kind of sidles up to the female, and they wriggle along together while he spews his seed everywhere. My older daughter Alexa (who is at least as knowledgeable as the Amazon Echo, particularly where science is concerned) estimates that the shallow streams of Death Valley where these pupfish congregate is at least 20% sperm. Paternity must be really difficult to establish.

Given the apparent lack of seduction, can we consider this rampant intercourse consensual?  My kids wondered about that, since at times it appeared the female was attempting to get away.  It’s hard to tell, though, because these fish are in such a damn hurry all the time, they never sit still anyway.  My wife concluded that it’s probably consensual given their short lifespan.  “It’s not like the female has time to pursue a Ph.D.,” she declared.

Here is my best snapshot of this endangered species.

And here, in living color, are videos of the two primary pupfish activities:

Q.  Any tips about the best route to and from Death Valley?

A.  Assuming you’re a Californian (because nobody really lives in Nevada, right?), the prettiest route to Death Valley would be through Yosemite.  But wait, not so fast!  If you’re visiting Death Valley in the spring, before it becomes a fricking oven, the roads through Yosemite probably won’t be open.  I think they’re usually closed until May or June.  (Who wants to drive in snow during spring break anyway?  Not me—I learned that lesson the hard way.)

So, if you’re going in the spring, you’ll need to head south to go around the Sierra Nevada mountains, and cut over at Bakersfield (slogan:  “Nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit”).  Now, if you’re navigating via GPS, Google Maps will direct you down Highway 58 thru Mojave and then have you take Highway 14 north.  This is not very scenic, and sends you through the little community of Trona, which Wikipedia says is “known for its isolation and desolation.”  The main employer is a chemical plant processing soda ash.  The Los Angeles Times describes Trona as “blight on an industrial scale.”  Its singular claim to fame is that it has the only high school football field made entirely of dirt.  Sure, you’re through Trona in under ten minutes, but it’s pretty harrowing.  The houses are all falling to ruin, the majority having been abandoned.  My kids begged my wife and me to take a different route going home.  Ever the provocateur, I said, "Actually, I’m hoping they’ll have cheap gas there.”  My wife flatly refused:  “We are not stopping in Trona.”

As we learned on the trip home, there’s a much better route that only adds about 20 minutes to your drive.  Here’s how we did our return trip (and you could obviously reverse this for the trip out):
  • Head west on Highway 190, with a jackknife turn at the dried-up Owens Lake (worth looking at in and of itself)
  • Make a left on Highway 395 and head south a right fur piece
  • Head west on Highway 178, which will take you over Walker Pass and past Isabella Lake—neither of them all that scenic, but a pretty nice drive
    • There’s a very good diner, Nelda’s, in the little town of Lake Isabella
  • The stretch of Highway 178 to Bakersfield winds through a gorgeous gorge, which justifies the extra 20 minutes of driving all by itself

Q.  Is there Internet connectivity in Trona?

A.  Probably.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

From the Archives - The Vermont Incident


As described here, my wife Erin and I did a 7,500-mile bike tour back in 1994. For the most part, we found our fellow Americans to be very friendly, and we rarely felt unsafe. We were ripped off only twice—once by squirrels and once by a raccoon. That said, on one particular morning we stumbled into something rather harrowing. Since it’s a slow news day at albertnet, please enjoy this true story from my bike tour journal archives.

The Vermont Episode – August, 1994

After our visit to Burlington, a long day on the bikes brought us to the Onion River Campground near Plainfield, Vermont. To get there we had to tackle a devilish 3‑mile climb, which culminated in the breezy declaration by the ranger that they were full. Erin, expertly trained in sales, said, “Well, we’re not leaving.” Within moments, the ranger said, “Aha! We’ve had a cancellation!” It was a fine campground and we enjoyed a pleasant, quiet evening. Then it rained all night and our gear got soaked. The next morning we were packing up our sodden stuff when a disturbance at a neighboring campsite caught our attention.

A fellow camper, a very small, flimsy-looking man, had somehow broken the driver’s side window of his little pickup truck. Seemingly on the brink of tears, he looked up the trail toward the restrooms and howled, “Honey, honey, I broke the window! It was a mistake! Honey, I’m sawwwwww‑ry!” A giant Gorgon of a woman, twice this guy’s size, with arms like champagne magnums and a clanging, booming voice, charged down the trail towards her husband, screaming, “YOU IDIOT! YOU STUPID BASTARD, WHY, YOU JUST WAIT UNTIL I GET OVER THERE!” He really was in tears now, and pleaded lugubriously, “Honey, please don’t hit me—I love you! I’m sawww‑ry, it was a mistake! Don’t hit me!” She reached him now and screamed, “I’M NOT GONNA HIT YOU, YOU STUPID PIECE OF S—, BUT WHEN WE GET BACK, WE ARE THROUGH, DO YOU HEAR ME?”

His voice climbing an octave a second, he begged, “Awwww, honey, stop it, I love you, I need you!” She spat back at him, “Not my problem! YOU STUPID F—ING IDIOT! WHY DIDN’T YOU WAIT? GOOD FOR NOTHING, USELESS PIECE OF S—!” He wailed, “Aw, honey, stop, you’re breakin’ my heart!” He was fully cowering now, seeking shelter behind their little pop‑up trailer tent. Now we couldn’t see anything, but heard a string of her obscenities punctuated regularly by loud thumping sounds and his continuous wailing. What could we do? The ranger station was a mile away—and who would believe us about husband abuse, anyway? Should we intervene? We just stood there at our site, frozen with indecision, and breathed a sigh of relief when the noise subsided.

Five or ten minutes later, I ventured forth from our campsite to fill up our water jug at a nearby spigot. It was then that the Leviathan intercepted me. The horror! I was transfixed by her giant face, oversized and yet sunken, like a cinnamon roll; her eyes, huge and black; the faint mustache beneath her flared nostrils. I could imagine the tabloid story: CAMPER MAULED BY BIGFOOT. But then I realized she was almost in tears: “I’m so sorry!” she wailed. “I came over to apologize for my foul mouth back there. I’m just so sorry you had to hear such bad language!”

Language? Heck, I’ve heard far worse language—but never wielded like a club by one spouse against another. And did this beast actually think I’d failed to hear her thumping on her husband?

She was pathetic, somehow, and yet so fearsome, all at once. A smaller woman who hadn’t just battered her husband might perhaps incite some sympathy and understanding—but not this brute. For her to be capable of contrition and embarrassment—well, it seemed absurd! How could she be sorry? How could she be embarrassed? She was evil incarnate! Her trembling was real, her manner sincere, and yet I almost expected her, like a Star Trek villain, to suddenly shake off her humanoid appearance and become even more sickening, the hideous alien being that she actually was.

Had I been closer to her size—i.e., if I’d been a bodybuilder or something—I might have said, “Don’t apologize to me, you sicko! Apologize to your husband!” But no, she was formidable and very likely totally insane and in that moment I could almost relate to the pitiful cowardice her husband had shown. I wanted nothing but to be away from her. “Well, I just hope you two work everything out,” I said, finally. She retreated to her campsite, and we didn’t hear any more yelling or thumping.

Eventually the husband swaggered over to us, thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his shorts, head swinging from side to side, perhaps trying to look manly, even reckless. I almost expected him to say, “Okay, pal, go ahead, punch me in the stomach as hard as you can—I dare ya.” Instead, he said something unintelligible and when I responded, “Pardon?” he cringed and took a step back. Then he gathered himself, lowered his head again, and took a few more cocksure steps forward.

He spoke: “Yeah, well, the old lady, yeah, she locked the keys in the car. I tried to get ‘em out.” He looked up at us and shook his head a little to the side. He was almost bald, was missing a lower front tooth, and wore thick glasses that eclipsed much of his face. His head looked too big for his body. “Thought I could pry the window open, ya know. Busted it, tryin.’” He did something between a sigh and a drawn‑out “yep.”

His manly swagger was as unconvincing as his wife’s apology. “The broken window ... that’s not a big deal or anything, is it?” he asked us. “I mean, it happens, right?” We assured him it was no big deal. “Yeah, well, you know, the wife . . . “ he exhaled gravelly, “she’s gone an’ made a big deal out of it, you know.” He paused again. “Well, you know, marriage, heck . . . I can take it or leave it. Yep, I figure I’ll get the insurance check for this window, and . . . probably Friday, I’ll go. I’ll just leave. Yep.”

He went on to tell us about his character. He’d saved people in two different plane wrecks, he said. “You know, I’m the kind of guy where, hey, if a guy yells ‘help,’ I’m there, ya know? Just my character.” He looked down again.

“So you consider yourself a caring person?” Erin suggested. The man replied, “Yeah, my mother was in the hospital last couple years, dyin’ of Alzheimer’s. Had to take care of her. Very tough thing to do. You have no idea . . . it takes a toll on a person, it really does. Takes a lot out of ya.” He paused again. “You don’t get in any kinda trouble, do ya, driving around with a broken window on your car?” We assured him it was no big deal, citing examples of windstorms and earthquakes that broke windows across a city. A fix‑it ticket at most, Erin said.

The man talked some more, saying he was from New York but moved to Vermont to please his wife. He said he still doesn’t like the place. “How long have you two been married?” Erin asked. “‘Bout a year,” the guy said.

This amazed me. I figured a relationship as pathological as this would take a lifetime to build up—a long cycle of bad habits feeding off of one another. But no, these two must have been naturals at marital strife. The man talked some more, saying how he had cancer but it was in remission. “My disability checks will make my wife a rich widow,” he said several times.

Then he asked us how much cash we carry with us. I’m not kidding, he actually asked this. “None,” I said quickly. “We write checks or charge everything.” He said, “I’m not tryin’ to rob you or anything, just curious.” He talked some more, and then asked, “How much are your bikes worth?” This guy was coming off stranger than ever. He mentioned his wife becoming a rich widow off his disability checks one more time.

By this point we had our bikes fully loaded, and all our gear secured, and he asked us where we’d been camping. We told him, and at the name of one campground he gave a little chuckle. I asked why, and he said, “Well, heh heh, those guys didn’t like me too much. Yep, got in a bit of trouble over there, a bit of trouble with the law.” He paused, definitely for effect. “Truth is, I’m a bit of a rebel,” he proclaimed.

I almost laughed, which would have made me feel pretty bad. As absurdly and darkly comic as this fellow’s utterances were, his situation seemed tragic. Erin and I said our goodbyes and began to roll out, and the guy was still shaking his head and muttering as we pedaled off. We were so awestruck by the whole ordeal that we totally forgot to visit the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury that day.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Tribute to Steve Tilford


This post is a tribute to the late cyclist and blogger Steve Tilford.  I have a tale of his to share, which I wrote down shortly after hearing him tell it a decade ago.  It’s the kind of amazing story he’d have eventually told on his blog, if only.  If only.

Steve was tragically killed in a car accident this past week.  Friends and fans are reeling.  Fans include not only those who have followed his decades of cycling exploits, but those who have enjoyed his popular blog,  He was one of my cycling heroes as a teenager, and I’ve enjoyed his blog for years.

Getting to meet Steve

I met Steve only once, at a Coors Classic bike race reunion held at University Bikes.  (I snapped the above photo that night.)  The occasion was a party that longtime Coors Classic director Michael Aisner threw to celebrate the release of a DVD set—all the original Red Zinger and Coors Classic movies.  Aisner opened the party to the public and it felt like everybody in Boulder was there.  Afterward, he invited my brother Max and me along to get some pizza and beer with Steve Tilford, Steve’s partner Trudi, ToddGogulski, and a few others.

We lingered for hours swapping bike race stories, until the busboy was practically vacuuming under our feet.  Steve’s stories were particularly good because for one thing, he was a natural-born storyteller, and for another, some of his stories were totally new.  This was a guy who never stopped racing, and whose everyday life was like some crazy story.  For example, just four days before this night, he’d been in a cyclocross race and veered off-course, rolled out onto a frozen lake, watched in horror as the ice broke, became completely drenched, and yet climbed back on his bike and raced six more laps—his hands totally frozen and unable to work his bike’s shifters—and won the race!  (Steve’s account is here; the cyclingnews story is here.)

I was planning a freelance article about the Coors Classic party, so I wrote down the best of these stories the next morning, as close to verbatim as I could get.  Some of them are on Steve’s blog, like this one about bunny-hopping a stream at 60 mph during the Milk Race, a huge stage race in Great Britain.  On his blog, Steve wrote, “I have millions of stories from my time in England. I could do a month of posts on them.”  I wish he had!  But this wasn’t a guy who lived in the past—he had too many new things to blog about.  Thus, my favorite of his stories isn’t on, so I’m going to share it here as a tribute.

(I feel as though I have Steve’s permission, because I asked him that night if I could recount his stories in my article.  He said sure, and joked, “You can even make stuff up if you want—just make me look good!”)

Steve’s story

Here is Steve’s story, presented just as I heard it, to the best of my recollection.  It’s about the 1985 Milk Race:

It’s the last big stage of the race and the last chance for somebody to win the race away from us.  We’re really worried about the Russians, who are supposed to be really fast on the hills, but when we get to the first big climb they all just get dropped.  I said to Andy Paulin, look, the Russians are all dropped!  And of course he’s a huge guy so it’s not like we were going that fast.  We get to this descent and are just flying down it, and when we come around this curve some guy is coming at us with his car.  Andy hits the car and just goes flying.  I figure he’s probably dead. 
Now, everybody says I laid my bike down on purpose so the crash wouldn’t be so bad, but that’s not really what happened.  When you break a leg and a collarbone, it’s not because you crashed gently.  I go sliding under the car and stop when my bars get stuck between the ground and the bumper.  I’m pretty f---ed up but I know it could be worse.  So when they put me in the back of the ambulance I can tell I’m about to lose consciousness, it’s like a black tunnel is collapsing over me, and I look up at Trudi and say, “What about Andy, is he gonna live?”  She says, “Oh, yeah, he’ll be fine.”  Now I’m slipping away but before I do I’m like, “Wait—what about me?”  But it’s too late, I don’t even get to ask.
            So they take me to this tiny hospital in the middle of nowhere where every other patient is an eighty-year-old man, and at first I’m stoked because I’m this young American guy among all these good looking English nurses.  I’m getting these nice sponge baths and everything, but then they tell me the doctor only comes once a week!  I’m pretty sure my leg is broken but all I’m getting is sponge baths.  Finally the doctor comes and tells me, yeah, it’s broken, and I’m looking forward to the plaster cast, but instead all I get is a nurse wrapping it in an Ace bandage!  Even so, I made out better than Andy.  He was at the other hospital and got sick of being there, so he just left, only to pass out at a train station that afternoon.  He made his way back to the hospital, but they wouldn’t let him back in!

Further reading

Here are a few links to Steve’s blog featuring (or mentioning) the Milk Race:

A close friend of Steve Tilford’s, Vincent, is maintaining the blog, providing news in the aftermath of this terrible accident, and offering friends a way to share their own stories.  You can click here for details, and visit the main site,, for the latest updates.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Can EPO Kill?


Once in a while I read a magazine article that gets my dander up.  In such cases I may offer a rebuttal in these pages, not because my readership is vast, but because the offensive writer might see my post and decide to go toe-to-toe with me.  I’d love that.

In this post I take on Mark Johnson and his VeloNews article titled “Book Excerpt:  Dr. Ferrari Was Right,” published on July 8, 2016 and updated on March 15, 2017.  The title refers to the disgraced cycling team doctor Michele Ferrari and his infamous quote about recombinant human erythropoietin (EPO), the drug of choice among cheating cyclists, being no more dangerous than orange juice.  Johnson makes the interesting observation that while EPO use is widely associated with death by heart attack, no causality has ever been established.

If this observation had been made in a brisk 200-word essay, I’d be grateful for it—I appreciate having a myth debunked.  But Johnson’s annoying and tedious 6,500-word article goes way too far, slinging mud at anti-doping journalists and anybody else who still thinks cheating is lame.  Read on as I savage Johnson’s essay.

Repetition as a rhetorical technique

In  junior high we all learned the basic essay formula:  state your thesis; support it through a number of examples; then restate it in your conclusion.  Those of us lucky enough to get more advanced instruction learned to mix this up a bit.  For example, you might skip the up-front thesis statement, presenting information that gradually leads the reader to come to your thesis on his or her own; following this, you can state your thesis at the end or even leave it merely implied.  Most good nonfiction writing does some version of this.

Johnson, however, gets to the point early on and then beats us over the head with his assertion, no fewer than 16 times by my count.  He starts with this:  “While the Dutch riders Rouet referred to were never conclusively linked to death by EPO, the fabrication served a larger anti-doping moral agenda and the missionary effort to impose purity on sport.”  As he develops his essay he reminds us of his position again and again.  Here are some examples: 
  • “The story’s claim that the drug was responsible for 18 cyclist deaths was based on speculation”
  • “What was not provable in 1991, or today, is that the drug killed a rash of cyclists”
  • “EPO deaths made for good news stories, even if there was no autopsy evidence that EPO was actually killing cyclists”
  • “No evidence exists to support the claim that EPO caused any of the cyclists’ deaths in the early 1990s”
  • “Turning back to the EPO fiction”
  • “While there is no evidence directly linking EPO to any competitive cyclist deaths in Europe”
  • “The EPO-kills fabrication”
  •  “The fictional nature of drug-death stories”
Okay, we get it, dude!  It’s almost as though Johnson is hoping by sheer repetition to get our heckles up against this confusion of anecdote with science.  I might start to feel annoyed by all the journalists who conflated correlation with causality, except I’m far more annoyed by Johnson’s logorrhea.  Fine, state your thesis at the beginning and the end, maybe even at the 3,000-word point just in case we forgot.  But 16 times?  What, do you think your readers all have ADHD?

Bludgeoned by evidence

To Johnson’s credit, he does back up his assertion by citing many articles that promote the EPO-equals-death idea without providing solid evidence.  A couple of illustrative examples, and allusions to other articles, would have convinced me that this unproven assertion is widespread.

Unfortunately, Johnson feels the need to bolster his case again and again, delving at length into seven different articles, along with a painstaking analysis of the matter by Bernat López, a Spanish professor similarly fascinated by the tendency of journalists to perpetuate one another’s hasty conclusions.  López must have even more time on his hands than Johnson, as he did a “meta-analysis” of 56 “academic texts” on this issue:  36 citing the dangers of EPO, and 20 arguing against the claim that EPO has killed cyclists.  Johnson blathers further by restating López’s conclusion—that no hard evidence causally links EPO with cyclists’ deaths—four times.

How much evidence do we need?  This overabundance of refutations turn Johnson’s article into some kind of journalistic Whack-A-Mole.  Okay, fine, nobody has proven EPO is deadly!  We get it!  Why go on and on like this? 

The answer to this question, I assert, is that Johnson wants to lead us toward a more subtle thesis, which he doesn’t support nearly so well, and which ultimately pisses me off.  Let’s sneak up on this hidden agenda by exploring some more of Johnson’s journalistic missteps.

Sensationalist language

Throughout his story, Johnson does a most curious thing:  while paraphrasing other journalists, and insinuating that they’re resorting to sensationalism, he employs sensationalist language of his own, again and again.  When he occasionally quotes an article directly, I see a striking disparity between the other journalist’s language and Johnson’s.  For example, a New York Times writer states that “the consequences [of EPO abuse], in some cases, may be deadly.”  Johnson sums up the article with this zinger:  “The New York Times startled readers with news of a killer stalking the roadways and velodromes of Europe.”  A killer stalking the roadways?  Seriously?

A caption in the same Times article read, “Mr. Draaijer’s widow believes that the drug recombinant erythropoietin was involved with his death.”  The Times later ran a correction, acknowledging that this caption reflected mere speculation on the widow’s part.  Johnson’s conclusion:  “Despite the correction, the rumor was already set:  EPO was a new drug of athlete destruction.”  Johnson, calm down!  Stop being so dramatic!

Here are some other examples of Johnson’s bombastic language:
  • a killer set loose among the peloton
  • scary new athlete killer
  • a mass killer
  • Grim Reaper haunting bike races and marathons
  • press-supported notion that EPO was indiscriminately slaughtering cyclists in the early 1990s
  • EPO’s black reputation in sports as a drug of mass destruction
  • colorful, body-strewn doping history
By employing this kind of language when paraphrasing the articles he denounces, Johnson is committing an aggregate “straw man” fallacy:  he presents a weakened (in this case exaggerated) version of his opponents’ arguments in order to knock it down.

Johnson doesn’t include hyperlinks to the articles he cites, and I couldn’t find all of them, but I did check out the New York Times article.  Nowhere did I find anything like Johnson’s hyperbole.  I found responsible, carefully worded but qualified assertions:
  • Doctors and blood specialists say the drug may be implicated in the deaths of as many as 18 European professional bicycle racers in the last four years
  • Only anecdotal evidence links EPO to these deaths
  • An autopsy did not specify the cause of death
I also happen to have clippings from two other articles on this topic.  While they both do suggest a link between EPO use and death, their wording is also cautious and understated, exactly as you would expect from a responsible journalist.

For example, “Cycle of Tragedy” by Ron Kroichick in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 9, 2004, states, “The absence of definitive causes ... underscores long-standing suspicions about performance enhancing drug use in cycling.”  While his article suggests a link, Kroichik never uses sensational language like “scary new athlete killer” or “drug of athlete destruction.”

Similarly, in “The Hardest Test,” in The New Yorker, August 21, 2000, Julian Barnes writes, “The assumption was that [the athletes’] heart rate had dropped during sleep and became simply insufficient to pump the blood. To counter this, EPO takers were said to get up in the middle of the night to exercise.”  Note the careful language here:  “the assumption was” and “were said to.”  Barnes doesn’t even assert that these reports can be proven. They lend themselves reasonably well to hearsay, but not to being substantiated.  After all, what athlete would go on record saying, “Yeah, I get up to exercise during the night because of all the EPO I take”?

An inconvenient truth

While Johnson derides the idea that EPO killed athletes, he does concede that the notion isn’t far-fetched.  He quotes hematologist Dr. Allan Erslev as saying, “The combination of lower blood volume from dehydration and higher hematocrit from EPO would increase blood viscosity and be not only detrimental to muscular action but also the cause of possible life-threatening thrombosis.”

Beyond this—and flying in the face of his earlier naysaying—Johnson concedes, “My own search of medical literature finds plenty of warnings about the dangers of too much EPO…. A 1996 study of dialysis patients was halted because patients on high EPO dosages suffered more heart attacks than a control group on lower amounts of EPO.”

Now, wait a second here.  If we have substantiation of the various claims that EPO thickens the blood, and medical research does show a link between EPO and heart attacks, is the implied causality in the death of these cyclists really so absurd?  Is it really “fictional,” a “fabrication,” a “fable,” and a “myth”?  Johnson makes no effort to explain why nothing has been proven in the case of cyclists, as though EPO’s risks didn’t have solid medical evidence behind them.

Does it really not occur to Johnson why this evidence doesn’t exist?  Has he not considered that team doctors of deceased athletes would prefer to sweep their EPO use under the carpet?  Has he not contemplated that when a cyclist dies and his family is grieving, no authority wants to step up and say, “Hey, if it’s any consolation, this guy was a lying cheating scoundrel”?  The governing body of cycling, meanwhile, has been infamously good at looking the other way when it comes to doping.  So the real question is, who exactly was supposed to come forth and investigate these deaths?

Sure, journalists would love to cry foul, but how are they going to gain access to damning evidence?  Who is going to let them snoop around the cyclist’s deathbed?  Johnson complains when an autopsy isn’t carried out (“there was no autopsy evidence that EPO was actually killing cyclists”), but as the Times writer pointed out, this causality cannot necessarily be established by an autopsy.

Meanwhile, what other explanation has been offered? If EPO didn’t kill these athletes, what did?  Did they drink milk from rbGH-treated cows?  Did they microwave food in plastic containers?  Did their parents just not love them enough?

(Johnson does offer up one theory, suggested by López and his survey of EPO research:  “If the researchers behind the 20 papers came up with any one Grim Reaper haunting bike races and marathons around the world, it was the damaging effect of extreme and prolonged training.” Well, isn’t it easier to train yourself to death when you’ve used EPO to speed your day-to-day recovery?  Maybe the relatively slow replacement of red blood cells is nature’s way of giving athletes the rest they need.)

Is death the only reason to condemn EPO?

Okay, let’s set aside the possibility that EPO has actually killed anyone.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that EPO is never fatal.  Does that mean it’s okay?  Is that what Johnson is trying to say?  He seems inclined to vindicate the illegal use of this drug.  His vitriol verges on mocking the antidoping effort—not its efficacy, which is an easy target, but its very aim.

The height of this strange attack is a statement Johnson cites from López:  that “because the general public is largely indifferent to the drug-regulating policies that are the bedrock of anti-doping organizations, anti-doping missionaries played up the deadly EPO myth as a way to gain sympathy from a public that has an otherwise insatiable appetite for legal and illegal performance- and lifestyle-enhancing drugs.”

Granted, this is López’s assertion, but because Johnson trots it out (without calling it out as the raving of an obvious dipshit), he seems to agree.  WTF?!  Since when does the public have this insatiable appetite for drugs?  I don’t!  I want to see clean athletes!  The anti-doping “missionaries” (you can just hear the contempt in López’s voice) have had my support (or “sympathy,” if you must) all along.  I don’t agree that the public is against doping controls, and moreover I don’t believe that the public would demand the risk of fatality as a prerequisite for getting on board with an end to doping.

To his credit, Johnson does a fine job of explaining how EPO overrides the body’s natural ability to regulate blood cell production.  But he doesn’t seem to grasp, or at least acknowledge, that this is a very scary proposition.  Perhaps he never read Matt Rendell’s chilling article about Marco Pantani, “The Long, Lonely Road to Oblivion,” in The Guardian (March 7, 2004).  Check out this bit about what doctors found when, after a terrible crash, Pantani was admitted to an Italian hospital for multiple compound bone fractures: 
On his arrival at Turin’s Centro Traumatologico Ortopedico at 3.20pm, doctors were startled to discover blood values that were abnormal, almost bizarre: his haematocrit, or red cell count, was 60 per cent (50 per cent is high); his haemoglobin was 20.8g per 100ml (18g is noteworthy). These values then plummeted: on 25 October, with 15.9 per cent haematocrit and 5.8g haemoglobin, it took a transfusion to save his life.
After which the anaemia miraculously cleared. Someone, it seemed, had injected Pantani with the genetically engineered blood-booster erythropoietin, known in sport as the doping agent EPO. At the age of just 25, Pantani’s body had grown so dependent on these injections that it could no longer produce red blood cells.
Oh. My. God.  To tamper with the body’s ability to regulate blood cell production doesn’t sound safe whatsoever, whether it actually kills you or not.  Why does Johnson hold out for proof of fatality?  Isn’t EPO scary enough as it is?

What really gets me about Johnson is his scornful attitude toward the anti-doping mentality, and his insistence that raising suspicion about unsolved deaths in the EPO era is somehow more irresponsible or unfair than the EPO use itself.  “The fiction served as propaganda,” Johnson whines, “that made it professionally and personally suicidal to challenge the morality and righteousness of the antidrug movement.”  Isn’t the antidrug movement intrinsically moral and righteous?  On what moral ground could a cyclist challenge drug controls?  Do we have a God-given right to cheat by using dangerous drugs?

I struggle to understand what Johnson is really after here.  What version of cycling would he prefer?  A sport where those willing to take the greatest risks to their health (and their livelihood) are allowed to dominate, with a crushing, tactically minimalist style of putting all their doped teammates at the front of the pack and grinding everybody down until nobody is left to challenge their doped-to-the-gills leader?

I love this sport because, as a former racer with a sadly meager hematocrit, I found ways to succeed through grit, perseverance, patience, teamwork, and tactical acumen.  As such, I want to see all kinds of racers have a chance, not just those who respond particularly well to drugs.

For Johnson to attack the anti-doping movement, on the basis of insufficient evidence of EPO’s role in the deaths of cyclists, is seriously off-base.  I’m offended by his snide attitude, his bombastic and sensationalist language, and his audacious attempt to claim the moral high ground.  I hope Johnson’s book tanks, and that nobody mistakes his dogged rhetoric and tedious repetition for actual logic, judgment, or insight.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Expensive Wristwatches


This post was inspired by a recent New Yorker article, “Time Out,” by one of my favorite current writers, the Russian émigré Gary Shteyngart.  The article concerns Shteyngart’s growing obsession with expensive wristwatches, brought on by the 2016 presidential election and its outcome.

I was also inspired by a print ad for a wannabe elite wristwatch, the Stauer Magnificat II.

But most all, this post is the (perhaps inevitable) result of my long, troubled love affair with my own wristwatch.

Shteyngart’s article

As expected, I found Shteyngart’s article funny and touching.  (For a sample of his style of humor, click here.)  But I was also nonplussed.  I understand his angst, but not his reaction to it.  That is, I grasp that most people found the 2016 election exhausting and stressful, and millions of these people (roughly half the US population) are suffering even more given the outcome; based on Shteyngart’s background and his politics, it’s a no-brainer that he’d be one of these millions.  But his headlong plunge into retail therapy seems like a weird response.

Quick synopsis:  after a panic attack on the subway, during which staring at the soothing glide of the second hand on his $1000-dollar watch helped him cope, Shteyngart dropped over $4,000 on a fancier watch, a German-made Nomos Minimatik Champagner.  Just before Election Day, he says, “as my feelings of dread spiked, I decided to buy a Rolex.”  Then, to bolster himself for the inauguration, Shteyngart bought another expensive watch.  “I knew I had to stop,” he declares, “but I had an excuse.  I desperately needed a waterproof watch for swimming, my only form of exercise.”  WTF!?  His $4,000 Nomos isn’t even waterproof?

That’s not all.  He goes on to admit that his fancy watches don’t actually keep very good time.  The Nomos loses five seconds a day, and the Rolex gains fifteen.  This amazes me.  Apparently the lack of a quartz crystal, and thus the need for incredibly complicated workings, keeps these elite watches from doing their core job very well. 

Okay, that’s not fair.  The actual core job of these watches is simply to look great and be elite.  And that, for me, is the real irony.  The depth of Shteyngart’s existential angst about Trump presupposes that, like most hand-wringing Democrats, he is opposed to Trump’s unapologetic, ostentatious wealth and socioeconomic elitism.  So why would Shteyngart cope by laying out thousands of dollars on needlessly expensive and prestigious luxury products?  Shouldn’t his taste in watches be closer to Bernie Sanders’ than the Donald’s?  (Actually, Trump’s choice in watches is a bit more complicated than you’d think.)

I won’t dwell further on Shteyngart’s retail therapy because a) emotional trauma is a complicated and deeply personal affair, and b) this post is threatening to get political so I’d better nip that in the bud.

Stauer and the paradox of the luxury brand

I certainly don’t mean to imply that I’m above, beyond, or impervious to branding.  I don’t actively seek out prestigious brands, but I instinctively recoil at any product that’s trying to pass itself off as something fancier than it really is.  Which brings us to the Stauer Magnificat II.  I’ve been sneering at Stauer ads for years.  They seem targeted directly at people who suffer from acute brand envy and badly wish they could afford luxury and class.

The ad in question, which is very similar to the online version here, announces, “Upper Class Just Got Lower Priced,” and goes on to say, “Finally, luxury built for value—not for false status.” 

Okay guys, first of all, “luxury” and “value” are not compatible concepts.  They are opposite ends of a see-saw.  Second, there is no such thing as “false status.”  What would that even mean?  Status is a perception of somebody’s standing … errors in judgment are possible, of course, but that’s not the same as falsehood.  If “false status” means “trying to impersonate a higher status,” nobody could be guiltier than Stauer.  But they’re implying that wearing an actual Rolex is pretending to be high status.  How is that pretending?  You buy a Rolex, you put it on your wrist, and then—what?  You laugh maniacally like a criminal mastermind?  You think, “Hahahahaha, when I wear this Rolex, nobody will know that I’m actually lowbrow!”?  It’s as weird a concept as the evil giraffe

The ad goes on to ask, “Do you have enough confidence to pay less?”  It chides the wealthy person whom their target market presumably resents, declaring, “Status seekers are willing to overpay just to wear a designer name.”  This is absolutely true, but Stauer isn’t really an alternative.  If they were marketing their watch as “a really nice timepiece that looks great,” that would be fine, but they’re calling their product “upper class” and “luxury.” 

Look, Stauer people:  your watch is $87.50.  It might be a fine watch (okay, “timepiece”), but nobody will mistake the wearer for a 1-percenter.  If anybody even notices the watch and examines it, he’ll either ignore its lack of pedigree or snicker at it.  He won’t decide the wearer is horologically sophisticated, particularly confident, or in any way elite.

One thing I learned from Shteyngart’s article is that people who appreciate really expensive watches are not actually that ostentatious about it.  Their pleasure comes from their awareness of the delicate workings inside the watch that nobody can even see.  Shteyngart calls these workings “perversely opulent” and goes on to say, “Parts of the mechanism are finished by hand but are never meant to be seen  by the owner; only the watchmaker and subsequent watch repairers will see the work in full.”  In the case of Stauer, a watchmaker didn’t make the watch, and the watch wouldn’t be worth ever repairing.  Noone will see anything, if there’s even anything to see.

The painstaking human effort required to produce these watches, Shteyngart contends, is also central to their allure:  “The Nomos was not a quartz watch built by robots in a giant Asian factory.  A German man or woman with real German problems had constructed this piece, blue screw by blue screw.”  This completely flies in the face of the Stauer ad, which boasts, “By using advanced computer design and robotics, we have been able to drastically reduce the price on this precision movement.”  Yeah, you and everybody else producing run-of-the-mill, non-luxury, value-oriented cheap consumer goods.

Shall I bag on Stauer some more?

Let’s have a closer look at the Magnificat II itself.  (Perhaps you’re wondering:  was there an original Magnificat?  Not that I can find.  Somebody in marketing must have determined that “II” at the end would increase the perceived luxury and class of this timepiece.)  I enjoyed the amateur reviews for this.  One review is titled “A watch that is ok.”  I love this headline.  It’s so sad, and so much more profound than “OK watch.”  I’m somehow put in mind of Eeyore.  A donkey who is depressed.

The reviewer goes on to declare breathlessly, “I was so happy but after a few months I have one problem with the watch, in the morning when I get up to look at the time the time is off and have to reset the time and I have to look at my phone to see what the real time is and I was even late for work when I relied on the time my Stauer Magnificat II Watch had.”

Another reviewer seems happy enough—he gives the Stauer five stars—but, to my mind, inadvertently damns it with faint praise:  “I set this watch to my smart cell phone time and today I checked it again. Still accurate to the minute.”  Um … isn’t the gold standard “accurate to the second”?  Are we supposed to be impressed that this watch lost or gained less than a minute in a day?  (The Magnificat II, like the really expensive watches it’s trying to be, is mechanical instead of quartz, which seems like a really poor choice—like buying grocery store sushi or ordering puffer fish at a culinary academy.) 

The reviewer goes on to say, “Great valve, great looks and will buy again.”  I was trying to figure out what valve a watch could possibly have before realizing the reviewer meant “value.”  (Maybe he was trying to be fancy in the Classical Latinate manner, à la  E PLVRIBVS VNVM?)  Moving on to “will buy again,” this suggests loyalty, sure, but doesn’t it also imply that the reviewer expects this watch to have a short life?

My own beloved wristwatch

Honestly, between a) being a lifelong cheap bastard, b) despising the pathetic yearning that causes people to pretend to be wealthy, and yet c) loving well-designed, well-machined stuff like racing bikes, I don’t know what kind of watch I’d buy if I had to buy one.  Fortunately, I haven’t had to grapple with this decision.  I never had to shop for my beloved watch—instead, it kind of found me.

(It’s not like I never bought a watch, of course.  After the inevitable cheap digital Casios of my youth, I decided as a young adult to buy a fairly cool but also humble Benrus analog wristwatch.  I got it for a song because it was a display model and the box & instructions had been lost.  I liked this watch just fine until the original burly rubbery band broke and I had to replace it with this crappy two-tone metal thing that looked like it would smell like an old man.  Meanwhile, the glass face of the Benrus got pretty scratched up over time, to the point of being a bit cloudy.  Still, it never occurred to me to replace this watch.)

Out of nowhere, in 2002, I was a winner in the annual “President’s Club” contest at work, which normally would have resulted in a lavish vacation to an exotic locale where I would get to meet the president of the company.  The problem was, the president at this time was in hot water with the SEC, and the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, so nobody was attending lavish corporate junkets.  So instead of the normal prize, I got 1,000 “e-motivation” points, which worked kind of like cereal box tops—you saved them up and exchanged them for valuable prizes.

What was I going to get?  This was an enormous number of points.  I could have had a whole slew of lawn furniture, a mountain bike, or a giant TV, or a bunch of random Hammacher-Schlemmer-ish stuff I didn’t want.  I felt I had to choose something fast, though, because any day the company could go under and the whole e-motivation program could be shut down, its points becoming as useless as my company stock options.  So I rashly threw 250 points at a 512 MB MP3 player, and the rest at a Swiss-made Tag Heuer wristwatch.

In retrospect, the watch was a stroke of genius:  almost 15 years later, this very watch can be purchased used for more than twice what the e-motivation catalog originally valued it at. The MP3 player, meanwhile, is basically useless and inarguably inferior in every respect to a modern one you can buy for about $30.  A watch like mine ends up being a good investment:  it’s impervious to obsolescence, and is as beautiful today as the day I got it, because the face is made of sapphire (meaning only a diamond could scratch it) and the rest is stainless steel.

Does my watch have a soothing sweep second hand, like Shteyngart’s watch (and the Stauer Magnificat II)?  No, its second hand ticks one second at a time, like that of a cheap Timex or a fake Rolex.  Is the movement mechanical?  No, it’s quartz, which I guess the true watch aficionado would find embarrassing.  Do I care?  No, because this watch keeps almost perfect time!  It loses a second about every two months!  (I end up setting it only when I change time zones, or to accommodate Daylight Saving Time.)

It’s kind of hard to imagine why anybody would prefer a mechanical (vs. quartz) movement.  If you stop wearing your mechanical watch for a few days, it runs down and has to be re-synched and wound up.  Plus, as I mentioned, mechanical movements keep crappy time.  Okay, fine, there’s no battery to replace, but check this out:  not only does my Tag Heuer’s battery last about five years, but the watch came with lifetime free battery replacement, by a super fancy outfit in San Francisco that actually pressure tests the seals to make sure, after they put the back back on, that the watch is still water resistant to 200 meters (which is far deeper than I would ever swim, by the way).

Okay, I get that you’re starting to be bored and annoyed by how pleased I am with my watch and myself.  Don’t worry, as always, there’s…

Trouble in paradise

Not everything about this watch is perfect.  For one thing, the bezel stopped clicking at some point and now just spins, which is kind of a bummer.  Also, this watch has a bracelet design feature that backfired.  The bracelet has two modes:  regular and extended, the latter giving you a bit of slack to fit over the thick neoprene sleeve of your wetsuit.  As if!  People buy diving watches because diving watches are cool, not because anybody actually scuba dives.  (Same deal as the basketball shoes I wore in college.)  A tiny metal tab on the little extended bracelet doodad broke, so the bracelet would pop open, and this couldn’t be fixed.  The price of a new bracelet—$250—surely reflects a built-in luxury tax which I am congenitally incapable of paying.  So I decided to epoxy the bracelet extender shut, which is a bit kludgy and makes the watch harder to put on.

Meanwhile, five or six years after I got the watch (which was two or three years after the warranty expired), the date counter stopped working.  This is bad enough by itself, but it carries an extra sting because the date also stopped working on my Benrus, decades ago.  That watch was still under warranty so I sent it in for repair with a clearly written note explaining the problem; waited for weeks and weeks; and then got it back unrepaired with a work order that read “CHECK ALL HANDS DOES NOT ADVANCE.”  The technician must have watched the hour, minute, and second hands for a minute or two, shrugged (or some other equivalent of “Okay, I checked”) and mailed it back without ever considering that the date hand might be frozen.  So now, whenever I reflexively check the date on my Tag Heuer before remembering it doesn’t work, the stupid little voice in my head says, “CHECK ALL HANDS DOES NOT ADVANCE.”

The last time I had my watch’s battery replaced I asked how much it would cost to fix the date.  This put a real gleam in the jeweler’s eye, and though I don’t remember the precise figure he quoted, it was somewhere in the realm of “your firstborn child.”  Bottom line, this is too fancy a watch for the likes of me to properly service.  (Sure, one could argue that since I paid nothing for this watch—other than the income tax on it—that I am already ahead of the game and can afford to splurge on a repair.  But that’s just not how my cheapskate brain works.)

But wait, there’s more!  The big problem is, I suffer from constant dread:  what happens if I lose this watch?  What then?  Normally, the fact of owning something expensive means that at some point you convinced yourself that you deserved it and could afford it.  This means you can replace it as necessary.  For example, if my $1,000 bicycle wheels were to wear out or be destroyed in a fiery wreck, I’d have no problem going out and buying a new pair.  Sure, the outlay would sting, but the decision is a no-brainer.  I’m a bike geek, and that’s the cost of doing business.

But with this watch, I never made that decision.  I never took that bold step of saying, “Yes, I’m worth it.”  It would be difficult to decide this.  I mean, what am I, some kind of dandy?  Am I the slave to status that Stauer so routinely mocks?  Is it fair to my children to make them wipe with regular old toilet paper instead of raw silk, just so I can be all fancy with a decadent Swiss watch?

Given this mindset, which despite my existentialist leanings seems as unalterable as the size of my wrist, the only way to continue having a nice watch is to own this one forever and take good care of it—because there are no do-overs with this thing, no chance of another 1,000 e-motivation points falling in my lap.  The watch feels like a miraculous a gift from Fate, like my wife and kids are. It’s like a one-time chance to live way above my station, so I better hold onto it.

Am I exaggerating this anxiety?  No, and here’s an anecdote to show you I’m serious.  Last summer I was in Colorado on vacation, and played some full-contact water basketball with my brother and my kids at a swimming pool.  Then we went to the diving pool and slid down this giant slide a bunch of times, then went next door to the grown-up pool, swam a few laps there, relaxed in the hot tub, then went back to the kiddie pool.  Suddenly I realized—OMG!  Where’s my watch?!

In a panic, my brother and I swam all over that pool, combing it for my lost watch.  (Yes, my brother was actually in a panic too, because he also wears a Tag Heuer and could fully relate to my situation.)  Amazingly, I found my watch (minus a broken pin).  My relief was twofold:  1) that I was able to find it, and 2) that I had even noticed in time that it was missing. 

Upon reflection, though, I realized that it was inevitable I’d realize my watch wasn’t on my wrist.  There is a watch vigilance process that runs continuously in my brain from the moment I put that watch on until the moment I take it off.  (When I check my watch, am I checking the time, or checking to make sure the watch is still on my wrist?  Probably both.)

I’m reminded of this mental process whenever I go through airport security:  after taking off my watch and storing it safely in my bag, I go to check the time a minute later, see my bare wrist, and panic briefly before remembering I’d stashed the watch away.

It’s kind of like how a PC has a job that runs around every five seconds or so checking all the USB ports to see if something has been plugged in.  How much RAM does that USB-checking process eat up?  And what is the equivalent in terms of brain power devoted to checking for my watch?  And given how much I always have on my mind already, as a working stiff and husband and parent, doesn’t this kickass watch start to look like an unnecessary burden?

Yep, it sure does.  But what can I do?  The way that I’m wired, owning this watch is in fact a burden, but not one I wish to give up.  Perhaps I am as neurotic about watches as Shteyngart, but in my own way.  To him, watches must look like a path to salvation, whereas to me, a watch is like having another kid to both enjoy and fret about.  If Shteyngart worries about losing any of his watches, he doesn’t let on ... he always seems focused on his next acquisition.  To extend my analogy, he’s kind of like the womanizer who leaves in his wake a series of neglected bastard children.

Is that fair?  No, of course not ...  that analogy only highlights how silly my devotion is to my watch and how exaggerated my sense of responsibility to it.  This isn’t a kid, and it isn’t a pet.  It’s just a watch.  I’ll try to remember that.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.