Sunday, December 14, 2014

Riding Rollers - Frequently Asked Questions

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mature themes and mild strong language.


Decades ago, when there was no such thing as a mountain bike and the stationary trainer was in its infancy, any racer who could afford it bought a set of rollers.  I wasn’t so lucky, and though as a teen I did win a turbo-trainer in a (rigged) raffle at the Coors Classic Christmas party, I didn’t own a set of rollers until college.  I somehow managed to lose those (maybe my roommate snagged them?) and didn’t buy another set until somewhat recently. 

I’m back riding rollers now, and this post is both a tribute and a useful how-to guide that will tell you (almost) everything you ever wanted to know, or didn’t even know you wanted to know, about riding rollers.  (I say “almost” because I don’t explain herein how to ride rollers.  Just get on and do it, and if you fall off, well, brush yourself off, acknowledge that it is sweet and fitting to hate yourself, and get back on.)

Did I miss something?  E-mail me

Riding Rollers – Frequently Asked Questions

Q.  Why should I ride indoors at all?  After all, the Velominati “Rules” website says, “If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass.  Period.”

A.  First of all, the authority of the Velominati has been thoroughly dismissed in these pages.  I’ve also written at length about the absurdity of choosing to ride in the rain.  Unless you live in such a cold or rainy place you have to capitulate, training indoors makes a lot of sense.

Q.  Why ride rollers instead of a trainer?

A.  You can always tell when a guy has been riding a trainer a lot because he’s pedaling squares.  Rollers, on the other hand, smooth out your form and enhance your grace on the bike.  But that’s only part of why you should ride them.

Frankly, you should ride rollers simply because it’s tricky—because as you get older you need to convince yourself you’ve still got it.  Plus, if you’re the parent of a teenager—a member of the narcissistic “selfie” generation—you must show him or her that there are still cool things you can do that he or she can’t. 

(My teenage daughter, reading this over my shoulder, takes umbrage at the suggestion she’s narcissistic.  She certainly isn’t, and has never taken a selfie, but since I’m running out of things I’m better at than she, it’s important that she sees me riding rollers and is suitably impressed.)

Besides, anything that improves your balance mitigates the risk that when you’re really old you’ll fall and break your hip, which is so often the beginning  of the end for the elderly. 

Q.  I’m a teenager, and I think learning to ride rollers looks like a lot of hassle.  And I don’t need to worry about balance because I will never get old and I will never die. 

A.  Wow, my blog attracted a teenager!  That’s amazing!  Wait, where are you going?  Come back, I won’t bite! 

Okay, look.  It’s time to admit that you’ll never have a massive presence on Vine, and nobody is going to “like” that Instagram photo of your cheesecake as much as the identical cheesecake photo sent around by a popular or attractive kid.  But imagine posting a YouTube video of yourself eating half a grapefruit, properly, with a spoon, while riding rollers no-handed (the acid test of m4d sk1llz in this albeit remote realm).  If your video were to end with you tilting your head back to drink the juice and thus crashing, that video might get a lot of hits!  Man, it’s a shame there was no Internet or YouTube when I was thirteen…

Q.  Say I buy a pair of rollers and like them.  Should I get rid of my fluid trainer?

A.  No, keep it around because sometimes you just want to zone out, mosh on the pedals stupidly, and not have to keep up that finesse.  I’m keeping my trainer even though the damn thing has developed this horrible knocking sound I’m too lazy to troubleshoot, which is embarrassing because years ago I positioned myself as an authority on choosing a trainer, and now this thing’s dying even though it’s not that old.  At least, it doesn’t seem that old.  Though actually, I came across this video involving the box that trainer came in, and I guess it’s not that new.


That little girl in the video?  She (the aforementioned non-narcissistic teenager) is over 5-foot-3 now and rode up Mount Diablo with me not long ago.

Q.  My wife has a policy about physical objects that take up space in the home or garage:  to justify its existence, she says on object “has to either be making me happy, or making me money.”  By this standard, how can I justify owning both a trainer and rollers?

A.  If we’re permitted to define happiness as “absence of unhappiness,” remind your wife how crucial exercise is to your physical and mental health.  Given your hopeless starch addiction, If you didn’t have all the tools necessary to facilitate your exercise, you’d end up looking like Henry VIII.  Would your wife really enjoy being crushed under all that weight?  Besides, without exercise you’d also be as grumpy as Henry VIII, and we all know how that panned out.  (This is an especially powerful argument in my household, as my wife has failed to produce a male heir.)

(By the way, I have made money via riding rollers.  When I was a UC Santa Barbara student, the cycling team set up a roller demonstration in the student plaza to raise money for our trip to nationals.  We put out a hat to collect donations, and offered to try really advanced tricks—stuff that had “never before been attempted,” like riding rollers no-handed or at 50 mph—if somebody would drop in a $10 or $20 bill.  Plus, when one of our more hunky roller-demo riders, the affectionately nicknamed Brad Longshlong, got his photo on the front page of the school paper, that was arguably better publicity than the team got when we won a national title.)

Q.  My rollers don’t have a magnetic resistance thingy.  I can pedal along at over 25 mph without actually getting much of a workout.  Is there any way to add resistance without spending any money?

A.  The best rollers, which would be Al Kreitlers with the Headwind Fan, give you all the resistance you could want.  But even if you have more basic rollers, there are a couple things you can do.

First off, when riding rollers, use your old “rain bike” with its non-compact crank (i.e., higher gearing) and its old-school, less aerodynamic wheels.  You can also put cards in the spokes to hamper the aerodynamics.  I haven’t done any scientific tests to see if this actually helps, but as everybody knows, cards in the spokes is just plain fun.

If you’re really serious about a good workout, your best bet is to set up your brakes so they’re always on.  You could do this with a toe-strap crudely wrapped around the brake lever, but the better way is to open the brake quick-release cam and then tighten the brake, using the barrel-adjuster, so it’s almost rubbing.  Then, during the ride, you can adjust the braking by turning down the QR cam to the desired resistance.

Q.  But won’t having my brakes on the whole time cause my rims to get super-hot, thus damaging my brake pads?

A.  As it turns out, the amount of drag necessary to give you a good workout doesn’t actually generate very much heat.  What really makes rims hot is braking on a descent, which involves much greater forces, such as gravity.  Consider this hypothetical scenario:  you and your brother Bryan are descending by bike to a party being held in a remote house along a mountain road.  The driveway is unmarked, so your other brother has promised to put out a sign or some balloons so you can find it… but he forgets, so you miss the turnoff, and then the mountain road turns to dirt, and you puncture several times until you’re out of spare tubes and patches, and you have to ride double on Bryan’s bike with your own bike over your shoulder.  Bryan is braking pretty hard to keep from stacking, which makes his hands so tired he has to stop periodically to rest them.  As you awkwardly climb off his bike, you actually burn yourself on his bike’s rim.  See?  All that weight, concentrated on one bike, gets those brakes hotter than your wrath toward the third brother … and yet, descending solo, your rims never get that hot, unless they’re carbon rims and you’re an under-skilled and overweight stockbroker riding Levi’s Granfondo.

Q.  The floor of my man-cave isn’t perfectly level.  How can I level my rollers?

A.  Palace a coin under each foot on one side.  Use British pound coins; they’re thicker.  If this isn’t enough to level your rollers, you need to re-pour the foundation of your man-cave, or set the rollers up in your wife’s secret underground lair (in which case you should put a tarp down to protect the hardwood floor).

Q.  Say I’m a teenager and don’t have my own rollers so I’m at my friend’s place riding his, and his foster parents’ four-year-old is fishing for attention by running across the room and diving into a bean bag chair, and I’m ignoring her because I don’t want to encourage her attention-junkie ways, and/or I’m just a dick, and finally she gets so frustrated at the lack of attention she comes up and grabs my handlebars and pulls me off the rollers.  What should I do?

A.  Do nothing.  In particular, don’t yell at her because then she’ll start crying and run and get her mom, who is one weird lady.

Q.  What if my cat, mesmerized by the spinning wheels and also not very bright, tries to jump right through my wheel?

A.  This could never happen.  No cat is that stupid.  The person who warned you about that “possibility” is a broken-down alcoholic and it’s really sad.

Q.  What if the power goes out while I’m riding rollers, and there’s not enough natural light to see by?

A.  If you’re in the basement of your apartment building and not near a wall, all you can do is crash.  If you’re near the wall and the power is going out for just a few seconds at a time (for example, if it’s 6 a.m. and the biggest winter storm in ten years is wreaking havoc), brace an elbow on the wall until the lights come back on.  If they go out for good, but you’ve already taken your NoDoz and you’re halfway through your workout and thus too amped-up and sweaty to go back to bed and don’t care to shower in the dark, just set up some candles on either side of the front roller, to use like airport landing lights.  You may find this mood lighting takes your relationship with your rollers to a whole new level. Next time I think I’ll scatter little rose petals around as well.

Q.  But wait, if the power is out, the fan won’t work!  What about the ravages of sweat on my equipment?  And won’t I overheat?

A.  Open some windows.  This works great if you can get some cross-ventilation, especially if it’s cold out and the wind is really blowing.

Q.  But what if the rain comes blowing in the window and gets all over my expensive wireless LAN equipment?

A.  Spec your man-cave out with a Meraki MR72 Ruggedized Access Point.  That bad boy is built to withstand harsh environmental conditions:  not just rain, but extreme temperature ranges from -40°F to 140°F.  (Trust me:  if it’s -40° or 140° out, you’re really better off riding indoors.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Black Friday That Wasn’t


I hate shopping.  Whenever I exchange my money for products or services, I feel a stab of defeat.  The value I place on my belongings grows in proportion to their age—that is, to how well I’ve managed to amortize their original cost.  Of course we all seek to get the best value for our dollar, but I have a bigger goal, which is to never spend anything and forever make do with what I already have.  I’m a retailer’s worst nightmare.

I also dislike crowds, holiday lotion snipers, displays of retail abandon, and above all Christmas music.  And yet, I ventured out to Best Buy on Black Friday to buy my mom a new computer.  Not my cup of tea, but I had a rare opportunity:  my brother Bryan and I were both visiting our mom in Oregon (which doesn’t happen that often); Bryan knows more about computers than I do; and getting a Black Friday discount on a big-ticket item like a computer is worth some suffering.

Plus, I must confess, I saw a silver lining to the horridness of the outing:  I could blog about how bad it was.  You know, kind of a Heart of Darkness thing.  That’s something I like about being a blogger:  when something bad happens to me, at least it stimulates my creative juices and I can often get an interesting post out of it, and when something really bad happens to me, I might get several interesting posts out of it.

As it turns out, and as you knew already, Black Friday was a bust this year.  In this post I examine what the failure of Black Friday means to America; describe my non-horrid (but still somewhat remarkable) trip to Best Buy; and lay out my novel strategy for increasing the success of Black Friday.

 Who cares about Black Friday?

When you think about it, it’s kind of weird that, our own shopping aside, the success or failure of Black Friday is a guaranteed source of “news.”  Every year, the sales numbers for this made-up retail event are as widely reported as the outcome of football games.  And yet outside of our own shopping, why should we care what other people did on their day off?

The answer, of course, is that Black Friday is widely (though not universally) regarded  as a measure of consumer confidence, which is a yardstick by which we measure the health of our economy, and in turn the state of the nation.

I’m not at all sure any of this makes sense.  Why should we measure the health of our nation by how recklessly we spend our money, on this one arbitrarily declared day, on stupid gifts that probably won’t delight our family and friends nearly as much as we hope?  If that set of four Harvest Pumpkin soup tureens were actually a worthwhile product, you’ve have bought it for yourself.  Holiday shopping is all about retailers playing us for suckers and I can’t see how their success validates the health of the nation.

Why put any stock in consumer confidence to begin with?  How many Americans actually understand their own finances, much less the intricacies of the overall global economy?  Besides, there’s evidence to show that being confident doesn’t necessarily lead to good outcomes.  American students lead the world in confidence, even while their academic performance is sub-par.

Some suggest that the poor Black Friday numbers could actually be good thing, like this Nasdaq writer who theorizes that, because the economy has improved, people are no longer desperate enough to tolerate massive crowds just to save money.  Prosperity aside, I’d be more optimistic about our nation if journalists like this guy used better grammar:  “More than 6 million less people than expected actually went out and shopped” makes me cringe.  (Just in case you missed it, it should have read “More than 6 million fewer people…” or, even better, “Over 6 million fewer people,” though I would also gladly accept “over 6 million lesser people” though that does alter the meaning somewhat.)

Cyber Monday, meanwhile, was bigger than ever.  This reassured a lot of people that the nation is still healthy.  I’d like to think this means Americans are getting more introverted.  But actually it’s probably got more to do with laziness and just wanting everything shipped to us.

Oddly, what I would consider the greatest factor leading to Black Friday’s dismal performance is something almost nobody reported on:  Adult Thursday.  Maybe you haven’t heard of this one; it made its debut this year.  On Adult Thursday (yes, Thanksgiving Day itself), adult websites offer steep discounts and (probably more importantly) a suspension of tracking cookies, so lustful men can save a few bucks while enjoying greater anonymity.

Is Adult Thursday a good thing?  Well, I’m torn.  On the plus side, it shows the same American ingenuity that produced the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (“Hey, men love sports, but also babes—let’s give ‘em both!”).  Not since feasting on Thanksgiving was paired with watching football have we seen this kind of clever alignment; by indulging licentiousness as well, we’ve hit the trifecta!  On the negative side, I’m repulsed by the notion of would-be shoppers being too glutted on dopamine to leave the house on Friday.

(No, Adult Thursday isn’t a real thing … at least not until this post goes viral and causes life to imitate art.)

My trip to Best Buy

My wife thought I was crazy to brave Best Buy on Black Friday, until she grasped that I was sacrificing my own emotional health for my writing.  (Like me, she has had too charmed a life to be a great writer; happiness is like a consolation prize.)  But as it turned out, the dreadful hordes never showed up.  The place was less crowded than our local Target on any given day.  I found a parking spot right away.

I also got plenty of attention from the Best Buy customer service associates.  Too much, actually, since their input is practically worthless.  I’ve read articles lamenting how online giants like Amazon are eating the lunch of brick-and-mortar chains like Best Buy, but I have no sympathy.  I can get gobs of info on products by shopping online, but almost no info in the store despite the best efforts of earnest but hapless salespeople.

“I’m looking for a very basic PC for my mom,” I told the guy.  “She doesn’t want a touch-screen and doesn’t need a lot of CPU or memory.  But she is brand-conscious and will want something that looks good.”  So the guy lead me to an Acer computer.  An Acer?  Wasn’t he listening to me?  I told him, “Look, Acer is a terrible knockoff brand that neither gets nor deserves any respect, and this chintzy, shiny PC you’re showing me looks like something that was extruded from an industrial robot’s rectum.”

No, of course I didn’t really say that.  I just said, “I’m not really into Acers.”  Even this seemed to hurt the guy’s feelings and he only mumbled from this point forward, which was fine, since he knew nothing that wasn’t printed on the little placards stuck to the shelves (i.e., almost nothing at all). 

Meanwhile, I didn’t see any “SALE!” tags anywhere.  This amazed me.  I thought the whole point of Black Friday was creating a feeding frenzy, via steep discounts, that enabled a merchant to make big-time money through volume, not margin.  I really did say to the salesman, “I’m a little surprised not to see more discounts.  I thought this would be a giant discount extravaganza.”  He said, “Oh, lots of things are on sale … it’s just that the original prices aren’t shown.”  Well, no wonder Best Buy is hurting!  They don’t know the first rule of merchandizing, which is to draw maximum attention to how much the shopper will save.  (Needless to say, Best Buy also hasn’t grasped the second rule of merchandising, which is that you should artificially inflate the price of everything just so you can “discount” it without actually lowering margins.)

Now, as I see it, every salesman’s job is to remove my self-doubt and convince me that the product I’m looking at really is a good one, suits my needs, and is a good value.  The perfect pitch for the PC I ended up buying would go something like this:  “Well, it’s a great piece of luck that your mom doesn’t need a touch screen, because check out this little HP number over here.  It’s a real thoroughbred, with an industry-leading Intel i5 processor, gobs of RAM, an HD+ display, and BeatsAudio—and yet for some reason they spec’d it without a touch-screen.”  Here he would lower his voice a little and lean in to give me the inside scoop:  “It’s crazy.  I even talked to the distributor and said, ‘How can they not put a touch-screen on such a sweet machine?’  He said, ‘I know, it’s killing us, it’s why we had to price these bad boys at only $500.’  So yeah, they’re practically losing money on this model to begin with.  But you know how people are, they gotta have their touch-screens, and so this model still wasn’t moving, which is why we’re having to discount it another $100 today.  For somebody who wants top performance but doesn’t demand a touch-screen, well, this is a marriage in heaven!”  BOOM—I’d be sold.  But instead the guy said nothing.  He just stood there, hopefully, like a wallflower at a prom.  It was almost embarrassing.

Bryan and I were discussing the merits of this laptop when an older couple happened to decide on the same one, and asked the salesman to fetch one for them from the warehouse.  “Hey, you know what?” I said to him.  “Make that two of them.”  The couple, who looked like the kind of rural Oregonians whose kids call them “Ma” and “Pa,” looked at us in surprise.  I said, “You guys look like you know what you’re doing, so if this PC is good enough for you, well, it’s good enough for me.”  The woman demurred, saying, “Well, my husband chose it, and he doesn’t know that much,” but I think they were both pretty chuffed.  See?  Wherever I go, I try to spread joy.

There was no line at the point of sale.  I asked the cashier how sales were, and he said, “Been here since midnight.”  I thought that was a pretty safe response—upbeat, but noncommittal.  But it was pretty clear their Black Friday wasn’t going gangbusters.

How to reinvigorate Black Friday

Odd though it might seem, I may just be the perfect person to provide a strategy for making future Black Fridays more successful.  After all, it’s people like me who, by staying home, ruin everything.  I have a proposal that would probably make a big difference.

My strategy is based on sexism.  If you think sexism is a bad basis for anything, I hope you’re highly outspoken about the ridiculous tradition of men watching football on Thanksgiving while the women cook.  Myself, I’m not bothered by it because convincing people to buy a lot of crap they don’t need isn’t exactly a noble enterprise to begin with.

So, where men’s purchases are concerned, I think brick-and-mortar stores need to get away from providing product information, period.  There’s just no way a low-paid clerk is going to compete with the vast troves of information provided by e-commerce sites, available to shoppers via their smartphones.  Men do like to look at products in person, and heft them, but that’s about all the extra info they need.  So don’t waste money on clerks who can’t help with products that basically sell themselves.  (Oddly, Best Buy actually hampered this process, by locking down the configuration of their display computers so shoppers like my brother and me couldn’t glean info about the PC from the PC itself.)

Purveyors of hi-tech stuff should take the money they save through these workforce reductions and put it toward free manicures on Black Friday.  That way, women will actually encourage their men to take them shopping at places like Best Buy, and the men will have as long as they want to play with the computers and such.  And when it’s time for the man to spend more than he and his significant other had agreed on, at least she’ll be in a good mood.   (And yes, he will be buying stuff for himself, as opposed to buying gifts like he’s supposed to.  This behavior is established fact.)

The real Black Friday players should be clothing stores; they have the edge over e-commerce websites to begin with, since nobody buys clothing without petting it first and trying it on.  These stores should run a one-day promotion where every men’s garment purchased automatically adds value—say, 20% of the purchase amount—to a gift card that only his significant other can use, and only on a later visit.

Why would this be successful?  Well, women normally like to shop for clothes without their men around.  That way they avoid his scrutiny—“What?!  Eighty bucks for a t-shirt?!”—and don’t feel rushed.  Men, meanwhile, seldom shop for clothes at all, not just because clothes are boring but because of the male’s deep-seated fear that he’ll get disoriented and end up browsing in the women’s section by mistake.  The gift card would incentivize women to take their men clothing shopping for a change.  The man will be more confident with his selection if she likes it, and once he’s bored he’ll readily buy pretty much whatever she tells him to, just to get the whole thing over with.  Imagine a Black Friday where foot traffic is not only increased, in these Cyber-Monday-proof environments, but where purchases are consummated boldly and swiftly, with zero need for extra salespeople.

I’m not just guessing about all this!  My own track record proves this approach would work.  I’ve only been clothing shopping twice this year, and both times it was at my wife’s urging.  Both times, I bought stuff on the sole basis of her liking it.  Both times, I feel I greatly overpaid.  In terms of the health of our economy, all this is good news.  After all, a defeat for the likes of me is a big win for the Retail Industrial Complex!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Fiction - Runner-Up: A Divorce Tale


There ought to be a new literary genre (actually, it should be a classic, ages-old genre) called “divorce fiction.” After all, Barnes & Noble has an entire section called “Teen Paranormal Romance,” even though teen paranormal romance doesn’t often happen in real life (unless you agree with the guy who quipped, “I thought all teen romance was paranormal”). The divorce rate being what it is, we could use more tragicomic fiction in our lives, to help the many divorce victims cope.

And so, for that reason alone, here is a 100% fictional story I generated entirely out of my own imagination, with any resemblance of any character to any actual person—living, dead, or undead—being entirely coincidental. (“What? There might be zombies?” You’ll just have to see for yourself.)

Runner-Up – A Divorce Tale

See the poor kid painting. He is entirely focused. His home life is hard; his parents’ marriage is falling apart. Is painting a refuge? Is art the only way he can assert a satisfying level of control? Does he long to disappear into the strange undersea world he creates on the canvas?

No, not really. First off, it’s not canvas. It’s cheap construction paper. This is junior high art class. And he doesn’t fancy himself an artist; this work satisfies simply because no matter how bad he screws up, it’s still art. Who is to say he made a mistake? He could literally puke on the “canvas,” and it would still be art. In fact, puking on the painting would probably improve it. Or so he thinks ... his attitude isn’t very good.

And now he’s putting on the finishing touches. Not because the painting seems done, exactly, but because he doesn’t know what else to do, and hopes he’s done enough. But now Ms. Tincture approaches, and gasps. “Oh, Greg, I know just what you need to do to that painting—but I just can’t tell you what it is, that would be cheating! Oh, gosh, I hope you do the right thing!” He freezes, of course, and cannot add a single paint stroke from that moment on, terrified at forever ruining the first artwork he’s ever done that seemed to have any potential. So he screws around with Frank Frymouth for the rest of the hour, the two lads flirting awkwardly with Lisa Westgoober and her friend Wendy Wollrat, a girl who, by virtue of her massive chest, has earned Frank’s devout lust and admiration.

The next day, Greg strolls into the classroom quite casually. He has forgotten all about the state of his painting and its sudden, unexpected artistic potential. Ms. Tincture rushes out to greet him. “Oh, Greg, I’m so sorry, I tried to stop myself but I just couldn’t! I knew exactly what your painting needed and just couldn’t keep from adding the finishing touches! I’m so sorry!” He looks up towards the front of the classroom to see his painting on proud display, with a few subtle charcoal bands added which, frankly, improve the painting dramatically. Greg now knows he can’t get a bad grade on this painting, since the teacher is complicit in it.

The kid, you see, lacks the self esteem to be offended by anything. He lacks the idealism and artistic vision that might have made him take offense to Ms. Tincture’s intervention in his private work. He doesn’t ultimately feel the painting was ever his to begin with. And now, he is probably just glad to be rid of the awful responsibility of figuring out the final touches necessary to turn a class assignment into Art.

And so it feels slightly unreal to Greg when his painting wins a few awards, including a Hallmark nomination. His painting becomes a top-five finalist, and if he wins, he will receive a cash award of $100, which would mean a lot to him—it would enable him to be a big shot among his friends by taking them the U2 concert at Red Rocks in June. And, more importantly, the painting would be reproduced on Hallmark cards, albeit the small ones you buy in packages of fifty to send as holiday greetings.

There is a big awards ceremony in Denver. His mom drives him, and his dad meets them there. His parents seem just as proud as can be. But then, their divorce is on the horizon and they’re already preparing for the upcoming custody battle, so Greg has this unsettling feeling that the real competition isn’t among five paintings, but between Mom and Dad as they attempt to show him (almost for the first time) their loyalty and devotion.

Greg and his parents discover, as soon as they enter the hall, that he has lost the competition. The placement of the blue ribbon announces this ... nobody bothers to break the bad news gently. Greg is just another runner‑up. Of course he is. And of course this means no $100, no U2 concert, no cards to send to relatives for the next twenty years to show that that yes, a Halbrecht had actually made good, that you can brag all you want in your holiday newsletter that little Nathan is only six years old but is learning differential equations from his father, you can write all you want about your National Merit Scholar, you can send photos of your vacation in Greece, but it won’t change the fact that the Halbrecht newsletters this year are enclosed in Hallmark cards that bear a glorious illustration from their very own son. All this vanishes, just like any other mirage. He has lost. How typical.

Still, he was a finalist, and his painting is on display, behind a protective glass, with the other four finalists’. The judges comments are listed below, and the one that really stands out, in regard to Gregs’s painting, is this: “Poor quality paper.” Greg laughs. Not a loud, boisterous laugh, but a little pained chuckle reflecting the disappointment but also the real humor behind it: of course he used cheap paper—this was a school assignment, begun with the intent of satisfying the requirements of the course and getting a halfway decent grade. If he’d had the slightest idea it would be declared “Art” and entered in a contest, maybe he would have used something nicer. On second thought, he wouldn’t have, because he wouldn’t have believed it.

His painting begins to take on a new life as a doomed airliner, its pilot and copilot somehow incapacitated. Greg is cast in the role of the hapless passenger who is forced to try to land the plane (talked down by his teacher, the oddly calm air traffic controller). Of course the plane crashes and burns! Greg looks at the other entries with a strange kind of awe: these were done by actual artists somewhere ... student artists, yes, but good ones, who are confident enough to use high-quality materials.

Greg doesn’t kid himself: these other paintings really do outclass his; he wonders if the judges have given him the nomination as some sort of consolation prize. Still, he gleans a flicker of satisfaction from wondering if the judges felt his ocean-floor corn-on-the-cob had lent a certain reckless integrity to his painting.

See the poor kid leaving the hall and entering the auditorium, where his disappointment balloons dramatically: here he sees hundreds of thousands of other contest winners sitting there. Of course it’s not actually hundreds of thousands, or even thousands, but that’s the phrase that pops lugubriously into his head. “Among these hundreds of thousands of people I feel completely faceless,” declares the narrator silently. He sits right between his parents, of course, to serve as a necessary buffer zone ... a human DMZ.

He cannot look over at either parent without fear of alienating the other, so he can only imagine how they are experiencing this moment. Surely they are either bored, or distracted by their simmering rage at each other. Greg stares straight ahead, watching all the other winners, feeling less and less the nearly-triumphant artist, and more like a chance member of some vast audience. There are so many awards issued—“Man, they’re just giving them away!” he thinks. There are these certificates of some kind, Certificates of Excellence perhaps, and everybody gets one of those. Others, Greg included, get a Gold Key as well, but again, the numbers are huge. He is called up with the others to stand in a long line, to walk across the stage and collect the certificate and the little key. Seeing the huge store of keys, each identical to all the others in its little plastic box, Greg feels something approaching actual shame. The ceremony ends without any special mention of the Hallmark nominees.

Now, of course, we come to the awful climax of the whole affair: who gets to take the kid home? Well, his mother drove him down, so makes sense that his dad should drive him home. That’s Greg’s dad’s assertion, and it seems logical to the boy. But his mother isn’t buying it. He almost intervenes, but the spectacle of his parents fighting over him is just so novel. He doesn’t kid himself that he’s the point of the argument; power is the point, and he is merely the trophy. He finds himself paralyzed with morbid curiosity: how far will they go?

Just look at this poor guy. His stomach is starting to hurt. He finds himself buckling in the parking lot under this huge burden, wishing he’d screwed up the painting and could have avoided this whole ordeal. Finally, Mom says, “Well, Greg, if you come with me we have your Pink Floyd in the car.” He is unable to respond, afraid of insinuating that a rock album, of all things, could swing the balance in his mother’s favor. Finally his dad asks, “What is Pink Floyd?” Greg says nothing. He can barely stand up. His mother finally says—with a lightly superior air of teen-culture fluency—“It’s his favorite rock band.” To which his dad replies, “Humph. It sounds like the name of a pig.”

Greg drives back with his mom, brooding the whole way about how seemingly petty decisions like these, once compiled, can form the foundation of a profound estrangement. Will his father ever feel the same way about him again? And what was that way, to begin with?

* * *

William Faulkner wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.” And so, eight years later, with another ceremony looming, Greg’s memory of the Hallmark Affair begins in his gut—at first, as simple emotion, a vague irrational feeling, long before becoming a series of images, and eventually words. This happens because Greg is trying to decide whether or not to attend his college graduation.

The vague process of knowing remembering believing is responsible for how much strain graduation puts on him. He considers some minor obstacles, like the thesis he still needs to finish, and the two final exams still to go. (If he crashes and burns bad enough on them, they just might make him a fraud, retroactively.) But that’s just an excuse and he knows it. The real problem is that—amazingly enough—his parents are still no better at being civil in each other’s presence than they were on that cold, grey day in Denver, fighting over (him) in the parking lot. He doesn’t want them at his graduation together, but if neither of them watches, why even wear the stupid hat and walk across the stage?

He could tell himself his father wouldn’t come anyway. After all, when Greg graduated from high school, his dad couldn’t be bothered to drive two miles across town to honor him. But this is different—this is college, after all. So Greg decides to take a gamble: he’ll invite his old man, but with very short notice. Exorbitant airfare just might carry the day.

See the young man sweat. He’s no good on the phone to begin with, and since his mom had gotten custody, relations with his dad have been chillier than ever. Stumbling over his greeting, his voice reedy, almost shaky, his barebones reserves of composure hemorrhaging alarmingly, he cuts right to the chase and gives his father the news, and the date. Less than two weeks away.

There is a long silence. What will his father say? He wasn’t even aware that Greg would be graduating. Greg pretends for a moment that his father is overcome with pride, but then has to stifle a bitter laugh. Finally his father says—and this is the first thing out of his mouth— “Are your mother and her husband coming?”

Greg, who is no fool, has seen this coming. “She’s coming, but Bruce has a running race or something.” Another long silence, and then his father, in the same grim tone, asks, “Is she taking you out for dinner afterwards?”

Greg doesn’t answer. He just stands there, staring into space. So it all hinges on dinner? Eventually he becomes aware that his father is talking again, something about a $3 million proposal, something about a deadline, something about plane tickets, and it sounds like his dad is declining. Which would be a relief, but also a disappointment.

Look at poor Greg. He’s all bent over, his stomach roiling. Technically, he’s standing there in his little apartment, but he’s not there, not really. In his head he’s back in that parking lot in Denver, still clutching his stomach, still getting punished by a cold wind while his seething parents bicker senselessly over who’s driving him home.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Down With Convenience!


“I appreciate the seamless ease….”

That statement is the inspiration for this post.  It’s from a letter a friend wrote me recently.  The point isn’t that he sounds like a TV ad (from the days when ad spokesmen were earnest instead of arch). The point, rather, is that I found this simple statement oddly inflammatory.  I asked myself why.  And the answer is, I should find it inflammatory, and so should you.  Ideally, all my friends would join me in mounting a War on Convenience.  If I can’t have that, well, maybe I can influence a few readers.

A paradox

Of course I was being bombastic and hyperbolic a second ago.  Who doesn’t want convenience in his life?  But I think convenience is like alcohol:  it should be enjoyed responsibly.

Paradoxically, my worldview straddles two seemingly conflicting ideals:  I’m a great lover of efficiency, but I bristle at society’s infatuation with ease and expedience.  “Wait,” you may ask, “aren’t efficiency and convenience pretty much the same thing?”

Nope.  When I say “efficient” I mean that I can get something done exactly how I want it done in as little time as possible.  (Often this involves doing a lot of work up front, like creating macros for a software application.)  When people talk about seamless ease, they’re often referring to systems that are merely intuitive, such as a user interface that can be grasped quickly, without any need for help menus or a manual.  Some products are convenient because they remove tedious steps; other products are convenient because they rescue you from having to learn something.

I think it’s widely assumed that where user interfaces go, intuitive is best.  But this isn’t always true.  Consider the computer keyboard:  to be maximally intuitive, its keys ought to be placed in alphabetical order.  That would make it easier for the first-time user, wouldn’t it?  But of course this idea seems silly, since typing efficiency is more important than making the keyboard layout straightforward for the newcomer.

What’s even sillier is that the QWERTY layout was actually designed to be maximally inefficient, to keep early typewriters from jamming.  The Dvorak layout I use was difficult to learn, but my long-term gains in efficiency were well worth the trouble.

Low-lying fruit

The simplest argument against the embrace of convenience is that it often requires us to forsake quality.  I give you microwave popcorn:  it’s certainly easy to make, but a) it literally stinks, b) it’s more expensive than traditional popcorn, c) it tastes pretty bad, d) it’s full of salt and fat ,e) it’s full of chemicals, and f) the excessive packaging is bad for the environment.  The popularity of microwave popcorn makes me embarrassed to be a member of the human race, considering that an air popper is also extremely easy to use, and cheaper, and lets you control how much salt and butter you add.

Whipped cream in an aerosol can is also really convenient, but it’s more expensive and less tasty than what you whip at home, and has the added problem of unpredictability:  it’s hard to tell when the can is low on cream (or non-dairy “kreme” as it often is), so you never know when you’ll foul up your sundae with the liquid dribble that comes at the end.  By whipping my own cream, I can choose an organic product; whip only as much as I need; control the amount of sugar; and save money.

But enough of these convenient examples.  I want to get into the more subtle ways that, through our love of convenience, we sell ourselves short without even realizing it.

The problem of control

Often, complicated systems are made more intuitive, and sometimes more efficient, through a simplification of the user interface and/or automation of repetitive operations.  A little Cessna surely has a simpler interface than a commercial airliner, though it often lacks that handy autopilot feature.

Automation is a fine idea in theory, but in practice, it’s only as good as its execution.  How accurate are product developers’ guesses about what should be automated and how?

Well, here’s a horror story.  My family was visiting some friends in their lovely, sunny home in London.  One afternoon, when our friends were out, I thought, hey, my mother-in-law is always asking for a nice photo of my wife and me.  And here we had this great lighting, so I suggested to my wife that we finally take the time to shoot a nice photo together.  My wife has a tendency to close her eyes in photos, so it took us at least a dozen tries.  Well, on the last day of our visit, our host said, “Hey, why not give us some photos of your visit from your SD card?”  Great idea!  So I took the card up to their Mac and stuck it in the card reader, expecting that I could cherry-pick the best photos of both families.  But to my surprise the operating system seized control, copied every photo off the card, and launched a little slide show, set to music.  This might have seemed really helpful to a novice computer user who hadn’t mastered file management software, but I was appalled.  The software must have chosen to show the pictures in reverse chronological order, because the first two dozen shots were of my wife and me.  We came off looking like the biggest narcissists you’ve ever seen.

Probably there’s a way to tell the Mac not to automatically grab all the photos from an SD card.  But some systems don’t give us a choice.  We consumers often put up with this lack of control because we enjoy the convenience of the overall product.  I see this problem most frequently in Internet-based systems, particularly when the revenue model is more complicated than “you pay me directly for goods or services.”  Things are automated with more than just the user’s experience in mind.

Here’s an example:  the Gmail Adsense engine, which automatically produces custom ads based on my e-mail text, doesn’t exist to serve me.  Were I given the choice to opt out of Adsense, I certainly would.  I don’t even use Gmail, and yet (as detailed here) my e-mails to Gmail users nevertheless produce these tailored ads I like it or not.

But you know what’s even worse than that?  It’s when we’re unaware of how convenience is costing us.  Consider LinkedIn:  it’s very convenient, and a great idea, and I’m glad that it’s free.  But as I’ve only recently discovered, LinkedIn does what it pleases with the information I give it.  Awhile back, because my profile photo was like five years old, I put up a new one.  (The idea was anti-vanity:  I didn’t want people to think I was using an old photo just to look younger to the world.)  To my embarrassment, LinkedIn contacted my 400 contacts on my behalf:  “Dana Albert has a new profile picture!”  As in, “Dana Albert, devoted curator of his own image and his self-important notion of an Albert ‘brand,’ wants you to see his latest self-portrait!”  A few people responded, perhaps snidely, “Nice picture!”  How embarrassing.  (Yes, I am easily embarrassed.  What can I say … I’m an introvert.)

But that’s not all.  I’ve come to find out that LinkedIn evidently does something special for their newer users:  they send an update anytime one of the user’s contacts has made new connections.  Since I don’t get such updates, I’d never have known about this behavior, except a couple of friends commented.  (“Wow, I’ve see a lot of LinkedIn updates on you lately … did you lose your job or something?”)  Once I looked into it, I figured out how to change these settings, but it wasn’t easy—which means that those who thrive on convenience will probably just accept the default behavior.  (Surely I don’t need to go into the various ways Facebook has surreptitiously exploited their users’ tastes, preferences, and purchasing data.)

Are your choices my business?

“Fine,” you might say, “Go whip your own cream, and type on your weird keyboard, and shun Facebook, if that’s what floats your boat—but let me do as I please.”  In other words, you might wonder why your behavior is any business of mine.  Here’s why:  other people’s behavior often affects what choices are available to me.

Here’s how that happens.  Because I worship efficiency, I enjoy figuring out how to make a complicated process go quickly—but not everybody enjoys this process, and manufacturers know it.  New products are often targeted at teens and young adults (to build brand loyalty early), so new consumers’ habits can have an immediate influence on industry.  Streamlining a process, modern consumers believe, should be figured out by the manufacturer and baked into the product.  Thus, the focus is outward on the product, rather than inward on the user.  It’s not “How can I get better at this” but “How can this be better for me?”  The “smarter” our products get, the lazier we’re permitted to be.

(Fortunately, schools are still essentially old-school.  If it weren’t for teachers making kids learn math, do you think these kids would bother, given the ease-of-use of smartphone calculator apps?  And yet, once you’ve learned arithmetic, it’s faster to do it in your head.)

The result of this consumer/producer dynamic is that perfectly valid products are often kicked to the curb.  Consider the manual car transmission, aka stick shift:  is it straightforward?  Not very.  Is there a benefit to learning how to work a clutch?  I think so.  After all, a manual transmission offers better gas mileage, and enables me to roll-start the car if my battery is dead.  My mastery of manual shifting impresses the ladies, and enables me to rent a car in Europe.  The popularity, in this country, of automatic transmissions didn’t used to affect me, until that choice became so ubiquitous that some foreign car companies stopped exporting their stick-shift models here.  When I bought my last Volvo, I couldn’t get one with the transmission I wanted.  I had to settle for an automatic. 

(By the way, that bit about impressing the ladies?  Yeah, that was a joke.  Just seeing if you’re awake.)

Another example:  digital cameras.  What a great invention, and yet the camera industry is really suffering.  You know what the number one camera is today?  The iPhone.  It’s easy to see why:  you’re carrying your phone anyway, so why carry another device?  The problem is, phone cameras are not nearly as good as regular digital cameras—even the more humble point-and-shoot ones.  A phone camera takes inferior pictures because the lens is too small and doesn’t let in enough light for non-flash photography in low-light conditions.  Phone cameras also lack a zoom (their so-called “digital zoom” is pure malarkey—cropping masquerading as telephoto).

Look at these two photos.  The first was taken with a $200 Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera.  The second was with a Motorola Droid phone of the same vintage. 

The point-and-shoot photo is much better, and not because I got out a light meter, set the F-stop, adjusted the shutter speed, etc.  It was as easy to snap as with the phone (easier, actually, because there’s way less delay at the controls).  The only convenience I gave up was having everything in one device.

If the camera industry were healthier, I’d have even better products available to me, and at lower prices (due to economies of scale).  Alas, the market for standalone cameras has been strangled by the ubiquity of camera phones—the more convenient choice.

Whom does convenience benefit the most?

Sometimes the person who seems like the most direct beneficiary of convenience-oriented technologies actually isn’t.  Consider the grocery store UPC reader:  it’s very intuitive, and thus perfect for bringing new cashiers up to speed quickly.  It’s also more efficient, but this benefit does not accrue to the cashier, who is paid by the hour.  The system’s efficiency doesn’t mean the cashier gets a raise; it means he or she is easier to replace, and the store can get by with fewer checkout stations.

Now let’s move beyond human consumers and consider other consumers, like cattle.  Being kept in a small stall in a feedlot is certainly convenient for the cow, in terms of her basic need for sustenance.  Of course this diet causes all kinds of trouble for the poor animal, but her well-being was never the point.  The convenience of the feedlot mainly benefits the meat packer.  Since this arrangement translates into lowered operating costs, which can be passed along to the human consumer, it looks like a win-win.  So it is with cheap, high-margin products like soft drinks and sugary cereal.  Needless to say, in the long term this convenience isn’t benefiting the human consumers, either.  The countless Americans who buy junk food and frequent fast food chains are basically backing in to their own feedlot stalls.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies grasp that there’s big money to be made in drugs that treat lifestyle ailments, and doctors prescribe these drugs because doing so is so much easier than trying to get people to exercise and eat well.  Consumers participate in this lowest-price, lowest-effort economic model without an appreciation for its real costs.  The companies at the top in this economy are the direct beneficiaries of our rampant convenience addiction; by indulging it, they introduce a variety of societal ills.  In this regard, convenience is like secondhand smoke.

Convenience and parenting

If you’re a parent who has made it this far into my essay, I doubt you’re the kind who feeds his kid soft drinks, sugary cereal, and fast food.  But addiction to convenience is also present in the most upscale of products.  I’m talking about PCs, smartphones, tablet computers, and Netflix.

It’s more convenient to park kids in front of the TV or PC than to try to get them to help with dinner or with setting the table.  It’s easier to let a kid use his iPad in a restaurant, while his food gets cold, than to teach him how to behave like a grown-up.  So kids and their parents become co-dependents in a family dynamic that ultimately favors no one.

I won’t lie and say I never give in to such temptations.  But when I do, I don’t pretend I’m being a good dad.  “Shall we sit our kids down in front of a video and let them rot their brains out, just to get them out of our hair?” I’ll ask my wife.  And I’ll say to my kids, “Would you like to put in a video and let your brain be automatically extracted?”  This raises awareness and may help us fend off bad habits.

Do modern kids have the mental space required to daydream?  I’d guess a lot of them don’t.  So when my kids complain that they’re bored, I say, “Good.  It’s good to be bored.”  Necessity being the mother of invention, boredom is a good problem for the mind to solve.  Solving this problem with a library book, a blank piece of paper, or some random household detritus doesn’t do much for the economy, but the economy is not my problem.

“But wait,” you may protest, “Computers can be very educational!”  Yes, they can, but that doesn’t mean just any computer-based activity is intrinsically useful.  Too many parents pretend their Internet-addicted kid might become the next Mark Zuckerberg—because this fiction is more convenient than fighting with the kid about limits on his or her screen time.

My wife and I are all about limits.  This is why we don’t have cable, our kids don’t have phones or tablets, and their PC time is closely monitored and rationed.

“Okay, fine,” you might say, “You’ve identified some troublesome trends, but how are the habits of other families any of your business?”  Well, where the hell are my daughters going to find husbands?  My kids won’t settle for a passive, inert, pasty, video-addled mouth-breather who doesn’t read.  Meanwhile, the boys out there won’t settle for out-of-touch, pop-culturally illiterate nerds who don’t even text.  Sure, there are some boys out there whose parents are just as socially unconventional as my wife and me, but it’s a small pool.

Call to action

If you disagree with all of this, that’s fine—and I thank you for at least reading it.

On the other hand, if you agree with me, you may wonder what I propose to do about this rampant convenience addiction.  The answer is simple (though not easy).  Next time you appreciate the convenience of something, ask yourself if that convenience came at any great cost to you:  to your privacy, to your health, to your family, or to the environment.  Then ask yourself if it’s worth it.  I’ll keep on doing the same.

And at a minimum, if you find yourself using the phrase “seamless ease,” please don’t say it like it’s a good thing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Chasing “Andrei Rublev”

NOTE:  This post is rated R for pervasive mature themes and mild strong language.


This post has given me a bad case of writer’s block.  The topic, the 1966 Russian film Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублев), is just too huge.  I can’t review this just as a movie—it’s much more complicated than that.  It has been called “the greatest movie ever made” and “a very long film about bearded men.”  As The New Yorker observed, the film—about a 15th-century icon painter—was blocked from being shown in the Soviet Union because the government considered it “ideologically ambiguous in places—an error regarded in Russia as more dangerous than mayhem.”  Andrei Rublev is like this giant heavy weight that can bear down on you even when you’re not watching.  What I’m going to try to do here is capture the experience of my monumental struggle of going toe-to-toe with this movie.  Twice.

By the way, before you decide this topic is too nerdy, and/or that this movie is just a snooze-fest for intellectuals—kind of a My Dinner With Андрей—think again.  This movie softens the viewer up with long, dull stretches, only to suddenly shock him with a brutal Tartar raid, a nude bacchanal, or a scene of brazen ideological ambiguity.  It is as harrowing as it is dull.

Why should you read this?

Read this post if you’ve never heard of Andrei Rublev before and/or you’re considering watching it for the first time.  Are there spoilers here?  Yeah, there are, but believe me, with this film it’s better to err on the side of knowing too much than being mystified throughout.  According to one critic, “[Director Andrei] Tarkovsky himself said:  ‘We worked at drowning our idea in the atmosphere, in the characters.’”

If you know you’ll never watch the movie, read this to improve your cultural literacy, and to know what you missed.  Plus, maybe after this post you’ll change your mind and give the film a try.  (Which you should, if for no other reason than its name-brand director.  Another notable film by Tarkovsky is The Steamroller and the Violin, about a boy who is endlessly teased for playing the violin until he befriends a road worker, who teaches him how to drive his steamroller.  Apparently it ends there, before becoming the most badass revenge flick ever.)

If you’ve already seen Andrei Rublev and just love all the endless commentary about it on the Internet, you might be hoping I can offer a fresh perspective.  Could I be better than the 100 IMDb reviewers?  Well, I am a pretty eggheaded guy, but I’m also not afraid to call a spade a “pompous, self-satisfied, overeducated spade”—to its face.  My credentials as a highbrow type, who nevertheless  appreciates lowbrow sensibilities, can be found here.

My first time watching the film

I first encountered Andrei Rublev when my mom, visiting from Oregon, brought it with her from her local library.  This was a two-cassette copy on VHS.  Now, right off the bat, there’s something wrong with viewing an art house movie on VHS.  Here’s what Tarkovsky intended for us to see:

You know that on-screen notice that says, “This film has been modified from its original version.  It has been modified to fit your screen”?  Here’s what that’s referring to:

When a movie is modified to fit the squarer TV screen , a bunch gets cut off the sides.  Directors in the ‘80s and ‘90s actually compensated for this by putting important action in the middle of the screen.  Tarkovsky, needless to say, did not.  But that’s not even the worst of it.  Our VHS copy of this film was of absolutely terrible quality and looked something like this:

It was actually even worse because it was really grainy.  The whole movie seemed to take place during a blizzard.  (“I’m just so cold watching this!” my wife complained at one point.)  It’s hard enough trying to tell the characters in this movie apart (them all being bearded and hooded) without such a poor image.  I couldn’t follow anything and kept falling asleep.  Not being actually tired, I wouldn’t sleep for long, but every time I awoke, the action onscreen had gotten even more confusing and my poor brain—surely in self-defense—would power down again.  I think I fell asleep about forty times.  Once, I awoke to see a character flying high over the steppes in what appeared to be a homemade ultralight, like what killed John Denver.  This caused me a fit of confusion that was just short of apoplectic.  Though I was the first to abandon the film, my mom and my wife eventually gave up as well.  I don’t think they even made it to the second cassette.

Ever since that day, Andrei Rublev has been a running joke among my mom, my wife, and me.  We try to work it into conversation at every opportunity, as in, “I thought Avatar was a pretty cool movie, but it was such a blatant rip-off of Andrei Rublev,” or “Hey, look, the Key Grip on this movie was Mitch Lillian!  Wasn’t he a grip on Andrei Rublev?”

So when, a few weeks back, my wife came home from the library announcing she’d checked out Andrei Rublev on DVD, I assumed she was joking.  She was not.

Why watch this movie?

Don’t let me sour you on Andrei Rublev .  It is a well loved film.  The average IMDb user rating is 8.3, which tops 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, and The Hurt Locker—i.e., the last five Oscar winners for Best Picture.  It has more ten-star IMDb reviews than I’ve ever seen.

That said, this movie isn’t for everyone; it seems to favor the intellectual élite.  Frankly, there seems to be a bit of “emperor’s new movie” effect, with each reviewer seeming to be one-upping the next.   The first ten-star review is titled “The Pietà of Filmmaking.”  I guess I’m just not up to this reviewer’s level because I had to look up “Pietà,” which means “a picture or sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ on her lap or in her arms.”  So how is this movie the filmmaking equivalent of that?  Am I supposed to feel unworthy that I can’t grasp the meaning here and am too lazy even to ponder it?

This review says, “Score it 11 out of 10” and also “It is a difficult movie to follow. One might liken it to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as a work of genius so monumental and complex, and so disdainful of traditional narrative form, that it requires extensive thought and study to understand it.  And even after studying it, watching it repeatedly, and reading Tarkovsky’s own comments about it, one still finds it opaque in many ways.”  Yeah, “one” might liken it to Finnegan’s Wake, if one could manage to read Finnegan’s Wake in the first place.  Who is this “one,” anyway, who has the patience to watch a 3½-hour movie repeatedly?

Of course, it’s not just amateur reviewers who praise this movie.  The original review in The Guardian, in 1973, states, “Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie works through a slow, unstressed accumulation of scenes and images.”  Doesn’t sound like the formula that would get a new movie green-lighted … but maybe that’s what makes this one special. 

There’s something odd going on:  the confusing, misunderstood-genius flair of Andrei Rublev has somehow infected the reviewers.  The Guardian reviewer goes on to say of Tarkovsky, “He pared drama of vision; the deliberate grandeur of perception.”  That’s not even grammatically correct.  Worse, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.  It’s just a tossed salad of words that sound kind of impressive together.  Is that what it takes to describe this movie?  The abandonment of cogent thought?

The New Yorker review from 1969 offers praise that is easier to digest:  “It is a film that is fascinating, enriching, full of the sap and the soup of Russian rural life, of dirt and dirty girls, of trees and fields, and of people.”  Fair enough, but … aren’t dirty girls people too?

Ah, perhaps I’ve just caught the interest of the reader who may not care who said what about this movie, but is intrigued by the “dirty girls” notion.  Dirty as in dirt-covered, or as in libidinous?  Good news:   the New Yorker goes on to describe “a too long spring-bacchanal scene of naked full-busted and full-buttocked girls and bearded naked men.”   (Note that “girls” in this case means “women.”  That’s  the sexist language of 1969 coming through, I guess.) 

I think it odd how the men are described as not only naked but bearded.  I mean, just about all the men in this movie are bearded.  Is “bearded” in this context supposed to be as enticing as the women being “full-busted and full-buttocked”?  And speaking of “full-buttocked,” why haven’t we ever come across this description before?  It would have been so useful to rappers like Eminem (in “Ass Like That”) or Sir Mix A Lot (in “Baby Got Back”).

You might also wonder how a bacchanal scene like this could be described as  “too long.”  And yet, like everything else in the movie, it is.

By the way, promoters of this movie weren’t shy about using the sex angle to garner interest.  Check out this poster, which prominently features a very minor character:

My second viewing

Checking out a DVD from the library means you have all the time you need to watch it.  This is a blessing but also a curse.  Night after night we procrastinated.  The mere thought of tackling the movie again was enough to make me irreparably sleepy.

Finally, one night, we put in the DVD.  We were immediately struck by the excellent video quality.  Not only is the aspect ratio restored to movie screen dimensions (i.e., the sides aren’t chopped off), but all the blur and graininess are gone.  Look:

But what the hell was that onscreen?  Just like you, my wife and I were shocked to see, against the backdrop of a church, what appeared to be a gigantic scrotum.  What kind of sick person would put that into his movie?  As the camera panned down, in its slow, unstressed way, I realized this wasn’t a scrotum but some kind of homemade hot-air balloon.  For like twenty minutes we see a bunch of identical Russian peasants running around yelling as the balloon gradually breaks its tethers, and then some guy flies off in it.  There are no subtitles in this scene to explain what the yelling is about.

Would the dialogue have been discernible to a native Russian speaker?  I don’t know.  The DVD jacket advertises “New English subtitles translating 40% more dialogue,” suggesting that the bar had previously been set pretty low.  (The audio isn’t very good, by the way.  Later in the film, I replayed a brief scene several times to try to learn the Russian for “motherfucker,” but I couldn’t hear the word clearly enough.)

Who knows, maybe you’re not supposed to grasp what’s going on.  We watched this balloonist fly over the bleak Russian landscape for a good while, until he finally crashed.  Who was he?  What was he doing up there?  Was the balloon made for him, or had he stolen it for a joy ride?  Did he survive the crash?  And what did this have to do with Andrei Rublev, the icon painter?  None of these questions was answered.  Nothing made sense in this chapter, the first of nine.

I’m not going to walk you through the entire plot of the movie, but let me share with you some highlights, to convey how difficult—and yet beguiling—Andrei Rublev turns out to be.

The second chapter is almost as mysterious as the first.  Three monks leave their monastery on horseback, muttering something about going somewhere else to seek their fortunes as painters.  It starts to rain.  They seek shelter in a barn where a jester entertains a bunch of peasants with a disturbingly bawdy performance that goes on and on.  Finally the monks show their disapproval, which puts a damper on everything, including the movie.  Then some soldiers arrive and haul the jester away.

Where is Andrei?  What does it all mean?  I tried to shrug this off.  In the third chapter, we come upon a character who at first seems to be dead but turns out just to be really, really old.  He starts up a long dialog with this other guy about painting icons.  Suddenly I’m hopeful:  could the younger guy be Andrei Rublev, meaning that after like 45 minutes I’ve finally isolated a character whose actions and words might actually be important?  I’m on the edge of my seat even before the old guy asks him, “Are you Andrei Rublev, by any chance?”  Now my heart is in my mouth!  There’s a long pause and the young man replies, “Nyet.”  Dammit!

That was enough for the first night.  We broke the viewing into three, maybe four nights because we kept falling asleep, and there’s only so much you can take.  But, with all the snow and blur from the VHS version removed, we found ourselves looking forward, in a way, to picking the film back up again.  (I know this isn’t how you’re supposed to watch this kind of movie, but hey, we’ve got kids, and lives outside of our passive video entertainment.)

On the second night, we did gradually figure out who’s who and what’s going on.  Rublev looks a little bit like Woody Harrelson with a beard and a hood.  If you ever watch the movie, keep an eye out for the guy who looks like this:

The basic gist is, Rublev gets recruited by the old guy, Theophanes the Greek, to be an apprentice and (eventually) paint the Last Judgment on the walls of a church.  There’s a great scene where Rublev says goodbye to Daniil, his mentor at the monastery.  It’s a bit of bromance I suppose; Rublev is really emotional and does an interesting hand-jive on the table, fingers drumming and hands moving around like giant spiders, probably because he’s so nervous.  If you watch this scene a couple times, as my wife and I did, you can stretch the moviegoing out even further.

Wait.  Would you want to stretch it out?  Well, possibly.  There’s something kind of pleasant about this movie, once you relax a bit and give up on trying to comprehend everything that goes on.  It’s a good movie for just drifting along, taking in the unusual scenery and attractive cinematography.  Many reviewers have described the movie as soothing; my wife agreed, saying, “It’s almost kind of narcotic.” 

Before Rublev settles down to paint, there are long scenes of him arguing abstract artistic and religious matters with Theophanes in the middle of some blasted landscape.  Some of the dialog is predictable and boring, but other snatches are very cryptic, like when Rublev suddenly yells at his helper, as they’re out wandering in some grassland, “You idiot, you let the glue burn on the flame!” and then some old guy comes out of nowhere, cuffs the helper on the ear, and yells, “You idiot, you let the glue burn on the flame!” as if Rublev hadn’t just yelled this.  (What glue?  What flame?  Where?  Beats me.)  Fortunately, before these scenes become too tiresome, we’re on to the pagan bacchanal scene.

Indeed, these women are full-busted and full-buttocked and nude.  They’re not bad-looking, but fortunately not that good-looking either, which would be silly (like the heroine in Braveheart who is not only really pretty but has unrealistically perfect teeth).  There’s a lot of frolicking in the forest, and Rublev is caught spying on the action by some pagans who tie him up and vow to come kill him in the morning.  He’s freed by a full-busted and mostly nude pagan woman, Marfa, who later flees through the woods, showcasing her full buttocks.  It’s a strange butt, not just ample but oddly square, and my wife said to me at this point, “Please tell me I don’t have a Marfa-butt.”  (She assuredly does not.)  I am quite sure that phrase will be immortalized in the specialized jargon of our family.

Finally, Rublev shows up at the church in the city of Vladimir to do his work.  There’s just one problem:  Rublev doesn’t actually paint.  It’s like a stalled-out government contract job.  We’re supposed to grasp that there’s an artistic dilemma involved here, between what the government wants (a cautionary tale of some kind, I guess) vs. Rublev’s desire for something that expresses the essential humanity of all involved and charts a new course for Russian painting, etc.  But how do you convey that?  Rublev just comes off like a slacker, and it doesn’t make for very exciting cinema.

Maybe that’s why we suddenly get an endless scene of Tartars sacking the city of Vladimir.  (The plot of Andrei Rublev is a bit like how Pauline Kael describes the James Bond movies:  “One damn thing after another.”  Come to think of it, Rublev being rescued by a babe, who’s supposed to be the enemy, is right out of a Bond film, innit?)

There’s a lot to alarm you in the Tartar raid scene (e.g., people’s eyes being gouged out, women being dragged off, dwellings getting torched) but what really jarred my wife and me was a horse falling backward down a staircase.  In this pre-CGI era, how did they get this footage?  We feared for the horse.

The New York Times review from 1973 says, “I wondered … how the director got a horse to fall down stairs.  Was the horse hurt?”  I’m glad somebody else was bothered by this.  What is it with Russian artists and horses?  In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment a horse is brutally tortured; in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Vronsky (distracted by Anna) crashes his beloved horse during the steeplechase and the poor creature must be put down; in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time the hero literally rides his horse to death.  Such depictions are disturbing enough in literature, where actual animals aren’t involved in the rendering.  I discovered this tidbit on IMBD:  “For the scene where the horse falls down the stairs, it was shot in the head.  The crew acquired the horse from a slaughterhouse, and it was going to be shot the next day, so they decided to use it for the film.”

Perhaps the coolest part of the movie is toward the end when this teenager, bluffing, tells the authorities that he has learned, from his late father, the secret to forging bells (like the kind you’d put in a church tower).  So he gets a commission for this giant bell, which hundreds of poor Russians help build, in the middle of a damn field, casting it in a huge clay-lined pit with a raging bonfire.  It’s the polar opposite of our modern 3-D printing, and an impressive sight to behold.  Could you just rent the movie and fast-forward to this part (perhaps pausing along the way to take in the nude bacchanal)?  Well, you could, but I think it helps to be in a stupor when you get to this scene.

At the very end, the movie switches from black-and-white to full color, and the camera passes (in its slow, unstressed way) over the still-extant icons that the real Andrei Rublev painted.  Many critics have been really impressed by this part, but my wife and I found it infuriating.  The footage is too close-up, like trying to look at an elephant from six inches away.  I knew from what I’d read that this was the end of the movie, but as far as my wife knew, we could have only been halfway through.  When the credits started rolling she gasped, “That’s it!?  We’re done?!  You mean we actually did it?!”


Our great intellectual adventure behind us, we decided that the next thing we watched would be more on the lowbrow side.  (I was particularly interested in something more frivolous, as I’d been reading a novel about a 17th-century English village ravaged by the bubonic plague.)  So a few nights later we watched the first episode of Mad Men on DVD. 

Wow, what a comedown.  Every point it made—Women were treated so badly!  Everybody smoked back then!—was so glaringly non-subtle, I found the show tedious, like being fed with a baby spoon.  “Man, is this like a two-hour pilot episode?!” I finally asked, before toggling the display and discovering that we’d only been watching for 45 minutes.  It only seemed long.  I guess after a difficult movie like Andrei Rublev, typical media fare just isn’t difficult enough.