Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rubber Spatulas


As much as I hate Christmas shopping, it’s got to be done.  I discussed this with my wife recently.  “Everybody is getting spatulas this year,” I announced, and began to extrapolate before my wife cut me off.  “I’m not going to talk with you about spatulas,” she said gruffly.

As noted here, my wife needs to draw boundaries by declaring off-limits certain topics or concepts, including Bell’s seasoning, automotive matters (e.g., double-clutching), and especially bike lore. This is entirely reasonable.  Imagine, dear reader, how tiresome it could be to inhabit albertnet for several hours a day.  My wife rightly needs to protect her mental airspace.   And yet, I have so much to say about rubber spatulas! 

Since you have the freedom to close this browser window (a freedom which I encourage, especially if you then close all your browser windows and go outside), I’m going to get into spatulas here.  My thesis?  Spatulas are Love.

Where the rubber meets the bowl

I’m fond only of rubber spatulas.  (The other kind, like you flip pancakes with?  Not interesting to me, other than the basics:  I need to have exactly one of these, a familiar one which I’m used to, and I regard all other shapes and styles as dangerous impostors.)

Now, if you’re feeling all punctilious and want to tell me all about how the things I call rubber spatulas are actually made of plastic, I’ll just stop you right there.  The term “rubber spatula” is an idiom, not a precise descriptor.  We call a Curad adhesive bandage a Band-Aid, and we call bike jerseys “Lycra” even though many (perhaps most) are 100% polyester.  If society can absorb “fat free half-and-half” as a term, I can say “rubber spatula.”  And no, I won’t call it a plastic spatula—that doesn’t mean anything, since so many pancake-flipping spatulas are also plastic.  If you insist on the term “soft plastic spatula,” then I’m going to ask you to say “facial tissue” instead of “Kleenex,” and then I’m going to quibble (e.g., “You’re going to blow your nose into human flesh you’ve harvested from somebody’s face?!”).

Why rubber spatulas?

I am grimly aware than there are many households that don’t own a single rubber spatula.  My college roommates never had them, and at first I worried that the more slovenly among them would use and abuse mine.  Then it dawned on me that these guys had no idea what a rubber spatula was even for.  This came to a head one evening as I was using my spatula to get the last little bit of food out of a can.  “What are you doing?” my otherwise totally reasonable roommate asked.  I was immediately struck by the irony of my having experienced the polar opposite confusion dozens of times, upon seeing him throw an un-scraped can—that’s right, with at least an entire tablespoon of glean-able food left in it—into the recycling.

Here’s the thing.  My blog could go supernova and be turned into a huge series of books and eventually a giant movie franchise, making me a multimillionaire, and I would still scrape every last morsel.  My motivation here is not frugality born of necessity (as it had been during college, when I was perennially broke).  Rather, I use a rubber spatula—on a daily basis, often several times a day—simply because I have been inculcated from birth to do so.

Inculcated from birth

Okay, that previous statement was a bit of an exaggeration—it’s not like when I was still in diapers my mom would seat me on the kitchen counter and give me a demo of proper spatula use.  But she was using a rubber spatula since before I was born, so as soon as I was ready to pay attention, this behavior was on display.  I love the phrase “inculcated from birth” for this reason.  Nothing conveys principles like repeated demonstration.  The fact is, before our kids become surly, rebellious teens, we have years and years to teach them by example.  We walk the walk, and talk the talk, and since our kids literally learn how to walk and talk by imitating us, we parents have a lot of sway during those early years.  It’s up to us to take advantage.

Here’s an example.  My kids—age 13 and 15—do not have cell phones and aren’t on any social media platform.  When I boast of this stuff to other parents, they never say “you’re fricking crazy!” but rather, “How the hell did you swing that?!”  My response?  “They’ve been inculcated from birth that social media is lame and teens don’t need cell phones.”  Because we introduced these concepts so early, and reinforced them the whole way along (mainly by example), it feels normal to my kids not to have Facebook or phones.  No, they’re not happy about it, but it’s their reality and always has been, so they accept it, like religion or the force of gravity.

For my mom, rubber spatulas didn’t start out as a homemaking tool.  She first used them at work, in a hospital laboratory.  She may have even started using them in her microbiology labs in college.  The point was to be very precise in her measurements; after all, the amount of something that sticks to a petri dish or volumetric flask will vary randomly, so it must be entirely gathered up and added to the sample being tested.  (My mom is a great baker and her scientific precision is certainly a huge part of that.)  Seeing her skillfully wielding the spatula, it’s easy to extrapolate and imagine her bringing great skill and focus to her lab work, and seeing that as a kid made me feel proud.  (By contrast, my dad’s work—aerospace engineering—was so far out there, it was hard to imagine what his presumed skill would even look like.)

It is probable that using a rubber spatula was the first kitchen skill I ever developed.  I clearly remember being a small child watching my mom slice mushrooms and dreaming of the day I would get to do that, but it’s a big step letting a child wield a sharp knife.  On the flip side, a pretty young kid can be trusted with a rubber spatula.  When my mom would bake, she’d divvy up the batter-coated implements among my brothers and me:   two kids would get a little beater from the electric hand mixer; one kid would get the mixing bowl; and one kid would get to lick the rubber spatula.  (How did the third kid get the mixing bowl clean?  I don’t remember … perhaps he got his own spatula.)  When Mom used the big KitchenAid mixer, meaning there was only the one big beater/wand thingy to lick, one kid would simply get a soup spoon dipped in batter.  Harvesting residual batter was a family ritual, as treasured and important as the cake itself.

So:  do my own kids use rubber spatulas?  You bet they do!  In fact, this tradition has taken on a new twist in our household.  We have a family rule that licking your plate is not allowed, period.  This bothers my kids, who are aware that their cousins have a different rule:  no licking your plate at the table.  Those kids, upon busing their dishes to the kitchen, are allowed to lick them just before tossing them in the sink.  My wife and I can’t allow this, as our kitchen adjoins the dining nook where we often entertain guests.  So our kids—acting purely on their own volition—took to excusing themselves from the table, busing their dishes, and then carefully removing every trace of sauce from their plates using—you guessed it—a rubber spatula.  Alexa, the more voracious of the two, already handles that spatula with surgical precision.  (One day she’ll forget herself and do this in front of our guests, but at least this will only be bizarre and kind of embarrassing, rather than outright appalling.)

What we talk about when we talk about spatulas

I’ve established that my wife is not going to talk to me about rubber spatulas.  But do my kids?  We haven’t discussed them yet—but I could probably introduce the topic at dinner tonight and they’d have plenty to say.  Actually, Lindsay already has—she loves the colors of the four spatulas I just bought.  Alexa would probably give a thoughtful critique, given her strong interest in maximizing the efficacy of this tool.  Better yet, I could phone one of my brothers and expect a spirited dialogue on the topic.  It might go something like this:

            “So I bought four new rubber spatulas today.”
            “Yeah?  Plastic or wooden handle?”
            “Plastic.”  (Here we would both be envisioning the same thing, with Blu-Ray clarity:  a rubber spatula whose wooden handle is slightly warped, as a result of having been accidentally put through the dishwasher.)
            “Same size head on all four spatulas?”  (I know exactly where he’d be going with this … we have little use for the grossly oversized and particularly grossly over-thick spatula heads you sometimes see, but we like the half-deep heads that are nimble enough for slender jars.)
            “No, couldn’t find narrower ones in this brand.  So it’s just a medium head.  But these bad boys are pretty sweet.  Heat-resistant to 450 degrees!”
            “Oh, that’s a great feature.  Remember that white sauce—“
            “Oh my god, like it was yesterday.”  (Decades ago I was making a white sauce—starting with a butter & flour paste, then gradually stirring in milk—and I got distracted, so that the spatula melted partway, and I was bothered by the prospect of wasting all that perfectly good butter—actually, it would have been margarine back then—so I consulted with my brother before proceeding with the sauce, which meant knowingly eating rubber.  Or plastic, whatever.)
            “How’s the feel?”
            “Well, the head has a nice tight fit on the handle, which is so hard to find.”
            “Right, so it’s not going to twist around, like in a peanut butter jar.  I hate it when they twist around.”
            “Yeah, and I’m hoping less water will get in, too.”
            “Right, less mold … awesome.”  (We’re both envisioning that gross black mold that coats the handle where it goes into the head, and replaying stock memory footage of trying to clean the mold out of the inside of the spatula head.)
            “I’ll let you know how they work out.  Man, the handles are really nice—they’re clear plastic, but clear like glass.”
            “You think they’ll get cloudy from the dishwasher?”  (Now we’re both picturing the headlights of the car that get all cloudy from years of gravel and road grime spraying up on them.)
            “I guess if that happens I’ll buy some more and just hand-wash them.”  (The perfect rubber spatula has become a Holy Grail of sorts.  Life has changed a lot since our childhood, when all rubber spatulas were made by Rubbermaid and they were all off-white with a wooden handle.)  “So, remember those old Rubbermaid ones—”
            “Right, the Rubbermaid, with the wooden handle.”
            “Yeah, exactly.  Were the heads off-white, or had they started off white and just got stained over time?”
            “I dunno … probably they started out white.  Remember how they’d get all pink—’
            “Yeah, from spaghetti sauce!  I hated that.  But these new ones, they’re brilliantly colored.  I wasn’t sure I’d like it, and I don’t think I’d want all my spatulas to be this bright, but it’s a nice splash of color among the others.”
            “It’s not at all strange that we both own lots of rubber spatulas—that seems completely normal to us, though many would find it odd.”  This last bit is unspoken, of course.  We’re not even thinking this in so many words … it’s just a shared understanding that doesn’t need to be outwardly acknowledged, which is one of the pleasures of being in a family.

“But wait!” you may say.  “Isn’t imposing your childhood behavior and vernacular on your own household an oppressive act?  Didn’t you start out this essay talking about your wife refusing to talk about spatulas?”  Fair point—when we say “family” we could mean the family we sprang from, or the family we started.  They’re not entirely separate, but neither are they one discrete entity.

I didn’t want to interrupt earlier, but here’s what I mean about mold on the spatula handle:

Incidentally, my mom still prefers wooden handles on her rubber spatulas.  Check out her collection:

Of  course not all family traditions are taken up by the next generation.  I can envision a family comprising several barbecue aficionados—who might wax rhapsodic about this or that sauce, or rub, or wood chip—but whose uber-modern kids have gone vegetarian.  I’d guess most families enjoy a crazy overlapping of traits and loves and behaviors; the Venn diagram might be kaleidoscopic.  That said, I’d be surprised if you could show me a family totally lacking in highly specific idiosyncrasies.

How families talk is part of this.  Their insular patois isn’t consciously created, but something like natural selection.  Some verbal tropes stick; some don’t.  For example, though my older daughter is an enthusiastic bike racer and loves her bike like a jockey loves her horse, she won’t talk about bike stuff with me.  The cassette on her mountain bike, though deeply scalloped for maximum weight savings, is machined from a solid block of steel, other than the 42-tooth (!) large cog, which is aluminum (!) … and yet my daughter couldn’t care less.  (If you think it pains me that nobody in my household will indulge me in gearhead talk, you’re right.)  But other verbal traditions have taken hold, such that if, upon leaving the house, I call out, “I’m going out there—don’t try to stop me,” I can count on at least one daughter saying, “You fool … you’ll be killed!” and then taking me to task if I fail to reply, “I must do this … alone.”

Will my wife engage in this silly script?  Nope.  But she has adopted this one:  “I know how to run an office!”  This comes from a tale I told once, of a temporary employee I had to train decades ago.  I’d shown her the postage machine and how to work it.  You have to pay attention, because every mistake you make costs you that much in postage—there are no re-dos.  I handed the temp a giant stack of stuffed envelopes and said, “Keep an eye out—a bunch of those are going to Canada.”  This really pissed her off, maybe because I was younger than she, and she snapped back, “I know how to run an office!”  Half an hour later, she strode in and smacked the stack of envelopes down on my desk.  I did a quick spot-check and discovered that the Canada-bound ones had the same postage as the domestic ones.  “The Canada ones have to be re-done,” I said, “because it costs more to mail things to Canada.”  She was horrified, and stammered, “I … I did not know that!” 

Somehow, this anecdote looms large enough in our familial consciousness that we routinely employ the retort, “I know how to run an office!”  It’s a very useful statement, being a nice brief shorthand for something complicated:  “I’m going to arrogantly deride your doubt in me, while acknowledging that in a short while I may well get my comeuppance because I’m not actually all that sure of myself, notwithstanding my strident attitude.”  And I think we all enjoy how the great specificity of this utterance relies on our common familiarity with the story behind it.  Perhaps my wife enjoys this one because, unlike so much of what I say, it wouldn’t mean anything to my brothers, nieces, nephews, or parents.


Getting back to spatulas, it’s not actually important whether or not my kids are ever as passionate about them as I am, nor whether they’re ever moved to hold forth verbally about them.  (Just now Alexa happened by, and I said, “Alexa, it’s time we had our father/daughter talk about rubber spatulas,” and without missing a beat she replied, “I’m not ready!”)  But I take pleasure in the following daydream:  one day, when my daughters have grown up and moved away, I’ll go visit one of them, and when I head into the kitchen I’ll find it well stocked with rubber spatulas.  This will fill me with … not pride, exactly, since using a rubber spatula isn’t something to take pride in, per se, any more than I’m proud to be an American (i.e., proud of the geographical happenstance of being born here).  I’ll be filled, rather, with a sense of identification, and the satisfaction of having had this influence on my kids. 

And perhaps, when I see my daughter expertly wield this handy kitchen gadget, I’ll be emboldened to strike up a conversation about it.  Will my daughter brush me off?  Maybe—and that would warm my heart:  she’s just like her mother!  And if she doesn’t, it’ll warm my heart when she says something insightful like, “Dad, my roommate was going off about my rubber spatula being make of plastic, so I had to correct him.  I explained that the head is actually silicone, or to be very precise, siloxane.  So then she starts rolling her eyes like she’s sooo bored, and I’m like, ‘Hey, you brought it up!’”

Either way, it’ll be heartwarming. See?  Spatulas are Love.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Ride Report - Dead Indian Memorial Road with Brother, Nephew, and Daughter


My bike club doesn’t have too many rules. The main one is: don’t talk about bike club. No, this isn’t a lame joke; the point is, don’t bore your spouse with details of the rides, the races (if any), the coffee, or the makeup tips. (Makeup tips? Yep. For example, “After sweating out half a gallon on the indoor trainer, I alternate Dior L’or De Vie with TNS Essential Serum to hydrate my skin, even out the tone, and improve the texture without blocking my pores.”)

That said, most of us do write about bike club. For the more adventurous this means a race report, which traditionally focuses on the food. It’s been a couple years now since I last raced, so I have to make do with ride reports. Here is my report of the assault four of us made on Dead Indian Memorial Road, a 13-mile climb near Ashland, Oregon. The four of us are my brother Bryan, his son John, my daughter Alexa, and your humble online correspondent.

Executive Summary

Our Thanksgiving Day ride was gear-intensive, cold, beautiful, even colder, frigid, fun, and has been described as “a non-stop laugh riot” (Steve Persall, Tampa Bay Times). Peak elevation 5,300 feet. Precipitation: none (whew!).

Short version

Dammit all to hell, I’m writing this in a motel lobby and some employee just came over and turned on the TV. I’m the only one in here … do I really look like I want a TV on? 
  • Ride stats: an additional 2-4 inches of snow expected in the Cascades, and a couple more inches in the Mount St Helens area. Oops, sorry, I was channeling the TV news. Why are they reporting Washington weather? I’m in southern Oregon!
  • Breakfast: waffle, two sausage disks, yogurt, coffee (black)
  • Pre-ride snack: Fritos, of all things (there was a bag in my brother’s van which we drove to the ride start near Ashland)
  • During ride: one Clif Block Shot, mountain berry flavor
  • Glycogen window treat: Mom’s homemade fudge, baby! Man, I’d ride through a pool of liquid nitrogen to get that. Also, pickled herring (two kinds: plain and in sour cream).
  • Dinner: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, cranberry relish, candied yams, French-cut green beans, buckets of gravy, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. (Duh!)
Long version

If you’re considering adopting a furry friend this holiday season, make like Elvis and put a couple bullet holes through the damn TV! Man, there’s no escaping this thing. (I can’t go to my room because my family is in there enjoying an L-tryptophan doze. )

Wow, 32 inches of snow on Mount Baker this morning and the news lady says she thinks it’ll be a lot more, and she should know because she woke up at 4 a.m. to spend 90 minutes styling her hair. I only care (about Mount Baker, not her hair) because I rode that climb awhile back (click here). Okay, I promise I’ll stop letting the TV news interfere with mine.

I wanted to be able to skip lunch and eat a minimum of during- and post-ride snacks, so that I’d have the hugest possible appetite for Thanksgiving dinner. So I ate one of those motel breakfast bar waffles, that have the uncanny property of never sticking to the waffle iron. I looked up the ingredients of that batter once, and discovered it contains both propane and butane (seriously). I also had two of the crazy salty sausage patties, and as a result I am now growing breasts. I think it’s all the hormones in the meat. At least I found some yogurt without any Splenda in it. That’s getting hard to do.

It took us all morning to suit up, perhaps because we were trading around a lot of clothing and felt overwhelmed by all the options available to us. I’d been watching the weather forecast for a week and it seemed entirely possible there would be rain, which at the higher altitudes would mean snow. (Last year we—i.e., Bryan, Alexa, and I—had to turn around 2/3 of the way up because the road was iced over.) My nephew John is locally famous for never having the right gear on these rides … imagine pedaling 120 miles in high-top sneakers. He’s done that, twice. This time I brought him some leg warmers, some cycling shoes, and some cycling pedals to go with those shoes. Was this an absurd mother hen kind of behavior not grounded in any real need? Well, I asked if he had any leg warmers and he said, “I was gonna ride in sweats.” He even tried to politely decline the cycling shoes and pedals on the grounds that it was too much hassle. Also, he didn’t have any gloves. Bryan had a wide assortment of gloves but not many that matched. John ended up rocking a baseball batting glove on one hand for the ride up, and giant wool socks, worn like mittens, for the descent.

Alexa knew about the weather forecast, but hadn’t packed any leg warmers for the trip. Why not? Because her leg warmers are white. She and her mom are in 100% agreement that females cannot wear white leg warmers. (They were both present when I paid good money for these leg warmers and I wish they’d spoken up then.) So Alexa had to wear the leg warmers I’d brought for John, whose dad surprised me by having a second pair handy. Whew!

Here’s Bryan’s 1984 Team Miyata, which John rides, equipped with my loan of some of the more high-tech pedals on the market (the spring is just a piece of carbon fiber), juxtaposed with the pedals I removed from the bike, which I’m pretty sure are the most high-tech toe-clip-style pedals ever made:

We finally got on the road at 1:30 p.m., which is at the outer limit of when it would be wise to begin this ride. We’re so far north, the sun sets at 4:42 p.m. at this time of year. Plus, the sun just isn’t that strong here, probably because there’s no sales tax revenue to bribe Mother Nature with.

You already saw the “before” photo, above. It was close to 50 degrees out and somewhat sunny when we started. The landscape is spare, sparse, Spartan, spacious, and special. Here’s a photo showcasing the scrub.

The ride starts in this basin where the air is extra cold. Then the grade gets steeper, you start working harder, and you warm up a bit. At mile 6 (guess how I know this?) Alexa was able to roll up her sleeves. Isn’t it great that it’s still possible to write non-metaphorically about rolling up sleeves?

The three men on the ride had old-school (i.e., non-compact) cranksets. That’s why I’m able to use the word “men” in that last sentence. Alexa has a compact crank—not because she’s female, mind you, but because she’s still a kid and that’s what her dad outfitted her with. One day she will rip all our legs off, but on this ride she took advantage of her low gearing and drifted back at times. As she and her teenaged friends like to say, “Don’t judge!”

As the sun sank and we gained altitude the air got progressively colder. I was pretty comfortable in a long-sleeve merino wool long-sleeve base layer I bought for my brother Max last year. He mailed it back to me because—get this—his arms are too muscular to fit in the sleeves. (We should all have such problems, eh?) Look, snow:

The scenery got more impressive all the time, perhaps because my oxygen-starved brain shut down unnecessary applications and became more perceptive to the natural world. The Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, in A Hero of Our Time, says (through his narrator), “In simple hearts, the sense of the beauty and grandeur of nature is a hundred times stronger and more vivid than it is in us, enthusiastic tellers of tales.” Lermontov’s translator, Vladimir Nabokov, provides this footnote: “This is, of course, a romanticist notion. It is completely untrue.” I love both of these writers and wish they could have been on our ride. Here is some of that grandeur:

Look at the crepuscular rays on the right there. My brother says they might be “prepuscular” rays, though I’m not sure that’s even a word. (He has joined me in the lobby. Whoops, there he goes. Guess he got bored.) I think I’ll go with “sunbeams.”

It got mighty cold. I have to say, it would have been worse except the wind tended to be at our backs. This filled me with something like guilt, or maybe karmic fear. Like, we are only blessed with this tailwind because somebody, somewhere, is riding into a frigid headwind. Or, if we enjoy this tailwind now, we will pay later. That said, I paid into the karmic weather system big time last August: click here for details. Anyway, you can tell it was cold because Alexa has put on her arm warmers.

Here we are at the summit.

Note the wool sock on John’s hand, used as a mitten.  Also, see how Alexa’s got her hood pulled up under her helmet? I’m really glad for that hood. During the climb, as we noted the temperature (36 degrees), I asked Alexa, “You brought a warm hat, right?” She had not. I asked if she had been aware it would be cold. She countered that I didn’t tell her to bring a hat. Now, my wife and I believe in employing the “natural consequences” style of discipline. For example, if your kid drags her feet getting ready in the morning, you don’t nag her—you just allow her to make herself late for school so she’ll have to accept the consequences. But this doesn’t work in all cases. Yeah, I could let her descend Dead Indian in the frigid cold without a warm hat, to teach her a lesson, but it would be such a painful ordeal, it’d be tantamount to corporal punishment. So I was on the brink of deciding to loan her my hat (meaning I would go hatless and suffer terribly, because enduring pain is part of being a parent) when she remembered her hood. Problem solved!

The descent was beautiful, very cold, and impossible to photograph. We could see it was snowing at the higher elevation. Across the country people are mourning Florence Henderson, who played the mom on The Brady Bunch. Am I mourning? That’s a strong word. I never liked that show much, to be honest, and was not personally acquainted with Ms. Henderson. You know what I’m mourning? The fact that this TV news has once again infiltrated my story.

Alexa was in fine spirits as we descended. If you have a surly teenager (a phrase I now realize is redundant), just get her out on a bike ride. She may be quiet and withdrawn at the beginning of a ride, but as all the adrenaline and endorphins work their magic, along with the majesty of nature and the thrilling speed of the descent, she’ll likely become ebullient and downright chatty. I have witnessed this magic hundreds of times (dating from my own teenage years).

Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear most of what Alexa was saying because we now had a headwind and I was wearing this silly plastic jacket (on loan from my brother) that rattled in the wind at like 80 decibels. At one point I thought Alexa said, “I spotted a towhee!” but actually she’d said, “I saw a spotted towhee!” I saw it too and it was a very pretty bird. I had a great-uncle-in-law who loved bird-watching. “Yesterday I saw a double-breasted mattress-smasher!” he once boasted. He could get away with this because he was old. I can get away with it, I hope, because I’m quoting an old guy.

On the lower, shallower slopes Alexa said, “I can’t wait until we get to the van. I’m gonna crank the heat all the way up!” I replied, “Sorry, Alexa … didn’t you hear? The van’s heater is broken.” She looked crestfallen and said, “You’re joking.” I said, “Yes, I am.” And I was. “Why are you like this?” she complained. This is how you stamp down the rapport you’ve built up with your offspring during a bike ride. You stamp it down because you can: because this rapport seems an inexhaustible resource, so long as your kid keeps riding.

We drove back to my mom’s house where preparation of the Thanksgiving meal was nearing completion. Alexa had heard a rumor about fudge. I asked my mom. “Yes, there’s fudge,” she whispered, “but I’m not giving it out until Sunday. But I do have a secret stash, just for the bikers.” Oh, man, it was unbelievable. You know how you go to those fudge places in malls, like Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and it costs more than cocaine, and kids jump up and down and want to order everything, even the stupid little stuffed animal? That stuff is like old modeling clay compared to my mom’s fudge. This stuff is nirvana. In the exercise-enhanced palates of cyclists, the sense of the beauty and grandeur of fudge is a hundred times stronger and more vivid than in players of board games. Before you decry this as a romanticist notion that is completely untrue, go climb a 5,000-foot mountain in the blistering cold. And then get your own damn fudge, I’m not sharing.

Bryan and I capped the glycogen window snack with a couple of beers, mainly so that I could Beck’st my friends.

Then we munched on the herring that I mentioned already. After our showers we tucked into that Thanksgiving feast, with perfectly stoked appetites. Life is good!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

From the Archives - Dead Week Poetry


Man, college was a long time ago … 25 years. But I still remember it so well, especially the really hard parts, like final exams. I used to do these mammoth study sessions in the school library, which was always packed during dead week. Fittingly, I’m putting together this blog post in a public library, which is also hopping.

I wrote the following poem during a study break. It wasn’t much of a break because a) I couldn’t leave the library for fear of losing my seat, and b) the poem itself required mental effort. But writing it did treat my brain to a little novelty. Maybe yours, too!

Pausing in the Library on a Busy Evening – December 10, 1991

What’s on the test I think I know.
I have to plan three essays, though;                          2
My work’s completion’s not yet near
Though I began ten hours ago.

Those watching me must think it queer
That all this time I’m sitting here.                             6
My slouch and frown together make
A nervous bundle, wracked with fear.

With UPTime keeping me awake
My hand, while writing, can’t but shake.               10
My thoughts comprise a jumbled heap
Of doubts about the test I’ll take.

I’m not an antisocial geek,
But I’ve good grades I have to keep,                         14
And pages to write before I sleep
And pages to write before I sleep.    

Footnotes & commentary

Title: Pausing … Busy Evening

I doubt there’s an English major in history who wouldn’t immediately recognize my poem as a take-off on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I really don’t know what inspired me to suddenly stop studying and do this quasi-tribute.

Interestingly, as I look now on the history of Frost’s poem I see that his effort and mine were somewhat similar. I’d been working all day and into the night preparing for my final exams in English and, during a break, suddenly had a poem idea pop into my head. So it was with Frost, who was working all night on a long poem and, taking a break to watch the sun rise, suddenly got the idea for “Stopping by Woods.” He wrote the new poem “about the snowy evening and the little horse as if I’d had a hallucination,” in “just a few minutes without strain.”  I wouldn’t say there was anything hallucinatory about my poem, though after 15 hours straight of studying that’s not so far off. And I wrote my poem very quickly too, and if there was any strain it at all it came from replicating Frost’s cool rhyme scheme (more on this later).

Line 1: I think I know

My professors tended to give us pretty good clues into the kinds of things that would be on the final exam, but not enough to give me a lot of confidence. We read a ton of books for each class—at least half a dozen—and it was a good idea to read book each more than once. The second time through, a million things would become clearer because less of my brain would be taken up trying to keep characters straight, order events in the right sequence, and figure out what the hell was going on in. But there just wasn’t time to read everything twice, so I had to try to guess what books mattered the most to the prof and would end up on the exam.

My test prep was all about focusing my efforts on what seemed likely to pay off. I’d try to predict what would be on the test, and prepare rigorously for that. Often I’d go into a test totally unprepared to write about certain books, taking a calculated risk that the extra time I spent on certain other books would pay dividends. As it turned out, I was only burned once by this method. Perhaps my real skill as a college student wasn’t in literary comprehension, but in risk assessment. Here’s a sample (from my notes) of that process (evidently based upon a hint from the prof that he’d be asking us to compare two novels):

Line 4: ten hours ago

I don’t think this “ten hours” figure is accurate. If you look at the first picture in this post, you can see an arrow with “15 hrs” indicated. (I often tracked how long I spent studying, though I really can’t say why. Probably just out of habit, like my cycling training diary.) Maybe the 15 hours included some studying I did at home. Or maybe I didn’t feel like reworking this line of the poem to accommodate a two-syllable word (i.e., “fifteen”).

Line 5: those watching me

This was lazy writing. I mean, who could possibly be watching me study? The speaker in Frost’s poem had a horse handy to second-guess his behavior, but I did not. I should have pondered the matter of whether I myself thought it queer to study so long. (It strikes me as queer now, that’s for sure … my attention span has surely shrunk.)

Line 7: slouch and frown

This phrase, “slouch and frown,” is really pretty weak. The slouch is okay but I should have focused on how tight my neck was, how hunched my back, and how tense my entire body was. That would have led in to the next line much more nicely.

Line 8: nervous bundle

I liked this phrase “nervous bundle” right away, as it conveys the idea of being “bundle of nerves” and also the idea of my spine and how all the nerves join in this big bundle or something, and how aware you get of all that when you’re so tired and stressed out that even your spine starts complaining (see previous comment).

Line 8: wracked with fear

I wasn’t the only kid scared shitless about his upcoming finals. The student library was a cesspool of stress during dead week. You could just feel the fear hanging in the air. The atmosphere was suffocating, which is perhaps why, whenever I could, I studied in in the very spacious Doe Library. Doe was one of those almost unbelievably beautiful university buildings. Here’s a photo:

Frankly, that gorgeous room, with its thick oak desks and high ceiling, inspired me to study longer and harder, and the relatively small number of students it accommodated had a calming effect. It was definitely in Doe that I wrote this poem—I can remember it vividly, even down to exactly where I was sitting. I’m not sure how I managed to score a seat in Doe during Dead Week.  

I wasn’t always this lucky, of course. Another time during Dead Week I got stuck having to study in the Moffitt Undergraduate Library, which had low ceilings, tiny study carrels, and a lower proportion of liberal arts majors. (Other majors involved more stress, I think.) Here’s an excerpt from my notes from a study session at Moffitt:
I wish I could blow this place up. This is sheer misery. All these fervent, steaming, stressed-out people, their legs popping up and down like a jackhammer, the wads of gum stuck to this study box now bubbling and dribbling down towards the desk (which is swimming in a flood of grease from pimply foreheads and chins). Somebody has thrown a textbook into a 2nd-floor toilet, where it disrupted a long-abandoned, un-flushed load—turning it to cocoa. This I see in a gruesome flashback, instigated by my still unrelieved bowel.
Line 9: with UPTime keeping me awake

UPTime was, and is, a big horse-pill containing caffeine, gingko biloba, ginseng, cayenne pepper, Spirulina Blue Green Algae, Echinacea, and other stuff.

Whether or not UPTime worked better than NoDoz, it had the advantage of being free, for me. UPTime sponsored the UCSB cycling team with loads of free product, and even after I transferred to UC Berkeley I still had a bunch left. Plus, I worked at a bike shop and I got the manufacturer to send us a whole bunch of free product samples, which carried me through all the way to graduation. If anything, UPTime worked too well: I could stay awake for ages and ages but wasn’t exactly comfortable.

Line 10: can’t but shake

Case in point.

Line 11: comprise

My first boss, at my first corporate job after college, was also a Berkeley grad and really dug that we had the same alma mater. On the downside, he was self-assured to a fault, and once upbraided me for using the word “comprise” in the way I used it in this poem (i.e., as a transitive verb). He declared that it could only be used passively, in the phrase “is comprised of.” He was dead wrong, of course, but he also controlled my salary so I instantly capitulated and used “is comprised of” in all my job-related writing. To this day, using “comprise” as a transitive verb gives me a little rush of liberation. (“You cannot reach me now!”)

Line 13: antisocial geek

Another poor line born of laziness. Everybody is an antisocial geek during Dead Week, except maybe at party schools. Did I really think anybody noticed that I had isolated myself from all society in order to study? Certainly not, no more than I really believed anybody was watching me study (cf. line 5). Probably I just wanted a throwaway line that (more or less) rhymed with “keep” and “sleep.”

Speaking of the rhyme scheme, Frost created something pretty clever there. At first blush it’s not so special: the first two lines rhyme, the third doesn’t, and then the fourth line rhymes again (i.e., with the first two). So the rhyme scheme is AABA. So what? Well, check out the fifth line (i.e., the first line of the second stanza). It rhymes with the third line (of the first stanza), which previously hadn’t rhymed with anything. This convention holds for most of the poem, so the first three stanzas go AABA BBCB CCDC. Perhaps because Frost didn’t’ want to leave any line unrhymed, he didn’t follow the convention for the last stanza (i.e., didn’t do DDED) but rather had every line in the final stanza rhyme: DDDD. So it’s a 16-line poem with only 4 different line endings. Cool, huh?

I’m tempted to pat myself on the back for appreciating this nifty rhyme scheme even without having Frost’s poem in front of me when I wrote my poem. (This was before the Internet, after all). But since I mimicked not only Frost’s convention but the actual rhymes (that is, I did AABA BBCB CCDC DDDD as opposed to EEFE FFGF GGHG IIII), it’s possible I wasn’t actually aware of what I was doing.

Line 14: good grades I have to keep

It’s easy to see why a high school student would be obsessed with getting good grades: after all, as explained here, the conventional wisdom is that if you don’t get perfect grades, you’ll never get into a good college, and you’ll never get a good job or a good spouse and you’ll live in miserable, lonely poverty your whole life. But why would a college kid, already enrolled in the school he wanted, be wracked with fear about maintaining good grades?

Perhaps at this point in my education I hadn’t yet ruled out grad school … though I’m pretty sure I never seriously considered that. Maybe I figured potential employers would actually care about my grades. But more than anything, I wanted to graduate summa cum laude (i.e., with highest honors). I’ll concede this was perhaps an arbitrary goal, and maybe I sought it simply to offset the lack of respect I so frequently suffered due to my major (e.g., “English? What are you gonna do with that?”). In any event, I’m not so sure my effort was worth it. When I was interviewing for that all-important first job out of college, only one person commented on my college record. This was an engineer who asked, “So … summa cum laude … is that a fraternity?”

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Alternative Payment Methods

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and an intimation of ethical turpitude.

The check card
  • Pack of gum: $1.49 
  • Payment by: Visa- or MasterCard-branded check card 
  • Accepted at: any retailer who takes payment cards (i.e., all but the strange lady selling homemade costume jewelry at a street fair) 
  • Cash back: $40 
  • Ability to withdraw cash from checking without having to use another bank’s ATM where you’d pay $4-6 in totally bogus inter-bank payment fees, thus enabling venal, unwarranted cash grabs by both banks (even if you didn’t really need the pack of gum): priceless

The EMV chip card 
  • Pack of gum: $1.49 
  • Payment by: Visa- or MasterCard-branded EMV chip card 
  • Accepted at: supposedly any retailer in America who takes payment cards, except for all the ones who have the chip card reader taped over 
  • Weird new “feature”: upon completion of transaction, a series of low-pitched angry-sounding blats normally indicative of an error, which is a bit jarring because it really did seem like you did something wrong, since for years terminals have told us “Insert card and remove QUICKLY” and now the EMV terminals are telling us “DO NOT REMOVE CARD” and everything just feels weird 
  • Ability to hold up a whole line of shoppers while this insanely slow transaction completes, all for a stupid pack of gum, without getting so much as a dirty look from the cashier, because this is America, a land of freedom, where we can charge as small a purchase as we want, just like we can drive along in the left lane of the freeway at whatever speed we want, just to enjoy the freedom of it (which is fitting because you can’t do that in Europe, which is where this whole EMV chip card thing originated): priceless
Mobile Payment
  • Pack of gum: $1.49 
  • Payment by: modern smartphone with mobile wallet app and Near Field Communication (NFC) capability 
  • Accepted at: at least three retailers including Walgreens, Whole Foods, and … okay, maybe only two retailers 
  • Opportunity to show off to your teenage daughter by having her hold your wallet like a magician’s assistant while you pay with your phone, along with that irresistible high-tech throb the phone makes as it completes your purchase, and the belt-with-suspenders secure feeling you get from the knowledge that your credit card number is being “tokenized” (i.e., turned into a different number that somehow gets resolved in “the cloud” so the cashier doesn’t have the opportunity to steal your card number and go shopping online with it): priceless 
  • Full disclosure: Of course no teen would actually be impressed by this, and the kind of person who actually cares about tokenization is the sort who not only uses shoe trees but would bring them on a business trip
  • Zynga video game in-app purchase: $5.00 
  • Payment by: Bitcoin
  • Accepted at: most online hacking forums globally; certain other questionable venues 
  • Little thrill of being able to pay for something (albeit something that costs nothing to distribute and has no practical value) with pretend money: priceless

Mag-stripe reader accessory for tablet
  • Baby back ribs: $11.00 
  • Payment by: credit card via wireless terminal/dongle attached to tablet PC or smartphone 
  • Accepted at: an increasing number of food trucks, street fair vendors, and pop-up stores 
  • Novelty of being able to sign your name on the little touch-screen using your finger, and better yet, to sign your name in barbecue sauce, creating the visual effect of signing with blood: priceless
Apple Watch
  • Pack of gum: $1.49 
  • Payment by: Apple Watch 
  • Accepted at: at least two retailers including Walgreens and the Food Hole 
  • Ability to show off to the cute cashier by paying with your watch, while also helping to justify to yourself the purchase of this very expensive gadget that will soon seem laughably primitive when the newer model comes out: priceless 
  • Full disclosure: the cashier isn’t a nerdophile and actually couldn’t care less about your hi-tech watch
Sensoria biometric bra
  • Cup of coffee: $2.50 
  • Payment by: Sensoria biometric authentication bra, which (according to this article measures not just heart rate but “the unique shape of the electrical signals generated by our hearts” and could in principle be paired with an NFC payment terminal 
  • Accepted at: nowhere yet, but just you wait 
  • Having a perfectly valid reason—i.e., the practical working range of NFC being about 4 cm—to flash the cashier some serious cleavage while authorizing your payment: priceless 
  • Full disclosure: this scenario, though technically possible, would only actually occur in the daydreams of a nerdy product developer and/or bored cashier

  • Kid’s soccer shoes: $24.99 
  • Payment by: cash, since the last two times you used your credit card at this discount sporting goods chain, the card number was subsequently compromised so you had to deal with the bank’s fraud department and have your credit card reissued 
  • Peace of mind in knowing that you’ve dodged another instance of fraud, even though (or especially because) the young cashier finished off the transaction by conjuring up a giant bottle of Nyquil from under the counter and saying, “Hey, man, you wanna party with us?”: priceless 
  • Note: All this really happened to me, exactly as described here!
  • Two rap CDs: $22 
  • Payment by: “I’m in the record shop with choices to make/ ‘Illmatic’ on the top shelf, ‘Chronic’ on the left homie/ Wanna cop both but only got a twenty on me/ So fuck it, I stole both, spent the twenty on a dub sack” 
  • Ability of an underprivileged inner city kid to give himself a cultural education by steeping himself in quality music through a self-administered need-based subsidy program and then “giving back” to society by turning the account of his cashless transaction into brilliant rap music: priceless

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, October 31, 2016

My Brief Foray into Politics


This post does not concern, nor reveal, my political views.  As I stated in my very first albertnet post, politics is a topic I avoid.  Why?  First of all, I don’t have enough readers to risk alienating half of them.  Second, politics is boring.  I firmly believe that most political dialogue between non-professionals is pointless.  Either you disagree with the other person and will never come to agreement, or the two of you already agree, in which case the dialogue is just reiterating each other’s opinions (or splitting hairs, which doesn’t generally change anybody’s vote).  I’ve personally never met an undecided voter.  I acknowledge they exist but this amazes me.

This post tells the story of my brief foray into politics, a couple decades ago, as a Precinct Captain during a Presidential election.  This was when I was a student.  My college career happened to span two such elections, with a different party winning each time.  I reckon I can safely tell my story without you figuring out which side I support(ed).

(I thought this would be a recycled “from the archives” essay, but discovered that most of my original version emphasized the wrong things.  The fun, human details that stand out in memory were largely missing from the original essay.  So I’m recycling some stuff here, but dredging up the more interesting details from memory.  Here’s a teaser:  a girl was involved.) 

My brief foray into politics

It all started with a knock at the door from some guy handing out political paraphernalia.  He represented the candidate I supported, so—being bored, idealistic, and bereft of the “refusal skills” they tried to teach us in junior high health class—I coughed up my name and phone number as a potential volunteer.  A week later, the phone awakened me from a late slumber.  The caller was a girl and asked for me by name.  I’d only moved to town a couple months before and didn’t know a lot of people, so this seemed too good to be true.  Her name was Charlie.  If you don’t think that’s a sexy name for a college girl, maybe that’s only because you haven’t heard her voice.  If she’s not running a political campaign today, she might be making a great living as a deejay or voice actor.  She “reminded” me (actually, I’d been ignorant) about the big rally the next day.

I decided to go.  Not because I’m a natural-born volunteer, which I am not, and not because I was a politically wild-eyed college kid, and not because I was looking for something that would “look good on my résumé” (having the good sense even then to leave out this kind of thing).  After two decades of reflection, I’m able to admit that my main motivation for attending was to meet Charlie and see if she was as attractive in person as she’d sounded on the phone.

The student pavilion was absolutely mobbed.  After much trumpeting, ballyhooing, and a few introductory speeches, a big boss asked each volunteer to state his or her name, organization, and reason for attending.  This threatened to take forever; the first few students gave long tirades about their beliefs, etc.  Fortunately, a lot of others (perhaps sensing the growing danger of death-by-blather) gave very brief intros like, “My name is Joe Blow and I’m hung over” or “Her name is Jane Doe and she’s shy.”

When it came to my turn I said, “I’m Dana Albert and I’m here because I disagree with almost everything [Candidate X] stands for.”  This was met with cheering and laughing and I was on the verge of thinking I had a talent for politics until somebody said, “Wait—almost everything?”  I feared I might be pilloried but there was just more laughing.  Everybody seemed pretty punch-drunk, which may well be normal at such gatherings.

Then we got down to the strategy for Election Day.  Each precinct would have a Precinct Captain who would lead a team of “walkers” to blanket the region, knocking on doors to hand out paraphernalia and remind people to vote.  Every door in every precinct would be hit three times.  This sounded like a whole lot of work and I considered slipping out and running for my life.  Once you’ve demonstrated a willingness to do volunteer slave labor, I reasoned, you’re marked for life.

On the other hand, I theorized that being a Precinct Captain instead of just a foot soldier might involve some interesting work and a lot less walking.  Who knows, maybe I was a bit punch-drunk myself, because I bit the bullet and volunteered for Captain.  Just like that, my apartment became the headquarters for Precinct 34-11.

The Precinct Captains gathered at one end of the pavilion to head up the walker recruiting process.  The volunteer pool was surprisingly small, to my dismay.  What’s worse, the other Captains actually knew how to recruit:  “Yo, free beers for anyone in my precinct!” and  “Coffee and doughnuts over here!” Being broke, I wasn’t about to pony anything up, so I scanned the room for anybody who looked like he could be cajoled, via mere words, into joining my team.  My eyes happened to settle on a singularly attractive young woman, and I was so stunned when she returned my gaze that I just froze, cowering inwardly.  Only the fear of being rude kept me from instantly averting my eyes.  I probably looked like a scared little puppy dog who’s made a mess on the rug that his master is soon to discover.  But to my surprise, the girl didn’t scorn me; in fact, she walked over.  And astonishingly, she turned out to be Charlie herself!

Actually, this only seemed astonishing at the time, and if you happened to read my original account you’d have thought I was a master of dramatic irony (i.e., the literary technique where the reader figures things out that the hapless narrator does not).  But actually, I was just clueless.  Only now, in retrospect, do I realize that Charlie came over not because I was looking at her, but because I’d stood up and stated my name a few minutes before, so she knew who I was; i.e., she realized I was the hapless last-minute recruit she’d telephoned the previous day, who had now recklessly named himself a Precinct Captain despite lacking the knowledge and volunteer base to cover a precinct.  My puppy-dog look had only increased her pity.  Surely this is why she—a higher-up party operative—agreed to be one of my walkers, for at least part of my shift.

Unfortunately, it would take a lot more than one volunteer to blanket my precinct three times over.  I wasn’t the only understaffed Captain; one of the big bosses announced, “It looks like we're really short on volunteers, so the best thing you can do is call up your friends and get them to help you.”  I thought about raising my hand and saying, “What if I don’t have any friends?”  This would have been taken as a joke, and yet the reality was, the friendships I had made were still too new and shaky to withstand this kind of burden.

And so, later that afternoon, I went around to all the apartments in my complex with my signs and posters to beg for support.  Only one neighbor agreed to help, and he wouldn’t commit to a specific time, which made him as good as worthless.  Going into Election Day, I had to kiss goodbye my dream of assembling a crack team of precinct-walking superstars, ruling over them with friendly yet absolute authority, earning their respect as a fearless leader, and then kicking back all day and watching the votes roll in.  But things weren’t all bad; after all, I was Precinct Captain over one of the most beautiful girls on campus.

I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. on Election Day.  The first task of our crew was hanging last-minute campaign signs all over town.  It was hard to see the point of this; perhaps the idea was to put on a show of great effort in order to guilt lazy voters into actually making it to the polls.  Then it was time for the first door-to-door shift.  Charlie had her real job to do until 3:30 p.m., but I was able to coax the party bosses into assigning me a couple of professional walkers who had come all the way from Washington, DC.  Despite 34-11 being a notoriously large precinct, every door was knocked on by 11 a.m. and I did only 45 minutes of walking myself.

I spent the early afternoon calling in the poll results and handling a few other clerical matters.  I was dreading the second walking shift because I had no volunteers and would have to do the whole precinct myself.  But check this out:  the neighbor I’d recruited not only showed up, but brought his brother!  The three of us covered the second wave in good time, so that when Charlie showed up at 3:30 I was already back at HQ and probably looked like I knew what I was doing.

I had to walk a lot during the final shift, by which time people seemed pretty sick of seeing us.  Going door-to-door was actually kind of fun; seeing college kids at home is kind of like seeing animals in the wild.  A lot of them seemed to be napping, and it wasn’t uncommon for pot smoke to billow out as the door opened.  I knocked on one door, heard a lot of shrieking and scuffling, and eventually it opened a crack and a girl giggled, “None of us are dressed!”  At another place the tenant, who’d been sprawling on a couch half asleep, roused himself to start arguing with me.  I explained that I didn’t have time to discuss the election, at which point his girlfriend took up the job.  They were really going at it as I left.

At 8:15 I headed over to the mandatory meeting of all the Precinct Captains.  I guess if our candidate had triumphed this would have been a big party, and there was certainly enough alcohol laid in for that purpose.  But our guy lost.  The state of the headquarters (somebody’s house) reflected the wreckage of the campaign:  all kinds of flyers and other paraphernalia, now completely useless, littered the floor; posters were beginning to curl and slide down the walls; charts of the periodic precinct checks displayed the carnage numerically.  I imagined being one of the bosses recording these numbers, the cause being slowly tortured to death before their very eyes. 

I went into the living room, where everybody was gathered around watching our candidate’s concession speech.  I don’t think advance polling was much of a thing back then, so this loss hadn’t been predicted.  Still, I was surprised at how nobody seemed braced for this eventuality.  It was like somebody had died … everyone was so depressed.

Maybe nobody wanted to be the first to leave, because we all hung around for a good while, some people drinking pretty heavily.  Maybe all the guys were waiting for a chance to hit on Charlie, which to be honest was the main reason I myself stuck around.  It did seem a bit crass to be pursuing such a selfish personal ambition under the circumstances, but then, defying my hormones to pursue extended mourning wouldn’t change anything anyway.  Life goes on, right? 

I nursed a single beer for so long it became warm in my hand, and I must have zoned out for a good while.  When I did my next casual scan of the room to see what Charlie was up to, I was startled to discover two things.  One, almost everybody seemed to have vanished, as though they’d been quietly dismissed or spontaneously bailed en masse.  Two, Charlie was totally making out with some guy!

Dammit!  This disappointment oddly mirrored that of the election itself.  In both cases, I hadn’t really had my hopes up but was nonetheless shocked to see them so suddenly dashed.  And who was the lucky guy?  I didn’t recognize him as one of the leaders, and he wasn’t particularly good looking or even well-dressed.  What was his secret?  Confidence, probably.  Yeah, even with (or especially with) his face mashed into Charlie’s, he exuded charisma.  Well, good for him.  Hell, he’d probably been working on Charlie for the whole damn election … who was I to think I could swoop in at the end, coordinate some pointless door-to-door campaign activity on Election Day, and sweep this gorgeous and important young woman off her feet?

Adding insult to injury, I now had to figure how to make a graceful exit.  Sneaking away seemed cowardly and antisocial.  But I couldn’t just tap Charlie on the shoulder to bid her farewell.  What would I say?  “Excuse me, sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to say goodbye and thanks for … everything.”  And what would I say to the guy?  Offer him my congratulations?  It was all just so awkward. 

But then all the empty beer cans and bottles littering the place gave me an idea.  I was seated at a table and kind of slumped over it for a spell.  Then I let out a little groan and slowly pitched myself out of my chair, slipping down off the table and sprawling out on the floor.  To complete the illusion of being passed out drunk, I let my beer bottle slip from my hand and roll a short way across the floor.  I remained as still as possible, eyes slitted.

Charlie’s new boyfriend chuckled and said, “Looks like somebody’s overdone it.”  He and Charlie walked over and helped me to my feet.  I staggered and slurred as they walked me—my arms around their shoulders—to the door.  “You gonna be okay, buddy?” the guy asked, showing off to Charlie as the cool big brother figure.  Well played, sir! 

I did my best impression of a drunk foolishly assuring them I was fine, and tottered away into the night.  As the door closed behind me, I even started singing in an off-key, maudlin way.  As I contemplated Charlie and her guy resuming their make-out session—and escalating it, now that they had their privacy—I continued singing, all the way down the block, until some guy yelled to shut up.  Forgetting for the moment that I wasn’t actually drunk, I shouted back some mild, halfhearted obscenities.  Then I headed home, exhausted and dejected.

Did I learn anything from my brief foray into politics?  Not really … just something I’d already guessed, which is that no political effort, however humble or lofty, small or large, grassroots or massively funded, will ever exclude personal ambition of one sort or another.  There’s nothing wrong with this, of course.  Somebody’s got to do that work, and I can’t begrudge those folks their well-earned rewards.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

I Will Disrupt Your Coffee


I want to disrupt your coffee.  I’m using the word “disrupt” because it’s so current and powerful.  Dang it!  I just realized maybe it’s already passé… maybe “disrupt” was current when I started the sentence but lapsed by the end.  Whatever.  I’m going to use it anyway.

(By the way, I’m just being flippant with the title of this post.  I hope to disrupt your coffee, but I don’t kid myself that I have much influence over my readers.)

What I’m saying is, I’m a newcomer to drinking coffee—in the last week or so I finally learned how to make it, albeit in a very old-fashioned way—but I’m going to have the audacity to try to get you, a coffee veteran, to change your approach to this ancient beverage.  That’s what I understand this whole “disruption” thing to be.

The ask

I’m going to ask you to consider drinking your coffee black from now on.  It’s that simple.  I’ll provide the rationale as we go along.  (If you already drink your coffee black, read this anyway because it might give you a pleasurable smugness.)

I am emboldened to suggest this because I’m not the first one to do so.  I learned this when talking to my daughter about the soda tax passed two years ago in nearby Berkeley.  Berkeley is the first city in the U.S. to pass an excise tax on sugary drinks, and according to this article it’s working out well.  Berkeley’s law covers “flavored coffee drinks,” a category which includes not just premixed, bottled beverages but also any coffee to which a barista adds sweetener:  “The distributor [pays] a tax based on the quantity of sweetener used according to the printed instructions,” according to this article.  (If you add your own sugar, oddly enough, it doesn’t get taxed.  A little loophole, I guess.)

So, how is it that Berkeley voters—despite fierce opposition from the American Beverage Association—gave this complicated proposition a landslide victory?  Simple:  Berkeleyites (aka Berzerkers, Berkleyistas) are enemies of freedom.  I don’t mean to imply that that’s a bad thing.  I myself am an enemy of freedom.  Society gives us freedom and what do we do with it?  We read Us magazine, buy microwave popcorn, and rudely lash out at strangers via the Internet.

What’s wrong with cream and sugar?

Look, I have no real problem with putting cream and sugar in coffee and am not here to render any expert opinion on what a cup of coffee ought to be.  As coffee achievers go, I’m pretty much a dabbler; I only have coffee when I really need the caffeine (though that’s more and more often these days).  For most of my life, I tended to dress up that rare cup of coffee with sugar, or maybe Sugar In the Raw if I was feeling all fancy, and either cream, half-and-half, or milk.  This increased the charisma of the beverage, and to this day I enjoy that flavor.

But then the other morning I had an epiphany.  I was rushing to get on a very early conference call (the downside of being the odd West Coast employee) and made up some instant coffee.  The brand I use—never mind what it is, especially since I’m about to bag on it—is fairly upscale and describes itself as “amazingly close to a freshly brewed cup of coffee.”  I used to tolerate this product okay, but either my jar has gone bad or my tastes have changed… this time, it tasted awful.  It wasn’t just bitter—it was sour.  I added plenty of sugar and milk but they didn’t help.  And then I thought, wait—is that what we use cream and sugar for?  To dampen the flavor?  That might make sense with a lousy product, but aren’t most coffee drinkers buying pretty good stuff?  The fresh beans, the Peets, the Keurigs, and all that?  Why would you dilute that?

Think of it this way.  Imagine you lined up a row of giant mugs, each a quarter filled, with a variety of coffees progressing from barebones to deluxe:  Brim, McDonald’s, Peet’s from frozen ground beans, Peet’s from their store, Peet’s from beans you grind to order, and whatever is served at the Four Seasons Hotel in Florence.  If you took a sip of each, you’d surely notice a great range of quality.  Now add a normal amount of sugar and cream:  you’d still notice a big difference, even if you used the same grade A organic cream and pure unadulterated cane sugar in each mug.  Now imagine adding more and more cream and sugar to each mug, tasting each at intervals.  The difference from one cup to the next would get blurred.  Eventually they’d all taste the same (i.e., like sweet cream).

So assuming you’ve settled on a favorite brand of coffee, something very upscale and high-quality, perhaps to the point that you even have a favorite bean and/or a favorite roast … why would you then go and add these very basic products—cream or milk and/or sugar—which blunt your coffee’s distinctive flavor?

Is coffee too bitter to drink black?

Perhaps you just like coffee better with cream and sugar, full stop.  And no, it’s not because you’re some kind of wuss and find the undiluted flavor of coffee too bitter to handle.  You don’t mind the bitterness; you just like a little cream and sugar, and you are this close to abandoning this essay except that on some level you’re enjoying your growing hatred of me and my unsophisticated opinions.

You know what?  I agree with you—coffee isn’t that bitter!  Nobody is trying to cover up the flavor!  Meanwhile, even if it is a tiny bit bitter, humans can learn to enjoy bitterness.  I give you the India Pale Ales that are all the rage nowadays.  I really do love them, and know from personal experience that they’re an acquired taste.  I remember the first time I had a Racer 5, which—at 75 IBUs—is a pretty bitter beer.  Man, I hated it.  But now it’s one of my favorites.  (My absolute favorite is the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, which is rated at 90 IBUs; when I tried that one for the first time, I was far enough into IPAs that I loved it right away.)

And—though I’m no expert on coffee—I gather that to the extent that it is bitter, this is a failing.  This article suggests four possible causes of coffee being bitter:  it’s brewed wrong, the grind size is wrong, the water is too hot, or the brewing equipment is dirty.  So a really good cup shouldn’t be that bitter anyway.  So why do we sweeten it?

I don’t know for sure how people get into the habit of putting sugar and cream in their coffee, but I’d guess that when they started drinking it, the flavor struck them as unusual and they dressed it up to make it more familiar.  From there it just became habit.

“But wait!” you may be thinking.  “It’s not that!  It’s just that coffee with cream and sugar tastes really good!  You’re overthinking this!”

What makes us enjoy a flavor?

Let’s not be so hasty.  Let’s think about this.  What makes us decide something tastes good?  I read some article on sweetness and I’m not going to do try to dig that up, but it was something to the effect that we humans are hardwired to like the flavor of things that are calorically dense.  This was an evolutionary adaptation, a way nature gets us to lay in all the calories we can when they’re available, to avoid famine.  So a sweet tooth is pretty unsophisticated, isn’t it?  Like kids with their damn sodas and candy and Froot Loops!  Loving sweet things is natural … but I think it’s also kind of weak.  Fat isn’t so different … it’s calorically dense, too.

But coffee?  Black coffee has almost no calories.  Maybe we like it because, as described by this article, “caffeine enhances dopamine (DA) signaling in the brain.”  In other words, coffee produces a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.  But a) people also like decaf, and b) if this was only about caffeine, people would just pop NoDoz.  So coffee provides a more sophisticated enjoyment than mere dopamine response.  It appeals to our cultured side, not just our primitive impulses.  (Maybe this is why dogs and cats don’t crave it.)

So why blend this acquired taste with extra stuff?  Is it really necessary to pile these treats on top of each other?  If so, why not make every cup of coffee an Irish coffee by adding whisky, and/or always having a donut with it?  

I have two problems with this treat-upon-treat enhancement of coffee.  First off, the cheap dopamine buzz of fat and sugar seems like a vulgar addition to a fairy sophisticated product.  Nobody adds sugar or fat to an IPA, after all, and  I’m not the only person who considers it a travesty to put corn-syrup-laden ketchup on a hot dog.  Second, coffee isn’t a treat—for so many of us, it’s a habit we indulge several times a day.  If we can learn to enjoy it on its own merit, we don’t only elevate our taste, but we avoid gratuitous sugar and fat (and the temptation to ever make do with non-dairy creamer and/or Sweet'N Low).

I’m not saying we should cut out cream and sugar entirely—just that we get over the habit of always including them.  I think they really are just a habit, a rote add-on to the coffee ritual.  I remember watching a colleague customizing his Starbuck’s coffee:  first a splash of milk, then a splash of half-and-half, then two packets of sugar, then a little shake of cocoa on top.  He assembled this concoction several times a day.  I asked him, “Why not add the sugar first, when the coffee is hotter, so it’ll dissolve better?”  He shrugged and said, “I’ve always done it this way.”

Trust me:  it’s not hard to learn to like coffee black.  It took me all of three cups to see the light, whereas it took at least a dozen introductions to IPA before I acquired the taste.  (I’d inherited a bunch of it after throwing a party a few years back, and by the time they were gone, I was a convert.)  Black coffee is actually pretty dang tasty.  And you know what?  Now that I have a taste for it, I’m more versatile:  I can drink it black as a matter of course, but next time I’m at a fancy restaurant with the cute little pitcher of cream and the little hinge-lidded cup of fancy brown sugar cubes, I can fuss pleasurably with all of that because it’ll still taste good to me.

One more rationale

I’ll give you one more reason to drink your coffee black:  it makes you more cool.  At least, drinking black coffee makes me feel a bit more cool.  Not many behaviors can achieve this sense of cool.  I could smoke a cigarette, but that would just make me an idiot.  I could drive a sporty little convertible, but that would feel like a pose.  I could wear a badass leather jacket and/or ride a Harley, but—being a forty-seven year old dad—I would look ridiculous.  But to like my coffee black … that’s a little bit of cool that is still within my reach.

(This isn’t a male macho thing.  Drinking coffee black is also cool for a woman.  For example, the woman celebrated in the Cake song “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” would surely drink her coffee black.)

Call to action

To be clear, I’m not asking you to give up cream and sugar altogether.  I’m suggesting that the next time you have a cup of coffee—which is probably only hours from now—you not add anything to it.  Give this a taste.  If it doesn’t appeal to you, taste it some more and contemplate the flavor for a moment.  What’s wrong with it?  Couldn’t you learn to like this? 

Take like a week.  See if you don’t develop a taste for pure, adulterated coffee.  Assuming you do, now you can ask if there’s any reason to go back to cream and sugar.  And if there is—if you just plain enjoy that more—well that’s fine too and now you know your preference is real, and not just a habit born of unthinking repetition.

(Should you put milk in your tea?  That’s a whole other question….)

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