Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Famous Last Words - Part II


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

Introduction

If you haven’t read last week’s post, I recommend you click here and do so now. In that essay I explored the phenomenon of a dying person’s last words, and was all set to tell you my father’s last words—but then ran out of room. Well, not room, exactly, but I had gone on long enough and didn’t want to bore you. So today you get to find out what my father’s last words actually were.

My father’s last words

My father, just before he died, said … well, wait. Before I get to that, I should give you a bit of background, so that you can fully appreciate just how funny, unexpected, and yet apropos my father’s last words truly were.

To start, my father always fancied himself a gentleman. He never cussed. I mean, ever. It was weird. This is a guy who never even said “fart.” I think he said “damn” here and there, but less frequently even than my daughters, who aren’t officially even allowed say this. When my dad needed emphasis, he either resorted to volume or other means.

For example, he was once a passenger in my 1984 Volvo when I had a mishap. I was parking in front of my house and came in a little too close to a broken curb outcropping, which caught the edge of my car’s trim and zipped it right off the side of the car. This made a terrible, loud noise like the car was shrieking in pain. When my dad got out he was shocked—almost disappointed, it seemed—that my comeuppance involved so little damage. I zipped the trim right back on to the car, good as new, and my dad said, “You are real lucky you didn’t do more damage.”  For him to use the adjective “real,” where the adverb “really” is called for, was tantamount to profanity, given his normally precise, professorial syntax.

Even when my dad was clearly angry, he didn’t resort to strong language. Once, on a beautiful summer evening, just before dusk, my dad was driving my brothers and me up Flagstaff Road, just for the pleasure of it, when we encountered an encampment of drunken college kids whooping it up. I can’t remember what they were saying but it was vulgar and far louder than necessary. They were being loud, it seemed, just to disturb the peace, and to flaunt their youth and irresponsibility and drunkenness. (I even seem to recall a soiled prophylactic sailing through the air, but perhaps this is the embroidery of memory.) My dad did not yell, “Shut up, you bastards!” like any normal person. What he yelled was, “Hush up!” Who says “Hush up”? Nobody, that’s who. (Oddly, this caught the drunks so off-guard they were momentarily speechless as their soused brains attempted to parse this utterance.)

My dad’s uncannily clean mouth wasn’t due to any moral or religious airs. He just had this profound sense of decorum. Surely he was aware that a certain amount of profanity is common among adults. In fact, on one occasion, a year or so ago, he even alluded to this. He remarked, “I encountered recently a rather humorous website cataloguing all the ways the F-word can be used. The F-word turns out to be highly elastic, and can be used as almost any part of speech … as a noun, as a verb, and so forth.” I was so eager to encourage this exploration that I probably overstepped a bit. I replied, “Oh, yes, I’ve seen that website and it’s pretty funny. But you know, it’s incomplete. The guy compiling the list missed one: ‘fuck’ as gerund adverb, as in, ‘Are you fucking shitting me?!” This seemed to catch my dad completely off guard, and just like that the conversation was over. He responded as though I’d been verbally abusive. I realized this may have been the first time he’d heard me use such language. (I just shrugged it off, like, “You started it, dude.”)

Notwithstanding my dad’s lifelong avoidance of profanity and other tough talk, I knew toward the end of his life that, as far as last words go, anything was possible. Perhaps a new experience like dying of cancer would unleash an entirely new lexicon. This was the case with a former President of Bolivia, Antonio José de Sucre, who was known to be a gentleman who had never cursed in his life. Upon being shot twice in the head (but before a third shot, to the heart, killed him) he cried out, “¡Carajo, un balazo!” [“Fuck, a bullet!”]. So he had that word in him but had just never been upset enough to deploy it.

So it was with my dad, not long before he died, when in the middle of the night I heard him yell out, “Shit!” I had literally never heard him utter this word before. Of course, he didn’t have an audience—or at least, he didn’t realize he did, being alone in his bedroom—so maybe this wasn’t eligible to be his last word. On the other hand, he yelled it quite loudly, and was well aware that a crack team of his sons was assembled in the living room on cots and mattresses, taking turns attending to him during his hospice. Novel as this word choice was, though, I can’t say I was surprised. Something about having an ostomy bag burst open would surely loosen anyone’s tongue. (If it had been me in there bursting my ostomy bag, I’d have woven a tapestry of profanities that would make Eminem blush.)

Still, cursing to an empty room in the dark is a long way from challenging somebody verbally, in broad daylight, face to face. Throughout his life my father avoided pointed statements and direct challenges whenever possible. If you said something that upset him, he would either fold up completely—the conversational equivalent of going limp or playing possum—or he would quietly explain that you were upsetting him.

He had a special way of reacting if you were boring him or about to hold forth on a topic he didn’t want to hear about. His protocol in this scenario was even more efficient than a teenager’s “Whatever dude” or “Like I care.” He would essentially cut you off with the simple word, “Good.” For example, I once said to him, “I just started a pretty cool project at work.” For some reason he didn’t want to hear it. Maybe his brain was tired, or maybe he was afraid he’d be out of his depth with this topic (which would have been ironic, as my brothers and I grew up hearing all about his work in the field of rocket science). Whatever the reason, he just said, “Good.” It’s impossible to capture, with mere text, the peculiar inflection he employed to convey the utterly dismissive intent of this utterance, but his meaning was impossible to miss. Dad’s “good” meant “All right, good for you … but I don’t give a rat’s ass, so shut up already.” So often did he employ this “good,” it became a running family joke. Even my kids have become expert at mimicking it. So I’ll say, for example, “Girls, I want to talk to you about Internet security,” and they’ll reply, with perfect Grandpa inflection, “Good”—and then disappear.

Okay, great … so what were his last words?

My father’s last words were … well, first let me paint the picture for you, of this deathbed scene. My dad had reached the phase where lucidity was a huge struggle. If somebody visited with whom he really wanted to connect, he dug deep, made eye contact, swallowed, cleared his throat, and then asked (with a gesture or a croak) for a drink of water, which would cause a coughing fit right after he swallowed it, and then he would utter a sentence clearly tailored for maximum brevity. The effort would exhaust him, and then he would slump back on the pillow, and his eyelids would half close, and his eyes would roll up toward the top of his head. For long spells between these verbal efforts—which became progressively rarer—he would just lie there in a partial doze.

My brothers and I learned that our dad seemed to appreciate our presence even if he couldn’t communicate (verbally or through eye contact). So we’d sit by the bed and hold his hand. He’d acknowledge this, sometimes, with a brief hand squeeze. (And if our presence didn’t always register with him, the gesture meant something to us, anyway.) And so, sometime in the last hour of our dad’s life, my brother Geoff and I just sat with him, across the bed from each other, each holding one of his hands. We sat there quietly, looking upon him, knowing full well that we wouldn’t be looking upon him for much longer, and then never again.

What a sight he was. He hadn’t gotten around to getting a haircut or trimming his beard before a big surgery in mid-August, and the ensuing complications and follow-on surgeries—one crisis after another, each advancing him toward this early death—meant he never got around to these petty sartorial matters, so now his hair was long and wild, his beard long past the professorial stage into well into hipster territory. From the neck up, he was like some crazy old man from a Faulkner novel. But below the neck, his body was just wasted away—nothing but skin and bones. His rib cage was so prominent we couldn’t help but think of E.T. His arms and legs were so spindly, so utterly devoid of flesh, he was like an honest-to-God prisoner of war. His remaining skeletal frame was birdlike—like Poe’s “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.” In short, our dad’s physical presence was nothing short of heartbreaking to look upon.

And yet his hands, amazingly, remained unchanged. Sure, they were old person’s hands—mottled, red, sun-ravaged—but still large and strong. His grip was surprisingly good. Looking from the wrist down, you might have said this guy had gotten too much sun—but not that he was clearly a terminal patient heading down the home stretch of a wasting death. Geoff and I sat there holding his hands for a long time and then Geoff said exactly what I’d been thinking: “His hands are still the same as ever.”

So we sat there, gripping his hands, managing to find something to admire in this broken, wasted man. “Think of all the cool stuff he built with these hands,” Geoff said. It was true. Our dad was always building things, his whole life long. He made custom roof racks to put his bikes on his car. He built world class telescope tripods from old hockey sticks. He once built a prototype of some kind of aerospace stabilizer out of crap he found in the basement, including an old car tire that was suspended over the floor horizontally; as I stared at it, wondering what the point could possibly be, Dad invited me to give it a kick. This I did with gusto, and to my amazement there was a sudden whizzing and whirring of servos and the swinging of the tire was stopped in an instant, like magic.

“Think of all the knots these hands have tied,” I said. My dad knew all the sailors’ knots. He could do a clove hitch, a half hitch, a bowline, a sheepshank—all of these in his sleep, in the dark. Geoff replied, “Yeah—” but was suddenly cut off because:

“Shup,” our dad said. Huh? Shup?

I looked into his eyes, and he looked back. “You mean, ‘shut up’?” I asked. He nodded. And that was it. The last words he ever spoke. Shut up.

Now, this may not seem momentous to you, but remember everything I said above. This man had surely never, in his life, told anybody to shut up—certainly not us. That really says something, because we were four very boisterous boys—I can still hear our mom yelling, “Stop all that yammering!”—but our dad had never, ever told us to shut up.

So Geoff and I shut right up, believe me. And we looked at each other in astonishment. What was our dad reacting to? I guess it must have been painful for him to be talked about like that, right in front of him, almost in the past tense, and without being part of the conversation. Maybe the allusion to his wasted body was hard to take; to hear the statement “His hands are still the same as ever” was part and parcel of the bigger point—that the rest of his body was ruined. Or maybe he just couldn’t handle the casual ease with which we expressed ourselves, when he was barely able to speak.

Or maybe, just maybe, after a lifetime of decorum and politesse, and now facing imminent death, he decided there was no reason not to finally say those simple words—“shut up”—that he’d been waiting his whole life to be able to say.

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Famous Last Words


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

Introduction

I had the unfortunate opportunity recently to hear somebody’s last words. As in, on his deathbed. I suspect that few people’s last words are memorable, or at least get remembered. However, I came well prepared for my opportunity as witness, which gratified my longtime fascination with dying words. In this post I’ll explore that fascination with you.


Famous last words

My brother Max and I have discussed this at length. We want to go out saying something impressive. Max declared, “I wouldn’t want to go into death unprepared. I want to have something rehearsed.” Like what? “Well, something like, ‘Stay gold, Ponyboy … stay gold.’” Of course he was joking, as that’s been taken. Myself, I’ve always kept the following quote handy, ready to rattle off whenever I don’t know what else to say: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Those are Vladimir Nabokov’s words, but not his last. His last words were, “A certain butterfly is already on the wing.”

Pretty glib, eh? Almost too perfect. And that’s the challenge: to have something queued up in advance, and then to have the lucidity and presence of mind to recall it in your last moment. Adding to the difficulty is that you may not know which moment will be your last. As I’ve discussed with Max, there’s always the Little Big Man scenario: you think the time has come to die, and you make a big speech and everything, and then you unexpectedly go on living for quite some time, making this “final” thing you said a bit of an embarrassment.

There’s also the scenario where you give a nice little speech, thinking it’s the end, but then you live just long enough to spoil it with some other random utterance. This happened to the famous writer Roald Dahl, who had his family gathered around him and said, “You know, I’m not frightened. It’s just that I’ll miss you all so much.” Pretty nice sentiment, but then, as he seemed to lose consciousness, his nurse decided to give him a morphine injection to ease his transition—whereupon Dahl cried out, “Ow, fuck!” And then died. Ow, fuck … famous last words.

Convicted murderers, right before being executed, have a great opportunity to say something memorable. In my extensive study of last words (i.e., reading the entire Wikiquotes entry), I found murderers to be the best represented. They can predict the moment of death beforehand, and they’ve had some time on death row to think of something. James French, just before getting the electric chair, yelled to the assembled press, “Hey fellas! How about this for a headline … ‘French fries!’” Thomas Grasso declared, “I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s; I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this.” Of course, even murderers can screw this moment up. Shannon Charles Thomas gave some long formal statement, but then forgot to shut up afterward. His actual last words: “Is the mic still on?”

Perhaps murderers aren’t whom to look to for the crème de la crème of last words, as these people don’t tend to be well educated and/or or deep thinkers. I’ve found wittier quotes from those executed in the name of politics. Consider Pedro Munoz Seca, a playwright executed during the Spanish Civil War, whose last words, facing a firing squad, were, “I am starting to believe you are not intending to count me amongst your friends.” George Jacques Danton, a French revolutionary famous for his physical ugliness, said just before being beheaded, “Show my head to the people. It is well worth seeing.” But my favorite line comes from James Scott, First Duke of Monmouth, a British nobleman executed on Tower Hill. It was customary in those days to tip the executioner in advance (as a way to ensure good—i.e., swift—service), but Scott refused. Perhaps for that reason, the first blow of the axe landed on his shoulder. He looked up at the executioner and said, “Sir, if you miss like that again, I cannot guarantee that I shall remain still.”

Of course, anybody whose life ends like this has the benefit of an audience which knows it is witnessing somebody’s demise. This audience is prepared in advance to register what is said and may naturally suppose the words will be remarkable—so they’re paying attention. But the death doesn’t need to be deliberate, if there are enough people in attendance. There is very little doubt as to the authenticity of the final words of Mark Sandman, the lead singer of Morphine. Addressing a stadium full of fans at a concert in Palestrina, Italy, he said, “Thank you Palestrina. It’s a wonderful evening, it’s great to be here and I wanna dedicate you a super sexy song.” And then he collapsed of a fatal heart attack.

In contrast, when a famous person dies but not many are around to hear his or her last words, there’s certainly room for error—especially when posterity so badly wants to glorify the memory of the deceased. Perhaps this is how history has recorded so many conflicting (and thus inaccurate) accounts. For example, Groucho Marx is said to have parted with, “This is no way to live!”—but his last utterance is also reported as, “Die, my dear? Why, that's the last thing I'll do!” So which account is correct? At most one, and quite possibly neither. Humphrey Bogart supposedly said, “I should never have switched from scotch to martinis.” But other sources have him leaving off by telling his wife, “Goodbye, kid. Hurry back.” Maybe the thing about martinis was merely toward  the end? Who knows.

Dylan Thomas either said, at the last, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies … I think that’s the record,” or, “Roses plural or Rose’s with an apostrophe?” The second report, spoken to his girlfriend, strikes me as more authentic (for being less pitch-perfect), but again we can’t really know. Elvis Presley is purported to have made his final utterance, “I’m going to the bathroom to read,” but the more believable account is that he said, “Okay, I won’t,” which gives the more interesting utterance to his fiancée, who (as he headed for the john) warned him,  “Don’t fall asleep in there.”

One apocryphal final utterance that I’m guilty of repeating is that of Tom Simpson, a cyclist who died of a drug overdose during a Tour de France stage. He supposedly said, “Put me back on my bike.” What he actually said was, “Up … up….” Of course that doesn’t make as good a story. Pancho Villa left us a nice touch of irony along these lines, saying at the end, “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.” Very witty and “meta,” except that, alas, this quote too is apocryphal … nobody knows what his last words actually were.

Other last words can perhaps be better trusted, not because of who was around to remember them, but because they’re memorable without being uttered by a famous person burdened with the responsibility of saying something bright. For example, Louise-Marie-Thérèse de Saint Maurice, Comtesse de Vercellis, reportedly said, “Good. A woman who can fart is not dead.” This was, yes, after letting one rip. That’s just too good to be made up (and if it was untrue, people would surely have spoken up). Another utterance that seems too apropos to have been apocryphal is the final utterance of the surgeon Joseph Henry Green who, upon checking his own pulse, spoke just one word: “Stopped.”

Then we have the case of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, whose last words were, “God bless, God damn!” According to Wikiquotes, “He was known to spend many long hours trying to decide what his last words would be; one can only speculate if this is what he had intended to say.” I guess there are worse final proclamations; after all, “God bless, God damn!” was reportedly good enough for James Thurber, a noted wordsmith. (Perhaps Thurber was quoting Santa Anna?)

Where last words are concerned, accurate recall is a two-way street: anybody who might be in the room with the dying could be the only one to hear these words, and may or may not care to commit them to memory, especially if they’re humdrum things. Freddy Mercury, on his deathbed and weak from AIDS, probably didn’t realize his humble and necessarily concise request for help getting to the restroom—“Pee pee”—would be the last thing he ever said. But was it, really? Unless he literally died moments later while getting this assistance, he might have died half an hour or so later, and do we really know he didn’t say some other similarly bland thing during that time?

My father’s last words

Many of my dad’s utterances, toward the end, seemed like candidates for his last words. In these final days, I struggled to remember not only every single thing my dad said, from the profound to the truly banal, but also the sequence in which he said them. After all, I wanted to get this right. There’s a world of difference, to me, between something said toward the end versus the very last thing a person ever said.

When people are gravely ill and thus not of a reliably lucid mind, or even when they’re just bummed out about being terminal, they run the risk of leaving off with something less than totally profound. Agnieszka Osiecka, the Polish writer, said to her children on her deathbed, “Do Dupy,” which translates, “This sucks.” Perhaps she didn’t intend these to be the last words she ever spoke. Similarly, I doubt my dad intended his last word to be “Integers!” which he said quite loudly and emphatically, but apparently to nobody; my brother and I heard it from the next room. But he also said, “Urinal,” because he needed to pee. It vexed me at the time that I could not recall which came first. What if he never said another thing? What if I wouldn’t be able to know his last words for certain?

Hanging on my dad’s every word during those final days seemed a fool’s errand, because nobody could know how long he would last. It seemed he could die any minute, or in the next few hours, or maybe not for days, and possibly a week or more. How long could I go on committing his every verbal output to memory?

There was also the risk that If I didn’t nail down my father’s last words, I might unknowingly invent something. I’m not talking about putting words in his mouth, but about conveniently seizing on something profound, and later recalling it, inaccurately (though inadvertently) as the last thing he said. For example, he did gather my three brothers and me around him toward the end to bid farewell. “Okay boys,” he said, and then paused. So far he was off to a great start. How many times had he addressed us that way? I was almost crying already. 

Then, working to summon the breath needed to continue, our dad cleared his throat and said, “This is the last time I’ll have an audience.” This, because it came from a man who had always enjoyed an audience, was profound. But now he was truly running out of breath, and mental clarity, and only managed to finish up with: “Bye-bye.” And this could have been it, and though it’s not a total zinger, it does have a nice sense of closure, perhaps not worthy of My Dinner with Andre, but more than good enough.

But I knew this might not be his final utterance. I stayed focused, because if I didn’t catch whatever he said next, I’d forget that next thing, and fall back on the last thing I did remember—i.e., the “bye-bye” speech. And that wouldn’t be fair to my dad. Make no mistake about it: the last words should be remembered exactly—not for the benefit of the audience, but for the benefit of the dead.

A bit later our dad said some very nice things to Max, that I could probably remember pretty much verbatim if I thought hard (and which deserve to committed to memory, I suppose), but I know for a fact these weren’t my dad’s last words. He was going to go around and give a final benediction to each of us, and you’d better believe I’d have paid close attention and made sure to immortalize whatever he said specifically to me—but he never got to it. He ran out of steam. And the really crazy part is that I can’t even remember if this was the very day he died, or the day before. That’s how quickly these memories get warped.

But you know what? In the end, I managed it. I know unequivocally what my dad’s last utterance was, and what’s more I have a witness. Two of us heard him, distinctly. And this was in the last hour of his life, and we were with him the rest of the way, and he never said another thing. And what he said was totally unexpected, completely lucid, and—in its way, coming from the mouth it did—totally profound. It was also pretty funny. What he said was this:

Wait, hold on. About the only feedback I ever get on this blog is that my posts are too long. And look at this, I’m at like 2,300 words already! So I’m going to just snip this off right here so you can get back to binge-watching House of Thrones or Game of Cards, or tweeting or snapchatting or whatever I dragged you away from. Tune in next week for the thrilling conclusion (I originally typed it “confusion”) of albertnet’s Famous Last Words!

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From the Archives - Seeking Office Work, or “I Played Myself”


Introduction

Back in college, I wrenched at bike shops to support myself. When I transferred from UCSB to Berkeley, I was feeling all fancy and thought maybe I could trade in my shop apron for a nice button-down shirt and make lots more money working in nice clean offices, doing word processing and database stuff (which required skills that, back then, were somewhat rare). This essay, from my archives, describes my job hunt, with copious asides about language skills and my hapless efforts to pick up chicks.

(Postscript: when I failed to find office work, I went right back to working at a bike shop. It was my destiny.)


Language Arts Field Study - August 1, 1990

It’s weird: I’m getting a degree in English, but I’m not learning very much about how language actually works. So I’ve been trying to learn how to communicate out “in the field”—i.e., in the real world. If I manage to edify myself, maybe I’ll try to figure out how to get some college credit for my efforts.

At the Manpower Temporary Service where I sought work, they spoke in special “temp” clichés. One such cliché is “temp” itself, which means “a person employed by a temporary service” who earns money by “temping.” Manpower employs entire sentences that are themselves clichés. “What is your biggest interpersonal strength?” was a rote question, read right off the intake form by the Manpower woman. Though I recognized this as a stock question, I felt like putting them on the spot for a change, so I said, “I’m not sure I understand.”

The woman rattled off a list of stock responses that were also clichés which I didn’t understand, so I was forced to reply in simple English: “I work well with people who are stressed out. At least, I don’t tend to make them angrier.” She searched her mental cliché bank and said, “Oh, ‘communication.’” Just like that, she listed “communication” as my greatest strength. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I sometimes don’t communicate very well at all. The problem is mechanical. When I’m under stress, sometimes my vocal chords seem to dry up completely and are replaced by a flute reed, so my voice comes out pathetic and whistling and ineffectual. So, that bit I said earlier about working well with stressed-out people? That doesn’t include myself. So it’s probably a completely false claim, come to think of it.

Things went a bit better at the second agency I went to, Kelly Services. Yes, it’s Kelly as in “Kelly girl.” I’m aware that Kelly tends to prefer girls, but at least I have a girl’s name. Plus, I run, throw, and type like a girl. My brother says I even shoot baskets like a girl, with one leg swinging back from the knee, girlishly. I don’t really care who compares me to a girl as long as I start making the big bucks.

Kelly interviewed me more casually, without obviously using a preprinted list of questions. The dialogue felt more social and didn’t involve as many clichés—or did I just not notice them because I had hit my stride and was slinging them expertly myself? No matter … I was much less flummoxed than at Manpower. Who knows, maybe I was just less intimidated, because I didn’t have big, bold notions like “Man” and “Power” hovering around me. Just “Kelly,” which come to think of it can be a boy’s name, too.

The only problem is, Kelly Services requires its employees to work for 40 hours before getting free training. Which is, of course, a catch-22. After all, how can they place me in an office when I haven’t been trained? I guess I could start with something really menial, like filing. But that didn’t work out so well with Manpower. The first would-be gig Manpower offered me was “collating data.” I didn’t know what this meant, but it sounded high-tech and complicated. I tried to stall for time, on the phone with the Manpower recruiter, while I looked up “collate” in the dictionary. I couldn’t find it in time (I thought its spelling began C-O-A-L) so I had to turn down the gig. I only figured out that it meant basic filing after it was too late to accept the assignment.

Fortunately, when I interviewed at Kelly I came equipped with plenty of word processing experience, having used WordStar 3.3 for years. This software wasn’t listed on the application form, though, so I had to check the box next to WordStar 5.5. I was thinking, like, how different could they be? The answer is: very. I had to take a test on 5.5, complete with decimal tabulations, funky temporary margins, and other jumps through the proverbial hoop. I was forced to completely wing it, and hoped that the time I wasted scratching my head would be offset by my blazing typing speed.

I got the results back and only qualified for a Category IV ranking, which seemed like a disaster. After all, my only context for “Category IV” was Bikespeak. In bike racing circles, a Category IV is the scum, the newcomer, the very bottom of the barrel. But it turns out that in Tempspeak, the ranking is the other way around: Category IV is the highest ranking. The woman who interviewed me seemed impressed and waived the 40‑hour work requirement for free training, so today I went in for my first free training session, so I could learn a word processing program that offices actually use.

In my personal definition, “knowing a word processing program” means having so much experience with it that even the most complex operation is as automatic as the beating of my heart. With this in mind, I figured training in industry-leading WordPerfect would take a really long time, as in a week or two. I figured that winging it with WordStar 5.5 was only a temporary expedient, a computer one‑night‑stand, useful only for convincing the Kelly folks that I’d processed words before. But I was wrong: the standards that Kelly Services uses (and hence, their customers as well) are much more liberal. Apparently no office ever expects a temp to know anything, and trumped-up résumés are expected. And Kelly was all about trumping up my résumé.

What the hell am I talking about? Am I communicating this to you effectively? What is “this”? Okay, here’s what I’m getting at: in about an hour I completed the entire battery of WordPerfect training, and tested at Category IV with what Theresa, my supervisor, said was quite possibly the highest score she’d ever seen. She said only one other person she’s ever tested made Category IV. I left the office totally pumped. Do you know this word “pumped”? I never heard it used in Colorado, so I will assume it’s Californiaspeak. It means about the same thing as “stoked.” I figured with that rare Cat IV rating I would be pulling in big bucks in no time, just by waiting near the phone for assignment after plush, indoor, air-conditioned assignment.

I strode out to my parked bicycle, kind of floating above the sidewalk, soaring on a thermal of pure optimism, thinking divine thoughts like, “Dana Albert. Category IV. Yeah. That kind of temp.” In fact, I even did a fist-pump. O, what a rarified form of communication this is. It doesn’t even require a mouth: it’s non-verbal. I learned it only recently. Here’s what you do. Simply extend your forearm, palm up and parallel to the ground, with your bicep roughly 45 degrees to the forearm. Then make a fist and draw it straight back (keeping the forearm parallel to the ground) until it slides in right next to your belly (within a plane perpendicular to that of your chest, of course). The fist‑pump, I’ve learned, used to be accompanied by either silence or the somewhat stupid‑sounding exclamation “Boom, baby!” But now I sometimes do it with a quiet “Eeeyyyyeeessss!” This is kind of an elongated “yes.” It’s stretched out in the way that holy rollers can drag three syllables out of “Jesus” (i.e., “Juh-HEEE-zuss!”).

I rode home, parked my bike, plopped down in a chair, and waited for the phone to ring. This is the natural next step in the temporary service employment process. But the phone didn’t ring. It didn’t ring all afternoon, and it still didn’t ring the whole next day, or the day after that. This temp thing was supposed to be more lucrative than fixing bikes, but of course that’s only when on-the-clock, which I had yet to be. I sat around my apartment losing money for about a week before starting to worry that “Cat IV” doesn’t actually mean anything. It began to dawn on me that perhaps the recruiter had been exaggerating about my performance on the word processing test. I realized, with a pang, that she’d been lying through her teeth about the uniqueness of my WordPerfect abilities. And why would she do this? To boost my confidence, of course, so that in my first ten minutes at my first assignment I wouldn’t disgrace myself, and my temp agency, with the flute-reed-voice.

Finally I got a gig, but it wasn’t based on my WordPerfect abilities. It was a half-day stint as a receptionist in the University of California Office of the President in downtown Oakland. I was coached quickly in Receptionistspeak, which involves smoothly and glibly lying through your teeth. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, but Bill has just stepped out of his office for a moment. Can I take a message and have him get back to you?” (Bill has told you in advance, even making a throat-cutting gesture for emphasis, not to put Mr. Smith through, and will under no circumstances get back to Mr. Smith, ever.)

I’m still somewhat weak with this language, because the incredibly long silent spells inherent in the job turned my vocal chords to mush and warped my sense of time. Perhaps the lack of phone interactions made me a bit crazy, all that dead silence, so I was trying to wring as much out of the rare call as I could. I haven’t fully grasped my own motives, but suffice to say my speech during these calls dribbled quietly and lackadaisically out of my mouth. With a bit of the right twang I reckon I could have even passed for a Southerner. This slow speech had a profoundly unsettling effect on the frenzied caller, who invariably had a deadline which he’d never make if enough people like me lacked his swift pace.

Fortunately, of the five floors of the Kaiser Building that the University of California occupies, my floor was the quietest so I spent most of my short receptionist career just sitting at the hugest desk you’ve ever seen, staring blankly down the hallway into which the elevators spill, listening to the only noise perceptible to me, which was a fan or humidifier or something. My responses became so dulled that whenever somebody called or asked me something, I played myself.

The expression “I played myself” is another one I never heard in Colorado, so I’ll chalk it up as more Californiaspeak. It means, near as I can figure, “I acted in such a manner as to fail in achieving my goal, and in such dramatic fashion as to rob myself of most of my self‑esteem, which of course will increase my chances of repeating this failure.” The term is most frequently used to describe errors made with a member of the opposite sex, generally resulting in being ignored or even told off (that is, being “shut down”) by said member of the opposite sex.

Notably, the emphasis with the term “I played myself” is on the fact that the person who played himself is totally at fault. In contrast, if a girl shut you down for no good reason while you were behaving perfectly, of course you didn’t play yourself. To describe this latter situation, you would use the Spanish idiomatic expression, “Dio me calabazas.” I pronounce this, for better or for worse, “Da meh caleh-BASS-us” because that’s how it’s pronounced by my gringo friends, who turned me on to the phrase. Its literal translation into English is “she gave me pumpkins” but its meaning is that which I have described above. Perhaps this is because pumpkins are almost worthless, making the statement roughly equivalent to “She gave me nothing in return for all the goodness I showed to her.”

The beauty of this expression is that its all‑too‑frequent use has resulted in its literal English translation being completely acceptable. For example, a friend will ask, “What happened to Connie?” and I’ll answer, “Aw, she gave me pumpkins.” (In fact, there is no woman named Connie. In the extremely specific and localized dialect of my apartment, “Connie” means “any girl on whom you once had designs.” This comes from a friend of ours who became infatuated with a girl over the course of a night out with a group of friends, and—unable to remember her name but thinking it might be Connie—called her this, but rolling the “C” into a kind of gravel-y “H” in the hopes that if he’d guessed wrong she’d simply think he was calling her “honey” and not be offended. Her name was, like, Monica, and she was plenty offended. But I digress.)

This “pumpkins” expression has proved extremely concise. My roommate was all pumped for a big date with the fly betty of his dreams, but it didn’t go well. When I got home, ready to ask all kinds of prying questions that would elicit painful answers, he stopped me short by greeting me with, “Dude, welcome to the 62nd Street pumpkin patch!” (Maybe I’ll ask somebody out in late October, so when she shines me I can tell Brett, “Dude, I met the great pumpkin!”)

Brevity is especially helpful—a lifesaver in fact—in the realm of dating because it helps the jilted would-be boyfriend abbreviate the long, boring story, larded with incessant whining, that would normally alienate his otherwise steadfast guy friends. If he truly believes he had a shot but blew it by being arrogant, or timid, or unexpectedly deploying flute-reed-voice, he can assign the blame to himself with a brief phrase—“I played myself”—in lieu of endless self-abnegating blather.

As potent as these crafty new phrases can be, sometimes utter silence is altogether better. Girls should consider this the next time they utter that most base and cruel lie, “I’ll call you.” This underhanded rebuke is absolutely never true, for the simple reason that even in this enlightened age, girls aren’t supposed to call guys. The guy is supposed to call, and call again, and never lose hope. If the girl calls, she insults herself. Why, I’d bet that the chances of a girl actually calling you are even lower than the chances of a temp agency calling you. The actual meaning of “I’ll call you,” when uttered by a female of the opposite sex, is “I will not call you.” The subtext is, “Don’t bother calling me. You have insulted and disgraced me with your [lack of confidence] [lack of good looks] [lack of cool clothes] [flute-reed-voice].”

So, yeah, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my field study of how language is actually used, it’s this: if a temp agency says “I’ll call you,” it’s best to head straight to a bike shop and ask, “Are you hiring?” And if a fly girl ever says, “I’ll call you,” it’s best to go straight home and tell your roommate, “Dio me calabazas.”

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Tao of Blade Runner


Introduction

Tao is a Chinese word conveying a complicated array of ideas, such as the journeys the mind makes—these mystical and yet tangible paths, and the process undertaken by the wanderer. The printed character for Tao resembles, to borrow from Woody Allen, “an elephant making love to a men’s glee club.” Of late, applying Tao philosophy to worldly things is more than just an extension of “Zen and the art of [add worldly word or phrase here].” It’s also a way to attach a cool title to a blog post I barely have time to write.

No, I won’t talk about Tao or any philosophy at all here. I don’t have time, and you don’t care anyway. This post is a review, without spoilers, of the new sci-fi flick Blade Runner 2049. Needless to say, it’s impossible to review this sequel without comparing it to Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner from 1982.

My review

The director, Denis Villeneuve, of whom I was instantly suspicious on the basis of his practically having a girl’s name, acknowledged the pressure of making a movie worthy of its predecessor. “I know that every single fan will walk into the theater with a baseball bat,” he is reported to have said. Sounds like a bit of a drama queen to me.

The fact is, the original movie, though a classic, isn’t perfect. I happen to own it on DVD and watched it with my older daughter as a rite of passage. We both enjoyed it, of course, but I couldn’t help feeling like it hadn’t lived up, in my daughter’s eyes, to all that I’d promised. The original Blade Runner mainly just looks cool. The plot isn’t all that, and the dialogue is just a tiny bit cheesy at times. For example, there’s the scene when Deckard grabs Rachael by the shoulders and utters some macho rough love folderol like, “Say ‘kiss me.’ [Say] ‘I want you.’” My daughter was shocked and I felt myself wincing.

That said, there were also scenes with great dialogue, like Deckard interrogating Leon in the beginning (the bit about “The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over,” etc.). But the scriptwriter didn’t have a perfect ear; for example, Rutger Hauer’s character’s final speech was dancing on the brink of twee. He managed to stick the landing, and because I couldn’t resist (damn it, I’m running out of time!) I did a little research and discovered that Hauer disliked the original speech. According to Wikipedia, he described the proposed final monologue as “opera talk and hi-tech speech with no bearing on the rest of the film,” so he “put a knife in it the night before filming” by trimming it down a fair bit.

My other complaint regarding the original movie is the absurd costumes, particularly Rachael’s ginormous shoulder pads. And the way her giant molded hair suddenly became this kinky Flashdance hairdo is almost laughable when you see it with your jaded 2017 eyes. It’s not easy to escape ‘80s silliness but some movies have.

But still, there was so much to enjoy visually in the original movie, like the dystopian but oddly recognizable, run-down, squalid but electrified rain-pummeled city, its buildings coated with giant electronic billboards, and the cool flying cars slowly rotating as they descend, like helicopters. The atmosphere was so much thicker and deeper and awesomer than just about any sci-fi movie before it.

So does Blade Runner 2049 uphold this standard? Well, yeah, mostly. But that’s not really enough, is it? I mean, since we still have the original available, do we really need a rehash? Much is lost simply because it’s not fresh. Not much new ground is broken aesthetically, and some landscapes in 2049 are too monotonous and blasted to be that interesting. To be honest, several of the scenes are just too dark.


The giant digital billboards are better than ever, but still, a retread is a retread.


Why did Peugeot pay for product placement here? (It’s visible on the dash of K’s car, too.) Does Peugeot even sell cars in the US? And check this out:


Is it possible we’re getting this billboard just to gratify the yen for nostalgia that ageing viewers like me are assumed to have?

Where new ground is broken, quite brilliantly, is with K’s virtual girlfriend, Joi (played by Ana De Armas). We’re introduced to her gradually, like Vladimir Nabokov introduced Lolita. First we get Joi’s voice from another room, so we’re curious, and then we see the projector, on ceiling-mounted tracks, that brings her into the room. She appears suddenly (as abruptly as when you flip on the TV with a remote), and of course it doesn’t hurt that she’s really pretty. But that’s not all: as soon as she appears she undergoes one instant costume change after another, and it’s not clear whether this is her own effort to please her man, or Officer K flipping through the outfits like a bored TV viewer channel-surfing. Their relationship—often warm and tender, but subject to modern realities like Joi freezing suddenly when K gets a visual voice-mail—is far more interesting than what we got in Her. Joi is my favorite character in the movie and her scenes steal the show.


(Should I apologize for blatantly favoring a character who happens to be good looking? Let’s be real. My wife rented Thor, despite having historically shown zero interest in Marvel comics, solely because it stars Chris Hemsworth. She knew the movie would be lame and that I also have zero interest in Marvel comics and their film adaptations, but she rightly assumed I’d roll with it because Natalie Portman also stars. Unfortunately this is one of the dumbest movies ever made and Portman is terrible in it.)

The other 2049 characters are a letdown after Joi. Officer K, the main character, has two things wrong with him. First, we know right off the bat that he’s a replicant. I wouldn’t necessarily say a replicant is automatically less sympathetic than a human (though perhaps this is the case), but K just doesn’t seem to suffer. He gets the crap beat out of him and shrugs it off like the Terminator. Huge misstep by Villeneuve there.

The other problem with K is that he’s played by Ryan Gosling, who is a good enough actor I suppose but totally unconvincing in an action-adventure tough-guy role. He was perfect for La La Land, but his simpering little half-smile destroys the gravitas we expect in a beaten-down blade runner. According to IMBD, he was the only actor considered for the role by Villeneuve, which is all the proof you need that this director doesn’t really know what he’s doing.


Harrison Ford is just fine as Deckard, but he brings to the role the same slightly annoyed, slightly disgusted air that he did to that Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie. Perhaps he’s bothered by the similarity between the two movies: upstart actors and characters new to the franchise head out on a long quest to find him, to give their knockoff movie more cred. I guess I can’t blame Ford for this ennui. In any event, he sets a good example of weariness and gravity for Gosling, which only serves to accentuate the flimsiness of Gosling with his ingratiating little half-smirk.

And then over here you’ve got Niander Wallace, the mastermind overlord (the 2049 equivalent of Dr.Tyrell). This character, as played by Jared Leto, is an annoying, wet-behind-the-ears, hipster-bearded douchebag with no redeeming qualities, and every moment of him on the screen sucks the life out of the movie.


Robin Wright does a good job with the role of K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi, but she doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Sylvia Hoeks, as the evil replicant curiously named Luv, is pretty and also very badass, but her character is a bit too evil and cruel to be very interesting. What I loved about Rutger Hauer’s character in the original film was, ironically, his humanity. Luv is basically an evil robot type. Kind of a waste of Hoeks’ time and ours.


Speaking of wasting time, please indulge me in what I hope isn’t too lengthy a side note. I mentioned Nabokov above, and there’s a tribute to him in this movie. K’s mental health is evaluated, post-mission, via a strange protocol where he must repeat snippets of text including this passage from Nabokov’s poem-within-a-novel, PaleFire
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
Lest viewers miss the reference, a copy of Pale Fire is clearly visible in K’s apartment. How does this tie in to the film? Answer: it doesn’t. I’ve read Pale Fire at least half a dozen times, and I can’t see any link to the themes of 2049 at all. The poem within Pale Fire concerns an ageing professor ruminating on the hereafter, and the passage quoted is about a vision the man has during a mild heart attack. It has nothing to do with A.I., technology, slavery, androids, or electric sheep. My guess is that Villeneuve is just borrowing an air of intellectual legitimacy from Nabokov. And yet, I find an amusing link that must be unintentional: the bulk of the novel Pale Fire concerns a scholarly parasite who, in the course of 200+ pages of commentary totally dwarfing the poem, tries to co-opt the poet’s work into something of his own. I cannot think of a better metaphor for these movie sequels and prequels that seek to capitalize on the success of earlier works by more original writers and directors.

Okay, onward. Another complaint I have with the movie is the music. The original film had a gorgeous score by Vangelis, which was fundamental to its atmosphere. (I even bought the soundtrack.) But this 2049 movie barely has music … the main instrument is a big drum. We get a bunch of silence and then this big somber BOOM and then some more silence. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re hearing some sound effect or something that’s supposed to be music. I have just discovered, via IMBD, that “Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was attached to compose the music for the film; however, in August 2017, he dropped out from the project for unknown reasons and composer Hans Zimmer, along with Benjamin Wallfisch, were hired to replace Jóhannsson.” Aha, so the new “music” was tacked on at the last minute, like an afterthought. Well, it shows. Why spend $150 million on a movie and then skimp on the music? What a bonehead move.

Gosh, I’m starting to sound old and crabby and constipated. Look, it’s actually a pretty fun flick. I had a nice time seeing it with my teenage daughter. (Being a source of info and insight into the preceding movie, I suddenly had some cred in the eyes of a teenager, which is a rare thing.) And 2049, whatever opportunities it may have missed, does look really good. Go ahead and see it—don’t wait for DVD or whatever.

Now that that’s over with, let me complain some more. The screenplay for this movie is a mess. It’s based on a sparse 110-page novella, but there’s way too much going on to properly depict even in a rather long movie. A number of scenes must have been thrown out, because there are tons of loose threads. We also get subplots that could be their own movie, and flaws in logic that I can’t forgive. I won’t go into these because I don’t want to give anything away, but I could point to at least three gaping plot holes that any moviegoer who isn’t stoned ought to have a problem with.

All this being said, there is one scene more thrilling and chilling than anything I have seen in recent films. I can recount it without spoiling anything only because it’s so utterly disconnected from anything else in the movie. K, fairly shattered by all the beatings he’s been taking both physically and emotionally, is sound asleep when Joi wakes him up at like 3 a.m. and says, “We gotta change Deckard’s bag.” So they go to his room and Deckard’s ostomy bag has totally blown out, all over his gown, the sheets, it’s everywhere, like a massacre. K and Joi have never changed one of these before and the stench of the military-green quasi-stool is almost enough to make them wretch. (If you don’t think it’s realistic for a replicant and an A.I. projection to be grossed out by this smell, you’ve obviously never encountered it in real life and should consider yourself lucky.) So the whole bag apparatus is soaked in this foul goo, even the wafer that’s stuck to Deckard’s ostomy. The last nurse to change the thing screwed up and left some of the backing on the wafer’s adhesive, which is why it failed. Deckard, bearing considerable discomfort and indignity, is grumpy even by Harrison Ford standards, and K and Joi are obviously winging it, without much brio. K takes a deep breath (big mistake) and sticks down the wafer. He presses it down firmly which makes Deckard groan in pain. Now K’s got to attach the bag, which affixes via this thing kind of like a Ziploc but it’s round, and the bead is really narrow. “Hurry!” Joi cries, because a new flood of green goo is crowning from the ostomy. The ordeal seems to take forever, bringing the movie’s runtime to 164 minutes.

Wait, hold on. I think I’m confused. That whole scene recounted above? That wasn’t actually in this movie at all—why would anybody film that? I’m sleep deprived and confused and not sure where that came from.

It feels like over a month since I watched 2049 and you know what? I’d love to escape into a dark theater and see it again. Maybe this whole review is unfair. At a minimum I guess I should go delete that last paragraph, but I’m just too tired. Maybe I’ll rewrite this someday when I have my normal life back, and maybe then I’ll give Blade Runner 2049 a rave review.

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Cheap Bastard’s Guide to Inflating Tubeless Tires


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

Introduction

This post is about how—and why—to build a soda-bottle human-powered air compressor for inflating tubeless bicycle tires. For a few dollars you can create a non-electric equivalent of that giant, loud, coin-operated air compressor that you might use at a gas station.

I freely acknowledge that I did not invent the soda-bottle air compressor, nor am I the first to showcase it on the Internet. But I’ll give you a more thorough account than you’ll get elsewhere, which might a) prepare you for the kinds of difficulties you might encounter (since I encountered them all), and b) give you the opportunity to laugh at me. You’ll also get some safety tips.

Why build your own compressor?

My friend Peter (“Uncle Peter” to my kids) is like a superior version of me, except that he can’t be bothered to blog. He introduced me to the human powered air compressor concept, via an e-mail to John, Dan, and me, which included this photo:


Uncle Peter wrote, “I went riding with some jackass this summer and we were on a dirt road and he flatted twice thanks to pinch flats ... the humanity!” He was of course referring to me, and this ill-fated ride.

John and I were cycling teammates in 1981 and have been friends ever since. (He lives way far away and my kids couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, so he’s not yet an honorary uncle.) He replied to Uncle Peter’s e-mail: “So many questions… First, this looks like a home brewer’s still, not an air compressor. What are the details on this contraption? You can buy an actual air compressor for about $100 —why go this cheap route?”

It’s very tempting to take John to task for being a yuppie, not being resourceful, etc. but I would just sound bitter. Probably he was baiting me, and if so it worked—I’m a cheap bastard, allergic to throwing money at a problem. It’s not that $100 seems like a lot to me (though it does); any time I buy anything I feel a sense of defeat.

Meanwhile, there are non-fiscal reasons to make your own compressor. For one, electric compressors are loud and take up a lot of room in your garage, whereas you can throw the soda-bottle generator in the trunk of your car. (Perhaps John is reading this and thinking, “You can buy an actual portable gas-powered generator for about $400 to power your compressor with—why go this cheap route?”) Dan replied, “I love the idea of pulling up to the pre-race parking lot extravaganza, where everyone is pretending to not be checking each other out, but that is exactly what is happening, and then pulling out this plastic bottle thing. You would automatically get a call-up at a Cross Crusade race I think.”

Now, regarding a portable non-electric solution, some reader is going to bring up CO2 cartridges so I’ll head him off at the pass. Yes, there are little disposable CO2 cartridges that many people use to seat tubeless tires. But I hate this solution. First of all, it can take several tries to seat a tire (especially a new one) which means potentially going through a lot of cartridges. Plus, we embrace how hard cycling is … why be wusses about it and clutter up landfills with these cartridges? And, they cost money.

Naturally that won’t be good enough for some of you, so I’ve done a little homework about another downside of CO2: it leaks out of your tires faster than air. Someone told me this has to do with the size of the molecules, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. In fact, as described here, the size of molecule isn’t important, but “the leakage rate of CO2 is huge, and the reason is that it is actually soluble in butyl rubber and is thus not constrained to normal permeation loss; it can transfer straight through the bulk rubber resulting in severe tire pressure loss.” This explanation, and the empirical tests confirming the theory, are corroborated here. But I wasn’t sure if this phenomenon applied equally to tires vs. tubes (i.e., to a tubeless setup) until I read this article. It not only gives the same explanation—“CO2 is actually soluble in butyl rubber—it essentially melts right through the material without having to wait for permeation”—but the writer tested CO2 vs. air on tubeless car tires. Despite the thick rubber, the difference in leakage rates was demonstrable.

Which leaves the final alternative to this soda-bottle compressor: one of these fancy new tubeless-specific floor pumps with an extra chamber that compresses the air in advance. (That is, it does the same thing as this soda-bottle compressor but without being kludgy.) What’s wrong with this approach? Well, this pump and this one are butt-ugly. They’re also really expensive—even more so than a compressor. And this (also expensive) Lezyne pump looks really nice, but I already have five Lezyne frame pumps and two Lezyne floor pumps and don’t want another. My most recent Lezyne purchase was a high-volume pump that supposedly can seat a tubeless tire. It cannot. And, after the first time I used it on a Schrader valve, its over-designed chuck—which is supposed to work on either Presta or Schrader—doesn’t work at all, on anything. Don’t get me wrong, Lezyne pumps are really nice, when they don’t suck like this. I’m almost as bitter about this pump as my wife is. (She doesn’t know a pump chuck from a hole in the ground, but she can count, and I have more than ten bike pumps in all—she wouldn’t stand for another.)

A final note on these pumps. The marketing people must think they’re pretty clever with the naming:  “Flash Charger,” “Pressure Over Drive,” “JoeBlow Booster.” You know what, guys? If you wanna get really edgy, I dare you to name your next pump “Blow Job.” I double-dog dare ya.

How does this homemade thing work?

I’ll answer both interpretations of this question: 1) what is the method for building and using this contraption, and 2) how well does it work?

Even after the basic justification for this compressor was supplied, John replied, “But I still don’t understand—is there water in the bottle? Or do you just fill the bottle with air (using a standard pump) and then connect that piece of fish tank pump tubing to the valve on your wheel? For some reason I’m thinking there would be some water in the bottle, but I’m not sure why (the incompressibility of water would help for some reason…? Boy my physics knowledge and intuition has totally atrophied…).” Before you malign my friend, consider that he has a Ph.D. in geophysics from UC Berkeley. But that didn’t stop me from ribbing him: “No, there is no water! Stop trying to turn everything into a bong!” (This is an inside joke: John, Dan, Uncle Peter, and I are among the seemingly rapidly collapsing minority who don’t smoke weed.)

Dan chimed in, “I was looking at that contraption and thinking that you were making moonshine on the weekends! Cheers to that. But you burst my bubble of mirth and raised my curiosity. How did you seal the valve to the plastic bottle? Caulking?”

The answer is, you drill two 5-millimeter holes in the bottle’s screw-top cap, far enough apart that they don’t touch but close enough together that they don’t touch the edge of the cap. You take a couple of old Presta tubes, cut off all the rubber around the valve, shove them through the holes, and then screw down some valve rings really tight with a pair of needle-nose pliers. (For an invaluable discussion of valve rings, and bicycle inner tubes in general, click here.) Thankfully, no caulking is required.

The next step is to remove the valve core from one of the valves. Do this with the little plastic wrench that came with your tubeless tire valves, or with some needle-nose pliers. Now, a quick aside: you don’t need the full tubeless kit that comes with the fancy rim tape. Just buy the tubeless valves, a bottle of Stan’s NoTube tire sealant (or “jizz” in the vernacular), and some Gorilla tape. (Is there a better product than Stan’s? I don’t know and I don’t care.)

You’ll also need a spray bottle full of a water/dish soap solution. And you’ll need some extra Gorilla tape (or duct tape), a 2-liter soda bottle, a pair of vice grips (or some other crimping device), and of course a floor pump. Finally, you’ll need a foot or two of surgical tubing. (What diameter? I asked Uncle Peter what he used and he said, “I think it was 4mm. About the size of your dick.” Nota bene: 4mm is the inside diameter. Of the tubing.)

Okay, because you’ve been so patient with all this text, here’s a pretty picture.


As I’ll get to later, you should eschew the 1-liter bottle shown above and go with a 2-liter Schweppes bottle.

Next, you shove one end of the tubing down over the valve that has the core removed.


The tubing should be a jolly tight fit over the valve. You could use electrical tape to secure it, but don’t bother. First of all, it’s extra work. Second, I have discovered that under sufficient pressure, the tubing will pop off, but this isn’t a bad thing. Think of it like a fuse: if the tubing pops off, the bottle won’t explode. And you really don’t want the bottle to explode. That would be very loud, and possibly dangerous. That’s why you wrap the bottle in duct tape or (ideally) Gorilla tape.

How likely is an explosion, assuming the tubing doesn’t pop off the valve? The good news is, these bottles can take a lot of pressure. I saved you the effort of researching this by finding this video showing how much pressure various bottles can take before exploding. Most 2-liter bottles can handle 150 PSI. The Schweppes bottle doesn’t explode at all; rather, it splits a seam and the air hisses out harmlessly at 140 PSI. That’s the bottle you want!


Fortunately, with a 2-liter bottle you’ll only need about 60 PSI to inflate a brand-new tubeless mountain bike tire, so the explosion risk is quite low. That said, you should absolutely wear safety goggles just in case.

To get a new tire ready to be seated, you should mount it to the rim with an inner tube inside, pump that bad boy up good and hard (the maximum the tire is rated for), and leave it overnight. Then, remove the tire and tube, remove the old rim strip, and tape up the rim with your expensive fancy-pants purpose-built rim tape or the Gorilla tape. If using Gorilla tape, you’ll have to cut so it’s the perfect width for your rim. Use a safety razor blade or a utility knife. If you don’t cut the tape just right, or if you use the wrong width purpose-built tape, then you are not a good person and should take up some other sport, like golf. (That is, you won’t have a perfect seal.)

Then, install your tubeless-style valve but don’t tighten the ring down very tight just yet. Mount the tire to the rim (without the tube, duh), leaving one section open. Pour in the jizz (whatever amount the bottle says—I think it’s 2 ounces?), then seat the rest of the tire. Hang the wheel from something, like your bike stand. Now spray soapy water all around the bead on both sides. This will help the tire bead seat. That’s the name of the game here: that bead has to make an airtight seal all the way around. What makes new tires such a bitch to mount is that they are shipped all folded up, and those creases create giant gaps where air leaks through like a sieve.

(Now, if this all sounds like a total pain in the ass, consider that most of the hassle here isn’t specific to using a homemade human-powered compressor. Tubeless is inherently kind of a hassle, but then so is puncturing during a ride. Obviously it’s worth the trouble or we wouldn’t be here.)

Okay, so this is where it all comes together. You shove the other end of the surgical tubing over the valve stuck in your rim. You pinch the tubing closed with your vice grips, some inches from the valve. And you attach your pump chuck to the valve on your compressor that has the valve core intact.


And—don’t skip this step!—you put on your safety goggles. Here’s the whole setup in one photo:


Then you whale on that floor pump like there’s no tomorrow. Pump the soda bottle up to about 60 PSI, maybe 70 if it’s a really fat tire. Then release the vice grips and—whoosh!—all that air flows in with a quickness, and if you’re lucky, the tire will seat, making this glorious popping sound, and you’re good to go.

Now … did this work for me? No. My first three tries were dismal failures. Look at that photo above: what mistakes can you see, right off the bat? Well, first of all, I used the one-liter bottle that Uncle Peter sent me. (He built my compressor. There. I said it. I was tempted to leave that kind of vague, so you might think I made my own, and frankly I’d planned on making one, but before I got around to it, Uncle Peter mailed me one he made. This astonished me. He hates going to the post office. When I left my helmet in his car once, it took him like 8 months to get it to me.)

For a road tire, whose pressure is higher but whose volume is way lower, a one-liter bottle is probably fine. It also worked great when I removed and re-seated a used mountain bike tire. But it’s not enough air volume to mount a new mountain bike tire. Don’t even waste your time. Just buy a two-liter bottle to begin with.

What else did I do wrong? The wheel wasn’t hanging from anything. The deformation of the tire, where it touched the ground, surely hurt my cause. Man, what a waste of time and spirit. I had my daughter making a video of all three efforts, which wasted her time too, and surely eroded her respect for me (a precious, rare resource). A neighbor friend even happened by to witness my disgrace. Damn. I called Uncle Peter and he pointed out all the mistakes I’d made. “Man, you’re the worst student I’ve ever had!” he jeered.

So, I headed to the grocery, bought a 2-liter bottle (alas, I hadn’t seen the video and didn’t know Schweppes was the ticket), drank a glass of (grossly cloying) ginger ale and dumped out the rest, taped up the bottle, hung the wheel from my Park stand, summoned my camera operator, and tried again.

This time it didn’t work at all. Something was horribly wrong. Finally it hit me: I’d forgotten the vice grips. I wasn’t compressing anything. Easily solved. I clamped those bad boys down and tried again.

This time the tire came a lot closer to seating—it actually got some shape to it—but alas, the flow of air wasn’t quite fast enough and found a way to leak out. For a terrifying moment I battled despair and was on the verge of rending my garments, gnashing my terrible teeth, and roaring my terrible roar—but my daughter was there filming. So I confined the profanities to my interior monologue and made one final tweak to my setup: I removed the valve core from the valve installed in the rim. This would, I hoped, speed the flow of air into the tire.

Did it work then? Well, check out this video!


Yeah, baby! It’s not the greatest camera angle, and you can’t hear the bead popping in, but that’s for safety’s sake. I had my daughter stand way back and use the camera zoom, because I only have one pair of safety goggles. Suffice to say, this time the compressor worked like a champ! Alas, when I pulled the tubing off, the air rushed out fast enough that the tire unseated. So I had to inflate it one more time, and this time I was ready with my thumb when I pulled the tubing off. I managed to get the valve core back in without the tire unseating, and my long ordeal was finally over.

Now, I’ll give you one final word of advice. Once you’ve got the tire seated, you shouldn’t just leave it. You should put the regular pump on there and inflate the tire to its maximum rated pressure. Then tighten down that valve ring (you left it loose before in case the base of the valve fought with a tire bead). Then you need to give the wheel a good spin, and shake it back and forth (like you are trying to bop yourself alternately on the forehead and then the belly with the tire), moving your hands from place to place. Here is a good video of that process. Then bounce the wheel on the ground a whole bunch of times. Then set it horizontally across a trash can for a few minutes before flipping it over. This sloshes the Stan’s jizz around in there so it coats the whole inside of the tire.

But even if you do all that, you still might not be done. The first time I installed tubeless, I did all that, and even bounced my wheels on the ground for several blocks while walking home from the auto repair shop. Everything seemed fine, even the next morning, but by afternoon when I wanted to ride, one tire had lost its pressure and puked jizz all over the floor of my garage. So I highly recommend you go for a short ride once your tire installation is complete, to spread the Stan’s around even more. If possible, take your camera operator with you on the ride, if he or she is your offspring, so you can justify the project to your spouse as “quality time.” If your offspring is shy about being photographed during this victory lap, snap an artsy photo like this one.


Epilogue

Is there an even better compressor out there? Well, consider this user comment to one of my blog posts:
Great device. I think he don’t feel tension who has a Kensun AC / DC Heavy Duty Air Compressor Tire Inflator Review. Because it is portable and anywhere we can carry this for pumping tire and best air compressor I have ever seen in market 

Note: I can’t vouch for Charles’s knowledge of compressors, or for Charles being an actual human.

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