Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 - The Year in Review


After a long year of blogging I find myself facing the “year in review” post. Fortunately—though it may not have seemed like it—I’m well positioned for this activity, as throughout the year I’ve based my blog posts on the most important current events. Topics that must have seemed completely random to you will now, with the benefit of perspective, prove to be the most timely and pressing issues of the day. In this post I’ll review the most important stories of the year and tie them in to the forty-two posts I’ve piled up since I started in February. For the more frivolous reader, I’ll comment on the most salient entertainment news of ’09 as well.


The big news story from this month, of course, is the collision of a US satellite with a Russian one over Siberia. The exploding satellites created a huge amount of debris, raising concerns about how to dispose of decommissioned satellites. Who knew that the answer lay in my first blog post, Wrecking the Car? All the American and Russian governments have to do is offer HOT CASH MONEY for grossly-polluting, washed-up satellites, and people will bring them in to be crushed for scrap.


As everybody well remembers, this was the month during which the International Criminal Court issued a groundbreaking arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for his role in the ongoing violence in Darfur. Okay … admit it. You’d kind of forgotten about this. Or maybe you weren’t totally aware of it. Hey, that’s okay. We all have our own problems. For me, March was a trying time, between my arduous indoor training and a painful and mojo-challenging vasectomy. Fortunately, while al-Bashir was successfully avoiding arrest, I too sneaked away and enjoyed a nice mud bath.

In entertainment news, the animated kids thriller “Monsters vs. Aliens” hit the theaters. Had I not neglected to blog about it, I’d have said it’s a highly entertaining movie with very good animation. I might have even commented on how grateful I am that these creators of kids’ movies always throw in some stuff to keep the grown-ups entertained. In this case it wasn’t just inside, adult-themed jokes that sustained me, but the fact that the main character, Ginormica (a giant woman) is actually kind of hot. Just sayin’.


The big story here was the acknowledgement by the World Health Organization that the swine flu showed the potential for becoming a global pandemic. (Trivia question: what’s the difference between “pandemic” and “epidemic”? Answer: very little. Like the difference between “swine,” “pig,” and “hog,” the difference is largely connotative. I chose “pandemic” here because it has a satisfying whiff of “pandemonium” about it.)

Swine flu news notwithstanding, I pushed my own immune system to the limit, camping in arctic conditions (well, the California arctic-lite version, anyway) and, ignoring both my better judgment and the advice of Joe Biden (who in turn perhaps spoke bluntly despite his own better judgment) and traveled by air. I also mixed stress with pathogens by waiting until the last possible moment to file my taxes, sharing the air at the big post office in Oakland with all the other stressed-out procrastinators.

In entertainment news, the British musical artist Lady Sovereign put out her second full-length album, “Jigsaw.” If I knew anything about music and chose to blog about it, I’d have written a witty and insightful post about how this isn’t as good as her previous album, “Public Warning,” but is still mostly highly listenable. Like Radiohead, she is very good when she’s good, and unlistenable when she’s not. Check out “So Human” and “I Got You Dancing” on MP3.


I’m sure you’re all tired of hearing about the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, largely attributed to the death of anti-government leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Thus, I won’t dwell on it other than to draw your attention to my response to the news at the time, which (in light of all the blatant commentaries littering the blogosphere) I chose to make in the form of a subtle allegory: my review of the 1951 children’s book Cowboy Sam. Obviously, my exposé of the book’s hero as an ultimately insecure and domineering alpha male made veiled reference to Velupillai and others of his kind, and explored the ways in which such figures perpetuate their power. If my critics could have gotten the blog’s Comment feature to work, they’d doubtless have said my analogy was utterly transparent and facile, and I guess they’re right.

May was a big month for the entertainment industry, with two significant rebirths. The first was the new movie version of “Star Trek,” which gave the characters from the original show a welcome retread while getting back to the classic good looks of the original Enterprise. The movie creators even reused a fair bit of the plot of an episode from the TV show, “Balance of Terror,” in which the Enterprise battles a Romulan warship. (They also threw in a bunch of time-travel stuff that was sillier than anything the original series ever had, including the flying fried eggs that attacked people.) The warship in the movie is pretty stupid looking, bringing to mind one of those over-crispy weird fried things you order by accident in a Dim Sum restaurant, but in black. Why couldn’t they have done a very minor makeover on the original Romulan Bird of Prey? On the plus side (and speaking of alpha males), the movie gives us the testosterone-fueled version of male closure with Kirk destroying the enemy ship in the end, instead of letting the Romulan leader self-destruct it. Rock on!

The second entertainment rebirth in May was that of Eminem, resurfacing after a four-year battle with drugs and alcohol. As I’ve said, I’m no music critic, but I’ll give you my opinion of his new album, “Relapse.” It isn’t as consistently solid as his other stuff, and his ongoing commitment to shocking and appalling us makes some of the songs an extended wince for me. (It can’t be easy to continue to shock his listeners, since he’s raised the bar as he’s gone along.) But certain tracks really stand out. The first skit, “Dr. West,” is easily the best skit he’s ever done: whimsical and almost cheerful at first, it escalates into the creepiest thing on the album. And the song “Déjà vu” is brilliant: a dark, moving portrait of addiction. Along with this track, “Insane,” “We Made You,” and “Old Time’s Sake” are good for indoor workouts on the bike trainer.


The big news here, of course, was the violent protest in Iran over the presumably fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. Six months later, it’s still apparent that the protest did no good, as he is still in power. My frustration with the unassailability of power and authority also took a hit in June, when (as far as I know) not one living human laid eyes on my impassioned indictment of two esteemed academics who are partially responsible for the repetitive stress injuries that afflict hundreds of thousands of American workers, at a cost of over $20 billion a year in workers’ compensation. These academics worked hard to discredit the Dvorak keyboard layout, for no other reason than they’re mean and stupid. (I do a better job making my case in the full blog post.)

In June there was also, of course, the big entertainment news of Michael Jackson’s death. If it wasn’t so sad, I’d have been amused by the spectacle of the media lamenting and celebrating him, as though they’d loved him all along—never mind that same media spent the last twenty years viciously and gleefully attacking his character, his style, his crazy skin, etc. I happened to catch part of the televised memorial (in an airport lounge) and heard Brooke Shields’ speech. She rapturously described how he gave us “countless” hit songs. Not to be a jerk or anything, but this is the kind of hyperbole I get so tired of. Certainly Michael Jackson gave us many hits—but countless? There is a finite number of hits. Somebody could easily count them. Somebody surely already has.


Even those who are unaware that the UN General Assembly has declared 2009 the International Year of Astronomy would be hard put to subdue their excitement at the longest solar eclipse of the century (on July 22). It’s noteworthy, I think, that this was one of the first events that has brought honor to the 21st century, since we’ve only just gotten far enough into it for this distinction to mean anything. In like fashion, June saw me pass a watershed threshold (say that three times fast). If a half-century means anything, you can ooh and aaah at this: I’ve entered my fifth decade of life. I took the occasion, around my fortieth birthday, to blog about my growing feeling that I’m well along the path of becoming a white dwarf.

Anybody in his forties needs to keep a sense of humor, so it’s a good thing June saw one of the funniest new movies I’ve seen in many years: “Funny People.” It features Adam Sandler, whom I’m not normally that fond of (though I liked him in “Punch Drunk Love.”) Here he plays a famous comedian who is a) not a nice person at all, b) depressed, and c) dying. If that sounds dark, believe me—it is. But I think often the best humor comes from darkness. This movie is very serious and also seriously funny. There’s even a cameo from Sarah Silverman that is, I think, the best physical comedy she’s ever done. If you like this blog, I think you’ll love the movie. And if you don’t like this blog, what the hell are you doing here, over 1,500 words into a post that looks to be only 7/12 done? For god’s sake, go do a Soduku or eat a hot pocket or read a magazine sidebar or something.


August 4th and 5th saw Americans glued to their TVs for constant updates on the trip Bill Clinton took to North Korea to negotiate the release of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were arrested last March and sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for illegally crossing the border from China. The success of this trip made my family rest easier on the cusp of crossing several borders to land in London for a long vacation. Far from being arrested, we—and our ailing dollar—were welcomed in the UK, where we practiced our English, enjoyed fine food, heard gruesome tales from government employees, toured the place where Bill Clinton didn't inhale, and watched Ewoks being slaughtered in the park. (I won’t refer to my UK posts as “hard labor” if you don’t.)

On the entertainment front, the movie “Julie & Julia” hit the theaters. It was basically a remake of “Fight Club.” Okay, it wasn’t anything of the kind. You can call me a wuss for saying this, but I liked the movie. As a kid I always enjoyed watching Julia Child’s cooking show with my mom, and that famous actress whose name escapes me did a good job player her in the movie. I even liked the other half of the story, about a blogger named Julie who gets discovered and becomes a famous writer. I know I'm not as prolific blogger as she has been, but I do dream of, uh ... learning how to prepare a standing rib roast.


The big news this month, of course, was about congressman Joe Wilson interrupting President Obama during a joint session by yelling, “You lie!” This caused a huge stir, generating much attention and rehashing and bickering, which I was frankly jealous of. I generated very little buzz when I said pretty much the same thing, in a blog post, to a quasi-fellow quasi-journalist about his glib but ultimately false argument in favor of antisocial bike mechanics.


We’re of course all still aflutter about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize in October. Naturally, he had to make a special apology for being honored in this fashion. “It’s really unfair voting,” he acknowledged. “It’s who you know.” As you doubtless recall, this set off a bitter partisan debate about whether “it’s who you know” or “it’s whom you know” is the correct grammar. Fringe groups on the right acknowledge that Obama’s pronoun was correct, and that using a correct pronoun was just the sort of elitist behavior we can do without in our country’s leader. Fringe groups on the left maintain that by deliberately using bad grammar, Obama stooped to populist pressure from the NASCAR set. Fortunately, other big news eclipsed the controversy before the moniker “Grammargate” really took hold.

The other news I’m alluding to, of course, was the other famous prize given out in October, to the first-ever winner of the albertnet Amateur Product Review competition. In a bold and stylish move, winner John Lynch of Chapel Hill, North Carolina was unabashedly celebratory in victory. Meanwhile, I found myself walking a thin line with this contest because the FTC, also in October, announced new rules targeted at bloggers who use false claims and testimonies to peddle products. Fortunately, my reviews were a) fake and b) wholly defamatory, so no charges have been filed against me.


The news that rocked the world this month was the televised speech in which Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez said, “There are lots of fat people [in this country],” and urged them to lose weight. His political tact in not mentioning all the overweight Americans is either admirable or irresponsible, depending on your point of view. Taking a page from Chavez’s playbook, I blogged in November about my own struggles with dieting, while paying tribute to the cuisine of Venezuela’s neighbors to the north.

In related entertainment news: Hollywood has long been criticized for unrealistic, idealistic portrayals of the human body; in November the director Wes Anderson brought that aesthetic to puppets with his film “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” His foxes are as lithe and willowy as bike racers. The movie is not only an enjoyable spectacle, but its plot is (I think) an improvement over Roald Dahl’s original story. More importantly, my kids loved this movie, too. (The only negative that comes to mind is something my wife pointed out: that George Clooney’s voice for Mr. Fox is a bit too suave. I was reminded of Cloony's character in “Oceans 13,” to the extent that he almost made this movie into “Oceans 14: Vulpes Edition.” But still, it's well worth watching.)


Everybody knows that nothing happens in December. The last big U.S. news story for this month was in 1941. All America ever does during December these days is eat and shop, thus the only “news” item each year is whether or not we had a successful retail period. This year, sales were up 3.6% according to MasterCard, and many see this as a favorable sign that the economy is improving. I chalk it up to retailers bending over backwards for us, practically giving stuff away. Having shopped in London, I have new appreciation for the American retail experience—so much so that I dedicated my Holiday Newsletter post to that topic. USA #1 Let’s Roll!

Thank you

Thank you for visiting albertnet, and for following this blog (if not all year, at least for this post). And if you’re not actually reading this, why am I typing it? Or to put it another way, if a tree blogs in the forest, does anybody care?

Monday, December 21, 2009

2009 Holiday Newsletter


As a described in my previous post, every year I write a Holiday Newsletter and send it to some of the people on my mailing list for holiday cards. As newsletters go, it isn't very helpful; it doesn't, for example, describe the highlights of the year. It's actually more likely to focus on a single low point, though I don't restrict myself to any established format or style. I've decided this year to extend my Holiday Newsletter to my extended blog “family.” Enjoy.

December 2009

Happy holidays to your whole family!

I hope nobody is bothered that I didn’t say “Merry Christmas.” My greeting simply acknowledges that there is no single official holiday in this country. Accepting all winter holiday traditions would seem to be a classic example of American freedom. But really, there’s a limit on this freedom: we’re not exactly free to ignore the “meaning” of the holiday, whichever one(s) we do (or fail to) observe. I feel this way with most of our holidays … at the end of every Memorial Day, for example, I get this creeping guilt that while I enjoyed the time off, I didn’t spend so much as a moment thinking of our fallen soldiers.

With this nagging pressure already upon me, I was struck dumb upon entering Macy’s, on the day after Thanksgiving, to see (among the garish fake evergreens) a giant sign reading, “Believe!” The sign was repeated throughout the store—part of a major holiday shopping campaign. Since the only things I actually exhort my children to believe in are Santa and the Tooth Fairy, I took this pretty hard—almost as if the signs had said, “J’accuse!”

Can’t I get through a holiday without having to tap my spiritual side? I have to admit, I kind of envy the British, with their simple “bank holidays” that are just totally free days off with no strings attached. If I’m not mistaken, the English even have a “flip-all day” (though they don’t say “flip”—I’ve made a word substitution, this being a family newsletter). But this envy is an affront to my already battered patriotism, so I’m feeling the need to defend my country by criticizing England. As time off from work and increased retail activity seem to be the two things all winter holidays have in common, in this holiday newsletter I’m going to explore another nexus of time off and consumerism: my harrowing experience shopping in London during our summer vacation there.

The difference between the retail experience in the US vs. the UK is largely a matter of ideology. The US approach is “The customer is always right.” We’re wooed, coddled, pampered, and encouraged at every step. The UK approach, on the other hand, as with so many aspects of British life, seems to be “Soldier on, and keep your chin up.” It seems the Brits would rather showcase their famous stoicism than actually have a good experience as consumers.

Americans have no stomach for things like inconvenience or poor value, and our retail providers know this. Dignity and civility are not expected, or even encouraged, among American shoppers. Consider this text from a Kleenex box: “Say goodbye to the stiff upper lip. Tell calm, cool and collected to take a hike. When tons of stuff stuffs up your nose, blow it loud and blow it proud!” (The French text on the same box, ostensibly targeted at French-Canadians, is much tamer; instead of the stiff upper lip part it merely says, “Vous êtes bouché?” which roughly translates “Are you stopped up?”)

This difference in approach was evident throughout our time in London. First, the lack of wooing: we received no junk mail at the house we were staying in, and only one flyer was left on the porch, from a place called US Pizza. We could have stayed out of the malls entirely except for a little mishap we had in the bathroom. There was no bathroom counter, so when Alexa was done getting a drink of water, she left the glass balancing precariously in the sink, where I tipped it over, breaking it. Not wanting to be a bad houseguest, I immediately set out to replace it.

Back home, I could have walked to a local mall and had a pretty good chance of finding a Bathroom Drinking Glass Emporium. Failing that, our local Crate & Barrel Factory Outlet would have a number of glasses to choose from, all of them fortuitously on sale. But this was no ordinary drinking glass—it was designed to sit in a chromed steel ring that juts out from the bathroom wall (a needlessly clever solution to the simple problem of English sinks not having counters). So this glass had to be larger at the top and then taper down, like a little shelf, so the narrower bottom part would go through the ring and the glass would nestle securely in the ring. But even if Crate & Barrel didn’t have glasses like this, the entirely cheerful and apologetic clerk would offer to order one for me, and since they get deliveries from the other store twice a day, I could stop by later that same day and pick it up. And if the other store didn’t have it, why, they could get one from China within days, and it would just so happen to be on sale for only a few dollars.

But this was England, and nobody I asked seemed to have any idea where to buy such a thing. They looked at me like I was asking where to buy a replacement laser prism for a 3-D hologram machine that hadn’t been invented yet. A couple of people recommended Marks & Spencer, so we headed over there. It was a pretty nice department store, though the whole place had just two restrooms, both out of service during our visit. I found the housewares department and described to the clerk what I was looking for: a small drinking glass for the bathroom, that sits in a little ring that sticks out from the wall. The clerk looked at me like I was crazy. “Now, what is it?” she asked.

I described the glass again, mentioning the larger diameter at the top, and drawing in the air how its sides taper in so the ring will hold it. She assured me there is no such product in existence. So I went hunting for it on my own, and found it right away. I brought her over and showed her. Instead of admitting that my description had been spot-on, and wondering aloud how she could have been so dense, she said, “Oh, you’re looking for a toothbrush holder!”

I thought it would end there: I figured I’d buy two glasses for maybe $10 or $15 total, and be on my merry way. (I needed two, because our hosts’ bathroom had two ring/glass sets, and the new glass wouldn’t match the remaining old one.) But it turns out Marks & Spencer doesn’t sell the glass part separately. You have to buy the whole set—the glass, the ring, and the mounting bracket—for £25 (roughly $45 after the murderous exchange rate and usurious credit card fee), meaning the pair would be about $90. I naively asked, “Can’t I just buy the glass separately?” She looked at me like I was daft. “Why would you want to do that? she asked. I explained that I’d broken a glass, and she looked taken aback.

This shouldn’t have surprised me, but we hadn’t been in London for very long and I hadn’t yet realized that Brits evidently never break anything. My first exposure to this strange phenomenon came at the grocery store when Lindsay knocked a jar of something to the floor and it broke. Other shoppers gasped and stared, like a meteorite had just come plunging through the ceiling and bored several feet into the floor. When I was a kid, and my brothers and I clumsily broke something in a store, we thought little of it (even though we were craven types given to persecution mania). We’d even compete to see who could best mimic the bored “Wet cleanup, aisle 3” that came over the PA system. But here, I almost expected a Hazmat team to arrive in radiation suits, and for my whole family to be fitted with scarlet letters before leaving the store. We felt the same way after breaking a drinking glass at a London restaurant a few days later.

I asked the Marks & Spencer clerk if there was any way she could sell me the glass by itself, since it was all I needed. “But you see, it’s sold as a set,” she reiterated patiently, as if talking to a small child. I asked what I would possibly do with two extra rings. “You could keep them as spares,” she said. I guess she figured that anybody hapless enough to actually break a glass toothbrush holder is capable of breaking anything.

My search lasted two more weeks, becoming a central theme of our vacation. Half the people I asked were as mystified by “toothbrush holder” as by my description. Finally we found a housewares specialty shop in Ealing that could order just the glass. It seemed like a fairly high-end place, but I figured not paying for the metal hardware would keep the price relatively low. Of course they had nothing in stock, but could order it. “It’ll take about three to four weeks,” the clerk said breezily. When’s the last time any consumer item took that long to get in the States? Still, we figured if the price were right, and it could be shipped directly to the house there, that might be okay. But then he told us the price.

As you’ve doubtless observed, when something costs a lot in the U.S., the clerk generally eases you into the news carefully, sometimes employing fancy names like “timepiece” or “eyeshade system” to reinforce the value even as the quote is delivered. But the English housewares guy cut right to the chase and said, as casually as could be, “It’s £80.” £80?! Was he out of his mind? What’s it made of—crown jewels? That’s like $145, for a fricking drinking glass, and I’d need two of them. What did we look like—billionaires? I thought I was going to have a coughing fit.

Finally, days before the end of our stay, after hours of searching online, I found a place called B&Q in Acton Town. It was on a far-flung subway line, in a dreary part of the city along a loud highway, and when I got there I realized it was kind of the English equivalent of our Home Depot chain. Why anybody would want to emulate the most god-awful of all American retail establishments is beyond me; perhaps it seemed an irresistible challenge to out-awful us while putting the famous British forbearance to its ultimate test.

At least B&Q had a few toothbrush holders to choose from. I found a relatively cheap one, but it was crudely made of cheap plastic and might as well have had “POXY RUBBISH” embossed on it. I’d given up the dream of finding a glass for sale without the hardware, but did discover a glass/holder set of decent quality for about £20. The trouble was, they only had one left and I needed two. I didn’t bother fantasizing about buying the display model (much less at a discount), but I did toy with the idea of stealing it. I could just shove it under my jacket … but of course I wouldn’t do that. I didn’t much fancy spending the final days of my vacation in an English prison, even if it is the birthplace of habeas corpus.

Thus, I had to go home empty-handed and make another trip to B&Q the next day. Customer Service had promised to hold two of the toothbrush holders for me, but when I arrived, they hadn’t the foggiest idea what I was talking about. Luckily, because the toothbrush holders came in bright orange boxes, I happened to spot them on a shelf behind the Customer Service desk, and pointed them out. With a look that said “Boy are you stupid!” the clerk begrudgingly handed them over.

Now I felt I was truly in the home stretch. All that remained now was paying up. I went to the self-service checkout, scanned the boxes, and got out my credit card. Alas, right away I came up against yet another obstacle: their payment system only accepted chip cards. I didn’t have £40 cash on me—that’s a lot of foreign currency for a tourist to carry two days before heading home. But before I even had a chance to complain, a cashier had appeared. I figured word had gotten around about the clueless tourist: “Better go help out that American bloke at checkout. He’s a right dozy blighter, bound to cock things up completely.” I explained that the POS terminal wouldn’t take my card. “We don’t take credit cards,” she said blandly. I handed her my debit card. “We don’t take this either,” she said. She seemed almost relieved, as if accepting my payment would be some kind of defeat.

I asked if she meant that they could only accept chip cards, not magstripe. She looked utterly nonplussed, like I’d asked if her mother had problems metabolizing Technicolor herring-liver pustules. So I asked her what the problem was. She stared at my card and said, “It doesn’t have one of those … things.” Suddenly I noticed that she was holding a fancy wireless payment card terminal with more features than the basic self-service one. (Given my line of work, I have specialized knowledge of these devices.) I grabbed it from her and said, “Look. Have you ever noticed this thing up at the top here? It’s a magstripe reader.” I swiped my card and completed the payment. She continued to stare blankly at me, like, “Just look at this bloody plonker. Americans are even bigger eejits than I thought.” But I didn’t care, because I was done! I made my way back to the house, installed the new glasses, forbade my kids to go anywhere near them, and got on with my life.

So. To summarize the differences in retail cultures:
USA: Believe!
UK: I can’t believe this!

Whether or not you manage to invest this holiday season with satisfying spiritual reflection, I sincerely hope you have an enjoyable time. And if, like me, you don’t take particular pleasure in the consumer aspect of the season, take heart: at least in this country you’re always right!


Monday, December 14, 2009

The Suppressed Holiday Newsletter


Every year I send out a holiday newsletter. In general I’m not a huge fan of holiday newsletters that try, in a page or two, to backfill a year’s worth of news for neglected friends and family members. Certain common styles of newsletter can be downright annoying, such as the boastful aren’t-we-special type. Back in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s my mom actually wrote a totally satirical holiday newsletter that has always been an inspiration to me. I wish I still had a copy. Some parts I remember well: “My husband’s favorite thing is picking up his welfare check—and then it’s off to the races! He sure loves to watch the horses,” and “Little Johnny hasn’t talked to us since he got his Sony Walkman. I’m actually afraid to bathe him, as he might get electrocuted. He keeps pretty much to himself.”

With the memory of my mom’s letter as my guide, I wrote my first holiday newsletter in 1999. It was completely satirical, drawing from my understanding of dramatic irony as I learned it in college. The newsletter concerned a cheerful narrator (myself) describing a lovely wedding at which he had a little alcohol-related trouble, including this episode: “I just couldn’t get comfortable in my chair and kind of dropped to the floor. I didn’t land very well, and I guess the restaurant food was really rich because I kind of choked up a little bit of it. I kind of landed in it, too, but there really wasn’t that much (in fact, I was tempted to think I hadn't really choked up anything at all, except Erin’s friends had photos). Anyway, if you read about that in any other newsletters, don't make too much of it–in fact, all Erin’s friends specifically said it wasn’t that big a deal when I asked. Anyway, a great wedding, and congratulations to the bride and groom!”

Since then I’ve tried various satirical modes, and only last year did I actually fail to get my submittal past our family’s editorial panel, which consists of Erin. She complained that my newsletter “gave [her] a headache.” She didn’t censor it, exactly, but said it could only go to my people. (The newsletter traditionally goes to a relatively small subset of our total holiday card distribution anyway.) Considering her point—that it was just too dark a letter to be mailed in the same envelope as a nice card—I relented, and suppressed the newsletter, replacing it with a farewell letter to our 1984 Volvo, which we put to rest that year. (The Volvo essay, by the way, was my first non-satirical holiday newsletter.)

Because this is a blog, not anything you get in the mail, and you have sought it out here of your own free will, I’m now posting the infamous (or at least non-famous) suppressed newsletter for your literary delectation. As my favorite Thai waiter liked to say, “Enjoy please enjoy.”

The Suppressed Newsletter

December, 2008

Dear Family & Friends,

It’s holiday newsletter time! Alas, I fear I’m too burnt on the season to really write much. A recent mall experience kind of did us in. It took half an hour just to park, and the mall itself was mobbed. There was a giant Christmas tree, but Erin and I steered the kids around it because Santa was there and we couldn’t bear to wait in some giant line. What kind of parents are we to deprive our kids of that experience? See—I’m really in the wrong mood to write a heartwarming newsletter. So, I’ve decided to try something new and turn the project over to the kids this year. The innocence and fresh perspective of a child is such a nice change anyway. (Because my kids don't type, I've had to help out, and in some cases I kind of paraphrased what they said, but I’ve tried to remain as true to their young spirits as possible.)

ALEXA: I love Christmas but it’s a bit confusing because Daddy doesn’t always tell me same things about it that my friends hear. Like, Daddy says Santa doesn't care if you’re good or bad. Apparently Santa actually has no way to keep track of us, and has bigger fish to fry anyway. So all that stuff about “He knows when you've been sleeping, he knows when you're awake”? Totally false. I could be absolutely awful all year and would still get presents. (I'm supposed to be good anyway, but for some ideological reason having nothing to do with extortion.)

LINDSAY: Christmas is great because we get these advent calendars. There’s a big picture with all these little flaps on it, one per day, and there's a chocolate figure behind each flap! Every morning we run downstairs and get down our calendars and find the date. Alexa helps me with that. The other part of this tradition is Daddy telling us how when he was a kid the family all shared this cloth advent calendar that Grandma Judy made. There was one pocket per day and they were all lined up (so there was no fun hunting around for the date), and instead of chocolates there were just mini candy canes. Each kid got a candy cane every fourth day using this modulo system devised by Grandpa Harry, where you divide the date by four and take the remainder. Every morning Daddy reminds me how much better we have it, getting a tasty chocolate every single day. I wish he’d teach me useful expressions like, “Yeah, sucks to be you!” but so far he hasn’t.

ALEXA: Another confusing holiday thing is the way Daddy tells the Rudolph story. We lost the board book but I remember it well—I made him read it a million times. Here’s how it goes: Rudolph is a reindeer with a disease, called alcoholism, that makes all the blood vessels burst in his nose so it’s all red, and the other reindeer won't let him join in their reindeer games. Lucky for Rudolph, there’s this doe named Clarice who is attracted to him precisely because he’s an outcast—she subconsciously wants to gall her oppressive father. Herbie the misfit elf befriends Rudolph out of sheer loneliness, which is never the right reason. So Rudolph is pretty miserable. Then there’s the Abominable Snowman, who only wishes he were abominable, when in reality he’s just as uptight and judgmental as everybody else. About the only decent guy in the whole scene is of course Santa, who is a truly wise and kind man but struggles with workforce problems (nobody wants to work in that frigid place). So Santa has to put up with these snooty reindeer and all these elves with Napoleon complexes (just look how they ostracize Herbie!). Finally Santa gets fed up, and—just to humiliate the other reindeer, to punish them for their bigotry—puts Rudolph at the head of the sleigh. This backfires because the other reindeer, to protect their own egos, convince themselves of the absurd notion that Rudolph is only in the lead because his nose is so bright it cuts through the fog (as though they’d never had fog before). Thus, they dodge their comeuppance by pretending to “use” Rudolph for his mere utility rather than acknowledging his intrinsic worth as a reindeer.

LINDSAY: For the first time, we went Christmas shopping as a family this year. Actually we weren’t Christmas shopping per se, but just shopping for new boots for Alexa during the holiday rush. Alexa hurt her foot at school because her footwear wasn’t good enough, so we made a special trip and now she’s got these expensive leather boots and I got NOTHING. It really chaps me when she gets new stuff. I usually don’t mind getting hand-me-downs from my sister because she gets her clothes used, too. All our clothes come from Grandma Coral, who gets them at thrift stores. She gets me these sweet princess dresses but my ‘rents don’t let me wear them much, saying it’s too cold in our house. (I have to admit, it is pretty cold, and we’re not to touch the thermostat without permission.) Anyway, Alexa tried to console me about the boots, saying she waited weeks for them while her mom hunted everywhere, but then Daddy cut in and said he had to wait until he was about thirty before he got any quality leather footwear. A broken record, that guy. Anyway, the ‘rents say we'll probably not make Christmas shopping a family tradition, which is just as well. The place was a mob scene and I was pretty wrecked by the end.

ALEXA: We might rent the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” movie this year. But Daddy warns me that the movie is going to be a lot different than the book, especially from way he has always read it. I can read the book for myself now and it’s amazing how different Daddy’s version is. Here’s more or less how he tells it: “The Grinch hated Christmas, the whole Christmas season, but don’t ask me why. No one knows quite knows the reason. It could be his shoes were a little too tight. It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right. It could be he couldn’t stand the sight of all those Whos down in Whoville trying to pretend they’re all glowing with real spirit and feeling but who are actually caught up in a whirlwind of shopping frenzy, ignited by the expert mass marketers who are playing them like suckers, marching them out to the malls like soldiers, figuring out just how much they can gouge them, just how much they can capitalize on the fears the Whos have of seeming cheap, of seeming unmoved by the spirit. The Whos have actually learned to enjoy the celebration of consumer excess that has spawned entire industries like the ‘gift’ industry that makes worthless gewgaws and trinkets that are called ‘gifts’ simply because you’d never buy them for yourself, and of course when the Whos get these they pretend to be elated when really they're thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do with this thing?’ Or maybe his heart was two sizes too small. But somehow I doubt that’s it.” Well, it’s Lindsay's turn now, or I'd tell you all about how unrealistic the rest of the story is, with the Whos holding hands and singing after their whole village was ransacked. Daddy says the story should have ended with days of riots, which galvanize the Whos into really looking at themselves, and realizing how petty they all are, and they turn to the Grinch as some sort of oracle, or guru, since he alone broke through the thin veneer of good will and exposed their Who society for the gussied-up sham that it really is. I kind of agree, that would be much a more satisfying ending.

LINDSAY: Another family tradition we have, though it’s in the fall, is going to Apple Hill in the gold country. There are all these apple orchards and they have markets selling gobs of apples, and little shops selling apple pies and other treats. Best of all was the caramel apple. It was right at eye level in the display case at one of the shops. We'd had one last year so I was pretty sure the ‘rents would buy another if I asked nicely. They’re real big on asking nicely and remind me about it every single time I ever ask for anything. You’d think they’d get over it. Anyway, the other problem is that I couldn't remember “caramel apple”--the name of it. It had been a year since I’d last had any. I tried to reason it out. It’s on a stick, like those yummy lemonade popsicles Mommy makes. But these aren’t frozen lemonade, they’re apples covered with caramel. Finally I said, really nicely, “Can I please have one of those caramel-ade apple-pops please?” Then they laughed at me. You see the hypocrisy here? I have to say please, so nobody gets offended, and then they laugh in my face. It’s not just the please thing either. We’re not even supposed to say “I know.” Like, Alexa will say, “Lindsay, some trees can live up to a thousand years,” and I’ll say, “I KNOW.” The ‘rents think that makes me sound like I’m bragging, or like I’m implying that Alexa doesn’t know anything I don’t. So instead of “I know” I’m supposed to say “Indeed.” Who says “indeed”? Nobody, that’s who. On the other hand, the ‘rents aren’t totally inflexible on this, as long as I don’t say “I know.” Like, I can say “True, true” if I want, or even “Man, you ain’t never lie!” (even though that’s not good grammar).

Well, the kids have had their say. I guess you can tell we’re all doing really well! Have a great Holiday Season and a better 2009!


Monday, December 7, 2009

UpChuckalypse Now

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


Family friends invited us to attend a birthday party last Saturday for their five-year-old, held at the Chuck E. Cheese in Rohnert Park, about an hour away. This tied in nicely with other plans (buying a Christmas tree in nearby Sebastopol), but I frankly wasn’t looking forward to the party venue. In fact, I braced myself for what I imagined would be very unpleasant: dozens of video games, lots of noise, a pandemonium of kids running around everywhere. But nothing could have prepared me for the actual reality of the place. Join me, if you dare, for a virtual tour of this most grotesque of all child-oriented establishments.

First impression

As soon as we walked in the door I was stunned by the loud, chaotic, phantasmagoric environment—like Vegas without the class. Chuck E. Cheese was jam-packed, like a warehouse floor, littered with unattractive attractions: big sit-in video games; a Habitrail-like tunnel system scaled for humans but otherwise identical to what hamsters use; ride-on apparatuses like the horse rides you used to see, but featuring ATVs and such, many of them inoperative; old carnival-style games where you throw balls at stuff; tables tucked here and there adorned with glistening, plastic-looking pizzas; the food counter selling things like the “Family Saver” package (16” pizza, four 64-ounce sodas, and 100 game tokens for $50); a stage with giant uncanny animatronic rodents dressed like tasteless people; and big plasma screens playing a horrible kids’ show featuring Chucky and some little child-actor bastards.

No discrete sound could be made out over the generalized din. We had to stand in a line while some 14-year-old branded our wrists, and our kids’ too, with invisible ink to try to prevent child abduction. While in line I looked over at this very strange video game. It was like one of those sit-in car games, except that there was no means by which the player provided input into the machine. It was, in fact, an entirely passive activity: a roller coaster simulation, with a chair that vibrated to simulate a rickety old wooden track. The fat kid passively receiving this entertainment wore a strange expression, like she was receiving some vague, novel pleasure, and due to the vibration all three of her chins were jiggling.


We eventually got past security, and after trying in vain to clean our hands (the hand sanitizer dispenser was empty or broken) we found our group, deposited our gift, and received a bucket of tokens. I grimly set to work running down the clock while pretending, for Alexa’s sake, to be enjoying myself. She found most of the games stressful, except for this one where you press a button that causes a boxing-gloved mechanical fist to punch at miniature ducks as they are dragged by on a conveyor belt. Based on how many ducks you punch in 20 seconds, you get some number of paper tickets that spew forth from the machine. Other activities also offered the reward of tickets, generally in inverse proportion to their enjoyability (the simplest being the functional equivalent of a slot machine).

Next I tried a car-racing game. The steering wheel was screwed up (which I knew because I was unable to successfully select my car type, car color, music, etc.—you know, the consumer-pleasure aspect of the game). Through my somewhat crash-free driving I earned extended play, which was a small pleasure (diminished by my hunch that the game was tweaked to provide this sense of ersatz achievement). Alexa also tried the car game, plowing into a lot of walls and other cars and concluding plaintively, “I’m a really bad driver.” She wouldn’t play it again, thus more duck-punching.

The party

Eventually we were summoned to our group’s table, where lunch was served to the kids while the adults stood around watching. Oddly, my normally voracious kids didn’t want seconds of pizza. They were much engrossed in the awful video on the plasma screen. When it became clear to me that the assembled kids weren’t going to finish the pizza I sneaked a slice, just to further flesh out my giant hatred of Chuck E. Cheese. Sure enough, this was strictly airport food: the kind of grim product that goes directly from the freezer to the microwave. The crust was flaccid, the cheese eerily un-cheesy, the tomato sauce corn-syrupy.

Our table was a long narrow one, set parallel to four more just like it, at each of which a birthday party was in full swing. Each table had an emcee whose job was to jar the kids out of their confused, overwhelmed stupor and galvanize them into prescribed party behavior, which included call-and-response chanting (“Chuck-EEE, Chuck-EEE!”), yelling, clapping, and table-slapping. All five tables were being marched through the same party script. It dawned on me that I was observing an honest-to-god birthday-processing factory: celebration as assembly line.

I couldn’t tell if our activity was supposed to sync up with the action on the plasma screens, or whether the parties at each table were supposed to be synched up with one another (or perhaps competing?), or whether it was just a coincidence how close they all were to being in phase. The effect was like turning on two stereos to the same song but a half-second or so out of sync, so there’s this terrible gut-churning aural dissonance. My kids, completely nonplussed, wore blank expressions.

Perhaps most disconcerting was the queer jittery energy of the emcee at the party one table over. She was about the only non-overweight person in the whole place—far from it, in fact. Her frail hands twitching like little birds, she kept nervously tugging on her belt to keep her pants from sliding down her hips. Her attempts at interaction with the kids had a desperate, too-fast quality, like a record played at the wrong speed. This jumpy, manic behavior made me wonder: did the Chuck E. Cheese job drive her into this state, or was it pre-existing and in fact what qualified her for the position? And were the kids as creeped out by it as I was?

Giant rodents

I was startled from this lugubrious reverie by the sudden stirring of the animatronic rodents on the stage. They started up a robotic sequence of minor movements, largely out of sync with the music they had started ostensibly playing (music that I was just barely able to detect, through fierce concentration). Oddly, the emcees didn’t stop their shtick when the rodent band played; they just went right on with it: “I say HAP-py, you say BIRTH-day!” over and over because the pithed kids just weren’t getting it.

Then Chucky himself appeared amid much fanfare. I think this was supposed to be a really big deal—Chucky himself! But who the hell is Chucky anyway? What did he ever do for anybody? I can understand why a child would be excited to get to meet Mickey Mouse at Disneyland; after all, Mickey is a historical figure, a character on whom actual creative minds, including Walt Disney himself, lavished some real energy. Disney characters loom large in kids’ lives through cartoons and books—but what the hell is Chucky? Just a brand, a glorified logo designed to hawk pizza franchises. Chucky’s cheap, barebones look and generic persona struck me as downright cynical on the part of his profit-focused creators.

My first impulse, given my altered state and dark brooding, was to go right over and punch Chucky in the stomach. Of course I didn’t; I wouldn’t want to scare the kids, and besides, this costume was probably worn by a very bitter and angry person, no doubt a real scrapper who could and would kick my ass. When this poorly disguised human hugged our group’s birthday boy, and gave him a quick hair-ruffle, my instinct was to intervene, though in reality Chucky had done nothing inappropriate—I was responding to my own paranoid delusion.

A cake was produced, the candles lit, we sang the birthday song (our voices lost in the generalized cacophony) and our birthday boy managed, though with some difficulty, to blow out his candles. (I imagine that, like me, he was feeling kind of breathless.) We ate some cake, and then went back to the gaming. Erin and I were doing the man-to-man defense: I stuck to Alexa like glue, and Erin shadowed Lindsay. In all the nightmarish confusion Lindsay found a vulnerability in Erin’s parenting policy and levered in there, somehow negotiating to consume both of her goody-bag lollipops, which on top of all the punch and lemonade and a cake drove her into a state of buzzing, bouncing-molecule pinball behavior (which would go on to last, amazingly, all the way until bedtime four hours later). Alexa was easy enough to manage, thankfully; as long as she was punching ducks and earning tickets she was happy.


Inevitably, Alexa needed to use the restroom so I escorted her to the ladies’ room and waited outside. Seconds later she came back out, wide-eyed, and said, “It’s disgusting in there!” Before I could protest, she swung wide the door to show me. A large puddle was slowly emerging from beneath a stall, and long strips of toilet paper were strewn all over the floor. I quickly took Alexa into the men’s room, which was fine, and waited outside her stall. When we came out of the men’s room a supervisor was arguing with a young female employee right outside the ladies’ room. “You go in there and clean it up!” he said. “But I already told you,” she wailed, “I’m supposed to be at my table—my party’s supposed to be starting right now!” To which the supervisor boomed, “I don’t care! Get in there and clean!” Alexa and I rabbited.


After what seemed like an eternity of duck-punching and other games, it was finally time to leave. But not so fast: no way were we getting out of there without first redeeming our kids’ tickets, which had blossomed into a giant stack that created the illusion of great wealth. Of the three ticket machines, one was broken, and the other two were being dominated by Chucky Cheese regulars, who had accumulated entire forests worth of tickets and were liable to get repetitive stress injuries from feeding the machine. Erin waited with our kids while I went back to the car-racing game to try to settle my nerves.

When I returned to the ticket line, my kids had managed to settle up and were stoked to have been rewarded with a receipt for 81 points. We took this to the merchandise counter, which was eerily similar to the cashier’s station in a Vegas casino except for its huge display of worthless prizes. Alexa exchanged her receipt—the earnings from more than two hours worth of effort—for a tiny toy microphone (just a shell, no electronics or anything) for herself and a plastic lizard about 1½ inches long for her sister. Of course my kids found these toys enchanting enough to fight over, and it’s a good thing, too, because something cool like a crayon-shaped pillow would have cost like 4,000 points.

At last we were done, and together with our millions of new germs and all their latent pestilence we headed for the exit, where our wrists were scrutinized under a special flashlight by the fourteen-year-old security director who struggled to check in an incoming party while controlling our egress. He managed to stop me in my frantic bid for the exit, but sly Lindsay slipped right past him. Security indeed.


But then we were out of there and I felt like kissing the ground of the parking lot. But our energy had been exhausted, so when we got to the Christmas tree farm, just after sunset, we glommed on to almost the first tree we saw, and I sawed through its trunk like a man possessed. The whole operation took less than ten minutes and we were back on our way.

I was uncharacteristically short-tempered with the kids throughout the long drive home as they fought over their toys, fought over the right to sing uninterrupted, fought over space, and generally exhibited the standard behaviors of sugar poisoning. I was so thrown off by the harrowing Chucky Cheese ordeal, I just couldn’t relax, not even when we got home. It wasn’t until half an hour into a kid-free Christmas party, when I had the host make me a strong vodka martini, that I was finally able to relax. (I’ll surely end up in Hell for leaving my sugar-frenzied kids with a sitter that night.)

The next night, after lights-out, as I lay on my back in my kids’ room trying to think up a bedtime story, Alexa said to me, “Daddy? I really liked Chucky Cheese, and I want to go back their soon, to the very one we went to yesterday. And this time I want to stay longer and get more stuff.” Dang … so they actually liked it. Does this mean, though, that I would ever hold one of my kids’ birthday parties at Chucky Cheese? Hell no. I'd rather take them on a tour of a slaughterhouse to see how sausage is made.

Monday, November 30, 2009

From the Archives: Burrito Worlds


Around five years ago, I learned of a documentary about burritos that somebody was doing. He was looking for anybody with a funny burrito-related story to tell, so I finally wrote down the story of how I won the burrito-eating World Championship while a student at UC Santa Barbara. He liked the story, and came out to my house with his movie camera and filmed me telling the story. For some reason it took at least a couple of takes to get it just right. Ultimately I never did get to see the documentary, and I strongly suspect it never got made. Nevertheless, it was good to get the story down on paper, and I offer it here as a companion piece to my post about the Vuelta del Taco Truck.

The qualifying round

I entered the World Championship in burrito-eating when I was a student at UC Santa Barbara in 1990. A local restaurant, El Freebird's, put on this contest, in which people compete for the fastest time eating a “monster burrito.” (It’s about four inches in diameter and at least eight inches long; many people couldn’t finish one at a sitting.) They held qualifying heats all day long, each with five people, and the five eaters with the lowest times on the day could go on to the finals. I hadn’t actually even known about the contest, but I was coming back from a 100-mile bicycle ride (I was on the cycling team), and I stopped at El Freebird’s to see what the huge crowd there was for. They told me there was still room in the last heat, but I only had 10 minutes to go home and change. This I did. I easily won my heat with a time of 1:06, and went into the finals the next day holding the best qualifying time.

My competition

This rather large, acne-ridden fellow had a 1:08 qualifying time, so I was a bit worried about him when I sat down for the big event. Practically the entire cycling team had shown up to watch, and my brother and a friend had driven all the way down from San Luis Obispo, so I was under some serious pressure. There was also a great looking blond girl from my French class who’d somehow heard about it and was sitting right up front.

Meanwhile there was the David and Goliath business. I was, and am, skinny as a rail and exactly the kind of person you wouldn’t expect to win an eating event. Meanwhile, this other fellow was one of those huge fat guys you pretty much always picture in a pie eating contest—indeed, whom you almost can’t imagine doing anything else. And he was clearly very confident, as though he managed to find and enter such contests routinely. How cool would it be to beat him? There was some serious buzz about our impressive qualifying times (the local rock station was covering the event) and many were discussing whether or not it was humanly possible to eat the monster in less than a minute.

Psyching up, and psyching out

I was hamming it up to my friends, waving and grinning, but inside I was getting serious butterflies, like before a bike race. Unlike many of the spectators, my friends all knew—or thought they knew—what I was capable of in a speed-eating scenario. (In actual fact, they’d never seen me go anything close to all-out.) They all felt I had a lock on the event. I wasn’t nearly so sure. The last eating competition I’d been in was an informal Chinese eat-off with a friend of mine who weighed in at about 350. I’d figured his weight was a gland problem or something, compounded with inactivity, and that I could take him. (I’d never lost before, after all.) But he completely blew me away. He shamed me. It was all the more embarrassing for me when I reflected on why I ever thought I could out-eat such a fat dude in the first place. This was my general worry now. How could I let my friends down?

The fat guy was now doing this Zen thing, as if preparing to enter some special zone of pure, concentrated, focused speed-eating according to the teachings of old masters. I couldn’t believe he could be serious, and I figured this was designed to psych me out. What could I do in return? I’d already set such a breezy tone with my friends I couldn’t do a similar Zen thing, or even a brooding prizefighter thing. Then inspiration hit: I became serious and said to the main judge, “Hey, does anybody here know the Heimlich?” The judge laughed and I said, without a trace of a smile, “No, I’m serious!” And actually, when I thought about it, I was. Only a fool chokes to death trying to eat a monster burrito in under a minute. The effect was perfect: I established myself, I believe, as a serious competitor who doesn’t kid himself about the harsh realities of his sport.


I gave some thought to my technique just before the race began. Sure, I’d won my heat the day before, but on pure talent, little realizing what was at stake. Now, in the finals, I needed to remove every inefficiency from my game. I had naturally decided to eschew chewing, because it wastes time and besides, I never chew anyway. The main technique would be to create intense suction by contracting my diaphragm, and then to just guide the burrito in with my hands. The question was, would I take a drink at any point during the event? The monster was a somewhat dry burrito; if I could have afforded to eat out back then (I was perennially pressed for cash), I would have always loaded gobs of extra salsa into such a burrito. Anyway, at one point during the qualifier my throat had started to constrict, and that could’ve ended the whole thing. On the other hand, taking a drink would cost me several seconds—an eternity in such a short event. I decided to play it by ear.

The race

They started the race and I hit the burrito hard, swiftly biting off the “cap,” or folded-in tortilla section, to expose the innards and begin their flow down my throat. I worked quickly, deftly, almost surgically, excavating an area and then chewing away the empty section of tortilla hull that had surrounded it. I was completely focused, engrossed you might say, but was nonetheless aware of two things: one, the entire cycling team, and my friends and roommates, were all chanting “DANA, DANA, DANA!” in perfect sync over the roar of the crowd; and two, I was going really fast. I had hit my stride completely, perhaps better than I ever had, or have ever done since. All the stress and nervousness from before had fallen away, or been turned into pure speed-eating energy. I myself, record-holder in the Gondolier spaghetti speed event (a plate in 19.9 seconds), could not believe how fast the burrito was disappearing. The announcer was now saying, I dimly registered, that three of the finalists had actually put down their burritos, conceding defeat, just to watch the unbelievable spectacle of the fat guy and me and our dizzying pace. I dared not distract myself by checking on the fat guy’s progress, but from the increasing din of the spectators I knew it was a close race.

Then my throat started to get parched. It had moved through a lot of material, including whole beans (which in my opinion should never stand in for refried in any burrito, much less a racing burrito), and of course the dryness wasn’t exactly helped by the sting of the salsa, a fairly spicy raw pico de gallo. So I decided to go for the drink.

The effect must have been impressive: I swung the remaining third of the burrito to the side in one hand just far enough, and long enough, to miss the paper cup, which with perfect simultaneity I brought in with the other hand and downed in a fraction of a second, then dropping the cup away and immediately returning to the burrito. It was a perfect fluid motion and only later did I realize I should have rehearsed it beforehand; again, only pure talent can explain the perfection of the move. And the effect was everything I’d hoped for: my throat was restored and the flow was excellent once again. But then, disaster struck—a tortilla blowout!

Freebird’s is of the steamed-tortilla breed of taquerias; while my preference for lightly grilled tortillas is really a culinary predilection, in this case it was architectural. Any time you have a tightly stretched tortilla, even if it’s a over a comparatively dry burrito like the monster, a steamed tortilla runs the risk of developing a soggy section and blowing out like a baby’s diaper. This it had. Fighting off panic—my friends were all still chanting “DANA! DANA! DANA!” and the crowd was ever increasing in its fervor—I held in the soggy section as well as I could to prevent hemorrhaging of rice and beans. How much could I spill without being disqualified?

Then, perhaps ten or fifteen seconds later, I was done. A quick flash out of the corner of my eye confirmed that the fat guy was not obviously finished, so I threw my arms up in a victory salute and stuck my tongue out to show that there was nothing in my mouth. (How did I know to do this? Again, pure instinct. I was born for this.) The judges all pointed to me in unison, stopping the split timers on their stopwatches. The crowd went wild. With the exception of the fat guy’s handful of gathered friends, the crowd had to have been gunning for the skinny young upstart. But there was commotion—the fat guy had come in right behind me, and was later ruled to have lost by only half a second. My winning time? 49.5 seconds. I believe that record still stands.

The aftermath

To be honest, we probably finished eating our burritos at about the same time, but my victory flourish carried the day. Imagine being a judge, trying to time the whole thing, watching these guys slugging down burritos in the midst of a spray of rice and beans—how do you know who really won? The other guy was at least as much of a pig as I am; he just didn’t know how to win. Then, he was a really sore loser as well—the main prize was five tickets to a Rolling Stones concert in L.A. and a limo ride there and back, and this guy was so sure he’d win that he had already made all the plans with his friends. He started to make a big stink, which was too bad since the whole contest was supposed to be fun, so I gave him the tickets and the limo ride (for a nominal fee, of course) and kept the other prizes, which were a few CDs and two tickets to Monster Truck Madness.

And, of course, the trophy, and it was majestic: a large wooden base with a brass plaque reading “Burrito World Champion” (they even engraved my name on it afterward), from which extended, vertically, a spring-type car shock absorber, atop which was mounted a life-size golden burrito (or was it silver?—it was destroyed months later, taking a long fall from my apartment balcony, to the delight of my roommate who’d grown sick of looking at it). Freebird’s had photos up for months of me holding the trophy gleefully above my head, the fat guy beside me looking like he was about to cry, and colored in green in the photos.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Vuelta del Taco Truck


I struggled with the title of this post. I heard about a bike tour of Oakland/Fruitvale taco trucks from a guy on my bike club in a group e-mail titled “Giro di Taco Truck.” This is of course a takeoff on “Giro d’Italia,” the Italian stage race similar to the Tour de France. I decided it makes more sense to riff on the name of the Spanish stage race, the Vuelta d’Espagne. The trouble is, the only Spanish I know involves names of Mexican foods so I didn’t know whether it should be Vuelta de Taco Truck, or Vuelta del Taco Truck. My mom is pretty sure it’s the latter, which I’ve used, but now the only problems is I have “Del Taco,” the name of that horrible Taco-Bell-like chain, lurking within the title of my report. Suffice to say this post has only to do with legit, tasty food from non-chain taco trucks: four of them, which I visited by bike. Ah, food and bikes … two of my favorite things.

The official name of the tour is “Taco Truck Tour #2: Foothill Blvd. Edition,” and it is the brain child of a guy named Cyrus Farivar. He has a taco truck website,, and came up with the whole idea of a bunch of hungry bicyclists meeting at the Lake Merritt Bart station and pedaling from taco track to taco truck, finishing up at an ice cream place near the Fruitvale Bart station. A simple, yet inspired, scheme. Here is Cyrus himself, in his favorite habitat:
A novel activity

In the event, none of my bike club buddies joined me for the tour. Thus, it was a bit of a departure for me to show up anyway. I’m a shy person, and hanging out with a bunch of strangers for three hours isn’t something I normally decide to do on a weekend—which is a perfect reason to do it. I move in pretty predictable patterns, my life having settled into a series of well-worn grooves. Socially, I interact regularly with three main groups of people: 1) my colleagues at work; 2) parents of my kids’ schoolmates; and 3) my friends, most of whom I know through cycling (and thus through the vast, glorious range of meals cycling entails).

Of course, the taco-tourists and I had common ground: these were cyclists, and foodies. That said, “cyclist” is a really broad category. My biking friends comprise a very, very small subset of the cycling world. Most of us have done a lot of road racing (many still do); we all have bikes worth at least a couple grand; any of us can wax eloquently on the relative merits of carbon fiber vs. titanium or aluminum for bike frames; we are all comfortable discussing power output in watts or climb difficulty in percent grade. We are not a representative sample of bicyclists at large, who range from mountain bikers to commuters to enthusiasts, and whose vehicles range from department store bikes to basic commuting bikes to twenty-plus-year-old ten-speeds to folding bikes to recumbents to souped-up all-weather cargo bikes to folding bikes. The bicyclists on the taco truck tour were not racers or wannabes or bike-techno-geeks; many or most probably don’t follow the Tour de France; they didn’t necessarily know or care about heart rate monitors or power meters. Sure, they love bikes and cycling, but that didn’t make them a ready-made social group for me.

Meanwhile, “people who eat Mexican food” is an even broader group. Who doesn’t love it? I suppose there are pockets of, say, really old people in the Midwest who don’t eat it. In 1994 I had a lot of trouble finding tortillas in North Carolina, where two different grocery store employees claimed not to have heard of them. During a two-week vacation in London this summer that involved a lot of restaurants I never saw a single Mexican place, and my brother in Holland can’t find refried beans or tortillas and has to make them from scratch. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule; especially in California, I’d say most people eat Mexican regularly. Thus, my shared love of this food didn’t mean I would have instant rapport with a bunch of people I’d never met.

I suppose if I were one of those bold, alpha-dog epicures who considers himself an expert on one or another type of cuisine, and everybody else on the tour was as well, we could break the ice by launching into mini-lectures that showcase our knowledge and establish our merit (as I’ve seen happen with wine and cigars). Thankfully, nobody in this group treated our outing like a pissing contest. We were just out to rides bikes and try out new taco trucks. It was a great slice of life, among new people who didn’t necessarily have much in common with me or with one another.

The turnout

I’d wondered if the group would be easy to spot. It was, even though I was on the early side. Cyrus gave a very brief introduction, and asked how many had heard of the tour through his blog. Surprisingly few had. (I don’t really know how everybody else had learned of it.) It also seemed as though most of the people didn’t know many of the others.

I chatted with one guy about his very strange, even uncanny shoes:
He introduced himself as “Pirate.” I wasn’t sure I heard him right, and said, “Pirate?” He stuck out his hand and said, “Yeah … arrrrgh!” He was a very funny guy, a bartender (who was inspired toward this vocation by Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential). He sang the praises of his strange shoes—easier on his feet, better for balance, better for his back—and when one person replied that orthodics can help too, he joked, “That’s what the Footwear Industrial Complex would have you believe.”

Soon our group had finished gathering and we set out on our bikes. There were too many in our group to easily count, but most estimates were around forty or forty-five souls.

The route

Most of the bicycling came at the beginning, as we rode a little under three miles from the Lake Merritt Bart station to the first taco truck. From there the taco trucks were mere blocks apart, with a final multi-block trek to ice cream and Bart at the end. Here’s a map of the route (the part getting to Foothill Blvd being perhaps only approximate). You'll want to click to zoom in.
Whether it was the damp air or the fact that I was absolutely starving, I enjoyed Technicolor smells on the way to the first truck. First I caught the roasting meat aroma of a taqueria, followed quickly by another equally appetizing but not immediately recognizable smell. Pirate’s wife Lexi quickly identified it: pho. I enjoyed that until it was replaced by that classic Laundromat smell. I was so hungry even that smelled good, in its cozy dryer-lint way.

El Grullo – 27th & Foothill

The first truck wasn’t really a truck at all, but a very small building (with a closed-up truck outside). They started out taking orders indoors until they realized how big our group was; then they opened a side window and delivered food between the bars. My overwhelming first impression was panic, because it was after 1 p.m. and I hadn’t really eaten since the evening before (and had done a hard two-hour bike ride earlier in the day). El Grullo wasn’t prepared for such a sudden onslaught and took a long time in delivering our food. But this is really a plus: they take appropriate care in the kitchen.
(On New Year’s Eve a couple years ago, I couldn’t find a taqueria that was open and in desperation resorted to Chipotle, the McDonald’s-owned chain of fake taquerias. Notwithstanding their sponsorship of a pro cycling team, I can’t really recommend this for an authentic taqueria experience. On this particular night the place was completely dead, but that didn’t mean the lazy college kid working there made any effort to get anything right. He assembled my burrito with all the care you’d take in balling up a dirty sock before throwing it in the hamper. He rolled the inferior ingredients into the inferior tortilla begrudgingly, a look on his face like “I was having a fine time staring into space here before you came in and ruined it.” I felt like punching him in the face.)

The El Grullo menu was in Spanish only. The burrito was cheap: $4.50. It was served with two extra little foil-wrapped bundles: one with jalapenos, the other with radishes and a slice of lime. The tortilla was grilled (which I favor highly over those little steaming machines). There hadn’t been an option for whole wheat, spinach, sun-dried-tomato, or any other silly gringo tortilla, nor an option for whole pinto or black beans—equally unnecessary. (At an Italian restaurant they wouldn’t ask if you wanted your pasta overcooked, or would like to substitute Chef Boyardee sauce for their marinara; in like fashion, I think tortilla and bean options are best left off a taqueria’s menu. Just sayin’.)

There was plenty of good rice, jack cheese, tasty refried beans, and good, hot, crispy carnitas. Throughout were flecks of chopped cilantro—just the right amount, not overpowering. I was so hungry I was practically inhaling the thing, and probably drooling into it. It took all the will-power I had not to devour the whole thing in one straight shot (having three more taco trucks to save room for). When I came up for air, I reflected that it could use some salsa, which seemed oddly missing. It was a tad bit on the dry side, but still delicious and I couldn’t complain. Halfway through wrapping up the last half of the burrito (to throw in a Ziploc bag for later), I stopped, unwrapped, and had a few more bites. I couldn’t help myself.

Tacos el Mazatlan – Foothill at Fruitvale Ave

Half the group stopped at an “unofficial” taco truck less than a block from El Grullo, while the rest of us pedaled less than four blocks to the next scheduled stop, Tacos el Mazatlan. I have to confess, I was among the first to head over there, hoping to get a burrito on the early side lest I keel over and die from lack of calories. The first half-burrito had not even registered in my stomach, such is my appetite once it’s awakened. As it turned out, only one person was working at Tacos el Mazatlan, and it took her about forty minutes just to take all our orders before turning to the kitchen side of her truck. How she kept it all straight is beyond me.

This was a classic taco truck, with the standard (yet somehow odd) aluminum siding that brings to mind a quilted coat; the blue-tinted windows; the lift-up awning; the menu that has plenty of meat options (e.g., lengua, cabeza, tripas) with their helpful translations (tongue, head, and “guts” respectively), with none of the needless options I mentioned above.
A word on authenticity: though I am actually a former Burrito World Champion, I don’t claim to be an expert, nor to necessarily prefer my Mexican food to be authentic in every detail. For example, I get the impression that cheese isn’t necessarily authentic (I often have to ask for it), but I want it on my burrito. Likewise, I’m not in a hurry to try cabeza or tripas. That said, the absence of spinach tortillas on the menu, and the presence of head and guts, suggest that the taqueria’s target market isn’t gringo tourists and the airport food court set. Similarly, a really cheap place is bound to be good—not just a better value than a pricey place, but better food. Offer me a $10 burrito and I’ll likely ask for what’s behind Door #2.

On the way to meeting the group, on Bart, I had been reading an article in “The New Yorker” about a Michelin Guide inspector, and perhaps this went to my head because I resolved to try a carnitas burrito at each taco truck so I could compare them. With hindsight I realize I should have tried all kinds of different things, just to broaden my experience, but the fact is I didn’t. Besides, I like burritos better than tacos and I think they’re easier to bring home as leftovers.

When several tacos came up at once, and as eaters throughout our crowd all squeezed lime on their tacos at once, the air was nicely infused with the bright citrus scent. Here’s a photo (after snapping this, I wished I’d ordered tacos—I’ll have to go back!).
I ordered the “super” carnitas burrito ($5) because it came with cheese and sour cream. I don’t like the sour cream you get at taquerias; it’s too milky and cools down the burrito while diluting it. So as always I asked for no sour cream, and to my delight the cashier deducted fifty cents from the price. That’s the first time in my entire life I’ve had the cost of sour cream deducted from my total, and I think that alone makes this place deserving of your business, on sheer principle.

The Tacos el Mazatlan burrito had all the positive attributes of the El Grullo one, plus diced raw onions, a plus. It was still a bit on the dry side—perhaps that’s the style in Oakland. It came with sliced (perhaps pickled?) carrots, a jalapeno, and sliced radishes. Delicious, and again it took a few tries to put away half of it for later.

Tamales Mi Lupita – 34th & Foothill

This was perhaps the most interesting of the four places. (It’s shown in the photo of Cyrus above.) It features a wide variety of “Centroamerican food,” including pupsas, yuca con chicharron, tortas, platanos fritos, tamales, pasteles, and empanadas. I don’t know what all of these things are. The pupusas, I learned, are small cornmeal disks, a little thicker than a pancake, filled with cheese, beans, meat, and such. Here’s a little video of one being made:

Again, I’m kicking myself for not trying a pupusa, but I was hurrying because in addition to our large group there was a work crew (grape harvesters) making a bulk order, and the whole menu was in Spanish, I’d never encountered pupusas before, and I basically panicked. I even forgot to order a drink (which I never normally order, but I was parched). Next time!

While I waited I chatted with a very friendly grape harvester. He lives in Fresno, but is from a country in Central America (Guatemala, I think he said) and said the food here was just like what he had growing up. As he described this, stack after stack of pupusas was bagged for his crew. When their tremendous order was all packed he gave a friendly farewell and headed for the truck. I wanted to say, “Wait, take me with you!”

I wandered over to inspect the wide assortment of bikes from our group, leaning en masse on the wall of the neighboring restaurant (also Tamales Mi Lupita). The fanciest bike there was this gorgeous green Raleigh, obviously outfitted with careful consideration. “Can I take your picture admiring that bike?” a young woman asked. She said it was her boyfriend’s bike and he’d be proud to know it attracted a gawker.
Hoping for hot sauce and/or pico de gallo, I’d asked for my burrito “with everything.” I’m not sure the cashier know what I meant, but for $6 I got my best burrito yet. It came equipped much like the others, but with welcome chunks of ripe red tomatoes. (You’ll see photos in awhile here showing cross-sections of each burrito.) I even had a rickety little table to sit at so I didn’t have to balance my burrito—with its standard sides of radish and jalapeno—on my bike saddle or a trash can. My amazing stomach was still unfazed, 1.5 burritos into my evolving lunch, and again it was with great regret that I tagged and bagged the second half of this one.

I had become relaxed enough by this point to compare a few notes with the other taco-tourists. Partly this just meant explaining my burrito preference, not to mention my ability to continue eating such hearty fare at each truck. I consulted with one guy about the meaning of “revuelta” (or was it “revueltos”?) in the context of pupusas. “Vuelta” roughly translates “tour” or “rotation,” but “revuelta” seems to involve mixing somehow; applied to eggs it means scrambled. His revuelta pupusa had a whole bunch of fillings. I will certainly investigate this culinary-etymological junction in the future, using all of my senses.

Happily, nobody (least of all me) bloviated about the nuances, quality, or authenticity of the food. I’d have liked to get a breakdown of what each menu item was, but there’s something to be said for quiet appreciation too. One person mentioned that the jalapenos had been better on the previous bike-taco tour. Mostly there were a lot of yummy-noises.

A final note on Tamales Mi Lupita: the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain ate here, and apparently got some video footage for his TV show “No Reservations.” I’ve never seen the show, and have no idea what he made of the place, but somebody in the know must have turned him onto it. I’m no celebrity-chef groupie, but I have to say, if you’ve never read Kitchen Confidential you really need to do that. Bourdain is a really funny writer with endless restaurant stories. I recently read one of his novels, Gone Bamboo, and it was good too.

Tacos el Tio Juan – 41st & Foothill

Here’s an embarrassing admission: in my notes I referred to this place as Atole, because of a neon sign in the window (and the absence of any other sign). Atole, I have since learned, is a thick, hot drink made of corn or rice, and was simply a menu offering, not the name of the business.
As far as complete menus, this place takes top honors. Some of the meats had a handy English translation, but the most exotic did not. Fortunately, a Spanish speaker in our group (there seemed to be several) offered some translations: birria is goat, chicharron is fried pork rinds (i.e., skin), and lorno is loin.
I decided that dang it, I was going to try something different this time, so I went with the birria burrito. I told the guy, “Birria burrito with everything except sour cream. “ He replied, “Okay, $4.” Four dollars! If you asked for everything on a burrito at the airport, you’d get the $10 rubbish tube I alluded to earlier. It was dawning on me that the Oakland taco truck circuit is a very special thing. And that was before I even tasted the birria burrito.

Wow: it was glorious. The meat was unlike anything I’ve had. It had a very particular flavor, just as lamb has a particular flavor (though goat doesn’t taste like lamb). It wasn’t as gamey as I’d thought it might be. It was interesting in the very way that chicken is boring. Where chicken is basically an empty set—a chasm, a void, a lack—goat is a fullness, a presence, a substance of flavor. And it was tender and juicy. Though this wasn’t a complicated burrito—indeed, as you’ll see later, its cross-section reveals less color than any of the others—it was the best of them all. I’m not sure that guacamole (which was evidently unavailable at any of these trucks) would have necessarily enhanced it, so rich and tasty was its simple flavor. Wow.

Ice cream

We pedaled to our last stop, an ice cream shop called Cinco de Mayo in a little complex of shops across a little plaza from Fruitvale Bart. Like those of the taco trucks, its menu was largely in Spanish. I wanted spearmint ice cream but they were out; I should have been emboldened by the birria buritto and tried something weird like corn or “curled milk,” but I just didn’t feel like it, and went with strawberry. I couldn’t believe it was only $1.25. At any other ice cream place you probably couldn’t get an empty cone for that. Another remarkable thing: I asked for a cup of water and got it. So many times I’ve been turned down on the basis of “We sell bottled water,” or for no reason at all.

The ice cream was good. It tasted like strawberries and cream, like it should. If that totally artificial pepto-bismol-pink stuff we got as kids is a 1, and Haagen-Dazs is a 10, this was about a seven; for $1.25 I’ll take it any day. Someone had the corn ice cream and said it wasn’t bad.

This was a nice, casual way to end the day’s journey; then I bade everyone farewell and left for Bart. In my bag I had a page of notes, assorted napkins and bundles of garnish, and four half-burritos (actually, three half-burritos and about a quarter of the birria burrito) to serve up to my expert panel of tasters at home.

The tasting panel

At dinnertime (about two hours after my three-hour lunch) I carefully sliced the rest of the burritos, warmed them up, and arranged them on plates with little labels so my tasting panel could weigh in. (Somehow on the labels I rendered “Tamales Mi Lupita” as “Pupuseria Lupita,” and as I explained before, I had thought “Tacos El Tio Juan” was “Atole.”) As promised, here are photos showing the cross-sections of all four burritos:
My panel comprises two young epicures: Lindsay (age six, on the left) and Alexa (age eight).
It may seem to you as though my tasters must lack experience and the sophisticated palate of a seasoned veteran of taquerias. To which I reply, yes, experience is valuable, but there’s also no substitute for talent. These kids have been eating Mexican food their whole lives.

My wife and I had our favorite corner of Mario’s La Fiesta (Telegraph Ave, Berkeley) with a perfect little shelf for Alexa’s car seat when she was an infant. I remember well how on one evening, as I spoon-fed her refried beans off of Erin’s plate, Alexa would alternate between greedily accepting the spoon and bursting out crying. Finally I came to learn that Erin had mixed a bunch of fiery salsa into her beans; poor Alexa kept having to push past the pain to get her fill.

The results

Here are the comments my tasting panel had about each burrito.

El Grullo Taqueria
Alexa: “I don’t like it at all.”
Lindsay: “If one is better [between this and El Mazatlan], it’s this one.”

Tacos El Mazatlan
Alexa: “I like it much better [than El Tio Juan].”
Lindsay: “Pretty good burrito.”

Tamales Mi Lupita
Alexa: “It’s my favorite—it’s really cheesy; I like the meat. I really like it.”
Lindsay: “The cheesiest I’ve had yet and the tastiest.” [She hadn’t tried El Tio Juan yet.]

Tacos El Tio Juan
Alexa: “I’m liking it but a little too greasy.”
Lindsay: “The spiciest I’ve ever had but delicious besides the spiciness. The tastiest, but not my favorite because it’s spicy.”

We ranked the four according to a sophisticated scoring system (the details of which I won’t bother you with except upon request). The composite scores are as follows:

El Grullo Taqueria: 4 points
Tacos El Mazatlan: 6 points
Tamales Mi Lupita: 10 points
Tacos El Tio Juan: 10 points

I declare the winner to be Tacos El Tio Juan; although it was tied with Tamales Mi Lupita on points, it was picked as a favorite by two testers (including myself). I definitely plan to return to this place, as well as Tamales Mi Lupita. Meanwhile, I definitely see more Vueltas del Taco Truck (of one sort or another) in my future: maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.
dana albert blog