Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Little Star vs. Big Zach's

Before I begin, here’s a picture of a slice of Zachary’s pizza, in case you haven’t seen this most excellent fare before, or haven’t seen it in way too long. The point of the bike computer in this photo is that I had leftover Zach’s waiting for me at home, along with my darling daughters, after an 80-mile ride. Nirvana.

The Contenders

Little Star Pizza in San Francisco has been around for about four years, but I’ve been eating at Zachary’s Pizza, in Berkeley, for almost twenty. I only heard about Little Star recently, from my friend Mike, who—inevitably—compared it to Zach’s. The comparison is predictable because both places serve a deep-dish Chicago-style pizza. The surprise was that my friend said Little Star is actually better. This struck me a bit like saying Curad is better than Band-Aid, or Puffs is better than Kleenex, or the Safeway-branded salt is better than Morton’s, or David is better than Goliath. (Okay, I guess that last one has actually been established.)

As only a Bay Area foodie can, Mike described his latest culinary observation in great detail, explaining the problem with Zach’s that Little Star has putatively overcome. “You see, Zach’s originally put the pie in the oven without the tomatoes on top,” he said, “and let the top crust bake a bit before taking it back out and adding the tomatoes. But eventually they got lazy and started adding the tomatoes right away, so the top layer of crust never actually gets baked. You don’t notice, because you think the top layer is just cheese. But this is why you always feel so bloated after eating Zach’s … the uncooked dough is, like, rising in your stomach.” Intrigued, I resolved to dissect the next Zach’s pizza I got. But when you’re eating Zach’s, or at least when I am, it’s impossible to remember to do this—the sheer sensual delight of the pizza overpowers all thought. I always remember this theory, though, when I’m getting my Zach’s hangover. The idea of pizza that’s even tastier than Zach’s, and easier on my digestive system, was highly intriguing.

I went to chowhound.com to see what its foodie readers had to say. I expected a spirited debate, because besides eating and writing about food, bickering seems to be one of the things chowhounders (and other web bulletin-boarders) like best. For example, when I looked up China Village, my favorite local Chinese spot, I happened upon the thread of a seemingly innocent question—“Do they use MSG?”—that provoked a long argument about whether MSG belonged in Chinese food. Some argued that Chinese food cannot be considered authentic unless it has MSG. Another claimed that it was the Americans who introduced MSG. Another said the Chinese use it wisely but the Americans, by overusing it, had given it a bad name. And on and on. Oddly, nobody answered the original question. I happen to know that China Village does use MSG, but can withhold it in most of the dishes. I posted this response, and got a grateful reply from the original inquirer: “Thanks, I was starting to wonder if anybody was going to answer my question!”

Oddly, nobody on chowhound disagreed with anybody else on the Little Star vs. Zach’s comparison. Also surprising was the unanimous conclusion that Little Star was actually better. Out of twenty comments on the latest “Zach’s vs. Little Star” thread, not a single person came out in favor of Zach’s. I found this both thrilling and disturbing. When you love a product like I love Zach’s, the prospect of something even better seems almost too good to be true. Which brings me to the disturbing part: could it be that the first few pro-Little-Star postings were so emphatic and imperious that the Zach’s supporters ran and hid? Is it possible that chowhound is being taken over by food Nazis? (I’ve wondered this before, having come across paranoid disclaimers like “haven’t tried it, I am ashamed to admit” and “don’t hate me but I like….” If you search on “shame” or “embarrass” on chowhound you’ll get endless hits, as though a fear of unpopular declarations has become rampant.)

I resolved to give Little Star try. It took me awhile to finally get over there. Though I work in San Francisco, Little Star isn’t open for lunch, and dinner with my family (on the East Bay) is usually the highlight of my day. Finally, a few nights ago, all the planets lined up and I met up at Little Star with some old buddies from Santa Barbara. What follows is my review of Little Star, especially as it compares to Zachary’s. Perhaps my friends from out of town, who haven’t had Zach’s, could review Little Star on its own merits; I myself could not, any more than you could describe Greg LeMond’s performance in the ’85 or ’86 Tour de France without mentioning Bernard Hinault.

The Ambiance

Generally, I’m not a big ambiance guy. If the food is great, I generally don’t care much about the surroundings. There are exceptions. If I have friends from out of town, eating at Skates on the Bay, with its view of the Golden Gate Bridge, is an easy call. My favorite Boulder restaurant, Café Gondolier, has suffered in every one of its many relocations, though the food has been the same at each. The Taqueria Cancun on Market Street is a bit too sketchy for me: from my table I was unpleasantly aware of the disinfectant fumes from the bathroom, mingling grotesquely with the second- and third-hand pot smoke from the dudes at the next table. (By contrast, the Mission Street Taqueria Cancun, with its long picnic-style tables and occasional live music from wandering panhandlers, is an exquisite dining environment.) I went to Little Star expecting to care only about the pizza, but right away realized that their ambiance is important, too.

Little Star (I went to the one in the Western Addition, at 846 Divisadero) feels like a neighborhood place. It’s very dark in there—not pizza-parlor-dark like Shakey’s but pub-dark. (I’m not exactly sure what the difference is.) There’s a curtain around the door to the bathroom, which seems just a bit jerry-rigged. And there’s a bar. (I was very pleased at this, because the first of my friends showed up fifteen minutes after I did, and our whole party wasn’t assembled for another hour.) I’m no expert on restaurant bars, but this one suited me fine: enough stools, good (or good enough) beer selection, and a bartender who was somehow authentic (I’m not sure how to explain this, other than he was clearly not what a TGI Friday’s waitress is). The small, crowded tables have little lamps. Like many restaurants, Little Star has low-key art on the walls, so far in the background I scarcely noticed it and cannot recall it in any detail. The overwhelming impression is of the sheer bustle of the place as crowds of people find their spots and tuck in to their food. Sitting there waiting for my friends, I could have been in any small San Francisco restaurant; only a “Little *” license plate over the bar (their star looks better than this), and a simple logo on the waiters’ t-shirts, gave the name of the place.

The upscale retail neighborhoods I’ve seen that Zach’s has restaurants in—College Ave in Rockridge and Solano Ave in Berkeley—are like clones of each other, so for Zach’s to capture a real local feel is a tricky matter to begin with. It doesn’t help that both restaurants (being almost identical themselves) suffer from a bit too much polish, especially where promotion of the Zachary’s brand is concerned. In fairness, there are only three Zach’s locations, so for corporate feel it’s a far cry from Pizza Hut. Zach’s doesn’t have its logo on every cup, napkin, and pizza box, but it does go out of its way to remind you, at every turn, where you are. Most of the walls are covered with large framed paintings, created and donated by amateur artists (many of them children) as totems of appreciation for their beloved pizzeria. While there is great variety among these paintings, they all say Zachary’s and they invariably show pictures of the product. Then there’s one wall covered with best-of awards seemingly from every magazine and newspaper in existence. Even the menu has quotations from glowing reviews, as if to prevent the diner from, at the brink of ordering, suddenly changing his mind and deciding to eat elsewhere.

This self-referential, almost solipsistic approach to décor gets a little old after a couple of decades. It reminds me a bit of the big sign on the approach to the Napa valley saying, “Welcome to the world-famous Napa Valley wine country!” Would you ever see that in Champagne, or Burgundy, or any other European wine-growing region? Of course not. Oddly, I only became fully aware of Zach’s overdone self-promotion when I looked around Little Star and saw how understated and casual it is in comparison. (That said, Zach’s, which is brightly lit, quieter, and much more spacious than Little Star, is far more kid-friendly. I imagined taking my kids to Little Star, and could envision Lindsay hiding under a table, sucking her fingers and twirling her hair.)

The Pizza

Okay, at long last let’s talk about the food. The first thing I’ll say is that Little Star has a great thin-crust pizza. We got their Italian Combo, which has white onions (sliced super thin), bell peppers (not an overwhelming amount), pepperoni, salami, and (this took a minute to figure out) pepperoncinis. It was a gorgeous pizza and I just wanted to look at it awhile before tearing in. It looked a bit like a pizza with fresh herbs I once had at Chez Panisse (which was of course even more splendid, as it had better be). I’ll say more about the thin pizza later, but it wasn’t the main attraction. I didn’t go to Little Star, nor do I go to Zach’s, for the thin crust style. To me, that’s a bit like going to a rock concert to hear the warm-up band.

A moment later, the two deep dish pizzas arrived. (Yes, we ordered three large pizzas for five of us. The waiter warned us that would be much food, which would normally be good advice. What he couldn’t know is that for all intents and purposes, I can eat an infinite amount of pizza. At the end of this meal, it took all the discipline I could muster not to finish off the last two slices—one thick, one thin—that I’d promised to bring home to my wife.) I took a close look at the tomato-covered pies. So familiar, yet so other, like the bearded parallel-universe Spock on the “Star Trek” episode “Mirror, Mirror.”

As with a Zach’s deep-dish pizza, the diameter was not vast. The Little Star large is purportedly 12 inches, though this looked a bit bigger than that. The overall impression is of serious heft. As with Zach’s, these pies are thick, at least an inch deep, and seriously dense. Spread over the top you have stewed tomatoes. Below that, the cheese and everything else, like the pizza equivalent of a lasagne. One style was the Classic, which had sausage, green peppers, onions, and mushrooms (which is exactly what the Zach’s Special has on it, suggesting this pie was designed to go head-to-head with the incumbent). The other deep dish pizza was the Little Star, which (I can tell you after cheating and looking at the menu online) had spinach, ricotta, feta, mushrooms, garlic, and onions. The way these pizzas are built, of course, you couldn’t pick one or the other out of a line-up until you taste them.

As similar as Little Star’s deep-dish is to Zach’s, you could never confuse one for the other just looking at them. The color of the tomatoes is different—Little Star a bit more on the orange side of red, Zach’s more on the pink end. (Of course, it’s so dark in Little Star everything seemed more sepia than Kodachrome, which may have heightened this perception.) The rim of crust on the pizza before me was a bit darker than a Zach’s—not as though it was baked longer, but as though the dough had been darker to begin with. Not whole wheat, of course, which would have been a travesty (nutrition be damned, I’d almost rather have wheat germ as a topping than in there spoiling my crust). Cutting into my first slice confirmed that this crust was different—it sort of crunched under my fork.

So, the first bite: wow. First of all, Little Star pizza is great. Comparisons aside, nobody needs to worry about getting a good meal at either of these two pizzerias. Mozzarella, fresh sausage, green peppers, onions, garlic, tangy tomatoes—what’s not to like? Second of all, this pizza really is different. Little Star, though clearly influenced by Zach’s, obviously didn’t just try to clone its pizza and differentiate itself solely on atmosphere and location. The biggest difference is that crust. It’s crunchier, and grainier, almost gritty. Where Zach’s uses white flour and apparently lots of butter, Little Star uses corn meal and perhaps more olive oil. Little Star has a slight suggestion of Mom’s corn bread, while Zach’s is flaky, like a French pastry or a pie shell. Yet even after the countless Zach’s pizzas I’ve eaten since about 1990, this Little Star pizza didn’t seem foreign or strange—it seemed oddly familiar. It took about a second to realize what it reminded me of: Pizzeria Uno.

I’m not talking about Uno Chicago Grill, that nationwide chain that both exploits and sullies the brand of the original Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. The crust at any of the chain restaurants is more like Pizza Hut’s: airy, crispy, and greasy, sitting in a little puddle of oil in the pan. I won’t bag on it, because it’s a guilty pleasure (I love all pizza, even bad pizza, even Totino’s frozen), but the strip-mall version is of course nothing like what I had once at the original Uno in Chicago. That place seems utterly uninfluenced by what its distant, sellout cousins have wrought. It has a grainy, crunchy cornmeal crust. If the original Uno really is the authority on true Chicago-style pizza, than Little Star wins out as the most authentic, hands-down, on its crust alone.

I don’t want to give the impression that my entire focus during this meal was comparing Little Star to Zach’s. That’s not it at all—I was hanging out with old friends and drinking beer and eating pizza, and enjoying all of this. It probably wasn’t until halfway through, as my pace slowed down a bit and maybe there was a lull in conversation, that I started to ruminate (almost literally) about whether Little Star really is the new gold-standard in West Coast deep dish pizza. And my conclusion eventually dawned on me: presumed authenticity aside, I actually prefer Zach’s. The Little Star cornmeal crust, though very good, was just too dominant, like if Philip Seymour Hoffman showed up in a Vince Vaughn movie.

Maybe I’m just not that sophisticated a pizza-eater—maybe I’m too much in touch with my inner Philistine. In some regards I’m just not ready to let authenticity get in the way of base pleasures: I’ll take a San Francisco Philly cheese-steak, with its onions and peppers and Provolone, over the real Philly cheese-steak with its Velveeta and its total lack of vegetable matter. And I want my Mexican (or perhaps I should say Mexican-American) food with cheese, regardless of whether that’s the way they’d do it in Mexico. As a defense of my new-fangled, irreverent, willfully unenlightened attitude, I’ll remind you that Chicago-style pizza itself is an almost complete departure from the pizza you’d get in Italy (or so I’m told by anybody who’s been there).

Beyond the crust, there are other things about Zach’s deep dish pizza that I like better. The tomatoes are a bit less garlicky, which to my tongue means they’re just right. In other words, I think Little Star overdoes the garlic a bit. Also, the Zach’s tomatoes have a bit clearer, brighter taste (which is how my wife, who also prefers Zach’s, described it). Moving on to the toppings, the sausage at Zach’s is just tastier. Meanwhile, the combination of items in the Little Star combo was a bit too complicated (which is why I had to look at the menu to recall what all was in it). I did notice the feta, because it took the pizza from being on the verge of over-salty (like Zach’s) to perhaps just slightly over the edge.

The thin pizza at Little Star, on the other hand, was just as delicious as it looked. The pepperoncinis were a clever touch (the pulpy, seedy mess off the core had been removed) and the crust was thin, not bready, and captured the perfect combination of crispy and chewy. Though I have no problem with Zach’s thin pizza, this was clearly better. (That said, for thin crust pizza Lo Coco’s in Berkeley is better than either one, if you ask me.)

The Aftermath

You may recall, though it was awhile ago, that I mentioned my friend’s explanation—raw dough—for the uncomfortable bloat brought on by Zach’s pizza. That discomfort alone might justify switching to a new pizzeria. So it’s time to answer the question: does Little Star let you down easier when you’re trying to digest it all? Has the unfortunate deep dish hangover problem actually been solved?

In a word, no. I’m sorry to say I suffered just as much after eating Little Star as I always do after eating Zach’s. I slept terribly after that meal, getting up throughout the night to drink water, and waking up with all the skin gone from the roof of my mouth. The next morning, my gastrointestinal system wasn’t happy. I’ll probably never know whether this is a result of the salt, the garlic, the acid from the tomatoes, the sheer richness of the ingredients, the beer, or some combination of these. Of course it doesn’t help that I eat about 5,000 calories worth of pizza at a sitting. (A friend once said, “I want front-row seats at your autopsy.”)

The only way I know of to mitigate the Zach’s hangover is to eat it for lunch instead of dinner. I seem to eat a bit less this way, and have many hours of being upright and moving around to achieve the digestion-aiding peristalsis we don’t get so much when sleeping. Of course, since Little Star isn’t open for lunch, you’ll just have to pay your dues afterward, unless you’re one of those freaks of nature who can moderate his intake of really, really good pizza.

In Closing

I wonder, given Zach’s popularity, how many others actually like it and are, like me, just too timid to admit this on chowhound. I will freely confess that the scene at Little Star better matches how I’d like to see myself: young, hip, and retro. (Never mind that I’m pushing forty and appreciate a kid-friendly place.) Food aside, I have to wonder if Little Star’s style advantage exerts undue influence on the chowhounders. It’s hard for me to grasp how every single chowhound review is squarely on the side of Little Star, with many heaping vindictive scorn upon a venerable Berkeley institution that, if not actually better than Little Star, ultimately sells a very similar product.

In any event, as good as both these pizzerias are, I wouldn’t dare tout either of them as the real deal to somebody from Chicago. (I made that mistake once before and got totally schooled.) Suffice to say both restaurants are great, and who knows—maybe if I lived on the other side of the Bay I’d develop a taste for Little Star’s crunchy cornmeal crust.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Trainer – The Ins and Outs of Indoor Training

Note: I rate this post PG-13 for mild strong language, mild violence, mild drug references, and a mild oblique gang reference. Please use your discretion.

Who are You?

Look, if you’re not interested in bike trainers, just stop right now. I suppose if you’re not really that interested in bike trainers, but have boundless faith that I will make good on my steadfast goal of making you laugh, you could skim this until the “human interest” parts, which will include Technicolor loogies, shameless (and shameful) name-dropping, loud cursing, violent attacks on inanimate objects, and unfair treatment of an animal. But really, if you haven’t ridden a bike indoors and see no reason to start, this post in all likelihood just isn’t for you. Go find something better to do.

Who Am I?

Before I advise you on what trainer to purchase, I should let you know I’m not a world authority on trainers. I’ve only owned four. I’m sure there are bike geeks who have owned many more than that and could go on and on about the features of each. What I’m really out to do with this article is to help you with the other advice you haven’t even asked for: how to decide if you’ll really use a trainer, and how to make the most of it if you do. In fact, since you should really decide first if you really want a trainer before choosing a type, I’ve decided to move the trainer information to Appendix A. And since I can’t have an Appendix A without an Appendix B, I’ve included that as well. I’m not an HTML expert, so you’ll have to scroll down for these appendices instead of clicking here. (See? Does nothing. Sorry. I hope you’re not in a rush.)

Before I get started, here’s a video showing how a stationary trainer can be fun for the whole family. (Not shown: my wife, who is having fun shooting the movie.)

Good Intentions

I got a fortune-cookie fortune once that said, “Hell is paved with good intentions.” Not just the road to Hell, as the old saying goes, but Hell itself. Perhaps it’s true. I picture Hell littered with stationary bikes, Nordic Tracks, dumbbells, Soloflex machines, and exercise balls (not to mention food processors and Crock-Pots). See, before you actually get any use out of a trainer, you have to overcome three serious obstacles: Lack of Gumption; Tolerance of Drudgery; and, the Ravages of Moisture. If you learn how to deal with these, you’ll get plenty of use out of your trainer and be glad you bought it. If, on the other hand, you let one or two of these get the better of you, you’ll wish I’d steered you away from an indoor trainer altogether.

Obstacle One – Lack of Gumption
Few people, I would imagine, have much trouble getting motivated for their first indoor trainer ride. After all, your trainer is an expensive new toy, and you bought the thing for a reason (or for many reasons; snow, rain, gloom of night, and “stealth training” come to mind). But after the harsh reality of that first workout, it’s hard to seriously contemplate ever riding the thing again. After all, riding an indoor trainer is boring, painful, boring, and painful. “Boy, that was a good workout,” you may tell yourself, “and I’m going to ride indoors whenever it’s too [dark, rainy, etc.] to ride.” Many an unrealized good intention was proclaimed with such empty words.

I think there are two basic forms this gumption obstacle can take: one, the general matter of whether you really believe a seasonal indoor training regimen is worth adopting; and two, the specific, immediate matter of how to motivate to ride that thing when you’re tired, or it’s early and cold, or you’re simply dreading what you’re about to do.

For the more general type of gumption challenge, about all I can say to motivate you is that the trainer really works. You can get a really sweet workout in a relatively short amount of time, and your form in the spring won’t be so affected by how wet and cold the winter was. Case in point: when I became a dad in September 2001, I lost out on almost all opportunity to sleep, much less ride my bike. I struggled badly with the transition from normal person to parent. I had very little time to ride, and even less energy. Despite all this, I was determined to ride the Death Ride that July (125 miles, 16,000 feet of climbing, at altitude). Before the big day, I’d managed only twenty-three road rides (fewer than one a week!), totaling a mere 509 miles (vs. my 2,000+ miles of usual pre-Death-Ride training). My longest ride to that point was a whopping 36 miles. But, I’d ridden the trainer 31 times, to which I largely credit my basically appropriate physique and modicum of fitness. This was evidently enough: I did manage to finish that Death Ride. And even more remarkably, my brother Geoff—who lives in rainy Holland—once completed the Death Ride without doing a single actual road ride in preparation. It was all on the trainer.

Attaining the more specific, day-to-day gumption is the harder thing, I think, to overcome. The intellectual mind is adept at contriving lofty resolutions, but when it comes to remembering pain and suffering and tedium, the less dissembling lizard brain is more realistic, and exerts an awful lot of influence over the organism as a whole. Let’s look at the two main ways in which a trainer ride is thwarted: procrastination and bedwetting.

Procrastination: You figure you’ll ride the trainer when you get home from work. You end up working late, either because there’s actually work to be done, or because deep-seated fear of pain and suffering tricks you into pretending there’s work to be done. Or, you get home from work and realize you’re too tired to ride, so you decide, “I’ll do it tomorrow instead, without fail!” (This little subroutine, of course, gets you nowhere.) Or, your buddies talk you into getting a drink after work, and you realize you can’t ride the trainer with any alcohol in your system. Or, you get home and your spouse/other has made a nice dinner or wants to go out. Or, or, or…. Almost anything can short-circuit the mythical evening trainer ride. (The exception that proves the rule is my brother Geoff, whose routine is to ride at like 11:00 at night, which works if you have the strangest lifestyle on Earth and/or don’t mind being terribly, terribly sleep-deprived.)

On the weekend, of course, you can ride at any time of the day, so you bounce from one distraction (kids, hobbies) to another (chores, errands), all the while holding your good intention in the forefront of your mind, until suddenly it’s somehow bedtime and in addition to not having ridden you experience, or at least ought to experience, a bout of self-loathing.

Bedwetting. You realize, through trial and error (see above) or from reading this blog, that the only time of day that will really work for your trainer ride is the early morning, before anybody is awake to waylay you and nothing else is going on that could distract you. So your alarm goes off at 5:30 or 6:00, and you immediately silence it, and then send a foot out from beneath the blankets on a reconnaissance mission, and discover (as on a deep-seated level you’d actually hoped) that it’s cold out there, too cold to even think about getting out of bed, and you let yourself fall back asleep. Or, you actually make it out of bed, pee, realize it’s cold out there, contemplate all the steps that go into setting up the trainer (or “torture rack,” as my brothers and I like to call it), and suffer a crushing failure of will, climbing back into bed hoping sleep will return quickly to release you from a totally appropriate bout of self-loathing. I call this scenario “bedwetting” because if you fall prey to it, you deserve to be called a bedwetter. Consider this getting off easy … there are of course far worse things you could be called (see Appendix B).

I have offered above the only solution I know to the procrastination problem (i.e., ride before dawn, no matter how free your day appears to be). I can suggest three solutions to the bedwetting problem: mise-en-place, caffeine, and the buddy system. My experience has shown that you really need to put in place at least two of these solutions, for every ride, or you’ll manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mise en place. I’ve borrowed this phrase from the French-originated term for a correctly configured cook’s station in a busy restaurant kitchen. What I am suggesting here is to get the whole trainer setup assembled the night before your ride: the tarp, the trainer, the bike, the codpiece (see below), the headband, the bandana, the shorts, jersey, socks, & shoes, the energy drink, the fan, the tunes, and the heart rate monitor & strap. This achieves two things: it keeps you from stumbling around in the dark the next morning while your spouse/other slumbers, which often ends in “screw this!” and bedwetting; and, it forces you out of bed because you’ll feel like a complete idiot if you end up dismantling the whole mise en place the next morning without having ridden.

Caffeine. How long does it take to ingest caffeine? Note that I didn’t say “coffee.” It could take a long time to brew coffee, and the whole ordeal—hunting around in your kitchen for the beans, the grinder, the filters, the little adapter doohickey for the Mr. Coffee, a clean mug, cream, sugar, etc., all before dawn–could easily lead to “screw this!” and bedwetting. I firmly believe you need to have either a large mug or thermos of coffee setting right there on your bedside table, or even better, a No-Doz. Now, don’t go telling me No-Doz is like a drug, or is somehow unsafe, or whatever. It’s the equivalent of a vente-grande-whatever cup of Starbucks, without the one-block walk, the $4, and the liquid. So here’s what you do. When the alarm goes off, you silence it, sit up, swallow the No-Doz, chase it down with some water, and now—bam!—you’re committed. You can’t fall back asleep now, and your mise en place is, well, en place, so get over to that trainer and start pedaling! (Caffeine works particularly well if you’re following my special un-doping protocol, documented here: http://www.dailypeloton.com/displayarticle.asp?pk=6072.)

The Buddy System. The simplest form of the buddy system is following up with your biking pals about whether or not they rode, and hassling them if they didn’t (the term “bedwetter” is useful here), and letting them return the favor. But that’s not terribly effective by itself, because bedwetters also tend to be enablers; after all, how hard can you be on your pal when you yourself also failed to self-motivate? So the better system is to phone your buddy first thing in the morning, as soon as you’ve consumed your caffeine, to make sure he’s up and ready. I do this two or three times a week with my brother Bryan. Here’s a typical exchange:

Bryan (after a long pause): “Hello?”
Dana: “Bryan? Is that you?”
Bryan (after another long pause): “Hello Dana.”
Dana: “You up?”
Bryan (nothing, just a very long pause; he may have fallen back asleep)
Dana: “Hello?”
Bryan (after another pause): “Yeah.”
Dana: “Are you caffeinated?”
Bryan: “I’m getting there.”
Dana: “So … are you going to do this thing?”
Bryan: “Yeah … I reckon.”
Dana: “Okay. Let’s get ‘er done.”
Bryan: “Okay then. See you later.”

This works at least half the time. Occasionally your indoor training buddy will fall back asleep, and sometimes he will get embroiled in some other activity. So a final technique is to go get on the computer and follow up your call with an instant message: “Why aren’t you on your bike?”

Obstacle Two – Tolerance of Drudgery
Okay, so you’ve bought into the indoor training concept, you have amassed the faith that this is worth doing, and you’ve carved out a swath through the logistical morass that thwarts so many good intentions. That’s great, but it is really only a start. If you don’t get results from your indoor riding regimen, and/or you find the activity far too dull and painful to return to, ride after ride, then your program is bound to be short-lived. The ways I’ve found to deal with this are intensity and entertainment.


You cannot log long, slow distance on a trainer. It’s physically impossible, and not just because “distance” implies movement and this is a stationary trainer we’re talking about. My point is, base miles can only be gotten on the road, with pals. Your trainer workout cannot be the cycling equivalent of “My Dinner with Andre.” It has to be the cycling equivalent of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” That is to say, boredom can be thwarted if you turn the ride itself into an act of violence. The sustained nature of your output on a trainer makes it ideal for generating adrenaline and endorphins, if you can just go hard enough. Meanwhile, a really intense workout is bound to do the most good, thus reinforcing the value of the whole enterprise. Beyond caffeine (which has proven benefit during exercise), the key to intensity is measuring your output. And for this you need a heart rate monitor.

You don’t just use the heart rate monitor they way your utilities company uses a gas or electric meter. Your heart rate during the exercise is not a matter of trivia to be looked at after the fact. Think of it more like an applause meter. If your heart rate is below the target zone (this zone being 70-85% of your maximum heart rate), that’s like being booed. If it’s merely within the target zone, that’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but not much; in applause terms this is either nothing or polite clapping such as an bored retiree might do at an amateur theatre production. When you’re above the zone, on the other hand, this imaginary audience is cheering you on. If you can set up an internal feedback loop where you loathe yourself the whole time you’re not above the target zone, you’re on the right track. After five or ten minutes of hammering, the pain should start to recede and you can “float” your heart rate at a pretty high number. You’re still aware of the intensity, however—just like when a dentist is pulling a tooth and there’s this incredible pressure, even if the Novocain masks the pain itself. Thus you’re spared the soul-crushing, seemingly pointless loping along that a low-intensity trainer ride would produce.

Keep in mind, though, that this level of intensity can turn you into a bit of a maniac during the workout. When my kids come down to watch (or more likely to ask for something), I refuse to engage with them, because this causes my heart rate to plummet and my rhythm to get all fouled up. I have been known to yell out, “Go tell your mother to make you breakfast!” or “Go turn on the heater!” (knowing this will get the kids out of my hair as they huddle over the vents for warmth). Once, I saw our cat head into her litter box, and—fearing the kind of hugely stinky defecation that normally clears the room and could be dangerous to someone breathing as hard as I was—I yelled, “Misha, NO!” The poor beast looked at me with total bewilderment. Wasn’t this exactly where she was supposed to do this? The good news is, after the workout you should be much more mellow that during it, and probably more mellow than before it. It’s like when you douse your raw eggplant slices with salt to disgorge all their bitterness.


People doing the exercise bike or treadmill at the gym will often read magazines. This is okay if your main goal is to catch up on Us or People Weekly. But if you’re after a real workout, you cannot read while you do it. “But I work up a sweat while reading!” you protest. Sure, but in most of the U.S., like here in the Bay Area, you can work up a sweat making the bed. (If you’re in arid Boulder, working up a noticeable sweat is much more difficult, but then, the average fitness level in Boulder is so high a mere sweat still doesn’t mean anything. )

Which brings us to TV or videos. These don’t work very well for me. My brother Geoff has gotten good results watching boxing or a Steven Seagal movie. (The highly unusually agitated and oxygen-deprived mental state induced by a good trainer workout can make otherwise unwatchable programs enjoyable as simple spectacles.) My friend Pete has reported some great hammering results while watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. But for me, visual entertainment is too distracting to really keep my nose on the grindstone. For that, I need music.

The ideal trainer music is rap. This is because it has an unfailing beat. This isn’t to say you can’t find rock music that’s just as reliable; I also get good results listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers, White Stripes (at least the first few albums), Soundgarden, and some of the more rousing Radiohead. The point is, lots of mellower music, like Elton John or Cowboy Junkies or Simon & Garfunkel, just isn’t going to cut it.

What you want is a driving beat to sync your pedal cadence up with. Once synced up, you choose a gear that gives you enough resistance to get that heart rate up. This will be difficult, but staying in sync with the music will make sure you don’t slow down and/or forget to hammer. And you can lie to yourself that you only have to hold this cadence, in this gear, at this heart rate, until the end of the song. I figured this out after getting some time trialing advice from none other than Levi Leipheimer. (Of course, for Levi to advise me on time trialing is a little like Catherine Zeta Jones giving beauty tips to a burn victim.) Levi said that to help maintain his time trial pace, he finds a landmark (a tree, telephone pole, whatever) up in the distance and tells himself he only has to maintain this pace until he gets there. Once there, he reneges on this promise and chooses another milestone. In like fashion, at the end of a song I reward myself with a mouthful of energy drink and make a new suffering commitment for the next song.

Obviously, I could have given this advice without resorting to shameless name-dropping. I provide this tidbit, and the photo below, for three reasons: 1) I can’t help it, 2) I want to promote the NorCal Mountain Biking League and their annual fundraising dinner that can give you, yes you, the same opportunity to hobnob with a top American professional racer while supporting our next generation of cyclists, and 3) hey, me and Levi! Look!

Another benefit of rap music for indoor training is that the lyrics are interesting, and there are gobs of them, so you won’t get bored with this music too easily. Plus, the anger and violence so often described in rap music are inspirational (in your altered mental state). Beyond that, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself about the drudgery and pain of your workout when you’re hearing about poor kids from broken homes, forced to deal crack and having friends killed in drive-by shootings. If you can afford a bike and a trainer, chances are you’ve got it pretty good and have nothing really to complain about. I sometimes imagine Eminem saying to me, “Whatsa matter, dog, does riding that thing make your vagina hurt?”

If you’re doing your workout before your household is awake, you’ll probably need headphones. I recommend noise-canceling ones, because if you turn normal headphones up loud enough to drown out the trainer noise, you could eventually damage your hearing and be one of those unfortunate old people whose only utterance is “Huh? What?” or whose wives are always nagging them to turn their hearing aids down because the high-pitched whine is bothering those of us who can still hear perfectly.

The importance of music cannot be underestimated. Without it, I doubt I could last ten minutes on the trainer. Whenever I’ve had problems with my music player, I’ve always had to halt the workout until I’ve resolved them. So be sure your batteries have a good charge before you get going, and if you have a backup MP3 player, keep it handy. I have more to say about music and training, but to keep us on track I’ve put that in Appendix B below.

Obstacle Three: The Ravages of Moisture

I mentioned above that a little sweat does not necessarily indicate a good workout. If you’re really going hard, you should be producing rivers and lakes of sweat. You’ll even fog up the windows in the room (and elsewhere in the house, if it’s a cold enough morning). In fact, sweat can be a very serious problem if ride your trainer a lot. Before I figured out how to deal with this singularly corrosive form of moisture, it caused all kinds of problems. The quick-release skewer on my front hub rusted almost solid. My front derailleur adjustment screws literally did rust solid, making the derailleur useless when I tried to use it on another bike. My stem fused to the fork and almost became impossible to adjust. Worst of all, my steel fork rusted badly—and invisibly—where the steerer tube meets the crown, resulting in catastrophic failure and a bad crash on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Then there’s the mess and the stench, unpopular with roommates or spouses/others. You could ruin the carpet or rug. And my brother had a serious problem with his perforated-leather saddle absorbing sweat and getting all squishy. The leather eventually came unglued and separated from the shell like a banana peel, and he had to pitch the saddle altogether.

Here’s how to deal with all the moisture. First of all, put down a tarp. This not only catches the sweat, but keeps your trainer’s feet from damaging the carpet. Plus, the tarp gives you a place to spit. Something about intense exercise makes a guy have to spit a lot. This can get pretty gross, especially if you’re going through a lot of energy drink, which brightly colors your loogies. Just spit them all up onto the tarp, and wipe it down thoroughly with a dirty towel after your ride. (I’ve experimented with a big bowl to use as a spittoon, but it didn’t work very well—I kept missing it.)

Next, you’ve got to have a fan. This greatly increases the speed of sweat evaporation, keeping the sweat from building up, and possibly helping your body to sweat less to begin with. You’ll be more comfortable, too. Get the kind of fan that has its own stand, so that it’s roughly at handlebar height. It should be big (18” or so in diameter) and powerful. But don’t get a really nice one, because it’ll eventually rust, and you’ll probably be hawking loogies at it. This might seem crazy, but if you’re riding out of the saddle and you’ve got a good rhythm going and the music has you in a trance and you don’t want to change a thing, but then you get this big pink loogie rising up your throat, and the fan is just a foot or so away, you might just give in and launch a sputum torpedo at the rusty grille. And once you’ve done this once or twice and the fan is already gross, the impulse just snowballs and pretty soon you’re defiling the fan without thinking twice about it. I thought I was the only barbarian who spits on his fan until I compared notes with my brothers. Geoff is an inveterate fan-spitter (though Bryan still finds this appalling). If you dare, click on the photo below to zoom in.

To keep sweat out of your eyes and help keep it from flying off your head onto your bike, the walls, etc. you should wear a headband and a bandanna. I like to wear a full-zip sleeveless jersey (unzipped) to absorb sweat as well. Also, if you ride sitting up instead of bent over the bars, you’ll drip a lot less on the bike. (For some reason this also increases my heart rate.)

Oh, and don’t forget the codpiece. The what? Well, I don’t know what else to call the terrycloth thingie that stretches between your seatpost and your brake lever hoods to keep sweat from falling on the bike. In addition to the obvious proper use of the codpiece, you can have some fun deliberately using it wrong. Next time your mother, or better yet your mother-in-law, is visiting and you’re getting ready to go out for a ride, strap that thing across your crotch. One strap goes right between your legs and the other two around your butt. You’ll have to hold it in the back, but you only have to “wear” it for a minute or two, until it gets noticed. When your mother-in-law is taken aback, calmly explain how cold it is out there and how poorly insulated bike shorts are. See how long you can keep the hoax going until you burst out laughing. See? Indoor training is fun!

Oh, one more thing on moisture. No matter what other precautions you take, you’ll want to dry off your bike carefully after the ride, and dry off your headphones too. If you have the over-the-ear type headphones, take a tissue and get all the sweat off the inside of the cushions. I already wrecked a pair by not doing this faithfully enough. (I happen to know that if you do wreck your Bose headphones, and they’re out of warranty, you can still trade them in for a big discount on a new pair.) Also, take the insoles out of your shoes and dry them in a sunny window, and if it was a long workout and you’re going again the next day, you might want to stuff newspapers in your shoes.


If you’ve made it through this much text, chances are good that you have the stamina you need to embrace an indoor training regimen and really stick with it. Of course, sticking with it only means riding the trainer during the dark, wet months; if you’ve ridden the trainer a lot, you’ll be more than happy to leave it behind until the next winter.

And now, as promised, the appendices. The first one concerns types and brands of trainers and their pros and cons (as the title of this piece kind of promised). The other appendix is about music and training, as I have more to say on this matter.

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APPENDIX A – Trainer Types — Pros and Cons

The Wind Trainer

My first trainer (back in the ‘80s) was a Specialized thing that supported the bike under the bottom bracket and had these “Tailwind Fans” at the back for resistance. The fans were pretty darn loud, and the thing took a good while to set up each time, but it basically worked until somebody in my household stuffed newspaper in the fans for reasons I never did grasp. In any event, you can’t buy this type of trainer anymore so don’t even worry about it.


In the ‘90s I had a set of Al Kreitler rollers with the “Headwind Fan.” The fan sat about six feet ahead of the rollers and was powered by a belt running to the front roller. Hands-down this won the “green” award. The fan was plenty powerful enough, and it blew on you harder the harder you rode, which was great. A little door on the fan made it possible to control the resistance, which was incredible as well—more than enough workout. The fan was pretty loud, though, and frankly it was hard to mount the rollers day after rainy day because they do require skill to ride, and sometimes you just want to grind away without doing anything tricky. The other problem is that I got these rollers for free because they’d sat in a friend’s car in the sun and melted. The drums weren’t round anymore, so it was a bumpy ride. I called them the Paris-Roubaix rollers. I’d doubtless still be using them (at least some of the time), except—I’m embarrassed to say—I somehow lost them. I’ve often thought of replacing them, but Al Kreitler rollers, especially with the fan, cost a truly breathtaking amount of money. Chances are, if you make enough money to afford the Kreitlers, you don’t have time to ride.

There is a really good reason to get rollers, which is that they improve your form. You can always tell when somebody’s been riding rollers because his or her pedal stroke is really smooth, and he or she can ride in a perfectly straight line. The fixed trainer, meanwhile, has you pedaling squares afterward. (As I mentioned before, though, you probably won’t always feel like balancing on rollers; just about everybody I know who rides indoors has a stationary trainer instead of, or in addition to, rollers.)

If you get rollers, make sure they have resistance of some kind. Most rollers, oddly, don’t offer this. Without resistance, you can get a good warm-up, but not a very good workout. Some rollers have smaller-radius drums that are supposed to make pedaling harder; I haven’t tried them myself.

The Magnetic-Resistance Stationary Trainer

There are still plenty of magnetic-resistance trainers out there; for many years I used the Blackburn Trakstand. The only real problem with this trainer was that after a few years of frequent use, I began having a problem that I think is endemic to magnetic-resistance trainers: the Screeching Blades of Whirling Death. Somehow the spinning disk in there got too close to the magnet and started to rub. I found that by dinking around with the resistance knob I could mitigate this, at least at first. But the problem went from extremely intermittent to once in awhile to somewhat often to almost unavoidable. The screeching could be halted, but it was mighty frustrating to have to jump off and dink with the adjustment knob several times per ride.

Eventually the only solution was to set the thing to maximum resistance and leave it there. This worked for at least a year or two, and then I started sporadically having the Screeching Blades of Whirling Death all over again. I tried to solve this by shouting profanities. This did nothing. So then I directed the profanities right at the resistance unit. Amazingly, this did quiet the screeching for a short while (though this could have been coincidence). When it started up again I switched to kicking the crap out of the resistance unit with one cleated shoe while pedaling one-legged. This worked sometimes, failed sometimes, but always made me feel a bit better. Finally one day I kicked the thing too hard and it ground to a halt. Fuming, and sweating profusely from my exertion, I took the resistance unit apart, burning myself on the blade in the process. The blade was all bent up from my kicking, which is weird because the plastic cowling hadn’t broken. (Isn’t that a great word—cowling?)

I straightened out the blade, removed a bunch of ground-off metal filings that had stuck to the magnet, put it all back together, and—dang, there was still the awful grinding. So I took apart a bike chain and took some of the bushings out and used these to space the blade a bit farther from the magnet, and—voilà!—the trainer was good to go for many more years. By the time I had my final episode of the Screeching Blades of Whirling Death, which inspired me to kick the trainer literally to death, I’d gotten like ten years out of it. The powder coat finish had completely peeled off and most of the trainer was rusted. So I can’t say I was exactly disappointed with its longevity. (My brother has a somewhat newer version of the same trainer and also struggles regularly with the Screeching Blades of Whirling Death.)

The Fluid-Resistance Stationary Trainer

Now I have the CycleOps Fluid2. It’s more stable than the Blackburn, which had a tendency to drift around across the floor. The CycleOps’ legs can adjust to make it stable on an uneven surface, which is cool. It also has a bigger roller than other trainers I’ve seen, which may be why I’ve never gotten a flat with it (which did happen on the older-style trainers, oddly enough, and not just to me). The CycleOps is fairly quiet, but I still recommend noise-canceling headphones. I’m frankly not sure why these trainers make any noise at all. They just kind of whir. If you want to know what the CycleOps sounds like, play that video at the top of this post.

The only odd thing about this trainer is that it doesn’t give me enough resistance when I’m riding out of the saddle at a really low cadence (as when I’m trying to simulate a really steep climb, which is most of what I do on the road). It’s possible I got a defective unit, though perhaps this is just a silly thing that I’m trying to do. Since I only do this for a few minutes at a time, I’ve experimented with using a good old-fashioned leather toe strap to lightly apply the rear brake—just enough so the pads drag on the rim for extra resistance. This works just fine, and has the added benefit of making me feel (in my distorted mental state) like I’m some kind of badass.

I included all this trainer information as an appendix because frankly, the type and brand of trainer you get will likely have a lot less to do with your fitness than the rest of the things I discuss in this essay. Imagine telling your training buddies, who have just had to wait for you for several minutes at the top of a climb, “Sorry, guys, I bought the Travel Trac instead of the CycleOps, and I’m really feeling it.”

Oh, one more thing about good intentions. I just looked on craigslist, and found a Bell trainer for $60, a CycleOps for $150, a Minoura (new in the box) for $130, a Vetta for $25, and several others. I’ll bet none of them has been used more than once or twice. Assuming that very few well-intentioned cyclists will read this blog and save their money, you’ll probably always have plenty of used trainers to choose from if you’re looking to save a few bucks.

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APPENDIX B – A Few More Notes About Training with Music

Since I’ve recommended music so emphatically as a way to train harder, I think it’s my duty to point out that I don’t support riding outdoors with headphones and in fact strongly discourage it. First of all, it just dangerous: not only because you can’t hear cars coming up behind you, but because as I described above, the music puts you into something like a trance. You just become lost in it, and cannot be as alert to your surroundings. A good friend of mine made me promise never to ride with headphones after a friend of his, riding with headphones, was hit by a car and suffered brain damage. I’ve held to that promise.

“But wait,” you tell me, “I’m one of those guys who likes to live on the edge and thinks you’re just a buzz-kill cowardly lecturing-parent-type, and/or I falsely equate the dangerousness of riding with headphones to the likelihood of being hit by a meteor.” To which I respond: first of all, it would be a meteorite in that case, dumbass, and besides, people who ride with headphones are obnoxious. I ride up behind the headphone-wearer and say hi and he doesn’t notice, and I feel snubbed until I notice the headphones, by which time it’s too late because I’ve already decided he’s a jerk. Plus, on many occasions I’ve accidentally startled a headphone-wearing cyclist, just by my very presence (my greeting having been unheard), and he then decides that I’m a jerk (which, true or not, isn’t the point). So just don’t do it.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, here are some examples of music that has served me will in my hundreds of hours of indoor training. It’s possible or likely you’d hate some or much or all of this music, which is fine; all I’m saying is that this music has the right beat to support a useful indoor riding cadence.

Beastie Boys
Jimi Hendrix
The Hives
Lady Sovereign
Living Colour
Nine Inch Nails
Obie Trice
Public Enemy
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Rolling Stones
Stone Temple Pilots
The Strokes
Thomas Dolby
White Stripes

Another thing I’ll point out is that riding indoors to music can offer, or at least has given me, the opportunity for useful “flashbacks.” That is, after a solid regimen of indoor training accompanied by the right music, you may find yourself on the road one day minding your own business when suddenly your circumstances will require a sudden increase in output, and a good harsh angry trainer song will pop into your head, unleashing your useful dark side. Consider this true story, taken from my 2006 training diary:

Well, there I was, out there feeling like death-not-even-warmed-over, more like death-left-out-all-night-to-get-stale-and-then-served-cold, with nothing to give the pedals, hating myself, hating the frigid, foggy weather, hating my malfunctioning HAC4 bike computer, hating cycling, just dragging myself along up Fish Ranch Road, heart rate barely even in the zone, putting out fewer than 100 watts if the HAC4 was to be believed, which it wasn't, wondering how I could possibly be so tired, lamenting having had to cut the ride seriously short for sheer fatigue, in short just totally demoralized, and then, shortly after turning right on Grizzly Peak to head home, all of a sudden, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, with no provocation whatsoever, this dude blows by me. And frankly it kind of shocked me, because he didn't give me much room, much less in fact than he really ought to have given me, and I stared at him, wondering how he could be going that much faster than I, pathetic as my pace in fact was.

And I quickly realized that this was a Major League Wanker. His helmet had this giant visor on it. He was wearing this big puffy neon-green jacket, and riding a $3,000 cawbun fibuh bike of vulgar brand, both expensive and unimpressive, devoid of character but completely yuppy. Of course he had the big seat bag, stuffed full of every accessory the lucky bike shop salesman had been able to talk him into buying. He also had this giant red LED tail-light, the oversized one that looks like a Ford Taurus, or like something out of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And the worst part? He was out of the saddle, but instead of rocking the bike from side to side, he was going straight up and down, like some damn human piston, a guy who is only vaguely aware of the need to get out of the saddle when attacking but without having the foggiest idea what you're actually supposed to do. And he had this look in his eye, like he'd seen the prize and now was going to get it. No greeting, no nod, just a pure animal resolve to kick my club-jersey wearing, cool-Euro-bike-riding, low-velocity-achieving ass.

How on earth did this goob manage to blow by me so fast? I mean, sure, maybe he could set his sights on me and gradually reel me in, but how was he going like 15 mph up like a 7% grade? Then it hit me—duh, he hadn't turned onto Grizzly Peak road like I had; he'd been on it already. He came from the other side of the intersection, so he'd been going downhill. This loser had seen me toiling away up ahead, and had decided (despite terrible visibility owing to the fog, the idiot) to blow through the stop sign and keep all his momentum, the better to school me. Passing too close was just his little "Top Gun" gesture—you know, a little flair, a little panache as he crushed me. Okay buddy, I thought, that is it. I don't care how lousy I'm feeling, I am going to do whatever it takes to smack you down. Instantly I got this rap song in my head, "You wanna be me," by Nas:

“So you … wanna be me
You bitch you phoney you clone me
You wanna be me? Son:
I’m the one and only, but you
Wanna be me
You suckers, you weak, you flunkies, you fake
You couldn’t come close on my worst day, but you
Wanna be me
I’ll burn you and learn you a lesson
Concerning this my profession
Turn your direction
You can’t be me.
Not in your wildest fantasy.”

I started hammering, and lo and behold, my frail, tired heart and limp legs started to get themselves together, just as a flat inner tube starts to unfold when you pump air into it. I started kicking out 450 watts, if the HAC is to be believed, which it probably isn't, and my HR crept up above the zone, but just barely, to 161-162, and in accordance with natural law, I started reeling in El Dorko Mejor pretty quickly. By the time I overtook him, his momentum was all gone and he was showing his true colors, which were not pretty. I didn't look back (lest he realize I even considered him worth paying attention to), and I didn't dare slow down. For three minutes I kept on it, eking out a passable performance, and only when I approached my turnoff (to descend South Park) did I look over my shoulder. Of course the Nerdinator was nowhere to be seen. I hope he savored his moment of glory, because he'll never be getting it again.

It’s also possible (at least I find it possible) to insert a good song in your head as you begin, say, a hard climb. Most likely you won’t be able to sync your cadence to it, but the spirit of it might help you keep up your intensity. At a bare minimum, a mental library of rap or hard rock tunes can help you out should you be riding along with, inexplicably, some random song, say Elton John’s “Daniel,” stuck in your head.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Mud Bath

Why Get a Mud Bath?

For Erin’s birthday we went to Calistoga, in the Napa Valley, to the Indian Springs Spa. This posting is not a review of that spa, nor for that matter is it a review of Dr. Wilkenson’s Resort or the Calistoga Village Inn & Spa or Golden Haven Spa. I am naming these spas alongside the word “review” in an effort to attract some newcomers to my blog.

I highly recommend mud baths. To properly enjoy a mud bath, you must first watch the 1992 Robert Altman movie “The Player.” In this movie, a struggling studio executive, through some twist of fate, murders a screenwriter and becomes the subject of a police investigation. He’s this close to losing it completely and decides to get out of town for awhile, so he takes off to a faraway spa for a little vacation, the highlight of which is a mud bath. By the time he returns home, things have miraculously sorted themselves out: he’s off the hook for the murder, and even his career is looking up. That movie made a lasting impression on me. The decadence of a mud bath is strongly linked in my mind with escaping my troubles—not just for awhile, but for good. In this case, the ceaseless reminders of our global economic crisis made the spa getaway seem especially appropriate.

In case you haven’t had a mud bath, or even if you have, I’m going to walk you through the full treatment so you’ll know what to expect next time you kill a screenwriter or dread the prospect of foreclosing on your home.

First, a Soak

While Erin gets her spa treatments, I take the kids to the Olympic size magma-heated pool. I don’t know if it’s actually Olympic size, but that phrase just has a nice ring to it. I’m also not sure if “magma-heated” is entirely accurate, but I love the word magma. (Imagine Dr. Evil saying it.) This pool is really hot, like a hot tub, and there’s just enough of a sulfur smell that you know it’s heated by an authentic hot spring. There are little mattresses to float on, and patio chairs, and a carnival mirror, and the pool has been there for ages and summons the idea of some charming Old World resort (as opposed to an institutional modern American recreation center).

After the Tour of California racers suffered freezing rain all week in this region, we have lucked out and enjoy perfect weather for lounging in a well-heated outdoor pool. Now, don’t take this wrong, but perhaps the best thing about this pool is how few people are in it. Hoards of screaming kids never did it for me. No more than half a dozen other people share the pool with us, and they are all in a totally mellow, happy mood, probably because they’re rich. I know that sounds terrible, and we all like to assume that rich people are all miserable and nasty, but I really don’t think so. What’s to not be happy about, when you routinely get to hang out in a place like this?

After a couple of hours, Erin shows up, blissed out from her pampering, and takes over with the kids, who—though prune-y almost to the point of having the skin on their hands and feet completely dissolve—want to stay in the pool. I report to the spa to begin my indulgences.

The Ambiance

There seems to be an unspoken rule in spas that everybody whispers. The fact that this rule is unspoken is part of the charm: they don’t need signs saying, “For the relaxation of your fellow guests, please refrain from making loud utterances in the spa.” You’re just supposed to know, and the resulting mood suggests a rarified, practically enchanted place. After a short wait in the lobby, which I spend leafing through menus of area restaurants, I am summoned to the men’s side of the spa by Caesar, who will be my … what? Valet? Manservant? Something like that. He will guide me through my treatment and take care of my needs. I love this. For about an hour, I get to feel like a man of privilege, Stiva Oblonsky in Anna Karenina, perhaps, or Wooster in the Jeeves books.

For some reason the valet is always an ethnic minority. I don’t know if this is a simple matter of economics, or whether it’s calculated. Perhaps the management believes that a white guy serving in this role of doting servant simply couldn’t summon the right attitude. I think there’s a stereotype of the immigrant as a hard worker who’s happy to have a job, and a parallel stereotype of the white service sector employee who is bitter about having to work for low wages. (Often these stereotypes ring true: I had to eat at Chipotle once and the white dude making my burrito did the most half-assed job I’ve ever seen. I felt like punching him in the face.) Suffice to say, I highly approve of Caesar.

He leads me to a small room with wooden lockers and, in a soft voice, gives me some instructions. I hang up my clothes and put on a nice, warm white robe. Caesar will fetch me later. I change in like thirty seconds and then wait for several minutes. Where is he? Have I misunderstood the instructions? Am I supposed to go find him? My awkward uncertainty is, alas, all too predictable. But I let it go, and serve myself some cucumber/lemon water. (Is it the famous Calistoga water? Well, we’re in Calistoga, so even the tap water is, by definition, Calistoga water.)

Presently another guest arrives and changes into his robe. At that very moment, purely coincidentally, I am visited by a strong urge to commit flatulence. Naturally, I hold this back forcefully, as I’d do during a job interview or when dining with my in-laws. But then something occurs to me: what would happen if I just let one rip, loudly, right here on this bench in the presence of my fellow mud-bather? It would utterly ruin his entire spa experience, flushing his not insignificant expenditure right down the drain. And there would be no recourse. I mean, what’s he going to do—head back to the front desk and reschedule, based on the fact that “a guy farted in there”?

Of course I don’t do this. Neither do I engage in conversation with the guy. This is another great thing about a fancy spa: people just know not to bother each other with chatter. Not that I mind a little chitchat under normal circumstances, mind you. I swam at the Berkeley YMCA a couple years back and a dude in the sauna regaled me with a fascinating story about the rats living in his car, chewing up the electrical wires, shredding the upholstery, and leaving their feces all over the place. But on a special trip to a fancy spa I just want quiet, and I get it.

The Mud

Caesar appears and leads us into the mud room. Along with a sulfur smell there is a low roar of some machinery here; this place has the feel of both the spa’s main attraction and its boiler room. Our mud baths are waiting: two blockish concrete tubs, side by side, each large enough for Frankenstein’s monster, filled almost to the brim with dark, dark brown mud made from volcanic ash and mineral water, heated by—of course— magma. The mud is all stirred up for us; a third tub nearby hasn’t been stirred and its mud is literally boiling, a layer of water collected at its surface. This encourages me, seeing how they boil (if not replace) the mud between bathers. I want good clean mud for my bath.

A narrow board is leaned up against the head of the tub, extending down into the mud at a slant, to serve as a pillow. Per Caesar’s instructions I sit on the edge and swing my legs in, then sit down in the mud. Surely you’ve had the pleasant sensation of mud squishing in your toes; imagine that for your whole body. You don’t quite sink in it, and yet you don’t quite float. A magazine article I read once puts it best: you’re like a grape in Jell-O. Perhaps the most striking thing about the mud is that it’s hot. Really hot. Almost unbearably hot.

This, I think, is the real genius of the mud bath: your natural impulse, or at least mine (being claustrophobic to begin with), is to panic. The object here is to give in utterly and relax in the face of what at first seems like a crisis. As I suck my arms down into the mud and lean my head back, Caesar heaps more mud upon me, literally burying me alive. Every nerve in my body says, “This is too hot! You’re going to get scalded! Get out!” But the brain says, “No, I remember Mr. Wizard [Professor Taylor, who used to give science shows to kids] showing us how he can rinse his hand under plain old tap water and then plunge his thumb into molten iron without getting burned. This is also how people can walk barefoot over hot coals: fear makes them sweat, and the sweat forms an insulating barrier that prevents injury.” I don’t think this in words, of course. It’s simpler than that: a kind of faith. I relax, and sweat, and soon I’m quite comfortable. I can actually forget how hot it is, and so—just to relive the fear-into-faith experience again—I occasionally wiggle, disrupting the sweat membrane and getting a fresh shock of heat.

My neighboring mud bather is a first-timer. “What if I have to scratch my nose?” he asks Caesar. He is both joking and not. Just about the first sensation you have, once comfortably ensconced in the mud, when you no longer have use of your arms and hands, is of a tickle or itch on your face. This, too, you must let go. You experience the itch, ponder it, savor it even, and then feel it fade. (“If your face itches let me know and I’ll scratch it,” Caesar tells him. Just in case, I suppose.)

Eventually bubbles form on my skin. Are they beads of sweat, or air bubbles? I focus on the sensation of them, waiting, waiting, and there one goes, tickling me as it slides around my body before detaching and making its way to the surface of the mud. This happens several times, each bubble an absorbing sensual experience. When I’m not pondering these bubbles, I’m trying to figure out exactly what strange pseudo-buoyancy my body has in this mud. And so time drifts by.

Soon I sense that I’m near the end of the mud bath, and figure out a few last things to experience. First I contemplate the suspension of each part of my body, from my toes to my shoulders, one at a time. Then I wiggle my calves, rocking them back and forth, and to my delight they form slick, curved tunnels in the mud, and they slide effortlessly up and down the walls of these tunnels, like bobsleds in an icy track. How utterly peculiar and fun. A couple of minutes later, Caesar says it’s time to come out.

Hands braced on the sides of the tub, I lift my body out of the mud. This makes a sucking sound, like when you pull your boot out of a thick muddy bog. I sit on the edge of the tub and swing my legs out. Now comes what is perhaps the highlight of the whole experience: looking down at my body. It is utterly transformed—my skin is black, covered uniformly with a dark, dark, opaque brown coat of mud. I stand up and keep staring, transfixed. I look exactly like an Australian aborigine (at least, like the aborigine character in the 1971 Australian movie “Walkabout.”) Just add a makeshift snakeskin belt with a dead lizard or two stuck in it, and a spear, and I could pass for the real thing (from the neck down, anyway). You see, if I suck in my gut, I have the same physique as the aborigines do—the long, slender limbs and fine bones. I can’t help the feeling that this is what God actually intended me to look like, only he accidentally threw me into the load with the bleach. To make this mud bath perfect, Caesar would escort me to a set of three facing mirrors, and maybe do a photo shoot. Does this make me Narcissistic? No it does not, because I’m enchanted by an illusion, not by my real appearance.

Cleaning Up

Of course I can’t dawdle like this forever and must step into the shower. At least it’s a great shower: the shower head is a giant sunflower pointing straight down. It’s what a shower head should be, as opposed to the pathetic hotel room shower heads that come out of the wall around my chest and have eight shower head settings, from “Watts Riots” to “Gorillas In The Mist” (as my brother Max once described them), not one of which setting is actually enjoyable. There are no faucet handles on this shower: Caesar is somehow in control, and I just walk in, scrub the mud off, lather up, rinse, and step out. At home I turn on the spray just long enough to get wet, shut it off to lather up, and turn it back on to rinse, practically timing myself in the spirit of water rationing; here, the water is still running as I walk away. But hey, I’m on vacation, and I couldn’t conserve this water if I tried. Today, this is not my problem.

Of course a mere shower can’t remove all that mud, and now we’re led into a room with several bathtubs in a row, two of them all ready for us. And these aren’t just any tubs; these are the platonic ideal of bathtub. First of all, they’re huge. Second, they’re absolutely full right up to the brim. When I climb in, exactly the volume of my body in water is displaced, spilling right over the edge onto the floor, so I am completely submerged. Every tub I’ve ever used at any place I’ve ever lived is equipped with an automatic drain should the water level reach any useful depth. At home I try to cover this drain with Saran Wrap so I can fill the tub deeper, which means I spend my bath fighting with the plastic. If I straighten my legs in my tub at home I have to sit up, so most of my body is out of the water, or else I can bend my knees instead so they stick out like a grasshopper’s legs. In this tub, I can stretch out all the way and still have the water up to my chin. It’s so perfect. I wish this spa had a toaster: I’ll bet it would work, too. And if they sold CDs here, it wouldn’t take ten minutes to remove their cellophane packaging.

Caesar sets down a wooden tray across the top of the tub and brings over some icy lemon/cucumber water. Then he hands us little wooden picks and (in his hushed way) explains that they’re for scraping mud from beneath our fingernails. This is new since the last time I had a mud bath, and must have been the wives’ idea. We happily set to this simple task; it’s a novel one, since men very seldom devote much time or attention to such grooming. When I’m done I lean my head back against a little inflatable pillow that’s provided, and Caesar places a cool washcloth over my forehead.

Wrapping Up

After the bath and a five-minute bask in the steam room (very, very hot, the steam infused with some oil or liniment or something, perfect therapy after my bronchitis the week before), we are lead to separate rooms for our towel wraps. I lie on a little cot and Caesar wraps me in big warm towels. What is the point of this, you ask? Well, it’s late afternoon and I’m lying on my back and nobody is asking me to do anything. That alone is bliss. Plus, they’re playing special spa music. Spa music is unlike any other music. It’s more New-Age-y and vague than elevator music, and seems to favor a certain flute that somehow brings to mind Native Americans. I don’t know why it does; I have no reliable knowledge that Native Americans played this certain flute. But it’s pleasant music, in its when-in-Rome way.

As my mind drifts, the music brings back a certain episode of the 1960s “Star Trek” show, in which Captain Kirk falls into a trap-door in an obelisk on some Earthlike planet, hits his head, and suffers amnesia. He can’t even remember his name; the best he can do is “Kirok.” The locals, who strongly resemble 19th-century Native Americans in every way, mistake him for a god. He hooks up with a pretty young squaw, Miramanee. As I enjoy this reminiscence I realize for the first time that this episode must have been written to meet a clause in William Shatner’s contract specifying a minimum number of minutes per season he got to spend kissing a starlet. That’s practically all that happens for the first twenty minutes of the show: Kirk and Miramanee making out, with this New Age, flute-heavy music in the background.

Of course the show picks up after that, and eventually a rival suitor of Miramanee discovers that Kirk is not a god, at which point the whole village tries to stone Kirk to death. As I ruminate over this, for the first time in many years, I suddenly realize that it’s basically the same plot as the 1970s film “The Man Who Would Be King,” in which a worldly man who has traveled to a relatively primitive place is mistaken for a god and enjoys all kinds of privilege until a woman brings him down and he must run for his life. Could this movie have ripped off “Star Trek”? No, the movie was based on a Rudyard Kipling short story, which means … aha! It was the “Star Trek” episode that ripped off—or, rather, paid homage to—the same Rudyard Kipling story! I always knew “Star Trek” was the best-written network TV show in history, and now I have proof. See what epiphanies are possible when you’re left alone to lie on your back wrapped in towels?

Alas, eventually my time is up, and—my mind completely mushy—I get lost in the labyrinth (or so it seems) of massage rooms. By the time I finally find the lobby, Erin and the kids, under Spock’s command, have reached the deflection point and are patiently waiting for me so they can finally shoot down the asteroid that is at this moment heading for the spa. Such is my rocky re-entry to normal life after a blissful afternoon of glorious spa decadence.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Everything You Wanted to Know About Getting A Vasectomy - But Were Afraid To Ask

[Note: most of my blog entries are designed to be appropriate for just about any audience. This one, however, is decidedly rated R for “mature themes" and what Microsoft's parental controls would call “mild strong language.” Please use your discretion.]

What Is a Vasectomy?

Come on, everybody pretty much knows what this is. Right? I remember the first time I came across this term. I was a teenager, maybe thirteen, flipping through “Playboy,” and a full-page color cartoon showed a teenaged couple in the guy’s love van undressing, and the dude says, “Don’t worry, I’ve had a vasectomy, so you’ll still be a virgin.” I made a mental note that this vasectomy thing seemed to be a pretty useful operation, whatever it was. I’ve learned a bit more about it since then. It seems this little tube called the vas deferens carries sperm from the testicles to, uh, whatever makes the semen. I have to admit, I haven’t studied the anatomy carefully, but the idea is that once you’ve had this operation, you’ll be shooting blanks. You can have all the sex you want without having to invite a complete stranger into your home for eighteen years.

The Decision
Are we really done having kids?

Obviously, the decision to get a vasectomy is a hugely personal one, but there are some general factors to consider that can simplify the quandary. For example, how many kids do you have? Is that the number you had in mind? And, if you had another, what would the age spread be? And how old is your wife? How risky would it be for her to have a baby at this age?

Living in the SF Bay Area, my wife and my decision was pretty simple: my wife was pushing forty; our youngest child had just turned five; and above all, we have a two-bedroom house, and there’s no way we’re going to try to sell it and buy up in the middle of a nationwide fiscal crisis. Seems like a pretty crass way to decide if another soul should be allowed to walk the Earth, but there it is. So last October, I decided to go through with my very first vasectomy. (Okay, that was a joke—I fully expect this to be my last.)

Is a vasectomy the right procedure?

First of all, a vasectomy is over 99% effective in preventing pregnancy. Sometimes they fail, but if you’re following the protocol, you’ll discover this ahead of time (more on this later), and can repeat the procedure. Of course, tubal ligations are also effective, so the question is, which is better? For me, the question comes down to which procedure is the most likely to go smoothly. I’ve always considered that the male reproductive system is way simpler than the female. Maybe I’m just really lucky, but I’ve never had any trouble with anything. Women, on the other hand … I’m surprised they can even get health insurance. Something as innocuous as panty hose can cause a bladder infection, and if a woman takes an antibiotic she’s almost guaranteed a yeast infection.

In junior high health class I was only minimally interested in the male reproductive system but was able to get the gist of how it all worked; that’s why I was able to throw out the term vas deferens above. But when we got to the woman’s system, with all those dozens of parts, and the menstrual cycle, the fallopian tubes, uterine wall—forget it. It was just too much to memorize, and I completely tuned out, taking a C in the class. So when I revisited all that complexity in looking at family planning, it seemed like doing something to me made more sense than to my wife. Besides, she already put up with the pain and bodily vandalism of two pregnancies—it seemed to be my turn to take the hit.

Where can I get more input?

Not having this blog to read, I went online for input from the UC Berkeley Parents’ Network website. I was hugely reassured that a vasectomy was the right call. A lot of the postings were political: whether a man should be allowed to decline, after all his wife has been through; then the counterpoint, “it’s his body and his decision” (a Bizarro take on the standard pro-choice argument). Some of the postings were downright snippy (no pun intended), with women excoriating selfish men for wanting to keep their fertility intact “in case something happened to their wife” (i.e., so they can have children later should they decide to throw their wives over for somebody younger).

While on the Internet, I was also able to check out the two doctors I had referrals for. It’s funny: a guy will spend countless hours researching the right stereo system, but when choosing a doctor he’s typically pretty blasé. I chose my general practitioner simply because he was accepting new patients, and I’ve stuck with him over the years because he looks like the novelist Don DeLillo, which I kind of get a kick out of. But with the vasectomy, I was suddenly feeling a bit more particular. Was I going to get some burned-out guy who’s so sick of scrotums he might botch the job? Or someone who was picked on in gym class as a kid, who might resent it if my balls are much, much bigger than his? I was reassured by one posting from a man who’d used the practice I’d been referred to. He complained bitterly about being stuck in the waiting room for an hour but concluded, “I did trust the doctor with my junk.” Another wrote of this office, “It didn’t hurt that I got to have my balls shaved by a totally hot nurse. Just sayin’.”

Is a vasectomy reversible?
My urologist tells me than I should consider this irreversible. Yes, you can do a surgery to reverse it, but it’s very expensive, not covered by insurance, and is only successful in 50-75% of cases. Meanwhile, “successful” means your semen will have sperm in it, but not necessarily very much, and as much trouble as people seem to be having conceiving these days, you’ve got no guarantees. I read one horror story on the Internet of a couple who did the reversal surgery, tried in vain to get pregnant, did the in vitro route, still to no avail, and ended up adopting.

What should I tell my friends?
What’s the point of being a guy if you can’t mention your idea frankly and even perhaps crassly to your friends? I had this experience several times: I would mention to a friend, “Hey, I think I’m gonna get snipped,” and he’d seem aghast, at a loss for words. Like this is a scandal, or it’s something really tasteless to bring up. The first couple times I wrote this off, but after the third time I had to ask myself, is this one of those things you just don’t talk about? Most of my friends are around forty and already have kids, so you’d think they’d be interested. But none of them offered the feedback I was interested in; the typical response was some equivalent of “Damn, dude.” So in making up my mind I had to make do with the anonymous Parents’ Network and what I’d heard from the couple of friends I have who’ve had vasectomies.

When I told my brother I’d made the appointment, I finally got an appropriate response: “Wow, you’re getting neutered?” This emboldened me enough to ditch even the “snipped” euphemism when I announced my plan to my best friend, who happens to be an MD. I said, “Guess what? I’ve made an appointment to have my balls cut off and fed to me!” Without missing a beat, he replied, “Ah, taking your boys out of the game, huh?” At last.

The Pre-Consultation

Is there a lot of red tape?

California state law requires a “cooling-off period,” meaning you have to have a pre-consultation visit with the urologist, and then wait some number of days before getting the surgery itself. As my doctor explained to me, this is to keep a guy from having a big fight with his wife and running right out and getting snipped. Seems like a crazy scenario, but I guess it happens. What would he say to his wife? Would he run home, show her the gauze, and say, “How you like me now, beyotch? No babies for you! Hahahahaha!”

I gather that the other reason for the pre-consultation is so they can find out what ailments you may have that you weren’t previously aware of. I had to fill out this monster questionnaire that I realized by the end was all about my prostate. It was like a laundry list of what I have to look forward to in old age: “How many times do you urinate during the night? Do you have trouble starting the flow? Do you have trouble stopping the flow? Is your flow intermittent? Does it take you a very long time to urinate? Do you feel burning sensations?” And on and on.

Will I have to cough, etc.?

Then, I was led to an examination room. “You here for a vas con?” the nurse asked. Vas con. Sounds like a trade show for nerds. I was tempted to tell the nurse, “You know, this may be routine for you, but this is my scrotum were talking about here, okay?” The doctor came in and said, “I’m going to palpate the area now to make sure there are no surprises on the day of the procedure.” This is shorthand for “I’m going to play with your balls now.” The strict, car-mechanic-like detachment doctors have must be taught to them in med school, and really, this was no big deal.

A bit of advice: though you may be dazed by the vas con experience, don’t forget to ask the doctor how long it will be until you can have sex again after the procedure. I did forget to ask, and my wife wasn’t pleased. How could you not ask? her eyes seemed to say. Though sheepish, I was also flattered, I have to say.

The Preparation

What do I wear to a vasectomy?
After the vas con I was given a list of instructions. I scanned it quickly to see what I had to do short-term. Were there forms I had to file with the State of California? There were not. But it did say this: “Wear a pair of jockey-type shorts to the procedure. Afterwards, bandages will be held in place with your shorts rather than with tape.” Gulp. Bandages? Down there? I must have understood this would be required, but now it was sinking in.

And then there’s the matter of the jockey-type shorts themselves. I’m sure this wouldn’t bother a lot of men, and in fact I’m aware (though I try not to think about this) that there are men who wear these all the time. I myself gave up on them in college. Near the end of my sophomore year, I still hadn’t ever had sex. I didn’t understand it: I was at the University of California at Santa Barbara, so there was no shortage of attractive women, and I wasn’t a bad-looking guy, yet I seemed to be one of the few people there who wasn’t getting any. My roommate was another, and we had a bet going—$10 to the first guy who got laid before the end of the year—and time was running out. So I finally decided the problem was my juvenile choice of underwear.

I’d been wearing the same style of Hanes briefs since I was a child, and they suddenly seemed wrong. I’d heard the virtues of boxers extolled, most famously by a guy at the bike shop who used to bellow out, “Raulo likes his freedom!” Not that any girl had seen my briefs and thrown me out or anything; it just seemed they were interfering with my mojo. So I went out and bought a three-pack of boxer shorts, and it was like magic! Within three days, I’d had sex, with a really pretty blonde girl whom I’d known for months and who went from mere acquaintance to sticking her tongue in my ear in 2.9 seconds once I had the right underwear. I still remember the checkered boxers I’d worn that night, which of course became my lucky boxers, my absolute favorites, until I had to sadly retire them years later. And from the day I donned that first pair of boxers, I’d never stepped into a pair of briefs again. What if the curse returned?

Do I really have to shave down there?

The next item on my Pre-Op instruction sheet, which I tried to push out of my mind until the night before, was this: “Shave the scrotum the evening before the procedure. The easiest and painless way to do the shave is a dry shave with a common Tract II type razor.” My close relationship with words tempts me to equivocate on “shave the scrotum.” I guess they couldn't bring themselves to actually say "shave your scrotum" so they abstracted it—shave the scrotum, like it's some generalized idea, like the national scrotum, not that very specific tender dangling sack between my legs. Moving on to “painless,” we stumble into the contemporary literary theory concept of signs, that says you cannot say one thing without also implying its opposite. Nobody ever says that, say, lunch is painless. Of course it’s painless, the concept of pain never crosses the mind. To say painless here is really to suggest that it could be painless. Yeah, right. Since when is dry-shaving painless? How could it be? Tobias Wolff, in a work of fiction, conveys the sheer cruelty of an army sergeant by recounting how he punished an insubordinate soldier by making him dry-shave. His face.

The doctor, meanwhile, had recommended using an electric razor, and it happens I have one. I bought it last summer when I had a dislocated shoulder and couldn’t shave right-handed. The problem is, it didn’t work. My seven-year-old had watched me for some time trying to shave with it one morning and finally asked, “Daddy, what is that thing?” I said it was a razor. She watched a bit longer and said, “It isn’t doing anything.” It was in fact so ineffective I gave up and grew a beard, which I kept until I could use a real razor again.

But what could I do now? I wasn’t about to dry-shave my balls with a 25-cent Bic. So the night before the surgery, I procrastinated until the bitter end. First I cleaned up the cat feces from the carpet. It was my fault, after all, because I forgot to empty the cat box on the last garbage day. Misha is a good cat—she never normally does this—but she’d evidently decided her cat box was too gross to set foot in, and this was her little retaliation. So I scraped that up, to the sound of opera, which my wife was playing really loudly, as though instinctively punishing the cat and me both. I put on headphones and took out the cat box.

Actually, this last chore had taken on symbolic significance, because one of my goals for the vasectomy would be getting out of having to do this every week. See, my wife had hit upon the perfect excuse to never clean out the cat box: because we use a notoriously ineffective form of birth control (pull-and-pray, and I’m not even a religious man), chances are theoretically good that at any given time she’s pregnant, and thus can’t be exposed to toxoplasmosis, which is supposedly rampant in cat boxes. (I’ve thought about having her do the cat box during the brief period each month when she’s obviously not pregnant, but after almost fifteen years of marriage I’ve learned to pick my battles.) What a drag. As if the opera weren’t bad enough, my iPod Shuffle’s choice of music was Coldplay. This isn’t good theme music for contemplating a vasectomy, much less for cleaning the cat box beforehand. As I fished turds out of the litter with a spatula and scraped thick clumps off the side of the box, the rather effete Chris Martin crooned, “God gave me style, God gave me grace.”

Finally there was no more stalling. I put fresh batteries in my worthless razor and grimly took up the challenge. For a long time absolutely nothing happened except it would occasionally catch a hair and rip it out painfully. Finally I switched to the sideburn trimmer, which over an agonizingly long duration did manage to make some headway, like a drunken gardener driving a rider mower at night. A tiny pile of trimmings eventually accumulated on the toilet seat lid. Finally I switched to the main foil blade, and after sawing back and forth for about twenty minutes had things somewhat smooth. A bit of advice: don’t ever spend this much time staring at your scrotum. I was totally disgusted. It looked like a plucked chicken, or more specifically like a plucked chicken’s Adam’s apple if a chicken had an Adam’s apple, or actually if a chicken had two Adam’s apples. Thoroughly demoralized, and with the worst case of razor burn I’ve ever had, comparable in discomfort only to the one time I ever tried jerking off with shampoo, I put on my new briefs.

I reviewed the pre-op instructions one more time and realized that the prohibition against aspirin or ibuprofen the day before the operation was actually for a week before the operation. I’d had Advil the previous day. I wondered how serious this was. “This may interfere with blood clotting,” it said. What to do? I finally decided to take my chances, because no way was I waiting a week and then re-shaving my scrotum. I’d rather bleed to death.

The Procedure
Will I get stage fright?
I made sure I arrived at the doctor’s office early: I wasn’t about to do anything to get on his bad side. Now, I’m not a wuss when it comes to medical stuff—I have my cavities filled without Novocain—but I’ll admit I was pretty nervous. There’s just something about a man having your testicles in his hand that gives you an elemental feeling of vulnerability. (There’s a reason, after all, that the cliché is “he’s got you by the balls.”) After my short purgatory in the waiting room, a nurse led me down to the procedure room and instructed me to undress from the waist down and have a seat. This took me about ten seconds, after which I waited around for some ten minutes with nothing to read.

My orthopedic surgeon’s office has a soothing Ansel Adams print on the wall, but all there was here was a big poster of urological pathologies. Health class was bad enough with its pictures of how everything works; this was even worse, and yet my mind yearned for something to apply itself to, to distract itself from the dread of the looming procedure. I pondered the pictures of various urinary tract stones: mulberries, gravel, and the aptly named jackstones (they look like children’s toy jacks), with the ominous subtext “shown actual size.” At that point I couldn’t take it anymore and turned my attention to the one electric instrument in the office.

It wasn’t the kind of sleek, modern instrument that gives you faith in modern medicine. It was pea-soup yellow, looking almost Russian, more institutional than anything elegant like a modern cell phone. It was a ConMed Hyfrecator. My first thought was to worry that ConMed was a swords-to-plowshares program to get prison inmates building medical instruments. Then I wondered what on earth a Hyfrecator could possibly do. It had a sticker on it warning that it could explode, and not to use it with oxygen-based anesthesia systems. Great.

Will my candy striper fantasies be realized?

Presently the nurse returned, reclined me onto my back, and breezily asked, “Did you shave for us this morning?” I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, “You mean I could have skipped my whole ordeal, and you’d just take up the slack?” Great. I said that I’d done the best I could. She took a look and said, “Needs a bit more.” So she proceeded to, yes, dry-shave me with a 25-cent Bic. And if you’re instinctively turning this into an erotic fantasy, just stop. She was a grandmother, and the sensation was about like having the underside of your tongue sanded with 25-grit sandpaper, except on your balls. My poor scrotum was burning like crazy afterward; I thought I could even see it glow.

Then the nurse started running water in the sink. “I hate to waste water, but it’s got to get good and hot so I can make everything open up,” she said. By “everything” she meant of course my scrotum, and by “open up” she meant sag down out of its humble, shriveled, defensive crouch. Never before had this part of my anatomy, already the most hapless and unattractive appendage on my entire body, been so abused.

The nurse arranged towels around my groin until it the entire area was reduced to the pink-red scrotum shrouded in white, like a sunburned toad poking out of a field of freshly fallen snow. Then she arranged all the tools on a stainless steel tray, suspended by an articulated arm above. After she left to fetch the doctor, I sat up a bit and surveyed the tray. It could have been assembled in the thirteenth century: six or seven pairs of scissors; a length of coarse thread; piles of gauze. It took a minute to recognize the scalpel, which was sheathed in plastic but appeared to be pretty much an X-Acto knife. I guess I should have expected this, but dammit, this is America! I want lasers and other high-tech stuff! I want ultrasound, I want digital readouts! I realized that this surgeon—for this procedure, anyway—was nothing but a very clever butcher, who was going to cut into my scrotum, snip away at my stuff with scissors, and then sew it back up with a needle and thread like he’s repairing a ripped pair of pants! I lay back down and stared at the ceiling.

As I lay there waiting—the lights went out. A dozen humming machines throughout the office, that I'd not consciously noticed before, went silent. A subtle buzz of human activity ceased while the office seemed to hold its collective breath, waiting for the power to come back on. So, what causes a power outage? In New York City in the summer you get brown-out during a heat wave, but in the cool Bay Area in October? Only one possibility loomed large: earthquake. And here I was, flat on my back, swaddled in towels, my clothes across the room. Immediately I contemplated having to reschedule my appointment and thus re-dry-shave my balls, and for the first time I was really scared. After another minute, to my great relief, everything came back on again.

Will the procedure hurt?
The doctor arrived. He didn’t look distracted or angry or anything, which was a big relief. I warned him that my body seems to metabolize Novocain very quickly, and that the last two times I’d gotten stitches it wore off too soon and I could feel everything. He cheerfully told me to let him know if it started to hurt and he’d give me some more numbing medicine. Then he got right to work. “You’ll feel a sharp pain, which is the needle, and then a burn, as the medicine goes in,” he said. Boy, did I ever. The sharp pain was really acute, unlike any needle I’ve been stuck with before, probably due to the location. The medicine going in didn’t really burn, per se; actually, it felt a lot like I was being punched really hard in the stomach. It seemed he administered this three times on the right side, and then I felt something really jarring that caused my whole body to flinch, and I may have even yelped. “You okay?” the doctor asked. “You’ll feel a tug now. I’ve got your vas.”

Never have a man’s words had such impact. The dude had my vas! Right there, in his hands! At that moment I was thoroughly vanquished, utterly vulnerable, defenseless. He owned me. Oh, you can get a man’s goat, you can beat him in a race, you can outshine, outgun, outperform him, school him, shame him. But until a man’s got your vas, you don’t know the meaning of humility. If I could have talked, I’d have said, “I only hope you’ll do the right thing with it.”

I stared at the ceiling. It was a good ceiling for staring at. It was more modern than those awful cottage-cheese ceilings of the seventies, but it wasn’t exactly the gold-leaf hardwood-inlaid ceiling of the Carnelian Room. It looked like they took plain, smooth sheet rock and bead-blasted it, or like a woodpecker had worked it over, or maybe it had an beetle infestation like trees get. Absolutely no pattern to latch onto, just a totally random cosmos of holes to trace, my reeling mind working to identify constellations as I tried to forget that a man had my vas and would soon be going at my scrotum with needle and thread. The doctor worked quietly, and from the next room I heard somebody say, “It’s been an intense burning pain for about a month.” I began to daydream: sort of a reverse Walter Mitty scenario that ultimately ended with the doctor suddenly saying, “Nurse, he’s hemorrhaging! Check the pulse! We’re losing him!

I was yanked out of my reverie by this awful burning smell, like when you get your hand too close to a flame and singe the hairs. What could that be? I bit my lip and stared harder at the ceiling. Surely the doctor would notice if the Hyfrecator were acting up? Eventually the smell went away, and the doctor said calmly, “That’s one side, now I’ll go to the other.” Again with the sharp needle stabs, again with the stomach-punching thumps of the medicine going in. More tugging. More ceiling-staring. He did work quickly; within minutes I was smelling the burning stench again, this time even worse. I almost gagged. The doctor looked up. “You okay?” I asked what the smell was. “Oh, that’s the vas being cauterized. After cutting it, I put stainless steel clips on the ends to keep them from reattaching, and as a further measure I cauterize the ends.” And thus was the mystery of the ConMed Hyfrecator solved.

And just like that, he was done. The whole thing couldn’t have taken him more than fifteen minutes. The nurse cleaned up a bit, put some gauze on there, invited me to get dressed, and left. I looked down, saw a lot of gauze and some blood, and that was enough—I stood and stepped into my briefs without another look. I just don’t want to see what’s down there. I finished dressing and the doctor returned and said, “Here’s your goody-bag.” He said something about the follow-up, where I submit semen samples to a lab, and said something about them needing twenty-five ejaculates. Now, normally I’d be tempted to have some fun with him by saying, “Uh, how do I get those … ejaculates?” He’d say, “Uh, you know … masturbation.” To which I’d reply, “Um … I don't know how.” I mean, here was the perfect chance for a harmless prank, to fully put to rest the ridiculous notion that there is a single man alive who doesn’t spank the monkey, despite entire generations of men pretending to know nothing of it, and yet I didn’t seize the opportunity. I was in such a daze I didn’t fully parse the “twenty-five ejaculates” phrase and puzzled for days afterward about whether I’d heard him right.

The Follow-Up

How long until things get good?
When I got around to reviewing the written instructions I found they were not really clear, other than to say I needed to collect the semen sample in the sterilized cup provided, keep the sample warm, and have it to the lab within thirty minutes of ejaculating. And I was to do this without lotion, because lotion can kill any remaining sperm and destroy the sample. So let me get this straight: after having dry-shaved my scrotum, now I was supposed to somehow jerk off without any lubrication, up to twenty-five times? Were they trying to kill me? How on earth was I supposed to do that?

And yet I knew I’d bother to go through this process, because there are two failure modes for the vasectomy. One, the doctor could somehow fail to totally dismantle the vas deferens and I could still somehow be hooked up. Two, the existing sperm can somehow hang around the sidelines, evidently for a very long time, and leap into action as needed, with their plucky, single-minded, utterly relentless quest for the egg. So for four months and/or twenty-five semen samples, I was still on the hook for contraception.

For about a week after the procedure, I used the Religious Right method of birth control: abstinence. For once, this actually made sense, because my balls were sore and my scrotal stitches itched like crazy and I was wearing these briefs that totally hosed my mojo. I started to complain about all this to my wife, and then I just stopped: after all, this was the woman who bore me two children. And throughout both pregnancies, whenever she complained about sore feet or sore hips or a sore back or an inability to breathe, I’d respond, “If it’s any consolation, I feel great!” It would have been a very, very bad idea for me to go looking for any sympathy after all of that. The good news is, the big bloody scrotal gashes really do heal quickly. Once I was back in boxers again, my mojo came back with a quickness.

Is the follow-up straightforward?
In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to count my ejaculations, because that option wasn’t documented on my otherwise intricately detailed instruction sheet and I’m easily blond enough to screw this up. So after four final months of birth control (okay, just shy of that, as my patience wore out in the end), I found a nearby lab (“next to the bowling alley,” the receptionist said) and one morning before work I, uh, prepared my sample. I tucked the sterile specimen cup in a shirt pocket, put a heavy jacket over it, and headed out to the car.

Half an hour is really plenty of time, but I was just so nervous about my sample going too long and having to repeat the process. I made it to the bowling alley and turned up a side street. I’d been nervous about finding parking, but there were gobs of spaces—an eerily large selection, in fact. Curses: street cleaning! I drove around the back of the bowling alley lot only to find it didn’t go through to the lab, which, come to think of it, I hadn’t actually found yet. I drove up and down the streets cursing, finally finding the place and managing to park only a few blocks away. I raced to the lobby, only to find a line ahead of me. I fidgeted for an eternity, like a guy who has to pee real bad, before I finally got to the counter. “I have a, uh, time-sensitive sample,” I said. The lady at the counter looked at me like I was crazy.

I explained that I was dropping off a semen sample for post-vasectomy analysis and I’d been told I only had half an hour to get my sample tested. The lady spied the instruction sheet, which I clutched in my hand like a passport. “Let me see that,” she snapped. She looked it over like an exasperated teacher scanning her worst student’s term paper. “I don’t know what this is about,” she said. “We don’t even send these samples out until the evening.”

I dropped the semen off anyway, wondering how many failed vasectomies resulted in new souls walking the earth due to a faulty lab protocol, and then a couple days later called my doctor and left a voice-mail asking how the lab sample came out. He called back a day later and breezily said, “Okay, you’re good to go. The results were negative. There was no sperm in your sample. You can have all the unprotected sex you want now.” Something about this last bit suggested a libertine life of promiscuous sexual abandon, but I got his point. I’m sure he tires of rephrasing his declaration to men who need to hear it a dozen ways to make totally sure they’ve not heard him wrong. I told him about the delay in the lab’s processing of my sample, and he assured me it was fine. “We have one sheet for both post-vasectomy and sperm-count tests,” he explained. “In the one case they’re looking for sperm, and the other they’re trying to see how well they swim. I guess maybe we should have two different handouts.” You think?

Unexpectedly, I got another follow-up call the next day, this time from a member of the office staff. Evidently she wasn’t aware I’d already gotten the test results. And unlike the doctor, she seemed pretty uncomfortable saying what she had to say, and flubbed her lines gloriously: “The test was negative, so, uh, it’s okay for you to, uh … go without the protective sex.” Having spoken with the doctor, I saw no need to quibble. “Okay, thanks, bye!” I said. Between you and me, I’m going to go ahead with the protective sex. I think I’ve earned it.
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