Monday, November 30, 2009

From the Archives: Burrito Worlds


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

The qualifying round

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

My competition

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

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

Psyching up, and psyching out

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

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


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

The race

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

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

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

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

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

The aftermath

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

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


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Vuelta del Taco Truck


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

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

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

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

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

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

The turnout

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

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

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

The route

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

El Grullo – 27th & Foothill

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

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

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

Tacos el Mazatlan – Foothill at Fruitvale Ave

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

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

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

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

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

Tamales Mi Lupita – 34th & Foothill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tacos el Tio Juan – 41st & Foothill

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

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

Ice cream

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

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

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

The tasting panel

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

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

The results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2009

South Beach Starch King


I’ve been on the South Beach diet for almost a week now, and I’ve already dropped five pounds.  (If my fancy scale is to be believed, which it probably isn’t, my body fat is now 8.0%.)  If my goal here were the normal one (i.e., lose weight), I’d be making great progress.  But my only goal is actually to get off this diet, and gain back the five pounds.  This would seem to be a simple matter, but it’s not.

What brought about this state of affairs?  In this post I will explore the strange concept of secondhand dieting; the South Beach diet; the Starch King diet; and a few other diet-related subjects.

Secondhand dieting

A secondhand diet is where your spouse, who does most of the cooking, goes on a diet and prepares family dinners according to her new culinary palette.  Gone are the glorious lasagnes, fried chicken with heaps of mashed potatoes, and spaghetti alla puttanesca; now she’s serving steamed vegetables and poached fish.  Shared family dinners are important to you, and—not wanting to set a bad example for the kids—you cheerfully eat what you’re served.  Sometimes you sneak in a low-key post-dinner snack like a PBJ, and/or raid your kids’ leftover Hallowe’en candy, but just as often you get caught up in the post-meal machinery of the household and end up with but a fraction of your normal caloric intake.  Voilà!  You’re a secondhand dieter.

This is how I have found myself on the South Beach diet.  My wife Erin has started it up, in earnest, and has requested that I do my normal starch-bomb eating outside the home, at lunchtime.  That way I’m not testing her resolve with huge batches of pasta sitting around begging to be snitched from.  But I’ve had the flu for the last week and thus have scarcely left the house, so I’m leading a strangely pasta-free existence. 

Starch dreams

Since I started this diet, most nights I dream about glorious starchy food.  Two nights ago it was pizzas and pastries—kind strangers were handing them to me, one after another.  A couple nights before that I was woken up out of a deep slumber by the sound of my cough drop clattering to the hardwood floor:  I’d actually tried to bite something in my sleep.

And then, yesterday, I was talking on the phone idly watching the slide-show screen saver on my PC when I was suddenly struck dumb by this most tantalizing photo:

Just look at those damn fritjes.  Glorious.  Fries figured in to last night’s dream, my strangest starch dream yet.  In this one I came across my daughters and one of my nieces eating a big pile of “Lite Burrito,” a (fictitious) tortilla-less burrito from Burger King.  There were so many things wrong with that scenario I didn’t know where to start.  I was thinking of shutting down their party until I saw their side of fries, which I took for myself.  Burger King fries are the most tampered-with of all the fast food chains (the potatoes are coated in a starch batter before frying), but I ate them and they were good.  That’s right … dream on!

It hasn’t been easy going to bed kind of hungry and dreaming, and daydreaming, of food, but I can’t hold anything against Erin.  After all, I’m not exactly an innocent victim of this kind of situation.  For fifteen years I’ve been a bad influence on my wife, always wanting to cook (or wanting her to cook) rich, high-carb foods, or taking the family to some Mexican or Italian restaurant that serves huge portions.  When Erin and I were courting, we’d often go to Zachary’s and split a large stuffed deep-dish pizza that’s supposed to serve 4-5 people.  (I’d have five slices; she’d have three.)  When I cooked her a pasta dinner, I’d unthinkingly serve her up a cyclist-sized  portion, and she’d end up eating it.  As a result of my influence she quickly gained ten pounds, which she has now resolved to finally shed.

The South Beach diet

In high school, I decided (for no reason I can remember) to write my English class term paper on fad diets.  My research didn’t endear me to them, and over time my opinion hasn’t changed.  I hold particular contempt for the Atkins diet.  (I trust the opinion of the American Heart Association that Atkin’s own heart attack was caused by his diet, and I still buy into the USDA food pyramid, with carbs being the foundation.)  But the South Beach diet, despite its catchy name and widespread success, seems to be based on sound principles. 

As I understand it, the whole idea is to avoid the insulin overload you get from eating refined starches, that leads to inappropriate hunger and general overconsumption.  With South Beach, you eat foods with a low glycemic index—that is, foods that digest slowly.  For the first couple weeks on this diet you cut out all refined starches, as well as fruit and anything sweet, to sever your addiction to insulin-producing simple carbs.  Then in phase two you reintroduce carbs in the form of fruits, brown rice, and whole grain breads.  Then, when you’ve lost the weight you want and have overcome the habit of empty carbs, you are in “maintenance mode” and eat more or less normally (while avoiding certain unworthy foods).  At least in the edition of the South Beach book Erin has, beer is singled out as a particular evil, because it is alleged to contain maltose, which is a very simple sugar.  (It’s not hard to find this allegation vigorously disputed:  look here and here.)

Even in this first phase, the diet allows you all the carbs you want, with one important caveat:  they have to come from vegetables.  So dinner goes something like this:  you eat some London broil with mushrooms, with and a side of okra and squash.  After finishing a generous serving of okra, your jaws are so tired, and your palette so bored, that you just feel like stopping, so you clear the dishes and get on with your life.  As this behavior substitutes for getting unnecessary second and third helpings of something relatively unhealthy like macaroni and cheese (damn, I just drooled at the thought), you lose weight.

The Starch King diet

Historically I’ve been on what I’ve come to call the Starch King diet.  It’s not nearly as prescriptive as the South Beach diet, nor any other diet for that matter.  It consists of eating whatever I want, whenever I want, in whatever quantities I want, with an emphasis on taqueria food (because it’s so tasty) and pasta (because I don’t know how to make my own taqueria food).  Here’s a sample pasta recipe:

Southwestern corn goo

Get the pasta water boiling.  Glug a bunch of olive oil in a hot pan and add diced onions.  Sizzle those awhile, then add two 17-oz. cans cream style corn.  Bring this to a boil and add a 7-oz. can of green chiles, diced.  Reduce the heat and boil this awhile to get rid of the excess water.  Boil the pasta (something long like linguine or spaghetti).  Grate a bunch of cheese into the corn goo:  cheddar, jack, mozzarella, whatever you got.  Drain the pasta and mix it in with the goo.  Eat it with salt and a little Crystal sauce.

(Notably, almost everything in this dish is illegal in at least the first phase of the South Beach diet.  On the plus side, it’s easy and tasty and kids love it.)

The Starch King diet is really easy, and it has always really worked—for me.  I suspect this has to do with all the cycling I do.  During an intense five-hour Mount Diablo ride, I’ll burn about 5,000 calories and take in about 1,000 in energy drink.  Some of that 4,000 calorie deficit comes from my stored muscle glycogen, but the rest comes from burning fat.  I doubt anybody burns fat as efficiently as a cyclist.  This is why I can (and routinely do) go eighteen or nineteen hours between (seriously huge) meals.  (I never eat breakfast, except socially.)

I can’t recommend this eating style to anybody else, though most of my cycling club pals are on this diet or something similar (e.g., Starch King With a Side of Bacon).

The South Beach experience

So far, I have to say that for Erin and me, the South Beach diet is actually not that hard to stick to.  Vegetables really do give the stomach a full feeling, and they are slow to digest so you don’t need to snack much.  The greatest hurdle is probably psychological.  I do feel hungry much of the time now, as does Erin, but hunger isn’t actually that bad a feeling, if you can get past the anxiety it produces.  I think we’re all hardwired to fear starvation, which is why hunger is such a powerful force.  Intellectualizing the experience and reminding myself that I won’t actually starve takes care of the fear, and the suffering is no worse than what I subject myself to on the bike.

The other thing I’ll say about the South Beach diet is that it’s interesting.  Erin and I have enjoyed many conversations about the diet itself; the strange phenomenon of refined starch consumption causing appetite; the strange sensation of being hungry and yet having a full stomach; and so on.  (I think of this dialog as payback for all the chatter Erin’s had to endure from me about bike parts, training, percent grades, and such over the years.)

Last night I was enjoying a New Belgium Mothership Wit ale, in a festive short-stemmed beer glass, and Erin approached with something like hostility.  “That beer is tempting me more than anything has so far,” she said severely.  Fortunately I have a (mostly useless) talent for chug-a-lugging, and I slammed  the beer down in about a second.  Thus marital strife has been avoided, and I’m one step closer to getting off this diet….

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In Defense of Fun

Before we begin

Before you begin reading this post, grab a pen and paper and quickly jot down twenty things you do for fun. The order isn’t important. I’m not talking about things that are necessarily good for you or make you a better person, or that eventually lead to success or overall life satisfaction; just things you enjoy doing. You know, fun.

Done? Okay, great. Now, look at this photo of my daughter:

You know why Lindsay is so happy in this picture? It’s because she’s just been chasing pigeons, one of her favorite fun things to do. 

Of all the people you see, does it ever seem like the children are the only ones having any fun? Whatever your answer, I think we can all agree that kids are instinctively good at this. Adults are much less so, and yet we were all kids once. Perhaps as we grow and mature and take on responsibility we just lose the knack. In this blog I will look at the things we can learn from children about having fun.

So, this will be a kind of didactic blog—but I’ll try not to come off like a motivational speaker. I’ve seen a few of these, and they can actually be a real downer. I think their main problem is they try to inspire you to be successful, as a way to increase your happiness. This has two problems:
  • First, I don’t believe success can be taught—you either have it in you or you don’t. If I knew how to be hugely successful, I’d be off doing it instead of sitting here blogging.
  • Second, I don’t believe happiness, or even satisfaction, comes directly from success. As far as I can tell, the most successful people tend to be the opposite of satisfied. The highest achievement invariably goes to the insatiable types. Look at Lance Armstrong: how many Tours de France does he need to win before he’s satisfied? It’s a rhetorical question, with no answer. Show me a world-beater, and I’ll show you infinite hunger and ambition.

So don’t think of this as the blog equivalent of a Motivational Speech. Think of it as more of a Mollificational Speech: without addressing your success, or lack thereof, I’m going to try to recommend a few tips on how to have more fun, which might just help a bit with the pleasure side of the happiness equation.

What children can teach us 

I’ve watched for years, sometimes enviously, as my kids have played, frolicked, goofed off, and otherwise perfected the art of having fun. I’ve also done some very close reading of the available literature on the subject, namely Russell Hoban’s How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen.

In this excellent book, the (inevitably) parentless Tom’s very serious and strict aunt, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, disapproves of all his goofing off and hires Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach Tom a lesson. The captain and his sportsmen play their hearts out, like children, in various contests against Tom, and though they lose every event, Captain Najork gets the girl (Wonkham-Strong) in the end. I have to think any adult reader would rather be Najork than Wonkham-Strong; he’s clearly having more fun, whereas she’s a humorless scold. And yet, most grown-ups I know (or at least more parents) remind me more of her. 

In case you don’t have time to read Hoban’s book, and don’t have kids of your own to watch, here are the main ways I’ve noticed that kids manage to have fun so much of the time:
  • They eschew dignity almost entirely;
  • They find the fun in almost any circumstance by living in the moment, managing to almost never be preoccupied by anything;
  • They continually cultivate new ways to have fun;
  • They routinely, automatically defend their right to do fun things like playing and goofing off.
Eschewing dignity 

Kids do all kinds of fun stuff we wouldn’t be caught dead doing, and they don’t think twice about it. On a recent trip to the beach, my wife and I hadn’t brought bathing suits because we didn’t think it’d be warm enough. Within thirty seconds Lindsay had stripped down to her underwear and was running in the waves. (A typical adult, meanwhile, can’t even buy a bathing suit without fretting over which one is the least unflattering.) Obviously we adults can’t run around in our underwear, but there are plenty of other things many of us could do but don’t, like dancing around to music (or to no music), singing, popping bubble-wrap, stomping in puddles, balancing on one foot on an accelerating train, and chasing pigeons. Why don’t we do it? 

Well, some of us do, at least some of the time. Myself, I use my kids themselves as an excuse to do such things. For example, if Alexa or Lindsay asks where I’m going as I head off to work, I immediately launch into rap (Kool Moe Dee’s “I Go to Work”). My kids either roll their eyes, tell me to stop, or join in. Or, when letting our home phone go to voice-mail, I lead my kids in a happy dance to the musical ringtone. At playgrounds, I’ve been known to accompany one of my daughters on the slide. Of course, I recognize all this as abnormal grown-up behavior. 

You could say I’m a goofball; I prefer to think of myself as just highly evolved. After all, my own dad is too dignified to sing or dance or even to wear casual clothing like t-shirts or jeans. Myself, I think dignity is overrated, and I’m sure most children would agree. I ask you again: who’s having more fun, them or us?

Living in the Moment 

I’ve been amazed to watch Lindsay playing with toys in a hospital waiting room before a surgery, while her mom and I are sweating bullets. The first time, Lindsay’s waiting room play could be chalked up to lack of awareness of what lay ahead, but thereafter it was pure compartmentalization, an ability to enjoy the toys while she could. Of course no parent could ever relax at a time like that, but Lindsay’s example is still worth noting. 

In short, kids are practically impervious to preoccupation; any and every moment is an opportunity to explore, play, and have fun. Their immediate environment, whatever and wherever it may be, is like a playground. Reality is routinely thrown off in favor of fantasy. In stark contrast, adults can be so preoccupied by the MegaCorp proposal, guilt over climate change, or awareness of the property tax being due that we fail to enjoy a hike, a restaurant meal, or a train trip. 

Cultivating Fun 

Kids are always figuring out ways to cultivate new fun. When I asked Alexa to write down twenty fun things, number one on her list was “go to Noary meatings.” She looked up slyly, a twinkle in her eye, and said, “Of course you don’t know what those are.” She’s right, I have no idea. Probably some totally new fantasy game she just pioneered with Lindsay. Such things are of course routine. A couple years back, she came across some post-it pads and set about creating “Lost pig” signs, which she posted all over the neighborhood.

A novel object placed in my kids’ midst is put almost immediately into service and runs the risk of becoming their toy, regardless of its original purpose. When I was doing physical therapy last year, the first step was always finding my elastic bands, which the kids used in a hundred different ways, combined with stuffed animals or toys in increasingly odd ways. And earlier today I was puzzling over these paper cutouts of—what? Keyholes? Fish?—that are numbered and taped up around the house. 1st and 3rd are on the fireplace; 2nd is on the piano. I’m sure there’s a whole story behind these, and I look forward to hearing it. 

Adults, on the other hand, when they’re not working, are either busy with official business, enriching themselves somehow, reading, staring at a PC, or just being bored. Or, they’re taking routine steps to forestall boredom, like having the TV on, or playing Brickbreaker on their smartphones. Are these activities really that fun? (Did they make your list?) With so little creativity involved in our daily activities, it’s no wonder we can tend to get jaded. 

Defending fun 

Any parent must deal, on a daily basis, with the trial of trying to get a kid out the door who is too busy playing to pay any attention to the matter at hand. You’re trying to get them ready for bed and they’re running all over the house, tearing off their pajamas, etc. To kids, fun is not something you get to once you’ve carried out all your responsibilities; it’s the number one priority. When this right is questioned, the parent is either ignored or directly challenged. 

When my kids are (finally) ready for bed, I usually give them five final minutes of play time. They invariably try to negotiate for more. Recently, Lindsay begged for five extra minutes. “I didn’t get to play!” she cried. “But Lindsay, you’ve been playing with that doll this whole time,” I reasoned. “That wasn’t play!” she retorted. “I was trying to put her pants on!” 

Certainly I’m not arguing that adults should behave like children. But to see kids defending their right to have fun is kind of inspirational to me. Without their constant exploration and experimentation, I’m sure they wouldn’t learn so quickly. Are we right to bury our fun under other priorities? 

Of course this isn’t an exhaustive analysis—there are surely other ways we adults spoil the fun we could be having. (Being overly competitive and/or too goal-oriented are two examples that come to mind.) But the biggest problem, I think, is that we just aren’t having enough fun. And that’s where the list comes in. 

How the list can help 

Okay, now it’s time to dig out your list. Right off the bat, let’s make sure you managed to come up with twenty items. If not, why not? Perhaps it was a failure of imagination, in which case, no worries—it happens. But if you really racked your brain and just couldn’t think of twenty things you do that are fun, maybe it’s time to reevaluate the balance of activities in your life. 

Did “work” make your list? It didn’t make mine, primarily because although my work is often fun, I wouldn’t say it’s always or even usually fun. To be completely frank, I don’t do it for fun. I do it for a living, like most people.

(I feel the need to point out here that some people work huge amounts, at the expense of their life balance, pleasure, and possibly happiness, because they’re doing very important work, like seeking vaccines for terrible diseases, growing the state of the art in some critical technology, furthering the great body of human knowledge, writing great works, or saving lives. I am glad these people exist, and if you’re one of them, please stop reading this and get back to work! But for the rest of us, let’s put work in its place.) 

At a minimum, your list can be a wake-up call if you’re not getting enough fun in your life. Beyond that, perhaps you’ll make more of an effort to make time for these activities, now that you’ve officially identified them as things you enjoy. 

My list 

I wrote up this list about two years ago, at the suggestion of my wife. She didn’t have any particular strategy in mind regarding our lists; I think the idea was to keep it as a reminder to have fun. I haven’t actually consulted my list all that often, but occasionally I do, and I’ll admit to moments of great distress when I feared I’d lost it. I present it here as an aid to the rest of my discussion. (Click picture to enlarge.)

Happily, this isn’t a list of pipe dreams; I actually do most of these fun things on a regular basis. Two items do pop out as things I don’t do so often: #15, camping, and #20, sitting in backyard. Since I made this list, I’ve managed to spend a bit more time in the backyard, lounging in the sun with a magazine and a beer and the cat on my lap. 

Analyzing the list 

Beyond simple awareness of the fun you could be having, your list provides an opportunity to see how well your fun can be aligned with the rest of your life. I suggest categorizing your activities as follows:
  • Incidental – this activity can be sneaked in among other humdrum activities
  • Solitude – logistically uncomplicated, but takes you away from your family and friends
  • Other people – this activity requires the participation of others, presenting a specific logistical challenge to its frequency
  • Expensive – the frequency of this activity may be limited due to its cost
  • Buy-in challenge – the activity is so frivolous and/or time-intensive you and/or your spouse has trouble buying into it
  • Logistical challenge – this category comprises all other logistical challenges
Here is a breakdown of my fun list based on these categories. (You may want to open my fun list in another browser window for reference.)

I’ve arranged the columns in order from least to most feasible. Looking at this chart, I’m pleased to see that there’s a greater concentration of activities on the right side of the chart (feasible) than the left (less feasible). 

I think in general it’s good if your activities are well represented throughout the chart. With some activities (e.g., camping), the logistical challenge is what makes it fun. Meanwhile, if an activity requires the buy-in of your spouse/other, it may feel more special (e.g., my wife’s pedicures or ladies’ nights). Expensive activities have their place—sometimes there’s no substitute for spending some money. And depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you can tweak the balance between other people and solitude. On the far right of the chart, incidental fun is pretty easy to get, though this fun comes in micro-doses.

What if your list looks nothing like this? What if your activities are over-represented in some categories, while other columns are totally blank? Well, if you’re satisfied with the amount of fun in your life anyway, great! In fact, I’d like to see what your list looks like. I’m a student of all this myself, with only two lists to look at (mine and Alexa’s), so I welcome any input. 

Not enough fun? 

But what if your list is too short, or comprises only your good intentions, or is otherwise completely whacked? What if you crave more fun in your life? Maybe analyzing your list can help. Let’s go through the categories of fun and examine how they might fit in the overall puzzle.

Logistical challenge: 

If you have a lot of items in this category, but have a complicated life with lots of moving parts and/or don’t enjoy planning and organizing, maybe you should devote more energy to enjoying, or cultivating, simpler pleasures. Or if you enjoy complex activities but seldom manage to do them, maybe you could figure out simpler versions. For example, if you love backpacking, but have young children and/or a bad back, maybe car camping is a good compromise.

Buy-in challenge: 

If something is fun, why wouldn’t we automatically buy into it? In my case, it’s generally because the activity either seems to take a lot longer than it should (e.g., working on my bike, or blogging—which in my list above is represented by #6, “personal e-mail,” which it has morphed into), or just seems pointless (e.g. #11, by definition). In some cases the buy-in needs to come from your spouse/other; if he or she is feeling overworked, your doing routine eight-hour bike rides probably wouldn’t strike the right balance between your right to have fun and your responsibility to your family. 

So what is to be done? Here’s where multitasking comes in. Now, before you get on your high-horse about the evils of multitasking, let me be the first to acknowledge that if you try to do two difficult things at once—say, drive and talk on the phone—you’ll probably do neither well. But if at least one of the things is brainless—say, washing dishes—it’s perfect for multitasking. So when I have a BS pointless phone conversation with a friend, I often do dishes while I talk. Then I don’t even have to wonder if I’m consuming my wife’s goodwill. Or, when I want to work on my bike, I enlist support from a daughter or two, and suddenly my selfish activity becomes Child Care and Quality Time. Voilà!

Another way to use multitasking to maximum advantage is to layer fun activities on top of one another. For example, item #2 on my list, cycling (which isn’t actually much of a logistical or buy-in challenge because I do it so early in the morning), can be combined with item #11, BS pointless conversations, if I do a group ride. Or if I ride by myself, my ride can be combined with #6, blogging, because I can work out my ideas as I pedal up hills. (This blog post took about three rides.) 

Meanwhile, as our children so effectively demonstrate, sometimes buy-in is simply a matter of defending our right to have fun. If an item is on your fun list, and really adds a lot to your general happiness, it’s worth building a case for with yourself and with your spouse/other. Referring once again to my cycling example, I’ve focused a lot of energy justifying the time and energy this takes. I’ve explained to my wife—and often remind myself—that cycling is my stress release, my shrink, my spa, and my social club all in one.

Of course there are other possible buy-in challenges. For example, if “looking at unclean imagines on the web” is on your list, or “chatting with strangers online while ignoring my family,” you probably don’t deserve buy-in.


I think this would only be a problem if a) the majority of activities on your list fall into this category, or b) you don’t have much money. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out here that spending money on fun could be considered an investment in your mental health. (For example, my fun-related cost centers—dining and camping—are a lot cheaper than counseling.) 

Other people vs. Solitude 

Activities that require other people can be difficult logistically, but are crucial to our well being. Solitude, meanwhile, can be tough for working stiffs and parents; we spend so much time working or chasing after our kids, we don’t have much time for ourselves. A balance between these two categories is, I think, really important. 


Perhaps here is where the children have the most to teach us, because the vast majority of their fun is incidental. In other words, as much fun stuff as we try to arrange for them, it’s eclipsed by the sheer amount of screwing off they manage to fit in the rest of the time. 

Obviously, we adults will have a harder time finding the fun in random situations. For kids, everything is new and exciting. As I sit writing this, there is a giant tub of holiday ornaments sitting in the middle of the floor behind me as my wife prepares for a birthday party. I see a mess, but Lindsay is enchanted. She’s pretending a bouquet of fake flowers is a tornado. And this tornado talks, in a little high-pitched voice, I have just observed. I can’t compete with that. But I do okay. 

Consider item #3 on my list: crushing leaves. Make fun of me if you want—I just love this activity. This is the perfect time of year for it: the sidewalk and street are littered with leaves and on a warm afternoon they’re perfectly crisp and ready for crunching. The sound is almost identical to a cat eating a potato chip, which I’ve been lucky enough to witness. The wind blows the leaves into big piles I can ride through on my bike. I can even feel the crunching, as light as it is. My kids and I dance all over the sidewalk, vying for the perfect leaf. The kids fight occasionally, like two surfers claiming the same wave. Then there is a kind of larger leaf that isn’t crunchable, but rattles along the sidewalk when kicked, like a big weird crustacean. 

If you can’t enjoy random, incidental acts like crushing leaves, perhaps it’s because you’re just too preoccupied. If you’re out and about in autumn, turn off the NPR or Fox News in your head, stop thinking about work, quit checking your watch every minute, and do as the kids do: enjoy your surroundings. 

It also helps to be realistic about what activities you can and can’t mix. I had an epiphany about this a couple years ago while watching one of my kids. I was trying to read, and my daughter kept interrupting me. This became more and more frustrating, until I was on the verge of yelling at her to go away. Then I took a step back and looked at my situation: I wasn’t getting any reading done, I was angry, she was frustrated—in short, neither of us was having any fun. 

Once I gave up on the idea of reading and focused on the world I was in, instead of the (albeit legitimate) world in my book, everything was great. My daughter’s spirits improved, and mine followed; really, I’d just exchanged a temporarily unattainable pleasure for a simple one. Since then, I’ve become more realistic about which activities are compatible with child-watching (2-5, 7-10, 12-21) and which are not (1, 6, and 11). Multitasking is fine; you just have to combine your activities wisely. (By riding my kids to school on my bike and running over leaves in the process, I can hit the trifecta—#2, #3, and #4!) 

Cultivating incidental fun can help you replace drudgery with modest pleasures. For example, as an adult I’m not exactly wild about kid-oriented amusement parks like Gilroy Gardens. If I didn’t have kids, I certainly wouldn’t go. But we went as a family in August and I had found ways to enjoy myself. We went to a great taqueria for brunch beforehand (#12); I resisted the urge to be preoccupied by work worries and instead focused on my kids’ delight (#4); I took loads of photos (#7); and I did some people-watching (#21). Maybe it wasn’t as fun as a kid-free night out, walking (#17) to Lalime’s with my wife to meet friends, crushing leaves along the way (#3), having a great meal (#12) and some Belgian beer (#10) , and enjoying conversation that varied from pointless (#11) to deep (#19), but I did come away from Gilroy Gardens with the satisfaction of showing my kids a good time (“swing on Mushroom ride at gilroy gardens” being item #4 on Alexa’s list).

So, next time you’re running late in rush hour traffic, stuck at a long red light: instead of just fuming and willing the light to change, try to relax and enjoy some people-watching. The traffic crossing in front of you is like a great random menagerie. That driver looks like Mr. Potato Head. That one seems really stressed. That on is picking her nose. And look at that one, singing along with her car stereo and swaying to the beat—she looks like she might actually be having some fun.

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Fear & Bloating On Hallowe’en


The bloating part goes without saying, and this photo captures exactly what I’m talking about:

(Update: for a brilliant narrative of Hallowe'en bloating, check out my brother's comment at the end of this blog.)
The fear part is a bit more complicated: I’m going to describe what is scary—not just fun-scary, but actually scary—about Hallowe’en. There are several categories: mythical fears, historical fears, real-time fears, and the dread of nascent fascism.

Mythical fears

The main mythical fear, of course, is the razor blade embedded in the apple. I was astonished to hear this one again this year (though the person who mentioned it may have been speaking ironically). Back in elementary school we got a stern warning about this from the teachers—practically a scolding. I don’t know what motivated the teachers: did they think this was a real threat, or were they just as titillated as we were, or were they just increasing our excitement about the holiday? Never mind that in the history of man there has never been a razor blade embedded in an apple.

The more modern fear is that kids will be abducted while trick-or-treating. I don’t remember there being any fear of this when I was a kid. As far back as I can remember, I trick-or-treated without parents. There was one kid on our block whose dad would accompany him, and we mocked him for it. But these days, every kid has at least one parent along. We parents travel alongside our kids in a big mob. Alexa gets a house or two away from Lindsay and it’s hard to keep them both in sight.
Historical fears

As a kid, I really did find Hallowe’en scary. Here are some highlights.

First, there was the costume accident. My dad was helping my brother Geoff with his robot costume, which had a mechanical arm with a bicycle brake caliper on the end, so Geoff could grab candy. My dad was using a Swiss army knife and the blade closed up on his finger, slicing it really badly. It bled like crazy. Of course my brothers exaggerated, telling me how if it weren’t for the fingernail (that went “all the way to the knuckle!”) , Dad’s finger would have been cut clean off. (It didn’t occur to me to ask about the bone in there.)

Then there was the drunken girl episode. I think I was still in elementary school. My brothers and I, out trick-or-treating, came upon a couple of teenage girls, one of whom was bawling. Geoff explained to me, in hushed tones, that she was drunk, and that was what happened when you got drunk. So for years I thought drunkenness always led to crying your eyes out, and since I wasn’t sure by what mechanism drinking alcohol led to drunkenness, I thought it might happen to me—maybe all the time—when I got older.

It wasn’t until fifth grade that I got really scared, though. This was the beginning of self-consciousness, when I didn’t want any undue attention drawn to me—and a good costume did just that. I was fine for years when I always went as a vampire (not Count Dracula, mind you, just some rank-and-file vampire). But in fifth grade I had to wear the costume my brother Geoff had made. It was an insect head, made from papier-mâché, with big bulging eyes. To make the eyes really cool, like the compound eyes of a real insect, Geoff had painstakingly glued split peas, round side out, over the entire surface of each eye. It took him forever. When it was done, he was too shy to wear it, so he gave it to me. I got to school, put it on, and was immediately fussed over by the teachers, which embarrassed me almost to death so I had to take off the costume. (Teacher approval equaled the enmity of your classmates.) My best friend asked if he could wear it and I gladly let him. He entered the school-wide costume contest and won first prize.

In seventh grade things got really bad. I went to the junior high school Hallowe’en dance, equipped with Geoff’s latest costume creation, an even cooler insect head with miniature marshmallows covering the compound eyes. Teachers and administrators were delighted, thus I was mortified, and stashed the costume in the school office. Once I hit the gym—that is, the dance floor—I realized I was a complete social outcast, and would have gladly shrunken myself to insect size to escape everybody. A girl I had a crush on had this sparkly stuff in her hair for some reason, and this scared me. Because of the crush, she’d scared me to begin with. Then my friend—my only friend at the school, whom I know from bike racing—danced with her, which just seemed unfair. As it dawned on him that I was an outcast, and it dawned on me that he was realizing this, I had to flee the gym and headed to the auditorium.

In the auditorium, all the other social outcasts were watching a really disturbing movie in which a guy was lighting himself on fire. That was scary enough, but then the nerds were all laughing, which was even scarier. I fled the auditorium; in the hallway outside I ran into a school administrator who asked why I wasn’t wearing my really great insect costume. I fled to the gym where, as far as I could tell, my peers actually knew how to dance, and enjoyed it. I fled back to the auditorium in time to see another on-screen suicide. Back and forth I went, like Mary, the girl in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie who spends her last living minutes running to and fro inside a burning hotel.

Though I was miserable at the dance, I was terribly afraid of the stigma of coming home early from it. So I toughed it out as long as I could and then headed home. (I didn’t learn until years later than it was common to be uncomfortable at a junior high school dance; that lots of kids hid their discomfort; that the movie was “Harold & Maude,” a comedy in which the hero only pretends to kill himself.) I didn’t even have time to mope around the house before my mom arrived and asked, brightly, “Well, how was it?” Something about her hopeful, enthusiastic attitude just put me over the edge. It crushed me that she had no idea I was such a pariah, that for all she knew I’d had a great time. I burst out crying, to her great astonishment.

Later that night, out trick-or-treating and barely able to see out of my cool insect mask, I was mugged by a bigger kid who stole all my candy. I went home and told my brothers, who enlisted their friend—who had a Jeep!—to go out looking for the perps, to beat them up and get my candy back. Of course I know there was no way we could find, much less identify, the evil muggers, but I played along, feeling like on this night I was leaving my silly childhood behind me.

Real-time fears

Now that I’m a grown-up, I don’t have to dress up or anything, and can take simple delight in my kids and their costumes. They’re too young to be self-conscious, so when they get scared it’s by one of the really great haunted houses a neighbor will assemble here and there. When they’re scared, it’s like scared-lite: even they know it’s all in fun:
But occasionally I see something that kind of creeps me out. For example, along the elementary school parade route was a very young girl who was dressed most disconcertingly: super-short shorts, fishnet stockings … kind of like a groupie. What kind of wacky parents does she have? Did they have fun pimping her out like that? Is she like a doll to them, something to dress up scandalously for their amusement? And above all, how square does it make me that I take issue with this?

Another fear: the jack-o-lantern. Not that it's possible to carve a pumpkin well enough to be literally scary; rather, Alexa asked me if I could put the candle in it for me. “It's all gross in there and I can't bring myself to do it,” she explained. I lifted the top: the horror! The inside walls of the pumpkin were richly carpeted with thick, gnarly mold. I swore I could feel it breathing spores on my as I dropped in and lit the candle.
Then, during the trick-or-treating, I had the willies, time and time again, seeing little Lindsay, her floor-length princess dress skimming the ground, running recklessly down dark staircases with a big bag of candy. It seemed only a matter of time before she would trip on the dress and fall flat on her face. With twenty adult witnesses, I’d be roundly disparaged for allowing this to happen.

Of course I have to worry, as a parent, about what this holiday teaches the kids. Like most American holidays, it seems to celebrate gluttony. Families are really generous in our area, sometimes giving kids three pieces of candy, or a full-size candy bar or an entire sleeve of Starbursts. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a neighbor said, “Here is an amuse-bouche, compliments of the chef, while you wait for your candy.” Eventually the bags became almost too heavy for my kids to carry. Here, Lindsay attempts a hands-free setup, perhaps to have immediate access to her candy, like a horse’s neck-mounted feed bag:
The specter of fascism

As a modern parent, I am constantly beating back the growth of children’s rights. There’s a strong strain of permissive parenting here in the Prius belt, and though I’m not a retrograde child spanker or anything, I bristle at the tendency of so many parents to soften every directive by adding “okay?” at the end. “Tommy, remember that we use words, not fists, and certainly not baseball bats, so I’d like you to please stop beating your friend now, okay?” Though I’m not actually all that strict—perhaps not as strict as I’d like to be—I do take great pleasure in the fact that I get to create reality for my kids. Perhaps partly because we don’t have cable TV, they really have no idea how a typical family runs. So my wife and I get to make up whatever rules we want.

For example, every time one of the girls gets a treat—candy, dessert, a slice of pizza, anything—they automatically offer it up for the “parental tariff.” The sanctity of their very own treat is a totally foreign concept to them. And on Hallowe’en the tariff is worthy of a progressive European nation: they get two hours to enjoy their candy, and whatever is left goes to Dad. So for two hours today they chattered away merrily amidst their piles, occasionally bringing me candy, usually something relatively unappetizing like a black-licorice flavored Dot. At one point Alexa said, “Here, Daddy—this one isn’t a loss leader, it’s actually good: a chocolate-covered caramel thing!” (It was good, if a bit smashed and sweaty.) And then, when their time was up, I went and just took all their candy, and they didn’t protest one bit.

At first I was pleased that my autocratic policies were so easily accepted, but then I’ll confess I had a somewhat chilling realization: these kids may be just a bit too docile. It’s hard to imagine them sticking up for the little guy against a giant corporation someday. Is it possible my parenting is crushing out their spirits, shrinking their horizons, setting them up to be trodden on as adults? But when I consider Alexa’s well-reasoned and persuasive argument for being allowed to read her fourth Harry Potter book, or Lindsay’s impassioned entreaties for five more minutes of play time before bed, I think everything is going to be just fine.