Tuesday, March 30, 2010

From the Archives – A Study on Rinsing


I use a lot of energy drink when cycling. By “use” I generally mean “drink,” but I’m also a true believer in the cutting-edge practice of “rinsing.” I learned about rinsing in February of 2008 from a knowledgeable EBVC teammate of mine who sent around an e-mail describing a study that concludes, “Carbohydrate mouth rinse has a positive effect on 1-hour time trial performance.”

This study was an attempt to understand why, as multiple other studies had shown, sports drinks seem to provide a performance benefit even for short (e.g., one-hour) workouts. You wouldn’t expect the drinks to help for so short an effort, since existing glycogen stores ought to last that long, and turning new carbs into glycogen isn’t an instant process anyway. The results of this study suggest that the benefit derives from something other than the carbs in the energy drink, which is why swishing energy drink around in your mouth and then spitting it out is as good as swallowing it: The mechanism responsible for the improvement in high-intensity exercise performance with exogenous carbohydrate appears to involve an increase in central drive or motivation rather than having any metabolic cause.

This report brought about a long and lively discussion among the guys on the bike club, and while I found at all very compelling, I wasn’t inclined to take the scientists’ word for it. Why should I, when I have all the opportunity in the world to test this phenomenon myself? Thus, I ran my own experiment and reported back to my bike club. This post documents those results for my information-hungry albertnet audience. Following the report is a further exploration of this strange topic.

A Small Study About Rinsing – March 7, 2008

Test Objective: To determine if rinsing the mouth with a sweet beverage increases an athlete’s short-term performance.

Test Procedure: There was unfortunately only one test subject available for the study. Thus, he represented both the rinsing group and the ingestion group.

On Wednesday, March 5, subject rode a specific test course, the Hill Climb Extravagaanza, and consumed one gel approximately thirty-five minutes into exercise. His power output, heart rate, and rate of vertical gain were recorded on the three climbs (South Park, Claremont, and Lomas Cantadas) and uploaded to a PC. (Click image to enlarge.)

On Friday, March 7, subject rode the same course, this time rinsing his mouth with energy drink every few minutes beginning ten minutes after completing his warm-up, and drinking without spitting after approximately thirty-five minutes of exercise. Again, his wattage, heart rate, and rate of vertical gain were recorded on the three climbs. The performance data were then compared using a special software application called the Bragulator.

Measures were taken to make sure subject was not influenced unevenly by music. Not only was he not wired with an MP3 player, but was instructed to ride with similar tunes in his head on both days. It is acknowledged that driving rhythms or the repetition of an inspirational phrase like “Blood of a slave ... heart of a king” on one day, but not another, could skew results.

Test Result: The Bragulator tabulated the following statistics for the two rides:

Across the board, performance was better when rinsing with energy drink early in the ride.

In addition to the stats shown above, subject was almost a minute faster on the first climb, South Park, on Ride 2. This further supports the validity of rinsing, as this was the climb during which subject had no sweetness on Ride 1, but did have sweetness—without calories!—during Ride 2.


Naturally, a larger set of subjects would increase the validity of the study, especially since the one test subject is known for either slacking off or getting medieval on his own heinie according to his whim.

It should also be pointed out that the power meter used in this study makes its calculations using barometric pressure, velocity, and the constant of the subject’s weight, and thus has an inferiority complex about the fancier strain-gauge-based power meters. (Meanwhile, the subject’s weight isn’t really a constant.)

Ride 2 took place on a sunnier day, though it is believed there was not enough sunshine on subject’s shoulders to make him high.

Most importantly, the open road cannot be locked down like a true laboratory environment, and the subject’s training diary includes information that may cast some doubt on the validity of the results:

“At the bottom of South Park, just past the gate, I saw that mountain bike dude again. I felt like the guy in ‘Better Off Dead’ when he sees his old nemesis, the paperboy, coming after him for the two dollars.

This was the same mountain bike dude who was responsible for me getting my fastest time on South Park for all of 2007. He looks like a thirty-something Nick Nolte, with a Steven-Seagal ponytail. Running shorts, t-shirt, and worst of all, a total piece of crap bike, I think one of those heinous Raleigh Techniums from the late eighties, the last mass-market bikes ever made in America and a good reason not to feel patriotic. I remember that ride well: it was on 9/11, and the guy hung on for several minutes while I went à bloc to drop him. He did finally blow, but it took all I had, and at the end of that ride my fricking frame broke!

So here he was again, and though I had him in my sights I was barely even gaining on him. How could this be? I have over a decade of racing experience, he has ... talent, I guess. I have an 18-pound bike, he has ... a 30-plus-pound mountain bike, and, I guess, talent. I have all these sophisticated training and nutrition methodologies and he has ... talent. What could I do? I took a big drink of Cytoplasm [Cytomax – Ed.], spat it derisively at the ground like a smoker flicking away a cigarette butt, and dug in. By the time I got to the base of the main climb I’d just barely made contact.

I greeted him and he replied in this big deep manly voice. That’s what he is, just a big strong manly man, a man’s man, and what am I? Lycra, cawbun fibuh [carbon fiber – Ed.], dogged determination, fancy-pants bike computer with heart rate monitor and PC upload, the physique of an Aborigine, and I was still barely able to drop him. At least he helped me find some motivation....”

Conclusion: Further study is needed. Anybody willing to serve as a subject in this study is encouraged to apply to feedback@albertnet.us. Subjects must be in good health, have fancy-pants bike computers, be willing to complete the Hill Climb Extravagaanza at dawn on a regular basis, and must bring their own gel and energy drink.

Further commentary: why rinse?

Once I decided rinsing was legit, I adopted it as standard practice for the first half hour of each ride. Why not just drink, you ask, even if it’s not the calories that are helping? Well, spitting out energy drink saves weight, of course! Why take that heavy beverage into my body, if it’s only the flavor that enhances my performance?

Besides, I am very careful about not fouling up my blood sugar level. It’s well established that during intense exercise you can have all the sugar you want without affecting your insulin and such—the sugar gets used right away. (This phenomenon continues for half an hour or so after the workout ends.) But if you have a bunch of sugar before the workout, you’ll have a nice sugar high followed by a serious slump. Not knowing how long I have to exercise before my body can use sugar easily, I’ve long been wary—even superstitious—about it, and avoid drinks and gels until about half an hour in. But I’ll start rinsing after just ten minutes. And so far, so good!

Further reading

More than a year after my small study, another EBVC teammate sent around a more recent report further documenting the benefit of rinsing. This study finds that “the cyclists who had rinsed with the carbohydrate drinks — and spit them out — finished significantly faster than the water group,” and that the rinsers’ “heart rates and power output were also higher. Again, it is postulated that the phenomenon is a brain thing: It seems that the brains of the riders getting the carbohydrate-containing drinks sensed that the riders were about to get more fuel (in the form of calories), which appears to have allowed their muscles to work harder even though they never swallowed the liquid.”

This brings the total athletes studied up to eighteen, including me. That’s still not a very large sample, but perhaps this is for the best. If everybody know about rinsing, imagine the number of energy-drink puddles you’d encounter all over the road, especially at a big race! dana albert blog

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fiction - Silent Type

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


What follows is a work of fiction. I’m not going to apologize for it, but I should warn you that I’m no expert at this. I’ve dabbled in fiction before but never to great effect. In fact, among the worst grades I ever got in an English class was for a short story I wrote in 9th grade. I got a B-minus—the lowest grade in the class, my teacher told me. (I could whine and say the teacher had it in for me, but she really didn’t; we got on very well and I got good grades on my other stuff.)

Before I get to the story: please note that all the normal disclaimers apply. Everything about this story is pure fiction, and any resemblance of any character to any actual human, living or dead, is purely accidental and coincidental. I am not in the story, and neither are you. So relax.

Silent Type

My friend Lester Steele has a lot to say, but generally says little, at least to us, his friends. I would describe his social style as somewhere between laconic and curt. He can actually be quite the orator when you get him going, and for a long time I assumed this was why he hates to talk—that he fears becoming a blowhard or something. But one time I managed to get him to explain, at some length, his reticence.

What Lester told me is that, as an attorney, he uses words all day long, chiefly to bully people, and when he’s off the clock he abandons words just like a mechanic lets his car fall to ruin, or a career line cook orders take-out when he gets home. Early in Lester’s career he advanced some legal position that, unbeknownst to him, was just flat-out wrong, but he didn’t realize this until later, after nonetheless winning his battle and getting his way. This was formative: it severed forever the link between truth (or even accuracy) and his ability to prevail.

Another time I caught Lester in an expansive mood (more accurately, I induced this mood via hard cider—more on this later), and gained some more insight. He said his rhetorical arsenal was getting more advanced: his non-verbal communication at work—for example, intentional ticks he employs during depositions, like causing his eyelid to twitch, or pulsing out the veins in his neck, or even doing something as blatant as trimming his nails, just to throw off his opponent’s balance—have become so brutally effective, he almost doesn’t need words anymore to bully people. So even when he’s stonily silent, he’s doing it. It’s long been the case that he’s found himself unintentionally practicing his craft on the rest of us, which he hates; now he can do it without words. So it’s to the point that he almost can’t stand our company at all.

I met Lester for a bike ride the other day. When I rolled up to the coffee shop to meet him, we exchanged only the briefest of pleasantries. I apologized for being late; he nodded; and we rolled out. It’s funny riding with this guy: his form is good—he’s obviously a seasoned cyclist—but he still rides 32-spoke wheels and refuses to get a modern helmet. The logos on his leg warmers have mostly peeled off and almost dangle, like skin tags, and I almost can’t resist plucking them off. But he’s oblivious to all matters of gear. It’s not a money thing; he’s presumably loaded. The rest of us have joked about staging an intervention and modernizing all his equipment, somehow at his expense.

We headed off up Claremont Ave, a two-mile climb at a 10% grade. Right near the bottom, while we were still warming up, a black Lexus SUV pulled out from the Claremont Hotel parking lot without looking, and we had to hit the brakes. I was astonished even before the driver, a worn-out Stepford wife with brittle hair and expensive sunglasses, rolled down her window and yelled, “Slow down—this isn’t a bike path!” Now, in a perfect world, Lester would’ve said something pithy that really put her in her place, but he remained completely silent. I had the usual back-and-forth with her, which was about as eloquent as small-market talk radio until, inevitably, I ended the discourse by slapping the back of my neck, twice, with my open palm, while making an “O” with my lips. The gesture is vaguely suggestive—of what, I don’t even know—and it never fails to elicit greater outrage than, say, flipping the bird or pantomiming something explicit. I was actually hoping to get some kind of rise out of Lester, but he looked off up the road and more or less patiently waited for the altercation to be over. Then he clipped back in and continued to pedal his bike.

Lester, at the tail end of a bad cold, was coughing up stuff and spitting it on the road at regular intervals. He really didn’t look so good—and yet, as the climb progressed, he just kept going harder and harder. Normally when a guy throws down the gauntlet, he flashes you a look, but Lester just stared at the road ahead. We left behind the high-end but architecturally challenged homes and followed the winding road up through the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. If I were a hiker with a knapsack full of guidebooks I’d cheerfully tell you about the mugwort, foxtail brome, thistles, and coyote bush growing along the road, but I’m a cyclist and wasn’t paying attention to anything like that. I stared at Lester’s back wheel for awhile, dying to keep his pace, and then pulled up next to him. He didn’t look over.

I started half-wheeling him, but this too seemed to escape his notice. Eventually he pulled ahead, but still he didn’t so much as glance at me. I knew he was on the rivet because his form was for crap, his shoulders rocking and his torso bobbing along, which you don’t normally see with Lester. He kept coughing and hawking loogies—and kept hammering. I couldn’t bear to watch: how could he go so hard when he’s not even well? I gazed off into the distance, noting a trio of turkey vultures lazily riding a thermal upward, and chuckled to think perhaps they were waiting for Lester and me to turn ourselves into carrion.

I didn’t feel much better than Lester looked, but if he wanted a battle royal, I thought, he shouldn’t be denied. So I waited until I was really dying—meaning he probably was too—and launched a sudden attack, passing and dropping him. The early evening sun was behind us and sinking, so I looked down to watch for Lester’s shadow, which I figured would be just below me when he got my wheel. Except he didn’t. I realized I had gotten a gap and, without looking back, continued to hammer. Still no shadow. I continued, in agony.

A minute later I couldn’t resist, and looked back. Lester hadn’t lost much ground, and his body hadn’t changed position since I’d attacked. It appeared he hadn’t even gotten out of the saddle. And he still wasn’t looking at me. He was just glaring at the road about ten feet ahead of him, steaming along. I felt kind of silly, like this duel only existed in my own mind. I backed off the pace and fell in behind him again. It just about killed me to stay with him, and there was no compelling reason to do so except morbid curiosity. What was up with this guy? Had I royally pissed him off over the Lexus driver?

He continued to pour it on, all the way to the final stretch, when his pace approached a sprint. I was thrashing ugly out of the saddle just to keep up, and just before the top he did the weirdest thing: he sat up and took his hands off the handlebars, and I thought he was going to throw his arms up in a victory salute, which didn’t make sense given the non-duel we’d just not fought. But instead he flung his hands forward, middle fingers up, flipping off … what? The ride? The road? The panorama unfolding before us? Then he put has hands back on the bars, checked for cars, ran the stop sign at Grizzly Peak Blvd, and started coasting down Fish Ranch Road.

The rest of the ride was uneventful. I continued my half-assed effort to draw him out, chattering away cheerfully and figuring if he didn’t like it he’d just tell me to shut up. Which he didn’t. At the end I asked, “Any chance of a furlough tonight to get a couple beers?” This was a bit of a joke. Lester famously didn’t drink, but we both pretended pear cider was non-alcoholic. Sometimes I could get him to go out. Finally he spoke. “Call me later,” he said.

That was encouraging; after all, he could have easily said nothing at all, the moody prick. Not that phoning him could have accomplished anything. He never answers the phone. It used to be that his wife would answer, and after some painful small talk she’d put him on, but that was before caller ID. Now nobody ever picks up. So I drove over there at about nine, by which time I figured Lester would be done putting his kids to bed. His wife answered the door by her pursed expression I gathered I was slightly less welcome than a charity guy with a clipboard. I don’t think she dislikes me, but seems to regard my bachelorhood with vague suspicion. Who knows, maybe if I conformed to her world better and had a wife and kids, we’d all go out together like forty-year-olds are supposed to.

She invited me in, we endured an awkward half-hug, and then I literally smelled Lester before he rounded the corner into the living room. More precisely, I smelled his jacket, which as always reeks of stale, sour cigarette smoke. I took this as a very good sign. Lester doesn’t smoke, but he has this leather bomber jacket that always stinks like this. I think he must periodically loan it to a friend who smokes, for the sole purpose of keeping the smell from wearing off. He only wears it to bars. I once pestered him about this until he explained, “Until they take the final step and ban third-hand cigarette smoke in bars, I’m going to make the experience as authentic as possible.” His wearing the jacket tonight meant he was actually going to come out with me. His wife said what about their video, but Lester didn’t respond. “Well, we have it for three nights,” she said quietly.

When we go to a bar it’s always the same one. It’s a nice dark place, the walls wood-paneled like a hunting lodge, with pictures of ducks and stuff on the walls, cushy deep leatherette booths, and a fireplace. It is saved from theme park perfection by a few pool tables, always occupied to add the continual clacking of balls to the general din. The music in there is loud enough to give you cover for conversation, but not so loud you have to yell. And of course they have the pear cider that loosens Lester’s tongue without officially violating his alcohol taboo.

For maybe half an hour Lester and I just sat and drank. I’m not really a bar type but it’s not hard to fake it. It was at this very bar that, years ago, I asked for a Fat Tire, and the barmaid said, “A Fat? Comin’ right up.” So now I just ask for a “Fat,” trying to sound casual. I suspect I sound like a self-conscious idiot, but then, how hard can it be to say “Fat” convincingly? It’s pretty sad how I admire the regulars for feeling completely at home here, but the fact is I do admire them.

Halfway through our second round I finally spoke. “So Lester, did I piss you off today over that Lexus driver, or what?” He shook his head (really it was barely more than a bidirectional nudge of his chin). I continued, “And yet you lit it up on Claremont and completely tooled me. What was that about?” He took a big drink of his cider, coughed, and said, “I was just hammering. It had nothing to do with you.” I pondered this a moment. At the time it really had seemed as though I was extraneous to his suffering.

I waited until he’d drained his cider and said, “So what’s with flipping the bird with both hands there at the end? I suppose that wasn’t aimed at me? Were you flipping off that Lexus driver after the fact?” Lester shook his head. “No,” he said, and then, after a pause, “That was just the curling back of the lips of a snarling dog. Those middle fingers were the canines.”
“So what were you snarling at?” I grinned.
“I was just pissed off,” Lester replied.
“At the Lexus woman?”
“No. Just pissed off in general.”
“So why did you even ride with me, if you were so pissed?”
“Okay, you’re right, the Lexus driver set me off.”
“Why didn’t you get up in her face then? Instead of leaving me to bawl her out?”
Lester paused. He stared at the ceiling for a moment. Then he paused some more. I decided he needed another drink. I went to the bar, got another beer and another cider, and sat back down. My second beer wasn’t half gone yet. Lester stared at his cider for a good long while. “Look,” he said finally. “It’s related to my work. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to blather on about my job or anything, but here’s the problem.”
ooooo“Wait,” I interrupted. “You should talk about your work sometimes. You probably have the highest-powered career of anyone I know but it’s like this taboo subject or something. I’m legitimately interested in it.”
ooooo“You really aren’t. It’s all work. It’s just a big hassle, like all jobs everywhere. I mean, if you work in Hollywood and hang out with big stars or something, that’s going to interest people. Otherwise it’s just somebody’s day to day hassle.”
ooooo“But there’s a lot at stake, right?” I said.
ooooo“Nobody ever dies,” he said. “Listen, when you watched Mr. Rogers or Ernie & Bert as a kid, did you ever wonder what they did for a living? At the beginning of every show, Mr. Rogers was just coming home, changing his shoes, putting on his sweater, glad to be done with his workday. Did you ever once wonder what job he’d just come home from?” Lester gave me a chance to answer, but of course I had nothing to say. “No. Of course not. It’s not interesting. Nobody cares, and nobody should.”
ooooo“Okay, so what were you starting to say? A minute ago?”
Lester took a big drink of cider, licked his lips, and continued. “Well, here’s the thing. All day long at work I fight with people. Not all lawyers do this. Lots of them research stuff, or write stuff. But altercations are my specialty. I’m good at them. My boss throws me into the middle of every altercation he can find. The more he does this, the more we win, the happier our clients are. It’s the point of my existence there. So I get really used to being right all the time. Well, not even necessarily being right, but just seeming right. I almost always prevail, and so I’m used to it. I’m like addicted to it.
ooooo“So whenever some person, or some entity, crosses me outside of work, it’s like when some martial arts type gets jumped in an alley. I just unleash on the bastard. The manufacturer conveniently loses my rebate application, or my insurance short-pays my claim, or my phone company quietly raises my rates. Every day it’s something, some new hassle, all thrown at me by companies who make their money jerking people around, knowing that most people don’t have the stomach for it. Hell, most people aren’t together enough to redeem gift cards, much less mail in rebates or cover the checks they write. And the companies have learned to make money off of exploiting this. So I tell myself it’s a matter of principle to smack these bastards down.”

Lester took another drink. “So every fricking day I spend battling people at work and then battling other people on the phone when I come home. It’s all a battle and each victory seems emptier than the last, because they never add up to anything. All I do is hold even. Life dishes out an inexhaustible supply of crap to deal with, just like no matter how much phlegm you cough up or blow out your nose, your goddamned body just creates more of it. At work I’m a prick all day, and I try to leave that behind when I come home, but it’s just a habit I can’t shed. I do try, but some little life hassle always puts me right back in that mode. So I guess you’re right, that woman in the SUV actually did set me off today. I managed not to engage with her, but of course she’d pissed me off, which flipped that little switch in my brain. Which in turn set me off thinking about this thing that happened the other day.”

Lester drained his cider—boozing-wise he’s a lightweight, but still he’s a really big guy and can just pour it down—and then continued. “So about that Lexus driver. I should explain something. Lots of guys, they lose their temper and do something stupid, mouth off or commit a violent act, and then they regret it later. I’m the other way around. I always manage to rein it in, exercise good judgment and everything, and then I regret that later. Instead of feeling relief that I didn’t take the bait, I start to feel angry at myself, at my own good judgment, I just stew. Like I said, I’m in the habit of prevailing and just can’t shrug shit off.”

I wished the barmaids came around to the booths here. I wanted to get Lester more cider but didn’t want to break the spell. Giving him alcohol is like putting gas in a car. He paused, and I almost got up for another round, but I waited and he started back up.

ooooo“So here’s what happened. I was at the corner grocery the other day with the kids getting a jug of milk, and Magnus begged me to get him a fruit leather. There’s a big display of them right at the checkout. My standard reply is, ‘Sorry, they’re not on sale.’ This time he said, ‘But Dad, they are!’ And in fact they were. Not wanting to destroy my credibility or break the news to such young kids that the world is an awful place with no justice, and because I’m a sucker for a sale price, I relented.

“Of course Alida wanted one too, and it took them a few seconds to pick out what flavor they each wanted, with me urging them to hurry because the cashier was already ringing up our milk. I helped them put their treats on the conveyor belt, and as I stood up this guy who had been behind me in line got right in my face! He was glaring at me, straight into my eyes, seriously like inches away from me, all angry like I’d insulted his mother or something. It was a totally bizarre action, a violation of my space, very threatening. And when something like that happens, I think it’s normal for all the civilization and learned societal decorum to just drop away, preempted by a completely primal response. At least, that’s normal for me. This seemed an act of outright aggression—and for what? Because I delayed him ten seconds at the checkout? I expected that once I’d risen to my full height—a bit taller than him—that he’d back down.
“Nothing about this guy gave him the right to be so bold. He was just a skinny little fuck, about our age, with nerd glasses, a polo shirt, fucking Dockers or something—a real Doogie Howser type. In other words, not nearly a match for a scrapper like myself whose natural pugnacity ought to be completely obvious to anyone who crosses me.” Lester stared into his empty glass, then lifted it and leaned way back to drain the last couple drops into his mouth. Then he just sat there. The pub was completely dead and I managed to signal the barmaid, who was bored enough to bring us out another round. Thank God. If Lester doesn’t drink almost continuously it’s like he just peters out. He sat in silence while the barmaid brought our drinks. She put my beer next to the other full one on the table. I sheepishly drained the last of my second beer and let her take the glass. Lester took a big drink and set his glass back on the table.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Lester went on. “There’s really only one right way for this scenario to end: I stare back at the dweeb, he immediately realizes he’s underestimated me, and he puts his hands up, palms forward, in supplication, and then removes his glasses, drops them at my feet, and with a contrite gesture invites me to step on them. But he didn't do this—he kept right on glaring at me. Any of our primate cousins would have immediately set out to strangle him, and my own brain responded with the non-verbal equivalent of KILL. I stepped forward, forcing him to take a step backward or be knocked over. The fact that he stepped back was good, but it wasn’t enough. Had my children not been there, or had they been trained to respond to ‘Earmuffs!’ I would have said something like, “The fuck you starin’ at!?” If he still stood his ground after that, I’d drag him out of the store and beat his ass. But of course I couldn’t do all this—my kids were there, I’m a responsible family man, I have a lot to lose. So I just glared at him, and at last he flinched.” Lester took another giant drink of his cider.
“I turned to the cashier,” he continued. “I’d been planning to pay in cash, but now I perused my wallet to pick out just the right debit card. I asked very sweetly for $20 cash back. Just then Magnus and Alida, practically in unison, said to the cashier, “May I please have a sticker and a balloon?” Good, children! Yes, let’s have some stickers, and by all means fire up the helium-spewing clown! Of course my kids’ timid little voices weren’t quite loud enough for the cashier to hear, so a fair bit of a dialog was required. The cashier herself was visibly smitten with the kids and in no rush whatsoever, and it took her a good while to summon the manager for balloon duty. Meanwhile, in all the excitement I somehow managed to enter the wrong PIN, and so had to start my debit transaction from scratch. This all took several minutes and a line was forming. I kept waiting for Mr. Hurried In-Your-Face to express himself again, but he didn’t. But you know, this passive-aggressive thing really isn’t my thing. It just doesn’t satisfy. I mean, deliberately inconveniencing the jerk was better than nothing, but frankly my civilized mind was barely winning its internal behavioral battle. I wanted blood.”

As Lester related this, I felt the strangest feeling—a physical sensation of the room gradually turning, with my vision not quite keeping up. I was like when you’ve just spun around a bunch of times in an office chair to get yourself dizzy, or when you’ve drunk too much. The only other times I get this sensation is when somebody has just delivered really bad news. And yet there was no bad news here. Just a tale that I was thoroughly enjoying. The voices in the bar, the music, the clinking of bottles, the clacking of pool balls, had all become slightly muted. It was like a head rush when you stand up too fast.

Lester went on, “So this was what started running through my head after that damn SUV driver cut us off. More to be pissed off about, and here I hadn’t even processed the Doogie Howser motherfucker yet. The dude had not been properly humiliated, and so there I was hanging on to this anger over it, still stewing like two days later. What’s wrong with me? So I started hammering up the hill. I kind of hoped the intensity of my effort would drown out all thought, but it didn’t. If anything it just got my mind racing even faster. I ran my mind back over all the details. What was it the worthless little man was buying? It was something in a little bottle, an herbal supplement, or maybe some amino acid or something. He’s probably a damn vegan, and here he was mixing it up with a guy who’d just eaten a bunch of red meat! The fool! He was so obviously a pussy—where did he get off, trying to stare me down? Is this what he does, goes through life lording his above average height over people, successfully intimidating them with only the slightest provocation? He literally underestimated me. If I hadn’t been kneeling down, he probably wouldn’t have messed with me at all.
ooooo“The more I thought about as I rode up Claremont, the angrier I got, and the higher the gear I shifted into. It really hurt, but that didn’t matter anymore. Surely I was working through other, greater sources of stress, but I found I could easily load all my life frustrations right onto this stupid jerk who thinks his precious time is more important than two little kids getting their fruit leather.” Lester drained his glass.
ooooo“As for you: like I said, my little hammer fest wasn’t about you. You were just collateral damage. In fact, you were less than that. You didn’t even exist. At the top of the climb, I just had this overwhelming anger and found myself flipping the bird to the road, myself, the world in general. A pointless gesture, but it seemed necessary at that moment. And then, just a few seconds later, as soon as I went over the top of the climb and was able to coast, my whole mood went slack and I utterly ceased to care about the stupid little episode at the store. If I saw that guy again now, I’d probably laugh. Unless he got up in my face again, in which case he’d have to hope my kids were there to protect him.”

Lester looked intently at me for a moment. “Tell me what you’re thinking right now,” he said. This caught me off guard. I’d been listening for so long, it was like I forgot how to talk, how to form a sentence of my own. “Well,” I started, hunting for the words, “this is the problem with being too progressive, being the modern man. We start to deny our basic urges. We get all tuned into finessing social situations, reading facial expressions, basically behaving like women, when we want to be Jason Bourne taking in the room and measuring the distance to everybody in it, every possible threat, or like the Daniel Craig James Bond who could figure out how to kill half the people here in like five seconds, blowing up oil drums and everything to make his escape. We modern sensitive types have acclimated to this gentler society but we still have these killer instincts we haven’t evolved out of.”

Lester picked up his glass but there was nothing in it and he set it down again. “That’s not what I see on your face,” he said. “You don’t look like a frustrated man tamping down his aggression. You actually look like you might have almost smirked a minute ago. What are you really thinking right now?”
I was pegged. I hadn’t even realized it until he pointed it out, but I had felt something like a smirk. Something about the end of his story had struck me as a bit … pat. Such an excess of facility in his telling of it. So now I answered, as honestly as I could: “Well, I was just wondering. That story you just told. Have you told it before? Or had you worked it out in your head?” Lester didn’t answer. He just looked at me.

Perhaps ten seconds passed. I couldn’t take the silence. So I went on, “When you have those angry feelings … do you, like, think them through in complete sentences? Or do you narrate them to yourself? The way you told that story was just so … polished, I guess.”

Lester picked up his glass yet again, and slammed it down on the table. Fortunately the coaster had stuck to the bottom, cushioning the blow. “Glib,” he said. “That’s the word you’re looking for. Damn it!” Just as he said “Damn it,” there was a lull in the music and his voice carried a lot further that he’d intended. Several people looked over, including the barmaid. Lester put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.
Another song started up, a pool ball clicked, and Lester slumped back in his chair and exhaled. “Listen, that’s just the way I talk,” he said. “Even as a little kid I spoke in these perfectly shaped sentences. In my career this is called thinking on my feet, and of course it’s an asset. The rest of the time, it’s pretty much useless. I just hold people captive, for no good reason, a captive audience, like I want to have everybody in my grasp, hanging on my words. Like I did, with you, tonight, which might have swelled me right up, gratified my ego, except you’re inwardly laughing at me like I’m some kind of freak show.” He got up and took his reeking leather jacket from the back of his chair. Without another word he walked out of the bar.
I just sat there, a bit stunned. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I finally decided since I had two untouched beers in front of me, I might as well have a few sips before heading for home. This might give Lester enough time to calm down a bit. He’d be walking straight down San Pablo Ave, and it was cold out there; surely he’d accept a ride home. It’d be an awkward, silent drive—but then, what else is new? dana albert blog

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Highbrow vs. Lowbrow

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


Nobody needs to be encouraged to embrace lowbrow entertainment. Widespread embrace of the vulgar is nothing new; in fact, the word “vulgar” derives from the Latin word “vulgus” meaning “the common people.” You’re probably thinking, especially given my last sentence there, that in comparing lowbrow vs. highbrow entertainment I would always champion the latter. Thus you may be surprised, perhaps pleasantly so, that I also think it possible to embrace the highbrow too enthusiastically. In this post I will use a pair of recent entertainments to examine the question of when and how we should choose one brow height over another.

My credentials

Naturally, before you spend any time reading this, you’ll want to satisfy yourself that I’m even in a position to comment. After all, since I’m an opera-hating jeans-wearing guy without a graduate degree, who likes all pizza—even frozen pizza—and can’t help but pronounce the name “Proust” to rhyme with “oust” instead of “boost,” you may question my authority in casting aspersions on the highest cultural realms our society can achieve. On the other hand, since I often post really long essays to this blog, have a liberal arts degree, and pronounce “crêpe” to rhyme with “pep” rather than “scrape,” and since I actually bothered with the accent over the “ê” just now, you may consider me so far out of touch with the mainstream that I could never give lowbrow entertainment a fair shake. I hope to put both of these misgivings to rest.

As far as my highbrow cred, I literally do have a fairly high brow, and as I get older and my hairline recedes, it’s only getting higher. I majored in English. I have had some success reading St. Augustine, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Mikhail Lermontov in the original Latin, French, and Russian, respectively, and I know how to use the word “respectively.” I have enjoyed live theater performances of “Faust,” “Volpone,” and various Shakespeare plays. I have been to a poetry reading, and I enjoyed it. I can write a sonnet.

On the lowbrow side: I can recite the entire ad copy of a Coast deodorant soap commercial from the ‘80s; I watched “Star Wars” nine or ten times in the theater when it first came out, and again as an adult; I can sing the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island.” I avoid listening to NPR (lest I find myself playing it in my Volvo while driving through Berkeley, which would render me a human cliché) in favor of FM 107.7, The Bone. I almost snorted with derisive laughter when a realtor touted a condo in my old neighborhood as being “walking distance to the thea-tah.” I call a spade a spade when it comes to overbearing, insufferably pretentious and dull movies like “The Remains of the Day.”

In this corner…

What could be a more timely representative of the lowbrow camp than “Avatar”? I saw it recently and have much to report.

First, the bad news. Two tickets ran us $34, by far the most we’ve ever spent on a movie. Parking was another $10. My 3-D glasses were pretty grubby and I had to wonder how many filthy kids had worn them before me. Then, given the combination of 3-D and having to settle for front-row IMAX seats, I had a hard time, for the first half-hour, focusing on everything on the screen. Trying to make out the facial expression on a twenty-foot tall 3-D head, for example, made my eyeballs hurt. Thus, I had trouble getting into the trance that is the unique pleasure of a movie in the theater. And I haven’t even gotten to the plot cheese yet.

Before discussing the plot, I’ll take a moment to dismiss the more nitpicky things. The price was actually pretty economical when you compare it to other IMAX movies, like the lousy Mt. Everest thing I saw years ago that only lasted like forty minutes. Besides, “Avatar” cost like half a billion dollars to make, and it shows. (I’ve always enjoyed how the length and budget of a movie don’t affect its price.) Ultimately, $17 a pop is perfectly reasonable because from the standpoint of spectacle, “Avatar” is fricking awesome. My mind hasn’t been so satisfyingly blown by a moviegoing experience since I saw “Pink Floyd - The Wall” in 1982.

As for the plot of “Avatar,” I say if you’re going to do anything cheesy, the action or sci-fi genre is where to do it. When romance or comedy is cheesy, it’s pretty much unwatchable, as in the case of “Titanic.” The cheeseball stuff in “Avatar” isn’t actually that bad. Sure, a final man-to-man showdown was utterly predictable, and the anti-corporate message was a bit twee in the context of the most well-funded and lucrative movie ever made, but we were all braced for the cheese factor going in.

Meanwhile, Cameron gets major style points for staging a giant battle between a state-of-the-art military battalion and a bunch of natives with spears. The last time this was tried was in “Return of the Jedi,” with those damned Ewoks, and I don’t need to tell you how utterly awful that was. For anybody to repeat that kind of matchup again takes some serious cajones. And trust me, the “Avatar” battle scene is fricking glorious. I went from wondering how a bird could take down a giant military helicopter to gasping and (inwardly) cussing with delight at seeing how it’s done.

On top of delivering on pure action-chewing satisfaction, this movie makes you think—in a good way. For an action movie to make you think can of course be a bad thing; for example, if you try to sort out the time-travel nonsense in “The Terminator” or the recent “Star Trek,” you start to wonder if the movie was really that good after all. But here are some of the interesting things “Avatar” can make you ponder long after the film itself is over:
  • Neytiri, the main Na’vi character, was pretty hot. The movie’s creators evidently want the audience to feel something like actual lust for a member of another species. Should we as a society be concerned about where this is headed?
  • Why did I have vision problems for the first thirty minutes of the film? How is it that my brain eventually adjusted? Could this movie have actually made me smarter somehow?
  • Why didn’t this movie win Best Picture at the Oscars? Is it because the Academy are a bunch of fricking idiots, as was so strongly suggested by “Chicago” winning in 2002 despite being just about the dumbest movie ever made? Or is it because “The Hurt Locker” has such a compelling name that people just want to like it, the way they like tiramisu and Hootie & the Blowfish? Or, could it be that “The Hurt Locker” is actually a better movie, to which all hundred or so people who saw it can attest?
  • What does the brilliant use of 3-D in “Avatar” mean for the future of movies? Could properly executed, non-gimicky 3-D rejuvenate the theatergoing experience, at least until home theater systems catch up? Could great 3-D make it possible to revive formerly moribund movie franchises? For example, even though the “My Dinner with Andre” trilogy was never completed after its second installment, “My Dessert with Andre,” fizzled at the box office, might not “Dinner/Andre/3-D” be just the kind of shot in the arm this property needs?
And in this corner…

Against “Avatar” I pit the King Tut exhibit at the newly revamped de Young museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. On paper, this exhibit should be a fearsome contender in our highbrow vs. lowbrow face-off. The exhibit is being held at a famous museum in a legitimate world city; everybody has heard of King Tut; mummies have captured our collective imagination since we were kids; Tutankhamen reigned over Egypt when it was a massive world power; and, even in death, Tut out-pimps even the richest rap star. And, we can bring the kids! For months Erin has been telling Alexa and Lindsay how they’re going to get to see a real mummy!

As before, I’ll start with the bad news. It’s really, really expensive. As in, $27.50 for adults on weekdays, and $32.50 on the weekend. Each. Seniors over sixty-five, after working all their lives, save a whopping two dollars, and kids over age five are $16.50. That’s some serious coin. Haven’t these museum people heard about the economic meltdown? How many eggheaded liberal arts types actually make enough money to spring for such a thing?

At least we’d be getting a guided tour for our money. (When our family toured the Tower of London last summer, the tour guide was a real highlight.) But when we showed up at the appointed place at the appointed time, nobody was there. An employee told us, “Oh, when there aren’t a lot of people, we meet at the bottom of those stairs over there.”

Downstairs, we found the ticket-takers and were shown to a big pair of doors. I asked the guy there if he was the tour guide. “Oh, there’s no tour,” he said. “Unless you want the audio tour; you can get your listening device over there.” For nine dollars extra, per person, that is. No thanks; between the usurious entrance fee, the parking, and the $20 we’d blown on a quick snack in the museum cafeteria, we weren’t feeling that flush. Besides, a tour should be given by a real person, ideally a really smart, knowledgeable, and funny person who can answer questions.

But still, our spirits were high. While we waited for the doors to be opened, Erin tried to pump the kids up a bit. “Girls, this is it!” she said. “We’re finally going to get to see a real mummy!” But the doorman broke in: “Uh, actually, there’s no mummy here.” That’s right, not only is King Tut not part of the exhibit, but no other mummy is, either. The guy said the U.S. has “a mummy” but it’s over at Stanford undergoing some tests. He went on to say that we would get to see the coffins of Tut’s two stillborn daughters. That didn’t exactly cheer us up. Erin asked if the daughters were twins. The guy had no idea.

Finally we were let in. There were little things in cases—statues and stuff. One was a bust of some princess or other, with this strangely elongated head, roughly the shape an unshelled peanut. Lindsay asked me why the head was so strangely shaped, but I couldn’t tell her; oddly enough, the little plaque just said something like, “Lots of statues of the period had strangely elongated heads. The reason is not known.” Next to this was a bust of Nefertiti which was actually pretty cool. Her head wasn’t all elongated, and I like to use the phrase “bust of Nefertiti.” Good ring to it.

I guess I should have sprung for the audio tour. For those without it, I think there should be elevator music of some kind, because it’s hard to think about King Tut without getting that Steve Martin song from the “Saturday Night Live” skit stuck in your head. It gets really old after awhile.

There were ten rooms full of stuff. In the third or fourth room was a big coffin in the shape of an Egyptian. It wasn't as fancy as what Tut got, but was still pretty ornate, with the Battlestar Galactica headdress and everything. It’d have been even cooler if they’d made a full-sized wooden replica that we could climb inside, or if somebody knowledgeable could have helped me fully appreciate what I was seeing; there’s only so long you can gaze at an object and wonder about it. (Perhaps you’re thinking that, my earlier credentials notwithstanding, I’m just not cut out for museums. Not so. I have enjoyed many museums in my life, including such humble venues as the Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas and the little Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and I spent three days taking in the Smithsonian.)

The coffins of the stillborn daughters were much less impressive. They were very small and looked more like the shoeboxes that the coffins might have come in. Meanwhile, the plaque told us that it isn’t actually known whether these were Tut’s daughters, or somebody else’s. Most of the plaques and things had this sort of “whatever” aura about them—the written equivalent of a guy shrugging and saying, “Who knows? It was a long time ago.” The most commonly mentioned fact was that Tut was only nineteen when he died, and he died for no known reason. This was hammered into our heads again and again. From an educational standpoint, the entire exhibit reminded me of a student paper printed in a really big fixed font, with wide margins, to meet the five-page-minimum requirement.

Probably the coolest thing we saw was the “coffinette.” Only fifteen inches tall, it was something they put some of Tut’s organs in. I wish I’d looked at it longer, but I was really looking forward to seeing Tut’s actual coffin in the final room of the exhibition. But when we got there, there was no coffin to be found: just a video showing all his coffins, nested like Russian Petrushka dolls, the largest shrouded in a pair of giant gold boxes. The cheek! All these coffins, and you couldn’t include a single one in your exhibit? There was also mention of servants who were buried in the same crypt with Tut, to help him in the afterlife. Couldn’t the museum have thrown in a servant mummy or two? Or one of the servant’s coffins at least? We’d been duped: the picture on the ads (that I included above), showing the gorgeous coffin, was actually a picture of the coffinette, shown pretty much full-scale.

Somebody needs to explain to these curators that the whole idea of a museum is that you see actual ancient objects with the naked eye. If all they have to show me is video on a TV screen anyway, why shouldn’t I just go see a movie, maybe in 3-D at an IMAX theater? I want from a museum what the best video technology cannot give me. And I want the attraction I came to see; I want to see Tut, not just some of the crap they found in his car.

In the final room, we saw what I guess was supposed to be the highlight of the exhibit: a big slab on the floor onto which a ceiling-mounted projector shone a picture of Tut’s mummified body. This photo showed the location of some of the articles (a knife, a breastplate) that were on display. For some reason, the slab they were projecting onto was black, so the image was cloudy and vague, like a ghost. (Perhaps they didn’t even have good photos of the mummy—maybe just some black-and-white ones taken in 1950?) Lindsay pointed out, “King Tut was a lot taller than you, Dana.” For a second I was tempted to reply, “Actually, people in that time were much smaller than modern man. The size of this image is completely arbitrary, as it’s based on the distance between the projector and this slab, and thus on the ceiling height of this room.” But I didn’t want to deprive my daughter of whatever sense of wonder she might be gleaning from the exhibit. So I said, “That’s right, Lindsay, Tut was a very tall man. That’s why he was king.” (Note to de Young curators: this is called showmanship. Something lowbrow entertainers have a nice grasp of.)


The big lesson to take from the Tut exhibit is this: highbrow entertainers shouldn’t abuse the privilege. Sure, they’ll get some mileage out of the Emperor’s New Clothes effect; some striving intelligentsia will pay a lot of money just to say, “Well, we just took in the Tutankhamen exhibit at the de Young on Sunday” (they would never just say “Tut” when they could showcase their ability to pronounce “Tutankhamen”). But if you’re going to do highbrow, you can’t do it half-assed and expect to please the more discerning members of your already limited audience.

The flip side of this is that some of the greatest entertainment is achieved by aiming for lowbrow and doing such a good job that the resulting product is vaulted past the supposed limitations of its humble category. In other words, real genius is not actually reserved for the intellectual elite.

Perhaps the most obvious aspect of this is children’s literature, which is lowbrow almost by definition. Children, after all, are too small to have high brows, and too young to follow, say, the ontological discussions of Jacques Derrida or the subtleties of a Samuel Beckett play. But great literature doesn’t require advanced vocabulary or complex literary structure; just look at books like The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White or Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Critics have long challenged the idea that Huckleberry Finn is a children’s book at all, and as for The Trumpet of the Swan, the other day my kids were playing a tape of the author reading it, and it sucked me right in.

It would be a disservice to the highbrow types to suggest that big words or complicated intellectual concepts are the only qualities of their preferred entertainment. I’m led to believe that opera lovers truly enjoy the singers’ voices, on a purely aesthetic level (in addition to the pleasure they get from ancient drama told beautifully in another language). What the opera lovers might be surprised to learn is that what they might consider opera’s musical opposite—rap—can also be enjoyed on the basis of the rapper’s voice. For example, the rapper Obie Trice has a great voice, rich and defiant and chewy, and I’d like to meet him some day and, ideally, piss him off, because to be chewed out by that guy would surely send shivers down my spine.

Rap is actually a great example of transcendent lowbrow. Rakim has said, “It’s just the beat, the beat, the beat,” but really, it isn’t. In terms of articulating teen angst in simple language, Holden Caulfield has nothing on Eminem, who raps, “That’s when you start to stare at who’s in the mirror and see your self as a kid again/ And you get embarrassed/ And I got nothing to do but make you look stupid as parents/ You fuckin’ do-gooders, too bad you couldn’t do good at marriage.”

But simple language isn’t the hallmark of rap music; the lyrics are often as complex and ingenious as classic poetry. Consider this line from Obie Trice: “Ob’ Trice rock harder than infinite horny men.” It’s funny, of course, but it’s also remarkably sophisticated. (Some literary types may bristle at the rap convention of boasting, but is Shakespeare any different when he writes “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,/ So long lives this [poem], and this gives life to thee”?) Trice not only finds a solid metaphor to express how hard he rocks, but he also packs a second message about his virility through the implied verb “to be.” That is, he’s also saying “Ob’ Trice be rock-harder than infinite horny men.” It’s a nice grammatical twist: “rock” is a verb in one context and an adverb in the other, while “harder” does double duty as an adjective and an adverb. And that’s not all. By using “infinite” as you would a specific number, the way kids do (e.g., “My dad could beat up infinity-plus-one of your dads!”), Trice reminds us of his lack of education, thus highlighting how clever he can be without it. Not a bad bunch of layers for an eight-word sentence.

All of us English majors know how jam-packed classic poems are with allusions to literature, history, and such; it’s why there are so many footnotes to wade through. Good rap isn’t so different. When Eminem raps, “If I had one wish, I would ask for a big enough ass for the whole world to kiss,” he’s alluding to (and mocking) a well-known 1971 Coke ad (“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love”). And when he bags on his mom for his crappy childhood—“Goin’ through public housing systems, victim of Munchausen Syndrome/ My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t,/ ‘Til I grew up, now I blew up, it makes you sick to your stomach”—the attentive listener reaches for his encyclopedia. (Eminem is actually talking about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, by the way.)

I hope I’ve helped you appreciate how lowbrow entertainment can transcend the more modest ambitions of its genre. It may seem that I’m also suggesting that highbrow entertainment should try to aim a bit lower. Certainly there’s precedent for this, like how Nabokov gleefully saturates Lolita in references to ‘50s pop culture. But I’m not saying highbrow entertainment necessarily should do this; Tolstoy plays Anna Karenina completely straight and it’s a masterpiece. Dumbing down serious art is the last thing I’d recommend, but it’s tempting to say high culture should take itself less seriously. Then again, the failure of the Tut exhibit was, I think, that it didn’t take itself or its audience seriously enough. What I will conclude is that highbrow entertainment shouldn’t be afraid of enticing a larger audience even at the risk of alienating its cultural elite.

For example, I’ve witnessed firsthand how a famous museum can amuse the masses even within a serious exhibit. The Tower of London had a great name for its exhibition on the armor worn in the days of Henry VIII: “Dressed to Kill.” The irreverent British sense of humor permeated the exhibits; for example, they showed the suit of armor made for Henry VIII in his forties when he’d become quite fat, and didn’t pull punches in bagging on their famous king. I can’t remember the wording, but they went into some detail about how he’d become so dissipated and lame he never even wore the armor, begging off his tournament appearance against another king with some half-baked excuse.

Here’s another example of how simple pleasures can work within highbrow entertainment: I saw “The Last Station” recently, which is about the final months of Tolstoy’s life and the power struggle between his wife and the officers of his Tolstoyan political movement. Not exactly crowd-pleasing stuff. But early in the movie, our hero, a young man hired as Tolstoy’s new secretary, arrives at the Tolstoyan commune and sees an attractive young woman chopping wood. As soon as I saw the woman I thought, “Oh, those two are definitely going to hook up,” and I wasn’t wrong.

I don't fault the movie's creators for throwing a bone to the less bookish members of the audience; actually, for me the movie was more satisfying visually then intellectually. The apparent manipulation of Tolstoy by his acolytes seemed unrealistic, given his massive intellect, but would I have traded the scenes of the young lovers for half an hour of explanatory voice-over? I would not, and I give credit to the creators of “The Last Station” for remembering that this is a movie, after all—we came to see something. Who knows, perhaps “Remains of the Day” might have been tolerable if they’d had Anthony Hopkins slip into his Hannibal Lecter role and slaughter a few dozen Ewoks.
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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I'm Not Complaining

The new kit

My bike club just got its 2010 clothing (or “kit” as people like to call it) and I have to say, I’m tempted to complain. We switched to a new manufacturer this year, which I’d never heard of, and I knew something was wrong when I hefted the long-sleeve jersey and it felt like you could mail it with one stamp. Don’t get me wrong, cyclists like lightweight gear, but this jersey seemed tissue-paper thin. Normally long-sleeve jerseys are thicker than short-sleeve because (duh) you wear them when it’s cool out. So this was a little odd.

I put the jersey on and found that when I reach forward with my arms, like when I’m on my bike, the sleeves don’t come all the way down to my wrists. I expect this when I’m wearing a suit jacket, but with a cycling jersey? I didn’t try on the shorts right away because we were only suiting up for a photo shoot and I’d be standing in the back anyway.

Next I tried on the short-sleeve jersey and it was just as lightweight. And it felt, well, small. The sleeves didn’t come down very far, requiring me to pull up the wafer-thin arm warmers as far as they’d go to reach the sleeves. Like most “race-fit” jerseys, everything was tight everywhere except the elastic on the sleeves. Why do these clothing manufacturers think cyclists have big biceps? Do they think we bench-press or something? The arm warmers would only stay up for about two or three seconds at a time, so it was a challenge having them both up long enough for the camera shutter to open and close.

The short shorts

When I got home from the photo shoot I took the shorts out of the bag. Uh-oh. They looked like something I could dress one of my daughters in, or one of their dolls. Plus the chamois seemed absurdly thick. (A chamois shouldn’t be thicker than a pancake. A couple years ago we got these overly thick chamois we nicknamed “full-stack.”) I looked at the label to make sure it was really a size Large. It was indeed labeled Large, though the label also said “Made in China.” That’s a first for me. Most cycling clothing I’ve owned was made in USA, Europe, or South America. I’m not saying the Chinese can’t make good bike clothing; after all, they seem to do a good job on everything else. Perhaps they just get the sizing wrong; maybe to them this pair of shorts did seem large.

Anyway, I tried on the shorts, and when I tried to slip the shoulder straps on (they’re bibs) I found I couldn’t—they just didn’t reach. Of course, they’re Lycra, so with some effort I managed to wriggle my way in, but when I was done it was kind of hard to breathe. It was also hard to stand up straight; this clothing should come with a few handlers to carry us over and put us on our bikes. A few days later I chatted with a cycling pal who had similar difficulties. He said he practically had to lie on the floor in a fetal position to get his shorts on, and once they were on he felt like Borat.

First time out

I suited up early Sunday morning for my first ride in the new kit. It’s a good thing I was wearing leg warmers, because these shorts don’t come down very far; with that much leg showing I’d have felt like a woman in a spin class. I’d layered up with a long-sleeve thermal top and an old sleeveless jersey, and over these garments, the new long-sleeve jersey fit especially tight. It might not seem like this is a bad thing; the fit is supposed to be close. In fact, the first Lycra bike clothing was called “Second Skins.” But putting this jersey on, I felt like a reptile trying to put back on the skin it had just discarded via molting. As I pulled up the zipper, a little puff of air was forced from my lungs.

Feeling straitjacketed, I climbed on my bike and set off. At least the clothing was warm enough … no air was finding its way in, that’s for sure. I felt like my outfit was hermetically sealed. And the chamois didn’t feel so thick when I was actually riding—probably because it was stretched out way thin, like bubblegum, since the shorts fit so tight.

I’m not complaining!

But as I said before, I’m only tempted to complain. It might seem like that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, but I actually wasn’t complaining. I was just sayin’. I rode to the coffee shop to meet up with some of my teammates, and the first thing I noticed is that of the six or eight guys, only two (including myself) were rocking the new shorts. Some sort of laundry-day-harmonic-convergence, perhaps? Mm-hmm. It didn’t take long for the first person to complain about the new kit (I think his exact words were “This clothing sucks!”), and I was invited to offer my opinion. I didn’t take the bait.

Why not? Well, for one thing, when the officers of my bike club were out looking for a clothing provider and negotiating discounts, etc. I didn’t offer to help. And it’s not like I’m bringing glory to the club and thus deserve to behave like a prima donna. The other thing is, it’s not like there’s any recourse anyway. The clothing was printed up with our logo, our sponsors’ logos, etc. so we can’t exactly return it to the manufacturer. Even if they could sell it at their factory outlet, we wouldn’t want any non-racer-types flying our colors for us. (Imagine how tight the clothing would be on them.)

A couple decades ago I was on a bike club in San Luis Obispo, and the manager sent all the jerseys back because the manufacturer had put their own logo on the sleeves of the jerseys, without paying for that privilege. Our manager insisted they replace the sleeves with blank ones. He got his way, but in retaliation the manufacturer took the elastic band for each sleeve and put a full twist in it, making it into a Möbius strip, before sewing the fabric around it. Not sure we want to go down that path again now.

The danger in griping

Meanwhile, I feel I should be cautious in deciding I have a basis to complain. The normal grounds would be a) the clothing doesn’t look good, or b) it’s not comfortable. As far as looks, what am I—vain? As a man who wears hair gel and has been known to clip his fingernails without being prompted, I’m already on thin ice and have to be careful about seeming to care too much about my appearance. As far as comfort, why worry a lot about it in a sport that’s famously painful and uncomfortable? How am I supposed to retain bragging rights after a cold, rainy ride if I’ve been complaining about a lousy chamois?

There’s also the matter of a stoic tradition I would like to be a part of. Some of the world’s greatest heroes were all the more heroic for making do with what they had. Think “Apollo 13.” Think of the miserable, oft-bombed, food-rationed Allied Forces enjoying their finest hour during WWII. Think of John Cusack’s character in “Better Off Dead” who won the skiing race in the end after losing a ski. I dream of approaching their mettle when I’m out there in my new kit, pedaling away while the new shorts gradually prepare me for joining a boys’ choir. (On the flip side, would I rather earn a comparison the anti-heroes of “The Princess and the Pea,” or “The Fisherman’s Wife”?)

On the plus side

On top of all this, it’s too early to tell how the clothing will work out in the long run. Maybe having all my organs compressed like that will toughen me up, like doing pushups with a kid on my back or bench presses while somebody sits on my chest. And I figure with these tiny shorts my butt is squeezed so skinny that Kate Moss would be jealous; might that not help me psych out my competition at the Everest Challenge next year? And speaking of that race, with its typical 90+ degree temperatures, I have to think this ultrathin clothing will be appropriate, so long as I don’t get a sunburn through it.

Meanwhile, there are small pleasures afforded by the new gear. The tight fit of the jersey fools me sometimes into thinking I actually have a chest, like I’m a big burly man or something. And at the beginning of a downhill the other day, I was intrigued by the shriek of the zipper, its teeth chattering together at high frequency as it strained against the taut fabric. Best of all, at the end of my ride I got something like that delicious relief you get at the end of a day of skiing, when you free your poor feet from the iron-maiden-like grip of your ski boots. Après-bike has never felt so good. dana albert blog