Friday, May 7, 2010

Follow-Up: The Cost of Rinsing


Right here in the pages of albertnet, I was dressed down for a recent report, “A Study on Rinsing.” It was a very public admonishment, given by my brother Bryan in a comment attached to the post. Now, I can’t fault Bryan for reproaching me; after all, he’s my older brother, so this is his job. In like fashion, the psychology of birth-order dictates that as the youngest brother I need to upset the apple cart by steadfastly refuting Bryan’s every point, right here in this public forum. (I suppose if we were on Facebook I could save time by simply de-friending him and letting the gossip mill tease out every detail of our dispute. But I’m not.)

This post provides a copy of my brother’s comment for your convenience, followed by my counter-argument. It must be noted that Bryan’s statements were completely serious but also tongue-in-cheek. I intend to match him tongue for tongue and cheek for cheek, in a seriously cheeky tongue.

Bryan’s comment

Bryan wrote:
“Maybe it’s the Dutch in me, but I just couldn’t make myself spit out perfectly good food, especially when it’s expensive exercise drink. (I don't know why that isn't an issue with you... Maybe you really do have a different father. That would explain a lot of things, actually...) Shoot, I can barely even make myself eat my own expensive energy food I got as samples from the various rides I’ve done, even though they are mostly out of date by now. I find myself thinking, ‘This ride isn’t really long enough or hard enough to deserve one of my precious gels.’ By the time I realize that I really should be eating my precious, it’s usually too late. But I never learn.“As for spitting it out, it’s not going to happen. I may swish it around for a while just to get the most out of it, but I’m sure that any psychological benefit from spitting it out would be overwhelmed by guilt. There are people exercising in India and we Americans are spitting out energy drinks out on the street. Really.”
You’ve doubtless noticed what a fine writer Bryan is, and perhaps you’ve even asked yourself, “Why couldn’t he be the blogger in this family?! This guy is concise, funny, and moreover he’s right.” I am moved to challenge only the last bit, but I shall give it my best.

Perfectly good food

Needless to say, Bryan is off-base here: energy drink is not food. It has absolutely no nutritional value, other than sugar. The sugar is useful only to the extent it supports the quality of the exercise, so if tasting the sugar without ingesting it does the trick for awhile, there’s no point in ingesting it as if it were food. It’s not like with Popeye; even if he could gain his amazing burst of strength from chewing his spinach and then spitting it out, it would still be better for him to swallow it, because spinach is a good source of niacin and zinc, and a very good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, Vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and manganese. But energy drink? No value there at all.

Wait, you might say: energy drinks have electrolytes! Yes, they have two: sodium and potassium. Now, sodium isn’t exactly hard to get and I can’t imagine Bryan would argue I don’t get enough of it to sustain me during my workouts (which have averaged only an hour and a half over the last six years). And as for potassium, the energy drinks provide only a scant amount (Cytomax provides 3% of the U.S. RDA, Gatorade 2%, and so on). Especially since I’m only talking about a small proportion of the drink being spat out, this laughable amount of potassium is clearly of no importance. (Eight ounces of orange juice, meanwhile, provides 14% of the U.S. RDA for potassium and 161% of Vitamin C. I would never spit it out.)


Now I shall address Bryan’s comment about the expense of that wasted energy drink. To paraphrase something our dad once said to Bryan: “What we need here is a math major.” (The actual quote was “physics major,” because at the time Bryan hadn’t yet switched to math.) The point of this comment, of course, is to diss Bryan for failing to apply his considerable math skills to this matter. I was only an English major, but I knew enough to glean the most important lessons from my other subjects; for example, I mastered the factor label method from Chemistry. Applying that method here, I have calculated the cost per mouthful of spat-out energy drink (the price of energy drink is based on my last purchase of it, and I measured the mass of a mouthful of liquid by spitting water into a measuring cup):

So, rinsing twice per ride ends up costing a dime. I have averaged 121 road rides per year for the last six years, so the cost of my rinsing is about twelve bucks a year. (Bryan has averaged thirty-nine road rides per year over the last six years, so his cost of rinsing would be less than four dollars a year.) Hardly worth getting so indignant over, if you ask me. (Needless to say, I don’t rinse when riding the trainer. That could get really disgusting.)

Different father

I imagine the point Bryan is making with this aside is that my profligate spending is completely out of line with our father’s legendary frugality. To satisfy the curiosity of my albertnet audience, I’ll give just a couple of examples of Dad’s thrift.

On family vacation trips, we always camped. This was mainly because camping is fun, but there was a budgetary component as well, as was evident when the campgrounds were full and we’d have to get a motel. Back and forth along the streets of some little town or city we’d drive, late into the night, looking for the best deal. Then Dad would get a single room, and we would sneak, one by one, into the room. I can remember as a really young kid being scared that I’d make too much noise, we’d be discovered, and the whole family would go to jail. I also remember sleeping on the thin, scratchy motel carpet with a flimsy motel towel over me as a blanket.

There was also the matter of the thermostat. Winters in my hometown of Boulder were very cold, but we were absolutely forbidden to touch the thermostat. This isn’t terribly unique, of course; Jerry Seinfeld even has a shtick about it, where as an adult he phones his parents and taunts them by announcing he’s just turned up the thermostat, over which has father had had absolute control throughout Jerry’s childhood. Where our dad was unique was in overriding the absolute minimum that our thermostat could be set at. It had a little mercury-bubble switch that wouldn’t go below 60 degrees because the little bubble would hit up against the edge of its curved glass tube. Unwilling to incur the cost of keeping the house that warm, our dad removed the unit from the wall, took it apart, revised the label in his neat handwriting, and reinstalled the thermostat at a new, odd-looking angle so it would go down to 50 degrees, which is where it stayed, 24-7-365.

I disagree with Bryan on two fronts: 1) his idea that my lack of thrift suggests I had a different father, when in fact our mother was also quite thrifty; and 2) the very suggestion that I’m not thrifty myself.
It was from Mom that I learned that grocery shopping requires cunning and vigilance if you don’t want to get ripped off. She knew, and I came to learn, that no store has good prices across the board—you have to figure out which stores had the good prices on which things. For example, the Berkeley Natural Grocery has good prices on dairy products, but really high prices on produce. Monterey Market has great prices on produce and dairy, but lousy prices on prepared foods like peanut butter. Safeway has good prices on prepared foods but only if the items are on sale. Mom taught me how the whole sale and coupon business makes grocery shopping a lot like day trading. By carefully observing her example, I have developed her uncanny intuition to predict when a given item will go on sale, at which time I stock up on my beloved staples.

It was also from my mom that I learned about food expiration dates. These are largely fictional and can generally be ignored; just give the food a good sniff. I also would never have guessed that food that has turned usually won’t hurt you. Is the milk sour and lumpy? Don’t drink it then (my mom has advised me) if the taste bothers you, but if you accidentally ingest it, fear not: you won’t actually get sick. Mold on the bread or cheese? Just cut it off and eat around it. Mom is a microbiologist; she knows her stuff, and her lessons have saved me a lot of money. I came back from vacation recently and an old jar of salsa had begun to ferment; it fizzed and buzzed on my tongue like Pop Rocks Action Candy. I shrugged this off and used up the jar. Back in college I routinely fished food out of the trash that my cowardly roommates had thrown out prematurely. And a few weeks back I came across some expensive smoked trout hiding in the fridge; it was pretty old and had a trace of stink to it. I couldn’t bear to throw it out, though, so I threw it into a big pan of gorgonzola gnocchi. Gorgonzola is a strong cheese. The meal was a hit; nobody noticed anything amiss.

My precious

Bryan’s reluctance to use up his precious gels (and other energy foods) indirectly makes a point about frugality: perhaps the greatest threat to fiscal efficiency is being jaded. Most citizens of the First World have their basic needs (food, shelter) met; what keeps many of them from amassing real wealth is a combination of 1) limited earning power and/or 2) wasting a lot of money on stuff they don’t need.

For me, going to a garage sale is like seeing a parade of a family’s ill-chosen purchases. After all, if this stuff were totally worn out and used up, it wouldn’t be for sale; clearly, it is on the block due to a terminal case of buyer’s remorse. Similarly, craigslist is like a clearing house for the objects of fickle consumerism. On the consumable front, everything we eat and drink ends up in the same place—the toilet—so if it was expensive, it better have given us all the performance and pleasure we sought from it.

A rich quasi-family-member once took my mom and me to a fancy French restaurant in Berkeley. Throughout the meal, all he did was complain about the various ways in which the restaurant came up short. The food tasted fine to me; I came away wondering if being an epicure might not be a very good idea. Could it be that too much of the good life might just strip the pleasure from wealth? In contrast, when I did a long ride with Bryan in Oregon recently, and we were slogging our way up Dead Indian Memorial Road, he continually marveled at how tasty his energy drink was. He was truly stoked, just to have it. I came away impressed at how, simply by doing without, Bryan has cultivated a fine appreciation for simple things like sugary drinks. On this point—that frugality fosters gratitude for simple pleasures—I must agree with my brother.


  1. I think I'll send this to my brother...

  2. WOW, Olive Oil, Pasta - as staples!
    We should hang out!