Saturday, October 30, 2010

From the Archives - Business Travel


I used to travel a fair bit on business. Not so much anymore, partially due to technologies like conference calling and net conferences. I realized recently that I’ve gone over a year now without a business trip. In observance of that anniversary, I offer here a humor piece on business travel, from my archives.

Rest assured I did not actually submit this extravagantly detailed report to my employer. That said, every item, thought, feeling, and reflection presented here is 100% factual.

The photo below has nothing to do with this post. I just think it’s funny.

From the Archives - EXPENSE REPORT

“Please include all details of Meals, Entertainment, and Other expenses (IRS REQUIRES).”

Date: 8/4/97

Amount: $14

Description (names, titles): Myself, Super Shuttle to SF Int’l Airport

Details: The van showed up early, catching me just out of the shower. Ran to van with belt and shoes in my hand, hair wet, tripping over my duffel bag. Van got me to the airport almost two hours before my flight.


Date: 8/4/97

Amount: $4.15

Description (names, titles): Myself, Burgers, Etc., SF Int’l Airport

Details: “Burgers, Etc.”: the name suits the place nicely. Totally uninspired, dutifully descriptive; they could have called it “Burgers & Crap.” If you’ve looked at my receipt, you may wonder why I had a meatball and a tuna sandwich at 8:13am. It was a mistake: the clerk, Rhad, was new and hit the meatball sandwich button by mistake. He then made matters worse by canceling the tuna, rather than the meatball, sandwich. If you’re wondering why I got a 20% “Airport Employee Discount,” it’s to compensate for the price difference between the meatball and the tuna (so Rhad wouldn’t get in trouble for botching his over-ring).


Date: 8/4/97

Amount: $333.59

Description (names, titles): Myself, flight to Columbus, OH

Details: Asked for exit row for more legroom, got wrong exit row seat that had no extra legroom and didn’t recline, had no left-hand armrest. Felt guilty for ignoring flight attendant’s safety instructions. Airline magazine had pointless article about Ruth somebody, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, and how it was called “Chris’s Steakhouse” for years until our enlightened period when she could put her own name on it. I wonder if the waitresses still wear short denim miniskirts. Ads in the magazine were for Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and for a variety of products and services aimed at executives: seminars by either Steven Covey or Charles Kurault, on either improving quality or increasing shareholder value, or both. Dozens of ads for new laptops, new cell phones, new two-way pagers, more ways to accrue frequent flier miles—evidently ads designed to rub travelers’ noses in the frantic pace of their lives.

SkyMall catalog was equally depressing: pages and pages of ads for inspirational posters, framed or unframed, with captions like “DEDICATION: If we don’t take care of our customers, somebody else will” below, incongruously, a close-up of a handshake. Or, “ATTITUDE: It’s the only buzzword you lowly cogs of industry could ever hope to understand,” below a picture of a grossly magnified drop of water hitting the surface of a pool. The silent movie was “Dante’s Peak,” starring Pierce Brosnan. Another Hollywood loss-leader, mercilessly foisted upon the trapped traveler, and I wasn’t about to spend $4 on headphones to find out if it’s any better with sound.

In-flight “meal” was blanched pressed ham product, white foam bun, little Pepperidge Farm “Exquisite Cookie” which was a sandwich cookie the color of an undercooked waffle with a brown middle tasting like the faintly minty product they put in green mint chocolate chip ice cream. Beverage: my usual tomato juice, of which they must have a glut, because they gave me the whole can, which I spilled. Paper napkin became a red, stringy mess, like a murder.

Flight attendant’s singsong voice was a perfect replica of some prototypical flight attendant of long ago, who should be paid royalties for his or her now classic inflection, with special emphasis placed on those words that are the most unnecessary: “Please do be sure to check around your seat for any personal items you may have left on boaaaaard. Be careful opening the overhead bins as items may have shifted duuuuring the flight. Should your future travel plans again call for air travel, we do hope that you will again choose America West as your airline pro-viiiii-der.”


Date: 8/4/97

Amount: $4.51

Description (names, titles): Myself, Pizza Hut, Phoenix Airport

Details: I do not know why the receipt says “Manhattan Brew T8.” It must be a ghost of what this Pizza Hut once was. This was my layover. I had one glistening cheese pan pizza, purchased after an endless search that kept turning up the unhelpful trio of “America’s Best Bagels,” “Hot Dog Factory,” and “Cinnabon” repeated in disorientingly identical food courts throughout the airport. The other alternative was an airport bar full of miserable smokers. Had just enough time after my Pizza Hut “meal” to stand in line at a phone booth behind three other business travelers, all apparently running late and ready to murder a women who couldn’t get her calling card to work. Gave up on getting voice-mail. Saw several joyous family reunions at the gate, wished I was travelling on pleasure.


Date: 8/4/97

Amount: $143.15

Description (names, titles): Myself, Avis, rental car, Columbus, OH

Details: Car was a midsize, Buick Skylark or equivalent, as promised on my itinerary. Can’t remember what it was, but it was exactly equivalent to—certainly no better than—a Buick Skylark. That is to say, it was the kind of car that nobody would actually buy; the kind of car people win on game shows. A car that was so nondescript that it got lost in parking lots—I would find myself wandering about, befuddled, comparing the license plate number on my keychain to that of a hundred other fleet cars. Felt trapped because the seatbelt would automatically lock me in when the engine was running. This would have made it awkward when dropping off passengers, though I had no passengers. Just somebody else’s car stereo presets.


Date: 8/4/97

Amount: $18.86

Description (names, titles): Myself, Grady’s American Grill, Hilliard, OH

Details: Service was, as usual, impeccable. Everybody in the Midwest is so nice. They bend over backwards and it’s really unnecessary: I’m eating by myself, with nobody to impress with my choice of restaurant, no business to conduct that requires silent, efficient service with no distractions. Don’t make too much fuss, I want to say, it’s just me, taking in my nourishment. The waitress was new. I asked her if she recommended the seafood pasta, and she said, “Well, that depends. If you like pasta, and you like seafood, then I would recommend it. But if you don’t like seafood, then I wouldn’t get it.” Fair enough.

During the meal the waitress—perhaps sensing my loneliness—refilled my water six times, brought more bread, and asked, “Does the seafood pasta taste good?” I assured her the taste was excellent. We did not discuss texture, appearance, or quantity, all of which were excellent. On my left, a couple, the man grand, the woman petite, having a fine time, the man eating most of his wife’s dinner and all of his. A group of six were loud and boisterous. Another couple, perhaps on their first date, were eager, polite, reserved, and stricken, either with love or shyness. I alone was quieter. I wish sometimes for a restaurant that only seats single diners—all tables of one.

(Before settling on Grady’s, I had wandered into TGI Friday’s and was immediately scared off by its lively music, “fun” crowd, and paper-lined plastic baskets of onion rings, fried mushroom buttons, and other munchables. A fun place, you know, to take a bunch of friends, especially if you’re all losers. I also ruled out Spageddies, as I had eaten there once before and found it highly mediocre. I remember that meal well: I’d had a fettuccine dish consisting of limp pasta in what had to be Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, with the lightest dusting of fresh Parmesan cheese, dispensed ineffectually by the waitress, who was new, and who held the excellent Zyliss rotary cheese grater backwards and upside down, turned the handle the wrong way and unscrewed it from the grater, until finally I gave up and said “when” and that’s all the cheese I got.)


Date: 8/4/97

Amount: $97.23

Description (names, titles): Myself, Homewood Suites Hotel, Hilliard, OH

Details: Depressingly palatial. Huge living room, desk with two chairs, sofa, armchair, TV, VCR, kitchenette with range, fridge, dishwasher. Two closets. The bed was longer than my queen at home, and wider than it was long. Could’ve slept my three brothers and myself easily. I used just one edge of it, like Gulliver in the seldom remembered “Brobdingnag” episode of his travels. There was a second TV in the bedroom—I could have watched two shows at once. Two bureaus, two nightstands, two Gideon’s Bibles. Imagine: a traveling couple cannot manage to share a Bible, so they each take one up and sit there, side by side in that gargantuan bed, reading.

I imagined putting up all my friends here the night before a bike race. Three would easily fit in the hide-a-bed in the living room, four in the bed, a dozen more on the floor. We never had such nice accommodations when I was racing; we’d be crammed into the available floor space of a single room. Here they have a pool, a spa, cable, continental breakfast, even “getting to know you night,” which is every night, and which is free food down in the lobby. Free food! Imagine! The calendar on the fridge tells what food is on what night: on August 4, it was “baked potatoes with the works.” The next night was Spageddies night. I never did attend “getting to know you night,” because I am depressed by the thought of getting to know the hotel staff. Am I really here that often?

Actually, this is my first stay at the Homewood—the latest stop in my nomadic search for the least offensive hotel. You see, as embarrassed as I am by how seriously these places take my simple needs, I’m strangely irritable in all matters of hotel comfort. Since convenience is the only benefit to travelling, the silver lining on being away from my wife and everybody else I know, I have become slavishly devoted to it. The slightest flaw becomes egregious. I gave up the Sheraton Suites because, besides being too far from the office, they insulted my intelligence by having Nintendo in the room, and had this ridiculous round mirror, on an articulated arm, bolted to the main bathroom mirror. What its use was I’ll never know, but it just banged around and got in my way, and distracted me as I found myself struggling, time and time again, to figure out its purpose. The Wyndham Suites was too noisy: the air conditioner shrieked like a wind tunnel, the bathroom fan was always on, wheezing and rattling, and a construction project—a badly needed renovation—caused various annoyances like a half-mile detour to get to the elevator. Beyond that, the shower head came out around my chest, so washing my hair became a contortionist’s act.

The Sumner Suites, meanwhile, is so convenient to the office that it took a huge number of grievances before I finally gave up on it. For one, the elevator bell was way too loud, which not only woke me up (I sleep nervously on the road) but insulted me with its needlessness. I mean, who doesn’t notice that his elevator has stopped, and that the doors are open? Then, their workout room was absolutely swimming in Lemon Fresh Pledge. One time, the housekeep left my door open all day. What’s more, once when my Vingcard stopped working, the front desk staff gave me a new key, no questions asked, meaning any respectable-looking fellow could get instant access to my room. And, perhaps most annoyingly, when I routinely smuggled the extra bath bar into my toiletry bag, they never replaced it. As though the housekeeper was saying, “I know your kind—you soap stealers, do you think we’re stupid here! I saw your squirreled-away soap! You’re not getting two bars a day just to take home!” Damn it, that soap is rightfully mine. It’s like my consolation prize, something to take home to my wife as a peace offering after leaving her home alone all week.

Now, the Homewood Suites is much better. I’m sure I’ll have my minor grievances—I’ll tire of the two identical paintings which won’t vary from room to room, and of the sandpaper-like fake Kleenex, never more than five tissues to a box. And, I’ll probably never get over the fact that the windows won’t open. I read an article about hotels, actually, and about what they’re willing to do for customers and what they aren’t. Your nicer hotels are willing to use tan-colored towels, for example, even though they can’t bleach them—a nice touch. But almost no hotel will have windows you can open, because, among other things, they’re worried about people jumping.

dana albert blog

Friday, October 22, 2010

This Was Only a Drill


Yesterday was the Great California ShakeOut. Now, just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock and haven’t heard of this, it was the largest earthquake drill in the history of the United States. (Okay, I wouldn’t actually fault you for not having heard of it. I hadn’t myself until Wednesday.)

Ideally, I’d have posted this report yesterday—the topic may already be getting stale—and now I’m in poor condition to write it. I just got back from the International Potluck at my kids’ school, where I ate two kinds of egg roll (greasy and extra greasy, both good), three versions of lasagne, three more uncategorized pastas, some weird silvery noodles, shepherd’s pie, potstickers, fried rice, an uncategorized crock-pot rice thing, salad, two kinds of chow mien, some weird potato thing, and a bunch of other stuff. Whatever loss leaders my kids didn’t like I ended up with—“Here, I’m going to share with you,” Alexa announced, shoveling the entire contents of her plate right onto mine, all of it sifting together in the process. (And we call it … The Aristocrats!)

After all that food, and all that used food, and then the desserts, and all those food nationalities not getting along so well in my belly, I’d rather be curled up in the fetal position right now, groaning, but instead I’m going to race you through the Great ShakeOut. Such is my commitment to the enlightenment of my readers (if any).

What is the Great ShakeOut?

At 10:21 a.m. on Wednesday (10/21, get it?), almost 8 million Californians responded to a warning noise of one sort or another and crawled under a desk and held on. About a minute later, everything got back to normal. This isn’t a complete description of the event, as I’m sadly no expert. For one thing, that number is probably a bit low; my wife and I, for example, were not among the 7.9 million participants counted so far. I never registered, though apparently I still can.

Almost nobody I know has talked about the ShakeOut, other than someone in my book club who actually missed the drill itself because she was busy preparing refreshments for the event. Had there been an actual earthquake, I’m sure she’d have dropped what she was doing. At least she was a part of things.

The point of the ShakeOut is to help people understand, and practice, the proper response to an earthquake. The official instruction is to drop to the floor, crawl under something sturdy like a table or desk, cover your head, and hold on to something. For more detailed instructions, click here.

What not to do in an earthquake

I feel a need to point out here that the “drop, cover, and hold on” approach to surviving an earthquake has been challenged in recent years by a competing approach called the “triangle of life.” Five years ago, a friend sent me (and a bunch of other people) an e-mail titled “Post-research EARTHQUAKE SURVIVAL TIP.” It was a forward of a forward of a forward of a message from Doug Copp, the “Rescue Chief and Disaster Manager of the American Rescue Team International (ARTI), the world's most experienced rescue team.” (I forwarded it to a bunch of people myself, I think.)

Copp wrote, “In 1996 we made a film which proved my survival methodology to be correct. The Turkish Federal Government, City of Istanbul, University of Istanbul Case Productions and ARTI cooperated to film this practical, scientific test. We collapsed a school and a home with 20 mannequins inside. Ten mannequins did ‘duck and cover,’ and ten mannequins I used in my ‘triangle of life’ survival method. After the simulated earthquake collapse we crawled through the rubble and entered the building to film and document the results. The film … showed there would have been zero percent survival for those doing duck and cover. There would likely have been 100 percent survivability for people using my method of the ‘triangle of life.’”

For the last five years I’ve held it in my head that the triangle of life technique was the way to go. Only in reading about the Great ShakeUp did I learn that this technique, and Copp himself, have been thoroughly discredited. His rescue team is far from “the world’s most experienced,” and is in fact a rinky-dink volunteer group. Copp has been accused of bilking the U.S. government out of about $650,000 in compensation for false injury claims stemming from his rescue work at the World Trade Center after 9/11. His “triangle of life” techniques have been dismissed by the American Red Cross, assuming this statement is authentic. (Needless to say, I’m trying to be more skeptical these days.) Other refutations of Copp’s nonsense are here and here. Perhaps the best report on this topic, with great instructions about what—and what not—to do during an earthquake, is here.

My earthquake experience

I spent my formative years in Colorado, where there were no earthquakes; people worried about tornadoes, or didn’t. (I never did, being a dumb kid and also associating tornadoes with the Wizard of Oz, which meant relegating them to the realm of kids’ fantasy.) When I moved to California, I actually hoped to go through some earthquakes, as a way to earn some cred as a Californian. (I also learned the large regional vocabulary comprising ways of saying “dude,” and adopted the word “gnarly”—ironically at first, and now completely straight.)

In 1989, I was a student at UC Santa Barbara when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. We didn’t feel it down south, but my roommate was on the phone all day checking on his Bay Area friends and relatives. That’s about all I knew about it, other than having a vague idea that something bad happened to the Bay Bridge. (Part of the upper deck fell down.)

In my last two years of college I shared a top-floor apartment with some other guys. I ignorantly hung this giant framed picture right above my bed. One of my roommates, a Ph.D. student in Mechanical Engineering, explained to me why that was a bad idea. But the more he talked, the more convinced I became that the picture looked just right in that location, and I decided to leave it. Some months later, I experienced my first earthquake in that very bed.

My first thought, of course, was how stupid I was to have hung that picture there. My second thought (as I covered my head and braced myself) was that at least it was a cheap, lightweight frame with clear plastic instead of glass. But then the room really got to swaying; my third thought was that the world was ending. It’s difficult to describe what a mind-blowing experience it is to realize that the Earth, which you thought was completely stable and rigid, is actually almost fluid. My room felt like a small boat being tossed about in the waves. Amazingly, the picture didn’t fall, so I left it there for another year or so (before realizing it was really ugly and taking it down on aesthetic grounds).

Getting practical

At my last apartment, in San Francisco, I gave a little more thought to the actual possibility of being hurt or killed in an earthquake. (Maybe I was alarmed because, our furnace being broken, it got so damp in that place that a bedroom wall collapsed, the drywall soaked with condensation; this reminded me that physical dwellings aren’t much different than really fancy cardboard boxes.) I’d heard that much of San Francisco was built on fill dirt, including the Marina district not far from my place. I happened to work for a consulting firm that had maps of such stuff, and to my great relief I discovered that my building was among the few built on Franciscan bedrock. What luck!

Once I became a homeowner, of course, I begin to truly fear earthquakes for the first time. The initial (pre-purchase) home inspection hadn’t turned up any major structural shortcomings, but even so my wife and I decided to have the house inspected by a seismic engineering firm. The first thing that pointed out is that our master bedroom is right over the garage, meaning it has only three load-bearing walls instead of four. They recommended about $8,000 in retrofits, to be divided into two phases. I was of course in no position to second-guess them. They threw around terms like “shear forces,” “cripple walls,” and “movement frames,” and my eyes glazed over, and I wrote them a check for four grand.

They did seem busy down there in the crawl space, but I don’t know exactly what they did; for all I know, they played cards. We never did get around to the second phase, and I can’t foresee having enough money for it anytime soon. But when I got an opportunity to buy earthquake insurance, I took it, and though I shudder to think how much I’ve spent on it over the years, I do breathe a little easier.

Silver lining

There are positive aspects to the California earthquake risk. First of all, it keeps a lot of people away. I know the cliché is that rich Californians are always invading places like Oregon when they retire, polluting these innocent communities with their money and their weird ideas. But this state is pretty crowded itself, and the more people decide to settle here, the more competition we have for jobs, and the more expensive it gets for us to try to buy property of our own. So when people deride the Bay Area for its earthquake risk, its famous cold and wind and fog, and our rolling power outages, I’m quick to agree. Yes, you’re right, it’s an awful place. Please stay away.

The other thing to remember is that when San Francisco was completely destroyed by earthquake (and the resulting fire) in 1906, the timing was actually pretty good. That was the golden era for architecture, in my opinion, and when the city was rebuilt, they really got it right. Imagine if that earthquake had happened in the 1950s … every replacement home would look like something out of “The Brady Bunch.” It would be horrible, like Marin County. Obviously that earthquake was a real tragedy, but it sure could have been worse.

The Great ShakeOut

On the big day, things didn’t go smoothly. I was supposed to be at the office in San Francisco, where an announcement would be played and everyone in the building would drop, cover, and hold on for about a minute. But an early morning conference call (an occupational hazard of being in the Pacific time zone) went long, and I realized I wouldn’t make it to the office by 10:21. So I decided to work from home. Of course, taking it upon myself to do the drill, rather than reacting to a sudden announcement over the PA system, just didn’t seem right. So I downloaded an earthquake drill recording from a page and used the Windows Task Scheduler to have it play automatically at 10:21.

It worked almost perfectly. My only regret is that my PC speakers aren’t louder, and that there wasn’t more space under my desk. My wife and I squeezed in there—I had to hurriedly chuck a wastepaper can out of the way—and as we thumped around looking for a good place to hold on, we couldn’t hear the instructions very well. I’d hoped there would be a big whooping siren sound on the MP3 recording, but there was not. A minute later the drill was over and I have to admit, it was a bit anticlimactic. (In case you were thinking there was something romantic about the two of us under the desk together, think again: I hadn’t yet brushed my teeth.)

My daughter Alexa participated in the ShakeOut at school, but didn’t see fit to mention it to us. I asked her about it tonight and she said, “Yeah, we had a drill.” I asked how long it lasted. “Oh, a long time. Well, it was like two or three minutes. But it felt like an hour. It was really uncomfortable under my desk.” She dropped, covered, and pantomimed holding on to something. Her form was so good … I felt proud, and glad that she’s in a school that does things right.


I wouldn’t say the Great ShakeOut changed my life, but if I hadn’t become aware of the event, I’d never have learned that my former earthquake strategy—the “triangle of life”—was completely wrong. Plus, I now have some resources to glance at now and then. I’ve already scheduled my PC to run the drill recording for next year’s Great ShakeOut (which will be on Thursday, October 20 at 10:20 a.m.). Above all, when I’m surfing my bedroom floor down to the driveway one day, busting through gas lines in the process, at least I’ll fell like I did something to prepare for the moment.

dana albert blog

Friday, October 15, 2010

Homemade Pasta


I eat a lot of pasta. As a cyclist, I kind of have to. Or maybe I ride simply to increase my pasta uptake capacity. I’ve heard or read something about the brain chemistry of pasta; all those pleasure hormones or whatever, dopamine and serotonin and such. I won’t get all technical other than to say pasta makes people happy. I don't think it’s possible to be too jaded to enjoy it.

This post is about homemade pasta, by which I mean the kind you make with a hand-cranked pasta machine. It is a rare art; many an Italian restaurant doesn’t even bother making their own pasta. I usually use store-bought, but when I can I make my own, and perhaps you should too.

As no other organizing structure suggests itself to me, I’ll give you this dispatch in the (perhaps mythic) who-what-where-when-why-how format of the newspaper reporter.

Who, Where, and When

It all started, for me, in the early ‘70s when, according to my mom, pasta machines became something of a fad for awhile. She bought a nice one called the Rollecta 64. The word Rollecta, among my brothers and friends, has the same mythic ring as “Stradivarius” or “Stratocaster.” This was the original, as far as we know. If my mom ever actually used it in the ‘70s, I never knew about it. I do recall shredding paper with it as a wee lad during the Watergate years. (Of course I knew nothing about Watergate; it’s just a neat coincidence.)

When I turned ten or eleven my mom asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner. I asked her to make homemade pasta with the machine. I’d long been intrigued with the Rollecta; many times I’d played with it and read the (fading, falling-apart) instructions: “Two turns of the handle and you will have fresh pasta … just like in Italy!” My brothers were off at scout camp or something so it was just my parents and I. My mom got a late start, and my dad was grumpy about dinner being late. (The marriage wasn’t in good shape.) My mom got flustered, and nothing came out well. The Rollecta was again put away and forgotten.

Three or four years later I tried the machine myself. The first few pasta batches were sketchy—the dough was too moist, and stuck to the machine—but the process was oddly engaging. Like alchemy, almost; you start out with something cheap and unexciting like flour and eggs and end up with something approaching gourmet. Vague notions like the activation of glutens fascinated me, and yet this process was much more foolproof than baking (an art which bewilders me to this day). My brothers and friends started getting in on the action. Long before we figured out how to make the pasta really good, we became really proficient at generating it. Eventually any two of us could work that pasta machine together as though choreographed. Even working solo, I could go from a pile of ingredients to having the pasta ready before the water even reached a boil.

During my college years, I initiated most of my friends into the pasta-making rite. (Most were cyclists, so it was a perfect fit.) Post-college, as my friends started getting married, my standard wedding gift was a pasta-maker. This was probably a mistake in most cases, and I’ve been wondering lately if it would be in poor taste to ask my friends if any of them would like to sell his pasta machine back to me. Probably most of them ended up getting sold at a garage sale. My brothers Geoff and Bryan have gotten vast use from theirs, however. Bryan takes his camping—even, in one case, on a raft trip. Geoff, deciding the pasta machine deserved to be on permanent display in his kitchen, bolted it to the counter. (Normally you use a C-clamp that goes in the hole you see in the side of the machine in the photo below; the clamp has a tendency to slip from time to time.)

Every year or two I get a couple friends together and make pasta for fifty-plus guests. This can get pretty gnarly.


All that goes into homemade pasta is flour, olive oil, eggs, and water. I used to hold out the egg whites, but leaving them in doesn’t hurt anything and gives you some protein. I’ve substituted soy lecithin for eggs before (believe it or not, my dad’s kitchen once had lecithin but no eggs), or (just to try it) skipped the eggs entirely, which worked just fine. Store-bought pasta is, amazingly, nothing but flour (and nutrients—niacin, ferrous lactate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid—all of which are surely needless). The eggs I put in homemade pasta help bind everything together and are good for you. The oil tastes good and helps keep the dough from sticking. I use as little water as possible (more on this later).

As early as the mid-‘80s I was turned on to semolina flour for making pasta. I had to agree the resulting pasta was way better than what I’d been making with plain white bread flour, but I was really strapped for cash in those days and thought the semolina too pricey. (The guy who turned me onto it was a wealthy pro bike racer who could afford such luxuries.) I have just discovered, through surprisingly little research, that I made the permanent switch to semolina on September 29, 1991.
Semolina is a gorgeous golden yellow color, and in its pre-pasta form is very coarse, almost gritty. A miracle occurs as you work it: it gets less and less scratchy as you knead it, and once it’s been through the rollers of the machine a few times it gets as soft as chamois. Semolina pasta dough is delightfully springy and stretchy. Just look at the color:

Every pasta machine I’ve seen has two types of cutting blade. One is for fettuccine, and the other is for something a lot more slender (though in most cases it’s a square cross-section, not round, so I wouldn’t call it spaghetti). I’ve only ever made fettuccine, other than recently when the dough got too dry to cut and we made lasagne with it—which was dynamite, by the way. Actually, I've made ravioli a couple times with a special attachment. The first time I followed the directions exactly and it was great. The second time I improvised with the filling and it was a disaster.

This post is not about sauce. That’s a whole other story. I will tell you that in the early years, I would go to the bulk foods aisle at King Soopers and buy a gallon can of Ragu Old World Style—a barebones, dirt-cheap sauce. It was a lot like tomato soup. I called it “the paint can,” as in, “You guys get started on the dough, I have to run out and get the paint can.” I don’t miss penury. Make a good sauce for your homemade pasta.


Before I get to “why,” I’ll mention why you may not want to make homemade pasta, and why most pasta machines go the way of exercise bikes (i.e., are utterly forsaken). Making pasta is not easy, at least not at first. It’s a bit messy, and the easier time you have with the dough, the less well the pasta turns out. (As Anthony Bourdain has pointed out, “food is pain.”) If you use white flour and plenty of oil and water, you’ll have your dough in fine shape in no time, and kneading it will be a cinch. But the resulting pasta will sag and stretch out under its own weight, and will seem to be fully cooked almost instantly. It will offer no resistance to the tooth—indeed, it cannot truly be cooked al dente. To make homemade pasta that surpasses the quality of a good brand like De Cecco requires patience, skill, and experience.

(A note on store-bought pasta brands: I’ve had great luck with every Italian import I’ve tried. I used to think anything in a box was good, but time after time I was disappointed. Turns out several brands I tried are all made by the same outfit—New World Pasta, formerly known as the Hershey Pasta Group—and they’re all the same crap. Yes, Hershey like the cloying, waxy chocolate. Barilla is pretty good though.)

All that aside, there are many good reasons to make homemade pasta. First of all, even your earliest efforts will be far from inedible, and you may well enjoy the thrill of making something from what seems like nothing. Plus, you can make the noodles whatever length you want. For my brother Bryan’s wedding rehearsal dinner, we made noodles that were over fifteen feet long. They hung over a span of half a dozen cabinet doors.

And, finished product aside, making pasta is fun. It’s a great way to have a dinner party with people you don’t know very well; my wife and I spent a great evening making pasta with a bunch of her cousin’s French in-laws, most of whom didn’t speak English. If you have an extra machine, you can let little kids make “pasta” while the adults make the actual dinner. (Just remember to throw out the stuff the kids made; who knows what might find its way into that dough.)

Among people you know well, making pasta is even more fun, especially when you start to work together like a well-oiled machine. Homemade pasta was my only dinner party trick as a college student. What else could I afford to feed guests? Toast? Turkey dogs?

Finally, making pasta is a great way to slough off dead skin from your hands. A coarse ball of early semolina dough is just like a loofa. And there’s really no better way to get the black gunk out from under your fingernails. No, of course I’m not serious. These are just some of the stock jokes you crack to newcomers to the pasta-making process.

Once you know what you’re doing, homemade pasta is just the best you can get. I seldom order pasta at a restaurant, even a really good restaurant, because I can actually make it better at home. Imagine!


First, get yourself a pasta machine. If you have a KitchenAid mixer and a bunch of money, you can buy the pasta attachments for it. Otherwise, get yourself the heaviest Italian hand-crank machine you can find. Until very recently I’d have unequivocally recommended the Marcato Atlas, which is what most of my friends have. A spot-check for an amateur review of the Atlas gave me this gem: “I had this particular machine, and had to leave it behind when I left my husband, and the jerk would not send it to me later!!! If I had not left on the bus and was already laden down, I would have taken it. I could cry that I had to leave it, because it is a wonderful machine, built solid and probably the best made, in my opinion. The reason I am on this site, I am looking to buy me another one.”

I just bought an Atlas, to back up my original Rollecta, and at first blush they look about the same:

The difference is, the Atlas has aluminum rollers. I’m not a conspiracy theorist who thinks aluminum will make you soft in the head, but it’s a matter of construction. At my big pasta party this year, the spanking new Atlas broke almost instantly. (One of the rollers became disengaged from the gears.) This left me a machine down when I had seventy people to feed. (Amazingly, a guest took it upon himself to fix the Atlas, and after ninety minutes succeeded. This was too late, but at least I have a working machine now.)

There is one benefit to the new Atlas over older machines: it’s geared lower. This means you crank at a higher RPM than with the Rollecta; the benefit is that a child can roll out the pasta. (Alexa, at nine, doesn’t have the strength to work the Rollecta on suitable dry dough but is highly productive with the Atlas.) As far as I can tell there are two main brands, Atlas and Imperia, and they’re probably both great. Just don’t buy some damn plastic electric thing that looks like the little Play-Doh barbershop set where you turn a handle and Play-Doh hair grows out of a guy’s head. Craigslist is teeming with these plastic electric jobs but I couldn’t find a single hand-crank machine for sale. That should tell you something.

Next, get yourself some durum semolina flour in the bulk section of a good grocery store. Get some good eggs. (Pasta doesn’t require special eggs, but you should always get good eggs, because otherwise you’re subsidizing the needless torture of hens.) Get some good olive oil. The proportions are roughly as follows:
  • Three pounds semolina flour
  • Six large eggs
  • Six or eight tablespoons olive oil
  • A small glass of water
Put the flour in a big bowl, or pour it in a dome on a big clean table and make a crater in the middle. Add the eggs and the oil. Throw some extra oil in there if you like; can’t hurt. But don’t add too much water! Start with maybe a quarter of a glass. Squish everything together and try to make a big ball out of the mixture. It should be a crumbly mess. Keep working it until you’re fed up with how it’s just not forming a discrete ball. Okay, now add a bit more water.

You might want to consult the online how-to guides, but only to see what it looks like if you add too much water. How-to guides want to make it look easy, but it just isn’t. Except that it is; you’ll work maybe five or ten minutes until you have something like a ball. How long is that, really? Too long for streaming video, but nothing compared to waiting in line at a good restaurant or making a standing rib roast.

Here’s roughly how the dough balls (or loaves, whatever) should look when you start the kneading process:

Not long after making the above movie I broke the girls’ dough balls into smaller units so their little hands could get somewhere with them. Knead the dough for like ten or fifteen minutes. After awhile this process should make your hands tired and a bit sore—a good sign. When the balls seem nicely springy and elastic and the texture is no longer coarse, you’re ready to start using the machine. Here’s what the dough loaves should look like at this point:

Get a big chef’s knife and slice them up about like this:

Now you set the rollers on your machine to the widest-open setting, and feed a piece of dough through the rollers as you crank the handle. (You might well have somebody crank for you.) If the ball goes right through and forms a nice flat sheet on the first try, your dough is too moist. (It’ll work fine, but the resulting pasta will be flabby and weak.) The rollers should fight the dough a bit, and do not worry if it comes out a bit ragged, with big holes in it, like a really old washcloth that’s gone through the wash a few too many times. Look how hard Alexa is working here: she has to really push hard to get the pasta into the rollers. That’s the way!

After the first pass, things will get progressively easier. Soon the dough will form a nice flat uniform sheet. You can fold it in half lengthwise and roll it through again to make the sheet longer. You can fold it in half widthwise to make the sheet wider. Experiment. Have some fun. Roll the dough through again and again. As the dough takes form and softens, the process becomes addictive. It’s very relaxing and satisfying.

How many times through the rollers? At least five or six on the wide-open setting, then once each at each narrower setting until you have the desired thickness. How thin? Pretty thin. Maybe the second- or third-thinnest setting. See what you like. The only rule is you have to make every sheet the same thickness, or you’ll have some noodles more cooked than others.

As you finish rolling each sheet, hang it on something. I have a little pasta-drying rack that works fine for a small family dinner, but for a big party it’s a joke. (My pasta sous-chef likened this to “pissing into the wind.”) Another friend made his own drying rack, with enough capacity for a large dinner party (look at the third photo of this post). Beyond that, you’re hanging the sheets over cabinet doors. This might gross out some people; if you’re one of them, get over it. Or put a towel over the cabinet door. Or clean the doors really well. You’re boiling this pasta at 212 degrees anyway. In my Santa Barbara apartment I used the ceiling fan. This worked fine, though one day it got hot in the kitchen and somebody turned the fan on. Before I could intervene, the pasta was flung all over the kitchen. I think we just picked it up off the floor, brushed it off, and boiled it.

At my recent party, we exhausted the cabinet door capacity and went to the chairs outside. Look how thin the sheets are—they’re translucent! This was some really good pasta.

Does the pasta need to dry? Probably not. I’ve gone from rolling sheets to cutting them into noodles in a matter of minutes, in my starving-student pasta-making heyday. I will say that drying it too long can be a problem. I used to have some trouble with this in Boulder because the air (due to the altitude) is so dry there. More recently I had trouble because I made too many sheets, over too long a period, before cutting them. So cut as you go if you’re doing huge batches. What if you screw up? Look, here a season pasta veteran cuts the too-dry sheets with a knife. Worked just fine, though the noodles were a bit on the short side.

As you cut the sheets, catch them with two hands (here’s where it’s helpful, though not necessary, to have two people working the machine) and hang them to dry. Where? How about the same place you got the sheet from? Perfect.

Boil them in a giant pot where they have some room to swim around. A lift-out strainer is great if you’re doing multiple batches. (I use a second pot of boiling water to refill the main pot as I go.) Start testing the pasta after just a few minutes. It’ll probably take three minutes if the dough was too moist; five or six minutes if it’s great dough; it’ll depend a bit on how thin you made it. Just test it a lot. Toss it with good olive oil when you’re done. Leftovers should store just fine; if you find that they stick a lot in the fridge, so they’re hard to separate the next day, your dough was too moist. Don’t lose heart! My pasta was like this for years but it was still good. Semolina flour helps a lot here.


There’s not much more to say. Perhaps at some point I’ll post some sauce recipes in the Comments area below. Give this a try, and if you get stuck, e-mail me. Let me know how it goes. Buon appetito!


Click here to learn about Ragu Bolognese, a sauce worthy of your homemade pasta.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lance & Eminem

NOTE: This post is rated R for prevalent drug references and pervasive strong language.


The latest doping accusations against Lance Armstrong are obviously big news. If you google “lance armstrong doping” you get 440,000 hits (as of today), but googling “Arnold Schwarzenegger steroids” gets you only 118,000 hits. Odd, isn’t it? Lance hasn’t been convicted of anything, and yet Arnold has confessed to past steroid use as a bodybuilder. As governor of California, Schwarzenegger is in charge of the eighth largest economy in the world, so his moral character ought to be front and center. Why the disparity in public interest?

Of course, Lance’s case is huge because of the seriousness of the allegations, their timeliness, and Lance’s profile as one of the greatest cyclists in the world. If he were found guilty, this would be one of the greatest scandals in the history of sports. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, used steroids decades ago—in a time, and a sport, where steroids were practically a given for all serious competitors.

But couldn’t the same thing practically be said of modern cycling? Let’s look at the doping record of the riders Lance beat during his seven-year Tour de France winning spree. Here is a list, by year, of every top-five contender who “tested positive or was sanctioned or sacked at some point in their career, either prior or subsequently.” (Source: Cycling Weekly.)

Dopers among Lance’s Tour de France competitors:
1999 – The second, fourth, and fifth placed riders (Zulle, Dufaux, and Casero respectively)
2000 – Second through fifth (Ullrich, Beloki, Moreau, Heras)
2001 – Second, third, and fifth (Ullrich, Beloki, Gonzalez)
2002 – Second through fifth (Beloki, Rumsas, Botero, Gonzalez)
2003 – Second through fourth (Ullrich, Vinokourov, Hamilton)
2004 – Third and fourth (Basso and Ullrich)*
2005 – Second through fifth (Basso, Ullrich, Mancebo, Vinokourov)

(The asterisk for 2004 is for Andreas Klöden, who has never been sanctioned but paid a €25,000 fine to a German district court in return for dropping their investigation into eyewitness accounts of him blood doping in the 2006 Tour de France. Such a payment is not considered an admission of guilt under German law, but I think it deserves an asterisk.)

Given all this, it’s tempting to ask, “So what if Lance doped?” What are sports for, after all, but entertainment? If Lance was cleaner, or at least no dirtier, than the racers he was up against, and he put on a great show, isn’t that enough?

Of course not. Sports heroes are, well, heroes. Their fans—especially kids—look up to them as role models. How can we keep our kids flying straight when their favorite sports celebrities are setting such a bad example?

Ah, but the thoughtful albertnet reader has now latched onto something else: what about other celebrities that set a terrible example and go scot-free? Do a Google search on “Eminem drugs” and you get 2.38 million hits. And yet he’s never been arrested for drugs, nor has his drug use ever mired him in a public scandal. Meanwhile, he raps not only about personal drug abuse but about all kinds of violent acts, and consistently uses the most profane language he can think of. Why is it okay for this celebrity entertainer to do all this? Shouldn’t we hold him up to the same standard as Lance Armstrong?

In this post I examine these questions using Lance and Eminem as my case studies. Of course I’ll end up with a number of parts left over on the garage floor, but I hope to provide a useful perspective on the matter. (I hope I do better with this essay than with the pictures at the top. That’s the best photo I’ve personally taken of Lance, and with no pictures at all of Eminem I had to draw one.)

Why these two guys?

Certainly I could tackle this topic using different celebrities for my case studies. Why not choose a cycling icon like Jan Ullrich who was actually found guilty? And how about an entertainer like Lenny Bruce, who did get in legal trouble for his foul mouth, and died of a drug overdose? I chose Lance and Eminem because for many years they’ve almost blurred together in my mind. Both have achieved incredible success at the highest level as relative interlopers in their fields. Lance, as an American in a largely European sport, has won more Tours de France than any other rider in history. Eminem, a white musician in a black-dominated rap music scene, has had six consecutive number one albums, and has sold more than 80 million albums worldwide, making him one of the best-selling musical artists in the world. Lance and Eminem also had similarities in their upbringings: neither of them knew his father, and each had a stepfather with whom he didn’t get along. Moreover, they are both very bold, brash characters, perfectly willing to rail against the status quo. Heck, they even look similar. I have often thought that if Lance rapped instead of rode, he’d be Eminem, and if Eminem had athletic instead of musical talent, he’d be Lance. It just seems like a natural pairing for this essay.


I will make no attempt in this post to establish whether or not Lance ever doped. I don’t know the man, and I don’t know any of the riders who raced the Tour de France as his teammate. I have no special insight into the question of his guilt vs. innocence, and would be an idiot if I thought mere intuition mattered one iota here. I will stick with only know is widely known: 1) Lance has been repeatedly accused of doping; and 2) Lance has never tested positive, nor has he been convicted of sporting fraud of any kind. I will not confuse allegations with established fact. The point here is to explore the issue of drug use by celebrities and why it matters.

Role model

The accusations against Lance Armstrong have a special sting for the public specifically because his story is so heroic. He didn’t just win the Tour de France—he did it after almost dying of cancer. To look at a photo of him bald and sick, and then consider that he fought back and went on to win the greatest race on earth: of course it’s inspirational. And to believe won clean, against opponents who weren’t, is like a triumph of good over evil. It tells us that doping is just a shortcut to success for the lazy, and that real determination, careful planning, and perfect training (when combined with huge talent) really can carry the day. It’s the greatest evidence possible for the notion that you don’t have to cheat to win.

Lance’s case, then, becomes a battle between idealism and cynicism. Consider the following quotes:

Lance (in Nike commercial): “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, bustin’ my ass, six hours a day. What are you on?”

Wall Street Journal interview: “[Landis had] heard that the elite cyclists at the most grueling races used exotic and prohibited blood additives and synthetic drugs. Far from being repelled by this, he said, he had come to assume doping was part of the sport and, if he joined a top team, would be part of his job.”


For aspiring bike racers, the question of whether you can win without doping is obviously hugely important: the conclusion a young racer comes to on this may decide whether he continues riding clean, decides to dope, or quits the sport entirely. But the matter extends well beyond bike racing, since sport is so often used as a metaphor for all human endeavor.

In 2006, not long after Landis had appeared to win the Tour de France (but before his positive drug test), my daughter Alexa was upset over her team’s loss in a soccer game, and I had a talk with her. My thesis: most people, even champions, lose much of the time. I used cycling as my example. “Who won the Tour this year?” I asked Alexa. She replied, “Floyd Landis.” (We’d watched the race together on TV.) I said, “Good. But did he win on Alpe d’Huez?” She said, “Um, no.” Right, I told her: he had a terrible day there, lost the yellow jersey, and seemed to be totally out of the running—but he never lost hope, and went on to win the general classification. Inspirational! (In case you think kids don’t listen to such lectures, consider that when I followed up by asking who did win the Alpe d’Huez stage, Lindsay—three years old at the time—piped up, “Fränk Schleck!”)

Of course, my Landis lecture only made its point because we thought he was clean. It wouldn’t do to say to my daughter, “Did Floyd give up after Alpe d’Huez? No! He lubed himself up with a transfusion of EPO-enriched blood, slapped some testosterone patches on his balls, and crushed everybody in the next stage. Then, in the final time trial, still coked to the gills, he bested Pereiro to take the GC victory!”

It’s not hard for people, especially young and idealistic ones, to extrapolate from sports to the rest of life. A scene in “Breaking Away” depicts this wonderfully. The young hero, Dave, has argued with his father Ray, who refused to honor a verbal guarantee he’d given to a customer of his used car lot. Ray has suffered a heart attack from the altercation. Subsequently, Dave has been deliberately crashed in a bike race by one of his heroes, an Italian on the Cinzano team. Now, welcoming his father home from the hospital, Dave embraces him and apologizes, sobbing, “Everybody cheats. I just didn’t know.” His prickly father awkwardly pats his son’s back and says, “Well … now you know.” Ray looks over to his wife, her eyes shiny with tears, and says, “Well? Talk to him, Evelyn!” It is the most touching moment in all of cinema. Fortunately for the viewers, Dave doesn’t take the cynical lesson to heart, and goes on to win the Little Indy 500 bike race. The joy in his victory salute signals redemption. Thus, the movie is inspirational instead of nihilistic, a triumph of idealism over cynicism.

Obviously Lance is only one racer, and cycling is only one sport, so this doesn’t all rest on his shoulders. But given the transgressions of other sports figures, we’re starting to run out of heroes. With the most recent Tour de France winner, Alberto Contador, now mired in a doping scandal, the matter of Lance’s innocence may represent the difference between a slightly vs. wholly corrupted sport. Were eight of the last twelve Tours won clean, or only one?

The entertainer

Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, doesn’t have a cancer research foundation; isn’t a magnet for product endorsements; isn’t anybody we talk to our grade-school kids about. Nobody expects Eminem to follow any rules or be a good role model for anybody. Nobody wakes him up in the morning to give him a drug test. He raps about whatever he feels like: sex, drugs, violence, whatever strikes his fancy. His net worth, a quick Google search tells me, is about $115 million, somewhat similar to Lance Armstrong’s. So: where does Eminem get off? Should we be outraged with this guy, who raps about all kinds of antisocial acts while acknowledging that his music “is for the kids’ amusement”?

I would argue, actually, that Eminem and other entertainers should be held to an entirely different standard from that of pro athletes. With any artist—musical, painting, literary—there is a divide between life and art. We appreciate the work (or not), whether or not we approve of the artist’s conduct in the rest of his life. How an athlete treats his body has everything to do with his performance, whereas for the artist an unhealthy lifestyle might simply be an unfortunate distraction.

Good art can be about anything and doesn’t have to be wholesome; after all, Shakespeare wrote plays about murder, suicide, war, and promiscuity. William Blake’s paintings were dark and often unnerving but no art critic would say Thomas Kincade’s Disney-esque works are in any way superior. You might well look at a painting, or hear a song on the radio, and have no idea—nor any interest—in who created it.

In the case of Marshall Mathers, the creator is even further removed. He has an alter ego—Slim Shady—nested inside another alter ego, Eminem. The narrative voice in his music is like a set of Russian dolls. We can ignore the true identity of the musician, while appreciating the music on its own merit. With an athlete, on the other hand, he and his work are one and the same.

No role model

As a young cyclist, I dreamed of following in the footsteps of cycling heroes like Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten. Creating for myself a simulacrum of their gaunt physique, even down to the shaved legs, was a given. Watching Andy eat a big bowl of granola, fruit, and plain yogurt for dinner made me wonder if I could stand to do that myself.

I don’t think it’s the same with the fans of other entertainers and artists. The budding painter might well admire the works of Van Gogh, but he wouldn’t want to be Van Gogh; Van Gogh was depressed for years and eventually killed himself. Unlike with sport, it’s not even tempting to believe that emulating an artist’s behavior will help the struggling newcomer to achieve the master’s success. Nobody ever cut his ear off in hopes of painting like Van Gogh.

But in the case of Eminem, might not our impressionable teens be tempted to emulate his bad living, just because he’s so cool? Well, Eminem himself mocks any fan who would try to mimic his misbehaviors; an entire song, “Role Model,” is devoted to this mockery: “I got genital warts and it burns when I pee/ Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me? I tie a rope around my penis and jump from a tree/ You probably wanna grow up to be just like me!” Another song, “Stan,” paints a picture of an obsessed fan who carries out numerous self-destructive acts that Eminem has rapped about. Eminem responds to Stan, “And what’s this shit about/ You like to cut your wrist too?/ I say that shit just clownin’ dawg/ C’mon, how fucked up is you?”

Of course, a dumb teen could ignore all the lyrics and see Eminem as an example of how you can use drugs and still be successful. A high-achieving drug abuser certainly does set a bad example; a high school friend of mine greatly admired a stoner named Paul who—though perpetually high—still got straight As. Paul was an unfortunate influence on my friend’s behavior; my friend got the drug part down without managing the good grades. (A couple of years after college, I ran into Paul in a Kinko’s, where he was working. He will be a cautionary tale for my daughters when the time comes.) Should we be down on Eminem for conveying the idea that some winners do use drugs?

No, because—predictably enough—Eminem got his comeuppance for his substance-abuse recklessness. In an early song he suggested, with little apparent concern, that drugs would one day get the better of him: “But in the long run/ These drugs are probably going to catch up sooner or later/ But fuck it, I’m on one/ So let’s enjoy/ Let the X destroy your spinal cord/ So it’s not a straight line no more.” This song, of course, would rightfully have teens’ parents fuming.

Sure enough, the drugs do catch up with Eminem in the long run, which he candidly admits in a song. This time he isn’t so breezy: “So I take a Vicodin, splash, it hits my stomach and ah/ A couple weeks go by it ain’t even like I'm getting high/ Now I need it just not to feel sick, like I’m getting by … Just to be able to function throughout the day. Let’s see/ That's an Ambien each nap, how many Valium, three?/ And that will average out to about one good hour’s sleep/ OK, so now you see the reason how come he/ Has taken four years just too put out an album beat/ See you and me, we almost had the same outcome, Heath.” The song starts out with a creepy skit of an EMT radioing ahead to the ER: “We have a mid-30s male found down, unresponsive, possible overdose, substance unknown ... he’s intubated and we’re bagging him now .. we’ll update en route, ETA 10 minutes.”

(Aside from his slippery, flippant Slim Shady and Eminem personas, Mathers the man corroborates his drug problems, candidly telling a reporter, “I overdosed and almost died.”)

I bother with all this detail to make a point: plenty of cyclists have been suspended for doping, but how many of them have spoken candidly about the real dangers involved? We’ve heard some remorse, sure, and some predictable fluff about turning over a new leaf, etc., but where are the tales of how scary it is getting a blood transfusion in a motel room, or injecting something you bought from a stranger on the Internet? Where’s the lurid tale, equivalent to Eminem’s, to scare our junior cyclists away from doping? Eminem’s carte blanche to rap about whatever he feels like gives him, in this case, the opportunity to give us a visceral sense of the danger of illicit drugs. Where Eminem is brutally honest, doping cyclists—even convicted ones—often continue being as secretive as possible.

The key difference

Doping bike racers may also get their comeuppance, as Landis has shown. The key difference is that when the missteps of an entertainer are made public (either voluntarily or not), a happy ending is possible. After his four unproductive years of drug addiction, Eminem got clean, and subsequently came out with two albums less than a year apart, each of them better than the one before it. His fans can take some heart in the whole sordid affair—on his new album, he often sounds jubilant. Far from being made more cynical by his story, we may develop more empathy for people with substance abuse problems, and Eminem’s recovery is a message of hope. At a minimum, his fans can go on enjoying his music—everything he ever recorded, no asterisks required.

The story of an athlete caught doping, on the other hand, cannot have a happy ending. Our past admiration for the athlete is shattered, and even after he returns from suspension his future exploits cannot be thoroughly enjoyed. Either he goes on to race poorly, highlighting the extent to which his prior success was dope-fueled, or he races well, raising our suspicions that he’s back on the lube. Above all, when a doping athlete is exposed, his fans feel like they’ve been duped, like he’s insulted their intelligence, played them and everybody else for suckers.

An artist (whatever type) who behaves irresponsibly doesn’t do it in the service of his art, and his work can be judged separately from his deeds. His output isn’t improved by the bad behavior; you can’t say, “Sure, that was a good album, but it doesn’t count—he was on drugs!” (The exception would be plagiarism, yellow journalism or deliberate falsification of one’s past in a supposedly straightforward autobiography. At this point, Lance’s autobiography looks like a larger target for accusations of falsehood than Eminem’s, whether such accusations are valid or not.)

With sport, the star who takes dope isn’t really a star. His success is false; his entire oeuvre as stamped out by his lie. I can’t imagine going back and re-watching Landis “winning” Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France; the spectacle would just make me angry.

It’s especially awful when the doper denies wrongdoing and drags the public through a long legal process; Floyd Landis—before finally admitting guilt—even created a legal defense fund that raised about a million dollars from well-meaning fans sending in contributions. Everyone who believed in him is a victim of his deceit: fans, teammates, managers, sponsors, companies he endorsed ... the list goes on and on.

Also victimized are all the clean racers deprived of glory by dopers stealing it. Cadel Evans, who lost the 2007 Tour de France to Contador by a mere 23 seconds, must be particularly interested in, and infuriated by, Contador’s recent positive drug test. He may assume, as I do, that a rider is either fundamentally clean or fundamentally not; I’d say if Contador cheated in this year’s Tour, he likely cheated the other times he “won” it as well.

The collateral damage with Eminem’s drug addiction was, I would guess, largely limited to his close friends and family.

The Lance Factor

In the long history of the Tour de France, only one rider—Landis—has been stripped of his victory due to a failed doping test. For Contador, a three-time winner, to be convicted would be a much bigger deal. But Lance? Seven victories, eight podium finishes! His legacy casts a long shadow over everyone else’s in the modern sport. His autobiography was a #1 New York Times bestseller. His foundation has sold over 70 million Livestrong bracelets. Livestrong Day, last Saturday, comprised more than 1,100 events in 64 different countries. Lance offers a message of hope to 28 million cancer survivors. Surely his bravery in the face of cancer, and his dedication to his sport, would be impressive whether he’s clean or not. But so much hinges on his innocence.

A bike riding friend of mine told me, “I was talking to a colleague, who’s not a cyclist, and when the subject of Lance came up she said, ‘Don’t you dare say anything to me about Lance and doping. I don’t want to hear it. I couldn’t take it if he were a cheater.’” Far beyond the reaches of sport—and how many Americans follow cycling, anyway?—there is a societal need for Lance to be innocent, for him to have been telling the truth all along.

As for Eminem, he has nothing to lie about: his entire approach to his music is to share absolutely everything about himself, the more wretched the better. About the worst scandal I can imagine for him would be if it turned out he came from a comfortable middle-class home and was raised by two loving parents. Outside of this Beaver Cleaver scenario, he’s safe: his legend can handle any amount of debauchery.

That, I think, is why sports heroes must hold to a higher standard than other entertainers. With widespread idealism vs. cynicism at stake, we have to hope that sports heroes like Lance are racing clean.

Final note

I’ve struggled with this post. It’s a complicated subject matter and my own opinion has morphed repeatedly over the years, months, and weeks. I’ve tried to do the topic justice, but am well aware I’ve left the door wide open to disagreement and criticism; I hope at least that I’ve avoided offending anybody. (In 2004 I wrote an article about doping for the Daily Peloton that really offended some guy. He posted numerous diatribes against my story on the dp bulletin board, even asking the editor to yank the story. She eventually had to tell him to stop. I suppose I wouldn't mind offending a guy like that, actually.)

Back in college a teacher gave me a bad grade on a paper and summoned me to her office to discuss it. After pointing out the paper's many flaws, she concluded, “I’m glad you wrote this paper. I like to see you getting outside your comfort zone.” In that spirit, I’m going to post this Lance/Eminem essay now, though my temptation is to tinker with it some more, sleep on it, and forever postpone deciding it’s really done.

I welcome your feedback. Post your comments below, and/or click here to e-mail me.
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