Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fiction - Rejection Affects Health

NOTE: This post, though referencing an actual psychology study, is a work of fiction. I use the actual study as a jumping-off point for something entirely fanciful.


“Rejection triggers responses in the body that can increase a person’s risk for maladies such as asthma, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and depression, a new study says. Scientists at UCLA recruited 124 healthy young adults to participate in a lab-based test aimed at determining whether social stress such as rejection causes inflammation, which can have detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Participants were put through stressful tests that were designed to make them feel rejected. Measurements of inflammatory markers were performed on samples of oral fluids taken before and after the tests…. Not surprisingly, the inflammatory biological markers in oral fluids increased dramatically after the stressful tests.

—“Rejection Affects Health,” WebMD Health Newsletter, 10 Aug 2010


Our recent study was a big success. One of the conclusions we arrived at is that further study is warranted, with a widened scope. In our initial study we had recruited healthy young adults; what more light could be shed, we wondered, if we studied all ages?

Our first follow-up study was with seniors. The results are not documented because the sessions did not go smoothly. Several of the participants could not hear—and others could not understand—most of what our test administrators were saying. Moreover, several of the male participants had poorly shaved chins, with little white hairs like Shredded Wheat stuck to their skin, and other subjects drooled, which distracted the administrators.

Much better success was found with other age categories, and those results are documented here.

Test #1 — Six-year-old test subject

Several six-year-old study administrators were recruited and trained in how to make the study subject feel rejected. These administrators very quickly caught on to the study methodology and did an excellent job carrying out the test.

On a school playground, a test subject was selected: an especially cute six-year-old girl who we felt would be unaccustomed to rejection. She was not made aware that she was participating in a test. The administrators, who were also her classmates, set about teasing her mercilessly. The first said, “I’m not friends with you anymore!” The second joined in, “Yeah, you’re like a baby, always carrying your ‘Roo Bear’ around!” The third administrator yelled, “We hate Roo Bear—he smells like dog farts!” Then they all laughed.

The impact on the subject was immediate. Subject bawled loudly for some time. We had trouble getting a good oral fluid sample with our swab, as subject thrashed around and her saliva was diluted by nasal mucous, which was flowing freely from both nostrils, and by tears streaming down into her mouth. Subject would not stop yelling. It took us a long time to figure out what she was trying to say: “It’s not ‘Roo Bear,’ it’s ‘Woo Bear,’ and she’s a girl bear!”

Not surprisingly, and despite the trouble with the oral fluid sample, this social trauma resulted in significant increases in markers of inflammatory activity, with abnormally high levels of tumor necrosis factor-α (sTNFαRII) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). We recommend further testing with this age group, though it has become obvious that it would be wise, going forward, to notify the subject’s parents in advance.

Test #2 — Fifteen-year-old test subject

Subject was a fifteen-year-old bike racer. Administrator was a fellow racer, who was given specific instructions in carrying out the test. Following a difficult hill climb bike race, a group of racers was comparing results and talking about the race. Subject, who did not finish in the top twenty, looked ideally awkward from the outset. Administrator said to the group at large, “Hey, I don’t need this energy bar … does anybody want it?” Others had been instructed to say nothing, and eventually subject replied, “Yeaahh!” Administrator stared at him in disgust and did not hand him the energy bar, behaving as though subject were uniquely exempt from the energy bar offer due to some obvious defect.

While this test initially looked promising, the professor made us feel like idiots by refusing to analyze the oral fluid sample. Apparently the test setup was rendered invalid by the elevated inflammation markers that would inevitably accompany athletic challenges like bike races, and we should have known this. We have thought about trying again with this age group but are feeling a bit demoralized.

Test #3 — Twenty-year-old test subject

A pretty brunette college student was recruited as administrator and instructed to be conspicuously friendly toward a prospective subject in her foreign language class. After some delay, subject eventually asked her out on a date. From the outset of the date (a casual lunch at a café), per our instructions, administrator was oddly cold, refusing to smile or engage subject in conversation. Eventually subject asked her to explain herself, to which she responded, “I talked to my old high-school boyfriend for a long time on the phone last night—he’s at BYU—and we’ve decided to get back together.”

To our great surprise, the oral fluid sample showed no significant increase in either sTNFαRII or IL-6. We interviewed the subject later; here is the most salient excerpt from his statement:

“She was straight-up fly, so I made sure not to get my hopes up. Sure, I was disappointed, but mostly I was trying not to laugh. I was tempted to say, ‘BYU? In Utah? The epicenter of American polygamy?’ or, ‘Seriously, your high school beau? There’s food in your dorm fridge that’ll last longer than your “relationship”! With four years of young women being dangled in front of him, you really think he’s going to wait for you? But I didn’t say anything.

“Anyhow, it’s no biggie. My roommate and I like to compare notes about girls rejecting us. It’s like a running joke. We even have an expression for it—‘me dio calabazas’, which means ‘she gave me pumpkins.’ We love recalling these rejections … it’s almost like keeping a scrapbook.”

Test #4 — Forty-something test subject

It occurred to us that our study should include subjects having the classic risk factors of mid-life crisis. Those in their forties, burdened with mortgages and living in fear of losing their corporate jobs, were deemed ideal. We selected our subject on the basis of his age (forty-one), life commitments (family, Bay Area mortgage), and the fact of his maintaining a non-commercial blog (apparently as a hobby). We recruited a woman of the same age to serve as the administrator, accosting subject at a barbecue. Administrator’s friend began the dialog by asking subject’s wife if she blogged; she took the bait, replying, “No, but my husband does.” Administrator promptly asked subject, acidly, with evident bewilderment and even revulsion, “Why do you blog?”

Subject was speechless for at least ten seconds, before stammering, “It’s because I’m stupid and I don’t have any friends, why do you think?” We immediately swabbed him and found unprecedented high levels of both sTNFαRII and IL-6. A quick scan of our records showed this was in fact the strongest data set of rejection-inflicted inflammation on record. Subject agreed to a brief discussion about his experience. Why, we asked him, was his reaction so strong?

“Well, first of all,” he replied, “she asked the question with such disgust, as if she were asking, ‘Why would you sniff a cat’s butt?’ I mean, ‘Why blog?’ Why do anything? Why do a crossword puzzle? Why knit? It’s like she couldn’t imagine that a person would write just to express himself, maybe improve his writing, and post his stuff to a blog in case somebody might want to read it. Her question seemed like either a rejection of the idea that I could ever offer anything of value to the literary world, or a rejection of the very existence of literary world, like the world has forgotten that there are modes of written expression that go deeper than Twitter or Facebook.”

We asked if that was all. (Subject became even more agitated and we even considered re-swabbing him.) “Isn’t that enough?” he said. Finally, after some reflection, he said, “I guess I’ll admit that, since nobody questioned the idea of my wife blogging, this woman’s incredulity was like a rejection of my masculinity. Like, why would a guy blog, you know?”

Further study is clearly warranted.

Test #5 — Forty-something test subject #2

Based on the success of the last administrator/subject pairing, we again selected a forty-something woman as the administrator and a forty-something white collar husband/father amateur blogger as the subject. This time, the venue was a high school reunion, which we felt would be a perfect setting. (We deny the assertion that this test was an attempt at getting the “high score on inflammatory activity markers”; we are simply trying to isolate acute cases for further study.) Administrator was a friend of the subject’s wife. Subject, again, was unaware that a test was being performed on him.

Administrator, behaving in a friendly manner, casually asked subject if he was on Facebook. He said he was not. She asked if he Tweeted. Again, he replied no. She asked if he did anything social online at all, and he said he had a blog. “A blog?” she said, with unmasked repugnance. “Why do you blog?”

Subject, to our surprise, was placid, even sanguine. “You mean you really don’t know why bloggers blog?” he replied. “I thought everybody knew that. It’s so that they can make fun of people to a wide audience. For example, by tomorrow everybody on the Internet will know that you went around this reunion with your bleach-blonde hair and boob job thinking you were all hot, when really you looked ridiculous because your teeth were stained purple by red wine.”

Thinking quickly, we swabbed the administrator and found sTNFαRII and IL-6 levels that were completely off the charts. Clearly, further study is warranted.

dana albert blog

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

From the Archives - Thanksgiving Tales


I’m having a bunch of relatives here for Thanksgiving: my brother Bryan and his family, and my mom. Some years we get all four brothers together, which is obviously the best-case scenario for this holiday, but the planets didn’t line up this year. Still, it’s going to be a blast. For one thing, our kids haven’t yet heard all the Albert stories, so we have ample excuse to trot out our old standbys. I enjoy watching the storyteller wring fresh life out these tales, and I like to try to track the embellishments.

One story in particular—the Baskin Robbins Simulated Vehicular Manslaughter Incident—has been told with great relish by both Geoff and Bryan, despite the fact that neither of them actually saw it, much less participated. They insist that they were there—“I remember it like it was yesterday!”—but Max and I are certain they were not. By the way, here’s a photo of the four of us, from December 1985, which we sent around as a Christmas card:

From left to right, that's me, Max, Geoff, and Bryan. But I digress. You won’t get the Baskin Robbins Simulated Vehicular Manslaughter tale in this post, because this is actually a From The Archives deal (I don’t have time for too much writing today, my relatives being on their way here as I assemble this). I have three stories to share. Two of them are good background for anybody trying to understand half of the comments that come out of our mouths every Thanksgiving. Following those is the tale of my most memorable Thanksgiving bike ride to date.

Thanksgiving Archives Tale #1 – The Gravy Incident

[This excerpt is from an e-mail I wrote to a cousin, who had asked for some background on all the gravy-related captions in a Thanksgiving photo album I’d sent around.]

The gravy-related captions relate to a Thanksgiving dinner back in the early nineties at our then-stepmother’s house. All the brothers were there. Once my plate was full I started looking around for the gravy. It can take awhile for the gravy to make its way around the table, and I try to be patient, but of course you can’t even begin eating until you’ve properly lubricated your food. I finally realized the gravy simply wasn’t on the table, so I headed into the kitchen. “I’ll get the gravy,” I said. I looked all around in the kitchen and still couldn’t find it. It was weird. Finally I asked my stepmother, “What does the gravy vessel look like?”

She just sat there at the table, silent, looking awkward. Finally my dad cleared his throat and said, grimly, “There isn’t any gravy.” There was a long silence. You could have heard a cat’s whisker twitch. “Wow, that’s funny,” I said. “For a second there I thought you said there wasn’t any gravy!” Actually, I only thought that. (This is the kind of embellishment I might allow in an oral retelling of the story, as an acknowledged fictional touch that enhances the dramatic effect.) In fact I was literally struck dumb. My brothers and I waited silently for a long while, to give Dad the opportunity to say, “Just kidding!” and burst out laughing, but he didn’t, so finally, without a word, we all filed silently out of the room, out the front door, and far away from that terrible place.

Actually, we didn’t. Of course we wanted to, but we couldn’t. We soldiered bravely on, trying to eat a turkey dinner with no gravy, but the meal was a very dour affair after that. I mean, how could they? What were they thinking? I can’t blame my dad, as (especially back in those days) he was a creature of appetites and would happily have eaten gravy by the quart like a normal person. I guess his wife had decided gravy is bad for you. Man, what a blow. She might has well have started off the meal by telling us a close friend or relative had just been killed in a gruesome accident and right after dinner we had to go try to ID the body.

Ever since that day, it’s become a family tradition, as Thanksgiving plans are made, to try to convincingly announce that for one reason or another you’re not serving gravy this year. Of course nobody has fooled anybody else for a second, no matter how perfect the poker-face and deadpan style.

Thanksgiving Archives Tale #2 – The Near-Buffet Incident

[Whenever I host the Thanksgiving meal, my mom struggles with the question of who should carve the turkey. On the one hand, it’s my house, but on the other hand, Bryan is the firstborn son. I’m happy to let him do it, because a) he has more kids, b) he’s bigger and stronger, and c) I’m not very good at poultry carving anyway. But one thing that is never questioned is that the bird gets carved at the table. The following was an explanation to my cousin of the photo caption, “Bryan, elder statesman of our generation, did the carving. AT THE TABLE, as a man should!” Note in the photo below the glowing eyes of our banished cat, visible through the kitchen-nook window in the background. Also note that in the following tale, “the Landlo’” refers to my mom’s second husband, who had previously been her landlord, and which name stuck. Note, finally, that this photo has nothing to do with the story that follows it.]

That caption about carving the turkey at the table goes back to our first Thanksgiving dinner at the Landlo’s house, around a decade ago. We’d never met the Landlo’s kids before. They were a bit on the shy side, and I felt kind of bad for them, thrust into the din of five loud Alberts talking over each other with great relish. It was an oddly early Thanksgiving meal; the Landlo’ had wanted to have the meal at some insanely early hour, like 1 or 2, whereas our family tradition was to have it around the normal dinnertime. Our mom conceded that point (which we boys were all happy to do, because we probably had to dual-dinner that night, having accepted dueling invitations in order to prevent a battle royale between our parents over who got the kids on Thanksgiving. In fact, it’s possible that this particular meal took place on the very same day as the no-gravy travesty recounted above).

Mom was less inclined to give in on the Landlo’s other tradition, which was to carve the turkey in the kitchen long before the meal and have people parade through buffet-style like we were at a Sizzler or something. Our family had always carved the turkey at the table, but the Landlo’ wasn’t having any of it. As the Landlo’s kids and my brothers and I waited nervously around the dining room table, the argument in the kitchen became more and more heated until pretty soon Mom and the Landlo’ were yelling good and loud at each other. Finally, the Landlo’ gave in and grabbed the turkey out of the oven to bring it to the table. There was no obvious place to set it down—he was acting very impulsively—but that didn't end up being a problem because the turkey never even made it to the table. He dropped it! Right on the floor of the kitchen!

Now, Mark Twain might have done a nice job with some really artistic swearing at that point. I’d have liked to hear that. I’d like to think in the same situation I might have offered up a splendid mosaic of creative profanities. (Geoff and I fancy ourselves innovators of the form, and when we land on a particularly satisfying profane phrase we’ll even share it, like people trade recipes.) But the Landlo’s cussing fit had nothing to offer but volume and bile. It certainly could have drowned out just about anything, a jackhammer even, but actually everybody else was completely silent. The tension at the dinner table was complete. All of this seemed to last a long while, but in fact it was probably only a second or two before Stepbrother #1 leapt to his feet and yelled, “DAD!” as though his father were in great danger, like he was being dragged away by a bear or something.

As Stepbrother#1 raced into the kitchen, leaving Stepbrother #2 behind, my brothers and I completely lost it, becoming nearly hysterical with laughter. The harder we laughed, the harder we laughed. Geoff has this vein in his forehead that comes out at such times—we call it the pleasure vein—and I thought it might actually burst. The more we laughed, the more awkward it became for the stepbrothers. Poor Stepbrother #2: he was alone with us at the table had nowhere to go. His sister-in-law was there, but couldn’t support him as they themselves had only just met. We rocked in our chairs, just spazzing out with laughter.

I can’t remember anything more after that. Surely the turkey was resurrected, served, and eaten, but I have no memory of it. In the years that remained of that marriage, it was a long while before we invited back to the Landlo’s house, and never again with his kids, which was a huge relief for everybody I’m sure. Now, Mom makes a point before every Thanksgiving dinner to say, as nonchalantly as possible, “Hey, what do you think about just carving the bird beforehand, and people can help themselves?” Naturally, her chances of getting anybody to take her seriously for even a nanosecond are exactly zero.

Thanksgiving Archives Tale #3 – The Pre-Feast Bike Ride

[When my family gets together for Thanksgiving, we usually try to do a big ride on the big day, to work up a proper appetite. Here’s a photo of my brothers and me, along with Bryan’s daughter Rachel, before the ride up Dead Indian Memorial Road in Oregon that we did on Thanksgiving Day 2008. This photo has nothing to do with the story that follows it, for which I have no photos.]

[On years that my family doesn’t get together for Thanksgiving, I try to find a group ride to join. These rides are often impromptu and aren’t always easy to discover. Such was the case in 2005 when I went out with a group of local riders. This story is taken from an e-mail I sent my brothers right after it happened. I’ve edited it a bit to remove references that you wouldn’t get.]

My goal for this ride was simple: simply survive, riding with the boys, after the previous day’s grueling effort [a four-hour ride with 7,500 feet of climbing]. To my surprise, I didn’t feel completely awful as I hammered (late, as usual) to the impromptu bagel shop rendezvous. It’s a good thing my legs weren’t terrible, because of all the various Thanksgiving Day group rides, it seemed I’d stumbled on a pretty elite one. Several of them were guys I raced with at Cal in ’91, a couple of whom had later gone pro. There were a few other guys I didn’t know, but they looked plenty fit. I’d say the group totaled between fifteen and twenty guys.

It was a pretty mellow pace, until we reached the bumpy, winding downhill leading to the long, flat, straight stretch with the pedestrian crossing sign at its far end: site of the famous “Walking Man” sprint, which is always hotly contested, any day of the year, practically any time you have more than two guys in a group. When I ride this stretch of road by myself, I’m tempted to sprint anyway, just to see if I can still kick my own ass. (As sprints go, Walking Man actually suits my slow-twitch abilities pretty well, because it’s so long. My poor jump isn’t that big a problem on such a long sprint, and there’s plenty of time to get my 53x12 turning well and try to make the right tactical moves.)

At the top of the winding downhill toward the sprint, a guy on my bike club, Mike Ceely, said something about a lead-out and went to the front. I jumped on his wheel. Somebody said, “Is Freddie on?” which is kind of like saying, to a motorist who has just whizzed by you, “Easy there, Mario.” As you may have guessed, “Freddie” in this Mario context refers to Fred Rodriguez, the US Pro champion, kind of the Mario Andretti of American pro cycling. So now I was worried that somebody might expect some rider among us to be like Freddie in this sprint. Of course I couldn’t be up for a really fast sprint, given how hard I’d ridden the previous two days and my iffy sprinting skillz anyway. But Mike seemed to want to lead me out, so I let him. I (facetiously) gave him instructions to drop me off fifty meters from the line.

Ceely did a fine job for a long time, hammering away and keeping the speed well over 30 mph on the pancake-flat road. But he’d taken it up from really far out, and I knew he’d falter well before the line. He was really suffering, practically lying on the top tube to be more aero. I knew he wanted me to come by so he could finally sit up, but I was way too far from the finish to bring ‘er in, probably 350-400 meters out. So I stayed on, waiting for somebody to come up the side. Finally Ceely actually waved me past, and I knew he was blown. So I took off as fast as I could, keeping my speed as high as possible and hoping that whoever came by me jumped hard enough that he he’d open a gap behind him, so that maybe I could slip in and catch his wheel. (Of course, if the guy jumped too hard, I wouldn't be able to latch on.) I reckoned that maybe—just maybe—I could grab the guy’s wheel, whoever he was, sit on it for just long enough to recover a bit, and then try to come back around him. It’s worked before and, my back to the wall, I was just crazy enough to try it.

Well, sure enough, some guy came by, and his wheel was open, but he was absolutely flying. Getting that wheel would be about like a hitchhiker trying to climb into a car that was still traveling at highway speed. I gave it my all, but the guy was just gone. I did manage to hold on to second, at least six or eight bike lengths out of first but pretty far ahead of third. I rode up to the guy—nobody I knew—and said, “Nicely done!” He looked up and I realized, to my astonishment, that it was none other than Freddie Rodriguez! I couldn’t believe it! Suddenly, second place didn't look so bad. I’d only just lost to the fastest sprinter in America!

I’d had no idea he was in the group. I’d seen him, but he was just some guy in a Lotto jersey. When you see an American in a Lotto jersey you just assume he bought it from Trashbar or something, and it’s usually the sign of just another moneyed novice. Now it all made sense. The question “Is Freddie on?” was asked by somebody who wanted to make darn sure that Fast Freddie was in position for a sprint, because the guys wanted a show!

Man, what a cool sport. What other sport gives a guy like me the opportunity to go head-to-head with the best in the business? The last time I’d seen Freddie was at a bike race, and I asked for his autograph. Needless to say this was much, much cooler. I could be both an adoring fan (because he was Freddie and I was just Dana) but also something not totally unlike a peer, since we were on the same ride and had just contested a sprint in which, for lack of anybody better, I was the guy to beat. “Man, your teammate led out a little early,” Freddie observed. “Kind of hung you out to dry.”

Later I learned that another of my teammates, Eric Zaltas, had been on my wheel and was just about to come around me when he saw Freddie blow past at such a speed that, his hopes shattered, he just sat up. If he hadn’t, I’m sure he’d have beaten me. It’s a good thing he didn’t, because of course being beaten in a sprint by Fast Freddie is an honor that has given me a proud memory. Glorious.

Epilogue to Tale #3

This last story is one of those ones that isn’t any good unless it’s true. A fictional account of a nobody being beaten in a sprint by a star would be pretty lame, I think. Thus, I made every effort to tell it is accurately as possible in the e-mail to my brothers. If honesty wasn’t a goal, I might have suggested that I was part of two-stage lead-out that didn’t quite work out. In fact it probably was supposed to be a two-stage lead-out, with me going earlier and swinging off for Eric to come by, but if so I was ignorant of this, blindly pursuing my own ambition. In that context, the truth of the story is actually kind of embarrassing.

So imagine my shock when I was recounting this tale to another teammate a week or so after the fact and another guy, who had been there, denied not just some detail of my tale, but the very fact of the sprint itself! He said to me, incredulously, “Dude, we didn’t sprint!” I didn’t know what to say. The guy was so firm in his conviction, I started to doubt myself: could I have been completely deluded about what went down?

In fact, no. I had uploaded the ride data from that ride to my PC, and still have it. Along that stretch of road, my top speed was 37 mph, with my max heart rate at 165. (My bike computer takes data samples every 20 seconds, so in a sprint scenario chances are it won’t catch the highest speed, nor the highest heart rate, for that interval.) So, how would this ride-denier explain a speed of somewhere near 40 on a flat road? Did we have some kickass tailwind? And my heart rate: was I just really excited about the tailwind, or was I on drugs? And I distinctly remember that Freddie was out of the saddle when he came by. What, was he just stretching out his back? At 40? I’ll have to send this post to Ceely and Eric and ask if they remember the sprint. If I hear something back, perhaps I’ll attach it here, in the Comments section below.


I hope your own Thanksgiving plans are grand, whoever you are. Be thankful for your gravy, unless there isn’t any, in which case I suppose you can feel thankful that you’re not clogging up your arteries. If your turkey is carved at the table, be thankful for the observance of that fine tradition; if it’s cut up in the kitchen and served buffet-style, be thankful that you’re laid-back and reasonable enough to enjoy that, and don’t have to share the meal with a fascist like me.

And if you don’t have big plans at all, be thankful that you’re not participating in a bizarre celebration of ersatz gratitude for a people who, after they saved our ancestors’ lives, were driven onto reservations and subsequently turned into scavengers of human misery via casinos. And if you don’t have big plans but wish you did, keep your chin up, as other years are sure to be better. I’ve had Thanksgiving at Sizzler before; another time I made a mini-feast at my tiny apartment (chicken legs, canned cranberry sauce, powdered mashed potatoes, Stove-Top™ stuffing, gravy from a mix); and my brother once had to go by himself to McDonald’s, only to find it closed. But that’s another story.

dana albert blog

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Return of Full Slab


This is the tale of how my late-nineties Guerciotti, which still holds the title for the most expensive frame I’ve ever purchased, became my commuting bike. It’s sort of a sprawling family saga charting my commuter fleet, its deaths and diseases, and the Guerciotti’s downfall, which, in a strange way, has also become its apotheosis. My Guerciotti is named Full Slab, and here it is with me on a high mountain road in Colorado back in 2005:

Here’s a quick quiz to decide if this post is for you.

Q-factor is:
a) A subjective judgment of how cute a bike is
b) A measure of the distance between a bike’s pedals
c) A measure of how quiet a bike’s drivetrain is

An Italian bottom-bracket shell is :
a) More stylish than American-market bottom-bracket shells
b) Larger in diameter than an English one
c) Enough to get this post an R rating

Sturmey-Archer is:
a) A grain and oilseed conglomerate
b) A once-proud English maker of internally geared bicycle hubs
c) A dashing rogue from a romance novel

The right answer in each case is (b). If you got at least two right answers, or are disappointed at scoring a zero or one on this quiz, read on. If your eyes glazed over immediately, go read something else or enjoy some television. If you’re somewhere in between, scroll down and look at the photos. There are lots of them.

A proper fleet

Everybody really needs about half a dozen bikes. First, your pride and joy, which is your racing bike. Then, you need to have your “rain bike,” which is a lesser racing bike that you ride in the rain or on your stationary trainer. Also, you should have a mountain bike for satisfying your dirt centers (and optionally a cyclocross bike if you’re into that sort of thing). Finally, you need two commuting bikes. One is a basic three-speed with a big basket and fenders and a chain guard. This bike is for commuting when you’re in a suit and/or in the rain and/or when you’re grocery shopping. The final bike you need is your fast commuter, which has a full 12- or 14-speed drivetrain, light wheels, etc. for going all the way across town.

Until recently, I was living the dream: I had all the bikes listed above, and our household bike total was nine (with only one car). But then, catastrophe struck.

Death comes to the fast commuter

One day this past February, I was sprinting all-out on my fast commuter, not a care in the world (other than being late), minding my own business, not bothering anybody, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, with no provocation whatsoever (all of these phrases, by the way, are part of the stock tale that a bike shop customer tells when asking for a warranty), there was a really loud sound like a snapping turtle breaking a broomstick in two, and my bike went from riding just fine to flexing like crazy, a weird springboard boinga-boinga-boinga action, probably a bit like an early ‘80s aluminum Vitus. Remarkably, I was able to get the bike off the road without crashing it. Check out how it broke:

It’s not unusual to break a frame on a fast commuting bike. All frames have a lifespan, and commuters get ridden hard and put away wet (to use an equine analogy). The first frame I built up as a fast commuter was a Serotta, which I got free in 1985 from a fellow mechanic at the bike shop. It had broken before I got it, and to teach himself the art of brazing this mechanic replaced a tube or a lug or something. That frame lasted three rides. I replaced it with a Maserati, a cheap Italian frame a pal gave me because he’d outgrown it. The Maserati lasted about five years, and then it broke as I dropped off a curb going from Sproul Plaza to Bancroft Way on a rainy night in ’91. I replaced it right away with a Bridgestone RB-7 or some such thing that I traded a headset for. That bike gave me nineteen years of trouble-free use. (The components have gone from frame to frame to frame; the rims are Wolber 58s that could withstand the Apocalypse.)

The Arseless

With my fast commuter broken, I’ve spent the last nine months commuting on the Arseless (named after an assassin's bike in a Roddy Doyle book), which is my old black Triumph 3-speed, from England (by way of Connecticut and craigslist). The good news with these old 3-speeds is that you never need to service them. The bad news is that you never need to service them. Bikes like these could really use a good overhaul, but you don’t dare. It’s common knowledge that if you go near one of these bikes with a wrench, they can go to pieces, parts sproinging out like some crazy Pandora’s jack-in-the-box. Every bolt you touch strips instantly. Each component is slowly rusting to death, held together only by habit or inertia—the pattern of is molecules is just barely stable. For years I refused even to take the rear wheel off this bike, fixing each inevitable flat by pulling out the punctured part of the tube and patching it. Keep in mind that I worked in shops for more than a decade: if I’m reluctant to work on a 3-speed bike, you can bet its previous owners were even more reluctant. Which means this bike has likely never been serviced in its life, and it’s older than I am.

So you never tune up the 3-speed, and it just gets slower and slower as the bearings gradually destroy themselves. If you did take the wheel off, you probably couldn’t turn the axle with your fingers. Perhaps a one-speed would be manageable without ever being serviced, but a 3-speed is trickier. The English-made Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub is a feisty beast, known to turn on its rider without warning. One second the pedals are engaged with the rear wheel, and the next second the linkage is missing and the pedals spin uselessly, which can make you lurch as if dry-heaving, bash your leg on the bars, and/or crash the bike.

Every 3-speed I’ve ever owned has done this to me. Usually it’s when you’re in second gear and then, suddenly, aren’t. Here’s just one such tale of woe, which I described in a letter to my brother a few years back: “I was riding to the store on the Arseless the other day, in a hurry because dinner was waiting on whatever I had to buy, and the rear tire was almost flat so I was out of the saddle. I was in second gear, because that bike is so inefficient (and high-geared) that third would’ve been too hard. Right about the time I realized I was in second, and what that meant, it was suddenly too late—the Sturmey freewheeled on me and my knee bashed the bars with great force. I cussed up a storm, not realizing I was passing the new down-the-street neighbors’ house and their little daughter was within earshot. D’oh! My knee was really sore, and in fact that evening I could barely walk.”

The cussing theme recurred recently when, as a treat, I rode to my daughter’s school on the Arseless, riding one-handed so I could roll my daughter’s mountain bike along next to me (so we could ride home together). This two-bike arrangement meant twenty-plus pounds of extra weight, and that I couldn’t ride out of the saddle up Peralta, which is a steep hill. (It’s not actually steep. I could probably tackle it in the big ring on my Orbea. But the Arseless makes mountains out of molehills. First gear on a Sturmey is okay for the flats; second is fine for a downhill; third is only suitable for going down a ski slope. Either England is totally flat, or the Sturmey company saw an opportunity to celebrate that famous British stoicism and perseverance.) Struggling not to drop Alexa’s bike, I was weaving back and forth, barely able to continue pedaling, and let loose with a loud and serious curse, when I saw one of those nice old people who sit on their porches watching the world go by. She looked stricken. I felt great shame. It decided then and there it was time to build up another fast commuter.

Finding a frame

Having never shelled out any money for a fast commuter frameset, I set my budget at near-zero. I figured I could find a decent old frame, or even a complete bike, on craigslist for cheap. The 1980s was a golden era for good inexpensive Japanese road bikes; you see them all over the place, still going strong. Generally, a bike owner has little idea as to the value is of his bike, and this can work in your favor. But I was shocked to find people asking more money for an early ‘80s bike than the damn thing cost new! They seem to think the bikes are collector’s items or something. The worst ad was for a “"vintage Free Spirit road bike" for $125: “Bikes in rideable condition... Also would be a great frame for a collector to rebuild.” A Free Spirit is a department store bike, which is the bike equivalent of non-dairy creamer, or a cheap kid’s toy covered with lead paint, or a Costco frozen burger patty. No Free Spirit has ever cost more than $100 new, and would be a total rip-off at $5. “Great frame for a collector to rebuild” … is this guy crazy? I’d sooner buy used toilet paper.

Which brings us to Full Slab. The frame was just sitting in the garage, its parts having been looted to put on a new frame three years ago. The chrome on Full Slab was lousy to begin with, and as a result it had badly rusted during its four-year role as my rain bike. Three years ago I decided to get some Quick-Glo rust remover and restore the frame. Here is a before shot:

I did a web photo album of the restoration, and the above photo carried the caption “The Horror!” A friend posted this comment: “A more appropriate title for the photo is impossible. That makes me want to run from the room shrieking like one of my daughters.”

The rust cleaned up remarkably well, but all the same, my friend’s comment really made an impression on me. The phrase “my daughters” was particularly compelling; after all, I can’t help but descend pretty fast, even on my rain bike. So I’d decided I couldn’t conscionably keep using the frame for actual road rides, and replaced it with something basic but non-ferrous. (Note to burglars: as far as you know, I have a vicious attack dog who guards my house, and just the other day I trained him to chew the zipper out of a pair of jeans.)

Now, a commuting bike doesn’t have to be as safe as a road bike; I seldom break 20 mph around town. So, the rust wouldn’t be an issue. Yet, I hesitated to reincarnate Full Slab as a commuter because a) it seems a lowly occupation for what was once my primary road bike, and b) I actually never liked Full Slab that much to begin with.

I’d bought the frame online in August of 1998, sight unseen, for $881.94. The website provided most of the details of the frame geometry, but the head tube angle was listed as “proprietary.” Since the frame had a long top tube, I naturally assumed it would have a steep head angle, which is how to keep the wheelbase relatively short. But Full Slab arrived with a shallow head tube angle and a long wheelbase. I’ll never forget that first ride. As I left my apartment and rode up Polk Street toward Lombard, I immediately realized the ride was lousy. Like a damn mule.

(When I replaced Full Slab, I was determined not to take any chances with frame geometry, and designed my own frame. Here is a design that, in my opinion, totally rocks.)

Needless to say, I got over my misgivings about repurposing my old road bike, and set about putting the Guerciotti back into service.

The catch

The trouble was, predictably enough I couldn’t get the fixed cup out of Full Slab’s bottom bracket shell. The cup is made of (relatively) soft aluminum, and its design is the victim of dunderheaded nationalism. The British Standard for fixed cups is to have a left-hand thread, and for jolly good reason: as you pedal the bike, the turning crankset causes the bottom bracket spindle to rotate within the cups. Because of this rotation, a cup with a right-hand thread will tighten itself down endlessly until it’s too tight to remove for servicing.

But the Italians just had to be different, had to defy the British and their sensible design, had to throw their weight around and ensure incompatibilities that I imagine were originally meant to protect their GDP. The Guerciotti being Italian, it has an Italian-thread bottom bracket shell and thus was doomed to have its fixed cup tighten itself to death. The adjustable cup (threaded into the left side of the BB shell, where pedaling would tend to loosen it) came right off, but all I managed with the fixed cup was to booger the wrench slots up a bit. I brought the frame to my local bike shop, and the mechanic there took one look at it and said, in essence, “Sucks to be you.” He made a cursory attempt to remove the cup, and then threw up his hands. I can’t blame him; such an operation isn’t really a repair—it’s a fool’s errand, and cannot possibly be profitable for a shop.

Fortunately, I have some red meat in the house, and a garage with a big messy workbench, and a Dremel tool, and a vocabulary rich in expressions like “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” So I used the Dremel to cut a new slot into the cup so I could get a really good purchase with a big screwdriver, to which I would apply, with extreme prejudice, great and violent pressure using a tool that at the bike shop we liked to call “The Persuader.” That is, a hammer. Here is the Dremel tool in action:

This scheme did not work. Actually, I didn’t really expect it to work, but I had to try. Then I sought advice from my brothers Geoff and Bryan, but subsequently decided that neither of their suggestions would work. This wasn’t necessarily a fair conclusion, but having been mocked by my older brothers during my teen years for not being “mechanically minded,” it was almost a matter of pride to pursue my own solution. I cut another slot in the cup, across from the first one, and widened the slots:

Why did I widen the slots? And why two of them? So I could fit a flat headset spanner in there, of course:

Once I had the spanner in there, it was just a matter of whaling on that bad boy with the Persuader. Like magic, the cup screwed out just fine, in one piece no less. The threads are perfect in the bottom bracket shell, and the new bottom bracket went in in a jiffy. The hard part of the assembly was over; now it was just a matter of moving the parts over from the Bridgestone.

The assembly

Fortunately, I had my daughter Alexa helping. It’s not like I couldn’t have done it without her, but involving her makes this less of a selfish bike project and more of a Quality Time With Dad scenario.

One goal for this enterprise was to purchase as little as possible in the way of new parts. All I actually purchased was an Italian-thread square-taper bottom-bracket (which I was relieved to find mail-order for $20). Other stuff I got from The Box. Every cyclist should have a box like this in his garage:

The hardest part of the assembly was the brakes. I’ve got some nice Dura-Ace calipers in The Box, but of course I wanted to use Mafac cantilevers with bolt-on Moots Mounts. Here, Alexa removes the mounts from the old frame, being careful not to lose any parts.

Why the Mafacs? Well, for one thing, every bike should have some French parts on it, as a show of humility and a hedge against dogmatism. (All my bikes have at least one French component, except the Arseless, which would reject it like a bad organ.) By the way, look at the bright orange water bottle in the ground there. It’s an important part of the bike. It has a story: I had it on my bike when I lived in San Luis Obispo, and a local racer actually asked me to stop using it. He was very proud of being Dutch, and told me that an orange water bottle was kind of his trademark in the peloton. I thought his request was absurd and reeked of narcissism. I was working at a bike shop at the time, and happened to learn that Specialized was blowing out those orange bottles for thirty cents apiece wholesale. I ordered like two dozen of them and gave them out to all my friends. At the next race, they were all over the place. If anything, the orange bottle had become the trademark of the Cuesta Community College cycling team.

Okay, back to the bike. Because the Moots Mounts flex like crazy, my brothers and I fashioned some stiffeners out of old steel chainrings to improve the braking performance. Tough to set up, but the setup looks pretty cool, doesn’t it?

Note also the Campy shifters. These are the later-model engraved ones made in Milan; I used to have the even cooler ones made in Vicenza with the “CAMPAGNOLO” in raised letters. Also note the pink gear cable. I was determined not to buy any cables, housing, brake pads, or anything. (I’m not sure why I have this impulse; perhaps it’s a backlash against an industry whose goal, as with most industries, is to get people to replace perfectly good stuff with the latest version.) Replacing the chain would have been a good idea about eighteen years ago; now, with two decades on it, it’s too late—the chain has a special relationship with the cogs, which would skip with any other chain. So I put the ancient Sedisport back on there.

What’s remarkable, given the old chain, is that the “new” chainrings don’t skip. Not exactly new: I dug out my old (1983) Dura-Ace AX Dyna-Drive crankset, wondering why I didn’t have it on the previous incarnation of this bike. Then it dawned on me that when I built up that Bridgestone commuter, I still had the Dyna-Drives on my racing bike! (In fact, they earned me the nickname “Dana-Drive” at UCSB.) These cranks used a wacky pedal—you can see a pair of them in The Box, above—that had no axle, and whose axis of rotation was actually below the end of the crank. This gave me the equivalent of a lower bottom bracket, lowering me a bit on the bike so I could get a better draft behind the others. Very cool stuff. In 1984 Alexi Grewal, though officially riding Suntour, used this same model of crank when he won the Olympic road race. Also in this photo you can see the beat-to-hell old Campy front derailleur.

Traveling exhibit

There seems to be a real fad of turning old road bikes into “fixies” by removing the derailleurs and such. Why anybody in hilly Berkeley or San Francisco would want to do this is beyond me. Not only are gears nice to have, but shifting is fun, and keeping your drivetrain intact provides the opportunity for more exhibits in your rolling museum. Look at this sweet Dura-Ace rear derailleur, circa 1980:

Locking up your bike’s wheels is a hassle, so I have these sweet bolt-on Suntour cartridge-bearing hubs. Of course it would be even cooler if Campy made bolt-on hubs for road bikes. I had to make do with using my Campy “peanut butter” wrench to install them. You can see the Arseless in the background. Note also the DT spokes the wheel is laced with. Life is good!

I’ve always hated those clunky little clamps for the Kryptonite lock, and have had the pleasure of not needing them, thanks to my Fisher twin-strut handlebars that accommodate the lock perfectly. Note also the brake lever condoms, bar-ends, and even a Dura-Ace headset—the height of decadence on a humble commuter bike!

So here is the bike, all ready to go. My main impression of it, when it was all done, is how huge it is. Lindsay noticed it too, the first time she got a ride on my top tube (a regular occurrence). She pointed out that nobody would want to steal the bike because they wouldn’t be tall enough to ride it. At first I thought the bike gawky, but you know, at the end of a long workday, it’s actually kind of nice not being bent so far over the bike. In fact, for a mere commuter bike, this thing rides like a dream. It is certainly the best commuting bike I’ve ever had, and I must say it’s nice to finally feel complete respect for Full Slab. This bike has finally come into its own. It’s like the mediocre football player who went on to be a great coach, or the so-so racehorse who found a glorious second career as a stud.

But wait, there was one final change I had to make after I’d taken this photo: the Concor Light saddle just didn’t belong. For an old-school bike like this, I really needed the Turbo. So here it is, all 450 grams of it, mounted on one of the sweetest seatposts ever made: the Campy Super Record.

Just in case you were thinking of ripping this bike off, rest assured I put it in a locker at Bart now. As for breaking into my garage at home, did I mention my killer attack dog?

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Parts of Speech Rap

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language, crude humor, and intimations of violence.


My daughter Alexa, who is in grade school, gets a lot of homework. One recent assignment was to memorize a 28-line rap about the parts of speech. This task caused her a fair deal of Sturm und Drang, and I myself got pretty tired hearing her rehearse. It wasn’t a bad little rap, but it wasn’t interesting enough to bear such repetition. Actually, it wasn’t really what I’d call a rap. It was more of a rhyme, really.

I appreciate the fact of the rap assignment, but—my mind having been fairly marinated in real rap music for more than two decades—I felt I could write a better version. So I did, or at least I tried. This post examines the hows and whys of learning through music, before proceeding to the World Premiere of my own Parts of Speech Rap. (If you have a short attention span and/or better things to get done, like updating Facebook or Twitting someone, you can go right to the poem by clicking Ctrl-F and searching on “Dana’s.” And if you don’t even have time for the rap/poem itself, how did you land here in the first place?)

Memory aids

It’s not hard to guess why Alexa’s school used a rap to teach parts of speech. Anybody who has seen “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” will remember that Charlie Brown excelled in the spelling bee because of a song called “I Before E Except After C” that his dog played for him on the temir komuz. (I have just now realized that the Alphabet Song is probably a better example.) Putting things to music, or at least throwing in some rhyme and/or rhythm, seems to be an effective memory aid. I found plenty of Google hits on “parts of speech rap,” including this rather inspired song, performed with great flair.

As useful as music and rhyme are to memorization, I have long pondered how bawdy and/or illicit verse seems much easier to memorize than the parent- or teacher-approved varieties. I’m not sure why this should be so, other than perhaps the social benefit of entertaining or titillating your school pals. Consider the following song excerpts:

This land is my land,
It is not your land.
I got a shotgun
And you don’t got one.
If you don’t get off
I’ll blow your head off.
‘Cause this land is private property.

We had joy, we had fun
We went streaking in the sun
But the sun burnt our balls
Now we’re streaking in the halls.

I learned those songs more than thirty years ago, and they’re still with me. And yet, I cannot remember—and in fact never managed to learn—the normal version of either song. I learned the schoolyard versions from my brothers, but it’s not like those guys sat me down and taught me; I overheard the songs a couple of times and—just like that—I knew them cold. When I trotted them out for my schoolmates, I (briefly) became a hero. Nobody my age had such great stuff. (This was just one of the many benefits of having older brothers.)

So it was in college when, though struggling to memorize my French class vocab lists, I memorized entire rap songs without even trying. For example, I realized one day that I could rap, verbatim, Ice-T’s “Peel Their Caps Back”—though I’d never consciously attempted to memorize it. That song is over fifty lines; meanwhile, I know only thirty lines of Poe’s “The Raven,” even though it’s my favorite poem, and I’ve studied it extensively and have tried several times to learn it off.

Why memorize the parts of speech?

You may be wondering why I even care whether or not kids learn the parts of speech. Isn’t this the kind of useless trivia you learn just long enough to pass a test? Isn’t proper grammar just an annoyance, like that “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon that polluted your Saturday morning TV ritual?

Well, grammar is not trivial to me. Somebody should have explained adverbs to the ad agency that created the Apple “Think Different” ad campaign. It wouldn’t bother me if people acknowledged the obvious grammatical error while defending a stylistic choice, and it certainly wouldn’t bother me if somebody put forth that “different” in this context could be taken as a substantive adjective. But too many times I’ve pointed out the “Think Different” error to somebody who replied, “Huh? Seems right to me,” and/or “What’s an adverb?” Such ignorance is far more offensive to me than anything Lil Wayne, Obie Trice, or Eminem could serve up.

My School Rap Project

As soon as I heard Alexa’s assigned Parts of Speech Rap, I knew deep down in my soul that I’d have to write my own version. It didn’t matter that such a project has no practical value. That’s right, no value. Even if I could prove to the teachers that a grittier, more authentic, and more risqué rap would be easier to memorize than the existing version, it wouldn’t do to have kids earning street cred by spewing profanity or celebrating gang violence. To my ear, kids cussing is about as vulgar as you can get. It’s one thing for kids to teach each other naughty songs; for an adult to provide them is as inappropriate as buying booze for teenagers.

Well, if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this blog, it’s that no audience is too small for a literary effort. Maybe one or two parents will read this and think it’s funny. Maybe it’ll find a home among the other “parts of speech rap” Google hits. And I’m toying with the idea of letting Alexa hear my rap exactly one time, just to show her what is possible … you know, inspire her to shoot higher than the vanilla school curriculum. Then, as with a magic trick, I would put it away and refuse to repeat it. (Not even once. Who knows how quickly she might commit the rap to memory, and how viral it could go on the Marin Elementary playground?)

So here’s my rap. I chose not to paste in the school's sanctioned version, as it’s probably copyrighted or something. (In contrast, if any kid gets hold of this rap, I’ll disavow it entirely and claim my blog got hacked.)

Dana’s “Parts of Speech” Rap

Parts of speech: I counted eight.
To learn ‘em is your sorry fate.
It’s grammar, holmes, ya gots to know it;
Memorize it, bite the bullet.

A noun be a person, place, or thing.
Abstract, like hate, or concrete: bling.
Common nouns are freak and floozy,
Proper nouns are Glock and Uzi.

Nouns get whacked by shorter pronouns:
He for Tyson, them for throwdowns.
Describe your nouns with adjectives,
Like pimpin’ ride or homemade shiv.

In front of nouns be articles:
A, the ... nothing radical.
Verbs are actions: shoot, die, bleed,
Or being verbs like am, is, be.

Adverbs tell how verbs get done:
“I straight clocked him, then he run.”
Words like and, or, as, because
Are what we call conjunctions, cuz.

At and by be prepositions:
In the clink,” or “on probation,”
Without hope,” “beyond salvation,”
Heading straight “toward ruination.”

Parts of speech—go spit ‘em raw!
Just bite this rap, recite it, bra.
If kids be complainin’ they hate to study,
I might have to school somebody.


It’s possible certain words in that rap didn’t make a lot of sense, like “straight,” “clock,” “spit,” and “bite.” If so, I recommend the Urban Dictionary.

You may have noticed that my rap isn’t particularly hard-core. When it came down to it, I just couldn’t bring myself to go beyond a PG-13 level. After all, it’s conceivable that some enterprising young student might do an Internet search on “parts of speech rap,” and I’d hate to introduce anything truly offensive into the student culture. That kind of thing is really the students’ job.

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