Friday, January 28, 2011

From the Archives - Big Ring Tale


I did not coin the term “Big Ring Tale,” but a Google search on this phrase turns up only five results, two of which are mine. I thought it was a household term, but perhaps it’s not. Suffice to say, it refers to a story of a showdown on bikes, with the climax coming when the hero, just before launching his final, devastating attack, “throws it in the big ring”—that is, shifts into his bike’s higher gear range.

The following Big Ring Tale came to mind when I was planning my blog post about bike helmets, and recalled the last time I broke a helmet in a crash. This was in 2008, when I was hit by a car during a training ride, and suffered a third-degree separation of my shoulder. It took a long time and a lot of physical therapy before I could return to riding, and when I finally did, I was slower, heavier, and in worse shape than I’d been in many years, perhaps more than a decade. This left me vulnerable to weak assaults on my ego, one of which resulted in a bike ride showdown with a complete stranger. As it happened, part of the reason he provoked me was that he was apparently too cool to wear a helmet.

(Original art courtesy of my daughter.)

Big ring tale – September 15, 2008

It’s not looking like I’ll have any race reports to file this year, so I thought I’d make do with a humble Big Ring Tale.

So I was humping my Salsa up South Park one day last week and thinking how utterly absurd it was for me to have thought I could come back from my injury in time to ride the Everest Challenge in Bishop. I was actually feeling relieved that my physical therapist vetoed the idea, and then annoyed at myself for feeling relieved.

I clocked a slow time up South Park, and then headed down Claremont. This would be my first time doing these climbs back-to-back since my wreck, 2½ months before. I turned the ship around at the bottom and tried to get my engine going again to climb back up. I was still sputtering away when this dude passed me. He looked pretty fit, and pretty smooth, and he had that pocket climber build, and right away I decided it would be futile to try to hang with him. The wimp in my brain assured me, in soothing tones, that the outcome of any engagement with this guy had been decided at my birth, and that there was no shame in an out-of-shape old injured dude, with what felt like a woman’s butt growing out of his belly, being passed up by a young fit climber guy. I even reflected on the words of a slippery Nabokov narrator, “Fate should not jam.” Why should I mix it up with somebody who is destined to leave me far behind?

But then, as I scanned this guy for more excuses to wuss out, I noticed some things that complicated the matter. True, he was on a nice, modern racing bike, a carbon Specialized, not some 1980s Novara or something, but on the other hand he was wearing a Camelbak (not exactly the gear of a true road cyclist). And then there was the matter of his attitude. I said “Hi,” and he didn’t reply. What, the big, puffy, puffing guy doesn’t warrant a greeting, not even a nod?

His apparently snooty attitude was exacerbated by his youth. There was something too fresh in his face, some aura of having been untested, something the opposite of weathered, like he’s just some young guy who thinks the whole world is laid out before him to just take, and he cares nothing what the older, long-suffering bastards like me think of him and his insolence. If he were in an old Native American tribe, the elders would cut him down to size by giving him some humiliating name like “White Man’s Bitch” or “Forest Pansy” or something, until he did something impressive to literally make a name for himself, at which point they’d switch to calling him “Schools Lardy Has-Been” or “Spanks Happy Buddha.”

Suddenly, I marveled at how critical I was being. After all, this was simply an angry biker like myself out for a ride. And then it hit me why he bothered me so much: the guy reminded me of Riccardo Riccò, that hot-shot self-worshipping doper. Of course it wasn’t this guy’s fault he happens to bear a physical resemblance to Riccò, but on the other hand, if I looked like that I’d make sure to act really friendly and humble.

And then there was the matter of this guy not having socks. Maybe he was a tri-guy, or—even worse—a roadie who lets the tri culture influence him. And though his form was good, his pedal stroke smooth, his physique fairly toned, he was just slightly bow-legged, which interfered with my ability to chalk him up as a classy rider who deserves to drop me. And to top it all off, he wasn’t wearing a helmet. This was forgivable twenty years ago, when people raced in worthless leather hairnets and the hard-shell helmets were hot and heavy, but in 2008, when even the Europeans wear helmets on their road rides? Who does this guy think he is? It’s a given that he’s going to be descending something steep; just how sweet a bike-handler does he fancy himself? What, he’s just so damn cool he has to be the last guy on the road without a helmet? What is he, James Dean? So I decided he had to die, or at least one of us did.

Now, if this were an ABC After-School Special, I’d have pulled up next to him, stared him down like Lance did Ullrich on Alpe d’Huez, stood on my pedals, and blown him away. Or maybe he’d put up a fight but my ultimate supremacy would never be in question. Alas, in reality, in the process of my deliberations I’d let the guy drop me already. I had to claw back up to him, very slowly. By the time I reached him, my heart rate was over 170, which is pretty much redline for me. How on earth was I going to throw down on this guy? It dawned on me that the real victim of my effort would doubtless be myself. But I deserved this punishment, I figured, for ever letting things get to the point where this bow-legged, fresh-faced, sockless, antisocial helmetless little bastard could drop me so easily. So I sat on his wheel and suffered. Of course there was still a chance he’d sit up, offer a greeting, and we’d have a social ride up the hill. Or, he’d be annoyed at me, kick it up a bit, and cast me off. But instead he just stayed at it.

After a minute or two, Scotty frantically warned me, “The ship can’t take much more o’ this, Captain!” I simply didn’t have the minerals to win a war of attrition. I decided my only hope was to take a deep breath (this I was already doing) and then cruise past the guy with my best simulation of ease and infinite strength, in hope that it would break his spirit and he’d descend into a low-performance bout of self loathing. A Hail Mary, to be sure, but what else could I do? Every now and then you get lucky, and your opponent is like one of those Imperial storm troopers whose minds are putty in Obi Wan’s paws, who say, “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.” So I rolled on by the guy at the first steep section, as gracefully and unhurriedly powerfully as an expert rower in a racing scull passing a kid in a paddle boat. (At least, that’s how I convinced myself I looked. I was probably more like a dancing hippo from Fantasia: fluid, and yet somehow pathetic.) I kept this up until things got really steep, and I got further into the red, and no longer had the luxury of pretense. Once out of the saddle, I was thrashing ugly, like Escartin in the early Lance years. God.

We think of roads as having a fixed length, like Pi or the wavelength of Cesium. Of course this is simply untrue. Claremont when you’re fit is pretty long. Claremont when you’re really fit isn’t so very long. Claremont when you’re getting in touch with your inner fat bastard is basically endless. Why, why, why did I do this? And why was I continuing? All the rationalizations (his bow-leggedness, helmetlessness, etc.) popped right into my mind, along with a new one: I’m going to look like a real ass if I falter now, after my big strut; this skinny little bareheaded Doogie Howser is going to laugh inwardly, or maybe even in my face, as he plucks the baton from my generation and leaves me gasping in his wake. I couldn’t let that happen. Maybe I couldn’t prevent that from happening, but I wasn’t going to sit up and welcome it. So I pressed on, absolutely murdering myself.

Then, I had the epiphany. Not “an epiphany,” which is normally how these go, but the same epiphany I have—and then forget—time after time in such situations. The realization is this: though I convince myself that I quit racing because of the time commitment involved, the traveling, the cost, the overall lifestyle and the impact that would have on my family, the truth of the matter is that I’ve had enough of this kind of suffering. Riding is fun, and riding hard is fun but hurts, and riding really hard is fun but really hurts, but racing—officially or in these desperate ego-driven throw-downs—is pure agony. There’s just this huge chasm between anything you can inflict upon yourself in the name of fitness, and this kind of searing, overwhelming pain, a thousand nerve endings crying out at once to try to get the brain to do something, anything, to rescue the organism.

I’d gone past the fine edge of what is tolerable, and every shove on the pedals increased my abject misery. “I don’t want to be here,” I thought. “I don’t want to be doing this. This sucks. Nothing is worse than this.” And yet I kept on, because I’d written a check I could not afford to bounce, because a skinny, duck-footed, helmetless Riccò-type was probably sitting right on me, or hanging just back, deciding how to best punish me for my foolish audacity.

One of the rules of these “pick-up races” (to coin a term) is that you don’t look back at your opponent. I didn’t hear him behind me, and eventually a car approached and I had an excuse to look back. He was maybe 150 feet behind. I looked again, a few minutes later, and he was maybe 200 feet back. A third look showed he was gaining. It definitely seemed he was working on catching me—but here I suddenly had some doubt: what if this entire showdown is in my head, and this dude is just pedaling his bike up the hill, oblivious to my challenge? Could I be locked in a struggle against my own shadow, my own delusion? Could it be that I’m scarcely different from those crazy people you occasionally see on the street having a loud, public argument with—nobody? Fortunately, no one would ever know. Just as modern crazies are camouflaged among all the hands-free cell phone users, I must have looked like any joe having a hard time with a tough climb.

Besides, he must have been trying to catch me. I’ve been riding long enough to know when somebody has taken the bait. I figured I’d know for sure soon enough, as soon as he came by me and accelerated. Except that, amazingly, I was going just fast enough to hold him off. Every time I glanced back, he was somewhere between gaining on me and faltering. Eventually I realized he’d run out of time, and I would make it to the top of Claremont ahead of him—that I’d actually managed to turn a clever bluff into desperation-fueled triumph. Chances were that he’d either go straight, down Fish Ranch, or right, along Skyline. He might even turn around and go back down Claremont. But the horrible possibility existed that he’d go left, like me, and drop my ass on Grizzly Peak. I shuddered at the thought, and made sure I lost no time making my left turn, just in case. I kept it floored until the first switchback, when I looked back to make sure that—oh, crap. He was turning, too, and not wasting any time about it. I’d just had a bunch more tacked onto my sentence.

Funny how the mind works. On the brink of despair, I convinced myself of a lie that, in retrospect, seems like a reasonable truth: if this little pocket climber can’t chase me down on Claremont, where the grade is steep enough to put the laws of physics squarely in his favor, he shouldn’t be able to close the gap on the shallower grade of Grizzly Peak. I even told myself that he himself would be painfully aware of this idea, and might just lose all hope. Of course it felt like a lie at the time, because my entire output was really a myth, like Wile E. Coyote running along in mid-air only because he hasn’t yet realized he’s gone off a cliff. But I willed myself to believe it, and kept the hurt on, abusing myself so badly that it almost started to feel normal, and, one pedal stroke at a time, I finally reached the part of the climb, near the steam trains, where it starts to really ease up.

Guido handed me a pistol and said, “Here—finish him.” So I threw her in the big ring. Not because I was going so fast I’d run out of small cogs or anything, but because you can’t have a Big Ring Tale without the big ring, and I was already sensing the first stirrings of this story you’re now reading. Meanwhile, with the end in sight I suddenly felt like I had a little more energy in store than I’d thought. In fact, my full awareness of how badly this had hurt was already beginning to recede, and now it is a feat of imagination for me to remember how very badly I suffered in the pursuit of this minor, possibly delusional, victory over a single nameless foe.

dana albert blog

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bike Helmets


I bought a new bike helmet. No, you can’t see it; this is a blog, not Show & Tell. But the selection and purchase got me thinking about bike helmets. And a couple of things have been nagging me about helmets lately anyway.

First, in my New Year’s Resolution post I didn’t resolve to wear my helmet whenever I ride, though I’d thought about making this a resolution. Occasionally when riding my kids to school—on the sidewalk—I haven’t worn a helmet, and a fellow parent commented on this recently (using the phrase “bad dad,” no less). I doubt any of the school kids look up to me, but what if they did? I’m not in the habit of making resolutions I don’t intend to keep, but I’m on the verge of toppling off the fence on this one.

Second, I’ve been thinking about my comment in my last post about the dorky helmet James Bond once wore motorcycling. You may well imagine that I got a lot of heat for that, but you’d be wrong—I haven’t heard a word. Nor would I retract the statement that Bond, the fictitious and apparently invincible character, shouldn’t wear a helmet. But I guess I wasn’t really thinking about the stuntman, who, it now occurs to me, perhaps deserves head protection. (My myopia on that isn’t unique; consider the disclaimer in movie credits that says “No animals were harmed in the making of this film,” and then ask yourself, what did the crew eat on the set every day?)

This post examines my history with the bike helmet, primarily for the reader’s amusement.

What this post is not

This post is not an appeal to cyclists to wear their helmets. Why not? Is it because I don’t think helmets are necessary? No, it’s almost the opposite: the value of bike helmets is so widely acknowledged in this country, I really don’t need to make this appeal. Even the pro racers in Europe are required to wear legit, hard-shell helmets now, and every cyclist I ride with wears a helmet on every training ride. In the entire Bay Area cycling community, I know of only one rider who still goes helmetless, apparently due to vanity. (In his case, it backfires; to me, it just makes him look old, because a) riding without a helmet associates you with a bygone era, and b) he’s balding.)

(Within the shelter of these parentheses, I will concede that it would be pretty embarrassing to suffer a head injury during a short errand ride. Early last year I was riding, helmetless, to my kids’ school when the frame broke on my commuter bike. Part of my relief in managing not to crash was that I wouldn’t have to feel like an idiot for not having had a helmet on. But I’m not living up to the title for this section—I’m starting to nag. Fear not, the rest of this post will be decidedly non-didactic.)

My first helmet

Imagine my delight when I opened a gift-wrapped box on Christmas morning, 1979 or 1980, and laid eyes on my first bike helmet. I hope you have a good imagination, because there was actually zero delight. I suppose there was a bit of curiosity—this helmet, the Bell Biker, was among the first I’d ever seen—but instantly I knew I’d catch hell from other kids for wearing a helmet to ride a bike. It’s easy enough for kids now to embrace helmet use—not only are bike helmets ubiquitous now, but in many places it’s the law—but back then, bike helmets were unheard of. My brothers and I were waaaaaay ahead of everybody else here. Some people in such a situation become trend-setters, like the Plastics in “Mean Girls,” but my brothers and I were socially retarded to begin with. Whatever the odds of getting a head injury in a bike accident, we know they were lower than the 100% chance of being ostracized for our Bell Bikers. This helmet was a double-bummer: not only would I have to wear the thing, but it was my main Christmas present that year. Sweet.

The helmet was big and white and gaudy. I don’t have a photo handy but click here and scroll halfway down the page and you’ll see it. The print ad for this helmet showed a cut-away cross-section of the helmet with a ruler showing the thickness; the caption read, “The difference between our helmets and the others is about an inch.” Like that over-thick Styrofoam was a benefit. Since my three brothers and I all got helmets and my dad didn’t want us getting them mixed up, he bought 3M Scotchlite in four colors—one per kid—and added it to our helmets. I got red. For some reason, you got more in the roll of red Scotchlite than other colors, so I got extra stripes.

Eventually the helmet pads started to wear out. They were about a centimeter thick and made of soft spongy stuff, just like those off-brand sink sponges that your cheap college roommate bought instead of Scotch-Brite. The pads wore out fast, especially the front one that got most of the sweat, and after rotating his own pads for awhile, each of us would raid his brother’s helmet and swap out his own grody front pad for his brother’s less grody back pad. I got sick of my pads getting snaked, so I took a magic marker and made a dot on each of my pads—kind of like a rancher branding his cattle. My brothers thought this was a great idea and went one better: they inked their first initial and last name on each pad (e.g., “BALBERT,” “GALBERT”). What they didn’t realize was that their sweat would react with the ink, and they’d have all this backward writing on their forehead after a ride. I secretly enjoyed this. Since the labeling had been my idea, this was the closest I’d ever come to writing on my brothers’ faces with a felt tip as they slept.

The social outcast effect

As predicted, the helmets made my brothers and me pariahs. It was tempting to think this was my dad’s actual reason for making us wear them, just to build character. (After all, he never got us sunglasses, which might have looked cool, or sunscreen, which might have at least made us smell like the lifeguards that got all the chicks.) But more likely, our dad was just ahead of his time. (Decades later, he cautioned me about trans fats, long before I—or anybody else—had heard of them.) When our dad suggested that we wear our helmets roller-skating, I finally put my foot down. Does this mean I stood up to my old man? Of course not—I just stopped going to the roller rink.

It was my second helmet, though, that made things really bad. I got a Bell Tourlite when my first helmet got run over by our car in 1983. I have always suspected my brother Max was involved in the destruction of that first helmet. First of all, it was crushed right after Max and I had been in a big fight; moreover, moments after the helmet was smashed Max came running into the house with it, gleefully holding it above his head like a trophy. Of course I couldn’t pin anything on him and I got in big trouble. My mom took me to a bike shop for a replacement, and they were out of the Bell Biker. I hated the Tourlite on sight: it had tiny vents, fancier stripes, and a dorky tinted visor. The front pad wasn’t velcroed on but just sort of sat there, framed by soft foam. It was a fake chamois pad and looked just like a club cracker. I knew this pad would get lost (or stolen by an envious brother) in no time, and I wasn’t wrong. But I couldn’t very well protest the Tourlite purchase, since I was in trouble anyway. I tried to make the helmet less awful by snapping off the visor, and I guess it helped a bit. Here’s a photo of it:

My best friend at the time didn’t like the Tourlite at all. We were in the process of drifting apart anyway, and this escalated the process. “Why’d you get that?” he complained. “I thought we agreed it was ugly!” It seems silly to claim that a friendship could be compromised by a helmet, but it really could, and was. In fact, my brothers Geoff and Bryan were also snubbed by one of their best friends over their helmets. He’d ride to junior high with them, but a few blocks from the school would make them go on ahead. “It’s not that I don’t like you guys,” he said, “it’s just that I can’t be seen with you.” (Rest assured, he got his: not long after this, his own parents started making him wear a helmet too, along with his little brother, who suffered the added indignity of being made to ride only on the sidewalk.)

That same summer, when I was fourteen, I went on kind of a blind date. There had been two girls my age hanging around the neighborhood one day, and I fell into a weeks-long phone-based quasi-romance with one of them. (I never figured out which one it was.) Finally we agreed to meet up, and chose a video arcade downtown as our rendezvous point. This presented a problem: the place was about five miles from my house, so I had to ride my bike there, and I knew if I showed up wearing a helmet I’d be spurned for sure. At the same time, I was convinced if I rode all the way across town without the helmet, I was bound to run into my dad and get busted. (This may seem paranoid to you, but my brothers and I would frequently bump into our dad at any hour of the day and in any part of town. It was weird.) So after much deliberation I decided I’d better wear the helmet. I got a half a mile or so out when I changed my mind again, rode home, and ditched it. All the way to the arcade I sweated it, worrying about seeing my dad. To say I felt naked without my helmet isn’t enough; I felt like I was naked in church. When I got to the arcade I realized that after all my indecision and dallying, I was like half an hour late, and the girl had bailed. She never talked to me again.

Anti-helmet arguments

Of course my brothers and I wouldn’t have dared argue with our dad about the necessity of the bike helmet, but Max did argue with the other three of us. He alone dared ride without a helmet, and occasionally did get busted. His rationale was, “If I crash hard enough to need a helmet, I’m going to mess up my bike, and if I mess up my bike, I’ll want to be dead.”

As helmets became more common, many others developed anti-helmet arguments. One use of such arguments was to justify the use of a leather “hairnet” helmet in bike races instead of a hard-shell; as late as the early ‘80s a hairnet was all that was required for U.S. races. Some argued that a big hard-shell helmet increased your chances of falling, as if the weight of it would drag you to the ground—kind of a reverse-Weeble-wobble theory. Others argued that having a helmet on would encourage you to take unnecessary risks. When hard-shell helmets became mandatory in U.S. amateur races, some racers complained that the weight caused neck strain. (They must have been airheads for the helmet weight to even matter.)

But there was one day when my friend Peter and I did stumble on a solid argument against helmets. We were out on a training ride and were bored out of our skulls. Pete decided, on a whim, to grab one of my helmet straps and drag me around by it. I retaliated by grabbing his helmet strap, and right away we were weaving all over the road. Suddenly our handlebars got all tangled up, and for a brief moment we stared at each other in shock. Then we were both sailing over the bars, and we stacked pretty hard. We went back to his place to treat our road rash and fix our bikes, and his mom said, “At least you were wearing your helmets.” Pete replied, “If we hadn’t been wearing our helmets, the crash never would have happened.” And he was right!

About the silliest excuse I heard was a couple years later when Peter was on the 7-Eleven junior team. As we headed out for a ride (I in a helmet, he not), his mom hassled him. “I can’t wear one,” he explained, “because we haven’t ironed out our helmet sponsor for this year and I can’t risk being seen in the wrong helmet.”

Fun with helmets

By the mid-‘80s, when hard-shell helmets became mandatory for racing, I could wear a helmet without shame. By that time the Bell V1-Pro had come out, and being a bit smaller than earlier hard-shells and styled after a hairnet, it was not so bad looking. Moreover, the pinstripes and logos were easier to remove, so you could give your helmet a stripped-down road-warrior look. Here’s a photo:

When the foam-only no-shell helmets came out, you could personalize your helmet: you could put on your own fabric cover, or not wear a cover at all. When I rode for the UC Santa Barbara team, we all got fabric covers to match our team uniforms. These covers had colored side panels and a white mesh center section that went over the vents. Screwing around while warming up for the UCLA hill climb, I turned my helmet cover sideways. The effect was that from a distance, it appeared my head was turned. My teammate Trevor laughed and turned his helmet cover sideways, too. This ended up giving us an unexpected psychological advantage in the race: as we both hammered at the front of the pack, a couple of riders toward the back thought we were just chatting while they got dropped. They were so miffed they complained to us afterward for showing off.

Here’s a photo (from a 1989 collegiate team time trial in Colorado) showing three different helmet choices. Trevor has removed the cover and used an ink stamp to make a barbed wire pattern all over his helmet. I’ve turned my cover sideways (well, askew). Mark has eschewed his free team-issue Bell helmet for the more fashionable Giro.

What I don’t have a photo of, but I wish I did, is our teammate Dan’s customer helmet cover that he made out of a pair of underwear (briefs, not boxers). He’d written “JOCKEY FOR POSITION” on the back in felt tip. He actually raced in that thing, and he was fast!

Helmets today

When helmets were something only safety-minded scientist-types wore, ugliness was okay—in fact, it was a badge of honor. In those days, manufacturers could get away with a pretty mediocre product: a helmet that was hot, heavy, and hard to get to fit right. But the helmets got better, and became more popular, and the two trends reinforced each other: a bigger market meant more R&D money.

When helmets became common (and eventually required) in the pro peloton, the state of the art got a nice boost. Pros demanded a decent helmet. (A nice side effect has been more money for the pro teams, as helmet companies pay for the privilege of outfitting them.) Modern helmets are pretty sweet: they’re light, have great vents, look pretty cool, and have these nifty adjustable ratchet systems to snug them up.

(Fit really is important. I once replaced the free Aria Sonics helmet I got from my bike team because I couldn’t keep it from sliding back on my head. On my first ride out with my perfect-fitting Giro helmet, I crashed really badly and was knocked out cold. The helmet performed perfectly; no question I’d be dead or severely brain-damaged had I been wearing no helmet, or an ill-fitting one.)

Even the modern kids’ helmets are really nifty—who wouldn’t want to wear one?

Who wouldn’t want to wear one? The Dutch, that’s who. None of the bike commuters wear helmets over there. (Perhaps it’s the same all over Europe; I don’t really know.) Granted, in the Netherlands the bike paths are great, the motorists seem alert, and the big black 3-speed “opafiets” bikes aren’t exactly built for speed. But still, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody (other than a bike racer) who even owns a bike helmet over there. Here’s a pretty typical photo:

I got that picture from a web photo album that a guy put together showing 82 bike photos he took in a 73-minute period on a fall day in Amsterdam. I counted 112 bikers and zero helmets on this website, and have seen much the same thing during my visits over there.

Ah, the astute reader has surmised, Dana is about to break his promises and start preaching! And he’s going to wax patriotic while he’s at it! Actually, no. I don’t wear a helmet when I ride in the Netherlands either, except on training rides. Neither does my brother, nor do my nieces and nephew over there. It just seems unnecessary, over there. I did a small bit of research and discovered a fascinating analysis concluding that you’re more likely to be murdered in the United States than killed while bicycling (helmetless, by definition) in Amsterdam.

But over here, I’m happy to wear my helmet. After all, I’ve paid my dues … the social outcast years are way behind me.

dana albert blog

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bond Gunned Down

NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for descriptions of violence, mature themes, and mild strong language.


I had a dream the other night that I was James Bond. When I told the dream at the breakfast table, my daughter Lindsay said it sounded like a nightmare. I did find it disturbing, but not really a nightmare—not like the three nightmares I had the night I watched “Let the Right One In,” an incredibly, brilliantly creepy Swedish vampire movie. (I don’t remember those nightmares; only that I woke up screaming from each one, and that the bleak flavor of the movie was with me each time.)

In this post I examine the James Bond character: specifically, why all men want to be him, and what his greatest vulnerability is. I also describe my dream and how it gave me a whole new angle from which to look at … things.

What we like about Bond

In describing my dream, I said, “It started out really well. I was the Daniel Craig Bond—” and here my wife interrupted to ask why I’d dream of being that Bond. It’s a fair question—everybody seems to have a strong opinion of which actor was (or is) the best Bond. (When Siskel and Ebert did a special on Bond movies, one of them said he thought Connery was the best, and threatened to throw the other one over the edge of the balcony if he didn’t agree.) I asked Erin, “Why wouldn’t I want to be the Daniel Craig James Bond?” She replied, “He’s not even good looking!”

Of course that’s a matter of taste; obviously Craig wouldn’t have been selected for the role had MGM not felt he would help draw women to the theaters. But he’s not for every taste. (As Erin’s mom famously said during a conversation with her daughter and me, “Erin never went in for hunks.” I replied, “Well that’s for sure,” and the exchange instantly became family lore.) I’m sure my wife isn’t alone in finding Sean Connery the most attractive of the Bonds. But all this is beside the point. Bond’s looks don’t matter whatsoever to men.

I’ll go out on a limb and speak for all men here: we don’t want to look like Bond; want to be Bond, because he’s so capable, decisive, and unflappable. There’s nothing he can’t fly, drive, ride, shoot, or otherwise instantly achieve complete mastery of. He never gets lost; far from it, in a chase situation he always knows the side roads and ad hoc escape routes. He doesn’t forget things. He doesn’t futz with the seat adjustment in a rental car. He doesn’t get routed all over the place by Customer Service. He doesn’t fight with the ice cube tray. He never whines or complains. And not only does he always get the girl, but you’ll never find him embroiled in some deep discussion about a relationship. He may brood, but usually only after somebody has been killed. (And hey, brooding is kind of cool.)

Bond’s vulnerability

It would be absurd to think that Bond has a vulnerable side, that he ever needs a shoulder to cry on or admits (least of all to a woman) that he’s scared of something, or is uncomfortable, or anything like that. His character puts me in mind of a quote from Shakespeare: “O lady, weep no more, lest I give cause/ To be suspected of more tenderness/ Than doth become a man.” Bond has the traits men admire in one another, which are often different than the traits a woman might admire in a man. Women might like a man who is sensitive, vulnerable, and helpful around the house. Bond is none of these things, but gets the girl anyway. That’s what we men wish we could have.

And yet, Bond does have an Achilles’ heel: bad scripts. Let’s face it, no matter how suave and capable this character is, he’s powerless to prevent himself being stuck in a bad movie, and there have been a lot of them. It’s tempting to blame the actor playing him; I tend to hold Roger Moore accountable for the wisecracking, dippy, often constipated-looking Bond of the ‘70s and early-to-mid ‘80s. (Of his performance in the awful “Moonraker,” Pauline Kael wrote, “Roger Moore is dutiful and passive as Bond … like an office manager who is turning into dead wood but hanging on to collect his pension.”) But if I remember right, Moore started out okay in “Live and Let Die” before the movies got progressively stupider. Was he ruining the character with his own spin, or just following the script and taking direction?

The movie creators surely deserve most of the blame; consider that Pierce Brosnan was a fine Bond, but after his first Bond movie, the rather cool “Goldeneye,” the movies just got worse and worse. That seems to be the way with each new Bond actor: a promising start, then a decline in the quality of the movies until MGM freaks out and finds a new Bond.

To test this theory I looked at the average ratings for each film from Internet Movie Database users. The average rating of the first three Connery films was 7.6; the average for the next four was only 6.7. The trend repeats with every actor (though there’s some fluctuation due to the overrated “Spy Who Loved Me”—I mean, a villain with steel teeth named Jaws? Bond on a Jet-Ski? Ahem!). Check it out (click to enlarge image):

After the invisible car in “Die Another Day,” I actually decided to stop watching Bond movies altogether; fortunately, “Casino Royale” came along and rescued the series. Maybe the creators chose Daniel Craig—the biggest brute of all the Bonds—to make sure they’d completely flushed Roger Moore out of the franchise’s system. Or maybe Craig had laid out some contractual conditions for accepting the role:

o Absolute minimum of bow ties

o No bright yellow ski suit (in fact, no more ski chases)

o No seven-foot villains with steel teeth who move in slow-motion like they’re physically impaired

o No Jet-Skis or similarly frivolous vehicles (e.g., ATVs, rider mowers)

o No spaceships

o No pointlessly complicated kills, like scooping up a villain’s wheelchair with a helicopter and dropping him down a smokestack

o No supposedly clever but actually quite stupid quips (e.g., “Oh, you want to get off!” before dropping villain from helicopter)

o No remote-control or invisible cars, or similarly far-fetched gadgets

o No dumb floozies as Bond women

There’s so much going for this character, it’s a shame to see things spoiled by bad choices from the moviemakers. Take the motorcycle chase scene in “Never Say Never Again.” It’s pretty cool overall, but seriously marred by a non-cool motorcycle and, more egregiously, having Bond wear a helmet. A helmet? I mean, come on, guys! He looks like a dork! Of course in real life I support the use of helmets by motorcyclists, but Bond isn’t real life! What’s next: a scene of Bond as a toddler being strapped into his car seat? (Fortunately, MGM wised up, and Bond and his girl are helmetless in the motorcycle chase in “Tomorrow Never Dies.”

My dream

Speaking of bad scripts, it’s time I got to my dream. In the dream I wasn’t myself, I was Bond, the Daniel Craig incarnation, and the dream opened in medias res, spang in the middle of a ski chase. I wasn’t on some far-flung Alpine peak, either: I was at a ski resort, with recreational skiers going by every so often. Worse, I’d fallen, and was struggling to get my boot back into the ski binding. There was all this snow packed in there and for the longest time I just kept futzing with it. I was highly annoyed. What was I even doing at a ski resort? And why did everything seem tacky, like the eighties: teal-colored snowsuits and mirrored sunglasses? This was the lamest situation ever. What, did I have a gun hidden in my ski pole again to shoot the baddies with?

And then, suddenly, a villain came skiing by with a machine gun and strafed me. Only, he didn’t miss. In fact, in the fusillade I took like eight hits to the chest. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I never thought I was invulnerable; I’d been wounded before, even tortured, and once almost got sawed in half by a laser … but to just be hit, multiple times, by simple gunfire, at point-blank? Unbelievable. I turned to Felix. “I’ve got like eight holes in my chest!” I whispered. “I’m gonna die!”

Felix dropped to one knee to check out my wounds. He looked me over, intently, puzzled, like he was troubleshooting something under the hood of a car. I realized, probably at the same moment he did, that I wasn’t spouting blood like I should have been. Bulletproof vest? No, I hadn’t worn one. I probably should have. Where had I seen that? Ah, right, it was an episode of “Starsky & Hutch” I saw as a kid. You see Hutch get shot and he crumples to the ground and you think your hero is dead, and then suddenly he's okay becauseaha!—he had a bulletproof vest! Why were they showing that on TV? Is that anything our children ought to be seeing?

Finally Felix spoke: “You were shot at such close range, the bullets have cauterized the holes. You’re not going to bleed to death.” I must have looked hopeful because he quickly added, “But you’re still gonna die!”

Unlike the standard plot, where I get myself out of one terrifying scrape after another, now I found myself in a long, slow, depressing dénouement. Q fitted me with a (very basic) heart rate monitor, and over the next few days I watched with bitter resignation as my pulse rate dropped progressively lower. I received no actual medical attention, as it was universally acknowledged I was a goner, but more and more medical researchers began following me around, documenting my amazingly slow death. Now and then one would take my vital signs, and once or twice somebody held a stethoscope to my back and had me cough. Nobody wore surgical masks; after all, my bullet wounds weren’t contagious. The researchers’ overall response was that of fascination. I never actually died; I suppose the dream ended when I (or rather, Dana) woke up.


I’m not of the belief that dreams are actually that useful in gaining an understanding of the self. I truly believe that many, if not most, dreams are completely nonsensical, and ultimately mean nothing. Sure, our subconscious is involved, but so is pure chance. Did my subconscious start meowing outside the bedroom door at 3 a.m. and make me dream about my cat? No, the cat did. Did my subconscious tell me to eat all that spicy Thai food right before bed? Did it tell me to watch “Let the Right One In?”

That said, this dream offers a fairly obvious interpretation. Bond—though intelligent, unflappable, and constitutionally solid—does not know how to die gracefully. Watching himself slowly expire, he is, for the first time, completely powerless. He could insist on having his dignity respected, but what would be the point?

If my subconscious is trying to tell me anything, perhaps it’s that in denying the inevitably of my own death—which I certainly do—I am engaging in pure fantasy, no less so than when I daydream about being James Bond. To which I say, so what? By the time the next Bond movie comes out, the franchise will be fifty years old, but Daniel Craig will be only be forty-four, and I’ll only be forty-three. I’ve still got time.

dana albert blog

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions


While much of America is taking part in the age-old tradition of new year’s resolutions right now, I’m following my own tradition of pondering the matter without actually coming to any conclusions or committing to anything. This post documents that struggle.

Getting started

Part of my issue is that the most obvious resolutions aren’t available to me. Googling top-ten lists of resolutions, I see the same things every time: lose weight, quit smoking, exercise more, drink less alcohol, get out of debt, spend time with family. This low-lying fruit is beyond my reach. My body-mass index is spang in the middle of normal; I exercise like crazy; I’ve never smoked; medical studies suggest I should perhaps drink more alcohol than I do; and so forth.

You might assume that I therefore think I’m just fine as-is. Actually, I don't; rather, my shortcomings simply aren’t the garden-variety ones. While other people are clear and resolute in their desire for self-improvement, I’m just stagnating here, for lack of imagination. Surely there are ways for everybody to improve. So on New Year’s Day I asked my brother Max—an accomplished practitioner of nonstandard thinking—if he had any new year’s resolutions. To my delight, he’d written out a hundred of them the night before, which he read to me over the phone. Here are some highlights:

1. eat right

2. weekly haircut

3. lose 36 pounds by March

10. love 6 things I hate

12. talk to people by creek

24. no more classic rock people

37. Boston kreme doughnut

38. work on golf swing

77. lower temperature for larger roast, and increase cooking time

92. if I get a bloody nose, put a cold towel on the back of my neck and tilt my head back

Several of these, particularly #38, tripped my irony detector. Max has never played golf in his life, and isn’t about to start. I had to ask about #25, “cut off arm.” I said, “Wait … cut off arm?” Max replied, in a tone of pure resignation, “Yeah….” My favorite item on his list was #93, “We don’t want any replays of what happened last year.” He delivered this in the same scolding-woman tone as he used for his follow-up comment: “As long as we’re changing the calendar we might as well make some other changes.” (I know what you’re thinking: he should be the blogger of the family. I agree! Here’s a picture, by the way, of the two of us.)

Good intentions

New year’s resolutions remind me of perennial magazine articles like “Ten easy steps to improving your fitness!” and “Five anti-ageing secrets!” If these easy techniques really worked, they’d have long ago become mainstream and the articles wouldn’t have to be recycled continually. Unsurprisingly, when I looked at online lists of the top ten new year’s resolutions over the last few years, they were all the same.

I got a fortune cookie fortune once that said, “Hell is paved with good intentions.” Not the road to hell, as the saying goes, but Hell itself. I love the image of a flaming underground chamber with the standard rivers of fire and everything, but dotted here and there with exercise bikes, Soloflex machines, and crock pots. Every so often amidst the fire pits you’d see an abandoned home-improvement project. Everyone down there would be a grad student still working on his thesis.

My inner conflict

I can’t help but reflect that the people who have the easiest time coming up with new year’s resolutions are the ones who have allowed their obvious failings to persist and accumulate unmitigated all year long, like dust bunnies under the bed. I mean, if you’re doing something you know you shouldn’t, or are failing to do something you know you should, why ignore it until this arbitrary January timeframe? Why wait to correct your behavior? Why shouldn’t the self-improvement process run all year?

At the same time, I think the earnest, all-together-now spirit of these resolutions is kind of sweet. I went to BoozeMo recently, and couldn’t believe how empty the parking lot once. Normally it’s packed. It was like a ghost town in there, and every single thing I bought was on sale. The cashier said it’s the same every year: slammed on New Year’s Eve and dead after. Similarly, my brother commented on how crowded the gym gets during January. It’s a special time of year when most of the nation unites in a group self-improvement project.

My goodwill toward new year’s resolutionists heightens my own anxiety about not knowing what, in myself, to address. It would be dangerous to decide I’m satisfied. Whatever little satisfactions we have in life would probably end up being sources of actual guilt if we just stepped back and saw the bigger picture. The happy consumer, thrilled with that new iPad, would probably be shocked to know how truly insufferable he or she really is, seen from the eyes of the person on the receiving end of an unsolicited demo. The person who gets great satisfaction from recycling a huge passel of plastic bottles is missing the point—that he or she should be drinking tap water to begin with. Doubtless there are a great many ways in which I could be improving; I just lack the vision to come up with them. Why is it so much easier to come with ways for other people to improve?

My resolution candidates

Having scoured my brain, I’ve come up with some candidates for new year’s resolutions:

1. Be more insightful into my own shortcomings

2. Save money

3. Take a class

4. Eat more pizza and taqueria fare

5. Read more to Lindsay

6. Help others

7. Be less messy

8. Reduce stress / Enjoy life more

9. I will not lose … ever

10. Keep journal about kids

The first item suggests itself to me right away, just as a New Year’s Day hangover suggests “drink less” as a resolution for so many. But I’m not sure “be more insightful” would go the distance as a resolution; it might actually make things worse by leading me into self-absorption or the kind of self-flagellation that would interfere with resolution #8. I’m going to let those two kind of cancel each other out. That’s okay, I still have eight left.

Saving money isn’t a resolution I feel I can truly commit to. First off, I’m not exactly a rabid consumer to begin with. (I almost made a resolution to buy some new socks—I’ve been wearing the same eight pairs of brown socks for the last five or six years—but I felt it too trivial.) Meanwhile, servicing my Bay Area mortgage makes a money-hoarding goal kind of laughable. And then there’s the matter of another resolution I considered, which was to do my part to save our nation’s economy. Finally, saving money conflicts with item #4, eating out (which, meanwhile, clashes with another near-candidate, “spend more time with family,” because my wife hates pizza and my daughter Lindsay dislikes restaurants). I’m going to scratch this one.

Take a class … this could cause stress, but might help me enjoy life more. I’m going to keep it.

Reading more to Lindsay is actually problematic. I enjoy it, and she enjoys it, but I might actually be interfering with her education. She’s just learning how to read, and can handle the simpler Dr. Seuss books and the like. But intellectually she’s much more interested in books like Black Beauty and Clarice Bean Spells Trouble and it’s hard to see how my reading these to her will encourage her to go read basic picture books on her own. This resolution may fail the sustainability test as well—after all, once Lindsay is able to read on her own, my read-aloud tradition will vanish and I’ll have to read to the cat.

Helping others … this I have some experience with. In my high school health class the teacher tasked each student with assigning himself a Health Behavior Change (HBC), and each of us had to report weekly to the teacher on our progress. After I nailed my first HBC, flossing my teeth (a regimen I faithfully continue to this day), I was at loose ends as to my second HBC. I asked the teacher, “Can our HBC be to help a friend with his HBC?” The teacher said, “That’s a great idea. What, do you know someone who’s trying to quit smoking?” I gestured to my friend at the next desk and said, “No, I want to help Sean floss.”

Kidding aside, helping others is really tricky. It takes either money (a conflict with #2) or work (a conflict with #8) and moreover requires, and/or fosters, a certain amount of ego-bloat. Who am I to decide I have what it takes to be somebody’s savior? I once gave a homeless guy some change but he turned out to be a (shabbily-dressed) construction worker on break. He correctly fingered me as a do-gooder college kid and said, “Man, you guys are conditioned.” That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t give change to (suspected) panhandlers; I just have to be more careful. So I’ll do the basic stuff, like giving to charities or guiding a blind Bart passenger to his seat, but I can’t commit to a new better Dana who makes helping others a major life goal. I’m sorry but that’s just the way it is.

Being less messy pertains to how much food I get on my face and clothes when I eat, and to how much I splatter when I pee standing up. There’s much room for improvement here, and I expect that I can actually make some progress. After all, I never used to have to wipe my mouth with a napkin so much, or clean up the toilet seat every time. Either my skills are waning over the years, or I have always been messy and just didn’t realize it until now. So I’ll try to eat more slowly and aim better, but this isn’t destined to be a perfectly satisfying new year’s resolution. I’m still more interested in other bad behaviors I’m ignorant of now but will identify and target in the future.

Item #9, I will not lose … ever, does not refer to an actual goal (after all, I graciously lose all the time), but to my beer-swishing mantra. To properly pour a Belgian-style beer, you gently pour two-thirds into a glass, swish the rest around while reciting your personal mantra, then pour the rest. (A brewery provides these instructions, minus the mantra part. I’m not sure where I got that.) I’ve found through trial and error that “I will not lose … ever” is just the right length for a mantra. So this resolution is about enjoying beer more. I think it holds great promise.

The last resolution, keeping a journal about my kids, fails the new year’s resolution applicability requirements simply because it’s nothing new—I already do this. I just need to be better. You know those baby books, listing height, weight, first words, and so forth? They’re like a poster child for unfulfilled intentions. The harried parents (which would be a good name for a rock band, by the way) usually begin neglecting this project almost instantly, and when the kid comes across the book decades later he’s bound to be disappointed at how little is revealed about his earliest years. So I’m fully on the hook for this resolution.


It looks like in 2011 I’ll be focused on taking a class, aiming better, enjoying my beer more, and writing more in that journal. If I find, three months in, that I’ve mastered each of these projects and am feeling dangerously satisfied about it, I suppose I’ll have to take up smoking, week-long benders, and Boston kreme doughnuts. After all, I have next year to think about.

dana albert blog