Saturday, June 18, 2011

Father's Day


For me, Father’s Day is almost like a birthday: I can enjoy others fussing over me a bit. But beyond that, it provides a nice lens for self-reflection about my role as a dad. If a blog post on such ruminations sounds tedious, fear not: I’ll try to keep it light, like a soufflé. But not as chichi as a soufflé. Maybe more like a cake. Maybe like a cake that a girl jumps out of, but without being tacky.

The card

Although this is kind of my day, I’m also a son, so I have my own duty to carry out. It’s never easy for me to find an appropriate Father’s Day card for my dad. I comb through all the cards and none seems appropriate. The same clichés appear over and over on card after card: the necktie; the hammock; the golfing; the fishing; the pretend report card. The printed sentiments are just as hackneyed: “You were always there for me”; “Thanks for everything”; “The best dad in the world!”

The composite father suggested by these cards is a devoted family man, sharp-dressed, hard-working but alternately leisure-seeking, who dispenses cash like an ATM, drives a cool convertible, fixes stuff around the house, leads his kids in the kind of fun activities that Norman Rockwell liked to paint, and spends his weekend lying around when he’s not golfing.

None of these match my actual dad, nor me, nor just about any actual dad I can think of. I finally found a decent card with a stylized drawing of a penguin on it. The penguin kind of looked like James Bond—the Daniel Craig version. It’s a pretty special card that can make a penguin look like a badass.

Are fathers necessary?

There is evidence to suggest that a kid’s peer group has as much to do with his development as his parents. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean a father shouldn’t do his best. And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen signs of my influence on my two daughters.

One example that comes immediately to mind is my daughter Alexa’s first word, which was “no.” Did she necessarily get this word from me? Well, I think so. Neither her mom nor I was probably telling her “no” at that tender age, for two reasons. One, babies cannot be expected to obey—they are pure id. Second, what could a parent really take exception to that isn’t completely hardwired? In other words, what do babies do that they really shouldn’t? A parent cannot say “No!” when the baby dribbles mashed peas down her chin. It wouldn’t be fair. Babies lack the motor skills to do any better.

I highly suspect that Alexa learned “no” from hearing me bawl out the cat. But wait, you’re saying: didn’t my wife also bawl out the cat? Yes, but not with the same inflection. Erin’s tone with the cat, in such circumstances, is certainly sharp, but not as booming as mine. Even as a baby, Alexa captured something of my cat-chiding essence. She even pointed at the cat, just like I always did.

Okay, you’re saying, maybe Alexa was particularly impressionable and this has nothing to do with father/offspring memes. Not the case: after giving the matter much thought, I realized that my own tendency to berate the cat is modeled on the example my father set. Growing up, we had a much-loved Siamese chocolate-point named Mulla. My dad, being terribly allergic to cats, couldn’t hold or pet the cat much, but he did get some pleasure from bellowing at the cat about his—the cat’s—feasiliness. I never fully understood what “feasily” meant, but our cat was apparently the epitome of it. You are feasily! Yes, you!” my dad would say sternly, as Mulla looked back opaquely. Or Dad would spontaneously shoot the cat a look and say, “Feasil-thing!”

I’ve never accused my tabby cat, Misha, of being feasily, but my utterances have much the same peculiar spirit as my dad’s did. I’ll frequently boom, “You are a part of the rebel alliance and a traitor!” Her scavenging of table scraps earns my sharp invective: “Look at you! You’re supposed to be a proud, powerful hunter, not a shameless scavenger! You are a disgrace to your species! Yes, you! Even when she’s innocently lounging in the sunshine, I can be acidly sarcastic: “You really need some rest, puss cat—you’ve been pushing yourself too hard.” It’s all uncannily similar to my dad’s faux-scornful feline obloquies.

Meaningful influence

Okay, so cat-bashing behavior may follow the father’s example—big deal. Is there meaningful behavior passed from a father to his offspring? One very important example comes immediately to mind: television policy. Growing up, my three brothers and I were forbidden to watch TV. We did own one: a big black-and-white Panasonic with a blown-out speaker. My brothers and I tried to watch it on the sly, but were sloppy and got always got caught. To prevent recidivism, my dad hid the cord. We hunted around until we found something compatible, which was the cord to his slide projector, and when he caught us again he angrily cut it into pieces, not realizing what it was.

Determined not to be foiled again, he then removed all the knobs from the TV. After that, we took turns being the one who had to endure powerful electric shocks from reaching into the box with needle-nose pliers to work the controls. Through this experience we learned a) resourcefulness, and b) ultimately how worthless TV is. (When my mom bought a nice Sony color TV during the ‘80s, my dad gave up, and we rotted our brains out for years before realizing our dad had been right all along.)

If my dad hadn’t made the TV officially off limits—if, in fact, my family all sat around watching TV together—perhaps it wouldn’t have occurred to me to forbid my kids to watch it. But, seeing my dad’s point, I can take advantage of the evolution of TV by going one better and making it impossible for my kids to watch: we don’t have cable. In fact, with much delight I had the opportunity to explain to them, a year or two ago, the concept of a broadcast. They’ve only ever had VHS/DVD videos and were unaware that there are boxes in people’s homes that you just turn on and then sit back and have your brain extracted automatically. They haven’t thought to question whether or not “vidiot” is a real word. And like all kids deprived in this way, they drum up their own amusements.

Obviously most families don’t have such a prohibition of TV, but that’s just on example. There are countless others; consider Jerry Seinfeld’s comments on his dad’s thermostat proscription: “I didn’t go near a thermostat until I was 28 years old. I was in a hotel room somewhere when I finally got up the guts to move it a little bit. The whole night I couldn’t sleep. I was afraid my father was going to burst in the door, ‘Who touched the thermostat in here? You know I set it there for a reason.’”


As a parent, I cannot resist lecturing my kids, as they are such capacious vessels for knowledge, and are (so far) a willing audience. I do strive to accurately discern whether or not my kids are following me, and will abandon a topic (e.g., the day’s Tour de Suisse stage) if I sense I’m losing their attention. I’ll ask straight out if they’re interested, and sometimes they say no.

Still, I really don’t expect—perhaps I don’t dare expect—that my kids actually listen and absorb what I’m saying, and I’m tickled when I discover that they sometimes actually do. For example, I was reading to Lindsay recently and paused to test her comprehension: “Should Clarice tell Betty about the movie tickets?” Lindsay answered, “No, because Betty is moving away and wouldn’t be able to go.” I said, “Right. We know Betty is moving away, but Clarice doesn’t. What is that an example of?” Without missing a beat, Lindsay replied, “Dramatic irony.” That’s my girl!

An easy job

Frankly, it seems almost too good to be true that a day is set aside to celebrate fathers, because between you and me, it’s pretty easy gig. Sure, the modern dad is on the hook for changing diapers and a lot of the housework (which my dad’s generation mostly weaseled out of), but many of us still get the plum assignments. For example, when I cook a meal, I don’t have to worry about it being particularly nutritious, because I’m not the main cook of the household anyway—whatever I serve can be classified as “treat” and is thus exempt from the family’s standards for a healthy lifestyle. Lunch today was my special Corn Goo Pasta, a starch-bomb if there ever was one. (Recipe is here.) I remember my cousins talking about how much they loved their dad’s macaroni and cheese; when I asked how he made it, they conceded that it really only had two ingredients: macaroni and, well, cheese. It was the fact of his making it that somehow made it special.

Meanwhile, there’s still an inequality in the running of a household that generally favors the male. I’m talking about that game of chicken couples play: who can withstand squalor for longer? I certainly pull my weight where dishes are concerned (possibly in part due to my special relationship to our dishwashing machine) but in several household realms I can turn a blind eye for much longer than my wife. Where mopping in particular is concerned, I can always outlast Erin, having learned, in my college days, the golden rule of kitchen floors: Don’t Look Down.

This household chore inequality frees me up for interesting “special projects,” such as cleaning my bike, in which I can enlist the support of my kids. Teaching them bike stuff—traditionally the realm of the male—is especially rewarding because I get societal credit for transcending outdated gender roles even as I exploit them.


All this merriment aside, I must confess that it’s possible to take Father’s Day too far. A couple years ago, I spontaneously decided to join a friend for the annual Nevada City Criterium that is held on Father’s Day. The timing, in my case, was terrible—the following day my family and I were leaving for a two-week vacation and hadn’t yet packed. I played the Father’s Day card and my wife let me go, but the aftermath was not pretty.

This weekend, I thought of weaseling out of some window washing and hedge trimming, based on the Father’s Day loophole, but I knew that would mean doing these chores during the week, after a workday. That would be pretty harsh. So, I finished these tasks today, so tomorrow I can be lazy and useless. I almost wish I had a hammock to lie in, or knew how to fish.

dana albert blog

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Farewell, La Fiesta


My favorite Mexican restaurant—actually, come to think of it, my favorite restaurant, period—closed recently after almost fifty-three years in business. This was Mario’s La Fiesta (quick, visit their old website while it’s still up!), which Mario and Rosalinda Tejada started up in 1959 and ran continuously throughout its life. In the twenty years I ate there, nothing changed—the recipes were never so much as tinkered with. It was like the perfect enchanted restaurant. But now it’s been sold to a new owner, which is to say it has utterly ceased to exist.

In this post I provide some fond memories, some photos, much reflection, and my take on the restaurant that has taken—I mean, tried to take—the place of Mario’s La Fiesta.

The horror

Before I get into all the good stuff about La Fiesta, I need to impress on you how devastating its closure was for me. Discovering that it was gone, replaced by another Mexican restaurant, was like getting hit in the stomach with a medicine ball—no, make that a wrecking ball.

On Memorial Day, I drove over to La Fiesta with my wife, my mom, and my two daughters, and dropped them off, then went to park the car. As I walked past People’s Park toward the restaurant, I was surprised to see my family standing out front—they were supposed to be inside scarfing chips and salsa. They all had strange smiles on their faces: not happy smiles, but the shocked, strained smiles of somebody trying to be stoic. They didn’t say anything. “What are you waiting for, let’s go!” I said. “Look at the sign,” my wife Erin told me. I looked. It said “Remy’s.” This meant nothing. Somebody put up a sign in the wrong place, I figured. I immediately put it out of my mind.

Actually, I’d already ignored two other pieces of information signaling La Fiesta’s demise. First, that morning when I looked up their phone number online (to call ahead and make sure they were open on the holiday) the first Google hit I saw was “Mario’s La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant – CLOSED.” I disregarded this, figuring it was leftover news about the restaurant leaving its original location a couple years ago. Then, when I phoned, it sounded like the person who answered said something other than “Mario’s” or “La Fiesta,” but I ignored this, too, figuring I just didn’t hear her right, over the background noise. I was in complete denial.

Realizing now that I wasn’t getting the message, Erin spelled it out for me: “Dana, La Fiesta is gone! It’s been sold!” I froze. I felt a huge disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. For several eternal seconds I was completely paralyzed. “It’s okay,” Erin continued, “your mom went and asked, and they said it was the same menu.”

It was not okay. I have thought long and hard about how to express the feeling of loss and betrayal that washed over me. The best I can do is this: imagine that you’re a kid returning home from summer camp, and when you walk in the front door, there’s a strange women standing there. Your dad appears at her side and says, “While you were away, I divorced your mother and remarried. But don’t worry, you’ll like your new mom just fine. She’s a lot like your old mom—look, she can even wear your mom’s clothes!”

We sat down and were given menus that said “Remy’s” at the top. I suppose if the menu were the same physical menu I’d held in my hand during my last La Fiesta visit, with a mailing label with “Remy’s” written in ball-point stuck over the old name, I’d have been okay. But it was a new menu with the new name and was like a slap in the face. “We have a special today,” said the waitress brightly. “It’s your own heart. We cut it out when you came in the door.”

(I suppose the news would have been a little easier to take had I known in advance of La Fiesta’s demise. I would have liked to have one last meal there before it was all over. A Chowhounder posted Mario’s farewell letter here.)

Fond memories

As with many of La Fiesta’s customers, I first started going there in college. For me, that meant 1990. I lived far from campus, so the restaurant was handy, and it was really the only place I could afford. I was close to flat broke most of the time in those days; I remember once having to deposit a few dollars in cash into my checking account so my rent check would clear. My standard La Fiesta meal was a side of beans ($0.80), a side of rice ($0.80), and a side of flour tortillas ($0.50). Even with a huge tip, I was out the door for $3.

Despite my minimalist order, I got the free chips and Marios fantastic, fiery homemade salsa. They had at least half a dozen different salsas that they’d rotate, two or three at a time. The sides would come arranged on a big plate with a liberal amount of melted cheese on the beans, and a little pile of lettuce. It was enough to make two decent-sized burritos, and—due to the lard in the beans—was both delicious and filling. It probably doesn’t sound like much of a meal but that’s the amazing thing about that place. I would practically whimper with pleasure. It’s hard to describe how good it was without resorting to profanity.

After I moved to San Francisco and got married, my wife and I would make the trip to Berkeley just to eat at La Fiesta. For a few years we didn’t have a car and would Bart all the way out. Naturally such a trip called for a more lavish meal, and I wasn’t broke anymore, so I’d spring for the combination plate. Here’s one of my favorites: chicken enchilada, chile relleno, chicken flauta, rice and beans, and (not shown) a side of tortillas.

Counting the extra sour cream from Erin’s plate (you can see it coming in from the right), we’re talking about probably 3,000 calories of pure goodness, for about $10. Frankly, I’d have paid far more than that, and now I’d pay almost anything.

In 2000, Erin and I moved back to the East Bay, and for our housewarming party ordered from the La Fiesta “Large Party Take-Out Menu.” I phoned in the order, and at the end of the call I asked for the name of the person I was speaking with. “This is Mario,” he replied. I was stunned. “You mean, the Mario!?” I asked. It was. I felt like I’d just met a rock star. I’d seen Mario before, as I was heading down Haste Street at the end of an early morning bike ride, and he was crossing the street with a giant box of fresh produce. And when I picked up my Large Party Take-Out order, I got to meet Mario in person for the first time.

I’d ordered what I figured would be enough for fifty or so people. It totally filled my Volvo wagon, even with the seats down. As several friends and I brought the food in from the car, one of them said, “Dana, I’ve never seen you so happy.” It was more than enough food; in fact, the leftovers filled my freezer, which is about as good as it gets. The cost for this dazzling amount of food? $260: a stunning value. Over the years I bought La Fiesta take-out for three more giant parties. Here’s a shot from the most recent one:

When our first child, Alexa, was born, La Fiesta became our go-to restaurant because it was loud enough to be kid-friendly, and the waitress would give us a window seat in the corner that had a little shelf for the baby’s car-seat. We’d set Alexa up in a high-chair (the old-school kind with a built-in tray), and actually have some peace so long as we fed her rice and beans almost continuously. On one occasion, though, she kept bursting out crying between bites, though I was going as fast as I could, spooning beans directly from Erin’s plate into Alexa’s mouth. Finally I said to Erin, “I wonder why she keeps crying!” Erin said, “Wait—are you giving her my beans?” I fessed up. “Well no wonder she’s crying!” Erin said. “I mixed a whole bunch of salsa into those beans!”

La Fiesta became a standard outing whenever I had friends or family visiting. Here are Bradley and my brother Geoff, enjoying a four-item combo that won’t even fit on one plate. Note the ‘70s-era plastic cups and the various salsas.

Here’s my nephew John tucking into an enchilada. Behind him are the car-seats of his little sister and one of my kids. John starts college in the fall.

My brother Geoff moved to the Netherlands in 1993. Whenever he came to visit, La Fiesta was of course mandatory, despite the fact that his family—being Dutch—didn’t necessarily enjoy spicy food. On one trip, I asked his wife, “Does it bother you that we always eat Mexican food when you’re out, even though it’s spicier than you’d like?” She replied, “It doesn’t bother me, because I know if Geoff doesn’t get it, he’ll die.” When I phoned Geoff today to give him the bad news about La Fiesta, he was just finishing a dinner of tacos. (He has to make everything from scratch, even the tortillas and salsa, because none of the ingredients are available over there.) I asked if he still had his La Fiesta t-shirt. “It just so happens I’m wearing it right now,” he said, and sent me over this photo.

My brother isn’t the only expatriate who missed La Fiesta. One of the last times I ate there, my family happened to be seated right next to Mario and Rosalinda, who were enjoying a quiet early dinner. We got to talking, and Mario recounted how a family living in Europe heard that La Fiesta was moving (just across the street, into the former banquet space), and changed their flights so they could arrive in time for one last meal in the original location.

How many times did I eat at La Fiesta? It’s impossible to say, because when I ate there the most often—in college—they didn’t take credit cards, so no paper-trail exists. They started taking credit cards in mid-2004, and I have record of forty visits since then. I had my albertnet intern, Alexa, crunch the numbers and she estimates I’ve eaten there about 145½ times.

Factoring in that it was practically the only restaurant I ever went to during college, and that on occasion friends or family have treated me there, I’m guessing the real total is well over 200.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mario’s La Fiesta was its constancy. In a world where corporations are constantly pandering to shareholders, forever reorganizing themselves and taking over competitors in a tireless effort to grow continuously, Mario and his family always knew they had a good thing and saw no need to change it. Whereas so many people value only ambition, Mario was wise enough to know contentment isn’t a failing.

The wait staff must have felt the same way, because it seemed like the same waiters for the whole twenty years I ate there. And they looked to be the same age as when they served me as in college, which made me feel like I could still be that college kid. To eat at La Fiesta was to deny the march of time: those waiters and I, we will never get old. We will never die.

The food

There is so much to say about the food at La Fiesta. I offer a full report in a separate blog post, a “from the archives” tale from an e-mail I sent to my bike club in 2006 (it was a restaurant review masquerading as a bike race report). Click here for this tribute to La Fiesta’s food.

I should, however, take a moment here to talk about Mario’s soup. Anybody who cooks a lot of chickens really ought to boil the carcasses to make a good stock, and this was standard practice at La Fiesta. All the entrees came with this soup, which was a simple broth with potatoes, carrots, and tiny star-shaped pasta (the shape of which always reminded me of sponge spicules). Erin and I used to fight over this soup with our kids, whose à la carte grilled burritos didn’t come with it, but then the waiters noticed and, without ever having been asked, took to bringing the kids soup anyway. I always meant to try the soup without eating any salsa first, to get its full flavor without my mouth being on fire. But hot soup in a mouth-on-fire was pretty much a tradition unto itself.

Does Remy’s stack up?

Of course not. Let me count the ways. First and foremost, the new management installed three flat-screen TVs in there, one of them giant, all of them showing sports. There’s so much wrong with this. First of all, the TVs are sleek and modern so they make me feel like I’m in an airport. Second, I draw a distinct line between eating and watching TV. For me, the two activities do not belong together to begin with, much less when you’re occupying a restaurant with such a rich history of actual dining (as opposed to the feeding-at-the-trough affair that the American meal is morphing into). The presence of these TVs would be no less disgraceful if they were placed in a church so dudes could keep an eye on the game during the sermon.

Second, the salsa—though still tasty—is not spicy whatsoever. This strikes a severe blow to Remy’s authenticity, and is also disrespectful of Mario’s tradition. In an article about La Fiesta’s relocation a couple years ago, the journalist—who was either ignorant or possessed of a strange sense of humor—wrote, “Mario’s has competition in the form of a popular chain, Chipotle’s Mexican Grill, which Tejada insists is no competition at all. ‘Instead of our genuine hot sauce—which we make from jalapenos, serranos or habaneros—the chains sell a watered- down version,’ [Mario said].” Remy’s, in this regard, seems to be actually imitating the chains, which is a bit like if Eminem tried to copy Vanilla Ice, or Radiohead tried to be more like R.E.M.

The combination of big TVs and weak salsa—the first two things you notice when eating at Remy’s—has a truly disheartening effect. Returning to my earlier analogy, it’s like your new stepmom being your age, and trying to suck up to you as a pal. Remy’s is saying, “We don’t want to hurt your mouth! We don’t want you to be bored during your meal! We don’t want you to miss the game! We want you to have fun! We want to be your friend! It’s their right, of course, but it’s patronizing, and tacky, and distasteful. College kids don’t need to be pandered to; they need to be shown what’s what, a service La Fiesta provided for generations.

One particularly annoying thing is that if you look at the Google Maps reviews of Remy’s, what you actually get are old reviews of La Fiesta. This strikes me as a flat-out theft of Mario’s well-earned reputation. It’s no different than if I bought Alexi Grewal’s 1984 Pinarello racing bike and then went around telling people I’m an Olympic gold medalist. I’m going to blame Google for this, not Remy’s, but still—it’s annoying.

The real reviews of Remy’s, meanwhile, strike me as unduly harsh. Granted, most of the reviewers are as stunned and grief-stricken as I am over La Fiesta being gone, so I can understand their impulse to skewer the interloper. But Remy’s (which I think has retained at least one cook from La Fiesta) does have some strong points. The chile relleno is still pretty good (only the sauce is wrong—totally insipid), and the rice is the same as ever, and the flauta is almost identical to Mario’s—only the guacamole on it was a bit wrong (too much lime). If a place in my neighborhood had food like this, I’d be stoked.

The décor is almost the same (other than those damn TVs), and in fact the chief difference in ambience is that things we overlooked since La Fiesta moved from Telegraph Ave are now things we’re tempted to nitpick about. For example, the original location had these great hand-painted wicker chairs (look for them in the photos above) that before La Fiesta’s demise were already being gradually replaced due to old age. (Occasionally I’d get a particularly frail one and would quickly swap chairs with one of my kids.) In their place are the gross brown-painted steel-box-section chairs with foam rubber padding under vinyl that give a tiny wheeze when you sit on them. They’re like what you’d get in a cheap cafeteria. Did I notice them before? Yeah, I guess—but it’s so tempting to blame them on the new owners.

Really, the only way for Remy’s to stack up would be to replicate Maria’s La Fiesta in every detail. To be 98% identical isn’t enough—remember, if you were 2% different, you’d be a chimpanzee. Remy’s is doomed to fall down as badly in the comparison as Kenney Jones being held up to Keith Moon, or Shelley Hack to Jaclyn Smith—not only because it’s legitimately inferior, which it certainly is, but also because our sense of loyalty and honor demand that it fall short. For Remy’s to be compared to La Fiesta is like your new stepmother being compared to your own mom.


Naturally I would be a real ingrate if I ended this post on a sad note. After all, at least I got to enjoy a great restaurant for twenty years, while 17 million Dutch people have no Mexican food at all (unless they’re lucky enough to dine at my brother’s place). And it’s not like I can’t get good Mexican anymore, with the Mission District of San Francisco—a mecca for kick-ass taquerias—a short trip away.

I think I’m going to check out Juan’s Place again. It’s only been around for some thirty years, but it’s actually the first Mexican restaurant I went to when I moved to Berkeley in 1990. I remember that trip well—a bunch of blue-collar types at the next table were arguing about the bill and it evolved into an actual fistfight. I’ve seen cops eating there too, so it’s got some cred, and as I recall the food is good enough. It’s going to have to wait, though. I’m still in mourning.

dana albert blog

From the Archives - UC Berkeley Criterium "Race Report"


In an invitation my wife Erin sent out for my fortieth birthday party a couple years ago, she wrote, “He likes to talk, likes to ride his bike, likes to talk while riding his bike, likes to eat, likes to drink, likes to eat while having a drink. In short, he likes to overeat, over-drink and over-ride. All of which lead to pain and suffering, which he likes best of all. Don’t you?” It’s all true, but what she didn’t mention is that I also I like to write, and what better to write about than riding bikes and eating? In that spirit, in 2006 I wrote my first bike club e-mail Race Report, after the UC Berkeley criterium. If you can’t envision yourself wading through a bike geek’s description of attacks, team tactics, and excuses, fear not: my report diverges sharply from the traditional race report format. I run it here, in its entirety, because it ties in perfectly with an upcoming post.

Race Report – UC Berkeley Criterium, Alumni Category

Right after the race, Dave, Robin, Erin, Alexa, Lindsay and I headed over to Mario’s La Fiesta. The waiter was cool enough to let Dave stash his bike in the back among the ripening avocados, bricks of lard, sacks of rice, etc. Perhaps I was enjoying residual endorphins from the race, because I was able to eat vast amounts of La Fiesta’s fiery salsa without feeling one particle of pain. The chips were thick and crunchy, not like those absurdly flimsy paperlike things at Chevy’s. La Fiesta can be forgiven for not having Dos Equis Special Lager, because they tolerated my children, and the stench of Dave’s and my sweat.

The soup arrived, with spaghetti instead of the tiny starlike pasta it normally has. I didn’t get to taste it, as my kids were all over it. But when a little kid won’t share with you something comprised mainly of vegetables, you know the cook is doing something right.

Robin had the carne asada burrito, which was larger than a human head. Okay, not really, but larger than any other burrito on the market. She pronounced it “very good” and if she didn’t expound at length it’s perhaps only because her mouth was full.

I created my own combo: chile relleno, enchilada verde, and flauta. The chile relleno was plump, zesty, and nicely battered: not too eggy and not soggy. There’s a thin red sauce, almost a broth, on the relleno that I’ve contemplated at length: it must somehow be a perfectly fluid rendition of lard, for it has that knock-down flavor that vegans cannot synthesize no matter how assiduously they worry and molest their ingredients. The enchilada was much better than what many of you have had at my house; when prepared as is single unit, as is done at the restaurant, the enchilada has a perfection that the casserole format of large-scale take-out cannot
achieve. The chicken was all dark meat, which the non-deluded among us recognize as superior to the comparatively dry, insipid white meat that Hungry Hunters and Olive Gardeners think is the way to go.

The flauta was perfectly crunchy, its chicken filling nicely peppery, and it was generously covered with guacamole. There were only two problems with this dish: first, the guacamole’s exquisite, whimper-inducing perfection threw me into the quandary of whether or not it was too late to get a large order of guacamole for the table; and second, by this time in the meal my passion for the food was so mightily kindled I found it impossible not to forget my manners and pick up the flauta with my fingers, driving it into my mouth like a large branch into a wood chipper. Fortunately, my kids created a nice diversion, lustily tearing into portions of a grilled burrito: for just a few bucks, it’s a nice combo of beans, rice, chicken, and cheese folded into a tortilla that the cook must butter before throwing it on the grill because it has a wonderful guilty-pleasure-greasiness that kids love and parents can’t help but snitch from.

Dave had a big pile of cubed meat on his plate and I never got around to asking him about it; granted, he’s not a big proponent of lengthy race reports, but perhaps we can persuade him to comment. Erin had the number five, the chile relleno/enchilada verde duo, and she was busy enough with Lindsay that she neglected to rave. I can say that very few of her leftovers made it to me, which is a sure sign she liked it (given La Fiesta’s massive portions). I did get part of Erin’s relleno casing, which arrived just in time to throw on the pile of beans, rice, and enchilada/flauta shrapnel that I love to load onto a fresh grilled tortilla until the thing becomes almost impossible to manipulate without spillage.

All in all, the UC Berkeley alumni criterium was superb preparation for getting the maximum pleasure out of a great meal. Next year, I hope to see more orange jerseys stinking up my favorite Berkeley restaurant.

dana albert blog

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Stage Play - Lance's Defense


As I’ve mentioned before, I sincerely hope that Lance Armstrong is being honest about never doping. But given the tide of recent confessions among his former teammates, things aren’t looking good.

If I allowed myself to become more cynical, perhaps I wouldn’t be so surprised by the aggressive stance Lance’s attorneys have taken. Instead of being taken aback by Tyler Hamilton’s recent testimony, they quickly developed a nice, pat story to tell. They responded with pure speculation about Hamilton’s motives: “Tyler Hamilton just duped the CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes and Scott Pelley all in one fell swoop. Hamilton is actively seeking to make money by writing a book, and now he has completely changed the story he has always told before so that he could get himself on 60 Minutes and increase his chances with publishers.” Lance’s attorneys’ latest stunt is to demand an apology from “60 Minutes” and CBS.

But what if Lance’s defense team decided the situation was hopeless, and their best bet would be to cut their losses and confess? How would they convince Lance to go along? To explore that scenario, I wrote this play.

Note: what follows is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of its characters to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


A Play in One Act

Dramatis Personae:

NELSON, a member of Lance’s defense team

BRAD, another member of Lance’s defense team

CLINT, third member of Lance’s defense team



A conference room

[Enter NELSON, BRAD, CLINT, STENOGRAPHER. STENOGRAPHER sets up equipment and waits for meeting to convene.]

NELSON: Okay, let’s get started. First off, it’s pretty obvious, with all Lance’s buddies singing like canaries to grand juries, that he’s not going to be able to deny this stuff anymore.

BRAD: Right, that’s plain as day. And yet he’s refusing to admit anything. We’re kind of stuck.

CLINT: No, no, we’re not stuck. We just have to present this confession in a way that Lance can handle it. We have to work this out so he can still stand proud. He’s not going to do time—he’s too wealthy for that—but he has his legacy to think of. His reputation. His ego.

NELSON: Exactly. He can’t be apologizing. First thing we need to do is deflate the sense that this big lie is really that big. I’m thinking we need to frame it like, well … we need to move it into that same gray area where you lie to your kid about the Tooth Fairy. Kind of coax the peeps into the sense that they kind of knew all along and looked the other way.

CLINT: Right, and whatever he says, he can’t be looking all squirmy and weak like Tyler Hamilton. He has to be bold without seeming defensive. He has to attack!

[CLINT pounds fist on table]

BRAD: Yeah, but it can’t be a snipe-y attack like Floyd Landis and Tyler did. Lance has to rise above. They attacked him personally; he won’t be so petty. He has to attack something besides individual people.

NELSON: Hmmm. Try this on for size. Lance could attack the very notion that his doping was wrong. He has to make his doping okay. Like some kind of necessary thing. Like some kind of, I dunno, manifest destiny type of thing.

CLINT: Manifest destiny! Love it! It’s so … American. And that’s who we need to convince here—the Americans. The Europeans never liked him anyway and who cares.

NELSON: Right, this is all about winning over the American people. So. What’s important to Americans, really? What makes us tick? Power, obviously, for starts.

CLINT: Yeah, power. Winning. And money.

BRAD: But we’re not so simple as that. We also like just generally feeling superior. That’s where the bigger challenge is with Lance. Americans’ feeling of superiority can sometimes take the form of moral indignation.

[NELSON scratches his head.]

NELSON: Right. How do we tackle that?

BRAD: Well, we can try to keep the focus on the power, money, and winning, while simultaneously working to remove the moral indignation as an option. Hmmm. We have to—

CLINT: We have to make moral indignation seem silly.

NELSON: We absolutely do. And we can. It wouldn’t take much—kind of a realist approach. Play to people’s cynicism. Didn’t Lance gain power? Didn’t he win, instead of some damn Frenchman?

CLINT: Exactly. Americans respect winning and they respect money. They respect the creation of wealth. And didn’t Lance help Trek sell a bazillion bikes? Didn’t he help Oakley sell a bazillion pairs of shades? Didn’t he raise hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research? Was he not the consummate professional? No matter what happens now, all those companies get to keep all that money he made for them. Is that fair, that Lance goes down after these corporations milked him dry?

[BRAD drums his fingers on the table.]

BRAD: That’s a little tough to position but you’re right. The thing is, how do we get around the fact that he lied all these years? The peeps are still going to be tempted to feel morally superior.

NELSON: We have to squash the moral high ground. We have to real-world that thing to death. So here’s what we do. Lance was lying to protect his family, and his team, and even his competitors who were racing dirty. He was lying to protect cancer funding. And if you side with Floyd and Tyler, you’re siding with people who rat out their friends. We’ll spin this so that it’s all about Lance not doing that. He’s not going to rat out his team doctors, his coach, his manager, anybody. He’s not going to out any of his former teammates who managed to never have that positive test. He won’t rat people out to avoid prison, and he won’t do it to sell books.

BRAD: Yeah, okay, that’s starting to sound pretty good, but can we sell people on that? Can we really make a martyr out of this guy?

CLINT: Well, if all we had was honor, maybe not, but remember, we got the full package here. Lance is powerful, he’s a winner, he’s studly—people already like him! Give them a righteous hook of any kind, they’ll bite. And it’s a pretty good hook, I think!

NELSON: It’s not going to work for everybody, but then he’s always had haters. This is good stuff. This is solid.

BRAD: But there’s still the matter of cancer survivors, cancer victims, people who read magazines and get misty-eyed. You know, your idealists. They can make a lot of noise.

NELSON: Right, and worse—they can make a stink without even being that loud. One bald-headed cancer victim tearing up and blubbering “I believed in Lance!” could really damage the cause, if one of our enemies puts her in the limelight.

BRAD: Couldn’t we have Lance apologize to the cancer victims, and them alone? Like, everybody else was part of the sport, part of the machine, but these cancer people deserve an apology?

CLINT: Absolutely not! Listen to yourself! That could unravel the whole thing! It would be like admitting he was wrong. That can’t happen. He has to be bold. He wants to be bold.

NELSON paces back and forth.

NELSON: Right, Lance has to take the offensive line on every front. I like what we were doing earlier with him being indignant, and him being the only guy who’s not naive. People hate feeling naive. Lance’s cancer message has to be as strong and as street-smart as the rest of his platform.

CLINT: Yeah, yeah. Completely. And we can do it while staying true to what everybody already knows about this guy! Like, in his book he says that force of will doesn’t beat cancer, that some people with bad attitudes manage to survive while others with a real fighting spirit nevertheless die. Lance wasn’t smurfy about it, which is frankly one of the only things I liked about that book. So he could knock this idealist thing on its ass.

NELSON: Yes, he could. Remember, he’s an atheist! His first wife was the Christian and trying to get him to give God some credit for surviving cancer, but Lance wouldn’t do it!

BRAD: Dude, how are we going to work that in? A defense based on godlessness?

CLINT: No, no, forget the atheist part, it’s just that this guy is a realist and that can work for us if we position it carefully. Like, we’ll have him say, “Look, hope doesn’t win bike races, and hope doesn’t beat cancer. Hope is good, we need hope, but hope can’t do it all. You think I cracked my ass all those years on that bike just to raise hope? I did it to raise money, to develop drugs! Drugs that actually cure cancer and save lives!”

NELSON: Beautiful. It’s such consistent messaging. He’ll say, “I’m here to tell you that drugs fricking work. Chemo saved me from cancer, and EPO saved me from chemo. Yes, drugs helped me win bike races but drugs also keep your children from getting polio. How many of you don’t have a prescription for something? And does it work? Are you glad that it works? What would you have these cancer victims do: hope, and pray, and think about rainbows and unicorns and crap and just hope they get well? Or do you want to arm them with the best pharmaceuticals money can buy, the best new drugs we can develop? And where do you think that development money going to come from?”

CLINT: Love it. Love it. He’ll be like, “You think I care if my drug use keeps some sniveling Frenchman off the podium, who’d have spent his prize money overstuffing a goose until it explodes so he can eat its liver as pâté de foie gras? Hell no, I did what I had to do to be a financial engine for cancer research! I’m talking about real sacrifice for real money to buy real drugs, that work, that save lives!”

NELSON: Pâté de foie gras! Beautiful! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!

CLINT: “What would you all give up for a more gentlemanly sport of bike racing? How many cancer victims would you sacrifice at the altar of fair play? What do you want, Queensberry rules for every sport? Should I have fallen off the back of the pack, gasping and weaving, and let some doping Spaniard win the race so I could raise a few hundred bucks for cancer research instead of a few hundred million?”

NELSON: Perfect. Lance turns the accusations on their heads. “Am I a cheater? You’re damn right I’m a cheater! I cheated cancer! I cheated death! I cheated Floyd and Tyler and everybody else who was trying to cheat me! And I won! And I want you to win! Win with me!”

CLINT: I can see it. Posters. Giant print ads in the subway. “CHEAT DEATH. CHEAT CANCER. CHEAT WITH LANCE. CHEAT WITH BRISTOL-MYERS SQUIBB!”

CLINT pumps his fist.

BRAD: Whoa, slow down there. We’re getting a little giddy here, let’s not overstep.

CLINT gets up out of his chair.

CLINT: Right, of course you’re right, this is a great start but I’m starting to get a little too worked up. Let’s get this transcript printed out and take a fresh look at it tomorrow so we can fine-tune the messaging before presenting it to Lance. I’m ready for a beer or six right now.

NELSON slides back chair, stands, rolls his shoulders.

NELSON: Yeah, let’s call it a night, get some drinks. In fact, I feel like getting some whores. You guys feel like whores? Hey, steno, don’t record that part. Did you just record the whores thing? Stop typing, we’re done here. Strike that part. Hey, man, why are you packing up so fast?

STENOGRAPHER puts away his equipment, hastily exits.

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