Friday, July 29, 2011

Fiction - Poolside

NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language, mild scenarios of violence, and intimations of possible drug use.


What follows is a work of fiction. All the normal disclaimers apply. Any resemblance of any character to any actual human, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


I’m hanging out poolside with Dr. Bacon. I would rather be hanging out poolside with a friend, but none of my friends have pools. (I do have a friend who’s a doctor, but he seems in no hurry to start making stacks of money so he can have a pool and invite me over.) Dr. Bacon is asking questions about my health, and I don’t have much to say. I’m thinking, “Why am I here?” He looks like he’s thinking, “Why are you here?” But he always looks like that, even when I’m in his office. He must think all patients are hypochondriacs, and probably not without reason. A neighborhood dad I know complained of not being taken seriously. “You have Dr. Bacon too?” he said. “That fucking asshole, he never prescribes me anything!” I’ve learned, though, that if you can manage to convince Dr. Bacon that you’re actually sick or your back is actually out, he’ll give you gobs of free samples—he’s the king of free samples. He once gave me so many free samples he had to give me a white paper bag to haul them all home in.

It’s not really hot enough in this town for a pool. Today is pretty nice, though. The sun is out and there’s a slight haze in the air that reminds me of SoCal, where the fog doesn’t burn off until noon. Dr. Bacon, pale and old, is wearing swim trunks approximately the color of urine. My own trunks are this orangey peachy color that, I now reflect, wouldn’t look good on anyone. Not that I’d look the part in any swim trunks anyway—I’m not exactly model material and my upper body, which never sees the sun, is as white as uncooked chicken. It’s almost impossible to be embarrassed in front of a doctor, of course; this guy once gave me a rectal exam. Still, his questions make me a bit uncomfortable because I really cannot recall how I came to be here, and there’s nothing wrong with my health. I don’t say much, but the doctor gamely continues the interview, as if to honor my having arranged the appointment, and to pay lip service to my notion (right or wrong) that there is something wrong with me.

“You look tired,” he says. I yawn. I’m semi-reclining on a deck chair, which is made of cheap plastic webbing that sags a bit. This patio and pool wouldn’t be written up in “Architectural Digest” or “Sunset.” It’s all nice enough, but a bit tired. Half the pea-gravel has gone away over time but the pool is clean. I tell Dr. Bacon it’s hard to get enough sleep. “How often do you exercise?” he asks. Shouldn’t that be in my file? Or is he testing me somehow? “Every other day,” I reply, feeling sheepish because of course I sound like I’m lying, though really it’s true. I’m just as embarrassed as if I were lying.

Suddenly, the fence crashes in and an old beat-up van bursts on the scene. It’s ancient and boxy, with a flat windshield. It goes right into the pool, like sometimes happens in a dumb comedy where you, the viewer, have to wonder if the movie producer isn’t just flaunting the fact that he’s got the budget to put a car in a pool, even though it must be a hassle to fish it out, with a crane or something, and surely the pool needs to be drained afterward, and how funny is it, really? A spectacle, to be sure, but is it really funny?

This isn’t a dumb comedy, of course, this is real life and it’s not funny at all. My first thought is, is somebody going to drown? It’s taking surprisingly long for the van to sink, but once underwater it’ll be really hard to open the doors, won’t it? The cabin will fill with water and the driver and any passengers will drown, a miserable panicked claustrophobic death. I yell, “Get out! Get out of the van!” The driver looks unconcerned. Can panic look like that? I keep yelling. Finally, lazily, the driver rolls down his window, cranes his neck to get a look at me, finally seems to understand what I’m saying, and gets his door open. He climbs out of the van, followed by another guy, and then the van sinks to the bottom of the pool.

They must be on drugs, both of them. Somebody’s got to call 911. I go thru the sliding glass door into Dr. Bacon’s house, and pick up the phone. It’s a wall-mounted Trimline phone, but a really old one with a rotary dial. It’s really grody. Actually, I’m just assuming it’s grody based on its age. But why am I bothering to notice this? I’m dialing 911! It’s an emergency! But before I can dial, I hear the 911 operator answer. Bacon has picked up another extension and has already placed the call.

Why are we calling? Because we assume these guys are hurt, or to bust them? Not my problem, at this point. I put the phone back in its cradle and head back out to the pool. Large puddles are forming beneath the guys as they ponder their van and its predicament. Bacon comes back out. The driver, the larger of the two men, says, “Can somebody get me a doctor?” Bacon says, “I already dialed 911.” Something about his tone—smug? menacing?—suggests to me that it’s the police, not an ambulance, that’s on its way.

What he should have said is, “I am a doctor. How can I help you?” Then he could stall the guys until the police arrive. But now the guys are looking a bit frantic and will probably escape. But would that be such a bad thing? What good will it do to punish them by force of law, if they don’t already have some sense that they’ve done something wrong? With a van like that, they probably don’t have insurance or any other means of compensating the doctor for the hassle of fishing this van out of his pool. The van itself probably has a bluebook value of, like, nothing. The doctor will have to absorb the cost regardless, and will this be any easier for him to shrug off just because the driver got probation or jail time?

Still, the law must be served. I’m not going to let this get away like that time in Los Angeles when a guy pulled on gun on my friends and me. I somehow didn’t see the gun (granted, it was dark), and I got not only the make of the car wrong but the color and even the basic type. I was a useless witness. When my girlfriend ran into the house to call 911, she couldn’t find the phone right away because it was some novelty phone, a Mickey Mouse or something, and by the time the cop arrived, the gunman had robbed a liquor store nearby. (Question: would you call him a gunman even if he didn’t actually shoot anybody?)

This time I’ll have to do better. So I trail behind the departing guys and say, “Wait, stop!” I want to get a good look at them so I can tell the cops what they look like. They turn around. The driver is short, stocky, dark, and has black hair. He has a thick neck. He’s wearing a t-shirt that says “Pirates vs. Ninjas.” The other guy, to my surprise, looks like a surfer, a golden boy. Suntanned, tall, muscular, shirtless, with long blond hair. My earlier memory was that the two guys looked pretty similar. What is wrong with me, that I’m such a poor observer? Is this related to how bad I am with names?

The driver evidently doesn’t like the way I’m staring at him, and he comes and gives me a shove. I recoil, not so much from the shove but from the somehow shocking cold wetness of his hand. Of course his hand is wet, the guy is soaked, but I react just as I do when one of my kids, finishing a meal, wipes her jam-covered hands on my shirt as though I were just a giant napkin. Then I grasp the import of the shove and realize I’m about to get in a fight.

Instantly I’m flooded with adrenaline and if I were to look closely at my hands, which have become fists, I’m sure they’d be shaking. I can feel blood coursing through my body and my stomach gets all fluttery, like I’ve had ten cups of coffee. I half expect my nose to start spontaneously bleeding, like it did in the last fight I got in, under the flagpole at school (I guess I’d been punched in the nose, but I never felt like I had, nor did my fist seem to connect with the other kid’s nose, but it was bleeding too). I adopt a boxer’s stance. This registers on the guy’s face—just a flicker of alarm, and then he puts up his fists, too.

Perhaps his lizard brain is telling him, nonverbally, “Your opponent is tall. His arms are long. Your chances are not good.” I hope he’s thinking that. I hope this guys isn’t a trained fighter who has mastery over the instinctive fear response. I don’t want a fight, whatever the odds, because of course I’ll get hurt and it won’t make any difference if I hurt him as well. So I decide to negotiate—without, of course, lowering my fists.

“I have a longer reach than you,” I tell him. “And I’ve been in plenty of fights.” I suddenly realize how ridiculous this sounds. It could be worse—I could have thrown in something about having grown up with older brothers, which would have sounded even cornier. Something like amused disgust flits over his face—or is it just my sheepish imagination? “What, you think I’ve never been in a fight before?” he asks, starting to bounce just slightly on his feet, bobbing and weaving just a bit—his best impersonation of a prize fighter. Or am I imagining this motion, poor witness that I am?

“Yeah, I’m sure you’ll do fine, but we’ll both get fucked up,” I tell him. “Who wants that? What good would it do? Wouldn’t you rather have a hug?” My own strange utterance amazes even me, but instantly the guy looks relieved, and just like that we’re hugging, exactly like boxers do when they’re exhausted and, ridiculously, collapse into each other’s arms right there in the ring in front of hundreds of spectators, until the bastard referee pulls them apart and makes them fight some more. But there’s no referee here, so our hug is unbroken, the guy’s drenched shirt gradually soaking my own, and I silently congratulate myself on my quick thinking. The sound of sirens approaches. Help is on the way, and everything is going to be fine.

dana albert blog

Saturday, July 16, 2011

From the Archives - Nevada Road Tour


How old does something have to be before it can be called “archival”? I broke my own albertnet record in April by posting something I’d written less than a year before. And now, because I’ve run out of handy archival pieces, I’ll break new ground with a tale that’s only two months old. I wrote this for my bike club pals.

Why should you read this? Because it’s short, it’s funny (I think), and it’s full of suffering and disappointment: a story of a bike ride gone wrong. Not spectacularly wrong, but just basically and essentially wrong. I met up with a couple of cycling pals near Lake Tahoe to do a Saturday bike ride before watching, with our families, the first stage of the Tour of California bike race. (That endeavor went about as well as the ride, which is to say not well at all.)

Nevada Road Tour – May 14, 2011

The tale begins, of course, with dinner the night before. On the way up to Tahoe our family dined at a rather good taqueria called Talavera. It’s on Solano Ave. Yes, you read that correctly: this was the little taqueria less than half a mile from home. We got such a late start, we ended up setting a new record for how soon into a road trip we stopped for food. I had a carnitas burrito with cheese and guac. It was big and, well, tasty enough. (The quality control isn’t the greatest at Talavera. If you’re there when the cook is on, or the right cook is there, it’s SF-Mission-worthy.) My daughter Alexa had the mushroom quesadilla which was really the star of the show. Happily, the mandatory Parental Tariff policy stood me in good stead.

The morning of the ride, at 6 a.m., I had a PBJ (Alvarado bread with Adams organic peanut butter, the salted kind of course—not like the heinous Deaf Smith unsalted brand I grew up with, which came in like a 5-gallon drum and was so runny we called it Quicksand because you’d lose knives in it, every time you got to the bottom of the drum there would be like six of them and it was practically inedible due to no salt—and my mom’s homemade apricot jam, which is nirvana).

It was pretty chilly at 7 a.m. when Craig, Ed, and I started our ride, and the spray from riding through several large puddles got my leg warmers wet. We tooled clockwise around the lake and then headed into Nevada and took a left on Highway 431 at Incline Village. This highway took us up over Mount Rose, the summit of which—at almost 9,000 feet—is the highest pass in the Sierras (and higher than the Col du Galibier in France, though you shouldn’t for a moment think that Mount Rose even deserves to lick the Galibier’s foothills). My form was, as we in the suffering industry say, “El Crappo Grande” (perhaps in part because I’d given two units of red blood cells a couple weeks before). It’s always a little sad when you’ve planned an epic ride and discover your legs are no good.

We spent just long enough at the Mount Rose summit for Ed—who had arrived before us and thus had been waiting around in the cold wind for awhile—to take our photo. It was 41 degrees up there but not raining. I know Craig and I look fat in this photo, but it's just the wind filling out our jackets. Honest.

Toward the bottom of the descent, following Craig’s detailed directions, we turned right on Joy Lake Drive, which was supposed to connect us to … well, I never actually got to find out how it was supposed to connect up, because at the gate to a, well, gated community we encountered a stubborn security guard who wouldn’t let us through. He had a walrus moustache and a walrus physique and immediately made me think of the Pink Floyd line, “It’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around.” He gave an impassioned speech about the filthy rich people living in the McMansion compound, and how they were so tired of the thousands of cyclists streaming through their community, burning their homes to the ground, enslaving their wives and children, and littering, that they closed the gates and won’t let any more cyclists through. The guard gave us directions to a trail we could use instead. These instructions showed the guard to be either dyslexic, stupid, right/left colorblind, or maliciously unhelpful. I am confident that his body will never be found.

So we had to backtrack, up the No Joy road we’d come down, and then continue on to Highway 395, where we headed south into a brutal headwind. We stopped at a gas station where Craig studied a map. Useless as ever, I hung out outside and tried to learn something from this distinguished fellow.

We took a ninety degree turn which should have ended the headwind, but it seemed to alter its own course and continued blasting in our faces. Of course, to make up for the detour and not keep our families waiting we felt the urge to ride faster. My strength by this point had decayed from hopeless to lugubrious and it was all I could do to suck Craig’s wheel, shamelessly and parasitically.

It was criminal how little work I did breaking the wind for the others, but that’s okay because Craig has been training a lot and seemed to be punching through the wind just fine. We got into Carson City and Craig had a general idea there was some really cool bike route to take, but we couldn’t find it, and then we saw this cyclist. “Which way do we go?” Craig asked him. The guy responded, “Where are you going?” If there’s a such thing as the polar opposite of a tautology, this was it—a notion I pondered for the next hour or so.

So we ended up riding right through the main drag in Carson City, and a drag it was. The wind was ripping the flesh off our faces. As we passed a used car dealership with all its balloons, straining against their strings in the wind, I wondered if there were a convenient way to end my own life. Falling off Craig’s wheel would have probably done the job, but not swiftly nor mercifully. I’d have died hating doing something I loved, which just seemed wrong, so I chose life. Life without parole, it seemed like. We stopped at a mini mart for water and some guy said, “You guys heading over 50? You got a long haul there.” We acknowledged that indeed we were totally screwed (though we used a more polite term). As he headed through the door he said, “Have fun in the race tomorrow.” As if.

So we headed west on Highway 50 over Spooner Pass, which those familiar with Spoonerisms might call Pooner Spass, thinking they’re funny or clever or something. It started off pretty badly because the wind still seemed to be in our faces, but then it shifted and we had a tailwind. Wow, what a relief. It didn’t help so much, but it left me free to drop off both Ed’s and Craig’s wheels without dire consequences. I’d have liked the company, of course, but at least I didn’t have to hear this squeaky chain that one of the bikes had, which was almost loud enough to drown out my wheezing. At one point I had to turn around because I accidently littered. Eventually I reached the top. Don’t we all?

There’s not much else to say except the ride went on and on. I started to feel okay by the end, probably only because I know I was almost done. I was barely coherent. When I tried to talk, often I would say the same word twice, like a strange form of stuttering. Craig pointed out that on this bike path were painted instructions saying “Ride on this side, Walk on this side” which he felt was a very poor idea as it would lead to head-on collisions if heeded. At first I didn’t even know what he was talking about—I thought he was warning against slime in the puddles—but when I finally heard him right I thought his point was that the instructions were backwards, that you should ride on that side and walk on that side, and only after several minutes did I finally grasp the lunacy he was pointing out. Dang. Anyhow, at 117 miles, with 8,400 feet of climbing, this was my hardest ride of the year.

During the ride I consumed four large bottles of energy drink, two energy bars, and four doughnut holes. The doughnut holes I bought on a whim at 7-Eleven at our last stop. By definition doughnut holes have zero calories but I bought them anyway because they looked kind of tasty in a grotesque guilty-pleasure—nay, shameful-pleasure—kind of way. Ed looked hungry and also sick so I can’t tell if it was in the spirit of helpfulness or schadenfreude that I offered him some of the doughnut holes. He declined. I saved a couple for my daughters. Oh, and I had a 20-ounce Coke.

Dinner was the gastronomic equivalent of a ten-minute hip-hop mash-up where every single rapper on the planet jumps in to freestyle on the mic. While the men were out riding, the womenfolk had spent the day cooking. (This probably sounds sexist, and it’s an exaggeration, but after the beating I took on the road I need to take steps to rebuild my masculine dignity.) There was spinach lasagne, two kinds of enchiladas, salad (though I didn’t eat any), fruit salad (ibid.), a big ham, and some other stuff I think.

Then there were individual pumpkin pies with whipped cream, two kinds of ice cream, those cookies with big chocolate disks pressed into them, and the mandatory parental tariffs I took of my kids Hostess fruit pies from earlier. I just sat there for like two hours straight eating plate after plate. (My wife Erin has pointed out that if I weren’t so thin this kind of eating would be a truly disgusting spectacle.) As if Craig hadn’t done enough work on the ride, he did the dishes while I just sat there. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him for organizing the weekend and doing all the work.

The next morning, it was snowing. The snow fell hard and steadily and the Tour of California race was first postponed, then eventually canceled. More than a foot accumulated, and I-80 was closed. We did some sledding.

Eventually CalTrans reopened the highway, but required tire chains. This was May, remember. By the time we got on the road the chain control was lifted, and we made our way uneventfully home. It had been a great weekend, actually.

dana albert blog

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Man vs. Compact


Cyclists are a weird breed. On the one hand, we really know how to suffer (at least the non-poseurs among us) and much of our sport consists of slogging away brainlessly on some climb—so you’d think the expression “strong like bull, smart like tractor” would apply to us. On the other hand, there’s a tremendous technical aspect to the sport: heart rate, nutrition, power output, pacing, and then all the myriad bike-related concerns like materials, aerodynamics, frame geometry, and gearing—which suggest we’re all nerds. So: are we brutes or nerds? Ultimately we’re both.

It may not be obvious to the non-cyclist, and particularly to the non-male non-cyclist, that something arcane like bike gearing can say something fundamental about the manhood of the rider. Well, it can and does. Whether a male cyclist is a nerdy gear-head type or not, he is required to be aware of the statement he makes (like it or not) with his gearing choice. In a previous post, I wrote about how the rear cluster of cogs on a bike factor into the manliness equation; here, I’ll discuss the front end: the crankset and its chainrings.

If you feel that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and that moreover a woman needs a bicycle like a fish needs a man, this post is probably not for you (unless you read it with the sole goal of discrediting me). But if you are a cyclist, especially a male one, or are married or otherwise conjoined to one, read on!

Gears and machismo

Some years ago, when chatting with my wife, I became aware that not everybody understands the link between bicycle gearing and manhood. Here’s a brief background. A high gear helps you go fast on flats or downhills. A low gear gets you up the hills. Your choice of gearing determines how fast you can go (the high end) and how steep a hill you can climb (the low end). The larger the front chainring, the higher the gear. The larger the rear cog, the lower the gear. All of this can be precisely calculated mathematically, but there’s an aesthetic component too: a giant front chainring is macho, and a large rear cog is embarrassing. I’m aware that some males are so secure in themselves, or so ignorant, that they don’t even notice such things. I pity those males.

Perhaps you think this link between gearing and machismo is my own personal hang-up. Well, it’s not. Members of my bike club recently got into a protracted e-mail discussion about whether to use a “compact crankset,” which is a relatively new offering from the industry. The discussion stemmed from a link somebody forwarded around to a blog explaining (with very nerdy language and graphs) why a compact (which has a 50-tooth outer chainring and a 36-tooth inner chainring, aka 50x36) is superior to the more standard 53x39 setup. While the benefit of the compact is clear, there are downsides, with the manliness factor chiefly among them.

One of my teammates wrote, “When riding my compact people would regularly spot my weedy [50x36 compact] gearing then deliberately bump into me in the coffee shop, spilling my drink, spit on me, or worse, and then laugh at me when I declined their offer of a fight. With my current 53x39, on my other bike, no one messes with me for fear of the total ass-kicking my manly gearing implies in spite of my weedy build.”

Another rider, one of the best climbers among us, who finished a stellar fourth place in the Everest Challenge stage race, wrote, “Alas, at my ripe old age and being an Everest enthusiast I did make the switch to a compact last year and like it. The only downside that I’ve experienced is that it does tend to shrink your genitals.” Another guy chimed in, “I just glanced over at my bike and feel like very unmanly ... yes, I race with a compact. I, in fact, have a brand new Dura-Ace 53x39 sitting in a box, waiting for me to turn into a man.”

Historical arcana

Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, any kid getting into bike racing was all but required to learn about gearing, because there were limits as to how high a gear he or she was allowed to use. (The idea was to produce “higher overall cadences and lower overall stress per pedal stroke.”) After every race, the top finishers had to report to the “roll-out” area, where a referee would put the bike in the highest gear, and measure out how far it rolled in one pedal revolution. If the bike rolled too far, the racer was disqualified. The “intermediate” age group (age 14-15) could use up to an 85-inch gear (gear inches being the rollout distance divided by pi). This restriction equated to a 53-tooth chainring with a 17-tooth small cog (i.e., 53x17), or a 44-tooth chainring with a 14-tooth small cog. The older “junior” age group (age 16-17) could do a 95-inch gear (53x15 or 45x13).

Other than juniors, though, nobody thought too much about chainring size. Road bikes only ever had two chainrings. The inner ring almost always had 42 teeth (though cheaper Japanese bikes often had 40), and the large ring almost always had 52. (Juniors seeking an edge could use a 53 and still pass the roll-out.) Tourists, who were generally referred to as “fat tourists,” had triple-chainring cranksets, but no other road riders used them. (When mountain bikes came along they always had triples, for various legit reasons.)

Evolution of wussy gearing

As road cycling became more mainstream, however, a problem developed: gearing standards were being developed for racers, but a new breed of wealthy enthusiasts was unable to make it over climbs with racer-like gearing. Thus was born the 39-tooth inner chainring. My friends and brothers and I went right out and bought them, because going from a 42 to a 39 up front meant we could use smaller cogs in back, which gave us a tighter range of gear ratios (and looked cooler, which was probably the main point). When I raced in college I seldom used a rear cog larger than a 19, and boy did I feel cool. Meanwhile, an enthusiast could use a 39 up front and a 24 in back and still do okay.

As ever weaker and wealthier enthusiasts joined the sport in the ‘90s, the triple crankset—with a tiny third chainring for climbing hills—became common even on non-touring bikes. I was shocked when Shimano introduced a triple version of their top-end Dura-Ace crankset. This was a bit like if Tabasco came out with a non-spicy version for kids.

I can’t stand the look of a triple crankset. To me, it’s the equivalent of white socks with khakis and loafers. There’s just so much stuff there, and moreover the rear derailleur needs to have a longer cage. Above all, it makes your racing bike look like a touring bike. There’s nothing wrong with a touring bike—if you’re touring. (That said, my wife and I used mountain bikes for our big bike tour.) A triple on a racing bike that’s supposed to be sleek and fast—I just can’t handle it.

Thus, when the compact came out—both rings just three teeth smaller than standard—I was glad. It’s a nice compromise and enables a racer-type to handle the steep hills without his bike looking ugly. Since its introduction, I’ve seen the number of triples dwindle among angry bikers, and I’m grateful.

The compact paradox

So if the compact crank is such an elegant way to give low gearing to a bike, why does it cause so much angst to male racer-types? One answer would be that we shouldn’t need it—after all, we raced for years with 39s. But the Bay Area, especially the East Bay where I live, is full of brutally steep climbs. My standard 90-minute ride includes over 3,000 feet of climbing in just over 20 miles. My favorite climb averages an 11% grade for two miles. I’m not as strong as I used to be. Do I fantasize about putting a compact on my bike? I do.

But if I did that, I’d have to live with myself. When a man heads toward middle age and resorts to lower gearing, something inside of him just dies. Meanwhile, a compact crank costs about $600. That’s if you buy Dura-Ace, anyway, and I’m not about to step down to the inferior Ultegra crank just because I’m not man enough to push the gears I used to. Spending money to get around human weakness is arguably one of the greatest problems facing mankind and I refuse to participate if I can possibly help it.

Paradoxically, the aesthetic presentability of the compact ends up being a problem of its own. The stigma of a larger cog in the back (which also achieves a lower gear) is a lot more obvious to the observer, so to run a compact instead is like trying to fool everybody. The compact doesn’t scream “wanker,” but a riding buddy noticing your higher cadence on a steep climb is likely to figure out you’ve got one. The trained eye will have no problem discovering it.

Recently I reunited with an old friend I hadn’t ridden with in over twenty years. He’s a big strapping guy, a former Marine, and of course we were both curious to see how the other has held up over the years. Still an athlete? Check. Willing to tackle gnarly climbs? Check. Cool bike? Check. But then he turned a discerning eye to my drivetrain. “You’re not running a compact, are you?” he asked, dismay lurking in his voice. I was so relieved to be able to say, “Of course not!”

The result

As a consequence of my stubbornness in a) riding a standard crankset, and b) wanting to ride the big hills, I’ve had to resort to using a rather unpleasantly large cog in the back: a 27. After spending my whole childhood working my way from an embarrassing 32-tooth large cog to ever-smaller ones (a 12-17 was my coolest rear cogset), I’m spending my adulthood going the other direction. Until I bought a 12-27 cassette a couple years ago, I hadn’t resorted to gearing that low since I was a pre-teen! (In that light, the junior gear restriction can seem pretty silly.)

I do take some heart from the pros, who aren’t above using the larger rear cogs, or at least considering it. I came across a quote about the Dutch rider Laurens Ten Dam (who won the brutal La Marmotte road race in the French Alps the first year I rode it):

oooo“Ten Dam said his success today [in the Mt. Baldy stage of the Tour of California] came in part because he asked his Twitter followers which gear to use on the stage today - a rear cassette with a maximum 25 tooth cog or one with a 28? The answer came from his former teammate Rory Sutherland, who said, ‘If you don’t use a 25, then you’re a “watje” (wuss).’

oooo ‘And what did he show up to the race with? A 26!,’ laughed Ten Dam.”


I’d be self-delusional if I thought I was a really studly guy. Not only do I not have much hair on my chest, I have very little chest to have hair on in the first place. Plus, I don’t have cool razor stubble like dark-haired dudes. And, I drive a station wagon. But at least in this one tiny realm—compact vs. standard crank—I can hold my head up high.

As for that 27-tooth rear cog, at least I’m not trying to pass myself off as a strong man. I have low gearing, yes—but I own up to it. And every so often, I swap out my rear cogset to a good old 12-25, just to cheer myself up.

dana albert blog

Friday, July 1, 2011

Our National Anthem


How much do you know about our national anthem? Here’s a very brief quiz.
  1. Fill in the blanks: “Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the ________ ________.”
  2. Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics:
    1. While safely ensconced in a gentlemen’s club
    2. From the front lines of a battlefield, in his head
    3. After dining with the enemy as their guest
    4. As a POW
  3. The tune of this song
    1. Was completely original—a fine example of American virtuosity
    2. Was taken from an ancient Gregorian chant
    3. Was taken from an old English drinking song
    4. Is a perfect example of basso lamento
  4. The battle this song refers to was part of:
    1. The Revolutionary War
    2. The US Civil War
    3. The War of 1812
    4. Not a war at all, but a “police action”
  5. A rampart is
    1. Some arcane architectural thing, kind of like a flying buttress
    2. Like a carport
    3. Something which is unchecked or unrestrained
    4. A military fortification
The answers to this quiz are sprinkled throughout this post. If you fear you didn’t do very well, don’t sweat it: according to recent surveys, sixty-one percent of Americans are unable to recall all the words, and only thirty-nine percent could answer question #1 above.

Now, if you think I’m going to take our fellow Americans to task for failing to be literate in this hallowed national treasure, think again. Before researching this topic, I’d have scored 2/5 on that quiz—a solid F. In this post, I will explain why I think our national anthem is completely lame and needs to be replaced. I’ll even make some suggestions for what we should replace it with.

The war theme

The one thing everybody grasps about “The Star-Spangled Banner” is that it’s about war. Right off the bat, I find that an unsuitable topic for our national anthem. There is so much to celebrate about this country—our diversity, our (relative) social mobility, our tradition of innovation, the abundance of natural resources we enjoy—and we have to dwell on our success in war? Perhaps this topic is so widely tolerated (and, by many, embraced) because the language of the song is somewhat abstract—“rockets’ red glare” doesn’t call to mind any precise battlefield imagery. Imagine if we updated the song:

ooooAnd our predator drones
ooooTracked them right to their homes
ooooAnd shelled them with death
ooooDon’t you mess with U.S.!

We’d all feel a bit tacky singing that, don’t you think?

But wait, you’re saying. The U.S. was under siege, and this song is about our resilience—the flag, man, it was still there! We were just defending ourselves, and this was our finest hour! Well, not really. The song is based on a poem about a particular coastal American fort being attacked by a British warship, the HMS Tonnant. The poet, Francis Scott Key, had dined onboard the Tonnant as a guest of three British officers; he was negotiating the release of a few prisoners, one of whom was being detained for having “placed rowdy stragglers under citizen’s arrest.” Now, before I continue, I’d like to point out that “Rowdy Stragglers” would make a great name for a rock band (along with “Stuffed Russian” and “Hard Floor Tool”—but I digress). Key’s hosts didn’t let him leave the ship right away because they were bombarding our fort at the time. (Sure, they were keeping him from ruining their element of surprise, but they were also, arguably, sparing his life.) When Key saw the flag still flying the next morning, he was moved to write the poem “In Defense of Fort McHenry,” which later became the song “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Was this our finest hour? Not really—this battle wasn’t pivotal, like Gettysburg. What did it mean, for that flag to be flying? Well, the British hadn’t taken the fort—at least not yet. But they had succeeded in burning our capitol to the ground, and had probably erected their flag in countless other places. It’s not like some binary thing where if our flag were still there that morning we’d won the war, and if it wasn’t we’d lost. In his poem Key fixated on a symbol, and his celebration of that symbol makes the whole episode symbolic. A poem that’s symbolic of a symbol—where’s the reality? It’s like a divide-by-zero error. Okay, fine, in this particular battle, this one fort, the little-heralded Fort McHenry, survived the night—but who cares, when the White House had been fricking torched? If anything, this poem is symbolic of Key’s capacity for self-delusion. Do we as a nation want to go along with that?

Meanwhile, the greater conflict—the War of 1812—wasn’t even our nation’s noblest effort. If our national anthem has to be about war, why not make it about the Civil War, which was a much more important turning point for this country, as it helped us to lead the modern world in denouncing slavery?

The War of 1812 is one that we declared on England, and not because they were trying to, say, take back our country. This war was about a grab bag of issues: trade tensions; British support for Indian (i.e., Native American) raids; British obstruction of U.S. expansion into the Northwest Territory and Canada; and British impressment. Impressment was the practice of drafting citizens into the British navy; young Englishmen could escape it by defecting to the U.S. British soldiers occasionally boarded American ships to try to capture these defectors, which the U.S. found an annoyance and an insult to our national sovereignty. A lot of issues, sure, but it’s not like we had no other choice than to wage war. Meanwhile, the War of 1812 didn’t even end up being much of a success: American losses were far higher than British, and the treaty ending it didn’t really get us anything. So our national anthem commemorates a minor battle in an arguably unnecessary war that we didn’t win, against a country who has been our stalwart ally for like the last hundred years. Sweet.

(Incidentally, the tune is that of an old English drinking song, titled “The Anacreontic Song.” “Anacreontic refers to “the manner of the poems of Anacreon, especially being convivial or amatory in subject.” Anacreon was an ancient Greek poet noted for his songs praising love and wine. A sample of this song’s lyrics: “And there, with good Fellows, we’ll learn to intwine the Myrtle of VENUS with BACCHUS’S Vine.” Dim the lights!)

Lousy lyrics

Subject matter aside, the lyrics of our national anthem are really, really weak. Line by line, the song is overblown and bombastic, and riddled with outdated and redundant language that means nothing to the modern American. In case you’re among the majority who don’t know all the words, click here.

Two words into the song, we’re already in trouble: “Oh, say.” Nobody in the U.S. uses this phrase. “Oh, say, could you pass the salt?” “Oh, say, have you heard of that band, Hootie & the Blowfish?” The only people who say “Oh, say” are the ignorant types pretending to talk like a gay man (or rather, how they imagine a gay man would talk). The last thing we need in our anthem is anything related to such stupid stereotypes.

Moving on to “by the dawn’s early light,” we run smack-dab into the song’s first redundancy. Dawn, by definition, is early. Then, consider the phrasing of “Can you see … what so proudly we hailed.” Nobody talks like this, or even writes like this. How would you even diagram that sentence? Key might as well have gone all the way and wrote “that which so proudly we hailed.” Americans value concise, efficient language: subject, verb, object. We say, “Have you seen my car keys?” and not “Oh, say, have you seen what so very much I need to start up the car?” Pompous, flowery language has long been associated with poetry, sure—but old, stale, bad poetry. Modern(ist) American poetry can be so much more efficient (for example, consider Ezra Pound’s “apparition of these faces in the crowd/ Petals on a wet, black bough.”)

Meanwhile, the verb “hail” (as in salute) has had an unfortunate connotation ever since World War II. It’s hard to think “hail” without “Sieg Heil” or “Heil Hitler” lurking in the shadows. The act of hailing a cab is one thing; the word “hail” is another. If you don’t grasp my meaning, try this: next time you see a flag, turn to the guy next to you and say, “Hail the flag!” and check out his response.

Moving on to the next phrase: “twilight’s last gleaming.” Again, it’s needlessly wordy. “At dusk” is what an American would say. Then: “Whose broad stripes and bright stars … were so gallantly streaming?” Since no other country, in 1812, had both stars and stripes on their flag, this is clearly a rhetorical question, and about as sophisticated as “Who’s a little kitty? Hmm? Who’s the kitty? Was it a wittle kitty?” And note the needless filler adjective: broad stripes. Compared to what? Frankly, I’d say the Union Jack has broader stripes. And so what—is broad better? Is there some other flag out there with stingily narrow stripes? And “bright stars”? I mean, they’re white. It’s like an ad for laundry detergent that gives you brighter whites—the imagery is totally uninspired. The line finishes up with another redundancy: “perilous fight.” Aren’t all fights perilous? If it isn’t perilous, it’s really more of a spat, isn’t it?

And now, onto “O’er the ramparts we watched.” First off, I have to wonder how many Americans, singing this song before a ball game, are thinking “o’er” (that is, “over”) vs. “or,” which makes no sense at all. For the listener, these ramparts—whatever they are—must seem like some kind of alternative, to … what? Throw in a piece of fabric that is not just streaming, but doing so “gallantly,” and you’ve got a salad of grandiloquent words that is somehow supposed to make us feel patriotic.

And then we get to the really silly part. So far, the poem has established a simple idea (though in such complicated language many people probably didn’t catch it): it’s dawn, and the flag that we saluted last night is still flying (as Scott could see, above the fort’s rampart—i.e., defensive wall—from the British ship). Ergo, the fort survived the bombardment (or at least, the flag did, though for all Scott knew everybody at the fort was dead). Now we’re told that because of the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air, the night wasn’t completely dark, which “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” Well, did we really need proof? Couldn’t we have inferred that the flag was there all night, simply because it was still there in the morning? Or was Scott Key just gushing about how reassured he felt that those zany British pranksters hadn’t stolen our flag during the night, taken its photo in front of Bob’s Big Boy, and then returned it by morning?

On to the final two lines. I’ll concede that, despite another instance of “Oh, say,” the strange word “spangled,” and another confusing “o’er,” the song finishes well. The last two lines are by far the strongest, and are probably responsible for most of the nationalist feeling that the song does manage to inspire. But two okay lines does not a good song make, any more than the admittedly tasty soft-serve cone at McDonald’s can be said to cap off a good meal.

(For a very funny but rather dark spoof on the war theme of our anthem, click here.)


There is precedent for a nation changing its national anthem. Spain, for example, abandoned the lyrics to its old anthem, “La Marcha Granadera,” which were associated with its former right-wing dictator, Francisco Franco. Spain kept the tune, though, and in 2007 launched a competition to come up with new lyrics. (Though there were 7,000 entries, the contest was abandoned.)

There have been efforts in this country (such as this petition) to replace our national anthem with something less bellicose such as “America the Beautiful.” I have some issues with this suggestion. For one thing, after hearing my daughter learn “American the Beautiful” on the piano, I realize it isn’t a pretty enough tune to withstand much repetition—it’s easy to get sick of. Meanwhile, this song’s lyrics aren’t that great themselves. The opening phrase “O beautiful for spacious skies” always throws me: what does it even mean? Another problem with this suggestion is that our national anthem is most often played before sporting events, where “America the Beautiful” would be a bit too mellow. As one blogger put it “‘America, the Beautiful’ is lovely, but those images of purple mountain majesties and fruited plains may be too lyrical to incite the requisite ‘kill ‘em on the field’ spirit of college ball.”

(Oddly, the tradition of playing the national anthem before a ball game has become almost a rule. A university in Indiana that is affiliated with the Mennonite church decided to seek out an alternative to “Star-Spangled Banner” to play before games, and perhaps not surprisingly stepped on some toes. A right-wing website called “Personal Liberty Digest” described this decision with the headline “Goshen College Bans ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’” (a fanatic-baiting strategy if I ever saw one).

A new song

I think we need an all-new song that reflects America and (to quote Malcolm X) “talks right down to earth in a language that everyone here can easily understand.” I have three proposals.

Proposal One – A nod to the Brits

First, as an apology to the British for bagging on them via our anthem at so many thousands of sporting events, we could stick with the current anthem’s scheme and write new lyrics to a popular British tune. We all remember how moving Sir Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana was back in 1997; couldn’t we find another of John’s great songs to adapt? We could make the song our own by summoning, in the lyrics, our famously American non-apologetic (or faux-apologetic) national pride. Here is how we might start a new anthem set to the tune of “Your Song.”

ooooSo forgive us for living, we didn’t ask to be born.
ooooYeah, we use too much fuel, and we eat too much corn.
ooooBut anyway, screw it—we’ll just do as we please,
ooooLiving lives full of comfort and relative ease.
ooooWe hope you don’t mind, we hope you don’t mind
ooooThat we’re leading the way.
ooooHow wonderful life is in U.S. of A!

Proposal Two – An American tune

On second thought, we don’t need the British to make a great song. Even if they’re an ally, we should really celebrate our own musical tradition, and base our anthem on a famous song by a musical act whose music just about every American adores. Can we all agree that Simon & Garfunkel are brilliant? Here’s a suggestion for the beginning of an adaptation of “Mrs. Robinson.”

ooooUnited States of America
ooooThe world loves you more than you will know
ooooWhoa, whoa, whoa.
ooooGod bless this fine place, America,
ooooThree hundred million people wanna say.
ooooHey hey hey.

Proposal Three - Rap

The problem with the Simon & Garfunkel idea is that their music stemmed from a folk tradition that was not uniquely American. Plus, Folk is a bit too mellow for sports stadium purposes.

Wouldn’t the ultimate national anthem represent a vigorous musical genre that was invented entirely within our borders? And what could be a prouder or more American musical form than rap? A fringe benefit would be that the singer at the ball park wouldn’t run the risk of being off-key or having his or her voice crack (which is not uncommon given the famously difficult vocal range required by “Star-Spangled Banner”). Imagine an anthem sung (well, rapped) to the tune (well, to the beat) of “Cold Lampin’ with Flavor” by Public Enemy:

ooooI’m American, ‘merican, full-blown American,
ooooAnd proud to say it—it’s not embarrassin’.
ooooThis here’s the land of the free, you know...
ooooBrave as citizens ever can be, yo.
ooooFrom the beaches of gold California
ooooRight through the ripe green fields of corn, yea,
ooooThis is a land well worth our protectin’,
ooooFull of proud folks who be never defectin’.
ooooFeared and respected, we’re all that we can be
ooooLove us or leave us alone, namby-pambies!


Needless to say, I don’t expect this post to bring about any change. Our national anthem is pretty firmly entrenched, and Goshen College’s effort to replace it (not even as our anthem, but just as the song to play before games) got a lot of people’s dander up, to judge by the comments posted on the “Personal Liberty Digest” article. But I hope I’ve persuaded you that our great nation deserves a better song as its anthem than the “Star-Spangled Banner.” If nothing else, I hope I’ve helped you feel totally fine about not knowing the words.

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